Thursday, April 14, 2011

Portraits by Augusta Webster

Augusta Webster's collection of monologues, Portraits was published in 1870. Portraits constitutes some of her her most major works. Although the collection has often been characterized as consisting of "dramatic monologues," Webster's poems in this collection often lack a silent listener so might be more aptly referred to as interior monologues or soliloquies.

Women in a world which favors men
"Medea in Athens," the poem which opens the collection, begins (as many of the poems will later on) in a disorienting way for the reader because the speaker seems to be in the middle of a long train of thought. "Dead, is he?" Medea begins, referring to her lover Jason who has left her to make a political marriage to Glauce. In Greek myth, Medea killed her two children in revenge and eventually marries King Aegeus of Athens. The poem seems to be the occasion of hearing of Jason's death after her new marriage. Medea  finds it strange that the news of Jason's death doesn't "seem either good or ill" to her but merely "strange." From here, she launches into imagining a prophecy "a god breathed by my mouth," musing vividly on Jason's thoughts as he is shipwrecked on the sea. She imagines him looking upon her beauty, appreciating her worth, and rejecting Glauce's: "Medea, with her skills, her presciences, / Man's wisdom, woman's craft, her rage of love / That gave her serve me strength next divine, / Medea would have made what I would; / Glauce but what she could." Like most male figures in Webster's poetry, Jason here appreciates women for what she can do for his own ambitions. Yet, one can easily imagine, from the exaggerated nature of Jason's repentance towards Medea that Jason's thoughts are Medea's own desires, rather than the "prophecy" which she says she gives. Finally, Medea says she sees Jason's death; he breathes out "Medea's prophecy" with his expiring breath. Having gone through his death in her mind, Medea then berates herself for dwelling on it: "Medea! / What, is it thou? What, thou, this whimpering fool, / This kind meek coward!" She thinks how she wants him still alive only that he might dream and yearn for her--these things he "did," but since he is dead, he is no longer. It turns out that the greatest part of her lament is that his death has allowed him to forget her. In certain moments, Medea again bursts out that she loved Jason, painfully detailing her hurt and how he had ruined her calm, how he "Didst burn [her] cheek with kisses hot and strange," forever robbing her of her innocent composure and goodness. The poem ends antagonistically, asserting that Jason has been the author of his own children's death, and that he shall have no one on earth to remember him by. This is her ultimate revenge against a man with great ambitions--to forget him after his death.

"Circe" begins with a description of a coming storm; it isn't clear from the beginning that this is a monologue. This becomes clear in the line, "Oh welcome, welcome, though it rend my bowers," signaling Circe's own happiness that change is coming to her calm isle (this is the storm during which Odysseus's and his men come to her isle). Circe is bored by the monotony of her perfect, pleasant isle (an allegory for the kinds of lives Victorian women are supposed to relish within the home?). "Give me some change. Must life be only sweet, / All honey-pap as babes would have their food?" About sixty lines into the poem, she reveals that it is a soulmate that she longs for. She turns over the nature of her soulmate's relationship to her in her mind, thinking how he may be the answer to the question of why she is fair, and even more extremely, how his existence answers the question of her existence: "Why am I who I am? / But for the sake of him whom fate will send / One day to be my master utterly." The notion that women come to see their own existence only through seeing how men see them finds repeated expression in Webster's poetry. Like Medea, Circe has prophetic abilities and sees Odysseus's men coming to her isle where they will drink of her wine and turn into beasts. She clarifies, however, that they will not be turning into beasts, exactly, but that they will merely be revealing their true selves. The poem ends with the approaching "speck" of the men's ship.

"The Happiest Girl in the World" is an unnamed individual, who thinks aloud of her lover's promises to return just a week ago. Love has made the passing of time strange to her, and herself strange to herself: "I am so other than I was, so strange...And I think nothing, only hear him think." She expresses something similar to Circe in how loving a man forces women see themselves as they are seen by the man. Her love is somewhat uncertain, she thinks, because she can't tell when it began. In another moment of thinking about herself through his eyes, she imagines the vision of herself that he saw as he saw her in her field: "And while he watched the yellow lights that played / With the dim flickering shadows of the leaves / Over my yellow hair and soft pale dress..." She worries that this strange reflexivity in which the supposed moment of love at first sight is actually, for her, seeing herself as he sees her (rather than seeing him), means that she doesn't love him. She struggles with "forgetting myself in him," and fittingly, her lover has told her that he sees that she loves him when she is asleep (and hence probably the only state in which she forgets to think about herself through his gaze). Her questionings of loved aren't worked out before her lover approaches at the end of the poem.  

"A Castaway" is the longest poem in the collection and boldly imagines a high-class prostitute's monologue. Webster's castaway breaks the stereotypes (as evident from Rossetti's speakers' assumptions about Jenny, for example) of the prostitute as either disempowered and victimized, or debased and evil. The prostitute here is a kind of free-thinker; she chooses her profession because she hates the available, conventional roles for women, and needs to make a living. Her position is not apparent from the beginning of the monologue, where she reflects on the "simple thoughts" of her past self, writing mundane tasks down in her diary like "Studied French for an hour," "Read Modern History," and "Trimmed up my grey hat." Such activities, she later realizes, make up the prisoner-like life which women are expected to inhabit. Above all, she is disgusted with society's hypocrisy, going through how each profession--preacher, doctor, journalist, and tradesman all are hypocritical in their own way. She claims herself free of such hypocrisy, however, in admitting she is equal to the lower-class prostitute, only that she deals in "choicer ware." Housewives are self-righteous in their "virtue," "glass-case saints / Dianas under lock and key" of whom the speaker asks, "what right / More than the well-fed helpless barn-door fowl / To scorn the larcenous wild-birds?" Though she has been cast away from society, she is free and importantly, she asserts, "I have looked coolly on my what and why, / And I accept myself"--more than what most people can do in Victorian society. The speaker tackles the issue of "surplus women" in this period, acerbically blaming "God himself / Who puts too many women in the world." In the same tone with which she challenges the patriarchal systems of society, she boldly challenges God to make it right by killing off his extra women. Her critique is sharp and widespread, covering such topics as the female education system, society's logic that a woman's worth fades with her youth, the nature of love between men and women as actually "all selfishness" on the part of men, and the indifference of modern society. The poem ends with an interruption by visiting female company, the only thing which seems to relieve her from the emotional toll that her intellectualizing has taken.

"Faded" is a female speaker's address to a portrait of herself in younger days. At first, she resents the portrait for its unfading beauty--like other women in Webster's poetry, coming to the sad conclusion that a woman's worth fades with her beauty and youth. She protests that society allows men who continue to be ambitious, "wast[ing]" their tired brains on schemes a child should laugh at" but that women "must give ruin welcome, blaze our fact / Of nothingness." She ends with a thought that brings her solace, however: that the portrait too will eventually decay, though it will take a long time to do so. The portrait and herself will have a shared fate: "Both shall have had our fate...decay, neglect, / Loneliness, and then die and never a one / In the busy world the poorer for our loss." Like "The Castaway" the poem's heavy reflections are interrupted by cheery female company.

Religious faith and doubt
In "A Soul in Prison" a "Doubter lays aside his book" and begins to speak, yearning for the "teacher" (the learned man who has written the book) to help him believe. Try as he might, however, he cannot believe--he can't find the ledges with which to climb out of the prison. He feels that the teacher has forsaken him, whereas he hasn't forsaken murderers, thieves, cozeners, and harlots. The speaker provocatively points out that doubt is actually a very humble state which very much desires faith: "Doubt's to be ignorant, not to deny: / Doubt's to be wistful after perfect faith." A bit later in the poem, a similar sentiment is expressed in "I love not God, because I know Him not, / I do but long to love Him--long and long / With an ineffable great pain of void." The central problem of the poem is that the strong desire to love God doesn't help someone get closer to loving God. As the poem draws to a close, the speaker becomes more and more dismissive of the "teacher": "Our doubt is consciousness of ignorance, / Your faith unconsciousness of ignorance."

"A Preacher" reflects on the need for someone to preach to him because though he has an impact on the faith of others, he feels that he has lost something of his own faith in the process of enabling other people to believe. "I who am no more / Than steward of an eloquence God gives / For others' use not mine." Like the speaker in "A Soul in Prison" the preacher has a "longing to love" but somehow he feels his own falseness. Try as he might, he can't awaken his sleeping heart. He considers if he might be able to terrorize himself into faith, reading "scriptural terrors" but realizes that this is a false kind of method. Though he genuinely feels "thrilled to see [his sermon] moved the listeners" he can't help but to perceive the thoughts in his well-written sermon to be nothing more than "habit," something rote and not alive.

Individuals out of joint
"Tired" is a monologue given by an older man musing on his peasant wife, whom he has idealized as somehow more "natural" than the women of greater social standing. He has discovered that she is just the same, and cares as much for conventions as any other woman: "She is just a bird / Born in a wicker cage and brought away / Into a gilded one." He admits, however, that it is his own hypocrisy as well that has made her thus. He tried to make his "violet" into a "rose," deeply caring to ensure that the other wives wouldn't laugh at her and that she would fit in. Thus, the speaker sadly admits that "my poor Madge / Has unawares informed me of myself" in that she has shown him that he was not free from the artificial cares of social convention. Moving on from thinking about Madge, the speaker expresses his weariness in an age where it seems, from the surface, that things are cleaner, more charitable, and "better," but that in reality "underneath" there are "spreading foulnesses." Hypocrisy rules the day, and men are not men but "types and portraitures / And imitative shadows." A more sensitive man than most, the speaker admits that "we make our women's lives" a "round / Of treadmill ceremonies, mimic tasks." Yet, he is too tired to fight against it all.

In "Coming Home," a soldier returns from the Crimean war, catching the train and thinking about how his family will have changed. Rather, he thinks that they will not have changed--his father will be reading the Times, his mother and sisters will be "tender" and "foolish," and his brother Hugh, a parish priest, will patiently offer his blessings. Only little Maude, he anticipates, will have changed because grown into a woman. He muses on the "dingy cross" that he has won in battle and decides that he will not bring it out to show his mother because "she'll prize it more / That a life saved went to the winning it," that she will not approve of the bloodiness of war. The speaker himself moves into a subtle critique of war, thinking of how he will know more of the war's purposes when he sits down to read accounts and newspapers than when he was actually fighting: while a soldier, "I only know my part / And theirs with whom I waited at our post / Or dashed at the word." War is a vast system and he only a cog in the machine. He winces when he thinks that he'll have to visit the wife of his dead friend. Here, his reflections end and he sees his house between the trees.

"In An Almshouse" features another speaker who feels out of joint with the "modern age," which is "anxious," "driven half mad with work, / It bids us all work, work; no need, no room / For contemplating sages that count life / A time allowed for solving problems in / And its own self a problem to be solved." He, however, is a thinker on such issues and refuses to "work," and hence he has ended up where he is. His love interest has married herself off, "a busy prudent farmwife all the week" and he feels alone, apart, but unable to live out the demands of modern life.

"A Dilettante" speaks his mind to his angsty friend, telling him that he ought to make his life easier by thinking not so much and simply accepting things with a passive sort of resignation: "And God has made a world that pleases Him, / And when He wills then He will better it; / Let it suffice us as He wills it now." The dilettante partakes of his natural surroundings and refuses to judge whether men and women around him are good or evil. Since his friend might think him callous or selfish, he offers a parable in which a little brook which readily fed a household water and the flowers it daily passed was re-directed into a "sandy arid waste" which needed water for corn to grow. The brook was too small for such a task, and it ran out. The tale is supposed to warn people that their actions against the way things were intended do more harm than good. In the end, the dilettante suggests that he and his angsty friend might not be so different: though the friend might be a "great boisterous wind," he is a "small fluttering breeze / To coax the roses open" and "perhaps [he has his] use no less than [the friend]."

Marriage and the artist in modern life
"A Painter" and "An Inventor" tell similar stories of how marriage levels an economic burden which is often at odds with the freedom of doing true creative work. Poor men, the painter says, must "have a sort of aptness for the style" of the day in order to earn his keep. He can't be independent; to achieve one's "masterpiece" means to wear oneself out because of the economic hardships that follow from being true to oneself rather than to the market. His poor wife (other than speaking her acknowledgment that she may have been a burden on him) seems silenced by the speaker asserting that she is happy in her supporting him and his work, yet another woman behind the scenes who is expected to live for her husband's ambitions. The speaker in "An Inventor" monomaniacally pursues his task and struggle to find the "secret" that will unravel the "petty flaw" in his great work of his life. Similarly, this monomaniacal ambition means "Stolen days; / Yes, from the little ones and grave pale wife / Who should have every hour of mine made coin / To buy them sunshine." The inventor laments that one needs to make such a choice as this: to be "traitor" to one's work, or to be "traitor" to one's family. There's a third consideration, he realizes--to be "traitor" to oneself. This just makes it all the more complicated and he decides to turn back with fervor to his task.

No comments: