Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Room of One's Own ~ Women and Poetry

"Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own."
- A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

In her essay, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf offers this conclusion after she surveys history and finds that women are the subjects of poetry but not the authors. Very few women could achieve the "incandescent mind" of an artist such as Shakespeare, according to Virginia Woolf, because of their poverty and society's restrictions. She reflects upon the scarcity of women poets throughout the ages and in particular in Elizabethan England:

"For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet."
~A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

In a previous post called The New Dress, I stated that Virginia Woolf believed women were best suited to write fiction from their sitting-rooms, because their lives didn't lead to the opportunity to create poetry. In A Room of One's Own, she elaborates eloquently with encouraging words:

"I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh."
- A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

As a writer Virginia Woolf was keenly aware of the constraints on women--her notebook attests to this struggle--as they sought both financial and creative freedom, and she felt the need to entreat her audience, initially young college women, to write not only fiction but poetry (as well as criticism and scholarly works). As a feminist of the early 1900's, Virginia Woolf's epic essay encourages women to express themselves through art and achievement, and to become a vital part of history.


  1. Is it true there are fewer women poets than men? If so that may help explain why poetry never interested me much! Egads!

  2. I've added to the original post since your comment. Women are the subject of many poems, but sadly, not many women were poets. Thanks for your comment, Rudy.

  3. In J.'s English classroom last night (for the meeting) there were four posters of great writers up on the wall--F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway--no women, even in this day and age.

  4. Proof that even in literary circles preferences can be influenced by popularity/ notoriety, as in popular media like TV and magazines? I am not shocked however.

  5. Oops! That should be Edgar Allan Poe.

  6. Many women have gone underground to write, hence all the pen names, to give the illusion of acceptance. Virginia Woolf was passionate about building and expressing her written voice, although she was not entirely confident in it or perhaps feared retaliation, and it explodes in another place in her writings, "The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life." After pages of boring chit-chat descriptions, her expression suddenly detonates in an affirmation of democracy and individual rights as she describes the hall where many gather vs a dominating tribute to statues. It is a veiled criticism of gender pomposity and domination in addition to the political pontification. ("Let us rebuild the world then as a splendid hall; let us give up making statues and inscribing them with impossible virtues. Let us see whether democracy which makes halls cannot surpass the aristocracy which carved statues.") It reminded me of the outbursts of surprise words here and there, in poetic form, of the repressed (physically, not intellectually or creatively) Emily Dickinson. I'm sure there are many examples historically of the written form being an outlet, even if not published, of frustration and repression. There are, and have been, many poets, not published, of able and creative mind that have contributed to civilization. I felt this way about Abigail Adams when I watched the mini-series "John Adams." She was an eloquent intellectual who refined the lives of two presidents, not to speak of other acquaintances and relatives, from the US to France. She was wise, thoughtful, and used her gifts of expression to enhance the quality of life, with all its vagaries. It was disappointing to hear of the lack of representation of women poets in a current high school curriculum. However, it may be due to the fact that women, in my view, tend to push one to think rather than myopically to celebrate male military victories such as epic poetry might suggest. I suppose the argument could be made, also, according to Deborah Tannen, that men communicate for facts and women communicate to socialize (apologies if I'm not recalling the precise definitions and subtleties implied therefor). Also, the high school teacher might not have been introduced to women poets in the course of their education. Perhaps it is a case of laying down the handkerchief, too, to get a rise out of the students. I rail at being forced to read (for credit) things of little interest to me, and relying on a school librarian to quietly guide me to exciting and intriguing readings that don't get credit in any (then junior high school) curriculum but do make more sense to me as far as cultivating a positive mind-set for approaching the world. My soap box needs to be scrubbed thoroughly. I think I may be blowing bubbles, now!

  7. Sandie, I was looking forward to the Adams mini-series; it was John Adams who said, "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write" (though maybe, just maybe, he picked up that phrase from his wife), but couldn't watch it, as we don't have HBO.
    As far as the classroom goes, I was surprised that there wasn't a poster on the wall of a woman writer (not necessarily a poetess) such as Virginia Woolf, and I ALMOST said something (I may send a friendly email to the teacher later in the year mentioning this lack).
    Sandie, I appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope you'll "visit" again soon.

  8. Perhaps finding a poster with a quote from a female writer or including such in your e-mail will be compelling. What is the focus of that particular course, and what is the background and what might be the interests of the teacher? That would guide me to finding an engaging and lasting impression to offer. Good idea to tread gently for greater influence.

  9. Sandie, this is an Honors English course (currently they are reading Fahrenheit 451). Please do not go to the trouble of locating a quote or poster for me! Thanks again for your visit and comments, Sandie.

  10. Oops. No worries, mate! I have no intention of doing so -- I was just brainstorming about how I might handle a similar situation. So sorry! However, I share the dismay of the myopia, especially for an honors English course.


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