The poems of Elizabeth Siddal in context

Author: Anne Woolley

The book considers all of Elizabeth Siddal’s poems in the contemporary critical context of the ongoing retrieval and re-evaluation of nineteenth-century women’s poetry. More significantly, it close reads the texts alongside those of five male authors, Dante Rossetti, Swinburne, Tennyson, Ruskin and Keats, who were either personally known to her or were a source of influence or inspiration. Modern scholarship has tended to include female voices in single-sex anthologies which stress their unique collective contribution but shield them from comparison with the much larger male canon, which denies lesser-known poets like Siddal an augmented critical reception. Association with these ‘greats’ of Victorian and Romantic literature enhances and consolidates her reputation and encourages alternative readings of poems that at first glance can appear slight, self-indulgent and derivative. The work of contemporary female poets, notably Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is used to evaluate the distinctive and meritorious nature of Siddal’s oeuvre and all the poems are read with reference to the prevailing social, religious and political contexts that had a bearing on their construction and reception. As Siddal’s poems are very short and ambiguous their initial impression is visual, making the inclusion of certain of her artwork an informative entrée to chapters that consider her poetic dialogue with the interplay of erotic and spiritual love, the ballad tradition, the Romantic conception of the physical and spectral body, and the nineteenth-century ‘woman question’ while reflecting upon the paradoxes and dualisms that pervade her work.

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