"Echo and Reply": The Elegies of Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett
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"Echo and Reply":
The Elegies of Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett

Since the death instinct exists in the heart of everything that lives, since we suffer from trying to repress it, since everything that lives longs for rest, let us unfasten the ties that bind us to life, let us cultivate our death wish, let us develop it, water it like a plant, let it grow unhindered. Suffering and fear are born from the repression of the death wish.

——Eugène Ionesco (1967)1

The ties that bind women elegists to one another differ radically from what we consider normative elegiac bonds. Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett did not share any kind of personal relationship: they were not friends; they did not move in the same literary circles; they did not write to each other.2 Yet these three women developed an elegiac dialogue that set in place a poetic economy of shared and negotiated values that flourished throughout the nineteenth century. Hemans' "The Grave of a Poetess" (1828), Landon's "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans" (1835), and Barrett's "Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon and Suggested by Her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans'" (1835) use the elegiac genre as a space to evaluate women poets and their poetry: sorrow, sympathy, and suffering open up a dialogue of mourning for these poets that extends beyond the recent death of a poetic peer. Allusion becomes a primary tool both to locate particular value in the dead poet's work and to position the general values of poetry they share or dispute; Hemans and Landon create a self-reflexive impulse that transforms the conventional presence of the feminine in elegy. Barrett enters the discourse in a responsive elegy for Hemans that places her (at best) as a mediator of those values or (at worst) as the voice of tradition that challenges a feminine poetic economy.

Elegy is typically a space of ordered and contained emotion, and it can offer women poets relief from their expected productions of conventionally effusive verse. Melissa F. Zeiger discusses the role of women in masculine elegies and notes that "female figures abound in the major, canonical English elegies, occupying constantly shifting roles as enabling or threatening adjuncts to the [End Page 249] poetic process."3 Further, Zeiger argues, in elegy it is not unusual for women to be "noted only as absences" (p. 10). Our canonical perception of the feminine in elegy sees Woman and her female essence as obstacle, device, trope. This inheritance of silence, absence, or oppositional force draws Hemans, Landon, and Barrett together; their elegies share primarily the need to speak to the dead, to each other, to their poetic heirs. In the process, they begin what Esther Schor calls a "circulation of sympathies," which "maps in a moral realm the dynamic process of exchange, negotiation, circulation—that is, the mechanisms by which both valued things and values themselves are distributed within a culture."4 As these poets speak to one another through the elegiac genre, they position their "sympathies" as a kind of poetic economy: what they value and the idea of value as it distinctly relates to their position as women poets. The lack of overt personal contact between these women indicates that elegy redresses the relationships they did not, or could not, share in life.

Felicia Hemans' elegy for Mary Tighe commences the dialogue between women poets that, in its turn, sets up the poetic economy her heirs receive. As one of the period's most popular "poetesses," Hemans' diminutive designation intimates that the hard poetry written by educated, gifted men becomes softened when under the emotional, intuitive hands of a woman. The writing published between 1780 and 1830 reveals that the sensibility usually relegated to the domestic and private realm—the feminine—becomes a tool that accomplished male poets and philosophers discuss, evaluate, and adopt. Stuart Curran notes that a "singular phenomenon, suddenly appearing in mid[-eighteenth] century and not only coinciding with the rise of women poets but also its very hallmark, was the cult of sensibility, which, despite Rousseau's impact on this culture, was largely a...