Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Interpolated Poetry, the Novel and Female Accomplishment

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Interpolated Poetry, the Novel and Female Accomplishment

Article excerpt

By and large, men in the eighteenth century were willing to resign to women the novelistic domain, since novels and romances were considered but "trifling productions."(1) Most men, however, still thought themselves preeminent in the more serious intellectual endeavors, a category that included the writing of verse. Any demonstration of a woman's facility or expertise in the masculine domain of poetry could be, and often was perceived as, a threat to the established order. Anne Finch's well-known lament in "The Introduction" (1689) accurately characterizes the situation of women poets not only for her generation, but for the next generation as well:

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,

Such an intruder on the rights of men,

Such a presumptuous Creature, is esteem'd,

The fault, can by no vertue be redeem'd.(2)

Thus the eighteenth-century literary hierarchy was firmly gendered, the generic lines of demarcation apparently clear. Yet eighteenth-century novels, especially novels by women, frequently incorporate poetry into the narrative, violating by this union of genres the supposed literary separation of spheres. Sometimes the poetry is the novelist's own; more often she quotes from one of the canonical poets. In this essay I argue that women's use of poetry in the novel should be seen in the context of the century's ongoing debate about female education and abilities. Novelists used poetry to claim status, challenging their culture's gendering of both genre and intellect as they incorporated verse in a public and self-conscious display of female learning and accomplishment.

Jane Barker is the earliest known British woman novelist systematically to display her own verses within her novels.(3) In Bosvil and Galesia (1713) the poems are interspersed throughout the autobiographical heroine's attempt to explain why she did not marry, a fate which leaves her a failed heroine in romance terms. Though presumably focused on this failure, Galesia's narrative is nevertheless sustained by an alternative story of success, as the heroine replaces the failed romance with her accomplishment as a poet. Thus Galesia writes, during the first of Bosvil's periods of apparent indifference to her:

Methinks these Shades strange Thoughts suggest,

Which heat my Head, and cool my Breast,

And mind me of a Lawrel Crest.

Methinks I hear the Muses sing,

And see 'em all dance in a Ring,

And call upon me to take Wing.

And she concludes her contract with the Muses:

Then, gentle Maid, cast off thy Chain,

Which links thee to thy faithless Swain,

And vow a Virgin to remain.

Write, write thy Vow upon this Tree,

By us it shall recorded be,

And thou fam'd to Eternity.(4)

Galesia thereby exchanges the restrictive framework of romance, which chains her to both an inadequate role and man, for the liberating role of the poet.

Since much of the poetry attributed to Galesia, however, was written by Barker in previous years, some of it published in her 1688 Poetical Works, the redefined status the novel grants its heroine redounds immediately upon the author. Barker, who published under her own name, uses the developing prose genre to display her own verses and her own self as poet; just in case the Muses forget their promise of immortality, the poet uses the novel as a vehicle to bring her verses once more to public attention. By working previously published poems into a narrative that attempts to resituate the identity of the learned woman, Barker explicitly links her own claim to status to her poetic corpus.

Yet this display, for all its boldness, is complicated by a troubled diffidence about the place of the woman poet. Galesia's narrative vacillates uncomfortably between the assertion that she chose to be "Apollo's Darling Daughter" instead of marrying and the fear that marriage was denied her because of her commitment to poetry and learning. …

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