"The Heroines of the Poets." Current Literature XIX: 5 (May 1896), p391.
THE HEROINES OF THE POETS
IDEALS OF WOMANHOOD – MINNEAPOLIS TIMES
To those who hold fellowship with the poets a fair world is ever open, and fairest of its visions are the poets' ideals of womanhood. They move a stately throng, those radiant creations of the singers' fancy. They wear the coronet of beauty, and their scepter is the golden-hearted chalice of purity. All grace and loveliness is theirs. What the heart of man admires in woman, they possess. They are dreams; dreams that express humanity's desire for perfection; dreams that exalt womanhood, and sound the key note of a loftier life. Filled as poetry is with the glamour of love and the glory of woman, it is surprising that so few poets have drawn heroines that are enduring types, familiar and beloved. A few characters there are whom artists paint, and maidens worship, and the people know as they know the heroes of their nation's history. But they are very few. Most of the poetic creations are vague images that move through the measures of a song, but have not "local habitation and a name." None of the older poets have given us a well-known heroine. Chaucer's Legende of Goode Women, while it is a tribute to the worth and virtue of woman, presents no distinct character to be remembered and sung of and painted. Spenser's Epithalamium is the most beautiful bridal hymn in all literature, yet it has not immortalized the fair Elizabeth. Neither Milton, Dryden, Pope, Goldsmith nor Cowper created any conspicuous ideals of womanhood.
With the dawn of romantic poetry, woman's place in song became more prominent. Burns, prince of romantic poets, has given to the world a portfolio of sweet girl faces from Handsome Nell to Jean and Highland Mary. Scott was the first poet to create an immortal heroine of sustained narrative poetry. The Lady of the Lake is the first and one of the most prominent of the ideal women of verse. It is more as a sculptured goddess or a sylvan priestess than a mere earthly maiden that we remember fair Ellen. She floats above the poem rather than lives in it. She is too ethereal to be loved as a personality. Byron, with all his intensity and experience, has drawn no heroine of any merit. The casual reader can scarcely recall a woman's name in his poems. He has no power of delineating human nature. His heroines are all of the Oriental type and he pictures them with superficial, amorous fancy. One gem stands forth pre-eminent among his poems. It is that lofty ideal of womanhood exquisitely expressed in the Hebrew melody beginning:
"She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies."
Mrs. Browning's Aurora Leigh is a character familiar to people of literary taste, but she is too abstruse and metaphysical to be really human. Wordsworth has given us only detached bits of description of women. Yet there is perhaps no poem so often quoted in praise of woman as those striking and dainty verses beginning:
"She was a phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely apparition sent
To be a moment's ornament;
Her eyes as stars of twilight fair;
Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful dawn;
A dancing shape, an image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and waylay."
Tennyson has produced more strong and varied sketches of women than any other of the poets. The Princess, Maud, Dora, Lady Clare -- a dozen names rise to the lips. But his treatment is cold and analytical and it robs his creations of the spontaneous fervor necessary to make them living personalities. His celebrated stanzas at the close of The Princess contain the most lofty and beautiful exposition of the inequality and interdependence of man and woman to be found in literature. His whole gospel is summed up in the lines:
"Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words."
Owen Meredith's Lucile is a beautiful embodiment of womanhood, and a character dear to modern taste. Poe's Lenore is a familiar figure. But it is the humbler poets who have produced the most realistic types. Maud Muller is known to every child. The most widely known and best beloved and, therefore, in one sense, the greatest poetic ideals of woman are Longfellow's Priscilla and Evangeline. They are so idyllicly feminine and sweetly human that we love as well as admire them. Whether seated at the spinning wheel or standing upon the shore or riding in the quaintly picturesque bridal procession, Priscilla is to be found in every home of culture and every gallery of art. And Evangeline, both as the Acadian maiden and the aged nurse, is as well known as a historic character. Longfellow approaches the subject of woman with all a poet's courtly reverence, as a king might approach a sanctuary. The theme is one that has inspired poets to their noblest efforts, and comment upon their work is weak and tame. It is a practical and a cynical age and we would do well to revise our standards of womanhood by the poets' ideals.
Last revised: 19 August 2010