Prac Crit

La Poetessa

by Vahni Capildeo


by Sandeep Parmar

At once I loathe and feel for this woman, the Oxbridge poetess in the garden. What she is saying is of little interest to me. But who is listening (and who is not permitted to enter, who cannot listen), this concerns me deeply.

When Virginia Woolf dreamed up her imaginary hybrid of Newnham and Girton Colleges (Fernham) in A Room of One’s Own she romanticized its gardens, their waywardness, as if the wild ‘carelessly flung’ daffodils and bluebells were themselves the college’s cast off middle-class daughters damned to the spinsterish company of women. Woolf’s homely Victorian red brick walls emit phantoms, and who should race across the lawn of her imagination, famously, but ‘a bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress’, the (then recently deceased) Newnham classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, ‘J— H— herself?’ Woolf calls these visions a ‘terrible reality’ leaping from the heart of spring – the fecundity of seasonal death Harrison herself puzzled over: the spirit of the year, the eniautos daimon of the classical world. Woolf’s ghost-watching is an anxiety rooted in the college’s unnatural garden and its sexless women. The dead intellectual mothers fortify this space with the meanness of their dress and poor posture and they are an indictment of the lives of all women. Harrison wrote obliquely about own childlessness and her preference for an all-female community: ‘The unmarried and childless cut themselves loose from racial immortality, and are dedicated to individual life – a side track, a blind alley, yet surely a supreme end in itself.’ In her memoir, she described her partner Hope Mirrlees (thirty years her junior) as a ‘ghostly daughter, dearer than any child after the flesh’. Anyone who has read Harrison’s work knows that there’s a distrustful sneer in her use of the word ‘individual’. And yet Harrison fought to be permitted an individual life, even if her theories on Greek religion point towards an idealized pre-heroic origin of collective hope and anguish. Woolf addresses a female community in her two lectures (later published as ‘A Room…’) by reminding the assembled students how little she herself belongs there. And yet! What sort of mother turns her own real or imagined children out of the garden – and what sort of mother keeps them forever inside it? I am reminded of Anne Sexton’s poem about her mother’s death from cancer and her own diagnosis: ‘I nod, thinking that woman’s dying / mu st come in seasons’ (‘The Operation’). Connected in life and death –Woolf and her mentor of sorts Harrison co-exist in the liminal space of the college garden. Capildeo’s poem, as if derived from language’s eternal sources of being, reaches towards its hideous object: this woman who is so familiar, whom the poet feels she understands so intimately, the deathly eroticism of this woman who is inscrutably English. What dangles irreparably from her voice, the dying strain of her ancestral line, we never hear, though we eavesdrop and tunnel (like a bookworm) into the inner landscape of her brain. The poem’s last word, ‘derived’ is like ‘ewig’ – no doubt a reference to Goethe’s eternal feminine who promises both damnation and salvation. Here in this garden the poetess breeds only words and is historically ignored, her pedigree finds its origin in a tradition that excludes her: ‘Liberal the college. Fair the lawn’.

Years ago I went digging through the Newnham College register in search of the names of girls who attended the Higher Lectures for Women. In fact I went looking for one name in particular: Toru Dutt, the nineteenth-century Bengali poet and translator from French and Sanskrit who lived in Cambridge, just off Parker’s Piece, with her parents and sister in the early 1870s. According to Dutt’s biographer, Toru and her sister Aru attended the Lectures between 1871 and 1873, before teaching was led from Newnham as it that exists today. Unsurprisingly, the college register has no record of her or her sister – though she may well be the first Indian woman to study (however informally) at Cambridge. This may have been her own choice, or her father’s wish to protect his daughters from public scrutiny. But Capildeo’s poem immediately sent me back to Dutt’s letters, written largely after she returned to Calcutta in 1873 and until her early death from tuberculosis in 1877 at the age of twenty-one. Her letters are painful to read – her devotion to her family (quickly dying around her) and to her adopted religion (Christianity) runs throughout them. She writes to her English friend Mary Martin about learning Sanskrit and the English and French novels she is reading, but it is Dutt’s sense of being an outsider in Bengal that is most fascinating. She romanticises England, especially Cambridge, and loathes the Calcutta society from which she feels excluded (by religious difference and class status). In one letter, it appears that Martin has told Dutt off for referring to her fellow Indians as ‘natives’. Dutt apologises to her English friend for her own snobbery but carries on rapturously with her fantasy of what Cambridge must be like from season to season. Perhaps this is Dutt playing to what she believes her friend wants to hear. But there are several letters that could have been written by an Anglo-Indian woman, some recounting the visit of the Prince of Wales to India in nauseating detail… In any case, Capildeo’s poetess is ‘forever Europe’ and her assumption of Western cultural superiority sends me back immediately, instinctively, to Toru Dutt’s estrangement from any fixed cultural identity. Dutt’s early work, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields, is more imitative of European Romanticism than her later ‘translations’ of Indian myth in the posthumously published Ancient Ballads and Legends (introduced by Edmund Gosse, no less). This impressionable, intellectually hard and brilliant young woman wanted the freedom to walk with her sister down Trumpington street, to attend public lectures, even if only in the rarefied environment of Cambridge. But one has only to read her letters and early poems to see how these divisions worked themselves into her hybrid sense of herself as a writer. I would like to believe that women poets – and women poets outside the walls of Cambridge’s college lawns and women poets who are not English – can amuse themselves with Capildeo’s outdated ghost of the poetess pontificating by the fountain. I would also like to believe that this poetess is no longer real and that the bookworms have finally severed all her synaptic connections and eaten all that is left of her inflated and outmoded brain.

La Poetessa

by Vahni Capildeo

Liberal the college. Fair the lawn. Pontificating by the fountain in the middle of the quad: La Poetessa. Who wishes to hear? She cares not. Slight breezes blow in circles, catching on her words. Waxwings. English her name, English her language, English her absobloomsburylutely witty garments. Yet in her arcane brainpan shudder puddles that are forever Europe. Ewig. Earwig. The book-worm tunnels erotically, spiralling through the silver marshes rife with synaptic missed connexions. Severed segments call out to one another, mateless, growing (with resignation) a head at either end. Don’t think she can’t take a joke… The crane perches on one leg. Hunch. Balance. Symbol. Derived.


From Utter (Peepal Tree Press, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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