Poe's Women: A Feminist Poe?

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  • Poes Women:

    Joan Dayan

    University of Arizona

    A Feminist Poe?

    You talk of lofty feelings, pure and high- Too pure, alas! and then you gently sigh; You mourn the trials which a soul like yours- So true-amid the meaner herd endures.

    -Frances Sargent Osgood, TO

    To write about Poe-the man who loved women- at a time when we continue to argue about, to define and undefine terms such as gender, fe- male, femininity, women or woman, is to experience some discomfort. What does it mean to call Poe a feminist writer? Does the qualifica- tion help us to get at what makes Poes treatments of women-whether idealized or violated-so un- settling, and subversive? I will argue at the outset that something strange happens to any easy as- sumption of womanhood when we turn to Poes writings, whether his love letters, poems, or tales. Further, if Poe destabilizes any sure identifica- tion of women, he also questions what it means to speak, or to love, as a man. In both cases, I suspect that Poe was bothered by those culturally constructed categories that in opposing men and women removed the need to comprehend what we mean by sexual identity, love, or possession.

    It is too easy to perpetuate the commonplace that Poe turns women into objects, or as I once argued, uses women as pretexts for what tran- scends them. As I began to suggest in Fables of Mind, there is something unique about the way Poe presents the romantic idea of woman: a burden of uniqueness more fiercely embodied in Madeline Ushers erotic, bloody return in her fi- nal death agonies than in the entranced painters recognition that his Oval Portrait got life from the death of his bride.

    Poe takes his writings beyond what Leland Person has recently called a masculine poetics, the male tendency to disembody women that weve already heard so much about, as well as moving his readers beyond that comfortably un-

    derstood romantic image. For Poes often quoted the death . . . of a beautiful woman is . . . the most poetical topic in the worldn3 demands that we ask what Poe means when he says beautiful woman, and more, what he intends to do when he decides to get poetical.

    There is a great deal a t stake when we talk about Poe and women. If few critics have ana- lyzed Poe and feminism, it could reflect his obvi- ously excessive returns to ideas of femininity or womanliness that seem to accept, not question, the brute sexualization and reification of women in the nineteenth century. Indeed, he offers us some unforgettable examples of women splitting into dark and light, carnalized and spiritualized. But Poe goes beyond any simple virgin-and-whore dichotomy: his women are not mere symbols for what Baudelaire addressed as Beauty, . . . your glance hellish and divine (Hymn to Beauty). Poe does not sustain the eternal polarities, but in- stead analyzes the slippage in too convenient op- positions, the reversibility of all concepts, and ul- timately, the confounding of men and women.

    Poes writings urge us to examine critically what it might mean to work out a feminist epis- temology. Poe idealizes and hyperbolizes. But this spectacle of womanhood exposes the charade or confidence game of any call to being or to an essential self, whether masculine or feminine, whether promulgated by men or women. Poe in- terrogates (for he never totally assimilates or fully rejects anything) the most valued assumptions of his culture. At the same time, he ironizes the very possibility of speaking for or as a man. In Poes texts, as in his life, alternative possibilities coex- ist: every sacred binary opposition is exposed as problematic rather than known or assured.

    Before attempting to reconstruct Poes con- founding, often self-subverting calls to sentiment and feminizing love as one stage in a far more ambi- tious project-to refuse and resist the temptations of such mystifying phraseology as real women,


  • ethics of care, or the now ceaselessly reiterated female identity-I turn briefly to a text that should serve as ground for my attempt to talk about a feminist Poe. Denise Rileys =Am I that Name?: Feminist and the Category of Women in History offers one of the most discerning analy- ses to date of the danger in turning to something called womens experience and the false uni- versality it promotes. She writes: The question of how far anyone can take on the identity of being a woman in a thoroughgoing manner recalls the fictive status accorded to sexual identities by some psy- choanalytic thought. Can anyone fully inhabit a gender without a degree of horror? How could someone be a woman through and through, make a final home in that classification without suffering claustrophobia? To lead a life soaked in the passionate consciousness of ones gender at every single moment, to will to be a sex with a vengeance-these are impossibilities, and far from the aims of feminism.

    Poes most grotesque tales, like his poems of purest ideality, demonstrate how ever intensified and refined femininities (whether characteristic of male lovers or female beloveds) are impossibili- ties. In the process, as we shall see, he presents the vacillations, the waverings, and, in Rileys words, the indeterminacy of sexual positionings that end up overturning his societys stereotypes even as he seems to adopt them.

    I. Poe and the Business of Romance The Puritans were not kind to their women.

    Jonathan Edwardss stories of remarkable conver- sions turn living women into figures consistent with the patriarchal ideal of godhead: in them, the Calvinist dread of the flesh is most often attached to the carnal lure of Eves progeny. Locke trans- ferred this fear of female physical excess into his critique of figurative language by staging the oppo- sition between sensible and sensational language as a kind of masquerade: The art of rhetoric . . . all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented are perfect cheats. In nineteenth-century America something curious would happen to masculine projections of women, and Poe was never immune to the excesses of his culture. He turns Lockes fair sex into a har- lot, as he warns against decking truth in gay robes, or wreathing her in gems and flowers (ER, 685). It is no accident that the feminine ideal and the narrowing of womens realm to the domestic haven of home, a pristine place of com- fort and compensation, would increase as women left their homes to fight for equal rights and for the abolition of slavery.

    What do men love in women? Their transfor-

    mation into superlatives, or as Poe will repeat and replay it, their reduction into generality. So, when Poe calls his addressee, whether Annie, Sarah Helen Whitman, or any of his women, my heart of hearts, he reveals something about his own in- volvement in a specific validation of woman. His difficulties with womanliness, his problems with romance as his contemporaries conceived it, Poe demonstrates by his tautological circlings around the overplayed idea.

    Poes two landscape sketches, The Domain of Arnheim and Landors Cottage, seem to be hymns to beauty, with women either recalled or perceived as the spirit of the place. The narrator of Arnheim believes that one womans love can make a heaven of earth: above all, it was in the sympathy of a woman, not unwomanly, whose love- liness and love enveloped his [Ellisons] existence in the purple atmosphere of Paradise (Works, 3:1277). But Poe also understood how romance could coerce, how the continued harping on what it means to be a woman, could-as Denise Riley put it-induce claustrophobia. Discourse is an instrument of domination, and Poe knew it. He takes the rhetoric of praise and exaggerates it until words themselves become as stifling, as horrific and circumscribing, as any of his closed rooms, tombs, or coffins. Recall the exaggerations of Landors Cottage, when the narrator introduces Annie, the angel of the house: So intense an expression of romance . . . had never sunk into my heart of hearts before . . . . Romance, provided my read- ers fully comprehend what I would here imply by the word-romance and womanliness seem to me convertible terms: and, after all, what man truly loves in woman, is simply her womanhood (Works, 3:1338-39). But just as Poes proverbial praise of the sou1 of Poesy or breath of faery screens a more earthy subject, I want to suggest that here it is the fact of repetition that should preoccupy us: Poes obsessive return to the same masquerade of love and courtship.

    It might seem strange that I claim Poe as critic of the binding strategies of the romantic imagina- tion. Critics have found him to be the consummate idealist: assigning to the Adamic poet spiritus and mission, while granting soulfulness to women, along with the burden of making nature moral and regenerate. For what other writer seems to have so deliberately made his subjectivity the ground for poetry and philosophy? Indeed, if women exist at all in his letters, tale, or poems, they appear to be excuses for this continued fascination with himself. It is not surprising, then, that many com- plaints about Poes poetry, like those of T. S. Eliot or Yvor Winters, focus on his excess of sentiment,

  • his preoccupation with his own mood. The sublime is a production of excess in the

    mind, and Poe allows himself to be consumed by the surfeit. We know that Poe fought against the obscurity of those he called mystics for mysticisms sake, those who confused darkness and depth. When he condemns his contempo- raries vagueness or sentimentality, he makes his own words dramatize the fault. Using his love letters and poems to repeat romantic clich6, Poe shows how the language of ideal love petrifies the lover as well as his object. His own writing, then, becomes an exemplum of what he most hates, but sometimes he is consumed by the very language he intends to transgress.

    In 1917 Virginia Woolf published an essay in the Times Literary Supplement on Caroline Tic- knors book Poes Helen (1916). Woolf was more carried away by the figure of Mrs. Whitman than by what she described as the tedious let- ters of the discreditable romantic Poe. She takes his letters and his love as examples of how Poe, whether he intended it or not, pays the price of stock idealization. Woolf wrote: He might have been addressing a fashion plate in a ladies newspaper-a fashion plate which walked the cemetery by moonlight, for the atmosphere is one of withered roses and moonshine. But isnt this the point? Poe is an unredeemable lover. The language he adopts from ladies newspapers, ac- cording to Woolf, proves that Poe did not love He- len, that he could love no one: When we read the letters we feel that the man who wrote them had no emotion left about anything; his world was a world of phantoms and fashion plates; his phrases are the cast-off phrases that were not quite good enough for a story. The Poe Woolf describes is a skep- tic caught in a haze of lies, opium, and alcohol, a man who had no emotion left about anything,6 a man who was, to use one of Poes favorite phrases, used up.

    We must continue to ask the question so power- fully articulated by Ann Douglas in The Feminiza- tion of American Culture: how could emotion-in the sense Woolf meant it-how could love survive in a society overtaken by what Douglas calls the sen timen t a1 heresy. Feminization inevitably guaranteed. . . the continuation of male hegemony in different guises. The very question of sexual identity: as Douglas does not hesitate to stress, had to be de-natured when both ministers and ladies found themselves marginalized and awash in a language of the spirit, which allowed another language and another reality to perpetuate itself. While Sarah Hale, the editor of Godeys Ladys Book, celebrated the powers of feminizing and an-

    gelic influence on the brute and money-making man, the divide between those who wielded the terms of mastery and power and those who were busy sanctifying and suffering increased.

    Rather than defend Poes private life or justify his compulsively repeated terms of endearment, I want to reflect on Woolfs portrait of a man hol- lowed out, exhausted, and unbelieving. For this rather unlovable lover wrote love poems that would involve him in significant poetic exchanges with Frances Sargent Osgood and Sarah Helen Whitman. Speaking of the latter, Caroline Tick- nor praises her brief engagement to Poe in words no doubt too sentimental for Woolf: these two po- ets, who loved to make love in poetic form. Speak- ing about Poes Helen of a thousand dreams, Ticknor finds herself, along with Sarah Whitman, consumed by the force of his great spirit grop- ing toward the light, by this man of brilliant in- tellect, splendid imagination and marvelous power of expression. Whether we look at Ticknor, Os- good, or Whitman, most of Poes women, whether critics or lovers, seem to join him in the language of reverence and excess. Whitman found in Poe a fitting object for her psychal fancies and impossi- ble dreams. Her Edgar Allan Poe and his Critics (1860), an attempt to vindicate Poes name from the slurs of the vindictive Griswold, testifies to Poes grace, erudition, and magnetism, as well as to that power of vivid and intense conception that made his dreams realities, and his life a dream.

    Although Poe was a predictable lover, romanc- ing and recycling his beloveds in letters, poems, and tales, he remained a serious critic of women writers. During his editorship of Grahams Mag- azine, he introduced to the American public the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who con- tributed many of her shorter poems to its pages. His review of Barretts The Drama of Exile, and Other Poems in The Broadway Journal in 1845, demonstrates his awareness of how women writ- ers are treated when the race of critics, as he puts it, are masculine-men. Poe does not spare Barrett his criticisms, for he respects her as an equal. The greatest evil resulting from the absence of women critics, he explains, is that the critical man finds it an unpleasant task . . . to speak ill of a woman (Writings, 3:l): In general, therefore, it is the unhappy lot of the au- thoress to be subjected, time after time, to the down- right degradation of mere puffery . . . . That Miss Bar- rett had done more, in poetry, than any woman, liv- ing or dead, will scarcely be questioned:-that she has surpaased all her poetical contemporaries of either sex (with a single exception) is our deliberate opinion-not idly entertained, we think, nor founded on any visionary


  • basis. (Writings, 3:2, 14)

    Never one to let a good bit of prose serve only one purpose, Poe sent his words about Barrett to Sarah Helen Whitman before he finally met her in 1848. As Ticknor writes, An article by Poe, on Elizabeth Barrett, whose work he had been one of the first to extol, had been sent to Mrs. Whitman at his request.

    In the early summer of 1848, while Poe was courting Mrs. Nancy Locke Richmond (whom he called...


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