Women Peasant Poets in Eighteenth-Century England, Scotland, and Germany: Milkmaids on Parnassus

Article excerpt

Women Peasant Poets in EighteenthCentury England, Scotland, and Germany: Milkmaids on Parnassus. By SUSANNE KORD. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Camden House, 2003. xiii + 325 pp. £40.

The last paragraph of the body of this book (there follow useful short bio/ bibliographies of fourteen Women Peasant Poets) sets out what the author claims has been demonstrated, and asserts a reshaping of our whole notion of what can be Art. The very word and its capitalization are a ground for difficulty, since it is part of Professor Kord's feminist/Marxist argument that, with a capital letter, Art refers to 'the sanctification of art throughout its reception since the eighteenth century as trans cenden tally human, moral, or humane' (p. In). Women poets and peasant poets are denied access to this realm, since, she suggests, the whole canon is a simple demonstration of bourgeois male power choices intent on cutting out women and peasant writers. It will give a good flavour of the difficulty and nature of the argument if I simply quote this final paragraph:

Feminist scholarship on predominantly bourgeois women's literature has long since established that Art as conceptualized by male philosophers, aestheticists, and literati has a gender. The reception of peasant poets, read in the context of the eighteenth- century bourgeois aesthetic debate, indicates equally clearly that Art also has a class. Both statements run counter to the most essential pretense necessary for the establishment of (masculine bourgeois) Art: that of Art's complete freedom from nonaesthetic functionality and purpose and Art's corresponding aesthetic independence from biographical, social, or political context. Once recognized as bourgeois and male, Art loses its ability to lay claim to this essential Zweckfreiheit, which has furnished the basic premise underlying the process of canonization and the establishment of literary criticism in the nineteenth century and informed many interpretive traditions, from Old Historicism to New Criticism to Autonomieästhetik, in the twentieth. Art reconsidered as an expression of power relations is endowed with functionality and purpose: to perpetuate the aesthetic values and perceptions of middleclass men. It does this by upholding a class- and gender-based monopoly on Culture to which only few exceptions are admitted. Beyond those exceptions, the rare canonized woman author and - so far - the only two canonized lower-class writers, the literature of women and peasants is either ignored entirely or subject to evaluation by different criteria from those applied to the works of 'true' (bourgeois male) Artists - for example, in the declassification of their work as autobiographical and specific rather than transcendent and universal, or in the definition of the interest in the work as historical and social rather than aesthetic. Thus, traditional twentieth-century criticism continues the work begun in eighteenth -century aesthetics and validated in nineteenth- century canonization: largely unaware of the principal contradiction between its faith in Artistic Zweckfreiheit and the social power it wields, largely unable or unwilling to perceive nonbourgeois and non-masculine art forms as Art, literary criticism replicates these power relations ad infini turn.

Let us examine this in detail. There is material to agree with in this/ as in the whole book, whose scholarship and thoroughness I would not wish to belittle. But one has to swallow important fundamentals to go along with the argument/ and grant assumptions and simplifications which the discussion and evidence do not fully bear out. …