Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Victorian novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, A.S. Byatt addresses the role of the poet, using references both to the nature of love and the essence of creative inspiration itself, in her work, Possession. Utilizing the context of letters between a renowned 19th century poet and his lover, a lesser known female poet, Byatt examines the substance of poetry in a non-poetic form. As a modern author, Byatt places this narrative in the Victorian time period in order to legitimize a critique of Victorian notions of poetry, artistic philosophies that are espoused in Barrett Browning's work. In a letter to his soon-to-be mistress, Christabel LaMotte, Randolph Henry Ash expounds upon the idea of poetry as an expression of generalized love. Ash depicts the contemporary trend of viewing poetic inspiration as originating from the state of general human love, where all-encompassing passion is "masked" by the particular intercourse of a lover and his love.

And to tell you the truth, I have always believed I cd diagnose this state of being in love, which they regard as most particular, as inspired by item, one pair of black eyes or indifferent blue, item, one graceful attitude of body or mind, item, one female history of some twenty-two years from, shall we say, 1821-1844 -- I have always believed this "in love" to be something of the most abstract masking itself under the particular forms of both lover and beloved. [146]

Ash is contemptuous of poets who create drama from material inspired by realm of love and relationships in order to find a muse or inspiration for their poetry. As Ash states, "the Poems are not for the young lady, the young lady is for the Poems." In his critique of the forms of poetry in his time, Randolph Henry Ash presents Christabel with a divergent notion of the relationship between love and poetry and additionally, suggests that love is in and of itself a less admirable form of inspiration than another type of human relationship, the rapport of friendship

Now tell me -- do you suppose what I just wrote is the truth or a lie? You know, all poetry must be a cry of generalized love, for this, or that, or the universe -- which must be loved in its particularity, not its generality, but for its universal life in every minute particular. I have always supposed it to be a cry of unsatisfied love -- my dear -- and so it may be indeed -- for satisfaction may surfeit it and so it may die . . . I do tell you -- friendship is rarer, more idiosyncratic, more individual, and in every way more durable than this Love. [146]


Why does Ash intimate that unsatisfied love, rather than love itself, is the inspiration of most poetry? Do you think Ash is saying that friendship can substitute for love as the foundation of poetry? Is Ash's assertion of friendship as superior to love weakened by his consequent amorous relationship with LaMotte?

How does Ash's conception of the poetry differ from that promulgated by Barrett Browning through the voice of her protagonist Aurora Leigh? Do you think Byatt herself is attempting to provide a critique of romantic poetry, or is merely an objective creator of a particular viewpoint of the Victorian times? Simply, is this viewpoint, espoused by Ash, a modernist conception of poetry? How is this viewpoint reflected by the actions and beliefs of the modern-day characters -- Roland and Maud?

Where else in the novel do Byatt's characters -- especially LaMotte or Ash -- denigrate the ability of human love relationships to inspire poetic creation?


Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Last modified 5 April 2004