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  • “Telling what’s o’er”: Remaking the Sonnet Cycle in Augusta Webster’s Mother and Daughter

In her 1878 essay “Poets and Personal Pronouns,” Augusta Webster proposed that poets adopt a new pronoun: “The use of a little i instead of a big I might have some effect as a sort of modest disclaimer of the writer’s personality.”1 This neologism would allow writers constantly to remind their readers that poetry is not to be taken as autobiographical unless explicitly marked as such by the “big I.” Although the essay quickly acknowledges that “the printers would never stand” for this proposal, Webster would soon embark on her own experiment with the authorial “I” in the unfinished sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter (1895), which takes up the sonnet’s familiar preoccupations with love, temporality, death, absence, and language. Recasting these issues in the context of a mother/daughter relationship, the speaker in Webster’s sonnets celebrates her relationship with her daughter and mourns its evanescence. Though she employs the conventional capital “I,” this speaker not only analyzes her own subjectivity as a mother but also theorizes maternal subjectivity more generally; in doing so, she reimagines the conventions of the sonnet cycle.

Webster would probably have availed herself of the “little i” in these sonnets had it been generally recognized as a “modest disclaimer of the writer’s personality,” but in the absence of such a disclaimer the poems’ earliest reader blithely ignored the poet’s previously published caveats against conflating speaker and poet. William Michael Rossetti, in his introduction to the posthumous 1895 publication, wrote: “Nothing certainly could be more genuine than these sonnets. A Mother is expressing her love for a Daughter. . . . The theme is as beautiful and natural a one as any poetess could select.” So natural is it, indeed, that “it seems a little surprising that Mrs. Webster had not been forestalled—and to the best of my knowledge she never was forestalled—in such a treatment. But some of the poetesses have not been Mothers.”2 Attributing [End Page 53] her choice of theme to her maternity, Rossetti clearly suggests that Webster not only writes from but about her own experience.

The temptation to read the speaker in the sonnets as Webster herself is understandable. Most of the poems depict the relationship between a mother and her only daughter, and Webster had one child, a daughter. Moreover, what dates we have support a biographical reading; while some sonnets describe the girl’s infancy and early childhood, others show the speaker looking back on her daughter’s youth after it has passed. The only three sonnets in the twenty-seven-poem cycle that bear dates were composed in the 1880s (I in 1881, XIII in 1882, and XXIV in 1886); Webster’s daughter was born in 1864 (Portraits, p. 10). So these sonnets would have been written when she was in her late teens and early twenties. However, as we have seen, Webster herself warns readers against autobiographical interpretation; in “Poets and Personal Pronouns,” she not only wishes for an orthographical means of differentiating poet and persona, but also insists that a poet should not be “taken as offering his readers the presentment of himself, his hopes, his loves, his sorrows, his guilt and remorses, his history and psychology generally” (Portraits, p. 369). Rather than interpreting Webster’s sonnet sequence as a transparent display of maternal feeling, then, I read it as an innovative reconsideration of both the genre in which she was working and the discursive dimensions of maternal subjectivity. To speak as a mother is already to figure oneself as subjective, personal, and domestic. Webster challenges this equation through her innovative use of the sonnet cycle, simultaneously exploiting and resisting what Natalie Houston terms “a widespread understanding of the sonnet form itself as truthful and documentary.”3

Moreover, even as many of the Mother and Daughter sonnets seem to invite us to identify the poet with the speaker, the cycle refuses to limit its analysis of motherhood to the speaker’s—or any one woman’s—experience of this institution. Sonnets IX, X, XI, XVIII, and XXII consider the state of motherhood...


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pp. 53-81
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