Poxy Doxies

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet by Germaine Greer
    Viking, 517 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 670 84914 6

This is an interesting, infuriating, brilliant, maddening book. In short, it is a work by Germaine Greer, who prefers (or so one sometimes thinks) anything to stagnation. The title is taken from Pope, whose Virgilian Sibyl in the Dunciad is the modern female British poet as satire liked to see her. Possessed by the muse or Apollo though they claim to be, women as poets are untidy, slovenly, careless of housekeeping. They are, like Virgil’s harpies, truly dirty beings. (Try saying ‘slip-shod sibyl’ and you will find that tongue-twisting tempts other words to come through.) The shit-soiled sibyl, the woman poet, is a hackney, a prostitute. If she receives you in her boudoir, you find she is a strumpet, affected, grimly bedizened perhaps, but poverty-stricken. She is always in a state of undress, of unattractive undress, slapping loose about the house in her slippers, her rhyme and metre shuffling loosely along.

It is hardly surprising that this should be the Augustan Age’s picture of the woman poet. What’s surprising is to find that this is a picture congenial to Germaine Greer. Her argument in this book is in large part an argument against the rehabilitation of women poets of the past that has been carried out in the last quarter of a century. It can also be seen as a pessimistic companion-piece to A Room of One’s Own, a riposte to Woolf somewhat influenced by the work of Our Lady of Straw, Camille Paglia. Our discoveries of female poets of the past, Greer claims, are not real discoveries. The women writers who have been picked up will soon be put down again. Seldom do they have any lasting power, or any true or great poetic quality. They are all – especially those who have written in English – more or less failures. Failure is writ large in the case of the archetypal ‘woman poet’, Sappho – a distorted and fragmentary figure who serves mainly to mother paradigms of self-indulgent emotionalism in female poets’ verse, and of self-destructive emotion in a poet’s life.

In The Obstacle Race Greer was, by and large, sympathetic to the efforts of female painters. In Slip-Shod Sibyls she can see no art in her artists. She largely – very largely, with a large-heartedness – withholds sympathy. True, she acknowledges special obstacles and obstructions, but these have tended to make the poetry worse; women poets had to be petted and flattered in order to exist as writers at all; and because they were not treated as equals they expected not to be subjected to rigorous criticism. And they wrote from need, from hunger, to support themselves or others, or from mere desire to show off – although these matters, too, have been false-fronted by publicity old and new.

Greer is at her most brilliant and shrewd when she questions our constructions of Lives of the Women Poets. She is at her best in discussing the 17th century. Women’s writing in the 17th century has of late evoked a great deal of commentary, but as Greer shows, a lot of this commentary is based on pleasing and unsupported fictions about the poet and her life. Katherine Phillips, for example (the ‘Matchless Orinda’), was said to be of too high a rank to allow her poems to be published, and was so vexed when she discovered they had been that she had them recalled. Greer tellingly examines the possibility that Phillips herself supplied the printer with copy, and was forced into lying when others took action on her behalf without consulting her, perhaps for political reasons rather than out of regard for her modesty. Greer also claims that Phillips’s high birth was a fiction: she was an ingenious social climber.

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