Session 2C: Women Poets, Subjectivity and Dramatic Forms

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2C. Women Poets, Subjectivity and Dramatic Forms

Special Session: Marjorie Stone (Dalhousie)
Nancy Paul (Queens, Kingston): "Foregrounding the Dramatic Monologue: Sarah Fielding and the Labyrinths of the Mind"
Lisa Vargo (Saskatchewan): "Romantic Poems and Revisionary Histories of the Dramatic Monologue: Mary Robinson and Tabitha Bramble"
Suzanne Waldman (Dalhousie): "Female Subjectivity as Drama in Hemans' Records of Woman"
Patricia Rigg (Acadia): "Augusta Webster's Portraits: Looking Through the Eye"

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Foregrounding the Dramatic Monologue: Sarah Fielding and the Labyrinths of the Mind
Nancy Paul
Queens University, Kingston

In his landmark study of the dramatic monologue, Robert Langbaum wonders if what he calls "the poetry of experience" is in fact " a new genre which abolishes the distinction between subjective and objective poetry and between the lyrical and dramatic or narrative genres" (54). He vigorously rejects the "usual procedure in discussing the dramatic monologue," which he says is "to find precedents for the form in the poetry of all periods, and then to establish, on the model of a handful of poems by Browning and Tennyson, objective criteria by which the form is henceforth to be recognized and judged." I agree with Langbaum that this procedure combines "opposite mistakes," that it is at once too restrictive and not restrictive enough, and ultimately tells us too little. Including as precursors all lyrics in which the speaker seems to be someone other than the poem, all imaginary epistles and orations, and all kinds of excerpts from plays and narratives, is certainly counter-productive; on the other hand, listing the particular characteristics of the handful of Browning and Tennyson poems which fit our definition is of little interest and less significance. Langbaum chooses to extend with care the definition of dramatic monologue to include as antecedent the Romantic "dramatic lyric" -- which Langbaum sees functioning as "one half of a dialogue, with the other half understood by its effect" (53) -- and, in this century, the experiments of the Modernist poets.

I suggest that the definition can be stretched a bit further than Langbaum would allow, to include works which in fact fit his expanded criteria for the dramatic monologue, works which fall under the classification of -- for example -- epistolary fiction and fictional autobiography. We need not consider all epistles etc as types of dramatic monologue; but why not examine those with the characteristics cited by Langbaum as peculiar to the "new" genre, for example, which exhibit the split between sympathy and judgment, the tendency of the reader at once to identify with the "I" speaking and to find that speaker reprehensible? Why not consider also those which fit the criteria of Adam Sinfeld who, as if to flaunt Langbaum's warning, deliberately constructs a restrictive (and, we learn later, straw-man) definition based on the critical "handful of poems" by Browning and Tennyson? Sinfeld's criteria are: a first-person speaker who is not the poet and whose character is unwittingly revealed; an auditor whose influence is felt in the poem; a specific time and place; colloquial language; some sympathetic involvement with the speaker; and an ironic discrepancy between the speaker's view of himself and a larger judgment which the poet implies and the reader must develop" (7).

The last work of Sarah Fielding (sister to Henry) fulfills all these criteria. The History of Ophelia (1760) consists of a single epistle from the heroine to her correspondent, to whom she has promised an account of her abduction and eventual marriage (to the abductor). In a previous paper, I argue that Ophelia's long letter to "her Ladyship" is one side of an extended, imagined conversation. It is also, as certain passages reveal, the rationalizing ramblings of a mind circling around its own guilt and complicity. Ophelia has a need to self-construct retrospectively, to apply a shapely moral configuration to her past. Looking back on her life she sees circumstances through which she passed safely, naively, but which she realizes in retrospect were overwhelmingly dangerous to her integrity, her sanity, her virtue. It is a terrifying vision. Even more frightening however to this chaste, rational heroine is the shadow of belief that she was unconsciously complicit, had somehow desired the danger. Her split consciousness is evidence of her inability to reconcile her behaviour with her self-image.

Langbaum further notes that "extraordinary moral positions" and "extraordinary emotions" are characteristic of dramatic monologues which follow the Tennyson / Browning model (93), and adds that the past is a means for achieving that extraordinary point of view: "Since the past is understood in the same way that we understand the speaker of the dramatic monologue, the dramatic monologue is an excellent instrument for projecting an historical point of view" (96). Ezra Pound described his own experiments in "the so-called dramatic lyric" as

"the poetic part of a drama the rest of which (to me the prose part) is left to the reader's imagination or implied or set in a short note. I catch the character I happen to be interested in at the moment he interests me, usually a moment of song, self-analysis, or sudden understanding or revelation. And the rest of the play would bore me and presumably the reader" (qtd. by Langbaum 81).

My question for Pound -- who used historical figures as mouthpieces in his dramatic monologues -- and for Langbaum, is: what about those so-called boring bits? Works such as Fielding's imaginative autobiography, Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, might be considered to include both the "poetic" parts and the "rest of" the drama -- the prose background against which those lyric moments are illuminated, but which is after all of a piece with them, cut of the same cloth. In Lives Fielding has the two characters tell their stories from beyond the grave; their role in historical events is recounted, but the focus returns again and again to their inner lives. In both Lives and Ophelia passages of psychological intensity -- passages of particular interest to readers such as Pound, when the speaker is caught in a moment of reflection -- are foregrounded.

Fielding was a novelist like her famous brother, but her work was both more experimental and more concerned -- as her friend Samual Richardson, author of Clarissa, observed -- with "the finer springs and movements of the inside" of the human machine than a knowledge of the outside (qtd. by London 198). Her avowed aim was to explore the "Labyrinths of the Mind," to understand and represent in her writing the complex and sometimes contorted motivations of human beings. In The Cry, a work she co-authored with Jane Collier, the protagonists reveal their private thoughts through an extended dialogue with an assembly of allegorical characters. Fielding's experimentation in The History of Ophelia with epistolary fiction, a form which deserves consideration in any revisionary history of the dramatic monologue, allowed her to demonstrate through extended and considered "dialogue" the ironic discrepancies between intention and action, perception and event. Ophelia further invites a linguistic and a psychoanalytic analysis, as the gaps in the narrator's one-sided dialogue and her relation to her correspondent suggest the interactions of an analysand with her analyst: the reader adopts the role of analyst and tries to make the connections which the repressed Ophelia at once implies and rejects.

In this paper I will examine Lives, Ophelia, and The Cry in relation to the history of the dramatic monologue, as I believe Fielding's fascination with psychology and notion of the divided self place her in the tradition; further, I will consider in very general terms how epistolary fiction and fictional autobiography work dialogically and thus participate in this (revisionary) history.

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Romantic Poems and Revisionary Histories of the Dramatic Monologue: Mary Robinson and Tabitha Bramble
Lisa Vargo
University of Saskatchewan

Mary Robinson (1758-1800), actress, lover of the Prince of Wales and military hero Banastre Tarleton, and prolific author began writing her thirty-nine Tabitha Bramble poems for the Morning Post in December 1797. The poems in the voice of late-eighteenth-century culture's stereotype for the frustrated old maid take a satirical bent and reached a wide audience in a daily paper read across the classes. Above all the poems present a view of social relations stripped of the sentimental. Six Bramble poems included in her Lyrical Tales (1800) appeared in the Post between January and June 1800; Robinson died at the age of forty-two in December of the same year. The choice of Tabitha Bramble, described in Tobias Smollett's epistolary novel Humphry Clinker (1771) as "a maiden of forty-five, exceedingly starched, vain and ridiculous" appears an incongruity, given Robinson's cultivation of Sappho as a poetic persona and her fame as a beauty. Robinson's daughter calls the Tabitha Bramble poems "lighter compositions, considered by the author as unworthy of a place with her collected poems" (Memoirs of Mary Robinson [1801] 2.148). But the comment reveals more about the daughter's desire to secure her mother's posthumous literary reputation than about the poems' more innovative aspects, including their use of what has come to be known as the dramatic monologue.

The title Lyrical Tales reminds us of Robinson's knowledge of Wordsworth and Coleridge's volume: all three wrote for the Post along with Robert Southey, Wordsworth and Robinson shared a common publisher, Longman, and in 1800 Coleridge and Robinson became acquainted. This context, as Robert Mayo points out, makes the Lyrical Ballads look less innovative in themselves, including with respect to the dramatic monologue form. The Tabitha Bramble poems are pointed social satires whose speaker is a cultural stereotype of frustrated female desire. The Tabitha Bramble poems contribute to a revisionary history of the monologue not only with respect to women writers or the character of the dramatized speaker, they are noteworthy for their resistance to sentimental as a form of complicity between the artist and hegemonic culture. Tabitha Bramble allows Robinson, an accomplished actress, to use a dramatized persona to question notions of the emerging bourgeois liberal subject.

I propose to look at one of the monologues as an exemplar of Robinson's practice. In "Deborah's Parrot: A Village Tale" a spiteful and jealous spinster takes delight in the transgressions of others. Since "soft delights her breast ne'er felt," she keeps a parrot who is a surrogate agent for her jealousy, who "Could prate, and tell what neighbours did." "But chiefly he was taught to cry,/Who with the Parson toy'd? O fie!" to torment a pretty neighbour. Deborah moves to another town and "buys" a husband who is "giv'n to jealous rage" with her gold. When the parrot repeats his insinuation about the parson in front of her husband, Debby is beaten. "Thus, Slander turns against its maker" Tabitha as narrator admonishes; spinsters with talking parrots are instructed to pursue better tasks and avoid being overtaken by vengeance. If Tabitha Bramble is a figure of fun in Smollett's hands, for Robinson she provides the means to consider forms of desire that seem glossed over by Wordsworth in his monologue "The Thorn" for example in favour of a celebration of the powers of the imagination. Robinson would question the motives of such transformative powers; she confronts desire and intolerance and suggests that they cannot so easily be extricated from social and material conditions. Robinson's makes use of the monologue form in "Deborah's Parrot" to confront the workings of cultural power which reinforce hierarchies while seeming to transcend them. One resistance lies in her poem's frank exploration of sexual jealousy. But layered upon the subject is the voice of the narrator who takes delight in the telling of the tale. Robinson, whose personal life made her the object of scorn by many Miss Deborahs, recognizes the powers of sexual repression and the hypocrisy behind acts of slander. Furthermore the poem's absurd restriction of addressing the moral to spinsters with parrots signals Robinson's discomfort with the monologue's power to transmit social cohesion.

In her version of the monologue form Robinson challenges notions of subjectivity in a more radical way than Wordsworth's more conciliatory practice of the genre. It is significant that when they appeared in the Lyrical Tales the Tabitha Bramble poems lost their attribution. In the volume they belong, like the other poems, to "Mrs. Mary Robinson." In reclaiming her poems Robinson seems to extend rather than to erase Bramble's significance as belonging to a more general voice of society. Robinson is not so much imitative of Wordsworth, as like Wordsworth, she is responding to the same popular currents in literature. Through the raucous bluntness of the Tabitha Bramble poems Robinson allows us to see how while Wordsworth's monologues attempt to transcend realities, Robinson would locate her speaker in social and political realms. She uses the monologue to vex so as to call her reader to consider the nature of our relations as social beings.

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Female Subjectivity as Drama in Hemans Records of Women
Suzy Waldman

I would like to suggest that Romantic dramatizations of female subjectivity constitute a particularly important predecessor of the dramatic monologue, focussing in on some examples of such dramatization to be found in Hemans's Records of Women. Robert Langbaum's study of the dramatic monologue shows how Victorian originators distinguished this form from the dramatic lyrics of Romantic predecessors by shifting emphasis from plot to character: instead of dramatizing heightened situations provoking souls into crisis, they dramatized individual characters revealed behind the costumery of events. This shift involved the abandonment of a universal subject for an atomized array of specific ones which were compelling to readers due to their differences from them reader rather than their similarities to them. A possible bridge Langbaum suggests between the Romantic and the Victorian forms is Wordsworth's "The Emigrant Mother" (The Poetry of Experience 72); though I would propose that the female identity of this early dramatic monologist is not arbitrary. The early availability of female subjectivity for portrayal in dramatic monologue followed directly from Romanticism's identification of maleness with the universal lyric subject, and the consequent externalizion of femaleness from this lyrical center. The spectacle of difference Browning and company exploited through the dramatic monologue was, in other words, already present in the Romantic period where depictions of women were concerned.

The moral and epistemelogical difference of women was not only registered by male poets like Wordsworth, but was also a potential theme for women poets: My paper will focus in on a number of selections from Felicia Hemans's Records of Women, which as a volume is the most extensive collection of exotic dramatizations of female voices produced in the Romantic period. Angela Leighton has observed the roots of dramatic monologue in Heman's monologues, pointing out that through their exploration of extravagant, often maudlin moral positions they "begin to hint at that historical relativity which will mark the dramatic monologue proper" (Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart 37). Hemans's portrayal of historically and culturally remote women as dramatic speakers undoubtedly had origin in the late 18th century poetry of sensibility which roused compassion for the misfortunate and alienate, though it is her Romanticism which enables her to imbue personages like "Arabella Stuart" with the intensity of personality which will come to characterize protagonistts of dramatic monologue.

The ultimate determination on which rests our linking of Hemans's Records with the Dramatic Monologue, however, is whether we find the genre's characteristic ironic separation of poet and narrator: Langbaum's "disequilibrium between the speaker's utterance and the meanings of the poem" (72). Leighton, for her part, suggests that Records of Women is devoid of irony, reading its entries as as normative models of female heroism and purity and concluding that "Hemans cannot risk ironizing that purity". I would propose, however, that there is an extra layer of reflectiveness from where Hemans throws attention on the extreme, crisis-induced representations of female subjectivity which remained to a genre (lyric poetry) where sanity and self-sufficient interiority were associated with maleness. Anne Mellors makes a similar claim for doubleness in Heman's depictions of women, assessing that "Heman's poetry subtly and painfully explored the ways in which [her culture's hegemonic] construction of gender finally collapses upon itself" (Romanticism and Gender, 142). To the extent that Hemans can be shown to be detached from the ideological assumptions generating her characters we must locate her dramas to be centered not on their plots, like lyrical dramas, but on their characters, like dramatic monologues--though they remain distinct from later dramatic monologues for exfoliating not realistic characterizations, but rather the fictitious, unrealistic characterizations to which the portrayal of women was constrained.

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Augusta Webster's Portraits: Looking Through the Eye
Patricia Rigg
Acadia University

I have borrowed for my title Blake's description of the creative act because looking 'through' rather than 'with' the eye so aptly describes the point of view of Augusta Webster's dramatic speakers. The men and women who comprise Portraits gaze out from the stage they mount to depict human nature and the society which fosters and forms that nature. Until now, the consequence of this process has been termed the dramatic monologue, a poetic form developed to what is considered to be its potential by Robert Browning. Webster admired Browning, even reviewing for The Examiner his translation of the 'Agamemnon' of Aeschylus. It is not surprising, then, that from the beginning, Webster's dramatic poems have been termed dramatic monologues. Then too, there have been aspects of Webster and her work other than her association with Browning that have made it tempting to read a volume such as Portraits as a series of dramatic monologues--her own education in and familiarity with the classics, and her interest in and writing of stage drama, for instance. However, in my view, Augusta Webster wrote not dramatic monologues but monodramas. Monodrama is a Romantic genre which has roots in the eighteenth-century Attitude and in even earlier Closet drama. Monodrama is a display of 'poses,' and these poses convey a complex, highly expressionistic 'moment' in a speaker's life. This is an extremely visual art form, a moving series of Attitudes that parallels the development of the eighteenth-century Attitude into the very popular tableaux vivant of Victorian England.

The historical context of the Monodrama is important to our understanding of the rhetorical strategy of the genre and, in turn, to our reading of Webster's work. Monodrama works on the premise of representation or image, rather than that of re-presentation or re- construction that the particularization of the dramatic monologue's speaker/setting/crisis implies. Monodrama is a direct descendent of prosopopoeia, an instructional activity based upon the artifice of adopting a persona in which to speak in order to learn as much as possible about an historical or imagined figure. Prosopopoeia allowed one to 'stage' a historical moment, for example, so it is not surprising that eighteenth-century monodrama included music and pantomime as well as speech. The essential difference between this type of poetry and the dramatic monologue is the following: a dramatic monologue focuses on an identified speaker in a special, tension-filled moment; a monodrama focuses on the tension that results from a series of sustained poses or Attitudes.

After tracing briefly the historical roots in a predominantly theatrical form, I will show that Webster's dramatic poetry is consistent with the Romantic concepts of process and fragmentary, open-ended forms. In Portraits, for example, the entire discourse of the dramatic monologue is missing. These poems are indeed word pictures, as the title of the volume implies, but rather than a collection of fixed images, this is a series of performance pieces which represent the speaker's response to social, philosophical, and political contexts. When read as a whole, Portraits offers an evolving kaleidoscopic view of people in progress played out in the tradition of early, not late, nineteenth-century theatrical theories. Specifically, Portraits is in its entirety a series of expressionistic, pictorial representations of the developing passions that govern us as individuals and as a society. The speakers perform for themselves, creating a defining 'self' within a broad social context and producing, as Tennyson said of his own monodrama, Maud, 'a drama where successive phases of passion in one person take the place of successive persons.'

Portraits opens with Medea actually 'staging' Jason's death in a complex performance driven by her resentment at the part he has played in the 'self' she has become. That self has no context now that he is dead and her hatred, to a certain extent, has died with him, and so Medea tries desperately to fix that hatred within a living portrait. Successive women speakers^◊Circe, the happiest girl in the world, and a prostitute--all enact their inner passions to preserve momentary images of themselves. Men, too, perform to and for themselves, making permanent certain passions that define them. A doubter craves the certainty of religious faith, and a tired old man laments his mistaken idea that he could 'create' his own feminine ideal. A young soldier 'draws' himself against the background of a world that no longer exists, and an old man in an almshouse tries to 'fix' himself in 'this anxious age [which] is driven half mad with work.' An inventor obsessed by industry is countered by a dilettante equally obsessed by the view that there is nothing to be gained by work in a world predetermined by God. The volume closes with 'The Manuscript of Saint Alexius,' a dramatic narrative 'text' which freezes sainthood in the image of selfishness and human waste. Each speaker looks through rather than with his or her eye to produce monodramas that 'stage' individual passions against a backdrop of nineteenth-century social change.

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Last updated May 24, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell