Integration Studies

William J. Christmas
San Francisco State University

In the almost two decades since Roger Lonsdale's two Oxford anthologies— The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984) and Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989)—opened up eighteenth-century poetry to a cacophony of new voices, much of the criticism in the field has been concerned with challenging reigning orthodoxies of literary value and time-worn trajectories of literary history by focusing on poetry by women, laborers, and other provincial types.   Such expansion heralded a necessary critical atomizing of the field as critics of various persuasions built arguments for why certain long-lost poets were interesting and therefore worth talking about.   Much excellent and influential work can be found in what I would call these “disintegration studies.”   But things torn apart seem to invite being remade, and so it is that we might now note the need to lop off the privative prefix to create a new rubric for some of the best work now appearing in this field.   Alternative narratives of the period's poetry are emerging because critics are now integrating traditionally marginalized voices with a wider range of canonical ones, often with surprising results.   Witness David Fairer's rather personal reflection on producing his literary historical narrative of eighteenth-century English poetry for the Longman Literature in English Series :

Throughout its writing I have been conscious of breaches of decorum.   While attempting to stand back so as to judge objectively and see things in their due proportion, I have been repeatedly aware of being pulled forwards, of being drawn into odd conversations, picking up phrases and noticing surprising details; but with the uncanny feeling that big issues and larger patterns were forming at the same time.   Out of a critical study was growing a literary history, but not the one recognisable from traditional “survey” courses on the subject.1

Fairer's work is a model for what can happen when poets like Arbuckle, Boyse, Dixon, Pattison, and Tollet are integrated and read as poets alongside the more familiar names of the period.

Jennifer Keith's recent book, Poetry and the Feminine from Behn to Cowper (Delaware, 2005), is also an integration study that attends specifically to “how poetry by women has shaped the course of English poetry” (11).   Keith proposes a reevaluation of women poets in relation to the traditional male eighteenth-century poetic canon and, like Fairer, she is alert to the potential for new narratives that can be borne out of such a project.   Keith makes clear early on that her focus is on “the poems themselves” (12).   This is not a study steeped in theoretical jargon, socio-political contextualization, or para-literary materials that can inform historical interpretation; rather, its focus is squarely on aesthetic or formal issues, specifically those rhetorical structures (such as the invocation of the muse) that undergird a gendered system of representation “wherein the subject is conventionally figured as male, the object female” (14).   Through the course of her readings, Keith often successfully shows how women poets overcame such gendered rhetorical structures in their own work.   Hence Keith's book is an “integration study” not only because she juxtaposes a wide range of male and female poets, but also because she combines the theoretical and political concerns of the feminist critic—“constructions of the feminine” and their uses in poetry by men and women—with a rigorous formalist approach to the poetry itself (28).   The result is a highly accessible study concerned less with “what” questions (poetic content) than with “how” questions (modes of poetic representation), which lead to several revisionist points about both the traditional subdivisions of this period's poetry and conventional definitions of literary value.

The book is organized into five chapters that take up four distinct topics and, as the title suggests with its poet placeholders, the analysis proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion across the long eighteenth century.   Chapters 1 and 2 form a kind of gendered diptych on the subject of the muse.   In the first chapter, Keith examines how male poets from the era typically described as “Augustan” (Milton, Cowley, Dryden, Pope, Swift) exploited the figurative value of the feminine muse to define their poetic authority and enable specific “modes of representation” (romantic courtship, empirical) that served their various poetic objectives (30).   The title of Keith's second chapter, “Speaking Objects,” captures well the paradox women poets were forced to confront in attempting to speak in a literary tradition that figuratively denied their subjectivity.   Here Keith shows how several “Augustan” women (Philips, Killigrew, Finch, Rowe) manipulated the figure of the muse to carve out space for women's poetic voices.   Chapter 3 turns to the prospect poem, juxtaposing male poets' powerful ordering of feminine Nature by constructing an objectifying gaze from the hill, in poems by Denham, Addison, Pope, and Thomson, against women poets' more constrained and less ambitious views in their landscape poetry.   Whereas for the male poet, the prospect serves as a “means of asserting poetic subjectivity as masculine, objective, disinterested, elite, and empirical,” for women poets who identify intimately with “objectified feminine nature,” a wider range of possibility for creating subjectivity ensues (22, 23).   Chapters on personification, specifically focused on “the significance of personifying Nature to assert the poet's labor as a condition of being,” and the sentimental sublime round out the book (111).

Keith claims that her focus on these feminine rhetorical figures, coupled with the order and structure of her chapters, leads us to an “alternative literary history,” which I take to be the compelling macro-argument of her work (20).   This study is not the first to challenge conventional literary historical divisions—Augustan, Preromantic or Post-Augustan, Romantic—but it does shed new light on the subject.   For example, in her analysis of Pope's Pastorals , Keith shows the variety of ways Pope aligns himself as poet, his male addressees, or his patrons, with the virtuous female muse, and points out that “[l]ong before the appearance of the ‘cult of the feminine' associated with the culture of sensibility in the second half of the eighteenth century, the internalization of feminine virtue establishes the poetic character” (47).   Keith also notes how Finch anticipates “a Romantic aesthetic goal of expressing the inexpressible” in “To Mr. F. Now Earl of W.,” and how poets writing prospect poetry engaged a “dynamic notion of Nature [that] predates that mode of representation usually identified with Romanticism” (71, 81).   One senses a pattern here, but the significance of these points is more nuanced than simply projecting the beginning of Romanticism further back into the eighteenth century.   Rather, analysis of feminine tropes in the kinds of poetry Keith attends to exposes the artificiality of poetic distinctions and dividing lines we have, perhaps, tended to accept too readily from the Romantics themselves.

One of the pleasures of reading Keith's book is also the way individual readings of poems become little stories that serve the larger arguments of the book.   Behn scholars will appreciate a lengthy discussion of an obscure poem in the Behn canon, “On a Juniper-Tree, cut down to make Busks,” and the comparison to Pope in terms of their shared “use of androgynous ideals to explore the figures of Nature” (109).   I found the analysis of Gray's Elegy particularly enlightening, as Keith shows how Gray manipulates feminine tropes in the service of his objective to elicit readerly empathy for the plight of the laboring classes (131–35).   And Keith remains true to her claim to include “some of the most neglected poetry of the British tradition” by incorporating serious readings of poems by Jean Adams and Christian Carstairs (166).   Both Adams and Carstairs are included in Lonsdale's anthology, as are virtually all of the other female poets Keith discusses, but Keith does not aim for new archival discoveries.   Another integrative feature of Keith's work is that her focus on rhetorical constructions of the feminine and their various uses and effects provides us with a significant analytical context for defining poetic value in even the most obscure women poets brought to light by Lonsdale.   Certain of Lonsdale's poem choices look a lot better because they are shown to have something to say in the rich poetic dialogues this book reveals and develops.

Though Keith's close readings of individual poems are a strength of the study as a whole, I did find myself quibbling with a couple built on faulty foundations.   One aspect of the argument in Chapter 3 about the difference in prospect poetry written by men and women is that while men can exploit feminine tropes to dominate Nature and therefore see far and wide from their vantage on the hill, for women, their “prospect poetry typically does not ‘expatiate free' over Nature but instead observes a terrain of constraint” (22).   The focus throughout the chapter is squarely on “prospects of Nature” in these poems (110).   So when Keith invokes Mary Collier's use of the term “prospect” in The Woman's Labour —“For all our Pains, no Prospect can we see/Attend us, but Old Age and Poverty ” (ll. 200–1)—she is compelled to connect it to Collier's summary of “the bitter lot of women working in the fields” to establish her point about the female poet “describing the absence of spatial and temporal prospects” (93–94).   Though certainly much of Collier's poem is about women's agricultural labor, at this particular juncture, these lines serve as summation to a long section focused not on fieldwork but on charring, labor that is described by Collier as taking place inside her mistress's house, not out in Nature.   Noting exactly where we are in Collier's poem might not fully controvert Keith's point, but more careful elaboration of Collier's (possibly) ironic use of topographical diction in this context seems necessary at least.   And, in her otherwise excellent reading of Mary Leapor's “On Winter,” Keith appears to forget that references to “Artemisia” in Leapor's poems are consistently meant to invoke her devoted patron and friend Bridget Freemantle.2   Hence the opening lines of the poem, “What Pictures now shall wanton Fancy bring?/Or how the Muse to Artemisia sing?” (ll. 1–2), construct Leapor as the poet-muse, rather than, as Keith would have it, Leapor “provid[ing] a counter subject, her poet-speaker Artemesia [sic], suggesting the split subjectivity of the poetic imagination and the laborer's body” (138).   Leapor is, in fact, engaging a rhetorical maneuver Keith previously noted in Pope, Leapor's primary poet-hero, whom she frequently imitated and responded to (44).   A more accurate reading, then, has a less divided poet-as-muse addressing her patron Freemantle in that line—about which Keith would no doubt have something interesting to say.

But these are minor criticisms in a book that offers so much in its relatively small compass.   Keith's book is not intended as an exhaustive study of uses of feminine rhetorical figures in the poetry of the long eighteenth century.   But because its arguments are convincing and often provocative, I expect Poetry and the Feminine to spur further scholarship along its admirable lines of inquiry.

 

 

 


NOTES

1.   David Fairer, English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700–1789 (London, 2003), ix.

2.   See Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry (Oxford, 1993), 19; and Mary Leapor, The Works of Mary Leapor , ed. Richard Greene and Ann Messenger (Oxford and New York, 2003), xxiv.