Betsy Erkkila: On "Sisters"

The difficulty and complexity of sisterhood as an affirming model of women's literary history is suggested by Amy Lowell's "The Sisters." Against the emphatically masculine genealogies of male modernist poets, "The Sisters" is a revisionary attempt to establish a distinctively female literary genealogy that runs from Sappho, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to Amy Lowell herself. Representing women poets as an exclusive, rare, and even "queer" group, the poet begins with an act of historical (mis)interpretation that immediately consigns to invisibility the large numbers of women poets who had been writing since at least the end of the eighteenth century, and who were particularly visible in the literary landscape of 1922, the year the poem was published:


Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot

We women who write poetry. And when you think

How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

I wonder what it is that makes us do it,

Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,

The fragments of ourselves. Why are we

Already mother-creatures, double-bearing,

With matrices in body and in brain?


The category woman poet and the possibility of literary sisterhood are, from the outset, uncertain and fraught with contradiction. Are women poets "man-wise," and thus like men? Or are they different, with a "double-bearing" power as "already mother-creatures" to produce both poems and children? Or do they represent some other possibility, neither "man-wise" nor "mother-creature," but lesbian, for example? What is at stake in the poem is not only the category "woman poet" as a potential contradiction but the definition of womanhood itself--who does, and who does not, belong. Split between Victorian and modern discourse about the nature of woman, the poem locates itself within early twentieth-century debates about modernity, women's sexuality, the New Woman, and the mannish lesbians

Given the anti-Victorian thematics of the poem, Sappho is--or at least should be--its heroine:


There's Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.

I know a single slender thing about her:

That, loving, she was like a burning birch-tree

All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote

Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,

A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.


Sappho is at the origins of a specifically female lyric tradition and a female desire uninhibited by the traditions of the Church Fathers and the prohibitions of Queen Victoria. Even more importantly, though more covertly in the poem, Sappho represents the beginnings of a tradition of women writing love poems for and about each other; thus she validates Amy Lowell's own lifelong love relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell as subject, audience, and context of many of her poems. The poet's fantasy encounter with Sappho is erotically charged, as the speaker appropriates the traditionally masculine position, and gazes lovingly at her:


                                just to watch

The crisp sea sunshine playing on her hair,

And listen, thinking all the while 'twas she

Who spoke and that we two were sisters

Of a strange, isolated little family.

And she is Sapho--Sapho--not Miss or Mrs.,

A leaping fire we call so for convenience.


Lowell's sexually nuanced bond with Sappho represents a different kind of sisterhood from the more general sisterhood of women poets with which the poem began. As a "strange, isolated little family" of self-identified and woman-loving lesbian poets, this sisterhood underwrites the poet's sense of identity and legitimacy as a lesbian poet even as it becomes the grounds for the exclusion of other women.

This process of exclusion is enacted in the poet's evocation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which begins by drawing "the perfect line" between Sappho and Mrs. Browning, "between sea-cliffs / And a close-shuttered room in Wimpole Street":


Sapho could fly her impulses like bright

Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air

And write about it. Mrs. Browning's heart

Was squeezed in stiff conventions. So she lay

Stretched out upon a sofa, reading Greek

And speculating, as I must suppose,

In just this way on Sapho . . .


In this formulation, Sappho represents the freedom, mobility, and sexual desire associated with the New Woman in early twentieth-century discourse; Browning represents the entrapment, stasis, and bodily repression of the Victorian era. As "an older sister / And not herself so curious a technician / As to admit newfangled modes of writing--," Browning is represented as the very figure of the quaint, old-fashioned, and tradition-bound Victorian poetess from whom Lowell seeks to escape and against whom she seeks to authorize and validate her own identity as an adventurous, experimental, modern woman poet.

Compared with Lowell's loving evocation of Sappho, her representation of Mrs. Browning seems rivalrous, hostile, and at odds with the sisterly context of the poem. This may be because Lowell, as the daughter of a prominent and genteel Boston family, also suffered bouts of nervous prostration and thus knew firsthand the repressiveness of Victorian convention:


For we are such a little family

Of singing sisters, and as if I didn't know

What those years felt like tied down to the sofa.

Confounded Victoria, and the slimy inhibitions

She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures!


But something more than common oppression is at stake in Lowell's apparent hostility to Browning, for why blame the victim? Or even Victoria for that matter? Browning, in fact, had something that Lowell did not. She is the very model of that "double-bearing" creature--a mother and a poet--that Lowell cannot finally be:


It seems miraculous, but she escaped

To freedom and another motherhood

Than that of poems. She was a very woman

And needed both.


For all Lowell's attempt to escape the inscriptions of Victorian womanhood, the poem still seems embedded in a Victorian sexual ideology that locates womanhood--and indeed woman's sexuality--in reproduction and maternity. If Browning's other "motherhood / Than that of poems" makes her "a very woman"--a phrase Lowell repeats twice in the poem--then by implication Lowell may not be a "woman"; she may indeed be the very image of the sterile, brainy, unwomanly poet--the mannish lesbian--who haunts the subtext of the poem.

In her attempt to find a positive lesbian identification as a poet, Lowell seems particularly hostile to Browning's heterosexuality. "I do not like the turn this dream is taking," Lowell quips, when "Robert" intrudes upon the "doubtful" scene of her encounter with Browning. Moreover, Lowell suggests that Browning's heterosexual love poems to Robert have been "fertilized" and legitimized in ways that, again by implication, her own love poems to Ada are not:


Suppose there hadn't been a Robert Browning,

No "Sonnets from the Portuguese" would have been written.

They are the first of all her poems to be,

One might say, fertilized. For, after all,

A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain

And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,

Was very, very woman. Well, there are two

Of us, and vastly unlike that's for certain.


The speaker not only asserts her difference. She also suggests that even for Mrs. Browning the lesbian position would have been the most effective means of reconciling the potential contradiction of being woman and poet:


                            But Sapho was dead

And I, and others, not yet peeped above

The edge of possibility. So that's an end

To speculating over tea-time talks

Beyond the movement of pentameters

With Mrs. Browning.


But while Lowell seeks to legitimize a line of lesbian poetry that runs from Sappho to herself, she, too, resists giving up being "very woman," a concept which, in the context of the poem at least, cannot finally be loosened from its Victorian inscription as reproduction and maternity.

And thus the poem comes to turn on problems of sterility, unwomanliness, and doubt that cloud even Sappho's radiant image. Although Sappho is associated with the "glittering fire" of passion, it is a "frozen blaze" that "broke and fell"--lines that suggest a sterile passion that expends itself upon itself. More to the point, the lines suggest the legend, first articulated by Ovid, that Sappho abandoned women and writing for the love of Phaon--a love that ended tragically when he rejected her, and she leaped in despair from the Leucadian cliffs. Whatever its precise reference, this "frozen" image appears to make any fully empowering bond with Sappho impossible.

Lowell's imaginary encounter with Emily Dickinson is similarly troubled by images of sterility and unwomanliness. Their meeting seems at first promising--in fact "even better than Sapho"--as the poet encounters Dickinson in the garden "Engrossed in the doing of a humming-bird / Among nasturtiums." Lowell appears to admire Dickinson's intellectual difficulty and her hide-and-seek gaminess:


Sapho would speak, I think, quite openly,

And Mrs. Browning guard a careful silence,

But Emily would set doors ajar and slam them

And love you for your speed of observation.


But as a model of how to resolve the apparent split between woman and poet, Dickinson, too, proves inadequate. If Sappho erred in the direction of too much body and too much passion, and Browning in the direction of heterosexual love, marriage, maternity, and "very" womanhood, Dickinson erred in the direction of too much brain. Having begun in the sentimental mode of nineteenth-century romantic friendship among women, Lowell's evocation ends in the gothic mode, with Dickinson figured as a sterile and fragile Victorian anorexic who gave up "womanhood" for poetry and metaphysics:


But Emily hoarded--hoarded--only giving

Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,

She cheated her despair with games of patience

And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,

The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,

She hung her womanhood upon a bough

And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--

The garment of herself hung on a tree

Until at last she lost even the desire

To take it down.


As a New England sister, Dickinson is in some sense meant to figure a fate that Lowell herself all too narrowly escaped. But for all Lowell's desire to present herself as a "modern" sister in relation to her Victorian predecessors, Lowell's representation of Dickinson is once again embedded in a nineteenth-century sexual discourse that emphasized the natural balance of an essentially maternal female body against the neurasthenia, hysteria, and even insanity caused by overuse of the brain. And within this discourse, Lowell's own "womanhood" is also in question.

Although Lowell continues to insist on the metaphor of sisterhood, by the end of the poem what is most striking is the problem of difference:


Strange trio of my sisters, most diverse,

And how extraordinarily unlike

Each is to me, and which way shall I go?


As it turns out, none of the poet's literary sisters provides an adequate model or direction:


Good-bye, my sisters, all of you are great,

And all of you are marvellously strange,

And none of you has any word for me.

I cannot write like you.


Still preoccupied by the problems of womanliness, maternity, and reproduction, the poet dreams hopefully forward, imagining herself as the progenitor if not of children then of some writing woman who will look back on her as she has looked back on her own literary precursors:


I only hope that possibly some day

Some other woman with an itch for writing

May turn to me as I have turned to you

And chat with me a brief few minutes.


But given Lowell's contradictory and troubled impulses toward her own literary ancestors, even this dream of literary progeny seems inadequate to lift the pall of sadness, fear, and self-doubt that hangs over the final passages of the poem.

Rather than empowering Lowell, her literary sisters leave her feeling "Sad and self-distrustful / For older sisters are very sobering things." For all their seeming strangeness, they are also paradoxically "near / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying" (461). The poet's initial desire to retrieve a distinctively female literary genealogy ends as a drive to exorcise her sisters as a frightening and terrifying presence. And thus what begins as an affirmation of literary sisterhood ends as a cautionary tale about sisterhood as an impossible and ultimately terrifying relation. What the poem suggests finally is that women poets and the concept "woman" itself are so written over and overwritten by the misogynist inscriptions of classical authorities, a "long line of Church Fathers," and the sexual ideologies of the Victorian and early modern periods in England and the United States, that any complete sisterly identification is impossible and, indeed, "rather terrifying."

"Lesbians are not women," Monique Wittig famously and provocatively wrote in her article "The Straight Mind." Her words mark the distance and difference between the Sapphic communities of the early modern period and the theory and politics of lesbianism in the eighties and nineties in the United States, Britain, and France. Whereas in the later period several lesbian theorists would seek to escape the category "woman" and to use their position "outside" as a lever to criticize the heterosexual binary man/woman as a social construct rather than as an ontological given, Amy Lowell appears to have been struggling to stay in the category "woman" at a time when early modern discourse on the mannish lesbian was telling her that lesbians were indeed "not women." She appears to have been looking for a way to be woman, man-wise, mother-creature, sexual, lesbian, and poet at a time when the only choices available to her were man, woman, or pervert.


Title Betsy Erkkila: On "Sisters" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Betsy Erkkila Criticism Target Amy Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord
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