Le Beau Monde, 4 (1808): 364-5.
THE comparative rank of the two sexes, in every branch of intellectual greatness, has very long been a subject of dispute among people of all civilized countries. On the one hand the men contend, that every thing of strength, substance, and solidity, rests with them: that the highest flights of genius are theirs: that to them belongs every thing great of useful in art, in science, in philosophy, and in arms. On the other hand the women contend, not only that they surpass men in the delicacies of feeling, and in all the suavities of social life, but that they would rival the male sex in every other excellence of mind, if their education were equally fitted to render their intellect hardy and robust. Among the women some, indeed, are found, (nay, we think the majority of the sensible women) who deny all claim to superiority, and even to equality: who acknowledge their own weakness, and think it best to content themselves with a candid humility. On the other hand, there are some among men, (and those are chiefly the very dangerous people commonly called interesting men), who aim to poison the female mind by every mischievous and seductive machination they can devise, and of course do not forget to assure the women whom they court, of the perfect equality, if not superiority of female powers. This is perhaps the most certain road to success: or in other words, the most certain engine of corruption. It has been observed that women, whose chief merit consists in their talents, are always best pleased when they are complimented upon their beauty: and on the other hand, it is no less true that women, whose chief merit consists in their beauty, are usually most delighted when they are flattered for their genius. Indeed the principle of preference for the praise least deserved, is well known to all the philosophers who have studied the human mind, and is believed to be pretty nearly universal. Now as women, remarkable for their beauty are generally the sort of women selected by seductive men, it is no wonder that the flattery which is built on a pretended belief of female genius, should be the kind of flattery most general and most successful. As long as a woman’s feeling of her own merits is left upon its own ground, upon the level which nature and the society to which she belongs have marked as its proper footing, she is safe and firm: but the moment her fancy is raised above that level, it stands on a false foundation: vanity is its only prop: the situation is insecure, and it is not a matter of surprise, that she falls to the lowest depth, whence to rise again is impossible.
For our own part, we are not employed in making love to any foolish vain beauty, and therefore we may speak what we think. We own then that we do not think women the equals of men: and we think not only that they are unequal with the inequalities that education imposes upon them, but that they are originally and naturally unequal. It is not, indeed, a decisive proof of the inequality of women’s genius, that there have been many more eminent men than eminent women, because the difference of education must be allowed to place women under very considerable disadvantages: but we do not think the difference of education can ever have produced so immense a disproportion as that which now exists. Besides there have been countries in which the education of the women, in a literary and philosophical point of view, has been quite as carefully managed as the education of the men. The philosophers of Athens and female pupils, but we find no great philosophers among the Athenian females. The ladies at Rome learned Greek, and had equal access with the men to all the ordinary sources of literature: but we have no great poets among the Roman ladies. At the present day, and in France for nearly a century past, the education of the higher classes of women is, and has been, an education certainly competent to every purpose of literary greatness. There are some kinds of eminence to which the laws of society make it impossible that a woman can properly aspire: a woman cannot be a lawyer, or a soldier, or a politician: but literature, which after all is the widest field of ambition, and that in which more great names have been earned, than in any other walk of genius, literature is open, and in most civilized ages has been open, as much to women as to men. We have had literary women of considerable eminence: but never literary women of first-rate genius. And there, we think, lies the great weight of argument against female equality. We do not deny their equality merely from the fewness of their meritorious examples: but from the inferiority of quality in the few examples that have appeared. Where are the Shakespeares and the Miltons, the Homers and the Ciceros, the Drydens and the Popes, the Boileaus and Voltaires, the long, long list tat might yet be added to these names, where are they among the female writers? Out of so few female writers we cannot expect as many that are excellent, as out of the great numbers of men who have been authors: but at least the women ought to produce their proportion. Unfortunately, the exertions of female authors have seldom risen far above an elegant mediocrity. There is, indeed, one branch of art that contains a splendid and striking argument in favour of women’s pretensions to first-rate genius: and that branch is the drama. Mrs. Siddons is not only, by universal acknowledgement, the finest actress that ever lived, but we have no hesitation in saying, that from everything we have been able to learn, she appears to have been the greatest dramatic genius of either sex who ever melted the heart or electrified the soul. But this one exception, and that in an art where women are in every respect upon an equal footing with men, is not to be taken as an argument in favour of the rule. We expect that women, in order to prove their own equality, shall produce a number of really great names, in fair proportion to the number of females who have entered the list: and that if the numbers of men who have broken forth, the women shall cite a twentieth part of the number of the great names that the men can adduce. We fear this impossible.
But even though women be inferior to men, as far as first-rate force of genius is concerned, they are not, therefore, of necessity inferior beings with respect to the sum total of their merit. If men excel women in strength, women excel in sweetness. If men have mightier minds, women have tenderer hearts. They are as nobly employed in polishing society, as men are in maintaining that society. Of women, as the objects of an honourable love, the power and glory is unbounded. It is not, indeed, a power that must be domineeringly exerted, nor a glory that can be superbly enjoyed: the power of a woman, like the faculty of wishing, which the fairies are said to have imparted, is a power then only powerful, when it is exercised without the consciousness of her who employs it: the glory of a woman is then most glorious, when she who possesses it shrinks from its ostentation. As virtuous and domestic wives, women have a rank surely neither dishonourable nor insignificant: they have a power of swaying the actions of the wisest and greatest men: and in the whirlwind of male force, which perhaps, from consciousness of its own vigour, may sometimes be disappointed of its object, it is the wife who can acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. As careful and sensible mothers, they may give the first impulse of virtue and grandeur to young minds, over which it is their peculiar province to preside: and sow the seeds of glory, which may afterwards bloom to the honour and reward of the tender care that planted them. In short the merits of women, though of a different kind, are not of an inferior nature: they gain more by concession than by exaction: they are better beloved when they yield, than when they contend: but though the road of approbation is not the same for women as for men, women may at last obtain their recompense as effectually as men. We are told, pride was not made for man. Certainly pride was not made for woman. The less her assumption, the more will be her glory: and even when she has attained the glory of humility, she does unwisely to value herself on that distinction. Then her humility ceases, and her loveliness ceases too. Woman is in society, what the King is in the State: a branch whose real power lies rather in quiet influence than in direct prerogative. Man could crush his fair competitor in an instant, if mere force were to decide between them: just as Parliament could fetter the Monarch, if violent measures were to become the order of the day: and surely woman does wisely, when she considers, like the Monarch, that it is better to hold her play by sweet consent, than to risk the loss of it by angry violence. Her indirect influence, like his, is known, but it is connived at, and even loved: her immediate impetuosity ruins her, as open tyranny does a despot. She should think herself no angel, no queen, no disputant: the lover may call her a seraph, the flatterer may acknowledge her a ruler, the seducer may praise her argumentation: but she will always be most happy when she feels that heaven designed her for a simple, amiable, inobtrusive, lovely, and interesting creature: that her divinity consists in her humanity, and that her weakness is the foundation of her power.
But we do not by these arguments desire to prove that there is no kind of direct distinction, and even superiority over the other sex, to which a woman may with propriety aspire. There are some walks of literature in which she seems particularly formed to excel. Perhaps it is necessary that an author, in order to afford perfect delight to the reader, shall have felt all that his work attempts to describe. Now certainly there are some kinds of feeling that women possess in a much more exquisite degree than men: almost all the feelings, for instance, of those passions which are properly called the affections. Love, in its tenderest and purest spirit, parental regard in its most genuine warmth, pity, in its sweetest sympathies, are all of them emotions in which the feeling of women is much more acute and accurate than that of men. In every work, therefore, where these affections are principally concerned, women are probably adequate writers: and even though we blame them from desiring to prove the superiority, or even equality of that genius, and conceive that they have no business with pretension of any kind whatsoever. Perhaps it may be thought that if women were never to assert themselves, their merit would never be known. We do not conceive this. The merit of men is not likely to be known, unless they assert themselves, because it is the course of nature, that the bolder sex may venture on a display of their own powers, nobody thinks of leading on a man from his first diffidence, to that degree of publicity in which his excellence may best appear. But women have greater advantages. Men seek their beauties, as one would the violet, that hides its sweetness. They are sure to be brought forward, if they will but wait with modesty: but if they push themselves, they are likely to be suddenly driven backward. And it is not to be said with how infinite an honour a man of discernment contemplates a modest woman, whose virtues, accomplishments, or genius, have awaited, not anticipated, his search. Every loveliness seems doubly lovely: grace is more graceful, and beauty is more beauteous.
There are some authoresses of the present day, who, not content with modestly leaving the efforts of their muse to the fate which the good sense of their readers is likely to allot them, employ a thousand artifices, public and private, for the purpose of attracting general notice: who not only cram their writings with nauseous, obtrusive sentiment, and other confident and vulgar trash, but puff themselves by assumed names in newspapers, and court the periodical critics. These are the women that society abhors: the pert affected sentimentalities, and the gravely ridiculous, pedantically petticoated philosophers.
On the other hand we have a few fair writers, whose modest sensibility, and true discrimination in the most delicate refinements of nature, has procured for them an applause and a fame which forward pretension does not deserve and will not attain. Among the most gracefully conspicuous, among the most modestly admirable of these writers, is the authoress of whose poems we are now to speak.
Among novelists Mrs. Opie certainly occupies a first rank, and in poetry too she has acquired to herself a reputation by no means inconsiderable. Her poetry is almost always of that peculiar kind, for which, as we have before observed, we conceive the female genius to be peculiarly adapted. She expresses unusually some feeling, connected with the gentler affections; and there certainly have been few writers, in any age, or in any country, more intimately acquainted with all the sympathies of the human heart, or in other words, more thoroughly gifted with the faculty of interesting the reader. It must be confessed that her poetry has faults; but they are rather mechanical than vital defects; and we have no doubt that a little further practice, with care and attention, and a close study of the principles upon which the most harmonious poets have constructed their system of versification, will completely do away with those ruggednesses which at present intrude themselves during the operation of some beautiful thought, and spoil the effect which that thought would otherwise have produced upon our minds. The defect of which we speak, is by no means so apparent in this as in her last volume; and therefore it is that we feel ourselves inclined to hope for a speedy extinction of the faulty propensity.
The only two poems of any length, are The Warrior’s Return; and Julia, or The Convent of St. Claire. If we may judge by the title-page, in which The Warrior’s Return is the only poem specifically mentioned. – The Warrior’s Return is, probably, the authoress’s favourite; but we are not inclined to shew the same preference. One of the two longer pomes had certainly a right to be the poem specified in the title-page: but we really think that the tale of Julia, which now affords a subject for the frontispiece, was well entitled to give the name to the volume. The story of The Warrior’s Return, is in substance as follows:–
Sir Walter returns from the Holy Land to his own castle; as he approaches home, at each step the images of his wife and infant son, rush more vividly upon his recollection. He arrives, and with transport embraces his wife Editha. He then inquires for his son Alfred. Editha tells him, that Alfred arriving at manhood, set out for the Holy Land, to share the dangers and fame of his father; and that she had described Walter’s armour and device to the youth, in hopes of their meeting. Walter informs Editha, that a dying friend had given him other armour, with an earnest injunction of wearing it, as a tribute to the memory of revered amity: then expresses his regret for a change, which has prevented a recognition between him and his son. The principal even is then introduced in this manner:
[quotes from “‘But if he has fought, and has fallen, my love!’” or “One painful memorial I’ve brought.”]
He then relates, that having slain a Saracen Chief, he found the glory of the conquest suddenly disputed by a warrior; that the altercation becoming warm, they fought, and Walter gave his adversary a mortal wound; that the youth expressed forgiveness in accents resembling those of Editha, and died. “But what is this memorial that you have brought.” asks Editha. “This scarf from his bosom,” answers her lord. She sinks on the ground, and denounces Walter, exclaiming that he has slain his son. And here the poem ends.
Now the idea of this poem is very dramatic; but the effect is very greatly injured by the order of the development [sic]. For the circumstance that ought to move the passions of the reader, is the situation of grief and horror into which Walter and Editha are thrown by the discovery of their son’s slaughter. Now a circumstance of this kind is never effective on the minds of the reader, when not only that the reader himself is enabled to anticipate the coming event, but even the parties concerned in the transaction itself have had very good ground for suspecting the issue. The truth is, that unless Walter conceived from the beginning that he had slain his son, which is evidently not the intention of the authoress, his narrative is very unaccountably introduced; not is it likely that Editha would have listened so patiently to such a tale, if she had not also surmised the death of her own son; which she evidently did not surmise, for she had been made to say:
“‘O ill-fated youth! how I bleed for his fate!
“‘Perhaps that his mother, like me,
“‘Had arm’d him, and blest him, and pray’d for his life,
“‘As I pray, my Alfred, for thee!”
It appears then, that if neither Walter nor Editha suspected this tale to concern their own son, the tale was a thing of unseasonable introduction on the instant of Walters return, when so many much more interesting subjects must have demanded the attention both of him and of Editha: and if they did suspect any thing, the surprize at the end of the poem is divested of all sudden horror, and indeed could not have been properly a surprize at all. Even if the construction of the narrative were a little altered, so as to remedy the defect of which we have been speaking, the conclusion is certainly too abrupt.
The story of Julia seems to us to be much better constructed. Julia Clermont was about to be immured in a convent, for the sake of enlarging her brother’s inheritance. Her brother married, and at the wedding feast Montrose won the heart of Julia. Clermont refused her hand to his disinterested intreaties: determined not to allow either a diminution of his son’s fortune, or a marriage of his daughter without a dower worthy of her family. She returned to the convent where she was passing her noviciate, and was overwhelmed with grief. The Abbess advised her to supplicate her father. In vain Julia’s intreaties were united with those of her mother; Clermont still inflexible, left his daughter with his wife. After a pathetic interview between the parent and her child, Julia hurried to her cell. The morning appointed for the taking of veil was now arrived. The Abbess called at Julia’s door to summon the maid to the altar. The victim intreated a few moment’s delay. Suddenly the voice of Montrose was heard through the aisles. He eagerly rushed forward, announced the death of Clermont’s heir, and the father’s sanction of Julia’s marriage. Again the Abbess summoned Julia. No voice was heard in answer. Montrose forced open the door, and saw Julia – bathed in blood! She uttered a few faultering words of remorse for her suicide, and regret for the happiness she has lost: the groaned and expired.
This story is extremely interesting, and conveys a most forcible moral to the heart.
Among the most remarkable of the smaller poems is an Ode to Borrowdale in Cumberland. This ode contains many beautifully descriptive lines: particularly when the authoress, speaking of her own recollections of Borrowdale’s scenery, after describing the misty shadows that overhang the heights, exclaims:
[quotes from “But rocks and storms are vain:” to “Were told by slow delicious tears.”]
The Lucayan’s song is perhaps one of the most fortunate subjects that ever was selected for poetical illustration. Dr. Robertson relates, that several vessels were fitted out for the Lucayos, the commanders of which informed the natives, with whose language they were now well acquainted, that they came from a delicious country in which their departed ancestors resided, by whom they were sent to invite them to partake of the bliss which they enjoyed. That simple people listened with wonder and credulity, and fond of visiting their relations and friends in that happy religion, followed the Spaniards with eagerness. By this artifice above 40, 000 were decoyed into Hispaniola, to share in the sufferings of the wretched race who inhabited that island.
When the poor creatures have arrived there, many of them in the anguish of despair refuse all sustenance; retire to desert caves and woods, and silently give up the ghost. Others repairing to the seacoast on the northern side of Hispaniola, cast many a longing look to that part of the ocean where they suppose their own islands situated, and as the sea-breeze rises eagerly to inhale it, believing it has lately visited their own happy valleys, and comes fraught with the breath of those they love, their wives and children. With this idea they continue on for hours on the coast, till nature becomes utterly exhausted; when, stretching out their arms towards the ocean, as if to take a last embrace of their distant country, and relations, they sink down, and expire without a groan.
We believe it is Mr. Bryan Edwards, in his history of the west-Indies, who relates these interesting and melancholy facts. Mrs Opie has employed them to great account:
[quotes “The Lucayan’s Song”]
If there be any material fault in this beautiful and interesting poem, it is, that the Lucayan has now and then the air rather of a man relating his suffering to another, than of one venting his feelings to himself: as in the first stance, when he asks, what is left to misery but death: in the second stanza, where he says:
“Sad was the hour, when fraught with guile, &c.”
And in the fourth stanza, where he exclaims:
“No, I’ll the horrid tale forebear.”
These things, which seem to arise more from the recollections than the immediate sensations of the poor Luycayn, tend, in some degree, to interrupt the current of the reader’s feelings: and in a poem possessing such admirable beauties, a little fault is discernible. Indeed, (whether reasonably, or unreasonably, we cannot now pause to inquire) the more an author does for the reader, the more the reader is apt to expect: and the nearer a poem is to perfection, the more obstinately do the public require it to be perfect.
The idea of the little poem, which Mrs. Opie entitles The Origin of the Sail, is a fiction worthy of Anacreon in his purest hours of inspiration. We extract it entire:
[quotes “The Origin of the Sail”]
In the following lines addressed to Laura, there is a good deal of that knowledge of the delicacies of the human heart, which we have before acknowledged to be one among the particulars in which women seem formed to excel their male competitors. The distinction between that ardent sensation of friendship which women sometimes entertain for men whom they do not love, and the feeling of actual affection, properly called love, is admirably drawn in these verses: which indeed may serve as a useful lesson to many an enthusiastic young man, who flattered by the attentions of women, and eager to engage himself in the delightful bondage of a mutual passion, fondly imagines that such a mutual passion does actually exist, and discovers the error of his understanding only by the late and sudden pangs of his heart. We subjoin the stanzas.
[quotes “To Laura”]
The following lines, to Anna, deserve a particular notice:
[quotes “To Anna”]
Of the foregoing ballad the ideas are poetical, and affecting, but we fear that the illustration contained in the second stanza, is not philosophically true: nor has it even that sanction which to be sure is sufficient poetry, the support of popular opinion. Nobody thinks that September is more apt to lower with clouds, than April, which is showery to a proverb: and even if the skies of autumn were as often overcast as those of spring, yet it is impossible that they rain should be in fact descending while the atmosphere appears bright and cloudless: though the human countenance may wear a smile, while the heart is swelling with grief.
There are a great many poems on the subject of secret love: we should say too many, if they were not so good.
The idea of all these ballads on secret love is evidently taken from the beautiful little novel on the same subject in Mrs. Opie’s own “Simple Tales”.
Before we quit the poems, which are in rhyme, we must say something of those mechanical defects, those little failures of execution which are to be found in some of them. These defects are chiefly of two kinds: the transposition of words, and the employment of unnecessary epithets as expletives. Of the former fault there are several instances; and in little poems, which ought to be perfectly polished, such instances are not so excusable as perhaps they may be considered in longer works. Indeed matters of feeling lose much of their effect upon the mind when they are divested of their simplicity: and nothing so completely destroys the simplicity of a feeling exclamation as a laboured transposition, which could hardly have taken place in any conversation, much less in a conversation of lively passion. Thus when a lover, expiring on his bridal morning, exclaims, “And must I, must I then die, my Lucy, before thou are min?” Mrs. Opie makes her stanza run thus:
“The fatal truth the sufferer read
“In weeping Lucy’s downcast eye:
“‘And must I, must I then,’ he said
“‘Ere thou are mine, my Lucy, die?’”
In another place, we have the following transposition:
“Fame is line, lo! crowds aver it,
“And her smile is dear to thee:
“But, I charge thee, don’t prefer it
“Ere again to home and me.”
Of the faulty employment of epithets there are also several examples. Not that Mrs. Opie ever employs epithets that are in themselves inconsistent with the subject she treats: but it should be remembered that in poetry, an epithet, if it does not do good, always does harm. She often uses epithets, which if she had not been writing in regular metre, she certainly would never have thought of. Thus we fin,
“—– should Misfortune’s hand
“Bid all thy youth’s fond triumphs fly.
“Oh who can paint the lover’s woe,
“Or childless father’s deep remorse,
“While bending o’er the blood-stained bed
“He clasped his daughter’s pallid corse.
“But from this scene of dreadful woe, &c.
“Again her pensive smile I view,
“Her modest eye’s soft chastened fire.”
By not attending to such minutiae as these, Mrs. Opie often deprives herself of the assistance of the ear: and the ear is to the mind a porter, who must be frequently and delicately bribed by all who would gain a ready and constant admittance.
We have now to speak of her lines on Constantinople, which are of a nature very different from the nature of the other poems in this volume. These lines are written in blank verse, and have the advantages that musical sound can add to sublime conception. We have said that though we think the tenderer kinds of writing be the departments in which women are formed to excel the most, yet we are, far from wishing to discourage their attempts at loftier poetry. Mrs. Opie in the lines on Constantinople, which we here subjoin, has afforded us a proof that if the female mind be not endowed with vigour sufficiently enduring to uphold a flight of great extent, yet as long as its wing continues untried, it may rise to a great exaltation. We should do injustice to the genius of Mrs. Opie, and defraud our readers of an enjoyment to which they are entitled, if we were to withhold this admirably forcible and brilliant production.
[quotes “Lines of hearing, three or four years ago, that Constantinople was swallowed up by an Earthquake: a report, though false, at that time generally believed.”]
There are several incorrect expressions and slovenly lines in this poem, and particularly the few which close it; but there are passages of a strength and pathos which we have seldom seen equaled. The descriptions of the might arm coming forth from the could amid the horrid repose of Nature – of strangers returning to their desolated home – of the maniac reclaiming his children from the jaws of the earth – of the death-bed and the grave – and lastly of the plague – are almost without parallels in modern poetry. We do not remember to have seen any other production of Mrs. Opie’s in which this style was attempted, but she has now proved that she possesses sublimity as well as sweetness: a rare combination, which requires only a little attention to the musical arrangement of metre, in order to place her in a rank as high among lyric poets as that which she already occupies among novelists.