Deconstructing the Patriarchal Palace: Ann Radcliffe's Poetry in 'The Mysteries of Udolpho.'

By Arnold, Ellen | Women and Language, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Deconstructing the Patriarchal Palace: Ann Radcliffe's Poetry in 'The Mysteries of Udolpho.'


Arnold, Ellen, Women and Language


When Ann Radcliffe is read, she is usually classified as a Gothic novelist. Her novels are famous for their intricate plots that imprison a sensitive heroine in a dark, mysterious castle guarded by a nasty villain. But Ann Radcliffe as a poet? Most modern readers skip over the 19 poems nested within the chapters of The Mysteries of Udolpho as annoying interruptions to the plot.(1) Yet these poems are vital keys to understanding the fiction. Just as the locked boxes, hidden stairways, veiled pictures and secret passageways conceal clues that lead to the heroine's self-knowledge, so the poems buried within the novel unlock multiple levels of meaning within the plot. Studying the poetry, we see Radcliffe wrestling with her own poetic voice, portraying the ways in which women's creative voices are silenced by patriarchy, and slyly subverting those methods of control.(2)

Recent critics have suggested that the problems of gender and genre are best interpreted in terms of women's unique relationship to language. Margaret Homans suggests that, during the Romantic Age, it was especially difficult for women to become poets because Romantic poetry makes the self and the imagination so primary:

When the masculine self dominates and internalizes otherness, that other is frequently identified as feminine, whether she is nature, the representation of a human woman, or some phantom of desire. . . . To be for so long the other and the object made it difficult for nineteenth-century women to have their own subjectivity. To become a poet, given these conditions, required nothing less than battling a valued and loved literary tradition to forge a self out of the materials of otherness. (12)

Moreover, both Romantic art and religious beliefs told women that language was originated by men and for men. Homans associates women writers' alienation from patriarchal language with the Biblical and Miltonic accounts of the Creation. Both accounts explicitly connect creation with the Word, yet the Word belongs to masculinity: God speaks the first word, then gives Adam the right to name (and thus control) the animals. Adam also shares direct conversation with God. Eve's experience with language is very different; she is "excluded from the community of language shared by God and Adam, and deprived of an equal share in inventing human language" and thus has an understandable distrust of the system that excludes and limits her (Homans 31). At the same time, women writers may feel a certain ambivalence toward their own abilities: if they are not heirs to the original, creative word, how can they hope to create poetry?

The first poem in Udolpho, "Sonnet," dramatizes the very conflict that Homans describes. This sonnet is written in praise of Emily by a male character unknown to Emily (who later turns out to be DuPont, a hopeful suitor). By "trying on" a masculine persona, Radcliffe reproduces the masculine poetic tradition and re-enacts its objectification of the feminine.(3) The poem adopts a masculine stance toward the feminine object, describing her physical charms, her "light'ning smile," her "animated grace," and elevating her to the status of "Goddess." At the same time, the "masculine" poet blames her for his love-sickness and accuses her of coquettish duplicity:

How off the flowret's silken leaves conceal The drug that steals the vital spark away! And who that gazes on that angel-smile, Would fear its charm, or think it could beguile!

The poem nicely sets up a conflict that reverberates throughout the novel. Emily, the object of the poem and the heroine of the novel, faces a patriarchal tradition that seeks to gaze on her and own her, while denying her subjectivity. Radcliffe the poet, too, faces a literary tradition that sees her as a fit object for inspiring art while denying her ability to create poetry herself.

The fact that Radcliffe buries her poetry within her prose suggests a certain uneasiness or ambivalence toward her poetic voice. …

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