Women in Literature #
Matrilineal societies existed in ancient Sumer, Crete, Egypt, Greece and Türkiye. Societies work best when power and responsibilities are shared equally. Any imbalance can prove detrimental to society.
Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures illustrated goddesses enjoying more equal status with gods. Goddesses procreated with mortal males while in Greek theogony gods with mortal females.
Goddess celebrates the women and gender-transcending superstars who shaped their own roles, took creative control and fought a system that tried to exploit them.
Christopher Allen commented on the exhibition at the National Museum of Australia: Feared and Revered: Feminine Power through the Ages.
An exhibition of how Feminine power has endured through history, delving into nurture, destruction and the feminine power of spiritual beings through the ages.
The polarity of male and female are inescapably distinct, both physically, mental and emotional. Yet we share many common attributes, like the Chinese yin Yang. Gender fluidity has existed throughout history. Hermaphrodites (Hermes/Aphrodite) are young people with a male build and stature, but who might have identified as female or vice versa. Tiresias, a blind prophet, was famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years after coming across two snakes copulating in the forest. Seven years later he came across the same two snakes and when he hit them again, he was turned back into a man. To resolve a dispute between Zeus and Hera regarding sexual pleasure, he claimed:
“If the sum of love’s pleasure adds up to 10, nine parts go to women, only one to men.”.
Our current obsession with transsexuality is a psychological phenomenon that needs to be rationalised. To accuse Barry Humphries, Jordan Peterson and J.K. Rowling of the thoughtcrime of transphobia is a blight on human intelligence.
Biologically, men produce spermatozoa, only women ova, and can bear children. In warrior societies, women were essential as womb bearers or incubators to provide fighters vital for the welfare of the tribe.
All primitive societies were concerned with fertility, both agricultural and childbearing. Inca, Mayans and Aztecs sacrificed virgins to appease the gods. Goddesses primary roles was the fertility of women and the mother earth.
Demeter (Ceres) was the goddess of cereal crops and when her daughter Persephone is abducted by Hades (Pluto), she refuses to bless the crops causing a famine.
Hera (Juno) is patroness of the marriage state. Hera was jealously aware that Zeus was a philanderer.
Artemis (Diana) the Goddess of the Moon (and Hunting, stags, etc.) takes care of virgins.
Actaeon, the centaur, Chiron, was taught to hunt.
One day, Actaeon, accompanied by his hounds, was out hunting a stag, when he caught sight of Diana bathing in a pool, accompanied by her attendant nymphs who were all as naked.
Actaeon, staring open-mouthed and wide-eyed, was spotted by Diana.
Diana didn’t like being seen naked by the young man so she transformed Actaeon into a stag and then incited his hounds to turn on him and chase him and devour him.
When Agamemnon’s thousand ships can’t sale because of unfavourable winds, Diana insists on the sacrifice of a young virgin, his daughter because in the past he killed a stag.
Atalanta offered to marry anyone who could outrun her—but those whom she overtook she speared.
Aphrodite (Venus) inspires love, sexual desire and courtesans.
Athene (Minerva) goddess of wisdom, takes care of the city state -especially Athens.
Hecate – goddess of witches and sorcery. Odysseus meets up with followers, Calypso and
Though the first writer in history was Enheduanna, a woman, men appear to have successfully supressed the female voice by ignoring or erasing it until the last two hundred some years.
Enheduanna lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE), a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.
Enheduanna, the brightest of King Sargon’s daughter was tasked with keeping track of the trade and became the high priestess of the Ziggurat of Ur. She is the first to record in writing the oral incantations and other oral tales.
The hymns celebrate the mysteries of the universe.
O Feeder of life,
Rising like a bull from the snake shallows,
Born from a great mother,
Light above all
The self-made name, Enheduanna, translates from
“She is the high lord of the moon”.
O goddess, from my altar days,
I, Enheduanna, sang your name
… I, Enheduanna, created this booklet-
A thing which no one else had ever created.
The great power of literature comes from the narrative – we all love a story, and of stirring emotions and the fending off of our demons.
In the poem, a usurper named Lugalanne—a military general who possibly led an uprising in Ur—drives Enheduanna from her place at the temple.
“He has turned that temple into a house of ill repute./ Forcing his way in as if he were an equal, he dared approach me in his lust!”
Cast out of the city, she wanders the wilderness.
“He made me walk a land of thorns. / He took away the noble diadem of my holy office, / He gave me a dagger: ‘This is just right for you,’ he said.”
She turns to Inanna, the goddess of love, sex, and war, offering an extended paean to her glory:
“My lady! This country will bow down again at your battle cry!”
Enheduanna’s crisis is resolved through praise.
Enheduanna’s nephew eventually put down the rebellion, and Enheduanna was restored to her office. She attributes her rescue to Inanna—
“Be it known that you devastate the rebellious land!”
Goddess and priestess are closely linked, the priestess being in part the earthly representation of the divine. The poem is political, inscribing the relationship between power and language, but it’s also hauntingly personal.
Her claim is also attached to a collection of forty-two religious poems—hymns addressed to the temples of various city-states. Taken together, the hymns form what the Yale scholars William Hallo and J. J. A. van Dijk called a “major piece of Mesopotamian theology.”
Moral development is crucial in the formation of heroes and heroines, and how this development takes place, how people are educated to be morally good, is a question addressed in many novels.
The Exaltation to Inanna alone. #
Lady of perfect divine presence,
Righteous woman clothed in splendor…
Priestess of heaven…
You have carried divine presence,
You have hung it from your hand.
You have gathered divine presence,
You have brought it to your chest,
Like a dragone you have delivered
Poison to foreign lands. Lines 1 – 10
I the En, Enheduanna,
Carrying the basket, I uttered a joyous chant,
(But now) I no longer dwell in the goodly place You established.
Came the day, the sun scorched me
Came the shade (of night), the South Wind overwhelmed me,
My honey-sweet voice has become strident,
“He made me walk a land of thorns.
He took away the noble diadem of my holy office,
He gave me a dagger: and said,
‘This is just right for you,.”
Whatever gave me pleasure has turned into dust.
Her life appears overturned and she feels violated and perhaps traumatised and terminally depressed.
Love Prayer to Shu-Sin
Open up your temple to my touch
And sweet my dark night with your love.
4000 year old love poem recited by a bride of Sumerian King Shu-Sin, fourth ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who reigned between 2037 and 2029 BC, inscribed on an 8th century cuneiform Sumerian tablet. (via travels-with-strether)
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you.
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL’s heart,
Give my pray of your caresses
According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry a priestess every year in order to make the soil and women fertile. The ritual of sacred marriage involved the re-enactment of the union of two deities, usually Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz. Thus, the priestess represented Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, while the king represented Dumuzi, on the eve of their union.
The high Priestess was considered above the status of all political offices. The love Priestess was believed to be possessed by deities and so feminine divinity. They could not marry and so were available for sex by other leaders. The Hebrews disapproved of this and referred to them as the Whores of Babylon.
Women play a minor role in this Epic. Young brides are the victims of Gilgamesh’s deluded entitlement to “Prima Nocta”, for which the gods send Shamhat, a love priestess out to seduce the feral Enkidu to restrain Gilgamesh. Sumerian goddesses interbreed with mortal males, in contrast to Egyptian, Greek and Hebrew myths where male gods impregnate mortal women. Does this indicate that gender is immaterial to power?
The gods are expected to curb the power of giants. All good governance, including modern democracy, expects those elected to hgih office to do their duty in protecting the vulnerable from the stratospherically entitled. All governent instutions should be open, transparent and accountable.
An old woman illustrates the brevity of life through the life of an insect - the mayfly - whose existence is a mere blink in the scale of existence. She also advises Gilgamesh to make the most of life:
Make merry each day,
Dance and play day and night
Let you clothes be clean
Let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!
Gaze on the little one who holds your hand,
Let a woman enjoy your repeated embraces.
Sappho was called a lyrist because, as was the custom of the time, she wrote her poems to be performed with the accompaniment of a lyre.
May I write
Words more naked
Stronger than bones
More resilient than sinew
Love drives me on That loosener of limbs Bittersweet creature Against which Nothing can be done.
The Ode To Aphrodite.
The poem is a prayer to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where Sappho asks for help in getting attention from an unnamed woman, for which Sappho has fallen in love.
Aphrodite, subtle of soul and deathless,
Daughter of God, weaver of wiles, I pray thee
Neither with care, dread Mistress, nor with anguish,
Slay thou my spirit!
But in pity hasten, come now if ever
From afar of old when my voice implored thee,
Thou hast deigned to listen, leaving the golden House of thy father
With thy chariot yoked; and with doves that drew thee,
Fair and fleet around the dark earth from heaven,
Dipping vibrant wings down he azure distance,
Through the mid-ether;
Very swift they came; and thou, gracious Vision,
Leaned with face that smiled in immortal beauty,
Leaned to me and asked, “What misfortune threatened?
Why I had called thee?”
“What my frenzied heart craved in utter yearning,
Whom its wild desire would persuade to passion?
What disdainful charms, madly worshipped, slight thee?
Who wrongs thee, Sappho?”
“She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow,
She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,
She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,
Love thee, the loth one!”
Come to me now thus, Goddess, and release me
From distress and pain; and all my distracted
Heart would seek, do thou, once again fulfilling,
Still be my ally!
On Women and Men
Zeus made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil. And he gave them a second evil to be the price for the good they had: whoever avoids marriage and the sorrows that women cause, and will not wed, reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years, and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives, yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them.
And as for the man who chooses the lot of marriage and takes a good wife suited to his mind, evil continually contends with good; for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed. So, it is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus.
Hesiod’s description of high summer as the season when women are most attractive and men in turn weakest (Works and Days) 586
“Women! This coin, which men find counterfeit! Why, why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world, in the light of sun? If you were so determined to breed the race of men, the source of it should not have been women. . . .”
Women [link] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgWGvHlLays)
The way women are portrayed by Homer illustrates male Greeks attitudes. While playing an important part in the family and household. Like Andromache or Penelope, they were required to be good wives or virtuous like Nausicaa.
Independent and sexually liberated women, like Helen, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Circe or Calypso, who lived beyond the control of men were seen as dangerous.
Femme fatales; irresistibly attractive woman who lead men to their downfall, as archetypes of dangerously sexy women (coquettes, sirens) exist as stock characters in most literature.
Odysseus is tempted by various seducers, but each time, nostalgia, his love for his homeland and Penelope, helps him remain faithful. Others such as Chryseis, Briseis and the maids working for Odysseus, were powerlessness victims due to their lowly status.
Achilles is an angry young man. When Agamemnon forces him to give up his prize booty, a young maiden called Briseis., from raiding nearby Trojan (Hittite) town. He’d won her by his exploits at Lyrnessus, razing it and storming its wall, slaughtering Mynes (Briseis’ husband), and her brothers, Epistrophus, bold spearmen, warrior sons of King Evenus, Selepus’ son.
Achilles, in high dungeon simply refuses to fight anymore, giving the Trojans the advantage. It is only after Hector kills his best friend, Patroclus, that Achilles, gets new armour to mow his way through the Trojans to get Hector. Once he re-enters the battle, Agamemnon restores Briseis to him and Achilles declares his love for her.
Briseis isn’t described as “silent.” She doesn’t need to be. Although we see her in Book 1, she doesn’t speak until Book 19. It is not until then, in her mourning speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Patroclus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beautiful cheeks and that she leaves unwillingly to be transferred to Agamemnon.
Agamemnon swears that I never laid hand on the girl Briseis, I never made love to her, and that during her stay in my huts she was left untouched.
BK XIX:282-337 ACHILLES GRIEVES FOR PATROCLUS
Then Briseis, beautiful as golden Aphrodite, saw the corpse of Patroclus mangled by the bronze blades, she flung herself on the body, shrieking loudly, and tore with her hands at her breasts, her tender neck, and lovely face. And the goddess-like woman wailed in her lament:
‘Patroclus, dear to my heart, when I left this hut you were alive, and now alas I return, prince among men, to find you a corpse. So, evil dogs my steps. I saw the husband, to whom my royal parents married me, lie there, dead, by our city wall, mangled by the cruel bronze, and saw my three beloved brothers meet a like fate. But you dried my tears, when fleet-footed Achilles killed my husband, and sacked King Mynes’ city, saying you would see me wed to Achilles, that he would take me in his ship to Phthia and grant me a marriage-feast among the Myrmidons. You were always gentle with me, now I will mourn you forever.’
So Briseis grieved, and the other women took up her lament; mourning Patroclus, it is true, but also their own sorrows. … The most poignant domestic scene is between Hector and his wife, Andromache.
.. Hector placed the child in his dear wife’s arms, and she took him to her fragrant breast, smiling through her tears. Her husband was touched with pity at this, and stroked her with his hand, saying:
‘Andromache, dear wife, don’t grieve for me too deeply yet. None will send me to Hades before my time: though no man, noble or humble, once born can escape his fate. Go home, and attend to your tasks, the loom and spindle, and see the maids work hard. War is a man’s concern, the business of every man in Ilium, and mine above all.’
Other women in The Odyssey Athena favors Odysseus, inspiring the young woman Nausciaa to get her people to help him. Odysseus could not have made it home without Athene’s intervention.
Mock Invocation to The Odyssey:
“Sing to me muse, and through me tell the story of a man who lets all his men die, lies to everyone he meets, cheats on his wife with assorted nymphs and takes ten years for a journey that google says should have taken two weeks.
First you will raise the island of the Sirens,
those creatures who spellbind any man alive,
whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air —
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him.
Odysseus puts wax in the ears of the men so they can’t hear the alluring music before having himself tied up to a mast so he can’t escape.
Circe was the daughter of the goddess of the realm of death, Hecate. With the characteristics of a witch; she was infamous for her potions and her staff with magical powers. She was known to transform her enemies into monsters and beasts. She turns his crew into pigs.
Circe advises Odysseus to travel to the Underworld (Hades) so that he can secure the favor of the dead spirits.
Circe was the archetypal predatory woman to the Greeks who were sexually unrestrained and devious. Any woman that was not controlled by males was considered to be a threat to the social order in the Ancient World.
Calypso was a nymph who keeps Odysseus prisoner for seven years.
Calypso shows the Greek belief that women were driven by their sexual desires and were irrational. This type of thinking was used to justified male oppression of females, whom it was believed needed to be controlled and dominated, because of their uncontrollable and dangerous passions.
The Greeks had no illusion that the characteristic cleverness of Odysseus had a sinister aspect to it, not the least in the way that he deals with the Trojans after the war. Some of the atrocities at Troy, notably the killing of the young boy Astyanax (son of Hector and Andromache).
According to Emily Wilson of The New Yorker, Calypso kept him in thrall for a further seven years of his slow journey home. … His return is disrupted by misfortunes, but “dreadful, beautiful, divine” Calypso rescues him from the sea. After seven years of captivity, her charms have palled. When Zeus finally orders her to set him free, she looks for him on her island’s shore:
His eyes were always
tearful; he wept his sweet life away, in longing
to go back home, since she no longer pleased him.
A jealous goddess is dangerous, as anyone would know who had languished for ten years at Troy:
So Odysseus, with tact, said,
“Do not be enraged at me, great goddess.
You are quite right. I know my modest wife
Penelope could never match your beauty. . . .
But even so, I want to go back home.”
On his last adventure he lands on an Island having lost everything, even is clothes.
Nausicaa, a virgin, still unwed, is washing her clothes by the river where she wakes up Odysseus, cast naked onto the shore.
On seeing him, her handmaidens flee: Only Alcinous’ daughter held fast, for Athena planted courage within her heart, dissolved the trembling in her limbs, and she firmly stood her ground and faced Odysseus, torn now —
He (Odysseus) launched in at once, endearing, sly and suave:
“Here I am at your mercy, princess —
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rule the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus — I see her now— just look at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace …
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
“Stranger,” the white-armed princess answered staunchly, “friend, you’re hardly a wicked man, and no fool, I’d say — it’s Olympian Zeus himself who hands our fortunes out, to each of us in turn, to the good and bad, however Zeus prefers …
He gave you pain, it seems. You simply have to bear it. But now, seeing you’ve reached our city and our land, you’ll never lack for clothing or any other gift, the right of worn-out suppliants come our way. I’ll show you our town, tell you our people’s name. Phaeacians we are, who hold this city and this land, and I am the daughter of generous King Alcinous. All our people’s power stems from him.”
Both Odysseus and Nausicaa develop strong attrations to each other, but are prudent enough to restrain and control themselves.
She called out to her girls to give him some clothes and aid.
But here’s an unlucky wanderer strayed our way and we must tend him well. Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus, and whatever scrap we give him he’ll be glad to get. So, quick, my girls, give our newfound friend some food and drink and bathe the man in the river, wherever you find some shelter from the wind.” ………
Nausicaa instructs Odysseus to walk behind, rather than sit with her on the wagon.
So they’ll scoff…
just think of the scandal that would face me then.
I’d find fault with a girl who carried on that way,
flouting her parents’ wishes — father, mother, still alive —
consorting with men before she’d tied the knot in public.
Once the mansion and courtyard have enclosed you, go, quickly, across the hall until you reach my mother.
Beside the hearth she sits in the fire’s glare,
spinning yarn on a spindle, sea-blue wool —
a stirring sight, you’ll see …
she leans against a pillar, her ladies sit behind.
Odysseus’ sheer hypocrisy, in killing all the suitors and the maids who had slept with them is problematic, because they are not at war. In Homer’s memorable line:
“They were strung up like little birds; they kicked their legs but not for long."
These vivacious victims requite the hero’s desire for patriarchal order.
Penelope tests her husband on the secret of their marriage bed. When he passes:
“and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms around him pressed as though forever”. ……….
In works such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Trojan Women the focus is on his appalling cruelty and duplicity.
The Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid (Book 2) emphasises the dark trickery of Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) in getting the Trojans to drag the Wooden Horse inside the city walls.
Greek Drama #
Greek Dramatists appear to be more closely attuned to the female perspective. Aeschylus reveals the pain women suffer in the Oresteia. His play The Persians reflects the horror of the women as they hear about the rout of Xerses’ navy.
It is set in the Persian capital, where a messenger brings news to the Persian queen of the disaster at Salamis.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata in 411 BC, dramatises a woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War between Greek city states by denying all the men of the land any sex, forcing the men to negotiate peace—a strategy, however, that inflames the battle between the sexes.
Sophocles in Antigone demonstrates the courage of a strong woman.
Creon, decrees her exiled brother Polynices, “an enemy of the state”, so his corpse is to be left outside on the hillside to be devoured by dogs and vultures, declaring him to have been a traitor.
Antigone is determined to obey the divine laws by giving her brother Polynices a proper grave on the simple moral point that “he is still my brother”.
When her sister, Ismene submissively resigns with:
“It’s the law, what can we do? we have to follow it - we’re girls,"
Antigone heroically asserts:
“but I will bury him: well for me to die in doing so. I shall rest, a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for I owe a larger allegiance to the dead than to the living… But if thou wilt, be guilty of dishonouring laws which the gods have stablished in honour.”
Latin Writers #
Virgil composed the Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic deals with the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.
Rome is great according to Virgil. It always has been. It always will be. But Ovid is not convinced, and he seeks to capture an epic world of uncertainty and destabilisation.
Ovid in AD 8, was banished by Augustus for, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”). *Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a lovers’ handbook dealing with how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”).
Ovid directs his dramas one after another, relentlessly bombarding his readers with beautiful metrics and awe-inspiring imagery as that of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Arachne, Daphne and Apollo, Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan.
Hundreds of hapless mortals, heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses rise victorious, experience defeat, endure rape, and inevitably metamorphose into something other than their original forms.
Chaos begins the world, and so into Chaos we are born, live and die. As the offspring of the Age of Iron, we must endure and struggle against corruption, brutality and injustice.
The Phoenician woman Europa was abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull; she later gave birth to their son, King Minos.
The Rape of Europa, Titian, 1560-1562.
Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.
Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.
As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm.
The Rape of the Sabine Women, was an incident in Roman mythology in which the men of Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from the other cities in the region. Wikipedia
Horace expressed his subtle observations in mild satire.
While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment.
Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5t3ZzZv8_U
Juvenal was a poet active in the Roman Republic during the first century CE, who had been exiled for criticising public officials. He therefore felt free, as an outsider, to continue his attacks openly.
Juvenalian satire is characterized by its bitter and abrasive nature. It can be directly contrasted with Horatian satire, which utilizes a much gentler form of ridicule to highlight folly or oddity. A Juvenalian satirist is much more likely to see the targets of his satire as evil or actively harmful to society, and to attack them with serious intent to harm their reputation or power. While Juvenalian satire often attacks individuals on a personal level, its most common objective is social criticism.
Juvenal was best known for his bitter attacks on the public figures and institutions of the Republic, with which he disagreed.
Medieval women’s voices #
An 8th century writer, Leoba, a nun and educated there by other prominent women of the time.
This is a poem she wrote to Boniface,
Farewell, and may you live long and happily, making intercession for me.
The omnipotent Ruler who alone created everything,
He who shines in splendor forever in
His Father’s kingdom,
The perpetual fire by which the glory of Christ reigns,
May preserve you forever in perennial right.
Leoba went on to become a prominent missionary and abbess.
Marie de France #
Living in the late twelfth century. Marie de France was born in France, but she lived and worked in the court of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was highly educated and familiar both with the popular and courtly literature of the time as well as with religious discourse and doctrine.
Marie de France wrote in French, but her surviving work is another excellent example of the stellar literary work being produced at this time by women in England.
Her writings were intended for a courtly, popular audience and all exhibit a poetic and narrative sophistication unparalleled (in my opinion) in medieval literature.
The poem. Sir Lanval, a sophisticated lai that tells the story of a lesser-known knight of King Arthur’s court. The tale is both a wonderful love story and a critique of court culture. It finishes with the fairy queen riding in to save her knight from certain death at the hands of Arthur and his court. The text ends with a wonderfully feminist role reversal:
When the girl came through the gate
Lanval leapt, in one bound,
onto the palfrey, behind her.
With her he went to Avalun,
so the Bretons tell us
to a very beautiful island;
there the youth was carried off.
No man heard of him again,
and I have no more to tell.
(Translated by Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante)
It’s a wonderfully feminist moment with the powerful fairy queen riding in as a hero to rescue the knight who becomes a kind of damsel-in-distress carried off by his rescuer. It’s an awesome moment and a wonderful testament to the skill of its author.
Julian of Norwich #
An anchoress (someone who has devoted their life to the devotion of God to the extent that they choose to live in a very small room within the walls of a church. They spend all their time there thinking and praying and reading) who lived in England around the turn of the fourteenth century.
Julian’s writing is rooted in devotion and her own personal experience with religion. Before she became an anchoress, Julian experienced a series of sixteen visions of Christ while extremely ill. She spent the rest of her life contemplating and writing about those visions. Her main surviving literary work, called Revelations of Divine Love, describes her visions and provides her interpretations of them.
In Medieval times if you heard “voices”, your odds of becoming a saint or having a new Church named after you were enhanced; nowadays you are simply diagnosed with schizophrenia and have to take your lithium. That too is considered “progress”.
Her interpretations end up really brilliantly walking the line between orthodoxy and her own more adventurous readings of the scripture. The text reveals some incredibly nuanced theological ideas and really lovely metaphors that often speak to the spiritual power of women. She famously renders Christ as a mother. She refers to Christ as:
“our kind Mother, our gracious Mother, for he would wholly become our Mother in all things.”
She goes on to say that
“the Mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest, for it is most of kind. This office nor might, nor could, nor never none do the full but He alone. We wit that all our Mother’s bearing is us to pain and to dying; and what is that but our very Mother Jesus?” (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 60).
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University.
The Rose Thorn #
Fragments from 60 lines of The Rose Thorn (Der Rosendorn) discovered on a strip of parchment in the library of Melk Abbey, Austria, dating from 1300, has been called the earliest form of the Vagina Monologues – an argument in verse between a woman and her vulva, originating in the Middle Ages.
In the poem, a virgin woman (junkfrouwe) argues in a free-flowing, often witty dialogue, with her speaking vulva (fud) about which of them is held in the higher regard by men.
The virgin argues that it is by her looks that men are won over, whilst the vulva, accusing the virgin of putting too much stress on her appearance, says it is she who provides the true pleasure. The two decide to part company, but find themselves deeply unhappy and so reunite to allay their suffering. They conclude that they are better together, as a person and their sex are quite simply inseparable. (Kate Connolly in Berlin – The Guardian 27 Jul. 2019)
Courtly love #
A convention begun by the troubadours of southern Europe: Italy - Petrarch and Provence - Arnaut Daniel, (1180–1200)
In the Middle Ages, poetry was sung by minstrels in the Market place. From there it moved into the courts of the Monarchs and became the preserve of the aristocracy - John Donne. As the middle class gained their wealth it moved into the parlours of over stuffed gentility. Eventually poetry became the preserve of the Academia, studied in literature courses limited to esoteric coteries.
Modern poetry attempts to appeal to the masses and should be enjoyed at first reading.
Men have been pursuing women since time immemorial. Primitive man’s concept of wooing a woman was to scour their territory, ambush the most desirable young girl, club her, then drag her by the hair, back to his cave and tame her to keep house for him and provide comfort for him at night.
Aristocratic men, slightly more sophisticated, used their wealth, status and power to negotiate favorable contracts for themselves.
People of royal blood feel they may not follow the wishes of their hearts. No wonder so many kings and queens nurtured such dysfunctional families.
One of the first troubadour love poets, King William, advances the argument, that if women were freely courted, they would prove more valuable to share your life with.
He shows that his love for his women is unquenchable and that by loving her, she returns his love by kissing him in her room or under a tree. Rather than she becoming a nun and he a monk, they enjoy the world and sing and cry. This could be a reference to the tragic tale of Heloise and Abelard, his contemporaries.
Is this the first challenge of St Paul’s advice about chastity?
Chaucer depicts 29 characters, mostly non- aristocratic males, but two apposite larger than life female characters - a Prioress and the Wife of Bath.
Chaucer’s portrait of the Prioress is ambiguous at best and hypocritical at worst.
[link] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJUGniYVCyY&t=20s) Prioress
The Wife of Bath is a comic caricature created with vivid details to illustrate the vast array of characters in 14 th Century England. Her flamboyant manners: large hat, riding skirt, bright scarlet hose and spurs create a larger than life character who is not restricted by conventional expectations.
She is a law onto herself,living a full boisterous life with flair and ostentation - propriety be damned. She likes to be the centre of attention, becoming upset if she is not the first to the offertory during Mass.
They Flee From Me #
Germaine Greer concluded:
‘that in feudal literature romantic love was essentially anti-social and adulterous.
Most European courts were renown for rampant sexual debauchery. When a more virulent strain of syphillis was imported by Columbus, it spread rapidly from Spain to Italy, France and England, by aristocracratic courts.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
Metaphysical Poets appear to possess special powers of imagination or expression to write about ideas. They have a specials gift for language for comparing things which are really quite different - real things and concepts. Meta suggests something beyond the physical. Abstract emotions like love are described in concrete terms through comparisons called “conceits”.
The subjects of the poems are reluctant women, however the love poems are masculine - more about the male’s attitudes to the lady than about the lady herself. (The lady can hardly be visualised.)
Katherine Rundell Farrar, in Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne illustrates this with
“To His Mistress Going to Bed,”
a blisteringly hot hymn to the precoital striptease:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now ’tis your bed-time!
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be and still can stand so nigh!
Your gown’s going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flow’ry meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow!
Now off with those shoes and then safely tread
In this—Love’s hallowed temple—this soft bed!
Literally and figuratively, the poem is a panty dropper. This may be a bit cute, but it gets at something important about the metaphysical style, namely its vertiginous suspension of a difference between things that are real, and really happening, and things that are not.
John Donne, more than any poet, manages to fuse the visceral, emotional, spiritual and cerebral aspects of love into a unity.
Donne managed somehow to fuse the of the sacred with the profane in his love poetry and incorporate the carnal into his religious poetry.
In Batter My Heart he claims:
To be chaste one must be ravished by Christ
Andrew Marwell #
Mary Wollstonecraft #
Both Mary Wollstonecraft, darling of twentieth-century feminists, and her visionary daughter Mary Shelley continue to influence us today.
Here are some of Wollstonecraft’s ideas for a social revolution published in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
• All schools shall be coeducational, with no fees, plenty of outdoor exercise for pupils, and emphasis placed on both learning a foreign language and treating animals with kindness (in order to reduce in children any disposition toward violent behavior).
• There shall be equality of partners in cohabiting relationships and equal division of legacies among family heirs. No special favors granted to firstborn sons.
• Every woman shall aspire to earn her own living (“the true definition of independence”) rather than employing sexual guile and physical appearance to attract a wealthy lover or spouse.
Few, if any, mother–daughter pairs compare to the glowing diptych presented by Wollstonecraft and her second daughter, Mary Godwin, better known by her husband Percy’s surname as Mary Shelley.
Wollstonecraft, who died in the late summer of 1797 at the age of thirty–eight, just eleven days after giving birth to Mary, offered her dazzled and often enraged contemporaries a vision of liberated womanhood that would help to make her the darling of twentieth–century feminists.
Jane Austen #
Significant female author to demonstrate that women did not have to defer to others.
Mr Collins proposal: [link] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XetUFwRhzg)
Mr Darcy’s Proposal: [link] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JF3ueHjUc3k)
Lady Catherine De bourgh: [link] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFOopm7eBmM)
Mary Wollstonecraft - Shelley 1797 - 1851 #
Victorian Voices #
Breanna Byecroft, Brown University, exposes male domination stifling the voices of women:
rapt and dreaming damozel in heaven, a young girl crying silently, a suffering Madonna, a sleeping prostitute
– such are the images of passivity and subservience that often characterize the female in Victorian literature. Breanna Byecroft
In addition to projecting all their desires onto a female object, male speakers in Victorian poetry sometimes use their narrative voice to suppress the female point of view and enforce codes of patriarchal domination.
There are typically three ways in which male speakers (or female speakers in the case of Aurora Leigh) objectify women. Sometimes speakers literally ventriloquize the female subject by putting words in her mouth. In other, more subtle instances of females being objectified, speakers endow women with a quality, assign a value to them, or impose their views on them.
In Victorian poetry there is a noticeable pattern of women being reduced to a fixed meaning as opposed to being treated as complex human beings.
Many Victorian literary works are constructed from male vantage points in which the male narrator actually speaks for the female. This appropriation of the female voice by a male speaker does not have its origins in Victorian poetry. The narrative incapacity of the female also appears in William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” when the male speaker tells his sister Dorothy how she should perceive the scene before them. The speaker is not interested in viewing her as an individual but rather as a reflection of what he “was once”:
“in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes.”
The speaker impresses himself on the female whose actual voice is never heard. She is significant only insofar that she represents for the poet a mirror of his former self.
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS #
Spring and Fall to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
This can be read as a bit avuncular and pratronising.
Robert Browning #
In 1846, Browning falls in love with a spinster aged (40) Elizabeth Barret when he came across her poetry.
The pair exchanged nearly 600 letters over the following 20 months, and eloped. Barrett’s father was very much against the marriage, and he never spoke with his daughter again.
They moved to Florence, Italy, where she published Sonnets From the Portuguese, a collection of 44 love sonnets one of the greatest sequences of sonnets in history dedicated to Browning and written in secret during their courtship. “Sonnet 43” begins with:
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways, / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal grace. …
Browning held that “Man in his capacity for love touches divinity”. We could extrapolate that hate takes us in the opposite direction.
Women are objectified and commodified.
Robert Browning’s signature poem is My Last Duchess:
Charles Dickens #
Representations of women
Dickens has been accused of misogynism.
Sascha Morrell, Monash University writes:
Great Expectations’ representation of women has divided readers. Some critics see Pip as a masochist, whose brutal upbringing by a much older sister, who boasts of raising him “by hand”, leads him to associate a woman’s love with cruelty. Hence his predilection for the cold, mocking Estella over the caring Biddy.
The novel links its depiction of gender to its depictions of race and class. Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, calls herself a “negress slave”; Estella has a working-class “gypsy” mother.
The reclusive corpse-bride Miss Havisham is Great Expectations’ best-known figure. Miss Havisham stopped the clocks on the day she was jilted by her fiancé and still dresses in her old wedding gown. She lives shut up in a rotting mansion, where she trains her beautiful ward Estella to enact her revenge upon men.
The muscles in Miss Havisham’s thin arm swell with “vehemence” when she draws Pip close and commands him to love Estella, repeating the words:
“love her, love her, love her” until they sound “like a curse”.
Pip’s motivations are mixed. He confides in his childhood friend Biddy that Estella has made him feel “coarse and common”, adding “I admire her dreadfully and I want to be a gentleman on her account.” After a pause, Biddy asks, “Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?”
Sascha Morrell, Monash University writing for The Conversation
George Eliot #
Helen Growth Professor of Literary Studies, UNSW Sydney, (The Conversation) writes that George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) – built rich and complex fictional worlds that she hoped would allow readers to be:
“better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures”.
This avowedly humanist world-building would come to be called realism. Middlemarch is often cited as a template of that now familiar mode.
The novel’s subtitle – “A Study of Provincial Life” – suggests a serious project guided by ethical and scientific principles. This aim was a far remove from the conventional marriage plots and melodramatic style of “silly lady novelists”, as Eliot snarkily called them. She offered her readers multiple perspectives and ways to study the lives of others.
Emily Dickinson #
Writing intensely personal poetry for herself, Dickinson probes the our individual quests to engage and relate to the natural world, each other and contemplate death.
Women breaking free #
The tradition of narratives of unhappy, unfaithful women: Madame Bovary (1856), The Awakening (1899), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), The Bride Stripped Bare (2003).
Henrik Ibsen’s plays, especially, A Doll’s House, emphasizes that everyone in suffers under the binding ties of patriarchy. It attempts to show that there was great change within one character in particular, Nora. It is fairly easy to see that Thorvald, her husband, is a wooden character, imposing and seemingly without humor or compassion.
Nora was not attempting to take on a man’s role; she was attempting to save herself and her family, something women have always had to do as men deserted them for work, war or another woman. He seems to have come belatedly to that conclusion, because that is what Nora has been doing for years. Still another critic attempts to move the drama out of the realm of feminism and suggests that Nora is acting like a ‘fake man.
Strindberg (Swedish – 1874) also wrote about sex with absolute realism, dramatising the compound of love, hate, fury and desire that characterises random couplings and permanent relationships. If Ibsen caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after.
In Miss Julie, Strindberg’s railing against the stifling nature of societal expectations, based on arbitrary and ever-shifting goalposts. In a way, it’s not governments, or police, or armies that control and manipulate us, any more than we collectively agree (actively or passively, but likely the last) to place strictures and confinements upon ourselves, to the point of strangulation. We rob ourselves of freedom of expression.
Miss Julie is at least trying to make a jailbreak; to loosen the noose and swing a little. Throw her head back and laugh it up. Dance. Flirt. Carouse. Cavort. Imbibe. She has the courage to experiment; to break free. It’s a struggle, of course. She doubtless feels the weight of tradition and her father’s high hopes. Her seduction of Jean, the butler, isn’t so much intended to damage the heart of Kristen, his lover, as it is to find some clear space for herself to inhabit, but with another.
“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” - Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in Little Women
Camilla Nelson Associate Professor of Writing, University of Notre Dame Australia writng for The Conversation claims:
Spinsters are rarely the protagonists in the English novel, but they are oddly abundant in its margins. Here, the Lovelorn, the Busybody, the Murdering and Vengeful or the Merely Hysterical Spinster form an unending parade of horribles – each figure more grotesque and terrifying than the last.
Historically, a fictional spinster may moulder in her wedding dress like Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, conspire against the happiness of every other character like E.M. Forster’s Charlotte Bartlett, sell her soul and wind up living soullessly like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, or simply “get it over with” – by dispatching herself with a dose of chloral hydrate like Edith Wharton’s doomed Lily Bart.
But the truly astonishing thing is that the situation in the contemporary novel has not significantly improved. Though the options available to real women have dramatically expanded – and, indeed, marriage rates have plummeted across the English-speaking world – the spinster stereotype remains strangely persistent even in the work of writers who attempt to undermine it.
Today’s fictional spinsters may not be outwardly covered in boils or carbuncles (or wear pointy black hats on grey hair festooned with cobwebs) but they continue to be cast as fiction’s unnatural anomalies – attired in gauzy pink scarves or frumpy woollen coats, boiling bunnies, peddling arsenic, or running refuges for the world’s unwanted cats.
Austen’s spinsters, like Miss Bates, are treated with patronising sympathy, an object lesson to young women; marry if you can.
Virginia Woolf #
Feminism The scholar Alex Zwerdling observes, Woolf used her fiction to satirize Britain’s “hierarchies of class and sex, its complacency, its moral obtuseness.” The stifling oppressiveness of the Victorian patriarchal home with its lack of opportunity for females.
Men are thrilled by war, while women by feelings in drawing rooms. The parties have a hollowness to them. (Mrs Dalloway) Yet women should courageously acknowledge the limitations of their sex. Illustrated by Tolstoy’s War and Peace or by The Battle of Waterloo and lampooned by Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Virginia Woolf was born Virginia Stephen in 1882 into a prominent and intellectually well-connected family. Her formal education was limited, but she grew up reading voraciously from the vast library of her father, the critic Leslie Stephen. Her youth was a traumatic one, including the early deaths of her mother and brother, a history of sexual abuse, and the beginnings of a depressive mental illness that plagued her intermittently throughout her life and eventually led to her suicide in 1941.
Her novels, which include To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, are particularly concerned with the lives and experiences of women.
Her talks, on the topic of Women and Fiction, A Room of One’s Own, printed in 1929. It explores the historical and contextual contingencies of literary achievement.
“Fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact.” Reality is not objective: rather, it is contingent upon the circumstances of one’s world.
She adopted a prose style completely expressive of her state of mind, often a stream of consciousness. She resists coercion and tyranny of old rules and rigid traditions.
T.S. Eliot #
Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets.
Eliot appears to have frustrated female issues. Here he propagates Courtly Love’s adoration of the unattainable.
“What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.”
Hale was not the only woman who expected more from Eliot’s friendship.
Intimate letters, dinners and church visits indicate a 20-year friendship between Mary Trevelyan and Eliot from 1938 with Trevelyan’s accounts of Eliot holding her hand for too long and inquiring often of her mother clear signs of how he played with her emotions. Erica Wagner, writes that for Eliot, she clearly provided comfort: “That was something Eliot needed. I think he was a man who suffered all his life, but that comfort had to be on his own terms.”
Other women who instrumental in Eliot’s life: Lady Mary Rothermere, who financed the printing of the Criterion, which Eliot edited; Hope Mirlees, a later friend whose 1920 prose poem, Paris, eerily foreshadows The Waste Land; and Virginia Woolf, a supportive friend, whose Hogarth Press.
Any lover of Eliot’s poetry must navigate these tricky areas, as well as the many instances of racism and antisemitism in his work. I find much of Eliot’s misogyny unbearable, but many other scenes featuring women continue to speak to me with a vivid, sad authenticity.
Voices such as Emily’s, Marie’s and Vivien’s seem to have stayed with him and by articulating their experiences, he set them in motion, to fly free. The Pope of Russell Square, Marie Trevelyan’s book is “co-written” with American author and critic Erica Wagner.
Elizabeth Bishop #
Bishop’s poetry attempts to deal with her pain and loss in a detached impersonal manner, but fails.
M. Mark on “One Art”
Dylan Thomas – Do not go gentle:
Reaching for the Moon: Clips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeMtHkH_jX8
Sylvia Plath #
Plath and Bishop were students of Robert Lowell, with Plath accepting his acknowledgement of our emotional and psychological fragility.
Lowell is often considered the doyen of what is called “Confessional Poetry” in the tradition of Gerard Manly Hopkins.