- Sensibility and Female Poetic Tradition 1780–1860: The Legacy of Charlotte Smith
Scholarship on Victorian women’s poetry tends to gravitate toward either end of the axis of similarity and difference. On the one end are scholars who ask us to read the work of women poets along with that of their male contemporaries, as Anne Jamison does in Poetics en Passant (2009), her recent book on Christina Rossetti and Charles [End Page 164] Baudelaire, in order to highlight arresting similarities. On the other—much heavier, as this has long been the dominant view—end are the many scholars who have in one way or another argued for the distinctiveness of a nineteenth-century women’s poetic tradition. Australian scholar Claire Knowles’s new book, Sensibility and Female Poetic Tradition, belongs firmly in the latter category. Like many other recent critics who have focused on the ways in which Victorian women writers carefully negotiated the gendered category of the so-called poetess, Knowles establishes a chain of writers who shared similar dilemmas and self-consciously constructed a distinct poetic tradition. The distinctiveness of Knowles’s book lies in the intelligence she brings to these poets’ struggles with the paradoxes of fame, normative femininity, and identity performance, and above all, it lies in her choice to put the nineteenth-century fortunes of the late-eighteenth-century poet of sensibility Charlotte Smith at the center of her book. Sensibility and Female Poetic Tradition should certainly be required reading for anyone interested in debates about Victorian women’s poetry.
In her introduction, Knowles unfolds the ways in which Smith served as a complex point of reference for women poets and for debates about women’s poetry over the next six decades. Originally published in 1784, Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets morphed through nine editions before Smith’s death in 1806 and was frequently reprinted up to about 1827. Knowles argues that Smith’s sonnets—and most importantly, the figure of Smith herself that the sonnets created—embodied the tensions between public performance and proper femininity that all women poets after her had to negotiate. In Knowles’s view, Smith’s particular solution to this tension was embodied in the concept of “sensibility”: that term of late-eighteenth-century aesthetics and moral philosophy that stressed the performance of true feeling as the index of worth. Knowles follows Jerome McGann’s The Poetics of Sensibility (1996) in championing sensibility as a distinct aesthetic that, far from being eclipsed by Romantic and Victorian poetics, continued to exist as a distinct poetic tradition well into the Victorian era, one characterized by an extreme self-awareness of the constructedness of sincerity itself.
Chapters 1 and 2 allow Knowles to establish the late-eighteenth-century background of her study by focusing first on the poetic coterie known as the Della Cruscans and on Smith, respectively. Chapter 3 provides a welcome introduction to the work of the lesser-known early-nineteenth-century writer Susan Evance, whose poetry of female suffering welded the poetics of sensibility she learned from Smith’s sonnets with religious piety. Evance thus represents for Knowles a key figure in the transition her book traces in which the individualistic, potentially transgressive energies of the poetry of sensibility get absorbed into a nineteenth-century culture in which religion and morality create instead a culture of sentimentality. The struggle between sensibility and sentimentality—two alternative modes of feminine self-representation, the former more oppositional, the latter more conventional—takes center stage in chapter 4, in which Knowles pits the charismatic Letitia Landon against the more domestic Felicia Hemans.
Most relevant to readers of Victorian Studies will be chapter 5, in which Knowles brings her account of the feminine poetics of sensibility and sentimentality to a reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Knowles correctly argues that Barrett Browning’s relationship to the women poets who preceded her was “fraught” (15). The Victorian poet’s work emerged out of a canny but complex reading of the work of Hemans and Landon above...