Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Woolf and Masculine Poetry

Milton is coming along, and it looks like he's turned into a paper on Virginia Woolf. She and I are buds again lately -- must be a summertime thing. This is the most excited about a paper I've been all semester, and while "I am no ardent feminist" (Woolf's words), I think she may be someone I want to hang out with for a long long time.

This is the first three pages (the most revised part) but the rest is spilling and spilling onto more pages as everything expands. The intro paragraph is a mess and I'll have to write it last.

Approaches to Masculine Poetry – “Woman-Manly” Readings of "Paradise Lost"

Milton holds a place at the head of a long patriarchal tradition of literary misogynism and the occlusion of women writers. Virginia Woolf calls him "the first of the masculinists," and he tells the story of a woman's inferiority that every woman of literature reads early in her studies. "Paradise Lost," through Milton's treatment of Eve, sets up the framework for a permanently skewed female creative ego; one that must approach the works of Milton and his male peers with reverence and timidity, and think of her own work as second, other, and inferior. Feminist critics have waged war on Milton for decades, but woman writers have struggled with him for centuries. Any woman who studies the western canon cannot simply dismiss the cornerstones of literary tradition, but finding a way to come to terms with the very real masculine influence of patriarchal works like "Paradise Lost" is important for finding one's self as a reader and writer, and gaining new meaning from Milton's poetry, despite what his intentions for Eve and her daughters might have been.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps the first of the woman-critics, or at least the first of them who would have had an early feminist slant to her criticism, and therefore a strong (if conflicted) opinion about Milton’s masculinity. Writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, Woolf attended school in a time when higher education had only been open to women for about twenty years. In her 1929 book-length essay, “A Room of One’s Own” she tells a tale of a visit to the library at the local all-male university, a library where she, a woman, needs a permission-slip to enter. She takes us on a virtual tour of the shelves of masculine books, stopping frequently to berate writers such as Flaubert, Browning, Dickens and their male peers (everyone post-Milton is game, from Victorian poets to French novelists) giving us some detail about why their writing does not help women writers, and how their literary attitudes prolonged women’s stay in the shadows, “block[ing] their view of possibilities both real and literary” (Gilbert 368). “Lamb, Browne, Thackery, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey –” Woolf writes, “whoever it may be – never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use” (76). Woolf acknowledges the power and influence, indeed the necessity of men’s writing (she reads all these men with awe), but maintains that reading great writing by men cannot help a woman writer reach her full “genius” potential. And the guilt that follows from borrowing those masculine “tricks” is perhaps worse than simply producing writing that is too womanly to be accepted as literary.

Although the above mentioned authors are frequently returned to, when Woolf has her most profound realizations, makes her most life-affirming statements about coming into her own as a writer, she invariably brings up Milton to take the blame for her former writer’s repression and continued difficulties as a woman (she worked some terrible low-paying jobs in order to keep herself dealing in letters for a living). When Woolf’s aunt leaves her a handsome legacy, she describes the financial freedom as “a view of the open sky” which had previously been blocked by “the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton had recommended for my perpetual adoration” (39). Throughout the essay, she uses Milton only in this metaphorical and blaming way, not even mentioning specifics about his work when she compares them to the works of other men. Woolf disparagingly calls Keats “Miltonic” then goes on to contrast Milton with her beloved Shakespeare who, unlike Milton, had no “grudges or spites” (56), no “desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed” (57). Finally, in her concluding chapter Woolf makes the quick statement “Milton…had a dash too much of the male in [him]” (103) and vaguely sums up all of his trespasses, his masculinity in itself, as “Milton’s bogey,” a blinder that we must look past, lest we woman writers let it “shut out our view” (114).

Every mention of Milton in “A Room of One’s Own” is cited here. This seems almost an absence of Milton when we consider how profoundly Woolf was affected by him (Gilbert 368), and that she was writing on the very subject of women responding to male writing! Without facing Milton directly or directly addressing his works (for this, perhaps, would be too difficult for her writer’s soul) Woolf makes harsh judgments about the man. (When Woolf finally has to speak of a poem directly because another writer had written on it, she acts as if she can’t quite remember which work it was – “…he wrote an essay about one of Miltons’ poems…It was LYCIDAS perhaps…” (7).) Woolf sees an all-consuming masculinity that clouds Milton’s poetry and blocks woman’s view into the past and the future of her writing, but she cannot look into the face of it with the same confidence with which she converses with the masculine Romantics and Victorians.

A key to Milton’s limited appearances in “A Room of One’s Own” can be found in Woolf’s journal entries on “Paradise Lost.” Sandra Gilbert’s explication of one of these entries shows Woolf’s voice to be different than her normal writing style, and almost too apologetic for her opinions of the poem. She is left feeling “puzzled, excluded, inferior, and even a little guilty” by Milton (369). This timidity in the face of the patriarchs is nowhere to be found in “A Room of One’s Own.” Even a writer with a developed resistance to the authority of masculine poetry cannot escape the influence of a male viewpoint as strong as Milton’s. Brilliant women read him “with painful absorption” as Gilbert calls it (369).

And so on!

I finally got my "In Virginia's Room" essay back (with comments) from our wonderful resident Woolf scholar, so I'll put it back up here soon for more comments and suggestions. I'm going to submit it to our humanities journal in the fall, and even though it's literary, I'm working on the journal so... "Hmmm, this is kind of an outlier, but I think we can make an exception for this Robyn character." Unless somebody knows a good place to submit such things. Everywhere I look they have either literary magazines (poesy and such) and humanities journals (not quite literary). Isn't there an undergrad critical journal somewhere?

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