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.

The salient case of a faked biography is that of Aphra Behn. Greer energetically deconstructs Behn’s own disguises and fabrications as well as what she sees as the soothing fictions created by modern biographers, misled by Virginia Woolf’s statement that Aphra Behn was the first woman to make her living by her pen. For Greer, Behn is an ambiguous female, who must have been lower class if she grovelled so flatteringly to the low-born Nell Gwynn. It has been suggested elsewhere that Aphra Behn had some connections with Kentish gentry, but Greer will have none of it: ‘It is more likely that Mrs Behn’s was a milieu without social status: possibly an émigré community, perhaps Jewish or even Creole. Certainly she had an internationalist culture which was quite un-English.’ The suggestion that Behn came from the Caribbean colonies is interesting, though we have no foundation for it other than her writing about Surinam. But an early life led in ‘low’ circumstances in the West Indian colonies would not necessarily have led her into ‘an internationalist culture’ of any great sophistication.

That Behn had no solid social or economic existence seems to be borne out by the evidence, or rather the lack of it:

Scholars have found no property owned by her, no taxes paid by her, no will. A woman of no substance could only inhabit the fashionable world if she found someone to pay her day-to-day expenses for food, clothes and lodging, in which case she would leave no trace in the records. A woman who succeeded in supporting herself would appear somewhere in the record as a tenant, a taxpayer, a debtor or a creditor.

From this, Greer draws the conclusion that Behn was literally a whore, a kept woman. Only when her charms began to fade did she start writing in a desperate attempt to make money. She was probably ill with VD by that time; or so various scurrilous verses assert, claiming that she was plagued by ‘Poetry, poverty, pox’ – charges which Greer seems happy to go along with.

The VD of her slip-shod sibyls is important to Greer. What a set of poxy doxies women writers are! Let us not glamorise or cleanse them, or avert our eyes from their lesions. Greer suggests that Anne Wharton, Rochester’s niece and an admired poet, suffered from inherited ‘primary syphilis’, showing the first symptoms in her childhood. The fact that she settled her whole estate on her husband is brought in as evidence that she might have been making reparation ‘for the wrong done to him’. Wharton did not die by her own hand, but she died ‘in dreadful agony’. A similar agony was probably suffered by Behn: far from being merry, she was a poor, ill, syphilitic Aphra Behn. Having brought us to that point, Greer further daubs arsenic on this festering lily by suggesting that Behn committed suicide. This is not an idle point in Greer’s narrative. She has to help Behn to fit in with one of the major motifs of the book – the talent for suicide displayed by women poets, from the (imaginary) story of Sappho’s suicidal leap of despair, to the all-too-well recorded and non-fictional deaths of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

The middle ground between 17th and 20th-century examples of disappointment and morbidity is largely filled in by a long, long chapter on L.E.L. – Letitia Elizabeth Landon. The length of this chapter urges it to become a mini-biography in itself, and its abnormal extension in relation to other chapters distorts the shape of the book. Landon evidently fascinates Greer, however loathsome she claims to find the verses of this ‘poetess’. Greer has recourse to the device recently grown fashionable whereby the word ‘poetess’ is reserved for female verse-writers of whom the commentator does not approve. Male poets are ‘good poets’ or ‘bad poets’, but we have no special pejorative terms save the antiquated ‘poetaster’ – which implies a dabbler in literature and is in any case not generally used or understood. I suggest we invent a new term to go with the pejorative ‘poetess’. What about a poetum, a poetino or a poetoot? Leonard Michaels has written a short story about a dogged academic who wrote a book called The Enduring Southey. Southey, in his capacity not to endure, is a male poetess, a poetoot.

Precociously forced into the commercial writing world, L.E.L. was all the rage with her poems of exotic yearning, love and hopeless passion. The image of the woman as passionate improvisatrice is derived from Madame de Staël’s Corinne – an influence not considered by Greer nor allowed in mitigation. Thought of as the female equivalent of Byron, Landon exhibited, in Greer’s opinion, some of the worst sins into which women’s poetry was likely to fall:

The verse may have been garbled ... the texture of the whole blurred and uneven, but there is still a glimmer of something more than prolixity and conventionality, the track of an intense, unhealthy inner life, the spurious mysticism of love. L.E.L. served this false creed faithfully all her life long, and was in the end sacrificed to it.

Despite writing about love and yearning, L.E.L. quite possibly did not have an affair. Indeed, she tried to protect herself and her reputation by living as a boarder in a girl’s school, but that did not prevent allegations, scandal and probably blackmail. If L.E.L. did not have an affair with her blackmailing editor Maginn, Greer thinks the less of her. Like Lady Bracknell, Greer is all for action and no shilly-shallying. Women should have sexual love affairs, but should not brood about love, for that is time-wasting and unhealthy. A single woman should go into a convent rather than drag on a celibate life spiced with a little flirtation or, as with Rossetti, enhanced by perverse piety. There should be no halfway houses, and no confusions.

Landon, who was all halfway houses and confusions, grew old and faded, and found it harder to publish. She made Mr Maclean stick by his promise to marry her, and moved with him to the Cape Coast Colony in Africa. Soon she was a defunct poetess. Letitia Maclean was found dead on the floor, in her hand an empty bottle labelled ‘Acid Hydrocyanicum’. The local inquest brought in a verdict of suicide. This is odd in an era when family members usually tried – and not in vain – to avert such a verdict and get the death labelled accidental. There were some feeble suggestions, never taken seriously, that Maclean’s African mistress might have poisoned her rival. But when a wife is found dead on the floor clutching a clearly labelled bottle of prussic acid might we not suspect the husband? What would Sherlock Holmes have made of the case? That George Maclean didn’t discourage the verdict of suicide lends some credence to such suspicion – and if this is speculative it is certainly not more so than much of Greer’s discourse with its multitudinous speculations. L.E.L. has to die by her own hand to fit the paradigm of wretchedness and incompetence associated with female writers.

The ensuing chapters are weaker and more predictable. We already know how roundly Greer will rebuke Plath and Sexton for their self-involvement. It is a slight surprise, but only a slight one, to find Elizabeth Barrett Browning trounced for hysteria, addiction, self-destruction, and generally making a nuisance of herself, including loading her husband with unwanted sonnets. The 20th century merely adds to the heap of sickly, self-regarding and self-destructive female poets. Lacking education, training in the Great Tradition, certainty about voice or subject-matter – and in the absence of any sense, of how the culture of publicity and publication can work – women writers of poetry over three centuries have exhibited themselves delving into their emotions. Poetry with them constantly becomes a morbid exercise.

The oddest thing about Greer’s book is that it does not, even in the Epilogue, know which side of the fence to jump down on. Are women in themselves simply weak and vicious, inclined to write badly no matter what opportunities are given them? Or are the women poets we have looked at inevitable products of their time? Were their activities, however deplorable, a necessary phase in the development of women’s literature? At moments, Greer can espouse the latter view, taking what might be seen as a Marxist line. At one point near the end she even abruptly switches to the old-style feminist perspective: ‘I would argue that poetry as presented by the male literary establishment ... enticed the woman poet to dance upon a wire, to make an exhibition of herself and ultimately to come to grief.’ Here she entertains something of Virginia Woolf’s kind of reading, after all – though Woolf herself has by now been indicted as one of the disgraceful female suicides.

It is all too easy for Greer to sound like the headmistress of a girls’ school, deploring any tendencies to the unhealthy – even though she knows that ‘to state baldly that the writing of poetry is intensely attractive to self-destructive women is to reveal oneself as an insensitive philistine.’ Nonetheless, she braves the risk. In order to counter those who indulge in a false cult of the destructive, Greer makes her statement baldly: ‘Most discussions of the careers of our poet-suicides see their fate as tragic evidence of the oppression of women and, even when the suicides are the subject-matter of the poetry, refuse to countenance the possibility of a suicide culture attracting the wrong women to the writing of verse.’ ‘The wrong women’! Poetry would be great stuff, if only the wrong sort of people did not go in for it. So Victorians and Edwardians lamented that manly chaps, rather than those pale fellows, were not working to produce a healthy literature. Even Tennyson was notoriously morbid.

Sometimes one feels that Greer is simply venting an Australian impatience with Pommy whingeing; the disgust of the New World of the wide open spaces and the free clean life for the old unhealthy houses and narrow alleyways and cramped conventions of a diseased Abroad. Greer reminds me a little of a Henry James character discovering the unnatural qualities and unhealthiness of Europe.

She is not playing fair, however, for in wresting all her arguments (and dashes into possibilities and speculations) into an indictment of the female poets and their lives, she has to render the male practitioners of the art improbably wholesome, and unnaturally capable. Any male author, no matter how flourishing his misogyny, may be startled at her firm delineation of the unproblematic life and career pattern of the male writer. Male authors apparently always understand how the literary system works, how to stick by the publicity machine and make it produce, how to run literary careers. Male poets are, of course, not self-destructive – or if so, it is a mere accident – whereas with female writers, self-destructiveness is of the essence. This kind of boxy thinking can lead to astonishing statements. ‘Among male poets,’ she writes at one point, ‘suicides are not only relatively few, but also peripheral.’ Say what?

When suicide is committed by a male writer, Greer contends that it is treated differently: Chatterton’s friends tried to hush his up. Well, they weren’t very successful, were they? She makes no allusion to what might be called ‘Wertherism’ in Europe in the late 18th century and the Romantic age. Nor does she allow for the failure and self-destructiveness of writers like Thomson, who got seriously stuck in the literary machine, or for the morbidity and frustrations of a Gray. Greer’s sense of the ‘suicidal’ in women leads her to reprehend them severely for their badly lived lives, their atrocious habits, their sedentariness, the stress they were under, their addictions. But if not ‘taking proper care of oneself’, as the common phrase has it, is suicide, then we are all guilty, and Thomson must be counted among the suicides. (It’s a line of reasoning that puts one in mind of The Inferno: who sinned doing what and where do we place them?) If the suicidal has to be extended to include Barrett Browning, it should be extended to include Dickens and Thackeray as well as Shelley and Byron – and a host of other poets and poetoots of the 20th century, as well as several poetesses.

One can applaud Germaine Greer’s determination to resist a certain strain of romanticism, an adulation of suicide, in our own culture and in some forms of feminist criticism. But the point of the book is confusing, its arguments contradictory and its purpose obscure. Is Slip-Shod Sibyls intended to discourage healthy young women from trying to be poets? Is the book meant to deflect female critics from giving any attention to female poets of the past? Or is it supposed to be a blow for freedom, a war-cry to us to bring down the literary establishment? This, too, is hinted at in the Epilogue. We need a ‘community of poets’ so that poets don’t retreat into solipsism, and a new language: ‘its birth may well coincide with the death of print and dismantling of the literary establishment.’ ‘Ye Gods, annihilate but space and time/And make two lovers happy.’ Attempts at communities of poets, even among ‘healthy men’, are not encouraging. Pantisocracy? Does it make the heart beat faster?

Into Greer’s work has seeped something of the strange healthy-mindedness of our very vicious decade, when we deplore the evils of smoking and drinking and go jogging importantly past the hapless (living) bodies of the homeless on our pavements. Perhaps the desire to be ‘healthy’ and free of the ‘morbid’ and ‘perverse’ (terms that sound distressingly like code words in the age of Aids) is a desire as suspect as the desires of the poets (including poetesses and poetoots) for emotion, or introspection, or intensity. It is disconcerting to entertain the possibility that poetry – whether the practitioner is a poxy earl or a poxy doxy, ostler’s son or Boston gentleman – may be something of a morbid and perverse business. At least, the practice feels strange, against the grain of the ‘normal’ – given present social conditions that are not likely to change in a hurry. If we wait for the millennium (and I don’t mean the year 2000) to write only ‘healthy’ poetry, we shall have too long a wait, and we will be glad meanwhile of some brave ridiculous souls who will venture to walk the high wire.