Aesthetic Realism Class About Poetry


Difference and Sameness: Augusta Webster
A Report of an Aesthetic Realism Class
by Amy Dienes

 I am proud to report on a beautiful lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 17, 1977 entitled, "Difference and Sameness: Augusta Webster."   He began by saying: 

I felt there was a lady, who, if I didn't talk about her would perhaps be completely untalked of, and that was not deserved...As far as I know she is one of the most powerfully minded women...Her life is important...She represents the meaning of the opposites in a way that is entirely her own. 
 "The meaning of the opposites" in the life of Augusta Davies Webster, 1837-1894, is what Mr. Siegel showed, resplendently and vividly in this class.  She was an exceptionally well educated woman who worked with John Stuart Mill and others in behalf of women's rights and equal educational opportunities.  She received some recognition as a poet in her lifetime and was esteemed by Christina Rossetti, who described her as "formidable."  Mr. Siegel spoke of the power of her mind, and about her poetry he said, with great feeling:
The poems of Miss Davies...hover unbearably about poetry so much that I really feel sad I cannot say [they are  poetic].  I don't know of a better instance of poetry that is not entire...with the window open a little more, the door closed a little more, it would be poetry.  She's exceedingly dramatic.  She knows situations. 
  Poetic music that is entire, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, arises from opposites seen and felt as one so deeply that the world itself is liked honestly, intensely!  Mr. Siegel showed throughout this class that Augusta Webster had a powerful, discerning mind, and people today can learn from the way she saw, because she is so close to being poetic on matters that affect both men and women very deeply.  Mr. Siegel read from her book, Portraits, published in 1870, containing eleven long dramatic monologues--a poetic form made popular by Robert Browning.  The first was "Medea," presenting that woman of ancient Greece as a drama of terrific activity and repose--opposites that we learned were central in the life of Mrs. Webster herself.  Medea, said Mr. Siegel, "is one of the most famous questioners of men.  She represents woman angry."  She defies her father by helping Jason to obtain the Golden Fleece and running away with him. They marry and have two sons, but when Jason betrays her, her rage is so great that she kills the children she had with him, as well as the other woman,  A Greek scholar who had translated the "Medea" of Aeschylus, Mrs. Webster's monologue takes place many years after these events, when Medea, who has remarried, hears of the death of Jason.  "With all she went through there seems to be repose," said Mr. Siegel.  "There is a desire to forget utterly, to make life nothing."  Hearing of Jason's death, Medea says to herself:
And this most strange of all 
that I care nothing.
  This represents a desire that can be very strong in women--the desire to get numb, feel nothing.  But then Medea realizes that with the death of Jason, there's one less person who remembers her.  She says: 
 But lo the man is dead.  I am forgotten.
 Forgotten, something goes from life in that- 
 as if oneself had died...
 "Some of the best reasoning is in Augusta Webster," commented Mr. Siegel. "She's lively, dramatic."   She has a monologue of Circe, from Homer's Odyssey--the beautiful temptress who, through her magic, changes Ulysses' men into swine.  Mrs. Webster has Circe say there was no change--she just took away the disguise that made them seem human.  She writes: 
                          Change? There was no change; 
 only disguise gone from them unawares 
and had there been one right true man of them 
he would have drunk the draught as I had drunk, 
and stood unchanged...
"In the technique of this," Mr. Siegel stated, "Mrs. Webster's desire to show her displeasure with men is present."  And she is likewise a critic of women.  "The Happiest Girl in the World," is a monologue about a young woman in the 1860's in England, who has gotten her man and still feels great uncertainty.  As I studied this poem I was tremendously moved at the way Augusta Webster gets within a woman's feelings and thoughts. You have a sense of a real person.  This girl Mr. Siegel explained, likes having a man but misses something--that feeling of being stirred by the whole world, which love at its best makes for.  She asks: 
Where are the fires and fevers and the pangs? 
where is the anguish of too much delight, 
and the delirious madness at a kiss, 
the flushing and the paling at a look, 
and passionate ecstasy of meeting hands?

 "This has slowness and speed in it," Mr. Siegel said and he continued:  [In love] there's a desire to have a person remain the same and [the feeling] "Why don't you surprise me?" "Why don't you shock me?"  There is a desire to have grandeur of action, and this girl complains that she doesn't have that. 


Part 2