Commentary on L.E.L.'s "Verses"
The poem that appears without title on p. 121 of The Keepsake for 1829 is entitled (or perhaps merely labeled) "Verses" in the volume's table of contents. That label calls attention to the formal status of the work, and its versification deserves the initial attention that its labeling calls for. The poem's iambic pentameter is frequently excellent: occasionally perfect regularity becomes a musical metaphor for stateliness, as in line 2. Line 3 begins with a reversed foot with expressive effect: the line is otherwise iambic (i.e., in a rising rhythm, unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable), but the first foot is a reversal of that rhythm--the trochee that begins the line produces a rhythmical suspension that matches musically the imagery. In line 5, another expressive variant appears in the meter: the spondee in the second foot of that line, "rich veins," adds weight and emphasis, as spondees normally do, and that emphasis again matches musically the imagistic content of the line.
The reversed foot in line 13, "Hadst thou lived in those days," is not so evidently expressive, but is perhaps even a bit awkward musically, but in line 20 another variant, the pyrrhic (a two-syllable foot without stress on either syllable) is an example worth using in a textbook on artful prosody. In English poetry, the pyrrhic normally represents absence, loss, emptiness--as in the second line of Shakespeare's musical metaphor for the erosion of the land, in which the second and fourth feet are pyrrhics: "When I have watched the hungry ocean gain / Advantage on the kingdom of the shore" (sonnet LXIV, lines 5-6); the loss of accent matches musically the imagery of loss of land. In line 20 of L.E.L.'s "Verses," where the sentence refers to a nothingness, the second foot is a pyrrhic, and again the absence of accent matches musically the absence that the sentence names: "there is nought / About thee for the dreaming minstrel's thought." Again in the last line of the poem, the pyrrhic (the third foot) represents rhythmically a loss and absence, in this case the absence of words in "The wordless homage of a lingering gaze."
Because L.E.L. wrote rapidly, perforce (see "Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon"), that level of artistry is not consistent in the versification of the poem: for example, line 15 is made to rhyme with line 16 only by forcing a stress where no stress will actually fall, and by forcing the pronunciation of a mid-level vowel (as in "tell") where at most a schwa could be heard (in the last syllable of "chronicle"). But in "Verses" such lapses are much more rare than the excellences, and at its best the metrical artistry represents a technical achievement.
The personified wind moving happily in the hair, in lines 2-3 of "Verses," is a (conscious or unconscious) echo of Petrarch's sonnet 90, Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi, which also begins in that way; Charlotte Smith's learned annotations to her own Elegiac Sonnets and Mary Robinson's use of Petrarchan form and imagery in her sequence Sappho and Phaon had already shown how central to romantic-period poetry is this feminine revision of the Petrarchan diction, imagery, voice, and form. In "Verses," the de-eroticized praise of a womanly image, in a poem whose tone is ultimately one of loss, is likewise generically Petrarchan (Petrarch wrote, in sonnet after sonnet, of Laura's visible body and its parts--hair, face, eyes--most often eyes). And the form of "Verses" registers this Petrarchan allusion in two ways: the pattern of rhyme and the use of the volta.
Though the remainder of the poem is written entirely in couplets, the first four lines of "Verses" form an envelope quatrain (like the first four lines of every sonnet by Petrarch)--that is, the first line rhymes with the fourth, and the second rhymes with the third. This quatrain stands out conspicuously, in the poem's versification, because the rest of the poem is composed of couplets, and L.E.L. introduces even more uniformity than that: most of the couplets resemble one another, musically, in that they are internally open but externally closed--that is, the poem's couplets are typically end-stopped by strong punctuation but internally open, with only weak punctuation or none separating the first line from the second in most couplets. That emphasis on uniformity in the versification for the poem's other 26 lines causes the different versification of the first four (the envelope quatrain) to appear even more conspicuously, as we have said, and that fact in turn makes the Petrarchan allusion of the musical register even more clear.
The Petrarchan volta, or "turn," falls, of course, after the eighth line of the Petrarchan sonnet; and while this poem is very obviously no sonnet, but consists of thirty lines, it too puts a clear volta at the same point in its development: "Verses" is divided by its sense into two parts, of 60% and 40%, which are the proportions of a Petrarchan sonnet. And here as so often in Petrarch's sonnets, the turn is from gladness to grief, from joy to loss: the poem consists of 8 lines on Beauty and chivalry, followed by 12 lines on emptiness and loss.
The apostrophe that opens the poem personifies its subject, which is an object, an image, a painting: the speaker of the poem is not directly addressing the Duchess of Bedford, but instead, in an apparently inward voice of reflection, she addresses the portrait, just as Keats addresses the urn in that great ode. The repetition in lines 1 and 2 ("beautiful," "beauty") states the theme at the poem's opening, as a musical piece would do--by reiteration. The evident obsession on that topic, "beauty," also recalls Keats's ode, and it accords with the poem's immediate object of reference--again, not the Duchess but the portrait of the Duchess.
The emphasis on jewels in the poem's first verse paragraph is also Keatsian, this time recalling the exotic opulence in Lycius's palace in Lamia, where (as here, in "Verses") a regal or at least aristocratic power and an elite removal from the common herd are designated--"only princes" have access to such riches.
The second verse paragraph begins the same syllogistic sequence that appears in Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress": An "if"-clause ("If thou hadst live in that old haunted time," L.E.L; "Had we but world enough and time," Marvell); and in both poems that "if"-clause is followed by a disjunctive statement ("But thou art of the Present--there is nought / About thee for the dreaming minstrel's thought," L.E.L.; "But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near," Marvell). In both poems, the tone of the "if"-clause is all glory and love, and the tone of the disjunctive ("But) clause is all deprivation and decay. Marvell's poem concludes, then, with a call to an erotic liveliness as a response to the prospect of loss ("Now therefore, while the youthful hue / Sits on thy skin like morning dew, . . . let us sport us while we may . . . Let us . . . tear our pleasures with rough strife, / Thorough the iron gates of life"); but L.E.L.'s poem ends with no such thing, instead observing that the present lacks the "sovereign Beauty" of the chivalric past. There is no "romancing lute or fancied line" (line 23); music has died or, at least, sleeps inertly (line 25), and there is no more dancing to be done; the dream of a poet would seem, in this degraded world of the present, the "idleness of flattery" (line 28)--what was once "sovereign Beauty" is now sycophantic opportunism. The poet is mute, "and to that lovely picture only pays / The wordless homage of a lingering gaze" (lines 29-30).
Another important difference from Marvell's poem--in fact, from most poetry written earlier than L.E.L.'s lifetime--is the utter reflexiveness of this art. The beauty that gives charmed light in line 22 is not the personal beauty of a beloved (Laura, for example) or of Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford; it is the beauty of artifacts, the beauty not of life but of the "cold Pastoral" (in Keats's phrase) which is an inanimate contrivance. The poem's self-consciousness about its own status as a simulation is pervasive: while the second verse paragraph appears to rejoice in the "sublime" Beauty of "that old Haunted time"--the feudalism of the middle ages--with its "chivalrie," "brand and banner," "glory" and "love," it is the nonexistence of those things, of those values, that the poem goes on to emphasize.
This sort of artificiality and this reflexiveness about artificiality are common in the entire volume of the Keepsake in which Landon's poem appears. The engraved title-page of this volume shows all nine muses, one of whom has just inscribed the title "Keepsake" on a large sheet, while two other female icons of beautiful inspiration read that title, and the six others look beatifically around the scene of writing. On one level, this engraving is (obviously) a commercial advertisement for the Keepsake; and at the same time (like many commercial advertisements now, in other media) it models the act of reception that the proprietors hope its customers will imitate. The literary contents of the Keepsake are often involved in the theme of reflexive treatment of artistic illusions--the first literary item in the volume, for example, is Scott's tale of a magical mirror; and the poems that immediately precede "Verses" (Thomas Moore's "Extempore") and follow it (Coleridge's "Epigrams," including "To a Critic") are art-about-art, poems-about-poems, fiction-about-fiction. "Verses" is thematically consistent with the rest of the volume in this way, and it is also highly critical of the illusory status of its own subject-matter.
There is nothing about the portrayed Duchess, according to lines 19 and 20, to inspire a dreaming minstrel; there is nothing in this degraded present (apparently 1828) of beauty except "vague imagination." And though the poem ends with an apparent "homage" to "that lovely picture" (i.e., the portrait), it is the art's lack of reality, its insignificance, its detached and futile ornamentation, that the poem makes most painfully evident by its disillusioned end.
Though Glennis Stephenson's Letitia Landon does not discuss "Verses," that book's useful account of Landon's writings for gift books and annuals explains admirably the context of production in which this poem was built. Stephenson begins with the observation that Landon was "always alert to the demands of the literary market,"1 and that (despite her three novels of three volumes each, and her own books of poetry) the profitability of her poetry in the annuals led to her spending most of her time in writing such poems. In essays published in Fraser's Magazine, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote of these annuals, including the Keepsake, in a harshly critical way: "It is hardly necessary to examine these books and designs one by one--they all bear the same character, and are exactly like the Books of Beauty, Flowers of Loveliness, and so on, which appeared last year"; and his description of the annuals' composite art sounds much like a description of "Verses" and its accompanying engraving: "A large weak plate, done in what we believe is called the stipple style of engraving [the stippling in Georgiana. Duchess of Bedford, as in the shading on the shoulders and arm, was achieved by a device with a small wheel, like a pizza cutter, that stamped little holes into the steel plate as it was rolled along in lines], a woman badly drawn, with enormous eyes . . . an exceedingly low-cut dress . . . . An immense train of white satin ["thy white robe floats queen-like," line 7 in "Verses"] . . . . Miss Landon, Miss Mitford, or my Lady Blessington, writes a song upon the opposite page . . . . The poetry is quite worthy of the picture, and a little sham sentiment is employed to illustrate a little sham art" (quoted in Stephenson, 128).
To retreat from the negative judgment expressed in that description, and to defend the worth of the annuals, Stephenson goes on to affirm that (as Christian Isobel Johnstone wrote in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine in 1837) the annuals had positive effects as well as blameworthy standards of art--for example, they amounted to "wonderful efforts of commercial enterprise" (Johnstone, quoted in Stephenson, 129), specifically "supporting such professional female writers as Landon" (Stephenson, 131). However, Thackeray (and others) did not blame the annuals for being unprofitable, he blamed them for "sham sentiment" and "sham art." To show that they brought cash profit, or that they brought cash profit to this or that group of people, is not to challenge or refute the charge that their art and sentiment are sham. A sham that is profitable to professional women is nonetheless a sham. (For the profitability of the Keepsake, see our Introduction to The Keepsake.) As we have said in "The Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon", Landon supported her family with her earnings, and did not manifest either cupidity or luxury in her own life; "from the time I was fifteen," she wrote, "my life has been one continual struggle in some shape or another against absolute poverty."2 Thackeray complained that "Miss Landon degrades" her genius by selling it to earn a living; we may agree with Angela Leighton that this charge is hard in its assumptions--"Geniuses, it seems, especially female ones, are assumed to have husbands, fathers or brothers to free them for 'higher duties' than those of keeping alive."3 But if the point (Thackeray's point) is that the poetry and art are (as a matter of fact) commercial and sham, rather than a moral claim about why they are so, the reality and sadness of the poet's circumstance does not in the least contradict his point.
Stephenson explains with similar clarity two other features of the poetry and art in the annuals: the annuals were bought by middle-class women who desired to possess imagery of aristocracy, as (quoting Elizabeth Langland) "a theater for the staging of a family's social position" (quoted in Stephenson, 132); the annuals, used in that way, are "stage props" (Stephenson, 132)--in other words, sham. "The best annuals were firmly linked to the aristocracy, even though they clearly functioned in the service of an emergent middle-class ideology. Here, as in so many other areas, the middle class was defining itself through cultural emulation" (Stephenson, 135): i.e., simulation, or sham. Secondly, Stephenson makes clear the manipulation, in the annuals, of the imagery and theme of the private as opposed to the public. On this issue, Stephenson cites Family Fortunes by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, who point out the fictitiousness of the distinction of domestic (private) and business (public) worlds, and also the gendering of that polarity--"public was not really public and private not really private" (quoted 131)--responsibilities of a middle-class woman included the staging of social-class status, in part by the display of stage props including the Keepsake with its fake imagery of privacy. For example, the red silk of the early volumes of the Keepsake was dress fabric (see Introduction to the Keepsake in this website), fakery of "something extremely personal" (134) which was in fact mass-produced.
If the profitability of the Keepsake (and Landon's poetry in all of the annuals) is not in itself admirable from an artistic point of view, and if manipulative emulations of a higher social class are not in themselves admirable, artistically, and if a false dichotomy between (male) public sphere and (female) domestic privacy is not artistically admirable, then it is necessary to condemn the annuals aesthetically (as Thackeray did), or to ignore them altogether (as most specialists in the literature of the nineteenth century have done), or to discern something in them other than the forms of fakery that have been made abundantly evident already.
Though Stephenson does not develop the point as we would prefer to do, her remark that "Landon is able to see the ridiculous side of the whole process" (148) is helpful in pointing to the kind of artistry in poetry like "Verses" that is not superficially evident but which does distinguish such writing aesthetically. "Verses," and L.E.L.'s poetry very generally, generates illusions (or sham), makes visible the motivation of the fakery and the cultural work that it performs, and then turns into a critique of the whole manipulative process of which this poetry is itself a part. The importance of such artistry--which is simultaneously a factory of deceptive appearances and a critique of that factory--is not limited to an appreciation of L.E.L.'s work or even of the writing and art in the annuals; the value of its revelations includes the question how far other writing in the period, including the canonically great monuments of Romantic sincerity, furnishes other examples of the same or similar processes of manufactured deceptions.
Writing recently of Landon's contemporary Thomas DeQuincey, Josephine McDonagh has explained his argument (in Suspiria de Profundis) that literature had become valuable for "retrieving the values that have been lost in the industrialized and democratized world. In particular, he says, people have lost their capacity to dream."4 In the same magazine as that in which Johnstone praised the literary annuals, DeQuincey wrote in "Lake Reminiscences" of pastoral settings and "also a pastoral history and a poetic tradition" (McDonagh, 31). Some literature, in DeQuincey's view a kind of literature flourishing in his time, "was constituted as a realm of affectivity in which the alienated consumer could retrieve an emotional dimension to his life" (71); "DeQuincey reworked the Romantic idea that literature provided a means through which the corrupting influences of industry and capital might be fended off" (74). McDonagh finds in DeQuincey's writing what we are here trying to point out in Landon's, and that is a dual (and even contradictory) theme in late-romantic writing: "the ambiguous relationship that literature comes to occupy in relation to capital, being at once a refuge from and defense against the encroachment of industrialization and capital, but also complicit with the values and interests of industry and commerce" (90). "Verses" functions in that way.
Whether DeQuincey's writings achieve a similar suspension of contradictories is not a question for this essay to consider, but the fact that L.E.L.'s "Verses" does so is the central aesthetic feature of the poem. As in the case of her "Medallion Wafers" (see this website's "Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon"), here Landon was furnished with an afterimage (on paper) of an imitation (on steel plate) of a painting (in oil), a painting that (in this case) mocked its subject (see this website's essay on Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford). It was impossible for Landon to mistake her writing these lines on assignment for an example of spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. The duplicity that she achieved includes the evocation of illusory beauty (the production of nostalgic illusion, on a retail basis) and its undermining (from line 19 onward in "Verses").
Insofar as the sale of nostalgic illusion has political content, it is Burkean: the early nineteenth century's literature of sentimentality has this conservative force, opposing a merely conventional illusion of the personal (feminine, emotional) against a conventionally masculine sphere of public business and a regime of rationality. Burke mobilizes the sentimentality of the feminine as an ideological defense of the ancient hierarchy of power: "All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society" resist (in Burke's account) the logic of the democratic revolutions, because the pleasing illusions are threatened by "this new conquering empire of light and reason."5 It is better to enjoy the charm of an illusion than to think rationally, Burke suggests, using another gendered metaphor, because with the introduction of thought "all the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off" (90).
Among women who did not accept Burke's invitation to enjoy the imbecilic powerlessness of emotional privacy,6 Mary Wollstonecraft did not complain principally that illusions are not charming; she objected principally that the rhetoric of pleasing illusions was false, and this (rather than merely the question of enjoyment) matters. Wollstonecraft reples to Burke: "I am led very often to doubt your sincerity. . . . You have been behind the curtain . . . you must have seen the clogged wheels of corruption continually oiled by the sweat of the laborious poor."7
L.E.L.'s "Verses" is not a poem about the poor, or about the political consequences of the conservative stereotype of femininity; but it is a poem that states the unreality of nostalgic illusions and the power of popular lies about life. The riches that "only princes cull" (line 4) are not without class content; the reality of battles (line 11) involved more than "sovereign Beauty" (10), and the days of "chivalrie" (line 13), whose loss Burke laments, involved less pleasant realities than "glory" and "love" (line 12), and of course Landon knew all this as well as Wollstonecraft knew it. But "Verses" is not about feudalism or battle or riches--it is about the fact that their pleasing illusions are false, "nought" (line 19) but "vague imagination" (line 21). Despite their actual nothingness, such nostalgic illusions have cash value, especially in a market of sentimental artifacts gendered feminine; but such illusions' value as a refuge from a heartless world of business and conquest is diminished by the falsehood of the rhetoric that constitutes the illusions. The poem's mask of nostalgia is placed over the cashbox of the Keepsake, but the mask is translucent. The clogged wheels of the profit-machine are visible. The commodity that L.E.L. makes and sells is a critique of the commodity that she makes and sells. And yet its illusion of "sovereign Beauty" survives in the same text that disowns it, like a dirty word pronounced in a stated prohibition of its use. The "fancied line" and the "colour'd words" (lines 23-24) are renounced, but they are still present in the syntactical setting of their renunciation. And the Keepsake sold very well.
The central duplicity of "Verses" is thus the provision of an illusion under the sign of its renunciation. The extent to which that feature of this art--the poetics of disillusion--also characterizes other and different examples of the period's poetry (for example, the poetry of Wordsworth) is suggested by the fact that the same volume of the Keepsake includes poetry by Wordsworth (see "The Country Girl"). The extent to which the commercial engine drives the partially visible gears of this machinery and also the machinery of very different poetry (like Thomas Moore's) is suggested by Thomas Moore's poem about money for poetry, which immediately precedes "Verses" in this volume of the Keepsake. The extent to which the great writers of High Romanticism and its idealisms were concerned (as L.E.L. was) with the manipulations of marketing is suggested by the rhetorical violence about marketing images in Coleridge's "To a Critic" which immediately follows L.E.L.'s "Verses" in the same volume. If the ironic duplicities of L.E.L.'s poems are complex, as we have suggested they are, it is also true that the poem's revelations about the falsehoods we have long called sentimentality and the poetry we have long called Romantic have relevance that is wide and deep.
6. Leighton's chapter on L.E.L. argues that, as Landon matured, she developed "a streak of scepticism" that "points forward to the devices of self-distance and doubt employed by later poets" (46), and that "poetic sensibility" did not so much express any truths for the poet but rather "covered the need for money" (47). Leighton shows how Elizabeth Barrett Browning perceived in Landon's work "the problem, not only with much of L.E.L.'s verse, but also with the whole tradition of female sensibility as it is revived in the early nineteenth century": the gendered dichotomy of masculine thought and feminine feeling is false (63). Leighton does not situate Landon's mature work, including her poetry of 1828 and 1829, in a sentimental tradition but in a specifically anti-sentimental tradition of nineteenth-century women's poetry: "The need to keep women weeping and not thinking, feeling and not questioning, suffering and not writing, carries a strong social and moral purpose, which ensures that the trembling, ill-used goodness of the female heart remains part of the woman's sway in purifying the new age" (64). Leighton locates "a turning point" in L.E.L.'s poetry in 1828 (the year of "Verses," though Leighton does not say so): increasingly from that date, L.E.L. "distances and questions the excess of sentiment" (65) in poetry: "To be sceptical of feelings is a new truth which L.E.L. learns towards the end of her poetic career" (68), and "some forbidden knowledge and doubt--the very antithesis of the creed of feeling--has crept into her verse, and given it a certain sharp-edged realism" (70). Return to Essay