Gender Reversal and Cultural Critique in Frances Osgood's Poetry

Article excerpt

It has been the opinion of twentieth-century literary critics that in the nineteenth century, women poets rarely veered from subjects and styles that the patriarchal world of publishing allotted to them. Corroborating separate spheres ideology, critics focus on the countless poems in magazines and newspapers praising motherhood, romantic love, and nature in the simple, airy style that would later come to be known and dismissed as sentimental. Today, even the term "sentimental" is problematic. In recent years, critics have felt the need to redefine and qualify the parameters of "sentimentalism." Paula Bennett contends that there are two forms, high and low:

   High sentimentalism (c. 1825-1850) is an epistemotogical based discourse.
   It claimed that the intuitions of the heart could serve as reliable guides
   to moral and spiritual truths. Low sentimentalism is the kind of
   sentimentalism still with us today. It is loose, subjective, personal, and
   makes no claims to knowledge, only to feeling. ("Descent" 606)

And yet, when differentiating between late nineteenth-century poets, such as Sarah Morgan Piatt (1836-1919) and Elizabeth Drew Stoddard (1823-1920), and earlier "high sentimentalists" such as Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865), Elizabeth Oakes-Sraith (1806-1893), and Frances Osgood (1811-1850), Bennett's attempts at defining sentimentalism certainly privilege later poets according to anachronistic standards of modernism and indirectly preserve the general discrediting of "high sentimentalists." In "Late Nineteenth-Century American Women's Nature Poetry and the Evolution of the Imagist Poem," Bennett stresses a shift in women's poetry after 1858: "Writers turned from voicing publicly held values [family and religion] to what I would call poetry of `private'--or better, perhaps, privatized--vision" (93).

In this essay I will show that the poetry of Frances Sargent Locke Osgood, a figure whom Bennett might remand to the realm of "high sentimentalism," also demonstrates a privatized vision that transcends traditional as well as recent reformulations of the term sentimentalism. In this essay I shall employ "sentimentalism" as a useful historical label, not always exclusive in the kinds of situations presented or the styles used to present them, but heuristically descriptive of a discourse that is yet to be fully explored. Wherever the term "sentimental" is used here, it has as much to do with excessive emotionality as wild beasts have to do with the paintings of Henri Matisse or Andre Derain. Just as these Fauvists (literally, "wild beasts") boldly appropriated the term which was originally applied as an insult to their use of vibrant colors, so too should we use the term "sentimentalism" without making apologies for the artistic weaknesses that the term once implied.

Though a few scholars (Walsh, Reilly, Pollin) only discuss Frances Osgood in reference to her relationship and possible affair with Edgar Allan Poe, Osgood is finally attaining her deserved status as a landmark figure in American literature. Her poems demonstrate all of the irony and cultural significance once considered absent from sentimental literature. As Joanne Dobson, Mary De Jong, Cheryl Walker, and Alicia Ostriker have shown, in both Osgood's published work and private salon pieces, her poems often implicitly challenge Victorian cultural assumptions as they endorse them. In several of her love poems the poet compensates for a lack of original metrics and rhyme by whimsically switching the expected or usual gender roles common to male-generated poems that address objectified, cold, or inconstant female subjects. And although some critics have often cited the lack of cultural criticism in early nineteenth-century women's poetry as grounds for distinguishing it as less historically pertinent than men's, I will point out that Osgood's poetry in many cases overtly criticizes literary, social, and commercial conventions of her day. …