Victorian Poetry 41.2 (2003) 259-275
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"I make the whole world answer to my art":
Alice Meynell's Poetic Identity
In "A Poet of One Mood," late-Victorian poet Alice Meynell describes herself as a poet of "wild ways" who commands the world's attention with poetry that emanates from "One thought that is the treasure of my years. . . And in mine arms, clasped, like a child in tears." 1 This "One thought" is the most prevalent feature of Meynell's poetry: a speaker who is obsessed with her identity as poet, which she repeatedly depicts in dual terms. She portrays the poet as a conglomeration of reflexive binaries, such as the everyday consciousness and the poet self (whether represented as another poet, a poem, a book, or a bird), mother and child, female and male, or poet and God. Meynell complicates the dilemma of the woman artist, portrayed with such dramatic effectiveness in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. During the Victorian period, women poets especially could not avoid the tangled web of contradictory gender ideologies that seemed to necessitate, with every act of poetic creation, their simultaneous reinforcement and undercutting of patriarchal constructs of femininity. 2 Alice Meynell succeeded in constructing a female poetic voice that generates and affirms itself, rather than being defined by the Not-Male. She depicts the world as a reflection of her poetic greatness rather than as a hindrance to it. Meynell "make[s] the whole world answer to [her] art" (Poems, p. 44) because the world embodies her poetic self. This is the essence of Meynell's poetry: she answers to herself.
Considered an accomplished poet, essayist, and journalist in her own day, Alice Meynell numbers among the neglected women writers of the Victorian period who have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. As Jean Halladay explains, "During her lifetime she was touted for the laureateship. . . . Today she is forgotten, dismissed as a minor 'nature' or, in some cases, as a 'Catholic' poet." 3 Essays by Halladay, Angela Leighton, Maria Frawley, Sharon Smulders, Talia Schaffer, and others treat Meynell as a writer of significance. 4 However, remarkably, no scholarly discussion of Meynell's poetry fully explores her preoccupation with her [End Page 259] identity as a poet, despite the frequency of her references to poets and the recent surge of critical interest in literary and pictorial representations of women artists. This analysis is an attempt to fill that gap in Meynell scholarship by providing an account of the strategic patterns in her representations of a poet's complex, dynamically dialogic identity.
One might argue that the celebratory, artfully intricate play of Meynell's poetry about the poet, as I portray it in this study, is reactionary. Yet although Meynell does not explicitly portray the woman poet as battling her way to success through an army of enemy patriarchal ideologies, as does Barrett Browning's Aurora, the very urgency and emphasis of her manifestations of poetic confidence project an underlying precariousness. Meynell confronted the same impossible cultural-literary expectations and mandates as did such poets as Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Angela Leighton claims that Victorian women's poetry was strongly influenced by the figures of Sappho and Corinne, two models of responses to the imperative of female sensibility:
On the one hand, lovelorn and suicidal, they seem to stand for a woman's writing which is always on the brink of self-denial in the face of male rejection. On the other hand, triumphalist and obsessively self-expressive, they represent a flow of poetic inspiration which thrives on a covert, transmittable enthusiasm between women. 5
Perhaps Rossetti represents the former category and Barrett Browning and Meynell divergently fit the latter. One can detect instability in both the triumphs and tensions in Meynell's work. Indeed, many scholars see the conflictedness of her poetry as the necessary source of its genius. Sister Laurence refers to her "marvellous restraint" (p. 216); 6 Leighton asserts that constraints, "whether of religious faith, of poetic form . . . or of temperamental...