- Erotic, Prosodic, and Ethical-Aesthetic Forms of Triangulation in Augusta Webster’s Dramatic Studies and A Woman Sold and Other Poems
As has been noted since her recovery in the early 1990s by Isobel Armstrong, Angela Leighton, Dorothy Mermin, and others, much of Augusta Webster’s poetry revolves around the problem of attenuated, suppressed, or otherwise circumscribed subjectivity.1 Her work is particularly attentive to the frequency with which individuals could be stripped of their capacity for agency by the competing imperatives—social, material, institutional, and aesthetic—of modern life. Her dramatic poems, for which she is best remembered today, often feature the frustrated monologues of such over-determined individuals, both male, as in “A Painter,” and female, as in her most critically discussed poem, “A Castaway.” Pragmatic idealists at heart, these and others of Webster’s speakers use a range of strategies, with varying degrees of success, to carve out niches of freedom for themselves amid the otherwise suffocating pressures of familial, vocational, and cultural norms.
This essay concentrates on one recurrent motif, triangulation, through which Webster explores this problematic in the first two books of poetry that she published under her own name, Dramatic Studies (1866) and A Woman Sold and Other Poems (1867).2 Collectively, the triadic poems from these two poetic collections represent triangular relations as both unavoidable and fascinatingly varied. Despite their important difference of participants, relations, and motivations, however, all retain the basic configuration, posited most famously in René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1965), of two subjects directed towards a third object. The problem, for Webster, lies in the readiness with which anyone occupying any of these three positions can be objectified by his or her participation in the triangle to the point of losing all capacity for [End Page 465] independent agency. This risk is most apparent for the desired object, whose field of possibility is, at best, artificially confined to choosing between the two subjects, and, at worst, entirely eliminated by the results of those subjects’ competition. Both subjects, however, also radically truncate their own actions by defining themselves oppositionally and teleologically. Whether possessed or bereft of the object at the contest’s conclusion, the formerly dynamic subject ends in crippling stasis, one primary source of self-definition—the other subject—banished from the scene, and the object of desire evacuated of significance and future potential by its acquisition. Tapping into and radically extending her century’s pervasive rhetoric of fallenness, Webster shows that both men and women might “fall,” their potential for independent agency equally imperiled by the threat of triangulation.3
Two dramatic poems from her 1866 book, “The Snow Waste” and “With the Dead,” make this point negatively, by featuring male speakers unable to distance themselves from their desires and, who, as a result, degenerate from competitive triadic subjects to damnably objectified souls in torment. Two of the shorter lyrics from among the Other Poems of the 1867 volume, “Too Faithful” and “To One of Many,” signal Webster’s shift away from compromised male speakers. Finally, in A Woman Sold, Webster offers her most complex, successful, and implicitly political resolution to this same problematic through the liberal intentions of the titular Eleanor-cum-Lady-Boycott.4 Each of these poems by itself amply repays the detailed attention of careful close reading, which reveals Webster’s complex deployment of triangulation at the levels of form, content, plot, and theme.5 Together, they also work towards her elegant solution, at least at this important early point in her career, to the problem of abrogated, or “fallen” agency, namely emotional self-mastery and intellectual disinterestedness.6
Competitive Triangulation and Damnation in Dramatic Studies
Webster’s “The Snow Waste” presents the narrative of an overly assertive subject eternally objectified by the successful prosecution of his own triangulated desire. In mode, the poem is a hybrid between narrative and dramatic verse, using an objective third-person observer to frame the explanatory but not exculpatory confession of its male dramatic speaker. The observer’s frame works on a number of levels to heighten the drama of the narrative to come: aurally, it lulls the reader into the familiar...