rapt and dreaming damozel in heaven, a young girl crying silently, a suffering Madonna, a sleeping prostitute — such are the images of passivity and subservience that often characterize the female in Victorian literature. In addition to projecting all their desires onto a female object, male speakers in Victorian poetry sometimes use their narrative voice to suppress the female point of view and enforce codes of patriarchal domination. There are typically three ways in which male speakers (or female speakers in the case of Aurora Leigh) objectify women. Sometimes speakers literally ventriloquize the female subject by putting words in her mouth. In other, more subtle instances of females being objectified, speakers endow women with a quality, assign a value to them, or impose their views on them. In Victorian poetry there is a noticeable pattern of women being reduced to a fixed meaning as opposed to being treated as complex human beings.
Many Victorian literary works are constructed from male vantage points in which the male narrator actually speaks for the female. This appropriation of the female voice by a male speaker does not have its origins in Victorian poetry. The narrative incapacity of the female appears in William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" when the male speaker tells his sister Dorothy how she should perceive the scene before them. The speaker is not interested in viewing her as an individual but rather as a reflection of what he "was once": "in thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes." The speaker impresses himself on the female whose actual voice is never heard. She is significant only insofar that she represents for the poet a mirror of his former self.
A similar situation occurs in Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" in which the male speaker tells a young girl how she will think and feel when she is older. The child Margaret reacts to her first experience of fall by weeping. In Margaret's "fresh thoughts" the speaker perceives a non-judgmental, non-objectifying capacity to feel and "care." The speaker is aware that unlike the child, he is unmoved by the dying leaves. The speaker suggests that as the girl grows in age and knowledge she will become cold and uncaring:
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
The speaker's words "By and by" suggest a resigned, careless attitude toward the passing of time in contrast to Margaret's present weeping over the fallen leaves. The speaker laments the cold, unweeping person Margaret is sure to become, a person to whom he connects himself. He suggests that the child's experience and expression of grief is part of a life-long process of losing innocence and predicts that Margaret, like all human beings, will seek to "know" the cause of her suffering. Here is a situation of a male speaker projecting his generalizations about the universal experience of Christian suffering and growing old onto an individual, isolated experience in the life of a young girl. Although one could argue that the male figure might have spoken the same words to a young boy, it is unlikely that he would have addressed a male subject in exactly the same way.
These poems by Wordsworth and Hopkins exemplify men imprinting themselves — as well as their own subjective experiences — onto a female whose voice is never heard. In his dramatic monologue, "Porphyria's Lover," Browning experiments with a similar form of male narrative authority, but presents it differently. In this poem, a male's objectification of a female is taken to an extreme, and the result is fatal to the women. The description of the opening lines is an expression of the sullenness and aggression in nature, which correlates to projection of the male speaker, who reclines indoors. When Porphyria enters the room the emotional temperature completely changes. The fact that she lights the fire before taking off her wet clothes reveals her generous and selfless character. The speaker, who is sullen like the weather, thinks that Porphyria was not going to leave the party and come to him, but she proves him wrong. When viewed in the context of how Porphyria behaves actually, the speaker's insistence on Porphyria's indifference and unfaithfulness appears completely subjective and distorted:
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavor,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me forever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain (21-29).
The speaker is still talking as if Porphyria chose to stay at the "gay feast" instead of coming to him. It is not Porphyria, but rather the speaker who is "happy and proud" (32). The speaker literally puts words in the woman's mouth when he exalts in the fact that "at last I knew Porphyria worshipped me" (33). The speaker kills the woman he has convinced himself he will never be able to possess in the hopes of possessing her absolutely in death. After strangling her, the speaker protests that Porphyria felt no pain even though he clearly cannot know if she did because she is now dead. Browning depicts the pathetic fallacy of a male's notion of possessing a female as an object. He illustrates how anyone who tries to possess or contain something in the flow of time acts against it and ultimately destroys it.
In most elegiac poetry, the male speaker has been either unable to get the female to succumb to him or the female has died, which is the case in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel." In this poem the male speaker has a vision that his dead beloved is grieving for him in heaven. It is perhaps surprising that D.G. Rossetti perpetuates the notion of the rapt and dreaming woman at a time when women were working to claim their rights and the domestic sphere. The poem presents a situation from a male point of view that is the reverse of Tennyson's "Marianna" in which the embowered women is trapped in her own interior consciousness, continually longing for the beloved that will never come. The figure in "Marianna" is static and despairing in contrast to Rossetti's speaker, who acts on his grief by trying to commune with his love and overcome the distance that separates them. In "The Blessed Damozel" the female is portrayed as a deified and desired object reflecting D.G. Rossetti's adherence to etherealized and spiritualized Petrarchan love conventions. Following in this tradition, he often creates abstractions where love is not presented as a force but instead becomes personified as well as gendered. The actual poem is set within an almost allegorical dream of love:
The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
The "three lilies in her hand" and the seven "stars in her hair" are details added purely for aesthetic value and have no meaning whatsoever. D.G. Rossetti was criticized for images such as "the gold bar of Heaven" which make heaven appear overly materialistic. Images describing the "blessed damozel" such as her hair being "yellow like ripe corn" convey an incredible materiality. This poem and its corresponding painting refer not to reality, but to an imaginary world where female bodies are representations of the speaker's own subjective needs and desires. Not until an interspersed parenthetical statement in the poem does it become evident that a man is speaking and that the descriptions are actually projections of the speaker's daydream.
(To one, it is ten years of years.
. . . Yet now, and in this place,
Surely she leaned o'er me — her hair
Fell about my face. . .
Nothing: the autumn-fall of leaves.
The whole year sets apace.)
In the time of the dying year, the speaker fantasizes about how desperate his "blessed damozel" "surely" is for him. The desiring male figure finds his self-image confirmed by the beloved that pines for him. This poem exemplifies distortion of beliefs in the afterlife for the sake of one's own obsessive fantasies and egotism. D.G. Rossetti's speaker imagines the woman saying exactly what he wants to hear:
He shall fear, haply, and be dumb;
Then will I lay my cheek
To his, and tell about our love,
Not once abashed or weak:
And the dear Mother will approve
My pride, and let me speak.
Not only does the male speaker ventriloquize his beloved, he is also convinced that the holy "Mother" in heaven approves of their earthly lust and desire for each other. In the last line of the poem, the speaker says that he "heard her tears" when in fact he is hearing only his projected fantasy of the woman grieving for him. Rossetti is interested in artificial Petrarchan conceptions of love and constructed moods rather than situations where people are actually making contact.
In "Song," Christina Rossetti is both working through and against the Italian male poetic tradition so important to her brother. The female speaker in "Song" does what Dante Gabriel's idealized and objectified woman in "The Blessed Damozel" is never able to do. As George P. Landow discusses in "The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti's Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden," the dead woman literally addresses her beloved from the grave and for once is allowed to "talk back" and be heard. The obvious impossibility of this situation occurring under normal circumstances suggests the extent to which the female voice was suppressed in society. As Landow points out, the speaker's unwillingness to let her beloved grieve over her absence is reminiscent of Dante Gabriel's notion of the selfless female:
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me. . .
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
What initially appears to be a typical self-sacrificing female speaker turns out to be a complete rejection of this Victorian stereotype. In contrast to Dante Gabriel's poem "The Blessed Damozel" in which the male speaker imagines his dead beloved desperately longing for him in heaven, the female speaker in Christina Rossetti's "Song" has an attitude of total indifference to the male figure:
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
By the end of the poem, Christina Rossetti has reversed Dante Gabriel's projections about erotic, romantic love. The female speaker is in a state of quiet contentment devoid of all sensory pleasure and experience, a far cry from Dante Gabriel's physical, materialistic view of heaven. The male speaker in "The Blessed Damozel," hopes for some form of communication across death, and the possibility of being reunited in heaven. For the speaker in "Song," communication is not possible, and she has no intention of clinging to the memory of her beloved. Thus, Christina Rossetti reconfigures the male poetic tradition from a new female point of view.
D.G. Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" provides an instance where the speaker is truly ventriloquizing the female. In another one of his poems entitled "Jenny" D.G. Rossetti creates a slight variation of this idea. Although the male narrator does not attempt to control the women by directly putting words in her mouth, he does impose his views on her. In this poem, no real communication ever takes place between the male and the female as supposedly does in "The Blessed Damozel," which turns out to be a wholly idealized reverie in the head of a male speaker. On the surface, "Jenny" presents masculinity in a very positive light when viewed in the context of other literature of this period which would tend to be more condemning of a female prostitute. Although the speaker has hired Jenny as his prostitute, he takes pity on her and lets her sleep. With her head resting upon the speaker's knee, Jenny assumes a passive, subordinate position in relation to the male figure. As Jenny is asleep, her point of view cannot be heard when the narrator enters into a one-sided dialogue in which he attempts to discern her thoughts.
Why, Jenny, as I watch you there —
For all your wealth of loosened hair,
Your silk ungirdled and unlac'd
And warm sweets open to the waist,
You know not what a book you seem,
Half-read by lightening in a dream!
How should you know, my Jenny? Nay,
And I should be ashamed to say: —
Poor beauty, so well worth a kiss!
But while my thoughts runs on like this
With wasteful whims more than enough,
I wonder what you're thinking of (43-58).
As the speaker voyeuristically "watches" Jenny "there," he is asserting his control over her (46). The speaker imagines that he can almost read Jenny's thoughts like a book. Not only does D.G. Rossetti's speaker silence Jenny by comparing her to a book, he does her injustice by comparing her to a book which he merely "half-reads" and does not even try to fully understand. Even though she is asleep, the speaker fails to acknowledge her as a thinking human being capable of responding to him. Despite his apparent sympathy and concern, the male figure sees Jenny only as a "Poor beauty," an aesthetic object which he finds pleasing for his contemplation. The male figure in "Jenny" contrasts with the narrator of W.H. Henley's "Lady Probationer" who has a hunch that the nurse "has a history", but he does not attempt to ascertain what it is or appropriate it in any way. The speaker continues to conjecture about Jenny's thoughts and life even though she is not in a position to validate or refute him.
Suppose I were to think aloud, —
What if to her all this were said?
Why, as a volume seldom read
Being opened halfway shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence
Close back upon the dusty sense.
For is there hue or shape defin'd
In Jenny's desecrated mind . . . [156-164]
Jenny is presented as naïve and incapable of understanding the implications of her life of prostitution. The speaker conjectures that, like a book which is "dusty" and "seldom read," the pages of Jenny's "brain" would momentarily "part" at his words but offer no insight or response to the his comments and queries. The narrator is free to imprint himself on the woman and make assumptions about her viewpoint without ever talking to her directly.
The poems discussed thus far have exemplified how male poets ventriloquize women and endow them with certain preferred qualities, while a female poet such as Christina Rossetti acts against this tradition. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh complicates this seemingly straightforward pattern. In her long poem, E.B. Browning presents a female protagonist who has the potential to create outside a patriarchal system that names the male as ther sole creator. One would naturally assume that Aurora's treatment of other women resemble Christina Rossetti's depictions. E.B. Browning does challenge the binary opposition in patriarchal society that associated men with books, learning and culture and women with the forces of nature. Although the meaning of Aurora's life is to escape male objectification, she surprisingly often categorizes women and projects her ideas onto them. She portrays the female figures in her life in a manner that sometimes represents a return to the dumbness and silence imposed on women by patriarchy. When Aurora is a young girl living in Italy, her mother dies, thus rendering the mother figure silent and leaving a gaping absence which Aurora attempts to fill later in the verse-novel. The young Aurora experiences ambivalent feelings towards a portrait of her dead mother's face. The portrait conjures up in her mind images of women who are spiritual and demonic, empowered and sorrowful, tender and monstrous (1:154-63). The conflicting qualities which she projects onto the mother figure come to represent her complex attitudes towards women in general. Lady Waldemar is an expression of the poet's categorizations of women. She is "that woman-serpent," one of the associations the young Aurora has with her Mother's portrait.
Aurora consistently distances the women she encounters by projecting her preconceived notions upon them. At some points in the poem, E.B. Browning clearly buys into common Victorian cultural constructions of femininity that present women as spiritual, suffering, and subservient. Marian is one of the most objectified characters in the poem. Marian's mother attempts to sell her to a man and Lady Waldemar's depraved former servant sells Marian to male desire. Marian says "'Twas only what my mother would have done . . . A motherly, unmerciful, good turn" (7:9-10). Marian in addition to Lady Waldemar becomes the object of Aurora's projections about women. She is for Aurora, both a spiritually pure, suffering Madonna and a violated, impure victim. Marian embodies some of the same contradictions of womanhood as the mother in the portrait. She is at once the defiled woman and the adoring mother with haloed child:
And in my Tuscan home I'll find a niche
And set thee there, my saint, the child and thee,
And burn the lights of love before thy face
And ever at thy sweet look cross myself
From mixing with the world's prosperities. [7.126-30]
Earlier in the poem, Aurora accuses Romney of wanting a woman he can make into his disciple and helper in his social cause. Yet, Aurora believes herself somehow justified in converting Marian into a religious icon that she can use in her poetry. This construction of Marian represents an attempt to reintegrate her within a patriarchal system, obviously working against E.B. Browning's intention to reject such patriarchal domination. Though the narrator continues to reject objectification and repression by men, she simply asserts her own construction of Marian, whose voice we never really hear. At the times when Marian does speak, her words seem contrived and scripted, reminiscent of an opera. In a speech addressed to Romney towards the end of the poem, Marian makes clear that her life's duty is to her child and once he is grown, to the service of Romney's social causes in which she can "comfort grief with grief" (438-439). E.B. Browning's portrayal of Marion consistently fits the stereotype of the suffering, servile, self-sacrificing female. When Marion turns down Romney's offer of marriage, she explains that it would pain her to burden him with a child "fathered by some cursed wretch" (406). The female narrator, though outwardly less injurious than the other members of society, still participates in silencing Marian by appropriating her voice and constructing her as a religious icon, as a humble, self-effacing woman. Despite her show of sympathy towards Marian, E.B. Browning does not reward her character at the end, indicating her condemnation of Marian's class and status as a violated woman.
Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland," appears most unusual when read in the context of the other poems discussed, for in this poem Hopkins comes close to constructing a situation in which the male speaker is ventriloquized by a female. Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland" is written in response to the tragic drowning of five Franciscan nuns at sea, an event that deeply affected the poet. In this poem, he transforms a tragedy into a fortuitous event. Although it is hard not to be a ventriloquist when writing a poem, Hopkins writes an account of the nun's last words at the moment of her death, even though he could not possibly have known exactly what she said or what was on her mind. The nun's cry, "O Christ, Christ, come quickly," springs forth from the depths of her being in response to God's terrifying power and pressure. The nun's experience represents for the speaker the moment of perfect clarity for which he yearns. The speaker's original aim to uncover the spiritual significance of the event in relation to the nun becomes instead a framework in which he can find himself anew and be reborn in the utterance of the Word. The speaker assumes that here and now in the act of writing this poem he can read the event of the storm just as the nun did. This presumption has of course no basis in reality and recalls the speaker in "Jenny" who perceives himself capable of reading the woman's mind like a book. The speaker in "The Wreck of the Deutschland" tries to invoke the providential event now lost in the past and in this way find the Word that the nun found in a moment of intense pressure.
But how shall I . . . make me room there:
Reach me a . . . Fancy, come faster —
Strike you the sight of it? look at it loom there,
Thing that she . . . There then! the Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head. 
In an experience of the present tense, the speaker now tries to re-enact the moment of the nun's recognition and understanding. He tries to replicate an authentic experience arising from his inmost center or "heart" by starting with the nun's words. The diction is rather awkward and the momentary glance or question directed at "you" the audience reveals uncertainty. When placed beside the magnificence and urgency of the nun's cry, "O Christ, Christ, come quickly," the speaker's imitation of "Fancy, come faster" is weak, artificial and trivial. He forcibly attempts to make himself into a passive vessel through which the Word can emerge and act upon him in a visionary moment: "Have you! make words break from me here all alone, / Do you! — mother of being in me, heart" (18). As much as he tries, however, the speaker fails to exactly replicate the Word that came from the nun — her spontaneous word contrasts with his mechanical, self-conscious imitation of it. In this poem, the nun ceases to be a whole human being, but merely an instrument or medium for the speaker's own struggle towards revelation.
With the exception of Christina Rossetti, the narrators of these poems all see a need to impose meaning on their female subjects, but they do so in slightly different ways. Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and D.G. Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" present the most obvious instances of a male speaker ventriloquizing a female, the object of desire which in both cases is unattainable. C. Rossetti and E.B. Browning, the only female poets discussed, are for the most part interested in reversing a tradition which only allows for a male voice. However, E.B. Browning's presentation of Marian as a suffering religious icon signifies a return to, rather than a departure from, previous depictions of female characters by male authors. Robert Browning's "Jenny" and Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" both represent attempts on the part of a male figure to read a female's mind and to know how she thinks and feels, although they never directly speak for her. An unusual situation occurs in Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in which the male speaker tries to reproduce a female's speech. The nun's words become a starting point from which the speaker can gain his own experience of revelation in a moment of intense pressure. In Victorian poetry, the actual female figure or her voice is often represented or repressed in a way that reduces her to a fixed meaning.
Last modified: 17 December 2003