The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900

The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900

The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900

The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900

Synopsis

In this evocative exploration, Cheryl Walker shows that there is a distinct tradition of women's poetry in America -- one that the poets themselves have not always been fully aware of -- and that individual poems can be read as manifestations of that tradition. Philomela, the nightingale of literary mythology, serves as a model for women poets, representing simultaneously both their particular forms of power and the frustrating powerlessness imposed on them by the cultural norms for women. The author identifies a number of archetypal motifs: the power fantasy, the sanctuary poem, the renunciation poem, the forbidden lover poem, the "burden of beauty," and the "secret sorrow." Among the poets discussed are Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Lydia Sigourney, Frances Osgood, Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Fuller, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Louise Guiney.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1972 I entered Widener Library at Harvard University with a blue notebook under my arm. I was about to begin the research that has become this book, and so I was in search of material on American women poets. In the card catalog I found, much to my surprise, that there was almost nothing written on the subject, no book that attempted to relate one woman poet to another in terms of time period, shared experience, subject matter, influence, or style. There were two file cards that seemed pertinent to my interests. They directed me to two then recent works: Rosemary Sprague Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets (Chilton, 1969) and George Brandon Saul's Quintet: Essays on Five Women Poets (Mouton, 1967).

These books were curiously similar -- both a series of five essays, both concentrating most of their attention on a generation of poets who emerged in the early years of this century. Sprague dealt with Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marianne Moore. Saul concentrated on Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Hazel Hall, Winnifred Welles, and Abbie Huston Evans. Neither book attempted to establish a context for comparing these poets, so each essay was an independent foray into the poet's life and work. Neither writer raised the question of what it has meant to be a woman poet in America. Each book apologized for itself. Turning its pages one felt oppressed by a sense of failure: the writer's, the poet's, one's own. Without intending to, these critics implied that what they were doing was a minor endeavor. Both were enthusiastic about their subjects. Neither seriously believed that others would be.

Since then cataloguers have been busy adding cards to that file and category. The field has virtually exploded. To begin with, numerous anthologies of women's poetry have made their way into print: Florence Howe and Ellen Bass No More Masks,Ann Stanford The Women Poets in English,Bulkin and Larkin Amazon Poetry, Psyche, Rising Tides, Salt and Bitter and Good, The Penguin Book of Women Poets, Louise Bernikow The World Split Open, and numerous others. Black women poets are now available in Erlene Stetson Black Sister. Pattie Cowell . . .

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