SECOND PERSON SINGULAR: LATE VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS AND THE BONDS OF VERSE by Emily Harrington, Reviewed by Jill Ehnenn
 

SECOND PERSON SINGULAR: LATE VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS AND THE BONDS OF VERSE
By Emily Harrington
(Virginia, 2014) 248 pp.
Reviewed by Jill Ehnenn on 2017-09-16.

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Inspired by Alice Meynell's 1898 essay "Second Person Singular," Emily Harrington's book-length study of the same title examines fin-de-siècle women's lyric poetry as an "explicitly relational genre, one that enacts a dynamic between 'I' and 'thou'" and that "gestures toward the convergence of poetic form and intimacy" (1). In smart, lively, accessible prose, this book develops a series of original and insightful claims about a cluster of female poets who are steadily garnering increased and well-deserved critical attention.

Harrington's introduction is so clearly and concisely sketched out that the ideas presented therein seem utterly convincing at the outset, yet fascinating enough to make one want to read the chapters that follow. She aims to show, she writes, that short forms provide late-Victorian women with an excellent vehicle for thinking about intimacy with distance; that compressed lyrical styles enable experimentation with boundaries; and that "a dynamic of rapprochement and distance is at the heart of late Victorian women's verse" (3). To develop these points, Harrington first sensibly establishes Christina Rossetti's reserved style and short forms as a touchstone, and then examines the poetry of Augusta Webster, A. Mary F. Robinson, Alice Meynell, Dollie Radford, and Mary Coleridge.

Harrington highlights the private impact of their poetry. While much recent scholarship on the fin-de-siècle work of women poets has stressed their involvement in the public sphere, Harrington aims to complement these studies. For example, while Ana Parejo Vadillo argues in Passengers of Modernity (Palgrave, 2005) that women's poetry functions as a "vehicle of mobility and connection" and "signals women poet's engagement with modernity," this claim is, for Harrington, at heart an argument about relationality, albeit on a scale different from her own (6). According to Harrington, the lyric articulates various incarnations of the I-Thou relationship, and "unifying bonds are often enabled by the restraints of literary form" (2). This is important, she asserts, because "by understanding the range of relationships that women wrote about and the diversity of their poetic strategies for representing them, we can better understand the verse culture of the late nineteenth century" (3).

Beginning with Christina Rossetti, Harrington challenges the widespread critical tendency to treat her as solitary, individualistic, independent, and worried about bodily integrity. In focusing instead on Rossetti's lyric efforts to facilitate relationship, Harrington shakes up common assumptions about her and argues that she "develops a poetics that relies on a dynamic of self-dissolution in order to establish intimacy, especially with God (9). To support this argument, Harrington astutely analyzes two poems--'Twice' and the sonnet sequence Monna Innominata-- that triangulate the relationship of a lover and a beloved with God. Both poems model intimacy with God in what should work--but does not work-- in human relationships: openness enabling partners to change places, not merge, but move into distinct positions (14). Throughout her chapter on Rossetti, Harrington's excellent close readings deftly integrate discussions of meter, as when--for instance-- she interprets ambiguous meter as Rossetti's intentionally "blurring the boundary of the lyric 'me'" (38).

Harrington juxtaposes her fine close reading of Rossetti's "Twice" with scholarship on Rossetti's Tractarian interest in styles of reserve. According to Rossetti, Harrington argues, the love people show each other reflects God's love and shows how even an entity in the submissive or inferior position can still engage in reciprocal action. Closely reading Monna Innominata as a macro sonnet, Harrington shows how Rossetti triangulates an erotic relationship by trying to create a role for God within the poem. Though the poem, we are told, attempts to measure the intensity of love of the beloved compared to the love of God, it concludes that the act of love is more important than its object. Contesting many prior readings of Monna Innominata, Harrington asserts that the sequence does not end negatively but instead "performs selves joined in the same practice of reading" (27). Silence is not absence, and resignation is not defeat; rather, in counting up the cost of intimacy, "lyric selves retain limited individuality in order to reflect and enact God's all-encompassing love" (47). Thus Rossetti's characteristic detachment can be read as relational, as the unstable I makes room for I-thou exchange.

Turning from Rossetti's lyrics to Augusta Webster's sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter, Harrington situates Webster firmly against Victorian verse traditions that represent love as infinite and eternal. On the contrary, Harrington argues, Mother and Daughter demonstrates that "love is a limited resource that can be divided, meted out" (48). For Harrington, Webster's poem measures what other Victorians deem immeasurable. Besides affirming that mothers with multiple children must divide their love, it finds maternal love similar to erotic love in its intensity, and its speaker measures the growth of her daughter, ponders the gap between their experiences, and anticipates their inevitable parting at death. Underscoring the claim that Webster's "sonnets often wish for love's infinitude and doubt it," Harrington notes that "the meter reinforces this tension, rushing during tropes of stillness, halting with extra stress to slow the passage of time, and interrupting with caesuras" (48). Harrington links her argument not only to a range of nineteenth-century thought on mothering but also to scholarship on the sonnet tradition.

In transforming the lover-beloved into a mother-daughter relationship, Harrington argues, Webster's sonnet sequence appropriates and partially modifies the Petrarchan tradition. Mother and Daughter is not merely a one-way address of mother to daughter. Instead, it presents a series of shifting identifications that enlarge the reader's range of emotional responses. In thus representing maternal love in a way that had not been seen before in women's poetry, Webster's poem also enables the reader to grasp more generalized considerations of self and other (69).

Moving next to Agnes Mary Frances Robinson (not to be confused with Mary Robinson of the Romantic era), Harrington shows how Robinson's close emotional and intellectual friendship with Vernon Lee shaped Lee's thinking about the moral role of art in Belcaro (1887), a collection of essays and dialogues on aesthetics. The model of aesthetic philanthropy that Lee and Robinson developed together, Harrington demonstrates, also influenced Robinson's verse collection, The New Arcadia (1884), in which Robinson depicts rural scenes and characters in the hopes of raising awareness, outrage, and sympathy for the poor in rural England. Rejecting the aestheticism of many in her social and intellectual circles--an aestheticism often faulted for being solipsistic --Robinson, like Lee in Belcaro, experiments with using poetry to "engender sympathy" while avoiding paternalism (81). According to Harrington, The New Arcadia attempts to "legitimize writing poetry as a response to poverty" but also expresses "doubt about the endeavor" (92).

In Robinson's work Harrington finds strategies such as acknowledging the challenge of putting difficult thought into words, a tendency to awaken sympathy by means of various senses so that "poet's sorrow becomes tactile" (93), and the employment of "prosody that thwarts lyricism" (93), thereby embodying the difficulty of witnessing "another's pain and the anxiety that poetry cannot console" (95). While many of The New Arcadia's poems could have been dramatic monologues, Harrington notes, they are instead spoken from the viewpoint of an observer, and since the addressee often shifts within each poem, they suggest a community of persons while also speaking to conflict: the tension between her privileged readers' pleasure in the arts and "their knowledge of those who are afforded no such pleasures" (95). Thus, Harrington argues, Robinson experiments with form in order to ponder whether cross-class identification is possible.

Turning from Robinson to Alice Meynell, Harrington states that common conceptions of her style as detached and impersonal "fail to take into account her deep concern with person, literary, and imaginative relations" (110). According to Harrington, Meynell considered silence and distance requisite for intimacy; bonds can be established only through separation, for otherwise merging will result in absorption. In fact, Harrington interestingly claims that for Meynell, silence is unknown, mysterious, and therefore desired, as the poet wishes her beloved to be (113). Acknowledging Meynell's debt to Rossetti, Harrington shows how in both poetry and prose, Meynell makes the case that "sociability is essential to writing and that a measure of distance is crucial for sociability" (115). Meynell, Harrington writes, defines distance as a matter of perspective, and poetry as a "relation between poets, between poets and readers, between readers and figures or characters, and between readers and poets and poems in the abstract" (115). This was my favorite chapter in a book that held my attention throughout, for its deft close readings of many poems and prose works across Meynell's career, and for its generous weaving together of nineteenth-century literary history and personae with a range of twentieth and twenty-first century literary criticism.

The final chapter, "'So I Can Wait and Sing': Dollie Radford's Poetics of Waiting," argues that unlike the other poets treated in this book, Radford thought lyric poems could not establish intimacy. By repeatedly calling attention to the lyric song's incompleteness and deception, Radford emphasizes that poems called "song" often are not heard at all. Instead Radford advocates defiant waiting, which she also associates with social progress. In addition to Harrington's by now characteristically close readings, the strengths of this chapter include a discussion of how Radford's ideas about waiting contrast with those of other fin-de-siècle writers, and, later in the chapter, a truly fascinating treatment of Radford's involvement with the late-Victorian music scene, including her efforts to seek out musical setting for her own work.

Second Person Singular is original and insightful enough to be useful for the professional scholar, yet accessible and clear enough for the advanced undergraduate and graduate classroom. Harrington brings fully into the light several important but understudied lyric "gems" by fin-de-siècle women poets, and one of the book's many strengths is how she situates her analyses among and against existing studies of her subject-- both foundational (Dorothy Mermin, Angela Leighton and Linda Peterson) and more recent (Talia Schaffer, Ana Parejo Vadillo, Marion Thain, Kathy Psomiades, Elizabeth Gray, etc.). In this sense Second Person Singular is a little gem in its own right. If anything could make it sparkle more brightly, I might point out two matters of style and scope.

First, the introduction lays out each chapter's argument with such completeness and precision that the chapters which follow largely seem to illustrate the argument that has already been stated rather than develop it. Some readers might prefer that the introduction's chapter summaries hold more back to be discovered later. On the other hand, the chapters are most certainly worth reading--indeed savoring--because of the many lovely and convincing close readings they contain.

A second critical observation is that, at least in some of the chapters, the examples given in support of the larger argument are convincing in their specificity, rather than their representativeness. In other words, while I agreed wholeheartedly with Harrington's readings, I also wondered if the larger argument could accurately be extended, especially for some authors, beyond the specific examples she chose to analyze. This was not the case for the Rossetti or Meynell chapters, but for Webster, for instance, I wondered if the arguments about relationality in Mother and Daughter, which was posthumously published, apply to the portrayal of relationships in Webster's earlier dramatic monologues, especially those in the increasingly taught Dramatic Studies and Portraits. Harrington briefly asserts that the quantification of love in Mother and Daughter is also found in "Circe" and "The Happiest Girl in the World." But what of Webster's more general representation of relational dynamics in her ubiquitous dramatic monologues? Similarly, at the close of the Robinson chapter Harrington mentions that, despite its very poor reviews, The New Arcadia left its philosophical mark on Robinson's subsequent work, even as her next verse collections returned to the style of her earlier and more popular A Handful of Honeysuckle. I would have liked more discussion here about how relationality manifests itself in Robinson's later verse, while realizing that, of course, one simply cannot address everything in one monograph. Like the poets who are the subject of Harrington's study, one must create boundaries.

As Emily Harrington notes, the female co-authors who wrote as Michael Field understood Christina Rossetti's silence as evidence of her lack of engagement as opposed to a mode of interaction, a view perhaps shared by many readers today. This book successfully provides a provocative alternative to such a reading of Rossetti along with five other fin-de-siècle woman poets who were influenced by her lyrics of silence and detachment. Harrington's interpretations don't strive to silence other critical pronouncements on the genre of the fin-de-siècle lyric, but her insightful readings do make significant strides toward creating relevant relationships between the subjects, styles, and themes of the late Victorian women poets she discusses. Second Person Singular enables these women writers to be better understood as a group, and helps us better bridge the silent distance between their late-Victorian verse and our present-day selves.

Jill Ehnenn is Professor of English at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.


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