Aesthetic Realism Class About Poetry

Sameness and Difference: Augusta Webster ...  Part2

Mr. Siegel next discussed "A Castaway", the monologue of what used to be called a "kept" woman.  She is questioning herself and thinking about her life.  She remembers her innocent childhood and compares her life of comfort to that of a street-walker, a woman so much less fortunate.  The castaway criticizes men in "honorable" trades--lawyers, doctors, businessmen, tradesmen--for their hypocrisy.  She asks: 

And whom do I hurt more than they? as much?
The wives?
And in the following passage, which Mr. Siegel said was near to poetry, she shows with biting humor her scorn of both the men and their wives, of whom she says: 
But, if they can, let them just take the pains 
to keep them: 'tis not such a mighty task 
to pin an idiot to your apron-string;
In a passage I care for very much, the castaway shows the fight between her desire for activity and quiet:
 How could I henceforth be content 
 in any life but one that sets the brain 
 in a hot merry fever with its stir? 
 what would there be in quiet rustic days, 
 each like the other, full of time to think, 
 to keep one bold enough to live at all? 
 Quiet is hell, I say--as if a woman 
 could bear to sit alone, quiet all day, 
 and loathe herself, and sicken on her thoughts.
"How can a woman stand the sameness of things?" asked Mr. Siegel, and he related Mrs. Webster to the 20th century American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who asked that question often in her poems, too. 

We next heard "In An Almshouse," in which Mrs. Webster writes as an elderly man whose vision is impaired and who, despite his very good education, is tired of life.  While this is the vaguest of her portraits, Mr. Siegel pointed out that it is also the most poetic.  "We have a desire to see life as having nothing and to see life as full and having many things in it, very specific," Mr. Siegel commented.  He read the beginning lines of the poem, describing a summer evening.  Then, to have us hear true poetic music, Mr. Siegel read another poem on this subject, William Collins' "Ode to Evening" of 1746.  This is a century before Mrs. Webster, and the language is different from what we hear today, but the music of these lines is great. Collins addresses evening as a feminine person, Eve, and his poem begins:

 If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song, 
 May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear, 
    Like thy own solemn springs, 
    Thy springs and dying gales, 

 O nymph reserved, while now the bright-haired sun 
 Sits in yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts,
    With brede ethereal wove, 
    O'erhang his wavy bed:

 Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat, 
 With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing, 
     Or where the beetle winds 
     His small but sullen horn, 
Said Mr. Siegel, "This is a study of what affected Augusta Webster--the relation of quiet, to life."  Quiet and energy are present in the following lines, as Collins describes the sounds of the bat and the beetle:
 Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat, 
 With short shrill shriek flits by on leathern wing, 
    Or where the beetle winds 
    His small but sullen horn,
As he describes the sounds of summer, Collins has a sense of how the rest and motion, quiet and noise or reality itself are one--and it is the musical oneness of these opposites we hear in his lines.  For instance, Mr. Siegel showed how in the second line, very different sounds are gracefully together: "Short shrill shriek," is sudden and loud, while "flits by on leathern wing" is soft and soothing.

 Returning to Augusta Webster's poem, Mr. Siegel noted that it did not have the inextricable oneness of force and ease every line that Collins' "Ode to Evening" has.  However he did find some lines in this monologue that he saw as true poetry, and  he had great pleasure praising them.  The man, who is thinking about himself, refers to his failing vision as he exclaims: 

O strange blurred mists, 
that mean the sky to me, . . .
 Said Mr. Siegel, "That is poetry unquestionably.  There is denial and affirmation;  something is seen clearly but there is a feeling more could be seen."  The second instance was a regular iambic pentameter line: 
 I see the shadows soften on the hills, . . .
 Mr. Siegel described this line as a study in English sibilants, putting together motion and something restrained.

The last work he discussed was an excerpt from a play called "In A  Day", set in ancient Greece, included in Stedman's Victorian Anthology  of 1896. Mr. Siegel said that this is where he first met Augusta Webster and had a sense of her power.  It is described as a "classic stoic dilemma," set in ancient times.  Myron, a philosopher, who has been unjustly accused of treason, is about to die.  He sees the body of Klydone, his betrothed, carried by servants on a couch, and says: 

Oh, how fair she lies!
She should have kept that smile to look on me. 
Sweet, canst thou see me still? How fair she is!
Smile on, Klydone, death has wedded us.
Wife, wilt thou love me there, whither we go? 
Commented Mr. Siegel:
This is quite strange but it has to do with the relation of life and death, motion and rest, pleasure and pain, things and nothingness.  This is some notion of the constant collision of two things in Augusta Webster. 
As I studied this class, I looked on the Internet and was very glad to see that Augusta Webster, who was unheard of at the time of this lecture, is now studied at various universities. Many of her works, including  the book Mr. Siegel used, are posted on the web site of the "Victorian Women's Writers Project" of Indiana University.  I hope that the persons studying and teaching her work will be able to know of this lecture, and learn how much her poems have to do with the questions women, in particular, have today.  The understanding Augusta Davies Webster was longing for--the true comprehension of her work and of her feelings as a human being, was in this lecture.  As Mr. Siegel placed her in terms of all literature, his desire to know her feelings and how she saw  the world was glorious, and I want his great kindness and scholarship to be known.

© 2000-2005 by Amy Dienes

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