New Research

Lyrical Strains: Lyric, Liberalism, and Women’s Poetry, 1820-1920

By Elissa Zellinger

Long before I had children, I came across Mister Dog, a funny little children’s book about a funny little dog named Crispian’s Crispian. He is thusly named because, as he tells us on the first page, he “belongs to himself.” This remark is repeated throughout Mister Dog, emphasizing the joke that dogs belong to themselves, not people.

While Margaret Wise Brown intended Mister Dog for young readers in the 1950s, I found the book to perfectly illustrate several of the concepts that were preoccupying adults in the 1800s. Crispian’s insistence on self-ownership serves as a primer on the construction of the liberal subject. But as we well know, not all people could consider themselves self-possessed in the nineteenth-century United States. For that reason, Mister Dog exemplifies the longstanding fantasy that liberal subjectivity is equally available to all. Dismantling this conviction is one of the primary concerns in my book, Lyrical Strains: Liberalism and Women’s Poetry in Nineteenth-Century America, in which I discuss those who are excluded from liberalism’s claims to universality.

Lyrical Strains: Lyric, Liberalism, and Women’s Poetry, 1820-1920 chronicles the interdependent consolidation of the modern lyric and the liberal subject (self-enclosed, self-reliant, self-possessed) across the “long” nineteenth century. I examine poets—Frances Sargent Osgood, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E. Pauline Johnson—whose poems engage with lyrical practices in order to contest the very assumptions about selfhood that were responsible for denying them the political and social freedoms enjoyed by full liberal subjects.

In other words, these authors used poetry to exploit fundamental instabilities within concepts of individual, sovereign selfhood and, in so doing, try to reshape politics. Liberal and lyrical ideals shared an open secret: both were perpetually at pains to secure images of stable, preexisting selves, while basing their versions of self-reliance in collaborative, communicative exchange. The liberal self was sovereign, not because it was autonomously fashioned by an individual, but because some other body granted that sovereignty. Likewise, the figured lyrical subject, ostensibly constituted by the private utterance of a self-enclosed individual, only existed if others “overheard” it, which is to say, if others read the poem. Even as they projected images of self-enclosed individuality, liberalism and lyric alike could only legitimate the self’s interiority by publicizing it. For that reason, I contend that lyrical subjects imagine liberal public spheres in the nineteenth century.

The constitutive tensions of liberalism are especially poignant in the United States, a nation that championed the contradictory ideals of individualism and democratic union even as its institutions worked to restrict these supposed universals, and the subjectivity that subtends them, to white men. Contrary to its rhetoric, liberal subjectivity was not, in fact, a universal right, but was created by excluding women, the enslaved, and Native peoples. In the antebellum period, these groups were rendered dependent and self-dispossessed because they were thought to lack the same agency as white men. Therefore deemed incapable of rational and autonomous participation in the public sphere, these same groups were denied the full rights of liberal subjectivity. The public expectations surrounding women’s writing only confirmed the inability of women to achieve liberal self-possession; whether white, enslaved, or Native, women’s poems were exercises that exposed their supposedly pure privacy to public consumption. The result, I contend, is that women’s poetry, as well as its intersections with questions of race, comprises a poetics of the excluded. Indeed, I argue that lyrical poetry was the technology that allowed women writers to strain against and thereby clarify the assumptions undergirding liberal selfhood in the long nineteenth century. For that reason, the word “strain” takes on a complex metaphorical and self-reflexive significance that describes both a struggle with selfhood and with gendered poetic conventions. Rather than regard the conventions that shaped their works as limiting, I argue that women’s lyrical expression of interiority revealed the gendered forms of inequality inherent in America’s self-reliant individualism. By using lyrical poetry to articulate fantasies of subjectivity, the genders and races barred from liberalism’s freedoms worked to establish themselves in relation to its ideals.

Elissa Zellinger is assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University. Lyrical Strains: Lyric, Liberalism, and Women’s Poetry, 1820-1920 has just been published with UNC Press: