Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Poetics of the "Charmed Cup" in Felicia Hemans and Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Poetics of the "Charmed Cup" in Felicia Hemans and Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Article excerpt

THE MOTIF OF THE DRINKING CUP, RICH IN HISTORICAL AND LITERARY ASSOCIATIONS, has variously evoked Dionysian inspiration, rituals of libation, Christ's sacrifice, and, by extension, either pleasure or healing. Male Romantics as diverse as Sheridan, Burns, Blake, Coleridge, Byron, Moore, de Quincey, and Keats all utilize the motif. (1) Often, they use it to allude to Bacchic release and artistic creativity: the essence of wit and storytelling is held in the cup, and it inspires creativity and a sexually charged break from mundane life. As these writers imbue the liquid within the cup with conflicting connotations of life, pleasure, cure, and poison, the cup becomes for them a complex, metapoetic device for authorship.

Women writers of the era, negotiating the conventional ideology of male-identified authorship, adopted and refashioned the motif of the drinking cup. (2) Two such writers, Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (known as L. E. L., 1802-1838), deployed the trope of the charmed cup" to explore female authorship and authorial power: the "gift" of genius, a seductive trap leading to commodification, and authorial control over self and others in seemingly uncontrollable situations. The cup emerges for them as a metapoetic device through which they analyze the intersections of gender, authorship, and life. While politically less committed to advocating the equality of the sexes than feminist writers such as Wollstonecraft a generation earlier, Elemans and Landon nonetheless expand the sites of women's writing beyond the sober reasoning Wollstonecraft advocates, as they explore ramifications of the authorial position, investing in the intoxication of authorial power.

Challenging the typical understanding of Hemans and Landon as unreflective "poetesses," this article aims to probe their artistic strategies and their reflections upon those strategies through the trope of the charmed cup. Their use of the same motifs and similar rhetoric suggests significant literary cross-influences and correlations, stemming from their shared position as middle-class women writers navigating social, linguistic, and ideological conditions. They invert and revise the male-oriented rhetoric of the charmed cup not only to signify their struggles for authorship but also to explore the transformative potential of those struggles. In particular, when they present sorceress figures who administer "charmed cups," they enact and comment on the creative and destructive power of female authorship. These rhetorical moves offer metapoetic reflections on their artistic capacity, as well as demonstrate their literary range and professional ambition.

1. The Spell of the "Charmed Cup"

In the "Introduction" to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791), Mary Wollstonecraft attributes women's complicity in men's objectification of them to women's temporary intoxication:

   ... men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us
   alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the
   adoration which men, under the influence of their sense, pay them,
   do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to
   become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement
   in their society. (3)

A rationalist feminist thinker, Wollstonecraft argues that women inherently have access to the power of reason, a province conventionally assumed to be male. To change their inferior social status and the culture of objectification, she states, women must first awaken from their superficial and transient "intoxication." In The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (posthumously published in 1798), Wollstonecraft presents as the most crucial moment for the protagonist, Maria, the time when she is roused from an "intoxicated sensibility" to "more matured reason" via writing. (4) Wollstonecraft constructs writing as a sober and rational act, which facilitates women's awakening from their drunken stupor and allows them to assume a position of equal partnership with men. …

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