“A Castaway”

What is meant by the poem’s title? What emotions does it seem intended to invoke? Would the effect have been different if the speaker were named, e. g., “Eulalie’s Plea,” or some such?

Is it significant that the poem is titled "A Castaway" rather than "The Castaway"?

What is the poem's verse form? Is it appropriate for this situation? Are there instances in which the sound is varied to follow meaning?

How might the use of the dramatic monologue form have altered the way in which the audience responds to this poem?

Lines 1-196

What activities had occupied the speaker's own girlhood? Would the poem's likely readers have identified with this past?

Were these pursuits chosen in light of her future? How does the speaker now feel about her own girlhood?

Why do you think these reflections were chosen for the opening segment?

What seems to be her attitude towards her present self? Towards her physical appearance and moral character?

What seems her social position relative to other "kept women" and prostitutes of the time, for example, the "Jenny" of Rossetti's poem? Why do you think Webster chose a Eulalie rather than Jenny for the subject of her poem?

What purpose is served by the speaker's allusion to her face as appropriate for that of a painting?

What beliefs about prostitutes does the speaker indicate were common during the Victorian period? Which of these do you think this poem is designed to counteract or refute?

What criticisms does the speaker make of those who condemn her?

Of the practitioners of other occupations?

What criticism does she make of Victorian wives? Does this seem just?

What is added by the speaker's use of sarcasm? Anger? Would these have been somewhat unexpected in a poem on this topic?

Is the audience expected to agree with all of her points, and if not, which would they have seen as most convincing?

How does she react to the pious tract which condemns harlotry? What refutations does she offer?

Why does solitude especially bother her? What does she seem most to fear? What are we supposed to infer about her state of mind?

What may her fears reveal about her situation and/or her views on the position of women in the society of the time?

Lines 197-313:

Why does the "castaway" think she is unsuited for a quiet life?

What had she done in order to attempt to return to the respectable world, and why has this effort failed?

What prompted her to leave the home for fallen women? What conditions had been offered the penitents? Why do you think Webster included this passage?

How does she respond to those who accuse her of "choosing" prostitution? (ll. 250-57)

What attitude does she express toward men, and what do you think motivates this? Why do you think this detail was included?

Did her fellow women help her? If not, what has prevented them from doing so?

What are her employment prospects? Are there problems wider than her own position in the labor market?

Why do you think a reformist author presents a heroine who rejects the notion that solutions might be found to the problem of "excess" women without support? (ll. 287-93) Why do you think she refers to efforts to aid women's emigration? Do you think her statements reflect Webster's own views on these subjects?

What does she propose as a solution to the problem of prostitution? Why do you think the author presents a character who advocates female infanticide? If the reader finds this proposal too extreme, what conclusion is s/he expected to draw?

What function is served by laughter throughout the poem? E. g., why does she feel like laughing when she sees a prostitute weep over the death of her infant daughter?

Lines 314-462:

What information does Eulalie give about her past? Her own mother? Had her upbringing prepared her for self-support?

What occupation did she engage in, and what ended her employment?

What opinions does the "castaway" hold about marriage? Under what circumstances did she lose her own child?

What does she believe might have happened had it lived? What would a Victorian reader have felt about this emotion?

How had she ended up as a "kept woman"? Was this a choice?

What are some of the controversial choices she has made since leaving home, and what were her motives?

Does she feel there is any hope in her situation, and why? What quality would she like to regain?

Lines 464-630:

What are the speaker's views on the extent of her own responsibility for her situation, and are we expected to agree fully?

Why in her view can others not help her? (ll. 464-80) What metaphors are used for the act of helping another from the path of prostitution?

How was "the castaway" treated by her brother? What circumstances made his rejection especially galling?

On what occasion had she appealed to him? Might his intervention have made a difference? How long could she have lived on the amount he sent her, and why does she reject his gift?

What had been the differences in their respective upbringings, and was this distinction common?

What irony is suggested by the choice of the name Clement? By his refusal to mention her to his wife?

How do you think the Victorian audience would have judged some of the choices she made, and her reasons for making them? For example, what would they have felt about her honesty in admitting her ignorance to her employer? In refusing her former lover's offer of money? In refusing her brother's very limited help?

Do her after-the-fact regrets make the reader more or less sympathetic to her?

What is the significance of the speaker's use of a coin metaphor to describe her life?

What does the poem's ending reveal about the speaker's view of her present life? What is revealed by her relationship with her neighbor? What difference do we see between her inner and outer lives?

Do you find the ending of this poem anticlimactic? Realistic? Effective? How does it contrast with the ending of "Jenny"?


Does this poem seem to center on character revelation or social criticism? Do these two purposes come to be allied?

What does the poem seem to indicate about notions of choice and free will? To what extent is "the castaway" responsible for her situation?

What are the speaker’s views on the extent of her own responsibility, and are we expected to agree fully?

In instances in which the speaker does not represent the author's/reader's views, how are we expected to interpret this difference? Does this split serve a dramatic and/or argumentative purpose?

What does the poem’s ending reveal about the speaker’s view of her present life?

How would you describe the speaker’s attitudes toward others? Are we supposed to view her as admirable? Despicable?

What topics do you think Webster hoped her reader would think about after reading the poem? Would she have advocated any concrete social reforms?

Which parts of the argument/poem did you find most effective?

How would you compare or contrast this poem with other dramatic monologues such as "Fra Lippo Lippi" or "A Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"? Do we experience a similar tension between sympathy and judgement as in "Fra Lippo Lippi"?

This poem was published in the same year as Dante G. Rossetti's "Jenny." What are some similarities in their approach? Some major differences?

Might this poem be viewed as a response/rebuttal to some of the claims in Rossetti's poem?

How does the focus of this poem differ from that of D. G. Rossetti's "The Last Confession"?

Can you see topics of common concern in the poetry of Webster and the Rossettis?

“Mother and Daughter”

1.     What is unusual about the subject matter of this sonnet sequence? Can you think of other sonnet sequences devoted to parenthood, or the love of parent for child?

2.     What are some traditional poetic models which may have influenced Webster? In particular, what expressions or themes evoke Shakespeare? Do you think she has been influenced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” or Christina Rossetti’s “Monna Innominata”?

3.     What are some advantages of the Petrarchan sonnet form as Webster employs it? What are some instances in which it conveys the turns of her emotions and thoughts?

4.     How would you describe the poet’s use of sounds and cadence to create mood?

5.     Sonnet 1—What metaphors and diction does the poet use to celebrate the dawn of life? Do some of these carry worrisome connotations?

6.     Sonnet 1—What is significant about the allusions to voice, laughter, music, and song? Are these a deeper expression than words?

7.     Sonnet 2—What are the daughter’s characteristics as enumerated? Can you think of comparisons with the concerns of earlier sonnets? (Shakespeare catalogues the loved one) How does the speaker’s response here differ from these? (emphases seriousness and reflectiveness of daughter) 

8.      Sonnet 3—How is the daughter’s state of mind characterized? Would these be common youthful traits?

9.     Sonnet 3--How are her emotions viewed from an adult perspective?

10.     Sonnet 4—What qualities does the speaker here prize in her child? What effect do they have on her?  What does the incident portrayed reveal about the mother and daughter’s relationship?

11.     Sonnet 5—From what perturbations do the parents wish to shelter their child? How does the daughter respond to the noisy disruption of fireworks?

12.     Sonnets 6-8—What points are made as the speaker describes her attempts to discipline her child? Is this a topic you have encountered before in poetry?

13.     6-8--What role is ascribed to the father in the family dynamic? Of what faults does she accuse herself?  Are there humorous elements to her account?

14.     6-8--What metaphors does she use for her relationship to her daughter? (imagery of gardens and flowers throughout)

15.     Sonnets 8-9—What comparisons do her happy predictions for her daughter bring to her mind? What fates may other mothers have suffered, and why? (feels for those whose children have disappointed them or whose children have predeceased them)

16. 8-9 What metaphors are used to describe such mothers? Do these recall any images from D. G. Rossetti's "The House of Life" (pub. 1870 and 1881)?

17. Sonnets 10-11--These are the sole named sonnets. Can you think of a reason for this? Could they have been originally intended for a different sequence? What is their theme?

18. 10-11 Does the speaker differ with some of the views of love which have been advanced, and on what grounds? ("this dear patient madness . . . that men call women's love") Can you see a parallel between the speaker's view of love and that enunciated by the heroine of "A Castaway"?

19. 10-11 What imagery is used for the state of co-existence without love? Are these effective? What is meant by "kindness of household wont"?

20. 10-11 How do the cadences and word choices of sonnets 10 and 11 reinforce their meaning? ("faith to our dead at rest")

21. Sonnet 12--Literally what is the speaker finding to appreciate in the flowers brought to her by her daughter? What memories and associations do these bring?

22. Sonnet 13--What thoughts are suggested to the speaker by her daugther's preference for her mother's voice? Is the daughter deluded? What does she hope to do, as the faces the knowledge of her own death? ("Be twice thy life the thing her fancies are") How will the daughter have changed, and how will her voice continue to comfort her daughter?

23. 13-How do the cadences of the sestet convey its meaning?

23. Sonnet 14--What tensions are expressed by the speaker? Why is she ambivalent about future changes? On what grounds does she take comfort? (daughter will combine traits of youthful innocence and adult maturity)

24. Sonnet 15 What different regrets are expressed in the octave and sestet? How does the speaker face the knowledge that her own daughter must die?

25. 15—What are some structural features of this sonnet which make it more effective? (dignified images of death, slow unraveling and sudden turn at end)

26. Sonnet 16—What Shakespearean echoes are found in this sonnet? (“That time of year thou mayest in me behold”; contrast of youth and aged lover)

27. 16--How does the daughter’s response affect the speaker’s self-perception?

28. Sonnet 17--Does the tone of sonnet 17 bear out her claim that her daughter keeps her young?

29. Sonnet 18--What is the theme of this sonnet? Does it concern her daughter? What change does she believe indicates her own decline?

30. 18--Is the sequence preoccupied in part by the theme of the speaker’s own sense of regret at her own aging?

31. 18--Can you think of other Victorian poems in which the speaker mourns his/her own aging? Do any poems celebrate old age? (“Rabbi Ben Ezra”)

32. Sonnet 19--What does the speaker feel will be the sensory losses of age, and how does she respond? What final reflection comforts her? 

33. 19--Do you find this final turn convincing?

34. Sonnet 20--What fond memories does she have of her daughter’s youth?  Is she unequivocally happy that the latter has grown to womanhood?

35. Sonnet 21--What mood is conveyed by the description of love in this poem? What temporal relationship does the poem seem to bear to earlier ones? (seems to describe the early relationship)

36. Sonnet 22--What metaphors are used to describe the love of lovers for one another, and of the mother for child? How would you paraphrase the final lines? What seems the point of this sonnet?

37. Sonnet 23--What kind of love is described in this sonnet? Could it refer to other forms of love than that of parent for child?

38. Sonnets 21-23 Would it seem better to have placed sonnets 21-23, which describe an untroubled love,  in an earlier position, or does this sequencing make sense? (culminating celebration of love)

39. Sonnet 24--What dramatic social exchange opens this sonnet?

40. 24--How does the arrangement of octave and sestet convey a resolution of the alleged problem of singleness? In the speaker’s view, what seem the emotional disadvantages of multiple parenthood?

41. 24--Is the sonnet sequence more concerned with the speaker's daughter or with her own anxieties, disappointments, and aging?

41. 25--What is her answer to those who claim to love all their children fully? By contrast, what gives her happiness?

42. 26--What metaphors and comparisons does she use to describe her relationship with her daughter? (man who loves one woman, river which is narrower but deeper) Are these metaphors valid?

43. 27--In the end, what psychological effect has motherhood had on her? How is the issue of the one versus the many resolved? (able to love all young things)

44. This sequence was never published during Webster’s lifetime, though written when her daughter was 17.  Does it seem to you unfinished?

45. What motives may have prompted Webster to consider it unfinished and to refrain from publishing it?


Why would a Victorian woman writer have naturally turned to the topic of Circe? (to give voice to one of more maligned female characters in the Odyssey)

Were there any precedents for such a reclamation? (William Morris’s 1867 The Life and Death of Jason had presented her sympathetically)

To what extent may this poem be read as a defense against the claim that she has tempted men to become beasts? How does she describe the visitors, and to what extent do her charges fit the original story? (entirely)

What seems her relationship with nature? What kind of effects does she desire? (a wild, sublime outpouring of the elements)

What features of her present life are unsatisfactory? For what does she long? What future events  does her prophetic gift enable her to see?

What seem elements of her character? Is she compassionate?  Driven by restless desire?

To what extent do her responses confirm Victorian views of the nature of a seductress? (narcissistic, self-absorbed)

Is she correct that the man who arrives on the island able to resist her drugs will bring her happiness? (Ulysses deserts her)

Who is Circe’s audience, if any? What sequence do her declamation follow?  Do they form  a stream of consciousness, and if so, do they create a sense of progression, unfolding, or climax?


What  situation begins the poem? (looks at her younger image) Have you read other poems using a similar image for a speaker alienated from an earlier self?

What does the speaker grieve? How has her identity been altered by her sense of aging in Victorian society?

How does she describe marriage, and why would it have been desirable?

What does she believe is the inevitable lot of women? (others will take their places because they are perceived as interchangeable)

What are ironies of the ending, in which she praises her younger sister’s song? How does the interruption of the ending reinforce or contrast with what has gone before?