'Miss Alfred Tennyson': Rachel Mann on the gender transgressions of the Victorian poets
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
If the greatest poet of the mid-century, Lord Tennyson, might be called ‘Miss Alfred’, curious things were afoot for women who wished to be poets rather than poetesses.
Today, I feel a bit of a fraud. As a trans woman and poet, I was asked by Dead [Women] Poets Society to write about a trans/non-binary poet from history. However, I’m not going to attempt that. That’s why I feel a fraud. The archaeology of trans lives, and our archives, is not my area of expertise. Nor do I want to be accused of appropriating poets as trans when that, at best, might be moot.
So, I want to try something else. I want to look at some queer pressure-points in nineteenth- century English poetry. Its trans(-gressive)-ness, if you will. I want to draw attention to one moment in that Long Century’s strange obsessions with gender: its willingness, certainly as late as mid-nineteenth century, to code women poets as ‘poetesses’ and men as ‘poets’. I want to go a little further too: I want to ask what was going in poetry in that era that led some critics to increasingly code that traditionally most ‘masculine’ practice – poetry – as ‘feminine’.
Here’s the rub, mid-nineteenth century: in a world where the Novel was finding its pomp, the poet, who was expected to speak into the great themes of Nation, Life and World, had become problematised. Indeed, in a world of rigid middle-class ideas of gender, the great (male) poet was in danger of being further downgraded as little ‘better’ than an over- emotional, domesticated ‘poetess’.
There was a repeated call in the Victorian period for a revitalised national poetry capable of masculine Epic rather than Lyric poetry.  In some respects the great poetic hope of Epic, was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Valentine Cunningham claims that, ‘from early on Tennyson showed himself as a huge donner of classical masks, the keen ventriloquizer of classical voices, casting and re-casting himself in classical mirrors.’  Yet, Tennyson’s gift for Lyric poetry gave rise to charges of effeminacy. Indeed, as his biographer Leonée Ormond reminds us, Tennyson’s lyric skills were attributed to ‘Miss Alfred Tennyson’ 3 and Rosie Miles goes so far as to claim that Idylls of the King (1859-85) ‘charts the collapse of male structural rule, as the Arthurian Round Table disintegrates.’ 
If the greatest poet of the mid-century, Lord Tennyson, might be called ‘Miss Alfred’, curious things were afoot for women who wished to be poets rather than poetesses. I know many people now struggle to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh, but it is an extraordinary piece of work. Its titular heroine sets out to avoid the ordinary fate of a mid-century, middle-class woman: the role of wife and mother. She is determined to be a great poet. However, her cousin (and ultimately – spoiler alert! – future husband) Romney Leigh takes the mickey out of what she as woman writer can achieve:
Women as you are, Mere women, personal and passionate, You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives. Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints! We get no Christ from you, – and verily We shall not get a poet, in my mind. (Bk II, ll. 220-25)
Aurora does not listen. She makes her way in the world and becomes a poet (even if, as noted, many critics find her final marriage to a blind Romney a profound disappointment). Whatever else Aurora Leigh may be, it is a watershed moment in Epic ambition. It is a moment when a woman queers the pitch and shows she can transgress gender boundaries. Barrett Browning – who at one point was in the running to be Poet Laureate – demonstrates via Aurora Leigh that she is a poet not a poetess.
The ‘tradition’ of ‘poetess’ had been bounded by ideas of Lyric simplicity and emotion, represented by Madame de Staël’s Corinne. Corinne is the doomed, instinctively prodigious lyric poetess who improvises brilliantly, but is ‘trapped’ by emotion. In the scene in Aurora Leigh where Romney mocks her, the youthful Aurora has just crowned herself with a laurel wreath. It is an echo of Corinne’s own crowning (itself linking back to the Lyric gifts of the ‘first’ female poet, Sappho). Aurora’s self-crowning is a cause for mockery from Romney. BY deploying blank verse rather than lyric, Aurora Leigh claims masculine space for women and queers that space. It is a novel in nine books, which is also poetry. It is a moment – arguably failed, misguided, and a little mad – which says, ‘You think poetry is in decay? That this is the time of the Novel? Well, let me show you what a novel in poetry looks like.’ Dorothy Mermin goes so far as to suggest that Aurora Leigh's argument is that ‘writing a poem’ is an ‘epic action’ which may lead to the creation of a new social order. 
I hope, then, you appreciate the transgressions and queerness found in Victorian poetry, and want to take a closer look. As a trans woman I’ve never been much motivated by a desire to ‘queer the pitch’; I’ve just wanted to get on with my life. However, I acknowledge that the sheer fact and visibility of trans people is disruptive and transgressive. Categories are interrogated and challenged. It is a work of poetry as much as of bodies. It is a work I find active in the poetries of the nineteenth century, and I am glad. I think those poetries – often presented as binaried, yet in fact excitingly unstable and queer – have much to reveal on this International Day of Trans Visibility.
Rachel Mann is a priest, poet and broadcaster. Her debut poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, was published by Carcanet in 2019, and she holds a PhD on nineteenth-century women’s poetry and the Bible. Her memoir of growing up trans, Dazzling Darkness, was a bestseller and she is Visiting Fellow at the Manchester Writing School. www.rachelmann.co.uk
Illustration by Lily Arnold.
1 For more, see Rosie Miles, Victorian Poetry in Context (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) p. 10. 2 Valentine Cunningham, Victorian Poetry Now (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 455.
3 Leonée Ormond, Alfred Tennyson: A Literary Life (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), p. 99.
4 Miles, p. 10.
5 See Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 185.