Fretted Lines: Di-versification in Augusta Webster's Dramatic Monologues
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Fretted Lines:
Di-versification in Augusta Webster's Dramatic Monologues

It seems as if the resistance, so to speak, offered to the plastic despotism of the artist by characteristics accepted, not made, called forth a subtler and a stronger skill than if he had worked with the limitlessness of free invention.1

I'll find it for you on a whitewashed wallWhere the slow shadows only change so muchAs shows the street has different darknessesAt noontime and at twilight.2

—Augusta Webster

Nothing seems more to have gratified the modernism of Vita Sackville-West, in the course of a briskly condescending 1920s retrospect of Victorian women's poetry, than to drop Augusta Webster's dramatic poetry into the dustbin of intellectual history: "these blank-verse pieces . . . she probably regarded as vehicles for expressing her sociological opinions rather than as poetry."3 The remark of course is not really about Webster's intentions but about Sackville-West's opinion that the verse lies beneath notice. In this paper all that I have to say arises from the opposite opinion: that Webster's dramatic verse rewards the most careful attention we can muster. But first let me engage Sackville-West's imputation that the poet's chief allegiance was "sociological." I do so because most of the literary criticism Webster's long-neglected work has attracted within the last academic generation in effect endorses the sociological premise. It reads her writing for the ideas that are expressed there about socially embedded ideologies—principally of gender—as these were institutionally enforced and personally enacted in a British Victorian context. In pursuit of this quarry, our scholarship on Webster is seldom detained much longer than Sackville-West was by the artistic medium of expression. We now have [End Page 105] much better accounts than we did of the poet's life and career, discerning investigations of her feminism, and thoughtful calibration, at a generic level, of the prose and verse kinds she practiced. What remains regrettably scarce is analysis, even appreciation, of her poetry as such.4

Victorian reviewers knew better. Whether they commended or chastised Webster's versecraft, they made a point of discussing it; and the contradictory reactions they posted suggest that it may have proved particularly resistant to description within received Victorian categories. Whereas for one 1860s reviewer "Mrs. Webster's blank verse has none of the sustained music, the organic rhythm, which is necessary to make blank verse endurable," another found it if anything sustained to a fault, complaining about "the too great monotony of the verse, . . . the sameness, the lack of spring and impulse."5 This defect struck a successor as still unaddressed in the 1870 collection Portraits: "Mrs. Webster's verse, though always smooth and mellifluous, seems to us sometimes wanting in spontaneity." 6 But that same year, another critic suspected instead that she "composes too rapidly; many of the lines appear to run too easily" and want "concentration."7 The concentrated spontaneity these reviews jointly demand seems a tall order; yet it describes pretty well the result this poet obtained, with remarkable freshness of invention, in the books to which her critics were responding and to whose formal qualities their criticisms bore authentic if splintered witness. As a more acute contemporary reader of Portraits put the case, no doubt with an eye to the blinkered journalistic competition, "Her simplicity is likely to repel the multitude, whose taste has been vitiated by false imagery and sham sentiment. And this simplicity is combined with a subtlety of thought, feeling, and observation which demand that attention which only real lovers of poetry are apt to bestow."8 Subtle simplicity, concentrated spontaneity: getting at the characteristics that these oxymora name, and appreciating the artistic originality and cultivation that produced them, will require more attention to form than Webster's latter-day admirers have been accustomed to pay.

Webster is not only an accomplished prosodist but is furthermore, within the metrical tradition certifying that accomplishment, an exquisite innovator in the resources of blank verse. We can more clearly apprehend the innovation, understated and elusive as it is, after a look at how thoroughly she mastered...