Discuss the importance of historical context for the study of poetry.
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In this essay I will be looking into the importance of historical context in two literary texts, My Last Duchess by Robert Browning and In an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rosetti and how historical context plays a vital part of poetry and literature.
Literature is consistently used and consumed in everyday lives and is a key aspect in different cultures, which enables individuals to absorb and enrich their knowledge and emotions to have a full understanding of the text. Many literary works can be used to entertain, to be meaningful or to portray a tragic story.
Furthermore, historical context can be argued to be important within literature, without understanding the history of a text we may not receive a full understanding of what the literary text is telling the reader and can possibly create some confusion thus, acknowledging the historical context allows the reader to appreciate the text created. As a result of this, critics debate the importance of the author’s auto-biography and why it is vital to understand the author which then enables the reader to comprehend the style of writing and the reasons why the text was written.
Victorian writer, Robert Browning was well known for mastering his dramatic monologues and was known for his specific themes of historical setting, social commentaries, dark humour and irony. My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue in which the Duke is narrating to one of his men, who’s daughter would be married off very soon, as he is walking with the nobleman, the Duke stops before a canvas of the late Duchess, and he begins to reminisce, however, his tone changes when talking about the Duchess and portrays her in a negative light.
From a feminist perspective, it can be argued with how many flaws the dramatic monologue has. For instance, in the beginning of the monologue, the Duke begins with saying “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall” the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ and ‘that’s implies that the Duke only viewed the Duchess as an object and was only known for the labels the Duke had given her, as a result of their relationship.
During Queen Elizabeth’s time is was understood that women’s place was in the home where she looked after the home and family as men took on the more active roles (voting and owning property) this is supported by this statement; “The law (and opinion) was driven by the fact that in the Victorian era men and women were categorised into different roles or spheres. As they possessed the capability for reason, action, aggression, independence and self-interest, men believed they should operate in the public sphere.
Women, on the other hand, were restricted to a private sphere where their feminine qualities such as emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness were more suited.” This could also be supported by the idea that women had limited means and was even visible during the Middle Ages, as poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote the prologue and monologue of the Wife of Bath.
The Wife of Bath can be seen as a feminist piece of text in a complex form. Typically, feminism argues that men and women have equal rights. However, The Wife of Bath seems to deconstruct the typical feminist. Primarily, women of the Middle Ages were not taught proper literature and speech, yet The Wife of Bath’s prologue is rather lengthy creating her to be the centre attention allowing her to speak with confidence and poise.
During the thirteen hundred period, women were only known for their labels as a wife, widower, a maid as notions of equality had not been raised at the time, women were home makers and were not taught education to understand their role as a woman. Furthermore, the use of dramatic monologues enabled Browning to explore the male role in the family and the psychology from domestic violence from within. His use of writing could be a possible way of creating awareness of how women were treated or the way they are treated in the house. To support this, in My Last Duchess, the use of the curtain can be seen as controlling the Duchess, “since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I”.
The use of the curtain implies that the Duke can close it whenever he likes as he does not want men to be looking at the Duchess as he is the only one closing the curtain unlike everyone else, furthermore, the Duke implies that she was rather promiscuous and liked attention. To support this, Lois Tyson argues that “patriarchal ideology suggests that there are only two identities a woman can have. If she accepts her traditional gender roles and obeys the patriarchal rules, she’s a “good girl”; if she doesn’t, she’s a “bad girl”.
These two roles – also referred to as “madonna” and “whore or “angel”’ thus, the suggestion of the Duchess being promiscuous tends to affect the way people perceive you in society. If being a woman and making your own choices, you are instantly judged for being too comfortable with your sexuality and classed as immoral. Moreover, Australian Physiatrist Alfred Adler created the term ‘Masculine Protest’ to define a woman’s behaviour who refuses to conform to the traditional femininity.
Those who imitate and choose to behave with more masculinity was used in order as a protest, to gain supremacy, acknowledgement and advance dominance in any circumstance. Therefore, the use of historical context is important in poetry as poetry is a source of raising awareness of how women were treated through the Middle Ages, Victorian Era through to the twenty-first century, as women are still fighting for equality in different aspects in life.
Christina Rosetti’s In an Artist’s Studio is a sonnet about male artist who’s objectifies the female model for his paintings and the way he depicts women. Again, during the Victorian era men merely viewed women as two things: being pure, innocent and a virgin or being labelled as a whore for being promiscuous. Furthermore, in the sonnet, the female model is made to dress as different types of women “a saint” “an angel”.
From this, it can be suggested that as well as the female model, women are created to be passive objects for men and men can dress women, control them whoever they like as a way of forecasting their dreams and fantasies – this is also supported by the last verse of the sonnet in where Rosetti says “she fills his dreams” – which implies the female is giving into the stereotypical woman who takes orders from a man. Another example of how a man’s desire of being possessive of women is the idea that the male artist is “feeding” onto her, consuming her whole so that she doesn’t escape, moreover, use of “night” has connotations of being demonic or the unknown, which could portray the idea that men will always have power over women.
Furthermore, Tyson would argue that “Patriarchy is thus, by definition, sexist, which means it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men. This belief in the inborn inferiority of women is a form of what is called biological essentialism because it is biological differences between the sexes.” Which means women were already set up to be inferior to men, this again links made to the ideology of how women were treated during the middle ages.
Moreover, in this article of abuse of unreported abuse in South Asian communities, it incites the perspective of how many women from South Asian background suffer from domestic abuse and violence within their own homes. Many of the individuals of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian backgrounds are not fully aware of rape cases within a marriage or not seeing abuse as a ‘red flag’ so to speak. Furthermore, women are trapped in a culture where they fear shame if they were to speak up and distresses the thought that Asian communities would frown upon on the woman for not just accepting it.
Thus, allowing no support for those who have experience domestic violence and abuse. For a young Asian woman who has been under emotional or physical abuse, if she was to speak up for herself many would look down on her for wanting to be heard and many women fear the notion that people would turn their backs on them if they were to ask for help.
Whatsoever the issues between the married man and woman stays between them and one should not interfere with the relationship. Typically, it is the role of the man to assert his masculinity through aggression. Therefore, for a woman to behave like the wife in Chaucer’s tale would be seen as wrong.
Thus, it could be argued that Asian communities experience similar things that women did in the Middle Ages as well as the Victorian Age. Linking back to Rosetti’s Petrarchan style sonnet the ideal Victorian woman is to be fragile, submissive and sexually pure. Politically and socially many women now would not conform to the characteristics that Browning and Rosetti are trying to say about women, thus, historical context is valuable in poetry as well as literature because it allows critics and debates to be explored.
Historical context is important when reading literature and in poetry, it allows critical debates like Feminism to exist. Historical contexts within the text sets the foundation of understanding the way culture began, in this particular argument, how women were perceived during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Furthermore, Tyson lastly states “there is an important connection between our ability to recognise patriarchal ideology … By helping us to learn to see how patriarchal ideology operates in literature, such works can prepare us to direct our feminist vision where we must eventually learn to focus it most clearly: on ourselves” therefore, we need an understanding in order to raise awareness through poetry.