Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackenzie Bell
Augusta Webster (18401894)
A DAUGHTER of the late Vice-Admiral George Davies, Augusta Webster was born in 1840 at Poole in Dorsetshire. Her father, who won reputation for his success in saving shipwrecked seamen, held various Coast Guard commands. For a while, during her childhood, she lived on board the Griper in Chichester Harbour; for six years at Banff Castle where her father was Inspecting Commander of the coast line from Banff to Peterhead; and for three years at Penzance, where he held a similar appointment. Afterwards her home was at Cambridge, her father having accepted the post of Chief Constable of the counties of Cambridge and Huntingdon. She married in 1863 Mr. Thomas Webster, Fellow and Law Lecturer of Trinity College, Cambridge, who later practised as a solicitor in London. Augusta Webster sat for some time as a Member of the London School Board, where her influence was considerable. Her interest in social matters is further shown by her prose volume A Housewifes Opinions (1879), which consisted mainly of essays originally contributed to The Examiner, in which she discussed with much ability many practical topics.
If Mr. Ruskins dictum that no weight nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought were ever to be accepted as truth, Augusta Websters position among contemporary poets would be higher than it now is, for her work seems at times so full of thought that the poetical form is clogged and overweighted. Indeed such shortcomings as have been charged against her poetry generally might all be comprised in onea certain instinct for allowing beauty both of matter and form to succumb to strength. Perhaps the severity of her methods is partly the result of her deep study of the great classical writers of antiquitymost notably of the Greek dramatistsa study which has left abundant traces on her work. The quality which distinguishes her from all the other women poets of her time is concentrated strength. Even those who must be set above her in some other respects yield to her here. To Elizabeth Barrett Brownings gift of impulse and fire, to Christina Rossettis gift of a deep and searching symbolism which becomes at times almost prophetic, and to Jean Ingelows delightful power of throwing over English scenery a halo of the human feeling and sentiment appropriate to it, she has small claim. But the two last-named writers and all the other women poets of England must yield to her in that quality which, as it is generally deemed the specially masculine quality, is called virility. Because of this Augusta Webster has taken her place among Victorian poetsa place which cannot but be enduring. Though the poets strength, for the most part, grew with her growth, increasing on the whole book by book, it was very apparent in her first immature volume Blanche Lisle, and Other Poems, published under the pseudonym of Cecil Home in 1860. Cruel Agnes and St. Catherines Tiring Maid, though somewhat imitative, are genuinely poetic in thought and treatment; the story of the lovers who were not old in heart reveals the germ of that aptitude in character analysis which marks her later work.
A distinct advance is apparent in Lilian Gray (1864). Many passages evince a maturity of thought rare in so young a poet, while not unfrequently the blank verse, though deficient in the emphasis of the authors later blank verse, excels it in music of rhythm. A novel, Lesleys Guardians, appeared in 1864. One of the chief features of Augusta Websters more mature poetryher intense and passionate study of Womans position and destinyfirst became manifest in Dramatic Studies (1866). Of these studies the best is, perhaps, The Snow Waste, which depicts allegorically the doom of cold borne by one who through jealousy committed deadly sin. This Dantesque conception is treated in a masterly manner, which appears all the more wonderful when we learn that the poem was the result of a sleepless night, when the author was only nineteen.
Although Augusta Websters poetry, whether rhymed or unrhymed, cannot be said to show any great musical impulse, her knowledge of metrical laws, and her expertness in the use of metres, is striking. This is very observable in The Snow Waste. It opens and concludes with a short passage in blank verse, but the body of the poem is written in eight-line stanzas. In each of these stanzas only one rhyme is employed, and the repetition of the same rhymes, which produces a sense of gloomy monotony, is managed with extraordinary skill. There are many other noteworthy poems in this volume. A Preacher analyses with singular power the mental condition of a conscientious clergyman apprehensive lest having preached to others he himself should be a castaway. A Painter exhibits, with equal force, the self-communings of a man compelled to sacrifice his higher artistic aspirations to the sordid exigences of the hour. By the Looking Glass displays the inner life and feelings of a girl not endowed with the gift of beauty, but who longs to be loved. Sister Annunciata discloses the hidden struggle of a nun who cannot altogether set aside the yearnings of earthly love, strive as she may; while in Jeanne dArc Augusta Webster is no less dramatically effective, where her subject is historical. All these soliloquies prove their author to possess in full measure the faculty of thinking the thoughts of others, and therefore to be a dramatist of no mean order.
In the most remarkable volume entitled A Woman Sold and Other Poems (1867) the deepest movements of Womans heart find a voiceand that often in a few pregnant and telling words that recall the methods of the great poets. Virile, however, as is the strength of the writer, her sex is constantly declaring itself by a discernment of the most secret workings of the heart of Woman such as is far beyond the reach of masculine eyes, and a passionate, almost it might be said, a biassed sympathy with the cause of Woman in her relation to Man. Too Faithful and A Mothers Cry, with its irresistibly pathetic appeal, are charged with such sympathy. But the book is not confined to poems of this class. Pilate and Blind Bartimæus, though widely different, are both fine. How the Brook Sings and The Lake are almost Wordsworthian in their personal interpretation of naturea quality seldom seen in Augusta Websters work. To One of Many and To and Fro are strong poems meditative in character, and with many touches of delicate beauty.
It is in Portraits (1870) that the poets strength and insight in the delineation of Woman seems to culminate. If a fault can be found in the writing of A Castaway, one of the most original poems contained in this volume, it is that the delineation of Womans heart in the most appalling condition of Womans life is too painful. The theme is the same as that which Dante Rossetti handled in Jenny, and it is extremely interesting to compare these two poems, one touching the theme from the masculine, the other from the feminine standpoint. In melody and in picturesqueness Dante Rossettis famous poem is a masterpiece, and it is most successful in its portrayal of the ironical mood in which is unfolded Jennys relation to her more fortunate sisters. But it is lacking in the lofty yet mournful temper that breathes from every line of A Castaway. Were it not for the tender pity which inspires this poem as a whole some of the bitter things that fall from the lips of the lost girl would be too terrible and too daring for poetic art. Here is an instance of what I allude to:
Well, well, I know the wise ones talk and talk:
Heres cause, heres cure: No, here it is and here:
In Tired, excerpts from which are given here, Augusta Webster deals forcibly with the problems of Society so-called, and shows an insight into its hollowness which implies on her part a noteworthy freedom from conventional prejudice. A Dilettante, extracts from which are also given here, is a weighty and convincing protest against that foolish spirit of complaint when the inevitable in life is concerned with which we are all familiar. In Portraits Augusta Webster indulged in the eccentricity of writing blank verse without capitals at the beginning of the lines. To do this with English poetry is a great mistake; for it is not possible always to mark the distinction between metrical and immetrical writing by mere sonority and rhetorical emphasis. Hence the usual typographical indications that the movements of the passage are meant to be metrical are not by any means superfluous. This may be said of the blank verse of most English writers, but the remark applies with particular force to the blank verse of Augusta Webster, which is much less characterised by perfection of form than by wealth of substance, and her lines require the typographical aid which she discarded. There is great freshness in Yu-Pe-Yas Lute (1874), a graceful Chinese Tale told in rhymed pentameter measure with interspersed songs. Of these Too soon so fair, fair lilies and So soon asleep! are probably the most lovely. In her prefatory note to Yu-Pe-Yas Lute the author raises a suggestive literary question that space will not permit me to discuss.
Augusta Websters genius was largely dramatic. The Auspicious Day (1872), her first drama, was followed in 1879 by Disguises, a story of sunny Aquitaine. Here she suddenly passed into a new and luxuriant style, and the play comes nearer than any other of our times to the fanciful comedy of Shakespeare and Fletcher. The scene of two impressive dramas, In a Day (1882) and The Sentence (1887), is laid at Rome in the days of the Empire. Naturally both plays bear witness to the influence of her classical studies, and, indeed, could only have been written by a scholar. They are full of power and beauty. The pathos is especially deep and searching. Her translations of The Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, and of The Medea of Euripides, published in 1866 and 1868, respectively, are exceedingly close to the originals, and display thorough acquaintance with Greek drama and a penetration into their spirit which could only be displayed by a student who was also a poet. A singularly able review of Brownings translation of the Agamemnon of Æschylus, appeared originally in The Examiner, and subsequently in her volume entitled A Housewifes Opinions. Augusta Websters female characters call for praise. Her Gualhardine in Disguises, her Klydone in In a Day, and her Lælia in The Sentence are lifelike and real. Mention must also be made of the beautiful lyrics scattered throughout her dramas, notably those beginning Hark the sky-lark in the cloud, While the woods were green, and Tell thee truth, sweet; no in Disguises.
A Book of Rhyme (1881) is chiefly remarkable for its importation into English poetry of these brief forms of peasant song in which Italian poetry is so rich. What Augusta Webster calls Stornelli, however, seem rather to be rispetti than stornelli, for a stornello has properly only three lines, a rispetto eight, the length of these poems. Though several English poets have followed her lead in adapting these forms of Italian peasant poetry to English subjects, few besides Augusta Webster have met with an unqualified success. The rispetti of the other writers partake of the nature of the epigram rather than of the pure rispetto. A sonnet, The Brook Rhine, should be named. Pourlain the Prisoner, a sonnet sequence, gives vigorously a mournful yet interesting episode of prison existence. In A Coarse Morning we have the old pathetic story of Nature inexorable to the appeal of human grief. There is real poetry in the lines Not to Be. Mrs. Webster died on the 5th of September, 1894.