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  • Subjection and Subversion in Sarah Piatt's Maternal Poetics
  • Mary McCartin Wearn

For a remarkable fifty-seven years (1854–1911), Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt was a successful, working poet, publishing in many of the elite periodicals and presses of nineteenth-century America. In the eleven years that she spent in Ireland (1882–1893), Piatt gained an international reputation as well, often being compared favorably in the Irish and British presses to the Brownings and Christina Rossetti. Because Piatt's poetry centered primarily on the experiences of marriage and motherhood and was written in a distinctly genteel vocabulary, it was admired by nineteenth-century critics for its perceived fidelity to gender norms. In a review of her earliest and only unsigned volume, A Woman's Poems, William Dean Howells, for example, commended Piatt for having so aptly titled her work, finding her poetry praiseworthy for being so "thoroughly feminine in thought and expression, in subject and treatment" ("Recent Literature" 773). And George D. Prentice, the influential editor of the Louisville Journal, speculated that if Piatt remained "entirely true" to herself, she would become the "first poet of [her] sex in the United States" (qtd. in Willard and Livermore 569).

Not surprising, as America moved beyond its Victorian sensibilities, the perception of Piatt as a "womanly" artist transformed rapidly from an asset into a liability. In fact, one late nineteenth-century review criticized the poet for her "feminine tendency to glorify the trivial" and suggested that Piatt's "maternal instinct" was sometimes "at odds with her artistic faculty" ("Poetry and Verse"). In the modern era, Piatt's poetry could not bear the often reductive scrutiny of a twentieth-century critical aesthetic. After her death in 1919, the poet was archived with other sentimental women writers; in one 1934 biographical dictionary, Piatt was reduced to the role of an "essentially feminine" poet whose work reflected the "joys, griefs, and aspirations of the ordinary woman's life" (Johnson and Malone 557–58). Until the end of the twentieth century, then, Piatt was relegated to the ranks of minor poets—penalized, like many of her female peers, for supposedly operating within the narrow confines of a specifically "feminine" discourse.

But Piatt's focus on womanly subjects and her "feminine sensibility" were not simple reflections of conservative gender ideology, as nineteenth-century enthusiasts or twentieth-century detractors believed them to be. Alice Meynell, one of Piatt's contemporaries, recognized the complexity beneath the genteel façade of Piatt's "womanly" poetry. Noting [End Page 163] that the term "feminine" was often a masked pejorative, Meynell reclaimed and redefined the term on Piatt's behalf: "[A] woman is best praised . . . without the word feminine, and she has cause to be glad if she deserves not to hear it. Nevertheless, it is reserved for one woman [Sarah Piatt] to show this very quality in a new manner—not as a grace, but as a force; not as a negative of something else, but as a positive thing, and therefore an energy standing sufficiently alone" (32). Paula Bennett's recent scholarship has offered modern readers a new way of approaching Piatt's "feminine" aesthetic. While Bennett concedes that Piatt wrote some genteel poetry that was aligned with conservative, nineteenth-century sensibilities, she argues that Piatt's mature, irony-laden work was different. According to Bennett, Piatt's poetry does not underwrite the nineteenth-century vision of woman as the domestic, pious, and pure "Angel in the House"; instead, her poetry concerns "the formation of middle-class women's subjectivity" and works toward the "deconstruction of the Angel" (Poets 139). Identifying "'woman's place' in the modern world" as Piatt's primary subject, Bennett argues that the poet explores the social, political, and literary implications of gender issues for women. Reversing the reading of Piatt as insular in her focus on womanly issues, Bennett establishes Piatt's "deep commitment to her poetry's political role in the public sphere" (Poets 139).

I agree with Bennett that gender represents the poet's principal subject, but I would also argue that motherhood is the critical site of Piatt's cultural argument. Unfortunately, the poet's specific preoccupation with the maternal has not...


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