Mary Ann Stodart


Female Writers:
Thoughts on Their Proper Sphere, and on Their Powers of Usefulness


VI. Poetry and Poetesses.





THE domain of poetry is wide; her power over the human heart immense. It is hers to describe, with truth and force, those objects which are too vast, and those which are too minute for ordinary ken; the former escaping common observation, from the inability of an ordinary eye to take the range of the whole at one view; and the latter, from the delicacy of observation required for their survey. It is hers to express in vigorous and powerful language the workings of the stronger passions of the human heart, when the whole man is convulsed, and when thought and feeling spurn the common words of calm, quiet, every-day life. And it is hers too to embody and give permanence to those delicate, [84] evanescent emotions which pass over the mind like the blush over the maiden's brow, and which can no more be distinguished by the powers of an ordinary mind, than the blending and intermingling of the rain-bow tints. It is the province of poetry to arouse by her trumpet-call to vigorous action, and to melt by her plaintive warblings to gentle and tender emotion. Sometimes she is found amid scenes of horror and sublimity, hanging over the beetling precipice and listening to the roar of the torrent far, far beneath; at other times she delights to rove amid scenes of rural beauty, watching the sun-beams flickering on the fields, listening to the warbling of the birds, and rejoicing in even the simple little flowerets which spring up beneath her feet; but whether she is amid scenes of sublimity or scenes of beauty, still true to herself, she inspires feelings and sentiments, and gives expression to them. The 'thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers' are her gift. When religion takes poetry into her service, the province of the handmaid is yet farther extended, her power amazingly increased. Linked to eternal, immutable truth, how wide is her range! how sweet, how potent is her song! Secret springs of the human [85] heart before untouched, because unknown, are now subject to her thrilling sway. And her sphere of vision is no longer bounded by an earthly horizon. Far, far away, 'beyond this visible diurnal sphere,' upwards, upwards, above 'this dim spot which men call earth,' she soars on the wings of faith and hope, till the harmonies of heaven fall upon her delighted ear, and the splendours of heaven beam upon her raptured eye.

The power of poetry is not confined to those who take rank and precedence as the poets of the land. That would be a cold and an inglorious doctrine.

"Many are poets, who have never penned
 Their inspiration, and perchance the best."

Many unconsciously are poets; thoughts and feelings struggle within, and sometimes flash out in glowing, burning words, marking their path in a line of living light. Poetry is the forcible expression of truth. Far from us and ours be the debasing doctrine that its proper region is fiction. Poetry rejoices in the truth; there it can spread its wings with ease and freedom, unfettered and unimpeded. In the words of a living poet of great and heart-stirring power,

"Song is but the eloquence of truth."

[86] And a mighty, glorious eloquence it is. The monarch seated on his throne bends beneath its power, and the savage, roaming in his wild woods, acknowledges its sway.

Is the hand of poor weak woman ever permitted to sweep the living lyre, and to elicit its thrilling tones? The notes are varied; it is a lyre of many strings, an instrument of wider range than any constructed by mortal hand; what tones, what notes vibrate most in unison with woman's heart, and will be most likely, when struck by her hand, to speak to the heart of others?

We cannot doubt the answer. All that is beautiful in form, delicate in sentiment, graceful in action, will form the peculiar province of the gentle powers of woman. O scorn us not! We may not, we cannot 'murmur tales of iron wars,' follow the currents of a heady fight; pourtray with the vivid power of Homeric song, the horrid din of war, the rush of contending warriors, the prancing of the noble steed, the clang, the tumult, the stirring interest of the battle-field – no – but we can do what mightier man would perhaps disdain – we can follow one solitary soldier as he drags his wounded limbs beneath the sheltering hedge; and [87] while we mark his glazing eye, we can read with woman's keenness, the thoughts of wife, children, and home, which are playing around his heart. We may not be able to sustain a strain of high and equal majesty like the bard of Mantua, but we can follow out the sorrows of the forsaken Dido, weep over the untimely fate of the warrior-friends, and sympathize with the feminine eagerness * of Camilla, as, womanly even in her power, she forgets self-defence and a warrior's duties, in order to seize on the splendid ornaments of an officer in the opposing army. We cannot range through heaven and hell with the fiery wing of our own glorious poet Milton; we cannot ascend to the height of a great argument, and justify the ways of God to man. No woman could have delineated the character of Satan, so evidently 'not less than archangel ruined;' no woman could have tracked the flight of Satan across chaos; or depicted that mysterious assemblage when the rebel angel stood 'before the anarch old;' but we can imagine that some wonderfully endowed woman might have pencilled [88] out some of the light and graceful traits of that beautiful picture of the garden of Eden, and the happiness of our first parents, a picture which partake so eminently of the beautiful as to afford a contrast to the sublimity of the other parts of our wonderful national poem. It is not within our province to dive into the deep recesses of the human heart with that myriad-minded man, our own Shakespeare, and to drag into open day-light the hidden secrets of the soul. No! but there are light and delicate movements which a woman's pen may express, and which Shakespeare, though unrivalled amid poets for his knowledge of woman's heart, has not even guessed. We have struck on the point where lies the true poetic power of woman. It is in the heart – over the heart – and especially in the peculiarities of her own heart. We have but few remains of the earliest and best of the Greek poetesses; of her who earned the high title of the Lesbian muse; but those remains, 'more golden than gold,' * are all breathings from the tenderest affections of the heart. The exquisite fragment preserved by Longinus, and known to the English [89] reader, through the translation of Phillips, so praised in the Spectator, is of this class, and describes the strong but silent emotions of the heart, with delicate correctness of touch. A man could no more have written that ode, than he could touch the wing of a butterfly without striking off its plumage. And in the tender and affectionate hymn to Venus, how exquisitely beautiful is every touch! how graceful every line, every word! In perusing it, we cannot feel surprised that critics should hold up Sappho as an example of the beautiful in writing. And this fact illustrates another principle; if it is the part of every woman of cultivated taste to admire what is beautiful, it is the part of the woman of genius to express it.

The domain of beauty is indeed peculiarly the sphere of the female poet. We can see the man of high poetic genius delighting in the wide-rolling ocean, as it heaves its yesty waves, in dark resistless might beneath a frowning sky; his soul is strengthened to hold high converse with the elements, and with the spirits which his magician-wand calls forth from the vasty deep. But the poetic power of woman will demand a gentler scene; she will love to track the little streamlet, as like a thread of silver it winds [90] along the peaceful vale; or she will watch the light smoke of the peaceful cottage as it gracefully curls above the surrounding trees, and her heart will ponder on what a true-hearted woman ever loves to pourtray, the kindly charities of home. We can see the poet watching with high exultation the bold and fearless eagle, as in steady grandeur, it rises from the earth and gazes unappalled on the splendours of the noontide sun; but woman, gentle woman, will sooner bend over the turtle-dove, admire its beautiful form, its delicate plumage, read the quick glances of its eye, and with responsive readiness give meaning to its tender cooing. The man of poetic genius will gaze perhaps on the old majestic oak, which has for ages, withstood the wintry winds as they careered wildly around; the woman in the meanwhile will stoop to gather the little 'Forget-me-not' that grows in the neighbouring hedge, and as she gazes on the blue-eyed flower, thoughts of meeting and parting, a theme of such potent influence over every human heart, and it may be, of especial interest to the female heart, will crowd over her mind, and perhaps fill her speaking eye with tears of deep feeling, of fond affection. The words of one of our own poets are true;

                            [91] Different minds
Incline to different objects; one pursues
The vast alone, the wonderful, the wild.

Place two persons in precisely the same scene; how different will be the objects that will engage their attention; how widely different the mode of expressing their feelings! What different associations will the same object summon up, according to the nature of the mental constitution, and according to the training and resources of the mind!

It is not only with regard to literature that these remarks are made. The love of the beautiful, is a most important ingredient in the mind of woman. It is not only a source of high and pure enjoyment, but it is so healthy, so invigorating to be able heartily to admire what is deserving of admiration. In connexion with this subject, we refer with pride and pleasure to a female poet of our own country; one who was pre-eminently devoted to what was beautiful in nature, art, and action; it is hardly necessary to name Felicia Hemans.

Mrs. Hemans was most emphatically a lady-poet. Elegant in mind, refined in thought and sentiment, she loved what was beautiful herself, and the strains of her light-breathing harp inspire the [92] love of it to others. She was no amazon in literature, but a tender, a delicate, a sensitive woman. There was nothing masculine either in her mind or in her influence; the very delicacy of her organization was one source of her talent. She was an Æolian harp which responded to the breathing of every wind; alas! the harp was too finely strung, and the strings were shivered by the rude blasts of the world before the time. She was a fragile bark tossed on the rude billovvs of life's ocean, feeling every shock with ten-fold violence, and buffeted by every wind and every wave; hers could not be a tranquil voyage to a more tranquil home. The plant of southern climes, exposed to the wild winds of winter, droops and fades; the bird which might expand its wings and soar and sing beneath the summer's sun, shrinks from the autumnal blast. We do think of Felicia Hemans tenderly, affectionately,

"As of a wand'rer whose home is found,
 As of a bird from its chain unbound."

The song is ceased; the harp is broken; yes – even according to the words, which she herself said might be her epitaph:

"Fermossi al fin il cor che balzò tanto." *

[93] It is difficult to think of Mrs. Hemans in prose; verse seems the more appropriate vehicle for thoughts on this gifted woman.

She passed as a glorious thing,
   A thing of life and light,
Of music and high imagining
   Through this world of care and night.

Her's was the quick keen glance,
   And hers the fine-strung ear,
And the heart which poetic dreams entrance,
   And to which those dreams are dear.

The mountain's frowning steep.
   The darkly rolling flood,
And the bounding waves of the foaming deep,
   Were friends of her solitude.

She knew the voice they spake.
   And her spirit's deep reply
From her burning lips in rapture brake,
   And glowed in her speaking eye.

Light, music, sunshine beamed
   O'er her brief and flow'ry way,
And war-swords clashed and banners streamed.
   While she poured her thrilling lay.

The dream was bright – 'tis past.
   My dirge is of the dead.
And a voice is borne on the lonely blast,
   As near her grave I tread.

To me is the solemn strain.
   It bids me not linger here,
For earthly glories are short and vain.
   And eternal things are near.

[94] We speak of Mrs. Hemans as a poet; if it fell within our present scope, we might rejoice in the thought that in the latter years of her life, her mind opened to the grand realities of the Christian religion. And the effect was felt upon her genius. She became deeper and truer. Had this change taken place in earlier life, there might have been fewer flowers, but there would have been more fruit; the defects which are felt in her poetry, a certain sameness of style and a repetition of ideas, would have been avoided, because there would have been a wider range for thought and feeling. Oh, if Felicia Hemans had always, to use her own words, 'sat at the feet of the Redeemer, and listened to the music of his voice,' how potent would have been her influence upon our literature! Far from us be one word of lamentation, one thought of censure. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth." Rather would we take up the note of triumphant joy, rejoicing over England's bright daughter of song as one, who in her latter years, found a refuge where her beating heart could repose, and as one, who having departed this life in the faith and fear of Christ, is now, where [95] "the wicked cease from troubling, and where the weary are at rest."

'A literary life' said L. E. L., 'is not a happy one for a woman.' She was herself, an example of this truth. With greater power of conception than Mrs. Hemans, and greater force of diction. Miss Landon was less musical in her versification, and less happy in the direction of her talents. One great misfortune for the permanency of her fame, was that she began to write too early. A certain degree of facility is thus attained, which is often a bar to the attainment of real excellence. Those persons who are acquainted with Italian literature, will recollect how much trouble Metastasio had to break off the bad habits of versification, which he had acquired as an improvisatore. And in addition to this, Miss Landon entered too early on a literary career. By the force of talent she accomplished much, but had it been duly matured and cultured, she might have done much more. Poor L. E. L.! Her own lines written, in very early youth, on burning a love-letter, recur to the mind.

"So bright at first, so dark at last,
    I feared it was love's history.

Alas! it was her own history! So very bright [96] and glowing in commencement, but how dark a cloud hangs over her last moments! It is not for mortal eye to attempt to pierce through that cloud; for mortal hand to lift that shrouding veil. Did this gifted creature of feeling and passionate sentiment find the rest for which she once breathed such earnest aspirations? We transcribe the lines to which we allude, and which are among the most beautiful their author ever wrote, without presuming to give an answer.

"Sweet friend, the world is yet with me,
    Its vanity, its care;
 Vain hopes for things that may not be,
    Regrets for those that are.

 This cannot last!  I will believe
    That I shall learn to know,
 A hope that will not all deceive,
    A trust not placed below.

 I needs must weep – I fain would pray
    For light athwart the gloom;
 One promise of that holier day
    Whose morning is the tomb!"

It would be a sad chasm for an Englishwoman to write on poetry and poetesses, and to omit the honoured name of Joanna Baillie. Sir Walter Scott, her dear and intimate friend, in his discus[97]sions on the present state of the poetic art in England, used always to maintain that Joanna Baillie is the first poetic genius of the day. Her power is indeed extraordinary; the laurel-wreath is firmly fixed upon her brow, and there is no fear that its leaves will wither. As a dramatic writer, properly so called, she cannot take a high standing, from her apparently utter inability to conduct a plot; and the undue prominence given to one passion in her 'Plays on the Passions' is unfortunate, because it is unnatural. De Montfort is probably her masterpiece. The diction, the poetry are splendid; her command over language, and the wide range of her poetic vocabulary are wonderful. She appears, as might have been expected, to excel in the delineation of female character. What can be more beautiful than the character of Jane de Montfort? so devoted to her brother, so excellent in conduct, so respected by all around. Mrs. Baillie has the greater merit in the delineation of this character, as the idea of introducing an unmarried lady of mature age into a tragedy for admiration, appears to be original, and the object too is attained. We can make but very cursory remarks. In Romiero, the character of Zorayda is beautifully drawn; her death [98] scene is very touching. When killed by her husband, her final words,

"Thou art pardoned, Love!"

are certainly much to be preferred, in a moral point of view, to Desdemona's falsehood in similar circumstances. One of the most powerful scenes that Mrs. Baillie ever wrote, is in Henriquez, but, (the charge may seem a grave one,) it is not consistent with high morality, that so much admiration should be expended upon a man who has committed so horrid a crime as murder, simply because he delivers himself up to justice. A similar remark may be applied to the character of Edmund Arden in 'The Stripling.' A murderer is a murderer; let sympathy never be so awakened as to diminish our horror of the crime on which God has placed his awful stigma. We are quite sure that it would be the desire of this remarkable woman to devote the powers with which she is endowed to the cause of justice and humanity; and, without lifting the veil which hangs over private life, and making personal allusions to daily employments, no one can read her works without feeling that they emanate from a kind and benevolent heart. We cannot however withhold our sentiments, as to the tendency [99] of some passages without doing violence to sincerity. The Socinian tenets of this gifted lady are deeply to be regretted. 'The Martyr' is perhaps the drama which evidences them most strongly, especially the last scene; but throughout her works, the want of pure religion is felt. There is one of Mrs. Baillie's dramas which floats over the memory as a beautiful dream: we refer to the 'Beacon.' The characters, the poetry, and more especially the lyrical poetry, are all most beautiful. The subject is hope; the finale is exquisitely managed; and the closing words respecting hope, rest on the memory and the heart.

"It bears the warrior onward througli the field,
 It bears the saint to heaven."

It is time, however, to descend to the practical application of the subject. A distinguished poet * of our own country and times, has said, that, if he knows his own heart, he would rather write one little hymn which might find an echo in a Christian breast, than be the author of Paradise Lost. Most entirely do we subscribe to his words. We would be utilitarians even as it regards poetry; for we do hold most strongly that [100] every gift of God has some appointed end. It is to be improved and employed in the service of the gracious Giver, under the sense that a reckoning will be kept, and a stnct account will have to be given. We know perfectly that

                "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts;"

yet still he chooses to be honoured by them, and the word to every servant is, "Occupy till I come." There is one sphere of labour which has been little entered upon, and which is peculiarly suited to women. We mean poetry for children. Let none smile in contemptuous scorn. To write a library for children is a task of which the highest philosopher might be proud, and it requires, we would almost say, particular power of imagination, to descend from the loftv eminence of adult life, to enter into the real feelings of a little child, and to give expression to them. We may not turn from our main subject to descant on the beauties of Dr. Watts's Hymns for children, but we may be allowed to mention with affectionate respect the names of Mrs. Gilbert and Jane Taylor. Almost every religiously educated child in England knows the 'Hymns for [101] Infant Minds;' and every child who knows them loves them. This is the true test of their excellence. Montgomery, in his 'Lectures on Poetry,' bestows very high praise on these 'Hymns,' and considers that they give evidence of power, which might have assigned to the authors a distinguished place on the roll of poetic fame. He instances, with high eulogium, the simplicity and success with which two very abstract ideas are brought down to the level of a child's mind; the omnipresence of the Deity in these lines,

"If I could find some cave unknown,
  Where human foot has never trod,
Yet there, I could not be alone,
    On every side there would be God."

And eternity, that deep, that awful idea, how beautifully and simply is it conveyed in the following verse!

"Days, months, and years must have an end,
 Eternity has none;
'Twill always have as long to spend
 As when it first begun

We would not, of course, limit poetry for children to the expression of religious ideas, although we hold strongly that religion should imbue the whole. The wide field of nature opens before the eye of a [102] little child; its emotions in gazing on that field are true poetry. Perhaps some women gifted with poetic power may yet arise, to give further utterance to those feelings, so as to bestow permanence on the first ebullitions of early admiration. Children love animated poetry; poetry that mirrors back their own feelings and thoughts. From a great deal that is written for them they turn away, and they are right. Sentiments of patriotism and of loyalty may also be imparted to children in a few stirring and animated stanzas, and poetry of this kind is much wanted in our nursery literature. It must be poetry; mere rhyme will not answer the end. Descriptions too of noble and generous feeling, not in men and women with whom they have little sympathy, and whom they imagine to be removed to an immense distance from them, but in children like themselves, may touch secret springs in the heart, which may vibrate at a distant day.

We have said enough, perhaps more than enough for these useful-knowledge days, when, however, poetry is more required than ever, to prevent our sinking into materialism. We need not ask where the poet finds his themes; there are themes every [103] where; themes suited to the powers of man, aye, and of woman too. There need be no violent opposition of colouring; no want of true harmony; for rightly managed,

"Each gives to each a double charm,
 Like pearls upon an Ethiop's arm."



[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[87]               * Totumque incauta per agmen
Fœmineo prædæ et spoliorum, ardebat amore,
                                          Æneid, Lib. xi. v.781.   zurück

[88] * The words of Sappho herself, χρυσõυ χρυσότερα preserved by Demetrius Phalereus.   zurück

[92] * It has at last stopped, that heart which beat so fast.   zurück

[99] * Montgomery.   zurück






M. A. Stodart: Female Writers:
Thoughts on Their Proper Sphere, and on Their Powers of Usefulness.
London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside 1842, S. 83-103.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).




Kommentierte Ausgabe





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Storti, Sarah A.: Letitia Landon. Still a Problem. In: Victorian Poetry 57 (2019), S. 533-556.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer