- Letitia Landon:Still a Problem
Reports of the recovery of Letitia Landon's poetry have been greatly exaggerated—not because of a lack of scholarly work on the subject, but because that work has with few exceptions relied on an inadequate comprehension of the ways her poetry was composed and published. Jerome McGann's important early writing on Landon in The Poetics of Sensibility (1996) and Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings (1997) situates the work in its original historical and print contexts, and serves as a model of serious and thoughtful engagement with the special difficulties of Landon's sentimental style. However, as noted recently by Katherine Montwieler, the most ubiquitous trend in Landon scholarship has been to approach the work through various biographically inflected critical lenses, figuring the poet "as siren, as virgin, as literary prodigy, as desperate hack writer," as "a paragon of femininity . . . a savvy capitalist . . . a feminist rhetor."1 Montwieler pointedly suggests that "Landon's work may be more complex than any individual portrait of her might be" (p. 97), but attempting to read that work on its own terms is, practically speaking, quite difficult: not only is hers an extremely large and various oeuvre, but hundreds of her poems first appeared in the now rapidly disintegrating literary annuals. Many of these books currently sit in the stacks of our circulating collections, subject to what Robert Frost might call "the slow smokeless burning of decay."2
In one sense we can still claim as Germaine Greer did in 1982 that Landon is "the kind of woman writer about whom a little is known and nothing understood."3 Her poetry is most innovative in its bibliographic and grammatical aspects, but when Landon came back into critical favor under the auspices of feminist scholarship in the early 1980s, the work was selected, anthologized, and reprinted in ways that obscure these special characteristics.4 There followed a long history of criticism that assessed Landon's work by the half-light of incomplete or misleading stories of textual transmission.5 These problems continue, and have obscured the collective view of a fascinating and innovative poet. This essay attempts to demonstrate that far from being merely another sentimental poetess, Landon was in fact a brilliant media theorist and practitioner: she leveraged an experimental role in early nineteenth-century print media to explore the affordances of representational art in an era of mass production. [End Page 533]
As a recent example of the problem in criticism, take the series of essays on Landon in Pedagogy (2018), which argue collectively for "the important position" Letitia Landon's work "needs to occupy in our teaching of Romanticism."6 Editors Harriet Linkin and Kate Singer observe that Landon's "innovative poetics . . . manifest a major revision" of Romanticism, and indicate that teaching Landon might help students "learn how to define and redefine the period" (p. 189). However, many essays in this cluster reveal that we still struggle with the "innovative" nature of Landon's poetics. The essays suggest that we continue to read Landon's poetry by not reading it—by disregarding its publication history, by misunderstanding its grammatical irregularities, by distorting it according to the myths of Landon's "development" as a poet, or by handling the poems only at a distance.
To grasp fully Landon's "innovative poetics" requires a commitment of time and attention that most cannot afford to spend on a single author. "When it comes to Landon's oeuvre," Noah Comet observes, "we do not know what we do not know."7 But until Landon's publication histories and her experiments with media and language are better understood, the critical conversation about her work will remain on various wrong tracks. Her great subject was art, and virtually all of her work is devoted to exploiting media and language to reveal the paradoxes and ironies of representation. She is the print-culture obverse of Emily Dickinson, best thought of alongside figures like Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol rather than Felicia Hemans or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In not seeing this, we have missed an opportunity for a wholesale reframing of the transition from Romantic to Victorian poetry, according to...