“If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”

This week in my Vision and Sexuality in Victorian Poetry course we were discussing Tennyson’s early poems about women, especially Mariana, Mariana in the South and The Lady of Shalott, and Alfred Austin’s view that Tennyson was a feminine poet, with a “feminine muse”, something Austin was not very flattering about. Actually, my notes to the essay got the point where I was just underlining and writing ‘more misogyny’, as not much else needed to be said.

This was of course because, yes, many of Tennyson’s poems deal with female subjects, or have female narrators, my teacher suggested that these women are stand-ins for Tennyson, because he is writing in the voice of a woman or about a woman they give him freedom to express emotions he would be less able to express as a man. For example, in Mariana, the eponymous character does to some extent seem to luxuriate in her misery, abandoned by her lover she waits for him in her house, which is decaying around her, and it is an incredibly beautiful poem and her misery is awful, but though the refrain “‘She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,/ I would that I were dead!'” ends each stanza she does not take action, and this cannot be from impropriety, the spurned lover killing him or herself is a staple of literature, beginning with the myths surrounding Sappho.

This interest in the tragic woman, and identification with her, struck me totally by accident, as I was listening to Against Me! I wonder if they could be described as having a “feminine muse”, certainly on the album New Wave two of the songs that most stand out to me, Thrash Unreal and The Ocean are about women. Thrash Unreal takes the figure of the junkie party girl, sexual impropriety and addiction, and highlights the desperateness of her situation, “She keeps on working for that minimum,/ as if a high school education gave you any other options”, she is trapped in a cycle of sex and drugs, seemingly because she does not fit in with the accepted female role, it is easy to imagine it as her voice saying “Some people just aren’t the type for marriage and family”. As well as highlighting the lack of freedom given by a poor education, this song draws awareness to the self-knowledge of the woman, in some ways she can be seen to belong to the trope of the unrepentant woman, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

The idea of a male author presenting themselves as female, or writing in the voice of a woman, is one that can be seen to be important in The Ocean, which celebrates the beauty and peace of the ocean, but also, in the second half of the song, explores the transmutation of the male narrator’s experience into that of a female’s. The line “if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”, suggests a male’s idealistic view of women’s lives, or perhaps his pessimistic view of his own life, combined with his admiration of his mother, “I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her”. This positive view of the mother and son relationship fits with the idealistic view of the narrator. His fantasy female self fulfills traditional female roles, “I’d find an honest man to make my husband,/ We would have to children”, again the life described is idealistic but it also seems to tie in with the idea of the male author using a female persona to express emotions or wishes that can not be expressed in another way, in this case the narrator admits openly this is a fantasy,something he wishes for but does not have. By attributing the wish for a simple, domestic life to the female self Tom Gable continues the tradition of presenting women as the more emotional, irrational sex, but interestingly seems to imply that men are unable to hope for domestic bliss, though they in fact do so, and so must resort to the female voice, just as in Tennyson’s poetry he resorts to the female voice to express deep emotion in a melancholy way rather than an angry one.

This of course perpetuates gender stereotypes, though an exploration of the idea of the female self or voice can be seen to question the very idea of gender stereotypes as oppresive to men as well as to women, not a new idea in feminist theory when Tom Gable was writing for Against Me!, but certainly a more unusual one when Tennyson was writing, though Mary Wollstonecraft raised to some extent similar ideas in A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman. As such all the texts examined have a feminist element to them, though it might be more accurate to say that they have an interest in masculinity and the male, and so are masculinist, despite the unfortunate connotations of the word.

Links:

Against Me! The Ocean: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_10_the_ocean/

Against Me! Thrash Unreal: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_03_thrash_unreal/

Tennyson, Alfred, Mariana: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/mariana

Tennyson, Alfred, The Lady of Shalott: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/the_lady_of_shalott