Gender and Genre

The previous two chapters outlined the social conditions that the poets we have been considering faced as women, as well as their varying responses to male-defined literary conventions. In this chapter I would like to consider their distinctive use of genre and themes, which, as we shall see, are interrelated.

Recently some scholars have dismissed genre as arbitrary, if not meaningless: "Genre is any group of works selected on the basis of some shared feature" (Reichert, "More Than Kin," 57). Most, however, still consider it an essential literary concept: "There can be no meaning without genre" (E. O. Hirsch quoted in Gerhart, Genre Choices, Gender Questions, 16); "genres underlie, motivate and organize all literary discourse" (Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism, 5). Because literary genre is such an ambiguous and multifaceted concept—with a history extending back at least to Aristotle's Poetics—in any such discussion it is essential to define one's terms and approach.1

For our purposes I find most useful Alastair Fowler's functional description of genre as "a communication system for the use of writers in writing and readers and critics in reading and interpreting" (Kinds of Literature, 256). So, for example, if we know we are watching farce, we might laugh at something that we would not laugh at in a tragedy. Fowler sensibly points out that genres change, combine, and divide over time. The epic, for example, encompasses works as diverse as the Iliad and Paradise Lost. Rather, Fowler prefers to discuss "kinds" of literature—genres of a specific period, such as the romance, picaresque novel, revenge play, ode, or dystopia—further subdividing "kinds" into "subgenres" on the basis of their subject matter or motif. For example, within the eighteenth-century ode there are birthday odes and marriage odes;

within the twentieth-century novel, the factory novel, school novel, war novel, crime novel, and so on. For Fowler, then, genre and theme are interrelated.2

Fowler's concept of genre as a communication system has been extended in recent scholarship that analyzes the ideology implicit in various genres, along with its effect on writers and readers.3 Some scholars claim that genres as "literary institutions" (Fredric Jameson quoted in Cranny-Francis, Feminist Fiction, 18) "encode [ideological discourses]" (Cranny-Francis, 18), that is, inscribe power relationships, "fram[ing] readers as well as texts"—indeed, that "genres are built on premises about gender" (Gerhart, Genre Choices, Gender Questions, 189-90) and about class and race. One thinks, for example, of the eighteenth-century neoclassical comedies such as Moliere's Le bourgeois gentilhomme or Mozart's The Magic Flute, in which the lower-class "comic" lovers act as foils for the upper-class "serious" lovers. Or of the "comic" African American maid, who appeared in so many American film comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, or of the inevitably terrorized or murdered young white woman in slasher films.

But beyond communicating ideology, genres, according to literary critic and author Joanna Russ, are actually structured by assumptions about gender ("gender norms"), which can be seen more clearly when they are reversed. She asks us to imagine, for example, a story about two strong women battling for supremacy in the early West, or a young woman finding her womanhood by killing a bear, or a stupid but seductive heterosexual young man who represents "the essence of sex, the 'soul' of our corrupt culture, a dramatization of the split between the degrading necessities of the flesh and the transcendence of world-cleaving Will" ("What Can a Heroine Do?" 7). Russ concludes that a writer who does not accept the gender norms of a genre either will be reduced to silence or forced to reinvent the genre. But, she continues, writers who reinvent male-centered genres generally do not receive praise for their originality; rather, critics find such work "formless" and "inexperienced" in comparison to the "traditional" male-centered literary conventions and myths that have been "distilled, dramatized, stylized, and above all clarified" through centuries of use (11 ).4

In this critical context I propose, first, to define the most important Russian poetic genres of the 1820s to 1850s, along with their gender norms; next, to consider the different ways men and women poets used these genres; and finally, to examine the implications of such differences for the critical reception of women poets.5 What were the most important Russian Romantic poetic genres? Scholars of both European and Russian literature have shown that throughout the period neoclassical genres remained central for Romantic poets, despite their challenges to neoclassical values. In Europe as early as 1674, Nicholas Boileau had codified neoclassical practice in his Art poétique by distinguishing the major genres—comedy, tragedy, and epic—from the minor ones—elegy, ode, sonnet, epigram, and ballad. In Russia, Lomonosov in his "Pre-dislovie o pol'ze knig tserkovnykh v Rossiiskom iazyke" (Preface concerning the use of church books in the Russian language, 1757) modified Boileau's hierarchy by designating as high genres odes and epics, as middle genres tragedy, epistles, and elegies, and as low genres comedies, epigrams, and songs. It is true that beginning in the mid-eighteenth century writers began to defy these rules of "decorum"; previously disdained folk forms became prominent, as the ballad revival in Germany and England and Macpherson's Ossian poems extended the concept of epic to folk material. Poets began to mix genres, as can be seen in the titles of Wordsworth's "lyrical ballads" (1798) or Lamartine's Méditations poétiques (1820). Victor Hugo in his Préface de Cromwell (1827) even rejected the neoclassical injunction against mixing the comic and the tragic, the grotesque and the beautiful. Nonetheless, the genres named by Boileau and Lomonosov remained vital and very prestigious, even when combined with folk elements or with one another. For example, one recent study considers the "principle fixed forms and genres" of British Romanticism to be the sonnet, the hymn, the ode, the pastoral, the romance, and the epic, all, except the romance and the sonnet, classical genres.

The persistence of classical genres is not surprising. Romantic poets, mostly upper-class men, continued to receive classical educations that included the Greek and Latin canons on which neoclassical genres were based.6 So, for example, Byron wrote not only Romantic fragments, songs, and ballads, but also neoclassical odes, mock epics, and epistles. Shelley wrote odes, elegies, and epithalamia, as well as ballads and fragments.

Neither classicism nor the medieval popular forms that modified it, however, were indigenous to Russia. Nonetheless, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russian writers enthusiastically and almost simultaneously imported both trends from Europe, as the poet and critic Petr Viazemsky (1792-1878) ironically recounts: "We never had

Middle Ages or knights or Gothic buildings, with their gloom and peculiar impressions; the Greeks and Romans, sad to say have not weighed upon us.. .. But the Romantic Movement, of course, has attracted us too. . .. Immediately there were formed among us two armies, two camps: classicists and romanticists have come into inky combat."7

Like their European counterparts, classically educated Russian men poets also combined neoclassical and folk genres. Zhukovsky wrote odes, elegies, and idylls, as well as translating and adapting thirty-nine German and English ballads. Pushkin's Ruslan i Liudmila combined a mock epic with folk motifs. We can surmise the importance of classical and folk genres—and of genre itself—from Russian Romantic poets' frequent use of generic titles for poems. Pushkin, for example, subtitled four works published during his lifetime "Poemy" (verse epics), and titled four poems "Elegiia" (elegy), one "Ballada" (ballad), ten "Romans" (romance), and several "Pesnia" (song) and "Epigramma."8 Iazykov, Lermontov, Del'vig, Fet, Baratynsky, Maikov, Khomiakov, and Guber also gave many poems generic titles such as "Elegiia," "Sonet," "Duma," "Oda," "Idiliia," "Pesnia," or "Russkaia pesnia."

For the period of 1820 to 1850, three literary genres, or "kinds," to use Fowler's terminology stand out as the most characteristic and significant: the epic, with its offspring the Romantic poema and ballad; the elegy; and the lyric.9

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