and the Poetess
If the Romantic lyric aims to emphasize the integrity and emotional
authenticity of the poet’s individual, passionate self, the Sentimentist
lyric aims to position both poet and reader within a web of larger
relationships, a world, a community. Faith in the aesthetic value
of a commonly shared, accessible understanding of the world forms
the crucial distinction between the poetesses and what we think
of as the postmodern sensibility—and, along with sexism, it is
probably the true basis of their denigration throughout most of
the twentieth century. The poetesses wrote of close relationships
and commmunally shared feelings, blending their lives with those
of the people around them in an intimacy that easily crossed the
boundaries of individual selves. That they wrote this way in the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the lyric poetic
self was by definition male, and when the level of self-assertion
required of a lyric poet was almost impossible for most women even
to envision, is a measure of their alienation from the most powerful
hierarchies of poetic value.
The poetesses embodied the sentimental world-view—based on diffuse
lyric subjectivity, communal values, and a self-consciously artificial
aesthetic—with great consistency. Their poems often attempted purposefully
to reflect common values, as in the following passage from "The
Aged" by Marguerite St. Leon Loud.
the aged! when like shocks of corn,
Full ripe and ready for the reaper’s hand,
Which garners for the resurrection morn
The bodies of the just—in hope they stand.
And dead must be the heart, the bosom cold,
Which warms not with affection for the old.
Many of the poetesses' poems center on relationships between women:
close friends, young nieces and daughters, babies, and mothers are
frequent addressees. Frances Sargent Osgood's 1850 volume Poems,
for example, includes numerous poems addressed directly to intimate
female friends, including "To Sarah"; "To Mrs. O";
"To Mary"; "To a Slandered Poetess"; "I
Dearly Love a Changing Cheek"; "To Amelia Welby";
and many others. Numerous other poems are meant to provide information
and advice from one woman to another, including "Venus and
the Modern Belle"; "To a Maiden in Doubt"; and
"Golden Rules in Rhyme from a Matron to a Maiden." And
many others are addressed to or concern young girls: "Fannys
First Smile"; "Ellen Learning to Walk"; "Marion's
Song in the Schoolroom"; "Little May Vincent"; and
more. This is the female-centered and domestic literary culture
in which Emily Dickinson was participating when she included so
many of her own poems in letters to friends and family members.
The 'sentimentality" in the work of the poetesses had its origin
in the eighteenth-century culture of "sensibility," the
desire to return to feelings as the ground of truth, in reaction
to the overreliance on Reason during the Enlightenment. The
poetry of Phillis Wheatley is a link between eighteenth-century
sensibility and nineteenth-century sentimentality. When Wheatley
writes, in her poem "To the University of Cambridge, in New
England," "Ye blooming plants of human race divine, /
an Ethiop tells you [sin is] your greatest foe," she sentimentalizes
herself as an object, from the public position of an outsider like
the reader. An African-American woman brought to this country as
a slave when she was a child, Wheatley allegorizes herself and her
race in such poems. Wheatley's numerous poems on the deaths of acquaintances
and children also draw on conventional images of death in order
to allegorize domestic scenes, in the same way that the nineteenth-century
poetesess would later write poems explicitly in their capacity as
mothers. Such a poetic focus on external images rather than on a
centralized subjectivity is one of the key characteristics that
distinguishes sentimental poetry from the poetry of sensibility.
Sentimental writing presupposes a public community of readers who
will feel what the writer has intended them to feel. This presumption
that the reader will react as planned is probably a major reason
that contemporary readers, reared on the Romantic ethos of individuality,
generally dislike sentimental art. Though evoking certain kinds
of emotion is sentimentality's central aim, sentimentality accomplishes
this aim not by ignoring persuasive, publically comprehensible rhetorical
logic but by manipulating it. The fear of being violated, of being
known so intimately by a writer that one can be too obviously manipulated
(not in the subtle way of high art, but in a way that is embarrassingly
evident to any other person), connects with fears of intimacy and
dependence. Nonetheless, the most salient aspects of sentimental
poetry are well-suited to achieving the aim of establishing poet
and reader within a shared communal world.
The most stereotypical sentimental subject of the poetess in America
is the death of an infant. Mark Twain's parody of poetess Emmeline
Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn focusses on this aspect of
the poetess. In fact, the death of infants was an extremely common
experience of nineteenth-century domestic life, and the poetesses'
elegies served a necessary social function as well as an aesthetic
one. Sigourney's infuses her elegies with Christianity in order
to give them the quality of a spiritual lesson. Frances Osgood's
"Ashes of Roses" is more personal in its emotion:
know her little heart is glad; some gentle angel guides
loved one on her joyous way, where'er in heaven she glides,
angel far more wisely kind than I could ever be,
all my blind, wild, mother-love,—my Fanny, tends on thee!
every sweet want of thy heart her care benign fulfils,
every whisper'd wish for me, with lulling love she stills.
Of course, it is not so much certain subjects as the way they are
treated that causes contemporary readers the most difficulty appreciating
the Sentimentist aesthetic. Conventional language and the evocation
of shared emotion can embarrass some readers by making a blatant
appeal to a shared and common humanity. Diffuse subjectivity embarrasses
some readers by giving us the poet naked of the dignity conferred
by lyric authority, and evident formal devices and stylized repetition
further distance the speaker from the appearance of authentic subjectivity.
Yet we are used to ignoring conventionalized religious sentiments
and other artifacts in the work of poets from previous centuries.
When read with an open mind, poems using Sentimentist strategies
can create a strong emotional pull, a physical pleasure in words,
and a sense of common humanity.