For those whose interests center on transatlantic nineteenth-century poetry, Tricia Lootens’s The Political Poetess: Victorian Femininity, Race, and the Legacy of Separate Spheres (Princeton UP, 2016) is now essential reading, along with Meredith McGill’s The Traffic in Poems (2008) and Daniel Hack’s Reaping Something New (also 2016). Her innovative book in fact has relevance for all those who are interested in transatlantic study and research methods.
Rather than viewing the poetess as being in retreat to an apolitical, patriotic private sphere of mourning and praise, Lootens demonstrates that the very premise of a decorous female separate sphere depends on profits resulting from racist violence (viz., slavery and imperial expansion) and is thus inherently riven, haunted, political. Drawing upon Hegel’s theory of the internal enemy of the state (derived from a reading of Antigone), she also theorizes what she calls “suspended spheres,” “modeling,” according to the author, “a national sentimental ‘private sphere,’ conceived as a violently constructed, uneasily maintained sacred space at the heart of the State. As a realm of mortal subjection, mourning, and failed resistance, this sphere demands femininity’s protection; as a repository for eternal, individual love, it opens out onto eternity, investing feminine demands for the bodies of slain soldiers with a divine authority that supersedes statecraft” (personal communication).
Tricia Lootens also reveals the political poetess in historicist terms, by reading the pervasiveness of what she calls “Abolition time” (still ongoing because not yet fully resolved or remedied), given the deep involvement of multiracial British and American women in abolition after the 1833 British Abolition act. Combined with her revised “sphere” theory, Lootens thus reframes affective lyrics by women poets as always intrinsically political. As her own refrain goes, “Who made the Poetess white? No one, not ever.” In a volume that offers as much to classroom teachers as to scholars, she opens up the poetess figure not only to transatlantic and transnational criss-crossing but also to connections with pressing issues today.
Individual chapters emphasize, among other poets, Felicia Hemans (in the contexts of race, slavery [“Bride of the Greek Isle”]), war [“Casabianca”]); Elizabeth Barrett Browning (in a bravura chapter on her “Curse for a Nation”); and—though reference to Harper threads throughout the book—Frances Harper (whose Aunt Chloe poems Lootens reads against Hemans’s “Switzer’s Wife” and whose oratory Lootens approaches as African American Poetess performance). In every discussion throughout The Political Poetess, whether broad or highly specific, Tricia Lootens props open her own scholarly “sphere” to transatlantic literature and fundamental issues of social justice. I enthusiastically recommend her book to all visitors to this site.
–Linda K. Hughes