Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter

Article excerpt

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence, John Holmes recently discussed the shaping influence of The House of Life (1870, 1881) on a wide range of authors, from Christina Rossetti and Rupert Brooke to the scarcely known Theo Marzials, George Barlow, and Rosa Newmarch. Augusta Webster, to whose posthumously published sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter (1895) Holmes devotes a brief section, sticks out as neither a familiar face nor a complete stranger. (1) When Webster's oeuvre was rediscovered in the 1990s, critical interest initially focused on the controversial female speakers of her dramatic monologues (Portraits, 1870): an infanticidal mother in "Medea in Athens," a genteel prostitute in "A Castaway," a bewitching temptress in "Circe." The thematically much more conventional Mother and Daughter, by contrast, has been slow to make its way into scholarly publications. Dorothy Mermin was probably the first to note that it "extends the emotional range of the sonnet sequence beyond its traditional amatory concerns." (2) Angela Leighton and Alison Chapman also addressed the sequence briefly in their surveys of Victorian poetry, and Florence Boos discussed it in more detail in her contribution to a study of the Rossettis' literary legacy. (3) Despite the pioneering insights she offers into the works of several virtually unstudied late nineteenth-century female sonnet writers, Boos persistently refers to Webster's sequence as Mother and Child, thus inadvertently betraying just how unfamiliar most critics still are with the work.

To figure Rossetti's influence on Webster, Holmes and Boos both adopt the metaphor of literary kinship. Boos quite conspicuously presents Webster, Mathilde Blind, Amy Levy, Olive Custance, Rosa Newmarch, and Michael Field in the title of her essay as "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetic daughters." Holmes's discussion of late Victorian women poets follows a chapter devoted to "the sons of Gabriel," suggesting that the women he goes on to consider belong to the female lineage of Rossetti's poetic offspring. The adoption of genealogical vocabulary seems most apposite in this context since, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, "from the sons of Homer to the sons of Ben Jonson, poetic influence [has] been described as a filial relationship." (4) Yet, by taking Rossetti's literary parentage for granted, Boos and Holmes create major critical blind spots. While they meticulously scan Mother and Daughter for Rossettian approaches to love, life, and death, the profusion of references to birth, childhood, and maternity in The House of Life, which, in the case of Webster, constitutes such an obvious point of comparison, remains largely undisclosed. In addition, although the figuring of literary influence in terms of son- or daughter-ship may accord with the distinct predilection that Rossetti, like so many of his predecessors and colleagues, had for the trope, it does not necessarily do justice to Webster and her sequence. Most crucially, it obscures the possibility of reading Mother and Daughter as a cogent critique of the alienation of fundamentally female experiences, such as birth and motherhood, and of the female body in general for use as metaphors of male creativity.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's plan to compose The House of Life sprang from "Willowwood," a series of four sonnets that boldly rewrite Ovid's myth of Narcissus. The group heads all early drafts and manuscript versions of the sequence, and was first published in 1869 in the Fortnightly Review as sonnets 1 through 4 out of sixteen sonnets "On Life, Love, and Death" before taking its final position at the heart of the 1870 and 1881 printed editions. Critics have variously described it as addressing the "problem about love and the hope of its fulfilment," recording "the obsessive nature of the desire for unity and the fact that the desire becomes even more obsessive after separation," and most recently, exploring the "homoerotic potential of Rossetti's vision of love," but it was probably William Michael Rossetti who best captured the scope of "Willowwood" when he claimed that it is all about "the pangs of severance. …

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