[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Richards discusses Poe's strategies for coping with the encroachment by women poets in the nineteenth-century poetic arena formerly reserved for men.]
... forms that no man can discover For the tears that drip all over ... Poe, "Dream-Land"
Poe's aesthetic discourse registers a crisis of masculine literary sentiment sparked by the influx of women poets to the American marketplace in the 1830s and '40s. At this time, white, middle-class women, supposed embodiments of the emotions associated with privatized domestic life, gained greater sanction not only to write, but also to publish in the most "intimate" of forms, lyric poetry. "The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward," Poe proclaims in 1846, and women poets were invited to cultivate this potentially wayward public medium with genteel literary sentiments ("Marginalia" 139). Concerned that this emerging group might be more constitutionally suited to write poetry than they, male writers sought to define a specifically masculine literary sensibility. Stabilizing the shifting ground of aesthetic authority required delicacy, however, in order not to alienate female readers; for just as women entered the market in unprecedented numbers as producers of literature, they were also gaining influence as a powerful class of literary consumers.1
Poe's solution to the dilemma of women's encroachment in the literary domain did not lie in a simple dismissal of female achievement, because women's attention, both personal and literary, was extremely important to his poetic practices. Instead, he imagined women poets in ways that seek to reconcile their multiple roles: muse, literary competitor, and audience for his own poetry. While designating women as the "natural" site of poetic utterance, Poe also argues that poetic "truth" lies in a theatrical performance of the feminine.2 Identifying women poets with his poetic images of women, Poe enacts a drama of evacuation within his poems in which he drains women of their poetic potency while claiming that the transfer of powers is in the spirit of feminine mimicry. For an audience of women poets, Poe himself performs a "feminine" poetry which simultaneously mirrors and upstages their own practices. He extends and consolidates these aesthetic claims in his criticism, an almost exclusively male genre in the 1840s. Reappraising the impact of these forgotten women poets upon a canonical figure presents new ways to understand the work of canonical writers, the canonization process, and the structure and habits of American literary criticism.3
Imagining women as the power generators of poetic discourse, Poe's critical interest in their work is extensive and sustained. Although his reviews of women poets outnumber those of male poets in his later criticism, they are rarely treated in studies of his poetics.4 When not ignored altogether, these frequently positive reviews are usually dismissed as either a display of vapid gallantry or an aberration in taste bearing little relation to his more serious considerations of male peers such as Hawthorne and Longfellow. In his own time, however, Poe was considered a leading--and by far the most...