Impossible Speech: 19th-century women poets and the dramatic monologue
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This study seeks to redress the continued exclusion of women poets from the theorization of the dramatic monologue. I argue that an unacknowledged consensus on the definition of the dramatic monologue exists, in spite of the oft-proclaimed absence of one, and that it is the failure to recognize this consensus which has in part debarred women poets from the theorization of the form. In particular, the failure to acknowledge this consensus has led recent feminist critics attempting to “rethink” the dramatic monologue, such as Cynthia Scheinberg and Glennis Byron, to reinscribe the very model they are attempting to rewrite by admitting into their analysis only those poems which already conform to the existing model. In consequence, these critics inadvertently repeat the exclusion they are attempting to redress by reinscribing a model which is predicated—as both Scheinberg and Byron acknowledge—on the exclusion of women poets. In order to end this cycle of exclusion, my project begins from a different beginning, with Hemans instead of Browning, and traces her innovations and influence across the dramatic monologues of two key dramatic monologists of the 19th-century, Augusta Webster and Amy Levy. In the hands of all three women poets, the dramatic monologue develops into a form which calls into question not only the nature of the self, as is characteristic of Browning’s model, but more crucially, the possibility of the subject. Their poems persistently dramatize what Judith Butler calls “impossible speech”—speech that is not recognized as the speech of a subject—and thereby challenges the model of authoritative speaking which underpins both men’s dramatic monologues and the prevailing theory of women’s as a clutch for linguistic freedom, power and authority. This project therefore has dual aims: to complicate our current conception of the dramatic monologue by placing the women’s dramatic monologues in conversation with the larger tradition of the form; and to complicate our understanding of 19th-century women poets’ conception and constructions of female subjectivity by re-theorizing their poetic strategies in the development of the dramatic monologue.