WOMPO - Women's Poetry Listserv
Caroline Bowles Southey (1786-1854)
by Ellen Moody
by Ellen Moody
Quite a number of weeks ago Annie Finch asked if there were any long blank verse poems by women. Here is a very beautiful one by Caroline Bowles. Late in life she married the poet Robert Southey. One reason we don't know much of these long blank verse poems by women is they are long. This one consists of a number of books. It is a kind of Preludewhere the Poet remembers her girlhood and youth and tells of how she came to love poetry. She was born rich, but became poor when her parents died. She was for a time a seamstress (not much fun).
The Birthday by Caroline Bowles
From Part the First:
How vivid still, how deep the hues, the imprint
Left by those childish pastimes! Later joys,
Less puerile, more exciting, have I known
(Ah! purer none; from earth's alloy so free),
But memory hoards no picture so distinct
In freshness as of yesterday as those
Life's first impressions, exquisite and strong
Their stamp, compared to that of later days,
Like a proof print from the engraver's plate
The first struck offmost forcibly impressed.
Lo! what a train like Bluebeard's wives appear,
So many headless! half dismembered some,
With battered faces eyeless noseless grim
With cracked enamel and unsightly scars
Some with bald pates or hempen wigs unfrizzed
, And ghastly stumps, like Greenwich pensioners;
Others mere torsosarms, legs, heads, all gone!
But precious all. And chief that veteran doll,
She, from whose venerable face is worn
All prominence of feature: shining brown
(Like chestnut from its prickly coating freed)
With equal polish as the wigless skull
Well I remember, with what bribery won
Of a fair rival one of waxen mold
(Long coveted possession!) I was brought
The mutilated favorite to resign.
The blue-eyed fair one cameperfection's self!
With eager joy I clasped her waxen charms;
But thenthe stipulated sacrifice!
"And must we part?" my piteous looks expressed
(Mute eloquence!) "And must we part, dear Stump!
Oh! might I keep ye both!"and both I kept.
Unwelcome hour I ween, that tied me down,
Restless, reluctant, to the seamstress' task!
Sight horrible to me, the allotted seam
Of stubborn Irish, or more hateful length
Of handkerchief, with folded edge tacked down,
All to be hemmeday, selvidge sides and all.
And so they were in tedious course of time,
With stitches long and short, "cat's teeth" yclept;
Or jumbled thick and thin, oblique, transverse,
At last, in sable line imprinted grim.
But less distasteful was the sampler's task;
There green and scarlet vied, and fancy claimed
Her privilege to crowd the canvass field
With hearts and zigzags, strawberries and leaves,
And many a quaint device; some moral verse
Or Scripture text enwrought; and last of all,
Last, though not least, the self-pleased artist's name.
And yet, with more alacrity of will,
I fashioned various raiment caps, cloaks, gowns
Gay garments for the family of dolls;
No matter how they fittedthey were made;
Ay, and applauded, and rewarded, too,
With silver thimble. Precious gift! bestowed
By a kind aunt, one ever kind and good,
Mine early benefactress! since approved
By time and trial mine unchanging friend;
Yet most endeared by the affecting bond
Of mutual sorrows, mutual sympathies.
From Part the Second:
Part the Second
How I hate
Those London Sparrows! Vile, pert, noisy things!
Whose ceaseless clamor at the windowsill
(The back-room window, opening on some mews)
Reminds one of the country just so far
As to bemock its wild and blithesome sounds,
And press upon the heart our pent-up state
In the great Babylon;oppressed, engulfed
By crowds and smoke and vapor: Where one sees,
For laughing vales fair winding in the sun
And hilltops gleaming in his golden light,
The dingy red of roofs and chimneys tall
On which a leaden orb looks dimly down!
For limpid rills, the kennel's stream impure;
For primrose banks, the rifled scentless things
Tied up for sale, held out by venal hands;
For lowing herds and bleating flocks, the cries
Of noisy venders threading every key,
From base to treble, of discordant sound;
For trees, unnatural stinted mockeries
At windows and, on balconies, stuck up
Fir trees in vases!picturesque conceit!
Whereon, to represent the woodland choir,
Perch those sweet songsters of the sooty wing.
Yet as I write, the light and flippant mood
Changes to one of serious saddened thought,
And my heart smites me for the sorry jest,
Calling to mind a sight that filled me once
With tenderest sympathy.
In a great city,
Blackened and deafening with the smoke and din
Of forge and enginetraffic's thriving mart,
Chartered by Mammonunderneath a range
Of gorgeous showrooms where all precious metals,
In forms innumerous, exquisitely wrought,
Dazzled the gazer's eye, I visited
The secret places of the "Prison House."
From den to den of a long file I passed
Of dingy workshopseach affording space
But for the sallow inmate and his tools:
His table, the broad, timeworn, blackened slab
Of a deep sunken window, whose dim panes
Tinged with a sickly hue the blessed beams
Of the bright noonday sun. I tarried long
In one of those sad cells, conversing free
With its pale occupant, a dark-browed man
Of hard repellant aspecthard and stern.
But having watched awhile the curious sleight
Of his fine handicraft, when I expressed
Pleased admirationin few words, but frank,
And toned by kindly feeling, for my heart
Yearned with deep sympathythe moody man
Looked up into my face, and in that look
Flashed out an intellectual soul-fraught gleam
Of pleased surprise, that changed to mild and good
The harsh expression of that care-marred face.
There lay beside him on the window slab
A dirty ragged book turned downwards open
Where he had last been reading, from his toil
Snatching a hurried moment. Anxiously
I glanced towards it, but forbore to question,
Restrained by scrupulous feeling, shunning most
Shadow of disrespect to low estate
But from the book my wandering gaze passed on
To where, beyond it, close to the dim panes,
A broken flowerpot, with a string secured,
Contained a living treasurea green clump
(Just bursting into bloom) of the field orchis.
"You care for flowers," I said, "and that fair thing,
The beautiful orchis, seems to flourish well
With little light and air." "It won't for long,"
The man made answer, with a mournful smile
Eying the plant. "I took it up, poor thing!
But Sunday evening last from the rich meadow
Where thousands bloom so gay, and brought it here
To smell of the green fields for a few days
Till Sunday comes againand rest mine eyes on,
When I look up fatigued from these dead gems
And yellow glittering gold."
With patient courtesy,
Well spoken, clear (no ignorant churl was he),
That poor artificer explained the process
Of his ingenious artI looked and listened,
But with an aching heart that loathed the sight
Of those bright pebbles and that glittering ore;
And when I turned to gonot unexpressed
My feelings of good will and thankfulness
He put into my hand a small square packet
Containing powder that would quite restore
(He told me) to dull gems and clouded pearls
Their pristine luster. I received, well pleased,
Proffering payment; but he shook his head,
Motioning back my hand; and stooping down,
Resumed his task, in a low deep-toned voice
Saying, "You're kindly welcome."
Say with a friend we contemplate some scene
Of natural loveliness, from which the heart
Drinks in its fill of deep admiring joy,
Some landscape scene, all glorious with the glow
Of summer evening, when the recent shower
(Transient and sudden) all the dry white road
Has moistened to red firmness, every leaf
(Washed from the dust) restored to glossy green
In such an evening, oft the setting sun,
Flaming in gold and purple clouds, comes forth
To take his farewell of our hemisphere;
Sudden the face of nature brightens o'er
With such effulgence, as no painter's art
May imitate with faint similitude.
The raindrops dripping fast from every spray
Are liquid topazes; bright emeralds those
Set on the green foil of the glistening leaves,
And every little hollow, concave stone
And pebbly wheeltrack holds its sparkling pool
Brimming with molten amber. Of those drops
The blackbird lights to drink, then, scattering thick
A diamond shower among his dusty plumes,
Flies up rejoicing to some neighboring elm
And pours forth such a strain as wakens up
The music of unnumbered choristers.
Thus nature to her great creator hymns
An hallelujah of ecstatic praise.
And are our voices mute? Oh, no! we turn
(Perhaps with glistening eyes), and our full heart
Pour out, in rapturous accents, broken words
Such as require no answer but by speech
As little measured, or that best reply,
Feeling's true eloquence, a speaking look.
But other answer waits us; for the friend
(Oh! heaven! that there are such) with a calm smile
Of sweet no-meaning gently answers, "Yes,
Indeed it's very pretty Don't you think
It's getting late thoughtime to go to tea?"
Caroline Bowles's years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absonded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope's Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant's wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper's Task. At the time Wordsworth's Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey's wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854.
There's a wonderful essay on her in _Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, "'Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation," pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey's poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain. Both are very expensive.
"The Birthday" is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet's mind through retelling her story. It's called "The Birthday" because it's imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. "The Birthday" gives us a woman's version of Wordsworth's Prelude It's shameful "The Birthday" is not better known. In its way it's also superior to "Aurora Leigh" as it hasn't got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can't. He can't begin to get the books he needs (shades of Jude the Obscure) and hasn't got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and after all deserved to be dropped.
I just wrote a review on a book which attempts to counter the determined erasure of womens' poetry throughout the ages, how it's never included in histories, important anthologies and that's why it doesn't make its mark. Today the poems included are still those which tend to be de-contextualized into impersonal (Elizabeth Bishop) or are hysterical-tragic (Plath) -- though the situation is changing since the mid-20th century. Yet we can see that there are continual rearguard actions to regard women's writing as "biodegradable" (Germaine Greer's word) from Garrison Keilor's screed.