Reclaiming Poetesses as Eco-feminist Figures

ekthorp's picture


When I ran across the above image, the text of which is by children’s poet Shel Silverstein, I started thinking about when, exactly, we are able to break down the barrier between natural reality, and human expression of one’s perception of this reality. How do we go about recovering the language of the flowers, as Silverstein puts it?

In Wholeness and the Implicate Order, David Bohm suggests that we may be able to see a defragmentation in poetry. Poetry allows us to “overcome this fragmentation by using language in a freer, more informal, and ‘poetic’ way” (Bohm 34). The accuracy of this statement lies in the type of poetry analyzed.


Sonneteers such as Milton and Shakespeare typically used nature to describe the object of their affections. By attempting to use nature to as a descriptive, they stabilize both nature and the person they describe. They simultaneously define nature and their subject, settling both into a non-existent stability. Take, for example, the infamous Shakespearean sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” In it, Shakespeare exclaims the beauties of his loved one, concluding the poem with the lines:


 “When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:

 So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”

Here, we see Shakespeare form an image of both nature and his beloved as permanent, which, of course, it is not. He may give several examples of how his love is not like a summer’s day, but by conflating nature with the subject of the sonnet, he inaccurately assumes that both will remain the same forever. Summer days change, they develop, as do people. What was summer to Shakespeare is not summer to us, and what is summer for us will not be summer to those living four centuries from now. Society develops similarly, changing the individuals that reside within it. We cannot rely on these types of past poets to give us an accurate representation of nature.

We must turn to the work of female poets, particularly that of the Victorian Poetesses, to see the beginning of poetry’s ability to reveal reality, both that of nature and ourselves, for the instability it truly contains. Let us look at the work of a lesser-known poet, Sara Teasedale. In 1914, she wrote the following poem, “The Wind”:

 A tall tree talking with the wind

            Leans as he leaned to me

But oh the wind waits where she will,

            The wind is free.


I am a woman, I am weak,

            And custom leads me as one blind,

Only my songs go where they will

            Free as the wind.

Here, Teasedale uses an extended metaphor to conflate herself with a natural force. (There are numerous reasons why she might have done this, many of which will be explored later.) The difference here to Shakespeare’s sonnet is astounding. Teasdale recognizes that nature is unstable, it is wild, it is “free.” Not only is nature untamable and turning, but it is interactive. It converse with all its elements, including trees and humans.

Teasedale also reflects on the ability of language to change and travel, much like the wind. By comparing her songs to an elemental force, she breaks down the barriers between natural reality and human expression of it. Moreover, she contrasts herself to the same elemental force, simultaneously expressing a longing to be as powerful and liberated as the breeze, and her own emotions of being bound and weak.

This type of poetry, deemed Poetess Poetry by many post-modern theorists and critics, has been critiqued for its “simplicity” of form and content since it came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century. Poetesses, a term often used to degrade late Victorian and early Modern female poets, were often demeaned for their popularity as “easy” literature. Her themes were restricted and her style was accessible, deeming her both successful and a sell-out. This contradiction stemmed from her queries into typical themes such as religion and nature.

Annie Finch explodes this criticism from the inside out, questioning the “sentimentality” many poetesses were criticized for both during their eras and ours. By writing on subject such as “garden, family and spirituality,” the poetesses reshaped them by questioning the “importance and solidity of the individual self; the possibility of objectifying nature, and the fundamental alienation of self from the world,”  all common themes of the patriarchal poetry tradition. They did so by creating a new self that was intricately linked with other beings, especially females, through “expressing commonly understood emotions”. In short, they “call into question the most basic tenets of Romanticism,” and “ignore the single-peaked hierarchic of mainstream poetic value” (Finch, 123). They were deemed “sentimental,” for their efforts to express nature and shared human emotions.

By reframing traditional themes, the poetesses questioned stable notions of nature, creating a stable natural world contrasting with their chaotic inner selves, yet chaotic natural word that matched their inner chaos as unstable being, and was therefore comforting and reassuring.  They created a wall against nature by make it seem hostile and wily, and, more precisely, exactly what nature is. By diffusing their individual selves to simultaneous create a community unified against a stable picture of nature itself, making  “room for the world in their world” of literature. This is not just a description, it is a call. It is the poetic unity Bohm hoped to capture and exemplify as language correctly interpreting nature. The poetesses were able to construct contemporary concrete notions of nature into a much more realistic, and chaotic, configuration.


Several issues arise from this. What are the benefits of this reconfiguration for the female community? Why were they criticized for unsettling traditional themes, instead of exploring new ones, as many male poets of their time did? And finally, how have modern poets responded and progressed from the period of the poetess?


“Has it come, the time to fade?

And with a murmured sigh

The Maple, in his scarlet robe

Was the first to made reply…”

In Lydia Sigourney’s above continual questioning, we see the poetess leave nature open-ended and free, unable to be pinned down by definition. We also see another poetess, Sara Teasedale, align herself with the elemental forces she cannot control:

“My heart is heavy with many a song

Like ripe fruit bearing down the tree,

But I can never give you one

My songs belong to me.”


For many women, linking themselves with nature gave them access to a great force often inaccessible to them in their communities. They express their selves through nature, but leave it, and themselves, open-ended. They used nature to both stabilize their individual and community identity, and accommodated for nature’s, and their own, fluidity. They were drawn to the ever-changing identity of the earth, specifically because as a collective whole, patriarchal society denied them personal identities. Not only were they instilled with a sense that they should be compared to nature from a centuries-long tradition of man-made metaphors comparing women to natural elements, but they saw reflections of themselves within nature’s power, and used this to define their own personalities. By playing with nature metaphors, they question the assumptions the male poetic tradition had made over centuries of holding a higher hierarchical status in the world of poetry. Perhaps they saw what Spretnak sees in the similar oppression of both nature and women; that the dynamic between man and nature “is linked closely to patriarchal fear and resentment of the elemental power of the female” Or possibly poetesses were reassured by the appearance of the Divine in nature as “immanent and around” (Spretnak, 3). After all, Emily Dickinson did often speak of going to church in the forest among the trees (See “Some keep the Sabbath,” Number 324).


            As a result of this female rejection of male definition in favor of a “fluid and boundaryless self experiencing a solid, shared version of natural experience” (Finch, 125), many poetesses were deemed “sentimental” and were “relegated to the silence in the twentieth century” (Finch, 122). More interestingly, these critiques of poetess poetry can be read as a defense of patriarchal environmental abuse.

Up until the first Pre-modern female poets, the world of Western poetry was incredibly andro-centric. The power of patriarchal poetry relied on its repetitive importance placed on men. Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet exemplifies the places more importance on man and his ability to place relevance on her beauty. Even if her beauty fades, his poem will last forever, preserving her prettiness into eternity. Nature and the subject may fade away, but man will always exist. Our current understanding of nature during our current environmental crisis proves this quite untrue. Contrastingly, female poetry places more emphasis on the nature of the environment and its elements. Bourgeois female poets tended to replace their senses of self with “seamless subjectivities”, blending  “multiple interacting voices and perspectives, human and natural” to create a complex identities integrated with community and environment (Finch 122-123).  Their poetry is accessible because it adjustable; it changes as nature and society does. Yet because of its easy access due to reliance on universal themes and emotions, the poetry of Poetesses were degraded and placed into the realm of kitsch.

The underlying similarities between women and nature in patriarchal poetry reveals the damage done to both by andro-centric systems. This is seen in Spenser’s 15th Sonnet from Amoretti, when the poet compares his lover’s body parts to natural elements such as sapphires, rubies and silver. This separation into individual, appraisable parts fragments both the woman he depicts and the earth from which the riches come.  It reduces both the woman and the earth into a series of elements the man places value in.. Poetesses questioned these patriarchal priorities, allowing men to catch a glimpse of the effect they had had on the earth by fragmenting it both physically and linguistically. Poetess poetry forced men to face reality, and see how inaccurate they had been in placing importance on themselves instead of the environment.  The damage this andro-centered system has done to the earth for centuries is reflected in the work of female poets in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. To respond, male critics attacked back by degrading poetess poetry as easy and sentimental.

            And to be fair, a lot of it is. It is easy, and because it relies on basic emotions, it is sentimental. Sentimentality, however, does not have to be read as an insult. Finch tries to reclaim this term, and the word poetess, in order to construct herself as a poet that incorporates integral environmental and experiential elements in her work. Both are words that should be reclaimed by the literary community As the poetic society continues to depart from traditional form and content, this is a perfect time to reorient our values. We need to stop looking toward to male canon for instruction, and instead reclaim the Poetess for our Post-Modern purposes. We need to use their language to express earthly ideals; we need to become sentimental about the earth again. This does not mean that the poetry of men should be pushed back into the same silence women had to suffer for centuries. Instead, equal value should be placed upon the entire body of pre-Modern poetry, not just the pieces that reflect Post-Romantic ideals.

The disjunction between nature and the way we express it to ourselves and other colors our entire perception of it. This makes us displaced from the earth and all its inhabitants, which can be seen reflected in our language and literature. However, occasionally we catch a glimpse of what a world without this disconnect might look like. And like our ties to nature, our relationship with this type of writing is riddled with contradictions and criticism. As a society, we are uncomfortable facing accurate images of the earth because it then becomes blatant how much we have broken it. But we must face this painful past if we want to start reconstructing our worldview, as well as our actual world. If we want to once again be fluent in the flower’s language, we must forget our previous self-importance and focus on the flowers instead. 





Bohm, David. "The Rheomode- an Experiment with Language and Thought." Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 27-47. Print.

Finch, Annie. "Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess." The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005. 120-13. Print.

Charlene , Spretnak. "Ecospirit: A Publication of The Institute for Ecosophical Studies." Ecospirit: A Publication of The Institute for Ecosophical Studies. 3.2 (1987): 2-8. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

"The language of flowers"

I was engaged by the image you used to 'call me into' your essay, but puzzled by the questions with which you begin, and around which you structure this piece. I didn't really understand what you meant when you asked "when, exactly, we are able to break down the barrier between natural reality, and human expression of one’s perception of this reality. How do we go about recovering the language of the flowers….?"

Isn't all access to reality mediated (via our senses, represented to us by our various sensory organs…)? So what "barrier" are you asking to break down? @ the end of the essay, you say that "The disjunction between nature and the way we express it to ourselves and other colors our entire perception of it." But the very notion of "nature" is an "expression," a "construction" through which we understand our experience. Experience is pre-mediated.

A later question, about the ability of a (certain kind of) poetry to reveal the instability of reality, made more sense to me (I actually tried my hand, once, @ something along these lines: Let Me… Revise.) But what puzzles me in your analysis is the same thing that puzzled me in hira's: your focus on content @ the expense of form. You say that the configurations of the poetesses were "much more realistic, and chaotic" --but it's their themes, rather than the structures w/in which they presented them, which highlight the instability of the natural world. Their forms--rhyme, rhythm, meter-- are as static as Shakespeare's…yes?

The perception of a "“fluid and boundaryless self," of "seamless subjectivities,”“multiple interacting voices and perspectives is not represented, in these poems, in fluid forms (no rheomodic experiments here!). Seems to me something like Gertrude Stein's Lifting Belly would come closer to illustrating these ideas?

And whether "we need to become sentimental about the earth again…."? Let's wait till we get back in the classroom, poised together over the text of Timothy Morton's Ecology Without Nature, to decide that question….

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