chapter  1
28 Pages

The Poetess Tradition

Eliot’s move toward poetry raises key questions: how should critics situate Eliot’s poetic work within her canon? Is it a departure from her artistic aim or an extension of it? Is she a major innovator or a novelist gone astray? Ultimately, how should critics understand Eliot, the poet? In answer, one might begin by exploring a tradition of women poets who relied on religion and feminine sympathy to claim authority to write poetry-a traditionally masculine art. Feminist scholars of nineteenth-century British poetry have discussed this tradition at length, and in doing so they frequently refer to the works of Letitia Landon (L.E.L.), Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti.1 They rarely include George Eliot in their investigations.2 Reasons for this omission might stem from the belief that a renowned woman of intellect with non-traditional religious views and a controversial lifestyle has no place within a tradition marked by feminine piety. However, Eliot’s poetry reveals a self-consciously feminine poetics and

1 See the following works for a discussion of the poetess tradition: Dorothy Mermin, “The Damsel, the Knight, and the Victorian Woman Poet” (1986); Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (1992); Virginia Blain, “Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Eliza Mary Hamilton, and the Genealogy of the Victorian Poetess” (1995); Isobel Armstrong, “The Gush of the Feminine: How Can We Read Women’s Poetry of the Romantic Period?” (1995), “Msrepresentation: Codes of Affect and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Poetry” (1999), and Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (2003); Anne Mellor, “The Female Poet and the Poetess, Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780-1830” (1999); Jerome McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (1996); Yopie Prins, “Personifying the Poetess: Caroline Norton, ‘the Picture of Sappho’” (1999); Susan Brown, “The Victorian Poetess” (2000); Marion Thain, “What Kind of a Critical Category is ‘Women’s Poetry’” (2003); and Laura Mandell, “Introduction: the Poetess Tradition” (2003).