In an online discussion of the subject of Felicia Hemans’ place in the literary canon, Jonathan Mulrooney comments that ’Hemans was incredibly popular in her day, and she wrote some fine poetry; students need to know about it. But even if we could imagine a world in which the methods of exegisis [sic] that value Wordsworth over Hemans and those that value Hemans over Wordsworth had equal power, would we really want to live there? I honestly am not sure’ (Romantic Circles, 1997). Mulrooney imagines a world in which all forms of critical discourse are equally valid, thereby rendering useless any attempt to distinguish the ‘good’ writers from the ‘bad’. According to this line of reasoning, the existence of a literary canon can therefore be justified: at best, a canon celebrates that which is worthy of study and closes the floodgates against a deluge of mediocrity. At worst, however, a canon can be used as a tool of oppression, excluding from educational syllabi those whom the canon’s overseers do not wish to be read. Traditionally, this darker side of the canon has eclipsed female writers (such as Hemans), writers from different races, LGBT writers, and so on.
Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to claim that canons are static: this is not true. Canons are subject to constant revision, as is evident in the case of both Felicia Hemans and William Wordsworth. Wordsworth is indeed a canonical writer, but opinion has shifted since the Victorian era as to which of his works should be read, and (for example) The Prelude has replaced The Excursion. Hemans, on the other hand, was a prolific and widely-read writer during her lifetime, but her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography describes how she was cast aside by the modernist movement and left unread until a shift in critical attitudes in the second half of the twentieth century led to a resurgence of interest in her work. Feminist and historicist critics argue that Hemans is an important ‘critic of conventions such as patriotism and female self-sacrifice’ (ODNB, 2008) and that her place in the canon should be assured.
There is an argument, however, that the inclusion in the canon of previously excluded writers because their work touches on a contemporary concern amounts to being intellectually dishonest, but Alan Liu counter-argues that the line drawn between ‘good’ poetry and poetry ‘valued for historical, political, [or] gender’ reasons is absolutely artificial. He suggests that ideas about the values of poetical form are inextricably intertwined with whatever happens to be the accepted prevailing notions of ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’, but these same notions are themselves so complicated and culturally imbued that we can only examine them through the discourse of formal criticism (Romantic Circles, 1997). This being the case, we are still in the world feared by Mulrooney, where no existing critical apparatus can reliably differentiate between good and bad poetry.
Chuck Rzepka appears to offer a solution in the form of traditional poetics (although oddly enough, he simultaneously denies that this kind of analysis has any interest for today’s critics). Rzepka claims to value poets who use ‘pitch, accent, rhythmic and metrical variation, figure (of speech or of thought), image, stanza, form, genre, tradition, persona, allusion…besides…invention, characterization, plot, [and] dialogue’. Naturally, as Rzepka makes clear, the presence alone of such devices can hardly constitute an adequate test for ‘good’ poetry: what counts is ‘how well they are used and to what effect’ (Romantic Circles, 1997). How we are to measure the use and effectiveness of poetic devices, however, remains a mystery with which canon revisionists are constantly employed.
Some of the points explored above can be exemplified by a comparison of Hemans’ ‘Indian Woman’s Death-Song’ with Wordsworth’s ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’. Both poems represent the final lament of a native American Indian woman, but the ‘complaint’ (in the poetic sense) of Wordsworth’s character, abandoned in a cold, silent and comfortless landscape, has otherwise little in common with Hemans’ wild, watery and noisy swansong. Death is imminent for both women, but the nature of these deaths differs according to the landscape in which each woman is placed: Hemans invokes the drama of a broad river in a thick forest as the canoe containing the woman and her (female) child approaches a cataract, whilst Wordsworth’s solitary figure lies prone beside the frozen ashes of a dead fire, her (male) child having been taken along with the woman’s erstwhile travelling companions. The variance in thematic presentation reflects the differing agendas of each poet. Hemans writes a female character who welcomes death in the face of her husband’s desertion and ingratitude, taking her tiny daughter with her so that she might be spared a similar fate. Writing in an age in which a previously unprecedented number of female readers were constantly exposed to an ideal of womanhood which, in Havelock Ellis’ phrase, was ‘a cross between an angel and an idiot’ (Cunningham, 1989: 96), Hemans creates a female character who actively seeks her own demise as a means of rejecting in her turn the masculine world which has rejected her. She issues impatient imperatives to the river, commanding it to ‘roll on!’, and even her hair waves in joyous anthropomorphic triumph. Wordsworth, however, uses the scenario of the dying woman to attempt an artistic portrayal of conflicting internal voices at a moment of crisis. Stephen Bidlake argues convincingly for the merits of Wordsworth’s poem with reference to a framework of Bakhtinian dialogism, in which the woman ‘participate[s] in the dynamism of real speech situations’ (1982: 188). As she considers her predicament and questions events which have led to her impending death, ‘a second voice is heard in the “hidden dialog” that emerges in those words which contain a tacit reference to an alternate viewpoint, such as the anticipation of an unvoiced objection or the implication of an unasked question’ (1982: 189). Bidlake’s ingenious and imaginative reading is in one sense a kind of ‘authoring’ of Wordsworth’s poem: through his critical response, Bidlake uses Bakhtin’s work to express that which Wordsworth arguably does not. Scholarship such as this can breathe life into literary works, but if, for example, such scholarship is vital to the work’s continued presence in anthologies, then the role played by critical writing in canon formation and revision must be carefully examined. Every choice must be questioned if the canon is to be a useful instrument rather than an oppressive one.
List of references
Bidlake, S. (1982) ‘Hidden Dialog’ in ‘The Mad Mother’ and ‘The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman’. The Wordsworth Circle 13(4): 188-193.
Cunningham, G. (1989) The nineteenth-century novel. In: M. Lynne-Davies, ed., Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 93-112.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (2008) Felicia Hemans. [Online] May 2008. Available from: http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/12/101012888/ [Accessed: 23 December 2016]
Romantic Circles. (1997) Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon: An Online Discussion. [Online] July 1997. Available from http://www.rc.umd.edu/pedagogies/usingRC/hemans.html [Accessed: 23 December 2016]
The poems discussed in this post can be found via the following links: