An Historical Overview 

So far this term we have been mainly discussing the most basic, formal elements of poetry: line, meter, stanza, form. We’ve also discussed a number of poems on a variety of subjects. But we haven’t delved into any subject—except of course the subject of poetic—in detail.

Some people find the mathematics of poetry endlessly fascinating—that the beauty of poetry can be discussed in the sterile language of numbers makes them say “wow!” These are the same sorts of people who like to talk about grammar and math. Others find this sort of thing endlessly boring. Fascinating or boring, at some point in your poetic education, it is necessary to deal with poems in that laboratory fashion. But it would be a shame if that were all we did in our study of poetry. So today we turn the corner and begin to look at poetry in a more focused way in terms of what it says and what it does. Poetry we’ll see is not just an idle entertainment. It is an actor in history. The things it does are sometimes progressive and liberal and sometimes conservative and sometimes reactionary. (We’ll see that all these possibilities exist in this week’s poems.)

To review much of what we’ve said already at least once: most English-language poetry is written in standard English sentences. The grammar may sometimes be complex, but it is the same grammar we all have learned in school, or tried to learn. Being written this way, most poetry includes what is known as “paraphrasable content.” (We’ve seen this over and over again as we’ve tried to read the poems on our syllabus.) In other words, it’s possible to look at what the sentences and the poem are actually saying and put that “content” into other words.

If this were all we did in reading poetry, if we thought that once we could report what a poem was saying we were through with the poem, we would do a great injustice to poetry. Moreover any number of poems defy, deliberately or not, our ability to paraphrase them. At the same time, it is nearly impossible to feel comfortable with any poem if you don’t have any idea of what it says or what it does. (As Marianne Moore says in her poem “Poetry” “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”) In the rare cases when a poem cannot be paraphrased, knowing that that is so and why that is so will be of a great help in learning to feel comfortable with the poem. If a poem can be paraphrased, doing so will, again, help greatly in reading the poem.

Poems have something to say. Poems also have work to do.

We have already begun to look at the ongoing conversations among poets and poems. Poets are always talking to each other and to the history of poetry. They are also talking to and responding to the society or culture in which they are written. Like newspaper editorials, movies, novels and political speeches, they attempt to affect the course of their contemporary world and therefore also the course of history. Poetry is an actor in history. (The Romantic poet Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”) This remains true even today, despite the waning public awareness of the art.

Putting these two aspects of reading together—looking at poems in terms of what they say and do—we will be investigating a series of poems through a particular theme. In future weeks, that theme will be how poetry responds to and helps shape the time in which it was written. This week the subject will trace the representation of women in the history of poetry, including the representation of women by men and the response by women to that representation as well as the opposite: the representation of men by women and the self-representation of women by women—from the medieval time to our time.

In other words: what men see when they look at women. What women see when men look at them. What women see when they look back at men. And what women see when they look at themselves.

Individual poems on this week’s syllabus make a certain sense read in isolation. But a more comprehensive story emerges when these poems are put into the context of the overarching story they tell. It turns out to be a story about woman and men and power.

We’ll start with some observations that will help you enter this centuries-long conversation.

The poetry written by women is most often (but not always) progressive, while the poetry by men is most often (but again not always) reactionary. We will see first of all what happens when men have the opportunity to define their “other” while that “other” has no means to respond. This was the case in Medieval poetry and remained more or less true up until the Enlightenment (starting in the late 1600s), with some fascinating exceptions.

The overarching story. If we think of these poems as telling a single story, the way a novel tells a story with characters that develop over time, it is a story of a struggle for power. Women have it but can’t keep it. Men desire it but can’t take it. There are really two struggles: first to achieve and hold power, second to define the terms of the story itself.

The story for us starts in the later Medieval times (a very long period of English history from which we will take only the smallest sample) because that is when English poetry started taking women seriously as a subject. In the Medieval world few men and even fewer women learned how to read or write. The poetry from this time and place is almost exclusively written by men. We will not be treating this era of English history as fully as the eras that follow—choosing only three poems in fact[1]—partly because of the difficulty of the language, and also because of the limited time we have.

But it’s useful to look at the beginnings of the objectification of women in poetry written by men: men looking at women as they would look at any object and conveying in their poems what the object means. It starts with men defining women as the holders of power.

The story starts to change in the Renaissance, the age of Shakespeare. This is the time in which what has come to be known as love poetry first comes to be widely written. Love poetry is, however, rarely, if ever, innocent. Love (or, better “desire”) is power. And in the poems, it’s still women who have the power over men. With the poetry of this era, we will be outlining the relationships that emerge between men and women and power. We will be asking the following questions:

  • What is the particular nature of women’s power over men?
  • Where does women’s power lie according to the poems?
  • How do women hold on to power?
  • Under what circumstances do they relinquish their power?
  • What happens if a woman refuses to relinquish power?

Women have all the power. But it’s mostly men who define that power. Though powerful, women remain for the most part silent objects of male desire or commodities that can be consumed in order to transfer power to men. Desire works like money.

The next period we will be looking at is known as the Enlightenment. While some women, exclusively noble women, such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary Wroth, had been in a position to write poetry in the Renaissance, more women found their way on to the page in the Enlightenment and for the first time these women—not all of them born to the upper class—began to talk back in significant numbers to the story in which they were depicted. What we will see is that as soon as women achieved a measure of freedom to write, they began to criticize the male version of the story and to provide alternatives to it. This does not mean that the story goes away, however. We will see it persist and, in some cases, intensify. In fact in never really goes away.

It is not until the Romantic age that male poets such as Walt Whitman and Thomas Hardy join certain female poets in mocking the story of men, women and power that had by that time been told for about 400 years—and actively challenged for at least 300.

Finally in the Modernist period, the story gets turned around. But not entirely. Although by this point women are equal partners in defining the story, we will see that not everything changes about women’s power.

What we will find through reading all these poems in order is a remarkably coherent slowly developing story about the relations of men and women. It takes place over many centuries and changes only gradually from one in which men have all the power to define both themselves and women—and therefore define women in their image and interests[2]—to one in which women have achieved the cultural status which allows them to speak directly for themselves and to be heard.

As we look at the actual poems, here are some things to think about:

1) How do men look at women? How do women look at themselves? And how do women look back at men?

2) What is the source and nature of women’s power? How is that power attained and maintained? What is the price of maintaining it; what is the price of failing to maintain it? How do the source and nature of this power change through the centuries? (The power Julia has over Robert Herrick is different from the power Lucille Clifton has.)

3) Why do men and women not understand one another, and in what ways do they fail to do so?

4) What do men need women for? What do women need men for?

5) And how do the socially arranged differences between men and women figure into these questions?

These observations should get you started. You’ll find links to the poems below:

“Alison.” Here we have the theme of men looking at and longing for women. This longing puts  the men in the women’s power as long as the women remain an object of longing. How does power actually play between the poet and Alison?

“To Rosamond.” A man is enslaved to a woman who gives him no encouragement. We see a note of the cruelty of women enter the story. Why would women get a reputation for cruelty? The more power they have, the more cruel they are said to be in the wielding of that power.

“In Prais of Wemen.” Praise that includes worship while at the same time maintaining an otherness. Women suffer to produce men. All men should praise women in their role as mothers.

Ford, “There Is a Lady Sweet and Kind,” here we see again the relationship between love and desire and the perpetuation of desire through denial. But here sex is not accompanied by guilt and resistance is not condemned.

“Western Wind.” Women as representation of men’s longing.

Elizabeth I, “When I Was Fair and Young.” The woman whose power is most absolute gives an understanding of sexual politics of youth and beauty, which make her a victim. How does she maintain her power and how does she lose it? What’s the price she paid for trying to maintain it?

Daniel, “Sonnet 6 [Fair is my love, and cruel…].” The cruelty of the beautiful woman and the man’s inability to understand her cruelty, cf. Montagu. The effects of that cruelty (to be a muse). We see her power over him again, how he finds an outlet for his frustrated sexual urges. Do we believe he does not understand the source of this perceived cruelty? Is there a system that controls sexuality to which both he and she are victims or in which they are pawns?

Wroth, From Pamphilia and Amphilanthus. Note particularly in the song the woman’s justification for what the men deem as cruelty. Note the coldness of the tone. Why is that tone necessary? We have a rare look at love from the perspective of a woman of this time. How does Wroth’s poetry differ from the poems written by men?

Herrick, “On Julia’s Clothes,” Herrick was a famous looker at Julia, her clothes, her breasts, the nipples of her breasts provide the subjects of three of his most famous poems. What is his attitude toward Julia?

Suckling, “Upon My Lady Carlisle’s Walking in Hampton Court Garden.” Suckling imagines a woman disrobing. What is his tone? What is his attitude toward her and toward his imaginative undressing of her?

Marvel, “To His Coy Mistress.” This is by no means the only poem from this time which aims at taking the virginity of the object of a man’s passion. How good, how effective, do you think his argument is? Why don’t we find out what her answer is?

Wortley Montagu, “The Lover: A Ballad.” Another Explanation of women’s coldness. Its effect may be power, but its intent is not the acquisition of power, but protection.

Goldsmith, “When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly.” Damned if they do it, damned if they don’t. cf. Elizabeth I. If you give in you lose your power and become unprotected. If you don’t give in, you lose your chance at the humanizing effects of love: you are left cold, you become cold, and lonely. Cf. Marvel.

[1] We have already read two others that would also qualify this week: “Western Wind” and “Bonny Barbara Allen.”

[2] I want to emphasize here that men have this power by virtue of literacy and access to writing. This does not mean that men have all actual power in social or even political life. Queen Elizabeth was among the most powerful people in Europe at this time. But even apart form the Queen, women have never in reality been precisely what men have attempted to make them in their poems.

Video Lecture: A History of Women, Poetry, and Power


Some Poems: “Alison”  (Links to an external site.)

Geoffrey Chaucer, “To Rosamond,”

Anonymous, “In Prais of Wemen,”

Thomas Ford, “There Is a Lady Sweet and Kind,”

Queen Elizabeth I, “When I Was Fair and Young”

Samuel Daniel, “Sonnet 6 [Fair is my love, and cruel…]” (Links to an external site.) [scroll down to sonnet vi].

Mary Wroth, From Pamphilia and Amphilanthus, section 37

Robert Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” (Links to an external site.)

Thomas Suckling, “Upon My Lady Carlisle’s Walking in Hampton Court Garden”  (Links to an external site.)

Andrew Marvel, “To His Coy Mistress” (Links to an external site.)

Aphra Behn, “The Willing Mistress”  (Links to an external site.)

Lady Wortley Montagu, “The Lover: A Ballad” (Links to an external site.)

Oliver Goldsmith, “When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly” (Links to an external site.)

George Gordon Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty” (Links to an external site.)

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Mariana” (Links to an external site.)

Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach” (Links to an external site.)

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, “11 (Links to an external site.) [Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore]”

[Scroll down to poem 11]

Emily Dickinson, 445 “[They shut me up in prose]” (Links to an external site.)

Thomas Hardy, “The Ruined Maid” (Links to an external site.)

H.D., “Helen” (Links to an external site.)

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed” (Links to an external site.)

Dorothy Parker, “One Perfect Rose”

Louise Bogan, “Medusa” (Links to an external site.)

A. D. Hope, “Advice to Young Ladies” (Links to an external site.)

May Swenson, “Motherhood”   (Links to an external site.)

Judith Wright, “Woman to Man” (Links to an external site.)

Lucille Clifton, “Homage to My Hips”  

Margaret Atwood, “Siren Song”


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An Introduction to Poetry Copyright © 2019 by Alan Lindsay and Candace Bergstrom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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