Romanticism: Women and Realism in the poetry of William Wordsworth

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The exotic, oriental, mystic and ‘Other’ qualities of Romanticism allow for the erotic and sexualised undertones of women in an escapist vein. When we invert this model, grounded in realist concerns, the naturalistic poetry of William Wordsworth appears sympathetic to the cause of women in their adversity. Critics such as Katharine Merrill have agreed that Wordsworth’s brand of romanticism has dimensions of realism. Merrill writes of the poet’s ‘direct and individualistic portraiture of humble life and of nature’ which have ‘realistic traits’ and remarks that ‘The wish to keep well within the range of ordinary human life in the choice of conditions is a mark of the modern realist. The circumstances he chooses are usual and familiar […] Wordsworth’s narratives show to some extent all these characteristics’ which she grounds in his search for ‘deep spiritual truths’ as a ‘moralist[1].

Through his career Wordsworth was indeed dedicated to documenting ‘low and rustic life’[2] within which he found a sincerity compatible his promoted mode of democracy maintaining that poetry ought to be written ‘in the language really spoken by men’[3]. To stay true to this vision, representation within the poetic sphere becomes paramount and Wordsworth concerns himself with the experiences of ‘those who tended to be marginalised and oppressed by society: the rural poor; discharged soldiers; ‘fallen’ women; the insane; and children.’[4] I would argue that his presentation of female characters reflects a humanitarian solidarity, especially where these women are seen as solitary entities whose plight exists in society and would otherwise go unrepresented. The Mad Mother[5] and The Female Vagrant[6] though wretched, give these women a fierce integrity in their respective states of poverty.

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Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale – The Female Vagrant

Wordsworth’s treatment of the female outcast in The Female Vagrant charts the ruin of a woman caught in a series of misfortunes: it highlights the deficiencies of the Poor Law[7] and elicits empathy from the visible distress caused by a life of poverty. Wordsworth achieves this by evoking the character’s ‘traumatised state-of-mind’[8] as the stream of her narrative breaks down in the final stanza:

Oh! tell me whither — for no early friend / Have I. — She ceased, and weeping turned away, / As if her tale was at an end / She wept; — because she had no more to say / Of that perpetual weight which on her spirit lay.

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The Female Vagrant – a steel plate engraving by the Dalziel Brothers from Poems of Wordsworth selected by Robert Willmott.

Suzanne Webster writes how this character ‘feels detached from her present surroundings and from previous events in her life’[9]. The closing stanza thus conveys a sense of desperation and uncertainty which resonates as we, by extension, take on the burden unloaded from her conscious. The account of the female vagrant, which reads as a lament in its ballad form gives testament to her felt experiences and indeed it is ‘the poet’s sensibilities’ which ‘shape the selection of vignettes from the vagrants life’[10] and elevate them to a poetic and heard plea. Indeed in dramatising the figure of the female vagrant and giving her a voice Wordsworth dramatises himself, drawing attention to his own moral and philosophical sensibilities as a sympathetic onlooker and as a spokesman for the poor she represents. In The Female Vagrant it is that which is otherwise unseen that works to raise awareness for the cause and Wordsworth clothes the female vagrant in a mournful dignity from the sum of her experiences.

The description given in the opening stanza of The Mad Mother leaves a powerful and lasting impression from the woman’s appearance as Wordsworth writes: ‘Her eyes are wild, her head is bare, / The sun has burnt her coal-black hair, / Her eye-brows have a rusty stain’ (The Mad Mother, ll. 1-4). Standing solitary in a protective stance with ‘a baby on her arm’ (The Mad Mother, l. 5), this woman’s weathered appearance attests to a hard fairing resilience marked by bareness, burning and rust. Wordsworth in no way idealises this figure physically and her traits are not typically feminine as there is a confrontational harshness to her ‘wild’ and unkempt appearance which allows us to view this woman as a force to be reckoned with in her own right, given bearing by her strength of character. Because she is not given a name in the poem her identity comes from being ‘The Mad Mother’, whilst this could be a negative form of branding or stigmatisation, remedy is given by the woman being aware of what ‘they say’ of her and remaining ‘glad’ and ‘happy’ (The Mad Mother, ll. 11-13) as though in total defiance of this characterisation. She speaks boldly of her condition, of the ‘fire’, ‘pain’ and ‘fiendish faces’ (The Mad Mother, ll. 20-23) which tormented her and goes on to proclaim the solace found in her ‘little boy’ (The Mad Mother, l. 26) and being able to protect him.

Wordsworth gives a clear instance of maternal passion and the instinctual forces at work within the female character of this poem in such a way that would ‘enable a sympathetic identification’[11]. This is achieved as Wordsworth passes no obvious judgment of the woman’s condition, as a being she is not seen as merely hysterical, nor is she condemned or shown to be hopelessly vulnerable. There is no one-dimensionality to her character, but rather an ambiguous showcase of the complexities of a woman who is single minded in her drive and determination to shield her son from harm. Furthermore, Wordsworth chooses to write in the distinctive voice of the woman who lays claim to ‘the English tongue’ (The Mad Mother, l. 10), shows a command of her language and sets out to prove that she is entitled to her own feelings, insecurities and convictions. She addresses her baby ‘Dread not their taunts, my little life!’ telling him that ‘I am thy father’s wedded wife’ (The Mad Mother, ll. 80-81) which is a bolstering and confident assertion of her own power and capabilities.

Suggestions of an authoritative female voice in the poetry of Wordsworth are further given by critics who comment on how he chooses to evoke and express female strength. Gillen D’arcy Wood for example identifies that a ‘significant portion of Wordsworth’s manly’ language in the ballads is actually spoken by women’[12] and indeed in The Mad Mother it is the mother who claims ‘Bold as a lion I will be; / And I will always be thy guide / Through hollow snows and rivers wide / I will build an Indian bower; I know / The leaves that make the softest bed’. (The Mad Mother, ll. 60-66) Here, the woman’s use of the pronoun and active verbs and Wordsworth’s choice of words like ‘guide’ and ‘bold’ which have typically masculine associations are exclaimed strongly: she is not disabled and Wood suggests that this takes the female character out from silence and obscurity.

The allure of Kubla Khan and Christabel is the seductive weaving of pleasurable terror and pleasurable pain, the close encounters between virtue and vice. Within this sphere, Coleridge’s women are distanced by fantasy, sensuality and a freedom of expression far from the confines of ordinary women. Their presentation is a reflection of the highly emotive and sublime aspects of the Romantic period. However, as Wordsworth shows, this was not the only capability and concern of the Romantic male poet. By confronting the reader with a female vagrant and a mother considered to have mental deficiencies, Wordsworth appeals to our sense of empathy and understanding in a manner that is concerned with internal truths and evident realities.

Women and Sexuality in ‘Kubla Khan’ here…
Women and Sexuality in the poetry of Coleridge here…
The Yellow Wallpaper: Hysteria, Rest Cures & Gender Theory here…

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Sources Used: 

[1] Katharine Merrill, ‘Wordsworth’s Realism’, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 15, No. 4 (April, 1900), pp. 25

102-108.

[2] Don H. Bialostosky, Wordsworth, Dialogics and the Practice of Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge 26

University Press, 1992), p. 26.

[3] G. Kim Blank, Wordsworth and Feeling: The Poetry of an Adult Child (Farleigh Dickinson University 27

Press, 1995), p. 18.

[4] Stephanie Forward, The Romantics (The British Library Articles Online) <http://www.bl.uk/romantics- 28 and-victorians/articles/the-romantics> [accessed 10 May 2016].

[5] William Wordsworth, ‘The Mad Mother’ in Lyrical Ballads ed. by Michael Mason (Routledge, 2014), pp. 29 173-177.

[6] William Wordsworth, ‘The Female Vagrant’, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Etc (Houghton, Osgood, 1878), pp. 33-35.

[7] Gary Lee Harrison, Wordsworth’s Vagrant Muse: Poetry, Poverty, and Power (Wayne State University Press, 1994), p. 140.

[8] Suzanne E. Webster, ‘“The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”: Unfair Dismissal?’ in “A Natural Delineation of Human Passions”: The Historic Moment of Lyric Ballads ed. by C. C. Barfoot (Rodopi, 2004), p. 99.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Joshua Gonslaves, ‘Reading Idiocy: Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy”‘, The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Summer, 2007), pp. 121-130.

[12] Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Romanticism and Music Culture in Britain, 1770-1840: Virtue and Virtuosity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 93.