Faulty Sibyl

Marion Shaw finds Germaine Greer's condemnation of women poets `seriously flawed' in argument and detail; Slip-shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet by Germaine Greer Viking, pounds 20
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Part of the title of this book is taken from Alexander Pope's lines on the muse who inspired Colley Cibber, the King of the Dunces in The Dunciad. This slip-shod creature, down-at-heel and sluttish, "led his steps along,/ In lofty madness meditating song,/ Her tresses staring from poetic dreams". The choice of such a title is, Greer's Prologue tells us, "provocative and deliberately so"; women poets before 1900 were, for the most part, slip-shod. There were reasons for this, about which Greer will enlighten us, but to pretend otherwise is "to continue the system of false accounting that produced the double standard" which bore so heavily against women in the world of poetry, as in the world at large.

This is fair enough. But there is something slip-shod in the choice which does not portend well for the 500-odd pages that follow. Undoubted misogynist though he was, Pope was actually at this point describing a muse and not a woman poet. For the sake of a catchy title and a swipe at Women's Studies courses which insist on "equal representation" of woman poets, Greer tolerates the slippage. It is a small point, but symptomatic of a book which is seriously flawed, both conceptually and in its details.

The gist of Greer's book is that women poets have always been seen, and, more damagingly, have seen themselves, in a sexual light. They have been variously modest or immodest, faithful or promiscuous, seducers or seduced, virgin or whore, but always, or almost always, in relation to male desire and propriety. This sexualising is imposed on women in general, of course, but for women poets it is specifically injurious in that it makes them into poetesses: heart-broken, wild, simpering, timid, depressive, and sometimes suicidal. And always the life outweighs the work. Greer makes a great sweep from Sappho to Plath to demonstrate this. Only fragments of the poems of Sappho remain, and little is known of her life, but myth has transformed her into the figure of the betrayed lover who leapt to her death, a suicide her poet daughters have not been slow to follow, whether actually, as did Plath, or as poets in "the rhetoric of petulance [which] locks women into their victim status". Between Sappho and Plath, Greer takes in Gaspara Stampa, Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Wharton, the Countess of Winchilsea, L.E.L., Christina Rossetti, and, in an Epilogue, a clutch of 20th-century poets who killed themselves: Amy Levy, Charlotte Mew, Ingrid Jonker, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anne Sexton, as well as Sylvia Plath. This suicides' Olympus is presaged in the longest chapter, that on L.E.L., who possibly poisoned herself, and who epitomises for Greer the factors that create and then destroy the "poetess".

Leaving aside earlier ages, one could name a number of very good poets from the 20th century who have been cheerful (Marianne Moore), reticent (Elizabeth Bishop), politically stoical (Akhmatova), and who have managed not to kill themselves, but by this point Greer's argument has become hijacked by the suicide theme and by the need to harangue the poetry-reading public on its taste for an egocentric "versifying of agony and rage" which results in women who write sensible, witty poetry being categorised as minor. This doesn't make sense, or at least it makes the kind of provocative and coat-trailing sense that a television interview or a smart piece of journalism makes, but which sits ill at the conclusion of a book which is so huge and so stuffed with information that it purports to be scholarly and authoritative.

This, along with much else throughout, raises questions: where has this book come from, and, more important, whom is it for? In the Prologue, we are told that the "canon" is "the corpus of poets studied by undergraduates" but the reader who needs to be told this is, within a short time, expected to take on board untranslated bits of Greek and engage with the complexities of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. The narrative is also disparate; sometimes it goes deep into textual variants, sometimes it is detective work on the lives of poets, sometimes it is received biography, sometimes it is just long quotations from all sorts of people. It is rarely - and this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect - criticism of the poems. Why is Mrs Oliphant's "On the edge of the world, I lie, I lie,/ Happy and dying and dazed and poor" only "garbled flutterings" compared with John Donne's "Batter my heart"? (The male canon fares quite well in Greer's book.) Why is Christina Rossetti's poetry pathologised and not evaluated? Greer's thesis is premised on quality; let us see, then, why Rossetti is not a good poet, if that's what Greer means by including her in the slip-shod sisterhood.

Slip-shod is, however, a term that must be applied to Greer's scholarship. A ramshackle set of notes at the end, difficult to follow, sometimes inaccurate, seem for the most part to have been compiled around 1965 in their omission of recent writing on women poets. For instance, for the 19th century, books of the last ten years by Isobel Armstrong, Lynne Pearce, Elsie Michie and Dolores Rosenbloom are ignored, and especially Angela Leighton's Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (1992) whose chapter on L.E.L. reaches conclusions similar to Greer's and which Greer should either have been aware of or have acknowledged. Slip-shod Sibyls proclaims a newness which is not justified and arrives triumphant at the end of a race others have already run.

A sibyl is a prophetess, an oracular woman who imparts wisdom and foresight to those who heed her. Greer is such a one to our generation, but this time the sibyl, though loquacious, is unreliable. There are good things here - interesting anecdotes and recondite information - but there are bees in bonnets too, and a slipperiness of argument and presentation which does a disservice to the book's subject.

Marion Shaw is Professor of English at Loughborough University.