George Eliot, Poetess

September 29, 2013

August 2014 (Routledge)

George Eliot

Modern critics discuss George Eliot’s fiction at length but largely overlook her poetry, rejecting it as inferior verse or a departure from her artistic aim. When she began writing poetry in earnest, Eliot was already a famous, financially successful novelist. She wrote poetry despite the fact that it would not earn her significant financial gain or public support. Through her poetry, she propagated the value of sympathy and made social commentary on gender issues through a voice of moral and spiritual authority—that of a poetess.

This work explores Eliot’s poetry and her role as a poetess, prophet, and mother and offers a more complete picture of the author who appeared not only pseudonymously as a man but also as a poetess who used her femininity. Eliot relied on a poetess tradition that was deeply invested in religion and feminine sympathy. These associations provided Eliot with an already-established platform that allowed her to promote unorthodox religious views while appearing to uphold traditional, domestic values.

By assuming the converging roles of poetess, sage, moral leader, and mother to the nation, Eliot commented on social issues, such as the unfairness of societally-prescribed gender roles and the commodification of women in the Victorian marriage market. She spoke out assertively in poems such as “Brother and Sister” and “How Lisa Loved the King” because poetry allowed for a measure of disguise behind feminine expression and within the confined quarters of verse form.

By adopting the poetess persona, which carried a sense of traditional religious authority, Eliot also subtly forwarded her belief in the sacredness of sympathetic relationships. For Eliot, sympathy, not dogma, led to a moral society, and the role of a poet was to heighten the readers’ awareness of the salvific power of compassion and guide them toward a better way of living.

George Eliot advanced her religion of sympathy by placing herself within the gender-specific and spiritually-motivated poetess tradition. With knowledge of the Bible and a firm understanding of society’s expectations for female authorship, Eliot consciously participated in a tradition of women poets who relied on feminine piety and poetry to help refine society through compassion and fellow-feeling.

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Read reviews of this book:

by Annmarie Drury (Queens College, CUNY), Victorian Studies

by Constance M. Fulmer (Pepperdine University), Victorian Periodicals Review