60. “Conflict,” by Caroline Clive

As one whose country is distraught with war,

Where each must guard his own with watchful hand,

Roams at the evening hour along the shore

And fain would seek beyond a calmer land;

So I, perplex’d on life’s tumultuous way,

Where evil pow’rs too oft my soul enslave,

Along thy ocean, Death, all pensive stray,

And think of shores thy pensive billows lave.

And glad I were to hear the boatman’s cry,

Which to his shadowy bark my steps should call,

To woe and weakness heave my latest sigh,

And cease to combat where so oft I fall:

Or, happier, where some victory cheer’d my breast,

That hour to quit the anxious field would choose,

And seek th’ eternal seal on virtue’s rest,

Oft won, oft lost, and O! too dear to lose!

Caroline Clive (1803-1873) is the first women writer to appear in the OBVV; this is the only poem that runs under her name. And, as the Wiki-stub I’ve linked to above suggests, we may finally have a winner in terms of poets who are actually obscure (as opposed to just obscure to *me* but simultaneously enjoying posthumous internet or anthologized fame). She’s not in either of the 20th century anthologies I have at home (Virginia Blain’s annotated Victorian Woman Writers and the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse), nor is she mentioned in the index of Isobel Armstrong’s book. I’ll have to check at some point whether she’s in the giant Victorian women poets anthology that, for reasons unrelated to this project, I have hanging out on a shelf in the part-time faculty resource room where I teach. Google Books yields little other than e-texts of the sensation novels mentioned in the Wikipedia article. (Which is not, of course, to say that one should turn up one’s nose at the chance to read a book called Why Paul Ferrol Killed His Wife.) Many of her works are at the Victorian Woman Writers Project site. The titles of some of the poems suggest, like this one, a text that longs for death in one way or another.

But is it just me, or is this an intensely weird poem. I wasn’t able to figure out when it was published, but it strikes me as a kind of strange bricolage of some of the most famous poetic images of the nineteenth century. The image of the opening stanza seems a faint echo of Coleridge’s “Fears In Solitude” (1798)–written during an actual time of war–while the ocean itself in the second stanza puts me in mind of Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith” in “Dover Beach” (1852, published 1867). (I link to this latter poem somewhat reluctantly, as this is one y’all should know.) Granted, the ocean of Death is in many ways the opposite of the sea of Faith–the former is not in danger of ebbing anytime soon–yet there’s something about the threshold mood that seems to be common in both poems. And, stanza three, as some of you have no doubt guessed, with its images of the bark and the boatman’s cry, has me thinking of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” (1889).

Obviously, this last one really can’t be an inspiration here, and the others are up for debate, too. I won’t say I don’t feel like I’m overreading a bit, reaching for familiar (male) poets and not totally dealing with this particular (female) poet on her own terms. I don’t have a good answer for that right now (though this has  much to do with my declining ability to concentrate on this blog post as my upstairs neighbors suit up for their Evening Dance Party). My initial impulse was to use these more familiar reference points to somehow comment on their conjunction in this particular poem, which seems to me to be exemplarily “Victorian” in its sheer aggregation (in a relatively short space) of these kinds of images. And, while it seems too easy, I do find it striking and intriguing to see a female poet expressing a life-struggle in militaristic imagery–and not just that, but a very specific kind of militaristic imagery that makes it intensely personal yet at the same time very displaced, almost distant.

And there’s a bit of rawness, too, in conceptualizing personal weakness in this way. You know, for all of our efforts to avoid straight-up biographical criticism, we are mostly able to make that disavowal from a place where we have some biographical knowledge to disavow. It’s a bit strange not to be able to reach for that here.


Bonus riddle, suggested by unrelated readings in backissues of Victorian Literature and Culture on Sunday: what’s the difference between historicizing and periodizing? Discuss.