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Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000) 269-288

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"Neither keeping either under":
Gender and Voice in Elizabeth Barrett's The Seraphim

Julie Straight

When Elizabeth Barrett published The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838, the title poem, in which two angels witness and discuss the Crucifixion, provoked an energetic attack from The Examiner: "The subject of her present poem has been chosen with an unhappy want of judgment," the reviewer pronounced, explaining that "religion, or what is exclusively understood by 'sacred subjects,' is not fit for poetry, except on very rare and brief occasions." 1 Other reviewers also objected to the poem's theme, point of view, and explicit discussion of religious topics. For example, the North American Review pronounced Barrett's subject "an awful theme, which would task the highest powers, and from which the highest powers would do well to recoil. . . . It appears to us an unqualified failure" (BC, 6:376), and the Arcturus, while approving of her more "earthly" poems, commented that "we are not at home in speculating on the minds of angels" (BC, 5:388). Critics today have made progress in accepting Barrett's religious subject matter. David Riede has discussed the importance of Barrett's Christianity to her sense of vocation, and Dorothy Mermin has recognized Christianity's importance to her sense of poetic authority, saying that Barrett "used Christianity to authorize her entry into poetry at the highest level." 2 More recently, Linda M. Lewis has devoted an entire book to Barrett Browning's vocation as a religious poet and her appropriation and modification of Christian traditions. 3

Many contemporary critics, however, continue to distrust Barrett's devotional poetry--not because they believe that "sacred subjects" lie beyond the limits of poetry, but because they fear that "sacred subjects" could limit the woman writer. 4 If Barrett uses Christianity to claim authority for her poetry, can she do so without simultaneously undercutting this authority? More broadly, even if the Christian beliefs of some women writers empowered them, does Christianity ultimately contain and limit their power, perhaps to the extent of effectively, if not literally, silencing their voices? [End Page 269]

The poem's obvious logocentrism alone could provide reason to answer "yes." In her poem, Barrett assumes the existence of "the transcendental signified," which Jacques Derrida describes as "an invariable presence," "a fixed origin" at the center of structure. 5 Derrida describes language as a chain of signification in which every signifier refers to other signifiers, but explains that we desire a transcendental signified, which possesses meaning in itself. He identifies "logocentrism" as the "exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified." 6 But whereas Derrida works to demonstrate the absence of such a transcendental signified, Christianity clearly subscribes to its presence, as Toril Moi points out. The transcendental signified, she explains, "would have to be meaningful in itself, fully present to itself, requiring no origin and no end other than itself. An obvious example of such a 'transcendental signified' would be the Christian concept of God as Alpha and Omega, the origin of meaning and final end of the world." 7 Barrett clearly assents to this concept of God, and her angels refer to Jesus as "Creator" and the "Master-word" that initiated all other voices (ll. 638-643, 771).

One difficulty logocentrism raises for feminists is that it may subject women to men by organizing thought in binary oppositions in which one term, associated with the male, assumes superiority over the other term, associated with the female. As Ellen K. Feder and Emily Zakin explain, Lacanian theory identifies the transcendental signifier with the phallus. 8 If, like Feder and Zakin, one accepts this identification, it would follow that logocentrism in effect seeks to assign self-sufficient meaning to the masculine while denying self-sufficient meaning to the feminine. Feder and Zakin continue by describing how, in Derridean theory, "logocentrism constructs binary, hierarchical categories whose dominant terms are marked as masculine and whose masculine terms are marked as dominant" (p. 47). That is, the desire for the transcendental...


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