Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 368-371
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Boutin, Aimée. Maternal Echoes: The Poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Alphonse de Lamartine. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2001. Pp. 246. ISBN 0-87413-727-6
The Romantic tradition passed on a patrilineal genealogy, an "engendered canon" as Michael Danahy has demonstrated (1988), that betrayed the authority of women's poetic production displaced to its margins. In her new study of the Romantic canon, Aimée Boutin asks, "How does the notion of influence or of a genealogy of writing change when women and mothers take center stage rather than men and fathers?" (13). With this provocative question, Boutin points to the pivotal role of the maternal that she seeks to expose in the poetry of Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine. The encounter between a marginalized poétesse and a canonical poetic father that Boutin [End Page 368] proposes does not aim to solve "the riddle of gender and poetry" that Barbara Johnson brought to our attention in her reading of Baudelaire and Desbordes-Valmore (1991). Rather, Boutin aims to uncover "elements of romanticism's unrecognized maternal support" that show how "poets who think back through their mothers seek to recreate themselves along new genealogical lines" (13). Richly configured in terms of "the echo - in its linguistic, figurative, and psychoanalytic manifestations" (21), the complex deployment of a maternal imaginary that emerges from the juxtaposition of Desbordes-Valmore's and Lamartine's reception and poetry in Maternal Echoes raises new questions about the cultural construction of literary history.
In Chapter 1, nineteenth-century readers' gender-based expectations, developed from Gretchen Schultz's notion of the "gendered lyric" (1999), are brought to bear on a projected maternal identification with Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine by later poets. Their reception, which suggests that aspiring poets viewed both of them as "mother figures," contends Boutin, resonates with the psychoanalytic dynamic between infant and mother, where "young poets echoed their precursors in the same way that infants mirror their mothers" (26). Boutin traces the critical construction of Desbordes-Valmore's maternal persona, which eclipsed her authority as a writer, through an intertextual network or "homosocial bonding" between her male readers, among them, Dumas, Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Montesquiou (30-48). "Since their readings of her text appear heavily invested in their own reflected maternal femininity," observes Boutin, "the object of study, the Valmorean text, is lost to the specular logic of the reading" (48). With a paradigmatic shift that suggestively transfers the anxiety of influence from writing to reading, and that merits further critical attention, Boutin relates the agon of reception of the woman(ly) writer to a psychoanalytic notion of simultaneously projected and disavowed femininity.
Boutin's treatment of Lamartine's wavering reputation in the nineteenth century, too, raises interesting questions about his place in the canon. With the Méditations poétiques (1820), conventionally invoked to mark the advent of French Romanticism, Lamartine took center stage. By the mid-century, however, as Boutin discusses, "the perceived incongruity between poetry and politics" (55) and the association of Lamartine's poetics of fluidity with effeminacy (59) served to marginalize him in his own day, without, however, altering his established canonical status (67). Boutin's particular focus on the overarching maternal connection that links the critical reception of Desbordes-Valmore and Lamartine, and their romantic legacy, broaches anew the question of Desbordes-Valmore's displacement from the central poetic tradition that she apparently constituted together with Lamartine.
"A reflective practice of reading" that draws out the contradictions at play in Desbordes-Valmore's and Lamartine's reception (67) paradigmatically frames the shift in Chapters 2, 3, and 4 to close readings of the "écho sonore" in their writing related by Boutin to psychoanalytic accounts of the "'sonorous envelope'" created by the mother's . . . voice" (69). The metaphor of the echo in Lamartine, however, operates in terms of self-reflexivity, a turning inward, as Boutin states, that refuses [End Page 369] "the ethical dimension of Hugo's poetics of sonorous echo, which...