April 17, 2009
In creating the paired-poem prompt, my goal was to find a romantic era poem that although was in some way similar to Boland’s sentiments, on the whole, offered new ideas and offered a range of techniques for discussion. This proved the most difficult aspect of the assignment and I ended up devoting hours sifting through poems in order to find one that fit my own stipulations. Early through my research I came upon a poem by a French romantic “Femmes Damnées” (Damned Women) by Charles Baudelaire. This created a two-fold conflict; first, the fact that I was reading translations and interpretations of the poem made it impossible to discuss techniques, as the techniques I was reading were the techniques of the translator and not necessarily Baudelaire himself. Further, the subject matter Baudelaire discussed highlighted the indefinable quality of women- “O virgins, O demons, O monsters, O martyrs,” and while this idea could stimulate a range of essays, I didn’t think it could so easily be connected to women’s role in society itself. I also did much research on William Wordsworth as I found that he wrote numerous poems that discussed female gender roles, including “The Idiot Boy,” and “Her Eyes were Wild” but none seemed to fit my needs. It was through the research on Wordsworth however that led me to Charlotte Smith and her poetry, as an essay was written comparing their roles in the romantic feminism.
Once I found “Sonnet XLVII To Fancy,” it became clear that that was to be the poem I would use, connecting them on the idea of plateauing- of an inability to act or do as one pleased, and especially contrasting them through tone (among other techniques) that caused the two poems to diverge. However, my qualm about utilizing this Smith poem, which is a problem that arises any time I analyze a poem, is that I’m misreading it. If in fact I misread Smith’s poem, it would then be impossible to write an essay about it whereupon.
Smith’s poem contrasts highly with Boland, especially in her use of a desolate, rather than indignant tone. It was this divergence of tone that forged one poem that chafed at the position of women and the other served as a melancholy self-meditation. Smith’s poem begins, “Thee, Queen of Shadows!” (1) and already in the first line, the imagery hearkens to the subordinate position of women by noting the characteristic of shadows- suggesting that the woman figure is shrouded and covered by more powerful entities, i.e. men. She continued this metaphor, expanding it to include light throughout much of the poem, noting that “When on mine eyes the early radiance broke/Which shew'd the beauteous rather than the true!” (Lines 3-4); when women did garner attention it was for their physical beauty rather than their more substantial attributes. Similarly, when Smith wrote, “And now 'tis thine in darkest hues to dress,” she not only expanded upon this light/dark metaphor but similarly used “darkest hues” to suggest the desolation that is inherent within the poem. The student may even note the parallel that forms between the two poems, in which Boland utilizes fire and light imagery to convey masculinity. In this manner, the two authors use contrasting images of light and dark to suggest the contrasting ideas of masculinity and femininity, respectively.
Boland too emphasizes the generic, archetypical role of women, however, unlike Smith who emphasizes the idea of physical beauty, she highlights a greater irony than her romantic counterpart. Boland writes, “So when the king's head/gored its basket—/grim harvest/we were gristing bread/or getting the recipe/for a good soup/to appetize/our gossip” (28-35). Each emphasized the contrast between expected duty and personal desires. Smith later conveys this juxtaposition through personification, noting, “The spot where pale Experience hangs her head/O'er the sad grave of murder'd Happiness!” (7-8). By personifying experience and happiness, Smith simplifies the idea that experience overshadows personal happiness. Each reached a similar conclusion however that so-called women’s duty overshadowed their personal happiness.
From this statement, the students who were to write the essay could create a contrast between the ideas of Boland and Smith. Smith concedes that it was society, or an external force, that was very much dictating her actions- as she noted, it was her “wayward destiny,” destiny implying that it is not something she herself could influence. While each came to a similar conclusion about women, that they are discontented with their current social positions, Boland asserts that it is very much women who create this self-perpetuating cycle of subordination. As she herself notes, the women consciously fill their domestic niche and choose to serve as caretakers, cooks, and cleaners- it’s their “alibi,” (25). The use of the word “alibi” in line 25 suggests that women consciously choose not to adapt but to remain stagnant. A student could also discuss their diverging tones, where Smith appears woeful, Boland sounds appears much more indignant, noting that “still no page/scores the low music/of our outrage,” (40-43). In contrast, Smith utilizes words such as “darkest hues,” “sad grave,” and “fancied pain” to convey a sense of despondency and even hopelessness of women’s current plight (6; 8; 10).
Nevertheless, in spite of the clear parallels between the two poems, a student may have difficulty analyzing Charlotte Smith’s poem “Sonnet XLVII To Fancy” beyond the surface content. They could write an essay merely contrasting Boland’s discussion of women’s stagnation within society and Smith’s discussion of women’s de-emphasis in society, each case overshadowed by men. In order for the student to answer the question successfully and effectively, the student would be required to note the techniques as well as the themes of the poems. In Boland’s case, a discussion of the fire imagery, the irony, and indignant tone would be necessary while with Smith’s poem, the student should be able to discuss the dark imagery, the personification, as well as the despondent tone through the essay. The student may also feel threatened by the romantic language, which is clearly elevated. However, any vocabulary that the student does not understand i.e. “sportive” can be deduced by context clues.