Poetry Wednesday: George Eliot’s Feminist Manifesto

So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.
—George Eliot

How old were you, when you found out George Eliot was a woman?

George EliotWere you told right away, as your teacher handed out copies of Silas Marner or Middlemarch? Or were you left to find out on your own and ended up embarrassing yourself in front of the class by making it obvious you skipped the required reading?*

Regardless, it’s no secret now that one of the best novelists in the 19th Century was female, though it may have been at the time. Women were starting to write under their own names by then, but Mary Anne Evans wanted her work taken seriously.**

And for good reason—her novels are amazing. She gets people, she really does, all their pain and joy and meanness and nobility . Silas Marner makes me tear up every single time*** and Middlemarch makes me want to bash some heads together. She was a true storyweaver, she was.

And she wasn’t a bad poet.

For a novelist.

She wasn’t a particularly good poet, either, though to her credit, she seems to have known this and not worried too much about it. It probably helped that the novel gig was going so well.

Only one of her poems is generally considered good enough to be written by George Eliot and while I don’t disagree that ” The Choir Invisible” is an excellent poem, especially for writers and artists, she wrote a few others that I sometimes like better.

It’s a mood thing.

The Radiant Dark
(George Eliot)

Should I long that dark were fair? Say, O song.
Lacks my love aught that I should long?
Dark the night with breath all flow’rs
And tender broken voice that fills
With ravishment the list’ning hours.
Whis’prings, wooings,
Liquid ripples, and soft ring-dove cooings,
in low-toned rhythm that love’s aching stills.

Dark the night, yet is she bright,
For in her dark she brings the mystic star,
Trembling yet strong as is the voice of love
From some unknown afar.
O radiant dark, O darkly foster’d ray,
Thou hast a joy too deep for shallow day.

Or maybe an attitude thing.

I’d assumed, when I first read it, that this next one was an example from one of the many modernistic schools that started sprouting up everywhere in early 20th Century America.^

When I realized who’d written it, I was stunned—no way was it written by a woman, even one masquerading as a man, of Victorian England.

And it’s so different from her novelist voice . . . but not, I think, her novelist’s intent.

I Grant You Ample Leave
(George Eliot)

I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time—
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments?

See? It’s almost, to steal a phrase from Natalie Merchant, a feminist manifesto—and would be, in my opinion, no matter when it was written, or when it’s read.

But this last one is considered her best, and I sometimes find it hard to argue.

I don’t often share religious poems—to each our own—but this one, though it has the usual imagery, isn’t usual. It’s a poem written by someone who had set aside the liturgy and beliefs of traditional religion^^ and replaced them with her own version of heaven.

An artist’s version:

The Choir Invisible
(George Eliot)

Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men’s search
To vaster issues. So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing a beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonized
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air,
And all our rarer, better, truer self
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burden of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better, — saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mixed with love, —
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever. This is life to come, —
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, — be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

It should be so obvious, no matter your personal belief system, that she  did join those ranks.

And is waiting, with some patience, for the rest of us.

*I didn’t do this, but I just figured out why I’ve been humming The Moldau by Smetana for a couple days (if you click the link, it’s the bit around 1:14).  My second week of Music History, I was asked what The Moldau was. I answered, “A symphonic poem.” The prof gave me three more tries (A tone poem? A symphony? A nationalist piece?) and then called on That Student—you know the one—who gave me a superior look down his nose and said, “It’s a river in Czechoslovakia.” It’s been twenty-five years, and I’ve never forgotten that. Still like the piece though.

**She also wanted to separate her writing career from her twenty year affair with a married man. Practical lady, our Ms. Evans.

***As does, for much the same reason, the odd little movie adaption of it called A Simple Twist of Fate, which stars Steve Martin in the first serious role I’d ever seen him do. He’s so devastatingly broken in the first half, so grimly determined that no one will ever get the opportunity to hurt him again . . . It’s not a timeless movie, but in many ways it’s a perfect modern emotional echo of the original. But I digress . . .

^I knew it wasn’t Spectrism, because it made sense, which was not the point of Spectrism.

^^She only attended for the sake of her ailing father, who, when she mentioned her doubts about the Anglican Church, mentioned disowning her.


21 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: George Eliot’s Feminist Manifesto

  1. I had to look up Moldau because (and this is one of my major minor—ha!—problems) I knew I had played it. Couldn’t think of what it sounded like for the life of me. This is probably why I’m a writer rather than a musician.

    I found out that Eliot was a woman when I first read her in high school.

  2. Thanks for all the wonderful George Eliot tidbits. I don’t remember how old I was when I found out about her, but I remember being generally mystified when I was young to learn that many women writers wrote under the names of men. And while things are a lot different now, how sad is it that this could still be a valid strategy in some cases? The VIDA counts for some publication say it all.

  3. Um, I didn’t know until Lyra mentioned it (in passing) but don’t tell anyone. I’m trying to pass as part of the intelligentsia.

  4. Shamefully, not until a few years ago. But I don’t recall ever studying Eliot in a literature class either (never had to read Silas Marner…). I’ll plead that my exposure to literature was limited back in the day. A nice summary and introduction to her poetry.

      • Mostly Dickens, as far as british novelists go. I had to read both Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities. I seem to recall reading Hardy’s “Tess..”, My lit requirement in college was mainly an american lit course (from the Puritans to Steinbeck) and an arts and lit course (roman/greek and renaissance/baroque period stuff). I clepped (do they still use that word?) out of Freshman english. Sorry for the digression…you did ask the question.

        • I did ask and I don’t regret it!

          I managed to take poetry and Shakespeare for most of my English Lit requirements, but couldn’t avoid Hawthorne—I think I studied The Scarlet Letter every semester for three and a half years in either an American Lit or Ed course.

          It did save time (especially since it was also the focus of AP English my senior year of high school), but yeesh, Dimmesdale is an ass.

        • Thankfully, I only had to read The Scarlett Letter once… in high school. Interestingly, my study of poetry was not extensive then either. I didn’t seek out new poetry to read then (like I do now), though in my creative writing class, I did enjoy writing it. How interests do change.

  5. I think I found out because she was a character in a movie I was watching. Can’t even remember which one.
    I never had to read ‘Silas Marner’ either. Plenty of Dickens, Chaucer and Shakespeare. I did a lot of poetry to cover my lit requirements in college. Much Dickinson, Bradstreet, William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich, etc.
    Twice around the block with ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was plenty, thank you very much!

    • Silas Marner isn’t cheerful at first, but it makes up for it later. I recommend it!

      I haven’t done Adrienne Rich, have I? Hmmm . . . .

      And yeah, there’s a lot of misogynistic nonsense in Scarlet Letter . . . though it’s possible Hawthorne knew this.

  6. I know I found out in college, but since she didn’t write in my preferred genre, it didn’t make that much of an impression on me. It might be because I found out from an arch-feminist person who insisted I was betraying my gender for one reason or another. I like dresses, and I don’t get upset if a man wants to hold open a door for me, what can I say?

  7. These are such intelligent poems, aren’t they? I did not read ‘I Grant You Ample Leave’ as a feminist poem – although I can see why you say that; I find it speaks to me equally, irrespective of gender.
    I like the way her mind was so alert to the scientific developments of her day, as well as being a subtle and critical social observer.
    Very interesting post! I am glad to have come across it.

    • I absolutely agree that “Ample Leave” is not solely for women!

      It’s honestly difficult to nail down the “feminisim” of Eliot—on one hand, she went ahead and wrote these amazing things that no one of her gender was expected to write. On the other hand, she ‘hid’ behind a male name . . .

      Thanks for commenting!

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