The feminine voice in Victorian poetry is often overshadowed by male authors' presences coming through in word choice and scenarios. Although these authors attempt to express the desires and emotions of their female characters, their words often often do not convince and more often then not, produce voices of weak women. Although male authors like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning most often create such enfeebled women, so does Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This fact suggests that the weak, distant feminine voices in nineteenth-century poetry derive from contemporary constraints women rather than from blatant misogyny. This paper will examine the way that male authors describe the female figures in their poems in connection to men. I shall also show how the masculine voice of the author frequently dominates the poems and thus distances the reader from the women in these poems.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Marianna," the female voice has a very depressed and melancholy tone. Tennyson depicts a bleak scene in the first stanza of the poem, describing the "blackest moss," "rusted nails," and "broken sheds." Before the reader hears from Marianna, Tennyson establishes a gloomy tone, which prepares the reader for the poem's depressed central figure. The first words that she utters are prefaced by the condition "she only said." This implies that either she does not say very much or that what she does say is not of much consequence to the narrator. If Tennyson had omitted this conditional preface, the words that she speaks would have a much stronger effect. Tennyson thus establishes his male presence in the poem. The reader only knows what Marianna says because Tennyson places himself in the scene to describe her sadness. He is effectively the moderator dissecting her emotions and allowing a glimpse of her world. Without his existence, the reader would not know anything about Marianna and as such, her existence completely depends on his interpretation of her.
The fact that few words she says are about a man for whom she is pining for also makes her voice very weak. Throughout the poem she obsessively repeats her concern for her lover's absence: "The night is dreary, he cometh not" (stanza 1, lines 9-10). In the subsequent stanzas, "the night" is replaced with "the day" and "my life." Her sorrow is intimately connected to the absence of an anonymous male figure. The idea that her feelings depend on a man's presence effectively ties her existence to men. She does not have a personality of her own independent of men, but everything that Tennyson has her say and feel is somehow related to a man. Furthermore, since she is not speaking about herself, the reader is given the impression that her words and thoughts would not exist without male presence.
Tennyson also removes Marianna from her setting, as the only thing she can focus on is her lover's absence. We the readers are affected by this removal from reality and consequently are distanced from Marianna. Her words are even more unconvincing in lines eleven and twelve when she repeats the anguished lament, "I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead." Even if the character had such morbid feelings, it is unlikely that she would sit by herself and mutter them aloud. Tennyson also over-dramatizes her emotions. Although she is obviously a melancholy character, it is somewhat of a stretch to imagine an embowered woman pacing her room, repeating again and again, "I am aweary, aweary." This repetition does emphasize her depression but it also is not a believable manner to do so since a variation of her expressions of loneliness would seem more like a woman speaking, rather than a man's voice attempting to speak for her.
Another aspect of the poem that draws away from the idea that the woman herself is speaking is the fact that Tennyson romanticizes her setting. It seems more likely that Marianna is an expression of a man's desire to imagine a woman wasting away for the presence of her lover who has abandoned her. The archaic, ballad-form that the poem is written in makes the woman more removed from the reader, which also detracts from a strong female presence. This poem is extremely static and it does not give the reader any indication that Marianna is really expressing her own feelings. The "dreamy house" (stanza 6) that she is described in only adds to her distance from the reader and does not allow for a sense that she is describing her sadness but rather that her sadness is being romanticized by the male author.
The romanticized sadness of a female heroine also appears in Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shallot." Tennyson plays with the idea of the embowered woman once again, except that in this poem, the woman is confined because of a mysterious curse rather than a self-imposed isolation. Like "Mariana," the "Lady of Shallot" is defined by the absence of a man:
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shallot. [part 2, stanza 3, lines 24-27]
She too is placed near a window and waits for her love to rescue her from her despondent existence. The reader never learns the fate of Marianna, but it can be assumed that she her happiness is solely dependant on her lover's return. In contrast, there is no speculation about the Lady of Shallot's fates since it her death is explained as a result of her feeling that she is "half sick of shadows," (part 2, stanza 4, line 35) which can be read as her desire to experience the real world.
The Lady of Shallot does not say anything else in the entire poem and by its end she is dead. She dies an anonymous beauty as the people of Camelot gather around her body and question who she is and where she came from:
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
All the kights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said she has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shallot. [part 4, stanza 6]
The only validation that the Lady of Shallot receives is from Lancelot at the very end of the poem when he comments on her beauty. The reader never even learns her name, only where she is from. The sing-song rhythm and rhyme scheme employed by Tennyson throughout the poem also diminishes the impression that she is speaking for herself. It sounds more like Tennyson fit her words into his rhyme scheme and she had no input in what came out of her mouth. Consequently, the voice of the male author is more perceptible than the voice of the woman who is the central focus of the poem
When "Marianna" and "The Lady of Shallot" are read in comparison to Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," the idea of distance between the female in the poem and the reader is repeated. The main difference between the poems is that in Browning's poem, the woman does not ever speak because she is already dead. The poem begins in the middle of a conversation between the Duke and an envoy. The Duke describes his last wife, apparently so the envoy will pass on the Duke's strict standards for his wives. The Duke totally controls access to the late Duchess, who in this poem is only a painting, not a live woman. The reader does not know how she was killed or even what she looked like, only that she was beautiful. The Duke completely controls all that the reader knows about her, which means that everything the Duke says, must be read in the context of his insanity. He tells us more than he should and his obsession is clear when he tells the envoy that "none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you." (lines 9-10) The reader is thus denied access to the Duchess in the sense that the Duke controls who and what can be learned about her and when they can learn such information.
Since he strictly contyrols access to his wife, the reader will never know what the Duchess herself actually thought or said. She is completely objectified by the Duke, and the reader only knows about her in the context of her relationship to her husband. This is especially evident in the fact that she is the "Duchess," and we never know her name, just as we never learn the Lady of Shallot's name. Not only that, but the Duke refers to her as "My last Duchess." She is a possession, something the Duke once added to his collection of things to show off. The way that Browning emphasizes the idea of the artist painting her portrait further objectifies her until she is only a figment of the male characters' impressions, just as the figure of Marianna is discussed as a removed and distant figure. The reader is never given the idea that a true understanding of the Duchess is possible because the Duke and the Duke's ideas of his late wife are the barrier to his accessing the central figure of the poem, the Duchess.
Throughout the poem, the Duke speaks for the late Duchess, and there is no way that she can defend herself against his accusations and descriptions of her because she is not present to speak for herself. Although this might seem like a weak support of the absence of the female voice in poetry, I think that it supports my central argument that the female voice in many Victorian poems is really only a male voice speaking for the female. In this poem in particular, the male voice comes through because the female is physically not included in the poem to defend herself. Therefore, every accusation that the Duke makes might be unsubstantiated, but the reader will never know what the Duchess would have said in response, because Browning omits her from the action in the poem. She is not there when the Duke speaks about her and thus, she cannot defend herself against his description of her. It is in this manner that Browning creates a distance between the reader and the female described in the poem, which completely eliminates the reader's ability to feel any connection to her.
Browning similarly objectifies the female character in his poem "Porphyria's Lover." The result of this objectification is the creation of distance between Porphyria and the reader in his poem. In this poem, Browning continues the theme of men trying to possess women, as though these women are objects without souls, personalities or thoughts of their own. Although her name is central in the title, the poem is not about Porphyria. It is concerned with her lover's obsession for her and the tragic end that she meets as a result of his obsession. Browning does not even bother to quote Porphyria in the poem, but rather, he only mentions that she "called" the speaker. Browning does not tell the reader what she called, how she called it or even why she called, he only tells that she did in fact call. Porphyria is thus a mute, ephemeral figure that the reader is essentially distanced from.
Since the reader does not understand her motivation, it is difficult to feel connected to her and it is thus difficult to feel any sympathy for her. Although her death by strangulation is certainly shocking, the fact that her voice is not expressed makes the reader much more detached from her. The reader understands that she is a selfless and generous person because of the way she comes into her lover's room and stokes the fire to make sure that he is warm and comfortable. Despite her kindness, the male speaker objectifies her and feels justified in killing her. What is so distressing about the poem is that she is not given the chance to speak. Browning does not even allow her to scream while she is being strangled. Instead, in lines 40-41, the speaker tells the reader "no pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain." How does the speaker know that she felt no pain? He strangles her with her own hair and yet he is sure that she has felt nothing. Porphyria is essentially denied the ability to speak for herself. Even in her death, her male counterpart interprets her emotions for her and tells the reader what she feels as though he can read her mind. Not only does Browning's speaker deny Porphyria the ability to speak for herself, but he also projects all of his anger onto her. This projection further decreases Porphyria's presence in the poem, which increases the reader's distance from her.
Browning's wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not create a more convincing portrayal of women in poetry, even though she is a female poet. Like the women in Robert Browning's poetry, the women in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh are objectified as the author makes extreme stereotypes about women in different classes. This poem can be read as a brilliant feminine work because of its focus on an independent Victorian woman, but it really only addresses the problem of a woman trying to escape male patriarchy. There is no mythic control over the women in this poem such as in "Marianna" or "The Lady of Shallot," but these women are still subjected to men as they are forced to arrange their lives according to the actions of the men around them. Although Barrett Browning tries to liberate Aurora Leigh, she only succeeds in showing how women had no real identity of their own as Aurora Leigh's individuality is only through her separation from a man.
The reader learns the most about Aurora Leigh through her relationship to the men in her life. This reinforces the idea that Victorian women did not have their own identities outside of their relationships with these male figures. Early in the poem, Browning writes of Aurora Leigh's attachment to her doting father and how his influence on her does not diminish even as she grows up. Later in her life, Aurora Leigh's existence is defined by her desire to avoid marriage to her cousin Romney and make a living as a poet. Although much time passes during her period as an independent poet, in lines 571-577 of the fifth book, she marks the progress of her life by referring to Romney:
For instance, I have not seen Romney Leigh
Full eighteen monthsŠadd six, you get two years.
They say he's very busy with good works, —
Has parted Leigh Hall into almshouses.
He made an almshouse of his heart one day,
Which ever since is loose upon the latch
For those who pull the string. — I never did.
This passage shows that even though years have passed between her visits with Romney, she still thinks about him and about the love that she gave up. Her life at this point is accordingly defined by her deliberate reaction against men, which means that her identity is defined against male figures.
Additionally, the latter part of the poem when Aurora Leigh is the most independent and separated from men is also the most ambiguous since Barrett Browning does not give a clear explanation of setting details. This expresses the author's self-conscious discomfort about what it meant to be a self-sufficient woman in the nineteenth-century. Women at this point were seldom published authors and it was even more rare for a woman to be a published poet since poetry was considered a higher art form than the novel. Barrett Browning's attempt to describe the life of a female poet is admirable in its effort to emancipate her main character from dependence on men, but despite the poem's female authorship, it objectifies the female characters and defines their existence in comparison to men in the same way that contemporary male poets did.
The way that Barrett Browning stereotypes women and only defines them against men is most apparent in lines 457-465 of the first book in which she describes the way men perceive women:
The works of women are symbolical.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary — or a stool
To stumble over and vex you . . . 'curse that stool!'
Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
And sleep, and dream of something we are not,
But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
This hurts most, thisŠthat, after all, we are paid
The worth of our work, perhaps.
Although Aurora Leigh makes a point about her anger regarding the way Victorian women were objectified by men, this statement furthers the idea that women had no identity outside of the men in their lives. Aurora Leigh effectively supports my suggestion that the male voice and male presence is more palpable in many Victorian poems, regardless of the poet's gender.
To write a truly feminist poem, Barrett Browning would have had to describe Aurora Leigh solely in terms of her accomplishments as a poet. The constraints of Victorian society would not have allowed a woman to exist as such however. Respectable women in Victorian England were either identified by marriage or by spinsterhood. Either way, their identity depended on the presence or absence of a man. It would have been completely unrealistic for Barrett Browning to have written about Aurora Leigh as a completely autonomous heroine, but the fact that she could not do this supports my suggestion that female figures in Victorian poetry are overshadowed either by the presence of men in the poems or the voice of the poems' male authors.
Although many nineteenth-century poets attempted to use the voices of the female characters in their poems in effective ways, the result is usually that the male voice of the author or the presence of men in the poems overshadows the female voice and the female presence. Since women are always defined by their relationship to men, a distance is created between the reader and the female subjects that also makes the female voice and presence in these poems weaker than the presence of the male authors and the male subjects in the poems. The result of this is that women are typically objectified in Victorian poetry since their voices and their actions in the poems are only described according to their relationship with men.
Modified 18 December 2003