Wendy S. Williams, George Eliot, Poetess
Wendy S. Williams, George Eliot, Poetess, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, 170 p. ISBN: 978-1-4724-3793-8
1In George Eliot, Poetess, Wendy S. Williams explores Eliot’s poetry in its relation to Victorian literature and analyses it from within the tradition of mid-Victorian women’s poetry. George Eliot started her career as a poet in the 1860s, when she was already a well-known and successful novelist. Eliot’s abundant poetic contribution has been neglected and often undervalued by critics. No in-depth and full-length study on Eliot’s poems was undertaken before Williams’s book. This contribution calls attention to the notion of sympathy rather than to religious piety, which was a traditional source of legitimacy for mid-Victorian women poets. Eliot relied on femininity and compassion in her poetry, two driving forces that she believed should refine and advance society.
2In the first chapter, Williams studies Eliot’s association with the London male society as she and Lewes held their salon at the Priory on Sunday afternoons in the 1860s and 1870s. As a public figure, she embodied respectability and femininity and further enhanced her social and literary status by constructing herself as an enlightened and sympathetic literary authority and poetess. As most women poets in the 1860s, Eliot wrote within the poetess tradition, accepting feminine poetical conventions. She built her poetical persona as a spiritual guide or a ‘living sage’ (8) both poetically and socially. Like other women poets who used prophetic women characters, she identified herself with a female Greek chaste poet in the elegiac poem ‘Erinna’ and called attention to the feminine capacity to create art by mourning and lamenting. She thus associated herself ‘with the pure and respectable poetess who poured out her heart in lament rather than in love and desire’ (30).
3In chapter two, Williams first shows how Eliot as a poet-prophet distanced herself from the Christian doctrines and converted to a religion of sympathy that should lead to a morally improved society. By using religious terms and Biblical references in her secular poems such as ‘Mid the Rich Store of Nature’s Gifts to Man’ and ‘O May I Join the Choir Invisible’, Eliot underlines that sympathy has a religious function and conveys the idea that humans are led to moral progress and share a form of spiritual communion thanks to art’s moral function, to poetry’s creative process and to the poet’s status as a religious leader. It is the poetess’s role to promote sympathy in her poems as they reveal humanity’s mission, consisting in imbuing the world with sympathy by living compassionately. Williams reads Eliot’s poems on sympathy as evidence of her feminine piety, a major element of feminine poetics.
4Chapter three begins by exploring Eliot’s views on gender and precisely her faith in the value of education, as gradual changes in an enlightened society should empower women while preserving the benefits of femininity. Williams asserts that, contrary to her novels, Eliot’s poetry conveys unconventional, and at times subversive, views on gender issues. Eliot uses femininity as a conveyor of progressive ideas on gender while she appears to advance middle-class values on gender relations. In the sonnet sequence ‘Brother and Sister’ and in ‘How Lisa Loved the King’, Eliot both conforms to rigid poetic forms and explores their potential to illustrate the social tensions faced by her heroines. She denounces the social codes of conduct and gender inequality leading to the commodification of women and advocates a better society in which decorum no longer prevents sympathy and true love and in which women’s real choices benefit the whole society.
5Chapter four examines Eliot’s personal experience with women, friends and relatives, and analyses the references to motherhood and motherly figures especially in Armgart, a long poem about a woman artist who finds fulfilment in female friendship after her professional failure, and in ‘Agatha’, a shorter piece about an old sympathy-oriented woman who has become a spiritual leader for her community. Through these poetic representations of femininity, Eliot provides her own construction of the spiritual mother to the nation and spreads the message that sympathy is a sacred social value. Sympathy within the community becomes a redemptive force for her heroines while Eliot constructs at the same time her own image as a poetess, regarding herself as a woman with a sacred mission.
6In the final chapter, Williams argues that underrepresented themes in Eliot’s poetry could form the basis for further exploration; for example religion, music, memory and community that have sometimes been widely studied in Eliot’s fiction can be further investigated in her poems. She suggests that fruitful comparisons could be conducted between the artist’s poetry and her novels, the question of marriage practices being a case in point. She also indicates several fields of study that could provide rich insight into Eliot studies, but also could significantly open new areas of research in Victorian studies. For example, the study of poetic epigraphs, the comparison of the approach to sympathy in Eliot’s fiction and the metapoetic references to the craft of poetry writing within poems.
7It is high time to revalue Eliot’s poems; one of the strengths in Williams’s book is indeed its interest for some critically underrepresented poems. The focus on sympathy is a fruitful and unifying theme, relatively unexplored by critics. However, it is slightly undermined when Williams links it with Eliot’s ‘femininity’ and ‘feminine poetics’, first because it tends to bring all the Victorian women poets together under the same poetic umbrella and second because the expression of sympathy is not restricted to women poets. Furthermore focussing on Eliot’s originality as a ‘poetess’ sometimes fails to convince as several mid-Victorian women poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in particular, had a similar social and poetic status. On this matter, Williams refers in one single endnote (7) to the central notion of ‘poetess’. A longer development comparing Eliot’s and other women poets’ definition and self-representation as poetess would have been helpful. Too numerous, long and at times repetitive endnotes make reading difficult and sometimes irksome.
8Nevertheless, the references to commodity culture are particularly refreshing as Eliot’s persona as a poet has been overlooked for too long. Among the different research perspectives provided in the concluding chapter, the poetic epigraphs in Eliot’s poems (but one could also explore other women’s poetic epigraphs) seem particularly fruitful and creative. Finally, this book will certainly spur further studies on Eliot’s poetry, still waiting to be fully (re)discovered.
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Fabienne Moine, « Wendy S. Williams, George Eliot, Poetess », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2416Haut de page
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