Reinventing Romantic Poetry: Russian Women Poets of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Diana Greene. Reinventing Romantic Poetry: Russian Women Poets of the MidNineteenth Century. Madison, Wl: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. xi, 306 pp. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $29.95, paper.

Where are the women poets in the canon of Russian Romanticism? They were certainly writing and some of them publishing. A few, like Evdokiia Rostopchina and Karolina Pavlova, have been reinstated, but their works and lives are more likely to be found in anthologies or histories of Russian women's literature. What led to their virtual disappearance from the nineteenth-century canon is the subject of Diana Greene's multifaceted Reinventing Russian Poetry: Russian Women Poets of the Mid-Nineteenth Century.

Greene's interest is not limited to what excluded these women poets-she studies the works of fourteen born between 1799 and 1824-but what a gender-neutral canon might look like. For it is a gender-specific notion of canon that she sees behind the exclusion of these poets and, indeed, behind the notion of Romantic poetry itself. Thus her title: these women poets "had to transform male-defined traditions, genres, and themes in order to be able to address women's experiences or even Io represent themselves as poets" (p. 4).

Greene begins by investigating ways in which Romantic poetry was a male-defined exercise. Referring to a definition of Welleck's, she underscores the gender-specificity of his three underlying elements common to all national Romantic poetry. She writes: "Men poets... personified imagination as a female muse, often depicting her as a sexual partner. ... Nature-troped as silent, feminine, mother. Other-served as an object of interpretation or assimilation by the man poet. The third element, a poetic style for which symbol and myth are central, meant in the case of several influential Romantic poets androcentric or even misogynist myths" (pp. 4-5).

Other considerations Greene advances are also international: the "domestic ideology" that saw a woman's place in the home; weaker educational opportunities for women than for men; physical identities that kept them tied to home and child-bearing and -raising; different experiences that led to different aesthetics and artistic concerns. All these Greene finds her Russian women poets had in common with their English and American counterparts. It is part of the richness of Greene's study that she refers to colleagues in other national literatures and theorists of canon and reception.

"Social Concerns" is the title Greene gives to her first chapter, in which she investigates the "literary social capital" that women poets had so much less of than the canonical poets. The woman poets, even the wealthy, were economically tied to their husbands, if married; and marriage was often the only way not to remain dependent on relatives. Divorce was impossible under abusive situations; separation could mean poverty. Family life revolved around the home and children, leaving little time for writing. Moreover, poetry had come to be seen as a male prerogative by the 1840s. "Now women writers were depicted [in the Russian periodic press] not only as ludicrously incompetent but also as destroyers of their families, murderers of their children, women 'asking' to be raped, unattractive bores, or sexual objects..." (p. 25). One way women poets could accommodate these prejudices was found in the attitude of the "poetess" (evolving in England between 1790 and 1830 and soon migrating to Russia), where the cultural definition of women poets gradually shifted to incorporate the idea of "women's sphere." Respectability was guaranteed if the poetess stuck to nurturing and left the prophetic visions to the men. "In effect," Greene summarizes, "women poets had to choose between being women and being poets" (p. 27).

The response to this dilemma was two-fold. Poets like Evdokiia Rostopchina might conform to this notion, depicting women as targets of mockery, or, like lulliia Zhadovskaia and Praskov'ia Bakunina, appealed to women (not men) to repent of their worldliness. …