Queerness and the Literary Canon
Author: Dr Ellen Nicholls
Is being queer and studying the straight white canon an inherently political act? To begin reflecting on this question, I want to look at a text by one of the most canonical poets in the English language, writing in one of the most traditional poetic forms:
‘To Lady Eleanor Butler and the Honourable Miss Ponsonby,
Composed in the grounds of Plas-Newydd, Llangollen’
A stream to mingle with your favorite Dee
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose,
Or, haply there some pious Hermit chose
To live and die — the peace of Heaven his aim,
To whome the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d, where faithful to a low roof’d Cot
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long,
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb
Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time.
By William Wordsworth
As a researcher of Romantic poetry— who usually scrutinises every detail and critical inference of poetic form— it pains me to start this post with a refusal to closely read Wordsworth’s 1824 sonnet. Well… almost a refusal. Though this is by no means the best example of Wordsworth’s poetic capabilities, it contains all you would expect from poetry of the Romantic period. We have here a picturesque depiction of stylised nature; a landscape that has not only been shaped by the hands of ‘fierce Britons’ (3) but also further removed from its natural source by being filtered and recreated through the mind of the poet, ‘Along the Vale of Meditation’ (2). We also see the typically Wordsworthian trope of the ‘sequestered’ (7) and ‘pious hermit’ (5), who much like the manmade stream, lives and flows peaceably alongside the untouched natural landscape. The proximity and distance between man and nature is a recurring theme throughout much Romantic art and literature. What perhaps is less in keeping with Wordsworthian poetics is the shadow of queerness which haunts the life and legacy of the ladies to whom this sonnet is addressed.
Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby or the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’: two Irishwomen whose same-sex intimacy and rejection of the patriarchal institute of marriage was deeply unacceptable to their families. After two failed attempts, Butler and Ponsonby successfully eloped to North Wales where they settled into an alternative domestic life in their gothic ‘low-roof’d Cot’ (11) named Plas-Newydd. ‘Sequestered’ (7) together in this remote cottage for 50 years, Butler and Ponsonby became somewhat of an attraction to prominent Romantic visitors, including Byron, Shelley, Anne Lister, and of course Wordsworth. With their top hats, gentrified appearance, intense ‘female friendship’, and succession of pet dogs named ‘Sappho’ (Wills, 2020), the ladies of Llangollen were not only a source of celebrity gossip, and speculation to the great thinkers of their day but remain a curiosity to contemporary critics who seek to define the nature of their queerness. Is this a case of intense but platonic female intimacy— nothing more than sororal affection or ‘Sisters in Love’ (13)? Or is this lesbianism that exists in a mere ‘Vale [Veil] of Friendship’ (10), hidden from view?
While much speculation exists when defining the sexuality of the Ladies of Llangollen, comparatively little critical attention has been given to Wordsworth’s sonnet. When preparing to write this blog post, I asked four different colleagues who specialise in Romantic poetry what they knew of this poem. Nobody could tell me much and some had never heard of Butler and Ponsonby. Similarly, a search for criticism on Wordsworth’s sonnet in Loughborough University library contains little that is worthy of noting. Of course, the LGBTQIA+ community are not unfamiliar with the invisibilisation of queer figures or indeed being written out of history altogether. Is it really so surprising that there has historically been little space for the queer community in the white British literary canon?
It may not surprise you to learn that growing up as a gay kid in my own ‘sequestered region’ (7) of Norfolk, I struggled to fit in. Fiercely playing at straightness and refusing to acknowledge my complete disinterest in boys, my sexuality was indeed a source of playground speculation that led to some dreaded years of social isolation. The only place I thrived at secondary school was in the classroom where I could escape into the complex nuances of literature and music. This safe space away from the gossip of my peers was where a spark was ignited in me which burnt all the way through to the completion of my Ph.D. And yet, these same classrooms were also haunted by the dark shadow of section 28 which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality from 1988-2003. The institute of education which I so respected was also responsible for deciding who was not seen and what was not represented on the venerated pages of the literary canon. This meant learning Shakespeare without acknowledging that 126 of his sonnets were addressed to a male lover. Studying Wilfred Owen while ignoring the love letters he sent to Siegfried Sassoon. This also meant sitting in biology and learning how teenagers grow out of same-sex attraction once their crazy hormones calm down. It took me to the age of 21 to realise that my hormones had nothing to do with it.
So for me, the literary canon represents both my inclusion and exclusion from the privileged world of art and literature. Much like the Ladies of Llangollen, I find myself divided between being on the inside and outside of the literary elite. Privileged and well-represented as a highly educated, white, cis-gendered woman. Marginalised and under-represented as a lesbian. This has led to some tricky professional moments. A postgraduate symposium where I was somehow expected to defend ‘high art’ and its historic exclusion of black people. An implicit expectation to shoehorn post-colonial readings onto canonical texts rather than creating a platform for marginalised authors and artists of colour. I have often been left wondering whether there is a need to justify my right to be both gay and a researcher of the white Romantic canon. Am I duty-bound to declare my positionality and reconcile the two in some gloriously cogent intersectional reading? Is being queer and studying the canon an act of conformity to the straight white majority or is it politically subversive?
The truth is, I do not have answers to these questions. I am queer and I enjoy reading canonical Romantic texts. I know I need not conform to the expectations of the critical establishment by demonstrating my prowess in researching and closely reading poetry, squeezing out every facet and implication of the language of these revered authors. And yet, here I sit next to my wife— in our own (rather urban!) cottage with our neurotic dog (sadly not called Sappho)— and I just can’t help myself.
Wills, M. (2020). Who were the Ladies of Llangollen? [Online]. Available at: https://daily.jstor.org/who-were-the-ladies-of-llangollen/ [Accessed 20/02/2022].
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