Essay on the work of Caroline Southey by Lisa Fletcher, May 2004
Discuss the significance of Politics, Religion, and Sentiment in Caroline Bowles's Ellen Fitzarthur and The Widow's Tale and Other Poems
Isobel Armstrong suggests that between 1790 and the 1830's women's poetry changed. She argues that this period saw a shift from the political towards the sentimental (1999, 7). Due to radical political developments such as the emergence of Chartism, England found herself at war, both at home and aboard (1999, 9). The result was a generation of women poets torn between writing poems of affect, to comfort their readers, and writing poems which explored the politics of war and discontent. Armstrong suggests that as women they were expected to offer comfort, yet as writers they felt the need to be analytical of the situation, which often meant powerful, gruesome imagery (1999, 10). This lead to the emergence of two styles of poetry which Armstrong terms as "Monumental Legend" and "Oceanic Monody" (1999, 12). 'Monumental Legend' is a form which creates a sense of community and shared experience, through the use of historical events (Armstrong, Bristow & Sharrock (eds), 1996, xxxviii). The 'Monumental Legend' is typically a ballad, a romance or a tale (Armstrong, Bristow & Sharrock (eds), 1996, xxxvii). Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock argue that "Such poems refuse myth...but they are never realist forms" (1996, xxxvii) which suggests that they blur history with fiction. Character's experiences are created by the use of repetition of the same types of events throughout the tale (1996, xxxvii). Ellen Fitzarthur, 'The Widow's Tale', and 'Conte a mon Chien' have features of the 'Monumental Legend'. This suggests that Bowles, like her contemporaries, was influenced by the conflicting desires of writing politically and writing to offer comfort.
Bowles's early publications, although not as radically political as her later work, show subtle evidence of her Tory beliefs. Her interest in politics, is evident from her letters to Robert Southey. In a letter dated April 15th 1827, Bowles discusses the current government. She writes, "Mr Canning has his hand on the helm, but now will he steer the vessel of the State through the straits into which he has impelled her?" (1827, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 119) She and Southey also discuss the Reform Bill, Co-operative Societies and Lady Missionaries. Bowles clearly has strong, conservative views. She is "frightened" (1929, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 172) by Co-operative Societies. She is against young ladies undertaking missionary work, believing that the ladies are being contaminated by the "unfortunate persons" (1829, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 173) they serve to help in hospitals. She says "Keep them out for Heaven's sake." ( 1829, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 174). It is not surprising, then, that Ellen Fitzarthur and The Widows Tale and Other Poems do not call for reform. They do, however, show Bowles's concern for the 'fallen' woman, anxiety about revolution and a need to comfort the mothers of sons killed at war.
Religion is also a significant feature of Bowles's early poetry. Although Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock suggest that women's poetry was not as heavily influenced by religious moral beliefs during this early stage of the period (1996, xxvi) much of Bowles's work contains evangelical and moralistic imagery. She uses the concept of religious faith in particular, to support her conservative political views. Once Ellen's faith in God has been restored she finds the strength to try and improve her circumstances. Likewise, Alice Grey finds that God does not dessert her in her hours of need, and that her faith is rewarded. Both poems offer comfort for those in need, but also reassure those with a social conscience that there is no need to worry because life is in God's hands. 'The Widow's Tale', in particular, explores distressing issues, but ends with a family reunion and the restoration of Christian values. The conflict of interests which Armstrong mentions is clearly apparent here. While exploring painful contemporary issues, Bowles remains aware of her duty to comfort those in pain. Yet while appearing to offer comfort, much of her work is violent, bloodthirsty and painful.
The pressure put on women poets not be tragic is demonstrated in a letter of criticism to Bowles from Southey. His critique of The Widow's Tale and Other Poems, is that it is "too painful". He advises Bowles to "Give us... a picture in summer and sunshine", because this will "...please more readers and please them more" (1822, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, p24). According to Armstrong this use of melancholy is a typical feature of women's poetry of the period. Society placed women poets as "mourners in waiting for the absent" (1999, 10). which lead to poems of tragedy and grief, and a "morbid sadomasochism" (1999, 10) in sentimental poetry. Armstrong argues that women set much of this morbid poetry in a historical context so that they were free to explore such issues "...where slaughter could be less muted and less contemporary" (1999, 11). Bowles's does use history in this way, in her poem 'Conte a mon Chien'. This bloodthirsty, violent tale of murder and conflict is set in a distant land in the past. However this is not always the case, as she also places her most disturbing, and least comforting poems outside of the world of human experience, and in the natural, animal world. Both 'Conte a mon Chien' and 'April Day' feature animals as their central characters. Where her tales of human experience offer a comforting and hopeful conclusion, those concerning animals end in despair.
The 'Widow's Tale' is an example of Bowles's use of 'Monumental Legend'. The familiar historical event it records is the war with France. By centring the tale around such a familiar event Bowles is comforting her readers by creating a sense of community and shared experience. Her readers would have remembered the war and their own experience of it. The events experienced by the Grey family such as disease, torrential weather, poor harvest, poverty, death and war were all real issues for Bowles's society. Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock suggest that women poets did this as a deliberate "appeal to communality" (1996, xxxviii). Within 'The Widow's Tale' painful, contemporary issues are explored, however, the family reunion at the end of the poem restores hope. In this sense it is a comforting poem for those hit by disaster and loss despite the fact that it explores these issues. The helplessness of Alice Grey at losing her farm due to a flood is explored on page 43;
There was no help - Man's hand in vain
The family is powerless against the storm and can do nothing but watch as it destroys their home. Comfort is offered, however, when the family are saved by their Christian faith. "We called on Him in our distress/ And we were not left comfortless." (1822a, 45) The family is able to buy another farm because although they felt helpless they did not give up hope. Here Bowles explores the helplessness of human beings in the face of a storm, yet offers hope to those in a similar situation. Alternatively, 'April Day', is a poem which offers no hope for those who have lost a child. Where The Widow's Tale takes a disaster and turns it into a situation of hope, 'April Day' explores a situation of hope which ends in disaster. We see Bowles using a sentimental description of spring-time rain to create a sense of hope for the future;
The very earth, the steamy air,
The steamy air, caused by the rain, enhances the fragrance of the newly grown flowers as the rain helps new life to grow. The pastoral imagery of newly sprouted plants, and new life is comforting and creates a sense of renewal. However, our optimism is dashed when the same life-giving rain claims the life of a lamb;
It was a new-born thing - the rain
Alice is touched by tragedy when one son dies of an infectious disease and the other is press ganged and forced to go to sea. Within the poem Bowles explores the contemporary, political theme of war and the divisions it causes within families. This poem demonstrates a conflict of interest for Bowles because although the poem explores the theme of war it offers hope to people in a similar situation. Reuben is brutally press ganged and forced to go to sea, his wife dies of shock on hearing the news and gives birth while unconscious to a baby who is then left orphaned. He is shipwrecked and subsequently captured and imprisoned by the French enemy. Yet, after all this misfortune, he finds his way home and is reunited with his child and his mother. The repetition of disastrous events experienced by Reuben and Alice Grey is typical of the 'Monumental Legend'. The characters are created by the events they repeatedly experience. Readers of the poem would be likely to have experienced at least one of these tragic events themselves, which creates a sense of community and shared experience. Alice, who believes both her sons to be dead is reunited with her son, and they live happily ever after. A poem which explores the real dangers within a country at war ends in this way because Bowles feels the need to comfort those in grief. Unlike 'April Day', this poem has human characters with whom readers could relate. In order to offer comfort to women like Alice, who have lost, or believe they have lost a son at sea, the tale has a positive ending. The themes of faith, hope and Christianity which run throughout the poem urge its readers to take comfort in Christianity. In Ellen Fitzarthur, Bowles explores the issue of the 'fallen' woman in a way that emphasises the religious, rather than political implications. Here religion is used largely to condemn rather than to comfort. This poem serves as a warning to young women not to follow the example of Ellen Fitzarthur. Hope is offered at the end of the poem when a peasant vows to care for Ellen's orphaned child as if it were his own. This poem is comforting for those within society with conservative views. Although the poem offers some sympathy for Ellen, and criticises uncharitable people, the overall message is that ultimately God is in control. The poem does not call for radical, political change, it reinforces conservative views of the 'fallen' woman. Throughout this poem Bowles uses religion to appease her readers. Rather than exploring the social aspects of Ellen's situation she looks to God as being in control. In doing this Bowles comforts her readers by taking their social responsibilities and placing them in the hands of God.
Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock suggest that in the early part of the period it was acceptable for women to write compassionately about the 'fallen' woman. They argue that during this early period, evangelical morality and codes of behaviour were less influential within society than they were later (1996, xxvi). However, despite Bowles's "...high conservative sense of duty to inferiors" (1996, xxxix), Ellen Fitzarthur has a very moral tone, which is created by her use of evangelical and religious imagery. Ellen is the villain of the piece, not the victim. The victim is her father. In Canto I, Bowles sets the scene for a tale of sin and repentance, by using religious imagery. We are told that Ellen has "forsaken" (1820, 6) her father. As a pastor, the father symbolises Christianity, and by forsaking him Ellen has also abandoned her religion. He is described as a "pious" (1820, 6) man who "taught the sacred use of prayer" (1820, 6). He is a "shepherd" (1820, 6) and the peasants he instructs are his "flock" (1820, 6). The language in this first Canto is religious and reminiscent of a church sermon. There is mention of "the messenger of death" (1820, 7), and of "Heaven" (1820, 7). There is, however, a sense that De Morton has corrupted Ellen who was innocent before she met him;
Oh, moment of parental pride!
Bowles uses such words as 'pride', 'purest' and 'praise' here to create the sense that Ellen was a good, moral child. This contrasts with the images of sin and corruption used to describe the adult Ellen, "dark", "piteous", and images of hell "burned", "repentant" and "guilt" (1820, 7). As the tale progresses it appears that Bowles is offering no comfort for the 'fallen' woman. Ellen, it appears, only has herself to blame for her situation. The marriage is doomed from the outset because it is an immoral, "unblest" (1820, 65) union. The word "forsook" (1820, 65) is used again to describe Ellen's leaving home, a word with connotations of religious abandonment. Ellen cannot enjoy married life because she has committed a sin. "Love in its earliest, happiest hours,/ Strewed not her wedded path with flowers." (1820, 65). The mood is of religious repentance and "remorse" (1820, 65), as Ellen's conscience is described as both a "poison'd dart" (1820, 65) and a "thorn of cares" (1820, 65). This image of thorns is reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion, his lowest point before the resurrection. This is significant because Ellen appears to be at her lowest point in the tale at this stage. She is, then, experiencing a moral and religious crisis. Bowles uses religious imagery to condemn Ellen and warn others not to get into her situation, because they will never be happy.
In Bowles's poetry it appears that those who remain morally pure and faithful to their religion, like Alice Grey, are rewarded while those who abandon this way of life are punished. Hope is only possible in this poem once Ellen has been to church and is inspired to return to her faith and her father. Again, the tone is that of a sermon. We are told that on "The Sabbath day, the day of peace" (1820, 79), Ellen goes to "the house of prayer and praise" (1820, 79). Once inside she finds "holy calm" (1820, 79) and "devotions balm" (1820, 79). Ellen can only find comfort in her faith. It is significant that she has not been inside a church since leaving home because it reinforces the metaphor that her father is her faith;
And never since that fatal day
Ellen going into the church is symbolic of her returning home. The chimes of the church bells are "well known" (1820, 79) to her as she hears them on her way into the "home" (1820, 79) of prayer. The focus shifts here from her conscience to her "soul" (1820, 79) and her "spirit" (1820, 79), which creates a sense of hope that her soul can be saved. The real transformation comes, however when Ellen visits a cathedral. She glows with "holy rapture so divine" (1820, 86), inspired by the sermon of the 'Prodigal's Return'. In contrast to the tone of condemnation and sin found earlier in the poem, the tone here is of religious praise and worship. Ellen is elevated by her surroundings, "In high cathedral, sculptured proud" (1820, 86). Once Ellen's faith in God has been restored there is hope that she will be able to improve her situation. This is apparent in the sentimental description of Ellen's journey. Ellen is now close to dying "unpitied and alone" (1820, 99). Once again sentimental language and religious imagery are used to create a sense of despair and then of salvation. Ellen is about to "breathe her dying groan" (1820, 99) when she hears the chimes of the church clock. The clock speaks to her, as if it has a message from God. "The morning's second hour it spoke/ From steeple clock - like Heavens reply" (1820, 99). Ellen's faith rescues her from death once again. The chimes warm her heart with the spirit to survive "It nerved her heart, it gave her strength/ To tread the mile of weary length" (1820, 99). As in the cathedral, Ellen has undergone a miraculous transformation. On hearing the chimes Ellen is no longer "desolate", "unpitied" and "alone" (1820, 99). She experiences a "moment of delight" and hears the "sound of thrilling joy" (1820, 99). This repetition of events is significant, because it creates Ellen as a character who is in need of religious salvation, as she is rescued by her faith on more than one occasion. This is a significant feature of the 'Monumental Legend' form of poetry, which suggests that Bowles is writing politically, as well as sentimentally.
Bowles's Tory politics are evident here. Bowles criticises uncharitable people when Ellen is refused the help she begs;
Yet sometimes when the prayer preferred
Those who do not help Ellen are criticised by Bowles as being 'unmoved' and their words 'ungentle', hence unfeeling and uncaring, and almost ungodly to refuse Ellen's 'prayer'. There is a sense here that Bowles is trying to shame those people who are uncharitable into changing their ways. This does suggest a political motive, that Bowles is urging her readers to be charitable towards the poor. However, Bowles does not explore the real dangers faced by a penniless young woman travelling unaccompanied. The result is a poem which does not disturb the reader enough to influence their political beliefs on the subject of 'the fallen woman', enough to want to change things. Ellen is offered food and shelter at almost every turn, by charitable people who are happy to help. We are told that "she asked relief and few refused" (1820, 96). The danger of Ellen perishing in the cold seems to be largely glossed over, so not to unsettle the reader. Bowles clearly does not want to disturb her reader, as Ellen survives without their charity. She does not die of exposure or starvation on the occasions in which she is refused charity. She finds shelter in barns, and is in fact happy to do so;
Content with birds or beasts to share
Bowles appears to be comparing man to beast unfavourably, as humans are 'cold' and scornful, which, again can be seen as a call for change in attitude. However, the fact that Ellen survives, and is 'content' to do so makes man's 'cold scorn' and 'colder charity' seem to have little on the lives of 'fallen women'. There is a sense that if Ellen's prayer is not answered by humans, it makes no difference, because God and his creatures will preserve her. Again Bowles appears to be comforting her readers by saying that religious faith will conquer all. Ellen does not need food or shelter in order to come back from the jaws of death, she needs the heart warming, religious experience of hearing church bells. We see more sentimental language when a charitable woman who has taken Ellen in tells her that her daughter died after running away to elope. She says "I kissed the damp hard earth - I prest/ To that cold heap my throbbing breast" (1820, 105). God is once again the saviour "But God forgave my frantic grief - / He pitied - he vouchsafed relief" (1820, 105). The woman comforts Ellen by telling her that God helped her through her grief. Once again, this repetition of events is typically a feature of 'Monumental Legend'. This is reinforced by the fact that it is a tale, which is placed in the past. The lines of history and fiction seem to be distorted as we do not know when the events occurred, or if they are true.
Perhaps the strongest example of 'Monumental Legend' is 'Conte a mon Chien'. Bowles lets the reader know that she is telling a "history" (1822c, 133) which happened in a "past time" (1822c, 10), this distances the reader from the events in the sense of time. She goes on to set the scene in a "neighb'ring land" (1822c, 133), which distances us from the place of the action. If we consider Bowles's views on Co-operative societies, and the fact that this poem appears to be about civil war, we can see that there is an underlying political fear within the poem. Although it is not made clear who is causing the violence, it does appear to be a poem about revolution. The "reign of terror" (1822c, 133) is pursued by those who are against the "stately" (1822c, 134) and the "loyal" (1822c, 134). This suggests that they are against the crown. This uncertainty about when in history the tale is placed, is characteristic of 'Monumental Legend'. The tale is surrounded by mythical imagery, and the tone of it is that of a myth, although we are told that it is "A true and mournful history" (1822c, 133). Although we are not told where or when the poem is set, it appears to be set in France. The title of the poem is French, as is the name of the character 'Valrive'. The instrument used to kill Valrive is the guillotine, which is traditionally associated with France. Bowles clearly took an interest in French politics as she and Southey discuss French affairs in their letters. She writes to Southey that "The late events in France have affected me..." (1830, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 202) . She goes on "We shall see whether the revolutionary spirit - yet so active - will rest content with the "Citizen King" (1830, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, 202). Bowles appears to be exploring the realities and consequences of an English uprising, in a poem set in France during the revolution. By placing the events outside of England she has more freedom to use disturbing imagery.
The violence of the poem is evident from the outset. We are told that every town in this land "Became a slaughter-house and grave" (1822c, 134). This creates images of mass killing throughout the land;
The reign of terror triumphed there:
The words 'terror', 'crime', 'murder' and 'bloody' create the sense of brutality and violence. The idea of terror reigning throughout implies that those inflicting the violence are in control of the land and cannot be stopped. The most bloodthirsty language of the poem appears when Nina's master is executed. "And from the headless trunk starts out/ Ev'n over her, the bloody rain" (1822c, 143). The imagery of the 'headless trunk' spilling blood onto the dog like rain is gruesome and disturbing. This is a more disturbing poem than Ellen Fitzarthur and 'The Widow's Tale'. The relationship between the dog and her master is surrounded by sentimental imagery. As the master stands over his wife's grave "with tearless eye and lip compressed" (1822c, 136), Nina senses that he is distressed. She looks at him "As if her poor heart would break" (1822c, 136). Nina is described in sentimental terms such as "helpless", "piteous", a "poor wretch" and "loving" (1822c, 137). Unlike Ellen Fitzarthur and 'The Widow's Tale', there is no religious imagery, and no moral comfort is offered to the reader. When the master dies the dog dies too, unlike Ellen Fitzarthur's baby, rescued by a peasant who vows to take care of him. There is no hope left for Nina once Valrive is dead and "in the strong impulse of despair" (1822c, 146) she digs down into his grave. Then she "licks his livid lips and dies" (1822c, 147). Again the image of 'livid lips' is gruesome and disturbing. Yet Bowles is able to explore such imagery because the poem appears to be a mythical tale. Unlike the woman who Ellen meets, there is no God to rescue Nina from grief. As in 'April Day', there is no comfort offered to the grieving widow or parent in this poem. Because it was in those "dreadful times..........In Lyons" (1822c, 134) the reader is distanced from the family, so the fact that they were "defiled with blood" (1822c, 134) is less disturbing. Unlike Alice Grey, who is contemporary and English. Valrive's family are never reunited. "Wife, children, friend it swept away/...Till ev'ry thing he loved was gone" (1822c, 134). There is no hope once Valrive discovers that his children are "Both huddled in one bloody tomb" (1822c, 135). Unlike Ellen's baby and Reuben Grey, nobody survives here. Yet, because the tale appears to be a mythical and sentimental story it does not appear to be politically motivated. Because the poem begins with a conversation between a lady and her dog, the poem appears trivial and sentimental. The reader is aware that dogs cannot speak, which makes the poem appear to be fictional. The lady tells the dog that she is telling a true story, but we do not believe her because she is in a fictional situation. The tale itself however, appears to take place in France during the revolution, which was an actual event. Bowles is blurring our sense of reality. The violence of the tale is both muted and relevant, because on one hand we believe it is fiction and on the other we believe it is fact.
Like her contemporaries, Bowles wanted to explore the social and political issues faced by her society. This is evident from Ellen Fitzarthur, which deals with the issue of the 'fallen' woman, 'Conte A' Mon Chien', which explores fear of revolution and 'The Widow's Tale', which looks at a range of issues, including the consequences of war. Unlike later poets, Bowles does not address her reader directly and her work does not call for radical political change. However, Bowles's Tory beliefs clearly influence her poetry, as we can see from her conservative attitude towards the 'fallen' woman in Ellen Fitzarthur. Bowles's sense of Christian morality is tied in with her political beliefs and so poems such as Ellen Fitzarthur have an evangelical tone. Ellen Fitzarthur commits a sin and is punished, while Alice Grey is rewarded for her faith. Like her contemporaries, Bowles also felt under pressure to comfort and reassure her readers. We can see from Southey's advice, that pastoral poems set in summertime were expected of women poets. Although Bowles largely ignores this advice, as we can see from 'April Day', she uses religious faith to comfort her readers. Despite the disastrous events undergone by the Grey family, they remain faithful to their religion and are rewarded. Likewise Ellen Fitzarthur is rescued from dying hopelessly and alone by the sound of church bells. Bowles's use of the 'Monumental Legend' form of poetry also allows her to explore these issues in a way that was acceptable within her society. By placing events such as war and revolution in the past, and creating a sense of myth around such events, Bowles has the freedom to use disturbing imagery without appearing to be exploring current events and anxieties. 'Conte a mon Chien' is a disturbing poem about the effects of revolution. However Bowles's use of sentimental imagery, and makes it seem as though it is not politically motivated. Ellen Fitzarthur appears to be a tale of religious guidance and repentance, yet it explores the contemporary issue of the 'fallen' woman, while the apparently comforting poem, 'The Widow's Tale' explores the worrying consequences of war. Because these poems appear to be sentimental and religious, they are able to explore political issues in a way that Bowles's society found acceptable. By writing in this way Bowles's poetry is both politically relevant and comforting for the reader.
Bibliography for Critical Essay
Armstrong, Isobel, 1999, 'Misrepresentation: Codes of Affect and Politics in Nineteenth Century Women's Poetry' in Armstrong and Blain (eds), Women's Poetry: Late Romantic to Late Victorian, London, Macmillan Press.
Armstrong, Bristow and Sharrock (eds), 1996, 'Introduction' in Nineteenth Century Women Poets, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Bowles, Caroline, 1820, Ellen Fitzarthur: A Metrical Tale In Five Cantos, London, Longman, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
Bowles, Caroline, 1822a, 'The Widow's Tale', pp 1-69, in The Widows Tale and Other Poems, London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
Bowles, Caroline, 1822b, 'April Day', pp 70-82, in The Widow's Tale and Other Poems, London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
Bowles, Caroline, 1822c, 'Conte a mon Chien', pp 125-147, in The Widow's Tale and Other Poems, London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
Bowles, Caroline, 1827, Letter LXVIII, reproduced in, Dowden (ed), 1881, The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, London, Longmans, Green, & Co.
Bowles, Caroline, 1872, Letter CII, reproduced in, Dowden (ed), 1881, The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, London, Longmans, Green, & Co.
Bowles, Caroline, 1830, Letter CXV, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, London, Longmans, Green, & Co.
Southey, Robert, 1822, Letter XIV, reproduced in Dowden (ed), 1881, The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, London, Longmans, Green, & Co.