Sandra M. Gilbert
Critical Theory Since 1965.
Florida: Florida State University Press. 1986.
Literary Paternity Sandra M. Gilbert
Alas! A woman that attempts the pen
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous Creature is
The fault can by no vertue be
Countess of Winchilsea As to all that nonsense Henry and Larry talked about, the necessity of "I am God" in order to create (I suppose they mean "I am God, I am not a woman").... this "I am God," which makes creation an act of solitude and pride, this image of God alone making sky, earth, sea, it is this image which has confused woman.
Is a pen a metaphorical penis? Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so. In a letter to his friend R. W. Dixon in 1886, he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry. The artist's "most essential quality," he declared, is "masterly execution, which is a kind of mate gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one's thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is." In addition, he noted that "on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality. The male quality is the creative gift. . . ." Male sexuality, in other words, is not just analogically but actually the essence of literary power. The poet's pen is in some sense (even more than figuratively) a penis.
Eccentric and obscure though he was, Hopkins was articulating a concept central to that Victorian culture of which he was in this case a representative male citizen. But of course the patriarchal notion that the writer "fathers" his text just as God fathered the world is and has been all-pervasive in Western literary civilization, so much so that, as Edward Said has shown, the metaphor is built into the very word, author, with which writer, deity, and pater familias are identified. Said's meditation on the word "authority" is worth quoting at length because it summarizes so much that is relevant here:
Authority suggests to me a constellation of linked meanings: not only, as the OED tells us, "a power to enforce obedience," or "a derived or delegated power," or "a power to influence action," or "a power to inspire belief," or "a person whose opinion is accepted"; not only those, but a connection as well with author - that is, a person who originates or gives existence to something, a begetter, beginner, father, or ancestor, a per- son also who sets forth written statements. There is still another cluster of meanings: author is tied to the past participle auctus of the verb augere; therefore auctor, according to Eric Partridge, is literally an increaser and thus a founder. Auctoritas is production, invention, cause, in addition to meaning a right of possession. Finally, it means continuance, or a causing to continue. Taken together these meanings are all grounded in the following notions:
(1) that of the power of an individual to initiate, institute, establish-in short, to begin;
(2) that this power and its product are an increase over what had been there previously;
(3) that the individual wielding this power controls its issue and what is derived therefore;
(4) that authority maintains the continuity of its course.In conclusion, Said, who is discussing "The Novel as Beginning Intention," remarks that "All four of these [last] abstractions can be used to describe the way in which narrative fiction asserts itself psychologically and aesthetically through the technical efforts of the novelist.
" But they can also, of course, be used to describe both the author and the authority of any literary text, a point Hopkins's sexual/aesthetic theory seems to have been designed to elaborate. Indeed, Said himself later observes that a convention of most literary texts is "that the unity or integrity of the text is maintained by a series of genealogical connections:
author-text, beginning-middle-end, text-meaning, reader-interpretation, and so on. Underneath all these is the imagery of succession, of paternity, or hierarchy."
There is a sense in which the very notion of paternity is itself, as Stephen Dedalus puts it in Ulysses, a "legal fiction,"' a story requiring imagination if not faith. A man cannot verify his fatherhood by either sense or reason, after all; that his child is his is in a sense a tale he tells himself to explain the infant's existence.
Obviously, the anxiety implicit in such story telling urgently needs not only the reassurances of mate superiority that patriarchal misogyny implies, but also such compensatory fictions of the Word as those embodied in the genealogical imagery Said describes.
Thus it is possible to trace the history of this compensatory, sometimes frankly stated and sometimes submerged imagery that elaborates upon what Stephen Dedalus calls the "mystical estate" of paternity' through the works of many literary theoreticians besides Hopkins and Said.
Defining poetry as a mirror held up to nature, the mimetic aesthetic that begins with Aristotle and descends through Sidney, Shakespeare, and Jonson, implies that the poet, like a lesser God, has made or engendered an alternative, mirror-universe in which he has as it were enclosed or trapped shadows of reality.
Similarly, Coleridge's Romantic concept of the human "imagination or esemplastic power" is of a virile, generative force which, echoing "the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM . . . dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate."
In both aesthetics, the poet, like God the Father, is a paternalistic ruler of the fictive world he has created. Shelley called him a "legislator." Keats noted, speaking of writers, that "the ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces" though "each of the moderns" is merely an "Elector of Hanover."
In medieval philosophy, the network of connections among sexual, literary, and theological metaphors is equally complex: God the Father both engenders the cosmos and, as Ernst Robert Curtius notes, writes the Book of Nature: both tropes describe a single act of creation.' In addition, the Heavenly Author's ultimate eschatological power is made manifest when, as the Liber Scriptus of the traditional Requiem mass indicates, He writes the Book of judgment.
More recently, male artists like the Earl of Rochester in the seventeenth century and Auguste Renoir in the nineteenth, have frankly defined aesthetics based on male sexual delight. "I...never Rhym'd, but for my Pintle's [penis's] sake," declares Rochester's witty Timon, and, as the painter Bridget Riley notes, Renoir "said that he painted his paintings with his prick." "
Clearly, both these art- ists believe, with Norman 0. Brown, that "the penis is the head of the body"; and they would both (to some extent, anyway) agree with John Irwin's suggestion that the relationship "of the masculine self with the feminine-masculine work is also an autoerotic act ... a kind of creative onanism in which through the use of the phallic pen on the 'pure space' of the virgin page or the chisel on the virgin marble, the self is continually spent and wasted in an act of progressive self-destruction."
No doubt it is for all these reasons, moreover, that poets have traditionally used a vocabulary derived from the patriarchal Family Romance to describe their relations with each other. As Harold Bloom has pointed out, "from the sons of Homer to the sons of Ben Jonson, poetic influence had been described as a filial relationship, [a relationship of) sonship. . . ."
The fierce struggle at the heart of literary history, says Bloom, is a "battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads...."
Though many of these writers use the metaphor of literary paternity in different ways and for different purposes, all seem overwhelmingly to agree that a literary text is not only speech quite literally em- bodied, but also power mysteriously made manifest, made flesh.
In patriarchal Western culture, therefore, the text's author is a father, a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis. More, his pen's power, like his penis's power, is not just the ability to generate life but the power to create a posterity to which he lays claim, as, in Said's paraphrase of Partridge, "an increaser and thus a founder." In this respect, the pen is truly mightier than its phallic counterpart, the sword, and in patriarchy more resonantly sexual.
Not only does the writer respond to his muse's quasi-sexual excitation with an outpouring of the aesthetic energy Hopkins called "the fine delight that fathers thought" (in a poem of that title) -a delight poured seminally from pen to page-but as the author of an enduring text the writer engages the attention of the future in exactly the same way that a king (or father) "owns" the homage of the present. No sword-wielding general could rule so long or possess so vast a kingdom.
Finally, the fact that such a notion of "owner- ship" or possession is embedded in the metaphor of paternity leads to yet another implication of this complex metaphor. For if the author/father is owner of his text and of his reader's attention, he is also, of course, owner/possessor of the subjects of his text, that is to say of those figures, scenes and events- those brain children-he has both incarnated in black and white and "bound" in cloth or leather.
Thus, because he is an author, a "man of letters" is simultaneously, like his divine counterpart, a father, a master or ruler, and an owner: the spiritual type of a patriarch, as we understand that term in Western society.
Where does such an implicitly or explicitly patriarchal theory of literature leave literary women? If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts? The question may seem frivolous, but, as my epigraph from Anais Nin indicates, both the patriarchal etiology that defines a solitary Father God as the only creator of all things, and the male metaphors of literary creation that depend upon such an etiology have long "confused" literary women-readers and writers alike.
For what if such a proudly masculine cosmic Author is the sole legitimate model for all earthly authors? Or worse, what if the male generative power is not just the only legitimate power but the only power there is?
That literary theoreticians from Aristotle to Hopkins seemed to believe this was so no doubt prevented many women from ever "attempting the pen" - to use Anne Finch's phrase-and caused enormous anxiety in generations of those women who were "presumptuous" enough to dare such an attempt. Jane Austen's Anne Elliot understates the case when she decorously observes, toward the end of Persuasion, that "men have had every advantage of us in telling their story.
Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." For, as Anne Finch's complaint suggests, the pen has been defined as not just accidentally but essentially a male "tool," and, therefore, not only inappropriate but actually alien to women.
Lacking Austen's demure irony, Finch's passionate protest goes almost as far toward the center of the metaphor of literary paternity as Hopkins's letter to Canon Dixon. Not only is "a woman that attempts the pen" an intrusive and "presumptuous Creature," she is absolutely unredeemable: no virtue can outweigh the "fault" of her presumption because she has grotesquely crossed boundaries dictated by Nature:
They tell us, we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fassion, dancing, dressing,
Are the accomplishments we shou'd desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire
Wou'd cloud our beauty, and exaust our
And interrupt the conquests of our prime;
Whilst the dull mannage, of a servile house
Is held by some, our outmost art and use.Because they are by definition male activities, this passage implies, writing, reading and thinking are not only alien but also inimical to "female" characteristics.
One hundred years later, in a famous letter to Charlotte Bronte, Robert Southey rephrased the same notion: "Literature is not the business of a woman's life, and it cannot be."" It cannot be, the metaphor of literary paternity implies, because it is physiologically as well as sociologically impossible.
If male sexuality is integrally associated with the assertive presence of literary power, female sexuality is connected with the absence of such power, with the idea-expressed by the nineteenth-century thinker Otto Weininger - that "woman has no share in ontological reality." As we shall see, a further implication of the paternity/creativity metaphor is the notion (implicit both in Weininger and in Southey's letter) that women exist only to be acted on by men, both as literary and as sensual objects.
Again one of Anne Finch's poems explores the assumptions submerged in so many literary theories. Addressing three male poets, she exclaims: Happy you three! happy the Race of Men!
Born to inform or to correct the Pen
To proffitts pleasures freedom and command
Whilst we beside you but as Cyphers stand
T'increase your Numbers and to swell
Of your delights which from our charms
And sadly are by this distinction taught
That since the Fall (by our seducement
Ours is the greater losse as ours the greater
Since Eve's daughters have fallen so much lower than Adam's sons, this passage says, all females are "Cyphers" - nullities, vacancies - existing merely and punningly to increase male "Numbers" (either poems or persons) by pleasuring either men's bodies or their minds, their penises or their pens.
In that case, however, devoid of what Richard Chase once called "the masculine elan," and implicitly rejecting even the slavish consolations of her "femininity," a literary woman is doubly a "Cypher," for she is really a "eunuch," to use the striking figure Germaine Greer applied to all women in patriarchal society.
Thus Anthony Burgess recently declared that Jane Austen's novels fail because her writing "lacks a strong male thrust," and William Gass lamented that literary women "lack that blood congested genital drive which energizes every great style."
" But the assumptions that underlie their statements were articulated more than a century ago by the nineteenth-century editor-critic Rufus Griswold. Introducing an anthology entitled The Female Poets of America, he outlined a theory of literary sex roles which expands, and clarifies, the grim implications of the metaphor of literary paternity.
It is less easy to be assured of the genuineness of literary ability in women than in men. The moral nature of women, in its finest and richest development, partakes of some of the qualities of genius; it assumes, at least, the similitude of that which in men is the characteristic or accompaniment of the highest grade of mental inspiration.
We are in danger, therefore, of mistaking for the efflorescent energy of creative intelligence, that which is only the exuberance of personal 'feelings unemployed.'... The most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce [ital. mine].
Since Griswold has actually compiled a collection of poems by women, he plainly does not believe that all women lack reproductive or generative literary power all the time. His gender-definitions imply, however, that when such creative energy appears in a woman it may be anomalous, freakish, because as a "male" characteristic it is essentially "unfeminine."
The converse of these explicit and implicit definitions of "femininity" may also be true for those who develop literary theories based upon the "mystical estate" of fatherhood: if a woman lacks generative literary power, then a man who loses or abuses such power becomes like a woman.
Significantly, when Hopkins wanted to explain to R. W. Dixon the aesthetic consequences of a lack of male mastery, he declared that if "the life" is not "conveyed into the work and ... displayed there ... the product is one of those hens' eggs that are good to eat and took just like live ones but never hatch."
" And when, late in his life, he tried to define his own sense of sterility, his thickening writer's block, he de- scribed himself both as an eunuch and as a woman, specifically a woman deserted by male power: "the widow of an insight lost," surviving in a diminished "winter world" that entirely lacks "the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation" of male generative power, whose "strong / Spur" is phallically "live and lancing like the blow pipe flame."
And once again some lines from one of Anne Finch's protests against male literary hegemony seem to support Hopkins's image of the powerless and sterile woman artist. Remarking in the conclusion of her "Introduction" to her Poems that women are "to be dull / Expected and dessigned" she does not repudiate such expectations, but on the contrary admonishes herself, with bitter irony, to be dull:
Be caution'd then my Muse, and still retir'd;
Nor be dispis'd, aiming to be admir'd;
Conscious of wants, still with contracted
To some few friends, and to thy sorrows
For groves of Lawrell, thou wert never
Be dark enough thy shades, and be thou
there content. Cut off from generative energy, in a dark and wintry world, Finch seems to be defining herself here not only as a "Cypher" but as "the widow of an insight lost."
Finch's despairing (if ironic) acceptance of male expectations and designs summarizes in a single episode the coercive power not only of cultural constraints but of the literary texts which incarnate them. For it is as much, if not more, from literature as from "life" that literate women learn they are "to be dull / Expected and dessigned."
As Leo Bersani puts it, written "language doesn't merely describe identity but actually produces moral and perhaps even physical identity ... we have to allow for a kind of dissolution or at least elasticity of being induced by an immersion in literature."" A century and a half earlier, Jane Austen had Anne Elliot's interlocutor, Captain Harville, make a related point in Persuasion.
Arguing women's inconstancy over Anne's heated objections, he notes that "all histories are against you - all stories, prose, and verse.... I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy.
Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness."" To this Anne responds, as we have seen, that the pen has been in mate hands. In the context of Harville's speech, her remark implies that women have not only been excluded from authorship but in addition they have been subject to (and subjects of) male authority. With Chaucer's astute Wife of Bath, therefore, Anne might demand "Who peynted the leoun, tel me who?" And, like the Wife's, her own answer to her own rhetorical question would emphasize our culture's historical confusion of literary authorship with patriarchal authority: By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes ban withinne hir oratories,
They wolde ban written of men more
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse. In other words, what Bersani, Austen and Chaucer all imply is that precisely because a writer "fathers" his text, his literary creations (as we saw earlier) are his possession, his property.
Having de- fined them in language and thus generated them, he owns them, controls them, and encloses them on the printed page. Describing his earliest sense of vocation as a writer, jean-Paul Sartre recalled in Les Mots his childhood belief that "to write was to en- grave new beings upon [the infinite Tables of the Word] or ... to catch living things in the trap of phrases. . . ."
" Naive as such a notion may seem on the face of it, it is not "wholly an illusion, for it is his [Sartre's] truth," as one commentator observes"-and indeed it is every writer's "truth," a truth which has traditionally led male authors to assume patriarchal rights of ownership over the female "characters" they engrave upon "the infinite Tables of the Word."
Male authors have also, of course, generated male characters over whom they would seem to have had similar rights of ownership.
But further implicit in the metaphor of literary paternity is the idea that each man, arriving at what Hopkins called the "puberty" of his creative gift, has the ability, even perhaps the obligation, to talk back to other men by generating alternative fictions of his own. Lacking the pen/penis which would enable them similarly to refute one fiction by another, women in patriarchal societies have historically been reduced to mere properties, to characters and images imprisoned in male texts because generated solely, as Anne Elliot and Anne Finch observe, by male expectations and designs.
Like the metaphor of literary paternity itself, this corollary notion that the chief creature man has generated is woman has a long and complex history. From Eve, Minerva, Sophia and Galatea onward, after all, patriarchal mythology defines women as created by, from, and for men, the children of male brains, ribs, and ingenuity. For Blake the eternal female was at her best an Emanation of the male creative principle. For Shelley she was an epi-psyche, a soul out of the poet's soul, whose inception paralleled on a spiritual plane the solider births of Eve and Minerva. Throughout the history of Western culture, moreover, male-engendered female figures as superficially disparate as Milton's Sin, Swift's Chloe, and Yeats' Crazy Jane have incarnated men's ambivalence not only toward female sexuality but toward their own (male) physicality. At the same time, male texts, continually elaborating the metaphor of literary paternity, have continually pro- claimed that, in Honor6 de Balzac's ambiguous words, "woman's virtue is man's greatest invention." A characteristically condensed and oracular comment of Norman 0. Brown's perfectly summarizes the assumptions on which all such texts are based:
Poetry, the creative act, the act of life, the archetypal sexual act. Sexuality is poetry. The lady is our creation, or Pygmalion's statue. The lady is the poem; [Petrarchs] Laura is, really, poetry.... No doubt this complex of metaphors and etiologies simply reflects not just the fiercely patriarchal structure of Western society but also the under-pinning of misogyny upon which that severe patriarchy has stood. The roots of "authority" tell us, after all, that if woman is man's property then he must have authored her, just as surely as they tell us that if he authored her she must be his property. As a creation "penned" by man, moreover, woman has been "penned up" or "penned in." As a sort of "sentence" man has spoken, she has herself been "sentenced": fated, jailed, for he has both "indited" her and "indicted" her. As a thought he has "framed," she has been both "framed" (enclosed) in his texts, glyphs, graphics, and "framed up" (found guilty, found wanting) in his cosmologies. For as Humpty Dumpty tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass, the "master" of words, utterances, phrases, literary properties, "can manage the whole lot of them!"" The etymology and etiology of masculine authority are, it seems, almost necessarily identical. However, for women who felt themselves to be more than, in every sense, the properties of literary texts, the problem posed by such authority was neither meta-physical nor philological, but (as the pain expressed by Anne Finch and Anne Elliot indicates) psychological. Since both patriarchy and its text subordinate and imprison women, before women can even attempt that pen which is so rigorously kept from them, they must escape just those male texts which, defining them as "Cyphers," deny them the autonomy to formulate alternatives to the authority that has imprisoned them and kept them from attempting the pen.
The vicious circularity of this problem helps explain the curious passivity with which Finch responded (or pretended to respond) to male expectations and designs, and it helps explain, too, the centuries-long silence of so many women who must have had talents comparable to Finch's. A final paradox of the metaphor of literary paternity is the fact that, in the same way that an author both generates and imprisons his fictive creatures, he silences them by depriving them of autonomy (that is, of the power of independent speech) even as he gives them life. He silences them and, as Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" suggests, he stills them, or - embedding them in the marble of his art-kills them. As Albert Gelpi neatly puts it, "the artist kills experience into art, for temporal experience can only escape death by dying into the 'immortality' of artistic form. The fixity of 'life' in art and the fluidity of 'life' in nature are incompatible."
The pen, therefore, is not only mightier than the sword, it is also like the sword in its power-its need, even-to kill. And this last attribute of the pen once again seems to be associatively linked with its metaphorical maleness. Simone de Beauvoir has commented that the human male's "transcendence" of nature is symbolized by his ability to hunt and kill, just as the human female's identification with nature, her role as a symbol of immanence, is expressed by her central involvement in that life-giving but involuntary birth process which perpetuates the species. Thus, superiority - or authority - "has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills." In D. H. Lawrence's words, "the Lords of Life are the Masters of Death" - and, therefore, patriarchal poetics implies, they are the masters of art.
Commentators on female subordination from Freud and Horney to de Beauvoir, Wolfgang Lederer, and, most recently, Dorothy Dinnerstein, have of course explored other aspects of the relationship between the sexes that also lead men to want figuratively to "kill" women. What Horney called male "dread" of the female is a phenomenon to which Lederer has devoted a long and scholarly book." Elaborating on de Beauvoir's assertion that as mother of life "woman's first lie, her first treason [seems to be] that of life itself-life which, though clothed in the most attractive forms, is always infested by the ferments of age and death," Lederer remarks upon woman's own tendency to, in effect, kill herself into art in order "to appeal to man":
From the Palcolithic on, we have evidence that woman, through careful coiffure, through adornment and makeup, tried to stress the eternal type rather than the mortal self. Such makeup, in Africa or Japan, may reach the, to us, somewhat estranging degree of a lifeless mask-and yet that is precisely the purpose of it: where nothing is lifelike, nothing speaks of death.For yet another reason, then, it is no wonder that women have historically hesitated to attempt the pen. Authored by a mate God and by a godlike male, killed into a "perfect" image of herself, the woman writer's self-contemplation may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text. There she would see at first only those eternal lineaments fixed on her like a mask to conceal her dreadful and bloody link to nature. But looking long enough, looking hard enough, she would see-like Mary Elizabeth Coleridge gazing at "the other side of the mirror"- an enraged and rebellious prisoner: herself. Coleridge's poem describing this vision is central to female (and feminist) poetics: I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there-
The vision of a woman, wild
With more than womanly despair. Her hair stood back on either side
A face bereft of loveliness.
It had no envy now to hide
What once no man on earth could
It formed the thorny aureole
Of hard unsanctified distress.
Her lips were open-not a sound
Came through the parted lines of red.
Whate'er it was, the hideous wound
In silence and in secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
She had no voice to speak her dread.
And in her lurid eyes there shone
The dying flame of life's desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy, and fierce revenge,
And strength that could not change nor
Shade of a shadow in the glass,
0 set the crystal surface free!
Pass-as the fairer visions pass-
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper, 'I am she!'
What this poem suggests is that, although the woman who is the prisoner of the mirror/text's images has "no voice to speak her dread," although "no sigh" interrupts "her speechless woe," she has an invincible sense of her own autonomy, her own interiority; she has a sense, to paraphrase Chaucer's Wife of Bath, of the authority of her own experience." The power of metaphor, says Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's poem, can only extend so far. Finally, no human creature can be completely silenced by a text or by an image. just as stories notoriously have a habit of "getting away" from their authors, human beings since Eden have had a habit of defying authority, both divine and literary."
Once more the debate in which Austen's Anne Elliot and her Captain Harville engage is relevant here, for it is surely no accident that the question these two characters are discussing is woman's "in- constancy"-her refusal, that is, to be fixed or "killed" by an author/owner, her stubborn insistence on her own way. That mate authors berate her for this refusal even while they themselves generate female characters who perversely display "monstrous" autonomy is one of the ironies of literary art. From a female perspective, however, such "in- constancy" can only be encouraging, for-implying duplicity-it suggests that women themselves have the power to create themselves as characters, even perhaps the power to reach toward the self trapped on the other side of the mirror/text and help her to climb out.
Passages from the works of several other women writers suggest one significant way in which the female artist can bring this secret self to the surface of her own life: against the traditional generative authority of the pen/penis, the literary woman can set the conceptual energy of her own female sexuality. Though our patriarchal culture has tended to sentimentalize and thus trivialize the matriarchal power that, in the view of the nineteenth-century German thinker J. J. Bachofen, once dominated most human societies, a surprising number of literary women seem to have consciously or unconsciously fantasized the rebirth of such power." From Christina Rossetti, who dreamed of a utopian "Mother Country," to Adrienne Rich, whose Of Woman Born is (among other things) a metaphorical attempt to map such a land, women writers have almost instinctively struggled to associate their own life-giving sexual energy with their art, opposing both to the deadly force of the swordlike pen/penis."
In Charlotte Bronte's The Professor, for instance, the young poet/seamstress Frances Henri celebrates the return of love and liberty after a long interlude of grief and failure by reciting "Milton's invocation to that heavenly muse, who on the 'secret top of Oreb or Sinai'had taught the Hebrew shepherd how in the womb of chaos, the conception of a world had originated and ripened." Though, as Virginia Woolf once suggested, the author of Paradise Lost was the "first of the masculinists" in his misogynistic contempt for Eve, the "Mother of Man-kind," Bronte drastically revises his imagery, de- emphasizing the generative power of the patriarchal Author and stressing the powerful womb of the matriarchal muse." More directly, in Sbirley she has her eponymous heroine insist that Milton never "saw" Eve: "it was his cook that he saw." In fact, she declares, the first woman was never, like Milton's Eve, "half doll, half angel" and always potential fiend.
Rather, she was a powerful Titan, a woman whose Promethean creative energy gave birth to "the daring which could contend with Omnipotence: the strength which could bear a thousand years of bondage ... the unexhausted life and uncorrupted excellence, sisters to immortality, which ... could conceive and bring forth a Messiah."" Clearly such a female Author would have maternal powers equal to the paternal energies of any male Titan.
Mary Shelley's fictionalised Author's Introduction to The Last Man is based on a similarly revisionary myth of female sexual energy, a covertly feminist Parable of the Cave which implicitly refutes Plato, Milton, and the metaphor of literary paternity. In 1818, Shelley begins, she and "a friend" visited what was said to be "the gloomy cavern of the Cumaean Sibyl." Entering a mysterious, almost inaccessible chamber, they found "piles of leaves, fragments of bark, and a white filmy substance resembling the inner part of the green hood which shelters the grain of the unripe Indian corn." At first, Shelley confesses, she and her male companion (Percy Shelley) were baffled by this discovery, but "At length, my friend ... exclaimed 'This is the Sibyl's cave; these are sibylline leaves!"' Her account continues as follows:
On examination, we found that all the leaves, bark and other substances were traced with written characters. What appeared to us more astonishing, was that these writings were expressed in various languages: some unknown to my companion ... some ... in modern dialects.... We could make out little by the dim light, but they seemed to contain prophecies, detailed relations of events but lately passed; names ... and often exclamations of exultation or woe ... were traced on their thin scant pages .... We made a hasty selection of such of the leaves, whose writing one at least of us could understand, and then ... bade adieu to the dim hypaethric cavern .... Since that period ... I have been employed in deciphering these sacred remains.... I pre- sent the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to ... model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the divine intuitions which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.Every feature of this cave journey is significant, especially for the female critic (or writer) who seeks alternatives to the "masculinist" metaphor of literary paternity.
It is obviously important, to begin with, that the cave is a female space, and-more important-a space inhabited not by fettered prisoners (as the famous cave in Plato's Republic was) but by a free female hierophant, the lost Sibyl, a prophetess who inscribed her "divine intuitions" on tender leaves and fragments of delicate bark. For Mary Shelley, therefore, it is intimately connected with both her own artistic authority and her own power of self- creation. A male poet or instructor may guide her to this place-as Percy Shelley does, in her fictional narrative-but, as she herself comes to realize, she and she alone can effectively reconstruct the scattered truth of the Sibyl's leaves. Literally the daughter of a dead and dishonored mother-the powerful feminist Mary Wollstonecraft - Mary Shelley portrays herself in this parable as figuratively the daughter of the vanished Sybil, the primordial prophetess who mythically conceived all women artists.
That the Sibyl's leaves are now scattered, fragmented, barely comprehensible is thus the central problem Shelley faces in her own art. Earlier in her introduction, she notes that finding the cave was a preliminary problem. She and her companion were misted and misdirected by native guides, she tells us; left alone in one chamber while the guides went for new torches, they "lost" their way in the darkness; ascending in the "wrong" direction, they accidentally stumbled upon the true cave. But the difficulty of this initial discovery merely foreshadows the difficulty of the crucial task of reconstruction, as Shelley shows. For just as the path to the Sibyl's cave has been forgotten, the coherent truth of her leaves has been shattered and scattered, the body of her art dismembered, and, like Anne Finch, she has become a sort of "Cypher," powerless and enigmatic. But while the way to the cave can be "remembered" by accident, the whole meaning of the Sibylline leaves can only be re-remembered through painstaking labor: translation, transcription and stitchery, re-vision and re-creation.
The specifically sexual texture of these Sibylline documents, these scattered leaves and leavings, adds to their profound importance for women. Working on leaves, bark and "a white filmy substance," the Sibyl literally wrote, and wrote upon, the Book of Nature. She had, in other words, a Goddess' power of maternal creativity, the sexual/artistic strength that is the female equivalent of the mate potential for literary paternity. In her "dim hypaerthric cavern" - a dim sea-cave that was nevertheless open to the sky-she received her "divine intuitions" through "an aperture" in the "arched dome-like roof" which "let in the light of heaven." On her "raised seat of stone, about the size of a Grecian couch," she conceived her art, inscribing it on leaves and bark from the green world outside. And so fierce are her verses, so truthful her "poetic rhapsodies," that even in deciphering them Shelley ex- claims that she feels herself "taken...out of a world, which has averted its once benignant face from me, to one glowing with imagination and power." For in recovering and reconstructing the Sibyl's scattered artistic/sexual energy, Shelley comes to recognize that she is discovering and recreating- literally decipbering - her own creative power. "Sometimes I have thought," she modestly confesses, "that, obscure and chaotic as they are, [these translations from the Sibyl's leaves] owe their present form to me, their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration in St. Peter's; he would put them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent."
The quest for creative energy enacted by Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley in the passages I have quoted here has been of consuming importance (for obvious reasons) to many other women writers. Emily Dickinson, for instance, sought what Christina Rossetti called a "Mother Country" all her life, and she always envisioned such a country as a land of primordial power. Indeed, though Dickinson's famous "My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun" seems to define sexual/creative energies in terms of a destructive, phallic mechanism, it is important to remember that this almost theatrically reticent literary woman always associated apparently "male" guns with profound "female" volcanoes and mountains." Thus her phallic description of poetic speech in "My Life had stood" is balanced by a characterization of the ("female") volcano as "The Solemn-Torrid-Symbol- / The lips that never lie-." And in one of her lesser known poems of the 1860s she formulated a matriarchal creed of womanly creativity that must surely have given her the strength to sustain her own art through all the doubts and difficulties of her reclusive life:
Sweet Mountains-Ye tell Me no lie-
Never deny Me-Never fly-
Those same unvarying Eyes
Turn on Me-when I fail-or feign,
Or take the Royal names in vain-
Their far-slow-Violet Gaze-
My Strong Madonnas-Cherish still-
The Wayward Nun-beneath the Hill-
Whose service-is to You-
Her latest Worship-When the
Day Fades from the Firmament away-
To lift Her Brows On you- One of Dickinson's most perceptive admirers, the feminist poet Adrienne Rich, has more recently turned to the same imagery of matriarchal power in what is plainly a similar attempt to confute that metaphor of literary paternity which, as Anais Nin wrote, has "confused" so many women in our society. "Your mother dead and you unborn," she writes in "The Mirror In Which Two Are Seen As One," describing the situation of the female artist, "your two hands [grasp] your head," drawing it down against the blade of life your nerves the nerves of a midwife learning her trade