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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 285 – Poetry about Love between Women from the 19th Century

Monday, April 22, 2024 - 07:58

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 285 – Poetry about Love between Women from the 19th Century - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/04/21 - listen here)


This episode completes my tour of (mostly English-language) poetry about love between women across the centuries, bringing us up through the 19th century. When I compiled the earlier poetry episodes, I could be rather all-encompassing in my selections. I included almost everything I could find that had some relation to same-sex love, regardless of the gender of the author, whether they had any direct participation in same-sex relationships, and whether the theme of the work was positive.

But in the 19th century, we have such an abundance of material that I found myself being a lot choosier. One big difference is that more women writers are being published generally, regardless of genre. Poems that once might have had only small private audiences, and perhaps been lost to posterity, are now being published in magazines, anthologies, and personal collections. So for this 19th century episode, I chose to exclude male authors.

I also was able to prioritize poems by women who participated in same-sex romantic relationships, even though they may also have been in heterosexual marriages. Not every poet I include here falls in that category, but the majority do. I focus on poems that are fairly overt in their romantic or erotic themes—another shift in what posterity is allowed to see of women’s writing. For the most part I include only one work by each author.

While there were some clear shifts in theme and content across the course of the century, I’ve organized the poems thematically, first by content and the authors attitude toward it, and then finishing by looking at two “communities” of poets who addressed poems to each other or were romantically involved with each other.

Poems of Admiration

My first topic is poems of admiration—one woman describing or addressing another in glowing terms that verge on the romantic but perhaps are not explicit about it. In these two examples, we have no direct evidence that the poets had same-sex relationships, so we might take these works as establishing a baseline for the sort of language and imagery that was considered unremarkable.

Eliza Mary Hamilton was an Irish poet whose family connections intersected with poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She published several individual poems under her initials E.M.H. and a single collected volume came out in 1838. Her poem “A Young Girl Seen in Church” conveys that electric connection one may feel for a stranger, even if the matter goes no further than admiration.

A Young Girl Seen in Church

Was she an orphan? —can another grief
So wholly chasten? —can another woe
So sanctify? —for she was (as a leaf
Of hue funereal mid the Spring's young glow)
Robed in emphatic black: —the soul of night
Filled her rich simply-parted ebon hair,
And raven eye-lashes, and made her bright
With solemn lustre day can never wear.
Two younger buds, a sister at each side,
Like little moon-lit clouds beside the moon,
Which up the sky's majestic temple glide,
Clad darkly too, she led, —but music soon
Moved over her, and like a breeze of heaven,
Shook from her lips the fragrance of her soul, —
And then, the thoughts with which my heart had striven,
Spoke in my gaze, and would not brook control.
I bent upon her my astonished eye,
That glowed, I felt, with an expression full
Of all that love which dares to deify, —
That adoration of the beautiful
Which haunts the poet, —I forgot the sighs
Of whispered prayer around me, and the page
Of hope divine, and the eternal eyes
That look through every heart, in every place and age.
I gazed and gazed as though she were a star,
Unconscious and unfallen, which shone above, afar.—
But eloquently grave, a crimson cloud
Of deep disquietude her cheek o'erspread
With exquisite rebuke; —and then I bowed
Like hers my earnest looks and conscious head,
Ashamed to have disturbed the current meek
Of her translucent thoughts, and made them flow
Painfully earthward. But she veiled that cheek, —
Veiled even its sweet reproach and sacred glow,
Like those pure flowers too sensitive to brook
Noon's burning eye, and its oppressive look,
That shut, in beautiful displeasure, up
Each brilliant petal of their heart's deep cup.

Mary Russell Mitford was an English author and dramatist—a neighbor and acquaintance of Jane Austen, and at one point her writing was the primary financial support of her parents. She was a friend of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (though I haven’t included her in the later section of this show that covers Browning’s circle). She doesn’t appear to have married, perhaps due to the need to support and care for her parents. This poem from 1827, titled “Written in a Blank-Paper Book Given to the Author by a Friend” reflects the close friendship-circles that most literary women enjoyed, as well as the effusive language of those friendships.

Written in a Blank-Paper Book Given to the Author by a Friend

My little book, as o'er thy page so white,
With half-closed eyes in idlest mood I lean,
Whose is the form that rises still between
Thy page and me,—a vision of delight?
Look on those eyes by the bright soul made bright;
Those curls, which who Antinous' bust hath seen
Hath loved; that shape which might beseem a queen;
That blush of purity; that smile of light.
'Tis she! my little book dost thou not own
Thy mistress? She it is, the only she!
Dost thou not listen for the one sweet tone
Of her unrivalled voice? Dost thou not see
Her look of love, for whose dear sake alone,
My little book, thou art so dear to me?

Allusive and Playful

The admiration women were free to express towards each other could be playful or could allude to themes of marriage and partnership without being read as erotic or sexual. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems use language that is strongly romantic and sensual. Interpreted in the light of her close emotional bonds with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, modern scholarship generally accepts the categorization as love poems. I picked two of her verses—they’re short!—one somewhat melancholy as if the wedding it refers to ended sadly—and one full of energy and passion. Both were written in the early 1860s during her most prolific period.

Ourselves were wed one summer—dear—
Your Vision—was in June—
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied—too—of mine—

And overtaken in the Dark—
Where You had put me down—
By Some one carrying a Light—
I—too—received the Sign.

'Tis true—Our Futures different lay—
Your Cottage—faced the sun—
While Oceans—and the North must be—
On every side of mine

'Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine—in Frosts—was sown—
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens—
But You—were crowned in June—

This second poem provided the title for a rather delightful biographical movie about Dickinson.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

Louise Guiney was an American poet and essayist who lived primarily in Boston and Providence, but later in life moved to England. This poem “Private Theatricals”, written in 1884, evokes the playful, coded, “are they or aren’t they” game of women who have become self-aware that their desires aren’t entirely socially acceptable.

Private Theatricals

You were a haughty beauty, Polly
       (That was in the play),
I was the lover melancholy
       (That was in the play);
And when your fan and you receded,
And all my passion lay unheeded,
If still with tenderer words I pleaded,
       They were in the play.

I met my rival in the gateway
       (That was in the play),
And so we fought a duel straightaway
       (That was in the play);
But when Jack hurt my arm unduly,
And you rushed over, softened newly,
And kissed me, Polly! truly, truly,
       Was that in the play?


The 19th century encompassed the flourishing and celebration of women’s partnerships, under the labels of “romantic friendship” or “Boston marriages” or other terms. When women’s aspirations lay in literary or academic fields, a female partner might understand and support those aspirations far beyond what one could dream of receiving from a husband. When both partners were poets, we get some fascinating glimpses of their emotional lives together.

My first choice for this section is by Emily Hickey, an Irish poet, author, and translator. After studying at Cambridge, she had a position as lecturer in English language and literature at University College London. Written in 1889, “For Richer, For Poorer” is packed full of religious imagery—Hickey was prolific on the subject, especially after converting to Catholicism. But it is also packed with marriage imagery while centering a bond between two women. The title comes from marriage liturgy. The inspiration is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the arrival of a bridegroom: half brought enough oil for their lamps while half had their lamps go out and missed the party when they had to go get more. And the final lines evoke Ruth and Naomi, who are often seen as icons of love between women. So whether Hickey intended this as a love poem, it can certainly be read that way.

For Richer, For Poorer

"Oh, give us of your oil, our lamps go out;
Your well-fed lamps are clear and bright to see;
And, if we go to buy us oil, maybe,
Far off our ears shall hear the jubilant shout,
"Behold the Bridegroom cometh, zoned about
With utter light and utter harmony. "
Then leave us not to weep continually
In darkness, for our souls' hunger and drought."

Then turned one virgin of the virgins wise
To one among the foolish, with a low
Sweet cry, and looked her, lovelike, in the eyes,
Saying, " My oil is thine; for weal, for woe,
We two are one, and where thou goest I go,
One lot being ours for aye, where'er it lies."

English poets and life-partners Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Cooper merged their writing careers completely under the pen name “Michael Field”. Their poem “Prologue”, written in 1892, reflects this choice.


It was deep April, and the morn
Shakespeare was born;
The world was on us, pressing sore;
My love and I took hands and swore,
Against the world, to be
Poets and lovers evermore,
To laugh and dream on Lethe's shore,
To sing to Charon in his boat,
Heartening the timid souls afloat;
Of judgement never to take heed,
But to those fast-locked souls to speed,
Who never from Apollo fled,
Who spent no hour among the dead;
With them to dwell,
Indifferent to heaven and hell.

Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields were among the many prominent literary women of New England in the later 19th century. Jewett’s early diaries and letters document a series of romantic relationships with women. She met Annie Fields perhaps in the context of her husband, James T. Fields being editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine and they two hit it off. After James Fields died, Sarah and Annie moved in together, exchanged rings and vows, and considered themselves married. I offer a poem from each of them about this relationship: Jewett commemorating their act of commitment, written in 1880, and Fields offering a tender, private contemplation of her beloved, 15 years later.

Love and Friendship

Do you remember, darling
   A year ago today
When we gave ourselves to each other
   Before you went away
At the end of that pleasant summer weather
Which we had spent by the sea together?

How little we knew, my darling,
   All that the year would bring!
Did I think of the wretched mornings
   When I should kiss my ring
And long with all my heart to see
The girl who gave the ring to me? …

We have not been sorry darling
   We loved each other so --
We will not take back the promises
  We made a year ago -- …
And so again, my darling
   I give myself to you,
With graver thought than a year ago
   With love that is deep and true.

To --, Sleeping

Beloved, when I saw thee sleeping there,
And watched the tender curving of thy mouth,
The cheek, our home of kisses, the soft hair,
And over all a languor of the south;
And marked thy house of thought, thy forehead, where
All trouble of the earth was then at rest;
And thy dear eyes, a blessing to the blest,
Their ivory gates closed on this world of care, --

Then, then I prayed that never wrong of mine,
That never pain which haunts these earth-built bowers,
If I could hinder, or could aught relieve,
Should ever more make sad this heart of thine;
And yet, dear love, how oft thou leav'st thy flowers,
Here in the rain to walk with me and grieve!

Jane Addams was one of the co-founders of Hull House, a “settlement house,” which was a sort of women’s community center of a type common in the eastern United States in the late 19th century. At a time when she had parted ways with her co-founder, a young woman named Mary Rozet Smith came to work at the institution. This poem recounts their meeting, looking back from 1895, when they had established a romantic partnership and considered themselves married. Some of the language feels a bit “cringe” (as the kids these days call it) talking about “when women attempt the things of men” but the conclusion seems to be that women are not required to choose between devoting themselves to good works and receiving love.

One Day I Came into Hull House

One day I came into Hull House,
(No spirit whispered who was there)
And in the kindergarten room
There sat upon a childish chair
A girl, both tall and fair to see,
(To look at her gives one a thrill).
But all I thought was, would she be
Best fitted to lead club, or drill?
You see, I had forgotten Love,
And only thought of Hull House then.

That is the way with women folks
When they attempt the things of men;
They grow intense, and love the thing
Which they so tenderly do rear,
And think that nothing lies beyond
Which claims from them a smile or tear.
Like mothers, who work long and late
To rear their children fittingly,
Follow them only with their eyes.
And love them almost pityingly.
So I was blind and deaf those years
To all save one absorbing care,
And did not guess what now I know —
Delivering love was sitting there!


Victorian literature is well known for themes of death, loss, and mourning. Though they aren’t the only era with that fixation. In the episode on 18th century poetry, I noted that there was something of a genre of women separated from their girlfriends lamenting that at least they might be united after death. But in the 19th century poems, they are more likely to be mourning the death or separation from someone they had successfully managed to share their life with.

American poet Katharine Lee Bates is, perhaps, most famous for penning the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” This poem, “If You Could Come,” was written in the years shortly after 1915 when her partner Katharine Coman died and expresses the desire to be reunited, not in heaven, but here on earth.

If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

When African-American teacher and correspondent Addie Brown added the poem “Alone” to an 1861 letter to her beloved, Rebecca Primus, they would still have years together, though often separated by economic and career necessity. (One of my earliest podcast episodes was inspired by their lives.)


Thou art not with me and the hours
All wearily go flitting by
A gloom is on my heart, and brow
That seeks relief in many sigh

I dare not dwell upon the past
Those joyous hours that knew not pain
I dare not ask the coming years
If we shall ever meet again

I only know thou art not here
And life has lost its sweetness to me
And though my lips may wear a smile
My heart is sad and all alone


In poetry of earlier centuries, social attitudes towards what topics it was acceptable for women to write about meant that overtly sexual and erotic poems about female couples tended to be penned by men, with all that entails. But in the late 19th century, that barrier falls. Some erotic poems draw from the decadent tradition, depicting lesbian love as dangerous and doomed, others delight in sensual imagery.

It’s something of a theme in this episode to note that I’m not presenting an authors best known work. To some extent, that’s deliberate—why not introduce you to something you aren’t already familiar with? But to some extent it’s because the best known works may not be as overtly sapphic. In the case of American poet and activist Emma Lazarus, her best-known poem is probably “The New Colossus”—the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. But Lazarus was prolific on many subjects, as well as being active in economic and Jewish causes. Although her biographers note that she never married, most shy away from any suggestion that she might have had same-sex desires. But then there’s this poem, “Assurance.”


Last night I slept, and when I woke her kiss
Still floated on my lips. For we had strayed
Together in my dream, through some dim glade,
Where the shy moonbeams scarce dared light our bliss.
The air was dank with dew, between the trees,
The hidden glow-worms kindled and were spent.
Cheek pressed to cheek, the cool, the hot night-breeze
Mingled our hair, our breath, and went,
As sporting with our passion. Low and deep
Spake in mine ear her voice: "And didst thou dream,
This could be buried? This could be sleep?
And love be thralled to death! Nay whatso seem,
Have faith, dear heart; THIS IS THE THING THAT IS!"
Thereon I woke and on my lips her kiss.

It may be no coincidence that the two poems that I present here in translation, are also among the most explicitly sexual. Renée Vivien was a British poet who wrote in French, along themes popularized by Baudelaire and other Parisian decadent writers. She had a series of romantic and sexual relationships with women, including American writer and salonnière Nathalie Barney. I’ve included the original French text of “Nocturne,” published in 1901, on the website, but here present Beth Archers translation from the anthology The Defiant Muse.

J’adore la langueur de ta lèvre charnelle
Où persiste le pli des baisers d’autrefois.

Ta démarche ensorcelle,
Et ton impitoyable et perverse prunelle
A pris au ciel du nord ses bleus traîtres et froids.

Tes cheveux, répandus ainsi qu’une fumée,
Légers et vaporeux, presque immatériel,

Semblent, ô Bien-Aimée,
Recéler les rayons d’une lune embrumée,
D’une lune d’hiver dans le cristal des ciels.

Le soir voluptueux a des moiteurs d’alcôve :
Les astres sont pareils aux regards sensuels

Dans l’éther d’un gris mauve,
Et je vois s’allonger, inquiétant et fauve,
Le lumineux reflet de tes ongles cruels.

Sous ta robe, qui glisse en un frôlement d’aile,
Je devine ton corps, — les lys ardents des seins,

L’or blême de l’aisselle,
Les flancs doux et fleuris, les jambes d’immortelle,
Le velouté du ventre et la rondeur des reins.

La terre s’alanguit, énervée, et la brise,
Chaude encore des lits lointains, vient assouplir

La mer lasse et soumise…
Voici la nuit d’amour depuis longtemps promise…
Dans l’ombre je te vois divinement pâlir.

# # #

I love the languor of our sensual lips
Bearing still the fold of yesterday’s kisses.
Your gait is bewitching;
And the calm perversity of your eyes
Stole from northern skies their treacherous, icy blue.

Your hair, wafting like smoke,
Vaporously pale, as though not material,
Seams O dearest love,
To cast the rays of a veiled moon,
A winter moon in a crystal-cold heaven.

The sensuous evening is moist with love;
The stars glance seductively
In the mauve-gray sky,
And I see reaching out, frightening and wild,
The luminous gleam of your cruel nails.

Under your gown, which glides with the rustle of a wing,
I discern your body – the glowing lilies of your breasts,
The delicate gold of the underarm,
The soft ample thighs, the legs of a goddess,
The velvet belly, and rounded loins.

The earth, now weak, grows languorous, and a breeze,
Still warm from distant beds, comes to smooth
The sea at long last daunted…
Here, finally, the long-awaited night of love…
In the shadows, I see you grow divinely pale.

Inspired by Sappho

In the later 19th century, newly discovered works by Sappho—as well as a broader acknowledgement among the literati of the homoerotic themes in Sappho’s work—led to imitations and inspirations, as well as new translations. I included American poet Mary Hewitt’s translation of Sappho’s fragment 31, published in 1845, in one of my episodes on Sappho’s legacy, but I’ll reprise it here.

Fragment 31 (trans. Mary Hewitt)

Blest as the immortal gods is he
On whom each day thy glances shine
Who hears thy voice of melody
And meets thy smile so all divine

Oh when I list thine accents low
How thrills my breast with tender pain
Fire seems through every vein to glow
And strange confusion whelms my brain

My sight grows dim beneath the glance
Whose ardent rays I may not meet
While swift and wild my pulses dance
Then cease all suddenly to beat

And o’er my cheek with rapid gush
I feel the burning life-tide dart
Then backward like a torrent rush
All icy cold upon my heart

And I am motionless and pale
And silent as an unstrung lyre
And feel, while thus each sense doth fail
Doomed in thy presence to expire

Hewitt was also inspired to write original poetry in the style of Sappho, including this one, published in 1844 under the title “Imitations of Sappho.” (This poem is also a reprise from an earlier Sappho episode.)

Imitations of Sappho

If to repeat thy name when none may hear me,
To find thy thought with all my thoughts inwove
To languish where thou’rt not -- to sigh when near thee
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

If when thou utterest low words of greeting
To feel through every vein the torrent pour
Then back again the hot tide swift retreating
Leave me all powerless, silent as before

If to list breathless to thine accents failing
Almost to pain, upon my eager ear
And fondly when alone to be recalling
The words that I would die again to hear

If at thy glance my heart all strength forsaking
Pant in my breast as pants the frighted doves
If to think on thee ever, sleeping--waking--
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

While Hewitt’s Sappho pastiche is filled with romantic longing, Gertrud Günther, Baroness von Puttkamer, writing under the pen name Marie-Madeleine, picked up Sappho’s catalogs of beloved young women and ran with it in a more sensual direction. This poem, titled simply “Sappho,” is from her first published collection in 1895 when she was aged 19. Marie-Madeleine wrote in German, often in the vein of Baudelaire’s decadent and predatory lesbians, though this one is more sweetly longing. The translation is by Brigitte Eriksson and Frankie Hucklenbroich. Marie-Madeleine’s career survived late enough to meet an unfortunate end in Nazi Germany, when she was involuntarily committed to a sanitorium under the guise of drug addiction and died there.


Gently, the ocean waves
sing, their eternal dirge
and softly, the humid spring night
unfolds me. My soul
searches for you.

Oh, come, sweet flocks of girls!
I want to drink of your beauty.
Give your wild hair to the wind,
and drop your raiments

My pale child, give me your mouth, and feed
my own mad fires. How cool
your red lips are. You haven’t learned how love
feels yet.

And you, with your thick mane of red-gold curls,
flowing almost to your heels,
like waves of flame,
show me the fires that glitter and flicker
from your eyes. You must not ever leave me,
for you are as beautiful
as the glowing sun.

And you too shy and slender sisters
are pale as moonlight,
with your quiet, heartache
and your silent pangs of love.
With your limbs’ marble splendor
shining white as the waves’ glimmering foam,
and your hair the night,
you are more silent
than a dream.

Oh, bouquet of blossoms! Oh, flock of girls!
I want to drink of your beauty.
Give your wild hair to the wind,
and drop your raiments

I’ve bent the boundaries of the 19th century slightly on behalf of a few very iconic authors whose work fits with the themes present at the turn of the century. No need to introduce English author Radcliffe Hall or submit her lesbian bona fines. Her “Ode to Sappho,” written in 1908, spins off of Ovid’s myth of her doomed love for Phaon, and probably reflects Hall’s own somewhat tortured experience of love.

Ode to Sappho

If not from Phaon I must hope for ease,
Ah ! let me seek it from the raging seas :
To raging seas unpitied I'll remove;
And either cease to live or cease to love.

(Ovid's Heroic Epistle, XV.)

Immortal Lesbian! canst thou still behold
From some far sphere wherein thy soul doth sing
This earth, that once was thine, while glimmered gold
The joyous beams of youth's forgotten spring?

Can thine unfathomed eyes embrace this sea,
Whose ebb and flow once echoed in thy brain ?
Whose tides bear record of thine ecstasy
And thy despair, that in its arms hath lain?

Those love-burnt lips! Can death have quenched their fire?
Whose words oft stir our senses to unrest?
Whose eager ardour caught and held desire,
A searing flame against thy living breast?

Passion-wan Lesbian, in that awful place
Where spirits wander lost without a name
Thou still art Sappho, and thine ardent face
Lights up the gloom with love's enduring flame.

Oh! Goddess, woman, lover, all divine
And yet divinely mortal, where thou art
Comes not as cadence from some song of thine
Each throbbing beat that stirs the human heart ?

Canst thou forget us who are still thy friends,
Thy lovers, o'er the cloudy gulf of years?
Who live, and love, and dying make amends
For life's short pleasures thro' death's endless fears ?

Once thou didst seek the solace of thy kind,
The madness of a kiss was more to thee
Than Heaven or Hell, the greatness of thy mind
Could not conceive more potent ecstasy !

Life was thy slave, and gave thee of her store
Rich gifts and many, yet with all the pain
Of hopeless longing made thy spirit sore,
E'en thou didst yearn, and couldest not attain.

Oh ! Sappho, sister, by that agony
Of soul and body hast thou gained a place
Within each age that shines majestie'ly
Across the world from out the dusk of space.

Not thy deep pleasures, nor thy swiftest joys,
Have made thee thus, immortal and yet dear
To mortal hearts, but that which naught destroys,
The sacred image of thy falling tear.

Beloved Lesbian ! we would dare to claim
By that same tear fond union with thy lot;
Yet 'tis enough, if when we breathe thy name
Thy soul but listens, and forgets us not.


As I was compiling the content for this episode and looking up biographical information, I was struck by the circles of poets writing at least marginally homoerotic poems to and about each other. Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of George Sand; Dora Greenwell writes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Dora Greenwell writes of Christina Rossetti; Christina Rossetti mourns some unspecified woman; Isa Blagden writes a poem “To George Sand on her Interview with Elizabeth Barrett Browning” commemorating a meeting between those two in 1852, though the Blagden poem I’ve included is the more relevant one to an unknown woman named Alice. Not all of the women in this complex network had homoerotic relationships, but the themes intertwine through the whole.

Browning’s poem “To George Sand: A Desire,” written in 1844, does not touch directly on her rather isolated same-sex relationship, but rather addresses her gender transgression and masculine-coded presentation.

To George Sand: A Desire

Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,
Self-called George Sand ! whose soul, amid the lions
Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance
And answers roar for roar, as spirits can :
I would some mild miraculous thunder ran
Above the applauded circus, in appliance
Of thine own nobler nature's strength and science,—
Drawing two pinions, white as wings of swan,
From thy strong shoulders, to amaze the place
With holier light ! That thou to woman's claim,
And man's, might join beside the angel's grace
Of a pure genius sanctified from blame ;
Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace,
To kiss upon thy lips a stainless fame.

Dora Greenwell’s poems included here fall more in the “admiration” category than anything overtly romantic. Greenwell came from an English family of clergymen, and her poems are often on Christian religious themes. “To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in 1861” was written just after Browning’s death. (Greenwell wrote a previous sonnet “To Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1851” which both praises Browning’s talent and expresses how inadequate Greenwell feels beside her.) This elegy does not claim a close connection, but frames the loss in personal—though not particularly romantic—terms.

To Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in 1861

I praised thee not while living; what to thee
Was praise of mine? I mourned thee not when dead;
I only loved thee,—love thee! oh thou fled
Fair spirit, free at last where all are free,
I only love thee, bless thee, that to me
For ever thou hast made the rose more red,
More sweet each word by olden singers said
In sadness, or by children in their glee;
Once, only once in life I heard thee speak,
Once, only once I kissed thee on the cheek,
And met thy kiss and blessing; scarce I knew
Thy smile, I only loved thee, only grew,
Through wealth, through strength of thine, less poor, less weak;
Oh, what hath death with souls like thine to do?

Greenwell’s 1875 poem “To Christina Rossetti” is similarly one of professional admiration. I include these as illustrations of the varieties of relationships among circles of poets.

To Christina Rossetti

Thou hast fill'd me a golden cup
With a drink divine that glows,
With the bloom that is flowing up
From the heart of the folded rose.
The grapes in their amber glow,
And the strength of the blood-red wine,
All mingle and change and flow
In this golden cup of thine,
With the scent of the curling vine,
With the balm of the rose's breath,
For the voice of love is thine,
And thine is the Song of Death!

I did an entire episode about Christina Rossetti’s ambiguous fantasy “The Goblin Market.” The poem I include here, “Gone Before,” written in 1856, reflects the romanticism of the Pre-Rafaelites, strong elements of Anglican spirituality, and the Victorian fascination with love, death, and loss. But as a verse in a female voice addressed to a female subject, it falls within our remit.

Gone Before

She was most like a rose, when it flushes rarest;
She was most like a lily, when it blows fairest;
She was most like a violet, sweetest on the bank:
Now she's only like the snow cold and blank
After the sun sank.

She left us in the early days, she would not linger
For orange blossoms in her hair, or ring on finger:
Did she deem windy grass more good than these?
Now the turf that's between us and the hedging trees
Might as well be seas.

I had trained a branch she shelters not under,
I had reared a flower she snapped asunder:
In the bush and on the stately bough
Birds sing; she who watched them track the plough
Cannot hear them now.

Every bird has a nest hidden somewhere
For itself and its mate and joys that come there,
Tho' it soar to the clouds, finding there its rest:
You sang in the height, but no more with eager breast
Stoop to your own nest.

If I could win you back from heaven-gate lofty,
Perhaps you would but grieve returning softly:
Surely they would miss you in the blessed throng,
Miss your sweet voice in their sweetest song,
Reckon time too long.

Earth is not good enough for you, my sweet, my sweetest;
Life on earth seemed long to you tho' to me fleetest.
I would not wish you back if a wish would do:
Only love I long for heaven with you
Heart-pierced thro' and thro'.

Isa Blagden was likely bi-racial, of Anglo-Indian parentage. She was a friend of the Brownings, Bulwer-Lyttons, and Trollopes and is included in this section of the podcast on the strength of her poem “To George Sand on her Interview with Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” commemorating a meeting between those two in 1852. But the 1873 poem I include here is addressed to an unknown woman named “Alice,” who may or may not be a specific real person.


In her golden chamber—
 Golden with the sun—
Where the roses clamber
 Breathless, one by one;

(O'er her casement creeping
 With their lavish grace,
Through her lattice peeping
 At her happy face,)

Sitteth fairest Alice
 Bending calmly there;
Roses, bear no malice,
 Ye are not so fair.

Bending o'er her missal,
 Alice sitteth there;
Shamrock, rose, and thistle,
 Carved in jewels rare,

Clasp the velvet cover,
 With a rare device;
Scrolls are blazoned over
 Gold and azure dyes.

Argent angels flying,
 Peacock's eyes and wings,
Martyrs bravely dying,
 Quaint and lovely things.

Rubies red, and glowing
 Pearls and emerald sheaves—
Sapphire rivers flowing,
 Glitter through the leaves.

I, a page, a servant,
 Alice as a queen
At my love so fervent
 Smiles, with pride serene.

All my love, my passion—
 All myself I give,
True to ancient fashion,
 Loving while I live.

Claiming nought from Alice,
 Knowing love is vain;
Wine poured from a chalice
 Flows not back again.

True love is a treasure
 Sacred and divine;
Without stint or measure
 Cast upon a shrine.

Alice is an altar
 Flaming with my love,
Where my prayers I falter
 As to heaven above.

Kneeling low before her,
 livery pulse and breath
Asks but to adore her,
 Faithful unto death.

The second social grouping who appeared in my working notes revolve around author Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Page) although I couldn’t find any relevant poems by Lee herself. Amy Levy wrote multiple love poems addressed to Vernon Lee, although it isn’t clear whether she was ever one of Lee’s several lovers. But the poem I chose to include here, “Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia),” written in 1884, can represent the flavor of her work. It’s unclear to me if Sylvia can be identified.

Sinfonia Eroica (To Sylvia)

My Love, my Love, it was a day in June
A mellow, drowsy, golden afternoon ;
And all the eager people thronging came
To that great hall, drawn by the magic name
Of one, a high magician, who can raise
The spirits of the past and future days,
And draw the dreams from out the secret breast,
Giving them life and shape.
     I, with the rest,

Sat there athirst, atremble for the sound ;
And as my aimless glances wandered round,
Far off, across the hush'd, expectant throng,
I saw your face that fac'd mine.
     Clear and strong

Rush'd forth the sound, a mighty mountain stream ;
Across the clust'ring heads mine eyes did seem
By subtle forces drawn, your eyes to meet.
Then you, the melody, the summer heat,
Mingled in all my blood and made it wine.
Straight I forgot the world's great woe and mine ;
My spirit's murky lead grew molten fire ;
Despair itself was rapture.
     Ever higher,

Stronger and clearer rose the mighty strain ;
Then sudden fell ; then all was still again,
And I sank back, quivering as one in pain.
Brief was the pause ; then, 'mid a hush profound,
Slow on the waiting air swell'd forth a sound
So wondrous sweet that each man held his breath ;
A measur'd, mystic melody of death.
Then back you lean'd your head, and I could note
The upward outline of your perfect throat ;
And ever, as the music smote the air,
Mine eyes from far held fast your body fair.
And in that wondrous moment seem'd to fade
My life's great woe, and grow an empty shade
Which had not been, nor was not.
     And I knew
Not which was sound, and which, O Love, was you.

Agnes Mary Frances Robinson, publishing as A. Mary F. Robinson, was definitely one of Vernon Lee’s lovers. Her poem “A Ballad of Forgotten Tunes” is directly addressed and dedicated to Lee. The poem’s theme is a take-off of the 15th century French poem by François Villon that catalogs famous women of history and myth and laments each one’s passing with the refrain, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” Robinson’s verse is packed densely with historic and literary references, including one directly to Villon that you may catch in passing.

A Ballad of Forgotten Tunes

To V. L.
Forgotten seers of lost repute
That haunt the banks of Acheron,
Where have you dropped the broken lute
You play in Troy or Calydon ?
O ye that sang in Babylon
By foreign willows cold and grey,
Fall'n are the harps ye hanged thereon,
Dead are the tunes of yesterday !

De Coucy, is your music mute,
The quaint old plain-chant woe-begone
That served so many a lover's suit ?
Oh, dead as Adam or Guédron !
Then, sweet De Caurroy, try upon
Your virginals a virelay ;
Or play Orlando, one pavonne- 
Dead are the tunes of yesterday!

But ye whose praises none refute,
Who have the immortal laurel won ;
Trill me your quavering close acute,
Astorga, dear unhappy Don !
One air, Galuppi !  Sarti one
So many fingers use to play !-
Dead as the ladies of Villion,
Dead are the tunes of yesterday !


Vernon,  in vain you stoop to con
The slender, faded notes to-day-
The Soul that dwelt in them is gone :
Dead are the tunes of yesterday!

And that feels like a fitting end to our catalog of 19th century poetry. Where are the poems of yesterday?

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • 19th century poetry
  • Connections and cross-references between women poets
  • Sources mentioned
    • In addition to being found in the following sources, the text of many of these poems have been taken from various online sources not mentioned.
    • Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
    • Domna C. Stanton. 1986. The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present. The Feminist Press, New York. ISBN 0-935312-52-8
    • Donoghue, Emma. 1997. Poems Between Women: Four centuries of love, romantic friendship, and desire. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-231-10925-3
    • Faderman, Lillian (ed). 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. New York: VIking. ISBN 0-670-84368-4
    • Faderman, Lillian. 1999.To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America – A History. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. ISBN 0-395-85010-X
    • Greene, Ellen (ed). 1996. Re-Reading Sappho: Recepton and Transmission. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20602-9
    • Griffin, Farah Jasmine. 1999. Beloved Sisters and Loving Friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-679-45128-5
    • Johnson, Thomas R. (ed). 1961. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. ISBN 0-316-18413-6
    • Vicinus, Martha. 2004. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-85564-3

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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