Illuminated initial I Harrington cover

s the lyric primarily an ethical or an aesthetic genre? What are its definitive generic qualities? Is the lyric “I” identical to the voice of the poet, and does it establish or foreclose relationships with others? These questions will be familiar to contemporary scholars of poetry, but the assumptions that fin de siècle critics brought to them may not be. Take, for example, this anonymous review of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s early work:

The reason why no woman has ever, except in lyric, yet produced a work of art even approximately perfect is, that owing to the ethical basis of her nature her imagination is stifled before it can reach the selfish domain of pure art. (quoted in Harrington 7, emphasis added)

Perhaps more striking for contemporary readers than the declaration that a woman’s imagination is limited by the “ethical basis” of her “nature,” or than the valorization of the “selfish domain of pure art,” is the idea that lyric poetry itself may be the vehicle for an “approximately perfect” ethical art.

The twentieth century left us with quite different assumptions about the distinguishing characteristics of lyric poetry. For example, the line of thinking advanced in Sharon Cameron's Lyric Time suggests that the lyric voice is defined by its “solitary” quality and by the fact that it “generally speaks out of a single moment in time” (23). Jonathan Culler has theorized the lyric utterance as apostrophic, dedicated to an absent and perhaps inhuman other; apostrophe in lyric seeks to reconcile subject and object, but it would do so “as an act of will, as something to be accomplished poetically in the act of apostrophizing” (“Apostrophe” 64). Many have found these qualities to mark the lyric as a particularly solipsistic, interiorizing genre.1 In fact, for Bakhtin, the poetic genre “is a unitary and singular Ptolemaic world outside of which nothing else exists and nothing else is needed” (The Dialogic Imagination 286). Ethics involves relations with others, and relations require polyvocality rather than monologism. In what way, then, is the lyric an ethical genre? And if it is deeply ethical, can it also be aesthetic (“pure art”)?

In Second Person Singular, Emily Harrington considers these generic questions about the ethical and aesthetic possibilities of lyric in the context of the existing scholarship on late-nineteenth-century women’s poetry. Her argument proceeds from a response to the reviewer quoted above: i.e., that “women poets at the end of the century presented their work as valuable on the very grounds on which this reviewer dismisses it; their work argues for the importance of the lyrical and the relational” (7, emphasis added). In particular, the short lyric poems of Christina Rossetti, Augusta Webster, A. Mary F. Robinson, Alice Meynell, and Dolly Radford construct a “paradoxically impersonal intimacy, in which readers can see a dynamics of interaction at work, without positioning that dynamics within the specific circumstances of the lives of people or characters” (177). This “impersonal intimacy” is evidenced, for example, in Meynell’s emphasis on solitude, separation, and silence as the conditions of possibility for intimacy, and in Augusta Webster’s suggestion that a lyric poem necessarily fails to capture the human voice while, at the same time, “enlarg[ing] a reader’s range of emotional possibilities” through identification with the lyric speaker (69).

Harrington’s readings of these women poets thus do the double work of questioning post-New Critical commonplaces about the lyric genre and providing counter-readings of the women poets in question. The chapter on Christina Rossetti—who, Harrington argues, served as a model for the other fin de siècle women poets in this volume—sets the stage for this work. Against traditional readings of Rossetti, which characterize her verses as solipsistic and withdrawn, Harrington argues that poems such as “Twice” and “Monna Innominata” present a triangulated relationship between the speaker, the lover, and God that depend on a “balance of dominance and submissiveness” (14). These relations are also suggested formally, for example in echo-like repetitions that suggest a call-and-response and that may “respond to each other within single poems,” dialogically (15). In this view, the distant stance that many have ascribed to Rossetti's work is a condition of separation from the other that is necessary in order to establish a relation in the first place.

Take, for example, Harrington’s reading of the second stanza of Rossetti’s “Echo”:

Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
    Whose wakening should have been in Paradise;
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
    Where thirsting longing eyes
        Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

This poem “explores the idea of the repetition of voices, laying the groundwork for a theory of lyric voice that endured throughout Rossetti’s career” (28). Specifically, in the stanza quoted,

[Rossetti’s] fantasy of Paradise [...] is one in which people who love one another are reunited for eternity. Envisioning it as a room with an opening door that only allows entrances, never exits, Rossetti likens Paradise with its entering souls to a stanza, the Italian word for room, thereby characterizing a stanza and a poem as the site of ever multiplying souls and lyric voices. The room corresponds to the repetitions in the poem, which add words with each repetition. As words and phrases repeat in this poem, with new words at each repetition, potential subjects, objects, and meanings accumulate. Souls proliferate in this poem as they do behind the door of the “stanza” of Paradise. When Vendler asks in Invisible Listeners who is in the room, whether the listener is present or absent, she refers to the fiction of the poem, inherited from John Stuart Mill’s image of a speaker in a cell, as already voiced in space and time. By casting the poem itself as the “room,” Rossetti casts quite a different light on the question of who is in the room, because her “stanza” does not limit itself to a single speaker or listener. (30)

In Harrington’s reading, this poem “performs the reciprocal feeling it desires, and in doing so it asserts its own repetitions as an echo of the pleasures of earthly life and paradise” (30). Its use of repetition is distinctly lyrical, as opposed to dramatic or narratological. At the same time, it resists the traditional conception of lyric as one in which a single speaker addresses a stable other.

Contemporary reviewers of the women poets who followed Rossetti distinguished their work from men’s poetry on the basis of presumed essential differences between men and women. Often, they further justified that separation in terms of the relational subject matter women poets chose to address: in particular, relations between mothers and children, which were seen as sentimental and unserious. Harrington shows that this, too, is often a misreading, and that the sound of a poem often belies the apparent semantic content. For example, while Augusta Webster’s sonnet sequences on mother and child might seem to idealize this relationship and disparage the idea of measuring love, a closer metrical reading shows that “the ‘calculating faculty’ extends to the balancing act that a mother, even of only one child, must do within her family over time” (53). Her “language of debt and credit” in these sonnets invites comparison to no less “trivial” a poet than Shakespeare (62).

Dollie Radford, who also wrote about mothers and children, is important “precisely in the ways in which she seriously considers the significance of the small—the genre of song, the short poem, the unshareable song, the unoriginal poem or song, the children’s song” (171). Take, for example, this poem from Radford’s collection Songs and Other Verses:

If you will sing the songs I play,
    Then you shall be my dear,
And I will cherish you alway,
    And love you far and near;
If you will, in sweet singing, say
The songs I play.

Harrington observes that

This poem holds out great hope for the intimate possibilities of lyric, but perhaps the most important word in the poem is “If,” its conditional mode reminding readers that the poem's communicative potential is not a foregone conclusion. This mode indicates that the love the poem seems to promise so sweetly is itself conditional on the repetition of song. The “If” allows Radford simultaneously to put forward this ideal and to withhold it. The incompleteness of the proposed song partakes of the open-endedness of waiting. Because so many songs are desired in her work, Radford asks us to redefine song as a work proposed rather than a work achieved.

Waiting is in fact a necessary condition of lyric, often imposed by formal repetition (in the expectation that sounds and meters will recur) and always by the enjambments that suspend, however briefly, our knowledge of where the sound and sense of a given line will lead. In Radford's poems, Harrington argues, waiting is also “an act of patient defiance, an attitude of attention and openness that she asserts is necessary for aesthetic and social progress” (142).

Other women poets, such as A. Mary F. Robinson and Alice Meynell, consider broader questions about the relational in their work: e.g., whether and how social engagement is necessary for an artist, whether an artist should privilege aesthetic or political goals, and whether political art ever accomplishes its social goals. Robinson, along with her longtime friend and correspondent Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), attempted “to establish an ethical aesthetics” (81) that would be distinct from decadent aesthetics as well as from Ruskin’s or Morris’s ideas about improving the lower classes through access to art. For Robinson, the key to this project was a difficult, un-lyrical prosody that emphasized the necessity of sympathy along with the separation of the subject from the object of that sympathy. Alice Meynell’s work, which has been characterized as “impersonal, detached, and restrained” (110), uses precisely those qualities to emphasize the necessity of distance and silence for the establishment of relations. Meynell also offers a counterpoint to Woolf’s argument in “A Room of One’s Own,” suggesting that artists require social connectedness rather than seclusion: alone, the poet loses control of her sense of self and fails to produce work that can connect to an audience.

To support her generic arguments about women’s lyric poetry, Harrington focuses mainly on short lyric poems, some of which are part of sonnet sequences and many of which form part of larger collected volumes. This focus has some advantages for purposes of comparison, but it also leads to some confusion in terms of the book’s argument about lyric poetry as a genre. For example, Harrington’s reading of Rossetti’s sonnet 12 of “Monna Innominata” relies on a lyric “reading practice” that “presents us with an ideal of intimacy rather than flawed realism” (26). This stands in contrast to dramatic or narrative reading practices, which “invite readers to identify with the emotions represented” (26). That is, Harrington subsumes the dramatic monologues of “Monna Innominata” under the category of lyric and explicitly rejects reading them through a dramatic or narrative lens. Presumably, the rejection of the narrative lens would also entail the rejection (or minimization) of the sonnet sequence as a structure with a linear narrative.

On the one hand, the choice to read the sonnets of “Monna Innominata” as lyric poems would seem to be in line with a theoretically broad conception of lyric. For example, Culler has argued that “[c]onceiving of a broad range of possibilities for lyric in many periods and languages can help prevent a certain narrowing of the conception of lyric and a tendency, understandable given the realities of literary education today, to treat lyric on the model of narrative, so that the dramatic monologue becomes the model of lyric” (“Lyric, History, and Genre” 885-6). But if the broad category of lyric is to stand distinct from narrative and drama, it must do so partly on the basis of its temporality. Narratives, even of the postmodern variety, use the categories of story and discourse, and hence refer to a chronology of events. That chronology may be obstructed or obscured, but it remains fundamental to the category of narrative. In contrast, the power of lyric is—as Harrington herself points out in Chapter 4—the “ability to cross over past and present, to make what is irretrievably distant seem close” (127).

While Harrington’s readings of Rossetti’s poems may be consistent with a broad conception of lyric that is generically and temporally distinct from narrative, other readings in this volume are not. Webster’s sonnets—which Harrington also categorizes as lyrics—seem to resist the specifically lyric reading practice that she proposes, as they “use a series of poems to depict change over time” (58). Similarly, in Meynell’s work, Harrington argues that poetry is construed as “inherently dialogic”: “the relationships between poets, between a poet and her poem, or between a poet and poetry happen across time, the distances of time separating one from another” (134). This need not be inconsistent with the claim that Meynell’s “Soeur Monique” is an apostrophe, and that “for Meynell, poetry was a form of time travel, a way of responding to the past and speaking to the future” (126), but it does require some clarification. If the temporality of an apostrophic lyric is that of a single voice speaking from a single moment in time, how can it also represent change across a temporal duration? If a sonnet series suggests a chronology, how does a lyric reading practice (as opposed to a narrative or dramatic reading practice) deal with the poetry’s “story”? Even more important, with regard to Harrington’s thesis, how does a lyric reading practice reconcile the temporality of lyric with its ethics—that is, with the relations it establishes between subjects across time?

Thus, although Harrington convincingly establishes that “women poets contributed to the fin de siècle’s preference in poetry for the short ‘gem’” (2), we are left with some definitional and theoretical questions about the short lyric in the late nineteenth century. What is the importance of this category beyond its role in the “lyricization” of poetry? What is the proper unit of consideration for the lyric poem—the poem alone, the poem in the context of a sequence decided by the poet, or the sequence of poems in chronological order of authorship? Should a short lyric poem be read according to a “lyric reading practice” that disavows the possibility of narrative across poems? If not—if poems may be in dialogue with each other, whether in a linear or nonlinear fashion—what is the importance of the short lyric as a category? How does this category relate to other genres (e.g. narrative, drama, and song)? These questions place the women poets in this book in a broader fin de siècle context. For example, like Dolly Radford, Yeats wrote short “songs” in the 1890s that were not only occasionally set to music, but sometimes excerpted from their original dramatic context and republished in collections of lyric poems. What happens to these verses as they cross genres, and whether they do different work as lyric poems, are questions that are important for poetry in the modernist period and beyond.

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1. This line of thinking came to dominate, and to some extents still dominates, critical assumptions about the lyric voice and lyric time. The recent movement to historicize lyric (and the “lyricization of poetry”) disrupts the category of lyric without significantly disrupting the assumptions about the voice and temporality of the small, “gem-like” lyrics that Harrington considers here.


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe.” Diacritics 7(4) (Winter 1977): 59–69.

———. “Lyric, History, and Genre.” New Literary History 40(4) (Autumn 2009): 879–899.

Harrington, Emily. Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Women Poets and the Bonds of Verse. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2014. xi + 231 pp.

Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Created 16 April 2015