Difference and Sameness: Augusta
A Report of an Aesthetic Realism
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
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
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:
that I care nothing.
But lo the
man is dead. I am forgotten.
"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:
goes from life in that-
as if oneself had
Change? There was no change;
"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:
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...
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
"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.