Syllabus | Assignments

We will devote this course to the subtle and powerful poetry of Victorian women whose innovative works have come to occupy a more central place in literary studies. We will give particular attention to their formal poetics, their responses to contemporary aesthetic and ‘decadent’ ideals, and their debates about art, war, commerce, empire, class-divisions,  ‘women’s role,’ other social conventions and the nature of their literary craft.

We will spend several weeks on works of Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Augusta Webster, Rosamund Marriott Watson and the pseudonymous couple who wrote under the name “Michael Field,” then turn to a selection of lesser-known but equally significant writers of songs, ballads, folk poems and other forms of working-class "popular poetry."

I will ask each student to prepare an introductory class-presentation on one of the course’s lesser-known poets, from a list which may include (but not be restricted to) Laetitia Landon, Emily Bronte, Eliza Cook, Augusta Webster, Mathilde Blind, Amy Levy, Jean Ingelow, Annie Matheson, Olive Custance, Alice Meynell, Caroline Norton, Emily Pfeiffer, Mary Coleridge, Mary Robinson, Janet Hamilton and Ellen Johnston.



August 24th Monday Introduction

course content, metrics

August 26th Wednesday

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: her life, Aurora Leigh, book I

August 31st Monday

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, books II and III

September 2nd Wednesday

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, book IV and V

September 7th Monday

Labor Day

September 9th Wednesday

Aurora Leigh, books VI and VII

September 14th Monday

Aurora Leigh, books VIII and IX

September 16th Wednesday

Aurora Leigh, final discussion

September 25th Tuesday

finish Auora Leigh, final discussion

September 27th Thursday

Augusta Webster, "The Castaway"


October 2nd Tuesday

popular literature: women's ballads

October 4th Thursday

working-class literature: Janet Hamilton and Ellen Johnston


October 9th Tuesday

popular literature: Eliza Cook

October 11th Thursday

instructor will be away at a conference; students should use the time to plan their research paper


October 16th Tuesday

title of research paper and 8 item bibliography due; should include articles, books and other reference materials

Christina Rossetti

October 18th Thursday

Christina Rossetti


October 23rd Tuesday

Christina Rossetti

outline or first draft due

October 25th Thursday

research paper due

Amy Levy


October 30th Tuesday

Michael Field

You should start to choose the poet for your special presentation.

November 1st Thursday

student led classes: each student will choose an author and poem to present. We'll try to stick to a schedule of 4 poems/students per class.

Suggested poets include: *Toru Dutt, *Alice Meynell, Edith Nesbit, *Mary Coleridge, Jean Ingelow, May Kendall, George Eliot, *Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Dora Greenwell, Violet Fane, Mathilde Blind, Emily Pfeiffer, Agnes Robinson, Dollie Radford.

Others may be found in Victorian Women Poets, ed. Leighton and Reynolds, and Nineteenth-Century Women Poets, ed. Armstrong and Bristow.


November 6th Tuesday

student choices of poet

November 8th Thursday

student choices of poet

November 13th Tuesday

student choices of poet

November 15th Thursday

student choices of poet


November 20th and 22nd Thanksgiving break

student choices of poet

November 27th Tuesday AM

student choices of poet

November 29th Thursday

student choices of poet


December 4th Tuesday

poets of the fin de siecle

December 6th Thursday

Rosamund Marriott Watson

December 11th

Charlotte Mew

December 13th

Charlotte Mew, final discussion

December 18th final reports on take-home examination


MW 3:55-5:10 p. m., Room 104 EPB

Instructor: Florence Boos

Office: 319 EPB, office phone 335-0434 (answering machine)

Office hours: most afternoons after class; Wednesday 7:30-8:30 p. m.; Friday 3-4 p. m.

Textbooks at UI Bookstore:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Norton Critical Edition

Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology, ed. Virginia Blain

corsepack, at Zephyrs Copy Center, Washington Street.

Three additional anthologies have been placed on library reserve.

Course Requirements:

1. contributions to class discussion: please read the assignment before class and come prepared to ask questions and comments on unusual features of the text.

From time to time, I will ask students to give a brief class presentation on an author's life, and/or to prepare responses and questions for our readings.

2. journal/reading responses: please prepare 6 reading responses, the equivalent of two double-spaced typed pages each, to be posted on Icon so that your fellow students may read them. Four of your responses should be on course readings, and two on literary criticism about Victorian women poets. For this latter, I will give you a short bibliography of suggested readings.

3. In addition to posting these responses to the class web site, you will be asked to write a six page critical/research paper, and a six page final take-home examination.

Your critical/research paper must be based on research in the biographies, book-length critical studies, and critical articles on the author you have chosen (that is, you cannot merely use web-page citations). It is due November 11th.

4. The final essay/take-home exam will be a comparative critical discussion of the works of two or more poets you have read during the course.

The final will be held during examination week, most likely on Monday December 14th, 2009 unless students vote for another day that week.

5. You will be asked to provide for the class a brief biography of a poet of your choice, and to lead an approx. 20 minute class discussion of one of her poems.

8:121 Quiz on Aurora Leigh

For the following ten quotations, please answer as many as possible of the following:

Who is the speaker?
Where does this passage occur in the poem?
Under what circumstances is it spoken/written?
What seems distinctive about its language?
What is its meaning or significance?
(5 points each; I’ll count best 9)

We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.

You’d come upon a great charred circle, where
The patient earth was singed an acre round;
With one stone stair, symbolic of my life,
Ascending, winding, leading up to nought!
‘Tis worth a poet’s seeing. Will you go?

I read a score of books on womanhood
. . . books that boldly assert . . .
Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
Particular worth and general missionariness
As long as they keep quiet by the fire
And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’
For that is fatal,--their angelic reach
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners,--their, in brief,
Potential faculty in everything
Of abdicating power in it. . . .

Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,--and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.’

You stand outside,
You artist women, of the common sex;
You share not with us, and exceed us so
Perhaps by what you’re mulcted in, your hearts
Being starved to make your heads: so run the old
Traditions of you. I can therefore speak
Without the natural shame which creatures feel
When speaking on their level, to their like.

Beloved, let us love so well,
Our work shall still be better for our love,
And still our love be sweeter for our work,
And both commended, for the sake of each
By all true workers and true lovers born.
Now press the clarion . . .
And blow all class-walls level as Jericho’s
Past Jordan, . . . .

Of course the people came in uncompelled,
Lame, blind, and worse—sick, sorrowful, and worse— . . .
What a sight!
A holiday of miserable men
Is sadder than a burial-day of kings.
They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark slow stream, like blood.

Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,--this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal, -- foolish too. King Arthur’s self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Fleet Street to our poets.

. . . that face . . . which did not therefore change,
But kept the mystic level of all forms,
Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or anon
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
Where the Babe sucked; or Lamia in her first
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked . . . .

Pay the price
Of lies, by being constrained to lie on still:
’Tis easy for thy sort: a million more
Will scarcely damn thee deeper.

Five points:

Identify five of the six following persons, indicating where they appear in the plot and why their presence is significant:

Rose Bell

Vincent Carrington

William Erle

Lord Howe


Marian’s son

Extra credit question (five points): What are some central/recurrent images in the epic excluding those in the above passages, and why is each important? (up to five)

8:121 Victorian Women Poets

For this class, we’ve read and discussed poems by twenty-eight Victorian women poets. Please identify ten of the following fourteen selections, and for each selection please identify the author, title, place or significance in the poem, any allusions or references, and the stanza’s formal features (rhythm, rhyme, stanzaic pattern, diction, poetic qualities) (5 pts. each selection, 1 point for each topic).

Extra credit points will be given for completing any of the remaining six sections.

1. What man only talks of, the busy bee does;
Shares food, and keeps order, with no waste of buzz.

No cell that's too narrow, no squandering of wax,
No damage to pay, and no rent, and no tax.

2. But she stripped the claiths frae her lang richt arm,
       That were wrappit roun’ and roun’,
The first was white, an’ the last was red;
       And the fresh bluid dreeped adown.

She stretchit him out her lang right arm,
        An’ cauld as the deid stude he.
The flames louped bricht i’ the gloaming licht--
       There was nae hand there to see!

3. He saw the wildlings flower more brave 
And bright than any cultured slave; 
Yet, since he had not set them there, 
He hated them for being fair.

So he uprooted, one by one
The free things that had loved the sun,
The happy, eager, fruitful seeds
That had not known that they were weeds.

4. A snowy blackthorn flowered beyond my reach;
You broke a branch and gave it to me there;
I found for you a scarlet blossom rare.

Thereby ran on of Art and Life our speech;
And of the gifts the gods had given to each--
Hope unto you, and unto me Despair.

5. But those who slay
Are fathers. Theirs are armies. Death is theirs,                      
The death of innocences and despairs;
The dying of the golden and the grey.
The sentence, when these speak it, has no Nay.
And she who slays is she who bears, who bears.

6. Oh I blame no one -- scarcely even myself.
It was to be: the very good in me
Has always turned to hurt; all I thought right
At the hot moment, judged of afterwards,
Shows reckless.

            Why, look at it, had I taken
The pay my dead child's father offered me
For having been its mother, I could then
Have kept life in me, (many have to do it,
That swarm in the back alleys, on no more,
Cold sometimes, mostly hungry, but they live);
I could have gained a respite trying it,
And maybe found at last some humble work
To eke the pittance out. Not I, forsooth,
I must have spirit, must have womanly pride,
Must dash back his contemptuous wages, I,
Who had not scorned to earn them, dash them back
The fiercer that he dared to count our boy
In my appraising: and yet now I think
I might have taken it for my dead boy's sake;
It would have been his gift.

But I went forth
With my fine scorn, and whither did it lead?
Money's the root of evil do they say?
Money is virtue, strength: money to me
Would then have been repentance: could I live
Upon my idiot's pride?

7. 'I wish our brains were not so good,
   I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
  Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
   Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite-- In the Silurian seas!'

8. I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
       That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the Organ,
       And entered into mine.

It may be that Death’s bright angel
       Will speak in that chord again,--
It may be that only in heaven
       I shall hear that grand Amen.

9. I shall never see her more
Where the reeds and rushes quiver,
            Shiver, quiver,
Stand beside the sobbing river,
Sobbing, throbbing, in its falling
To the sandy lonesome shore,
I shall never hear her calling,
“Leave your meadow grasses mellow,
            Mellow, mellow,
Quit your cowslips, cowslips yellow,
Come uppe, Whitefoot, come uppe, Lightfoot,
Quit your pipes of parsley hollow,
            Hollow, hollow,
Come uppe, Lightfoot, rise and follow,
Lightfoot, Whitefoot,
From your clovers lift the head,
Come uppe, Jetty, follow, follow,
Jetty, to the milking shed.”

10. My Love and I took hands and swore,
           Against the world, to be
  Poets and lovers evermore,
  To laugh and dream on Lethe's shore,
  To sing to Charon in his boat,
  Heartening the timid souls afloat;
  Of judgment never to take heed,
   But to those fast-locked souls to speed,
  Who never from Apollo fled,
  Who spent no hour among the dead;
         With them to dwell,
   Indifferent to heaven and hell.

11. But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy;

Then did I check the tears of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And even yet I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in Memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

12, Yet the mild Poet can be ruthless too,
Crushing the tender leaves to work a spell
Of love or fame; the record of the bud
He will not seek, but only bids it tell
His thoughts, and render up its deepest hue
To tinge his verse as with his own heart’s blood.

13. Such love as yours, most perfect man of love!’
The mesh of silk, wherein his subtle hand
Had wound me, half across the room I flung,
And snatched my old, dim, faded cloak again,
And dragged its hood above my storm of hair—
‘One thing alone Herodias lacked,’ I said,
‘She should have smitten, herself, with her own palm,
The scorner, the rebuker’ –and stepped close,
And lifted up my slim, unfolded hand,
And struck him, slightly, swiftly, in the face,
And nodded him farewell, and went, or ere
The outraged red could spring into his cheek.

14. ‘Tis past, ‘tis past, but I gaze on it now
With quivering breath and throbbing brow :
‘Twas there she nursed me ; ‘twas there she died :
And Memory flows with lava tide.
Say it is folly, and deem me weak,
While the scalding drops start down my cheek ;
But I love it, I love it ; and cannot tear
My soul from a mother’s old arm-chair.

15. Each has a certain step to learn;
       Our prisoned feet move staidly in set paces,
And to and fro we pass, since life is stern,
       Patiently, with masked faces.

Yet some there are who will not dance,
       They sit apart most sorrowful and splendid,
But all the rest trip on as in a trance,
       Until the Dance is ended.

16. This is life to come,     
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty--
Be the sweet Presence of a good diffused
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Key 1-6: Bevington, "The Bees"; Watson, "Ballad of the Were-Wolf"'; Nesbit, "The Despot"; Levy, "To Vernon Lee"; Meynell, "Parentage"; Webster, "The Castaway"

Key 7-12: Kendall, "The Lay of the Trilobite"; Proctor, "The Lost Chord"; Ingelow, "High Tide on the Lincolnshire Coast"; Field, "It Was Sweet April"; Emily Bronte, "Remembrance"; Naden, "Poet and Botanist"

Key 13-16: May Probyn, "The Model"; Cook, "The Old Arm Chair"; Custance, "The Masquerade"; Eliot, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible"