Poetry was considered “proper” for Victorian ladies because of the societal limitations placed on women during the Victorian period. Emotions were considered to be the opposite of logic and rationality. For men, the expectation was to be completely logical and rational in their lives in order to facilitate the ordinary fixed workings of the world. More than this, men were considered to be “hardwired” as purely logical and mechanically thinking according to the Victorian mindset. Women, on the other hand, were presumed to be emotional and excitable. Just as men were viewed as being “hardwired” as rigidly mechanical in their thinking, so too were women viewed as being emotional and, as a result, somewhat frivolous and certainly less valuable and significant.
It was presumed in the Victorian period that poetry was best suited for women because of the assumption that they were equipped with the emotional capability to deliver it. After all, poetry is frequently considered to be designed to invoke emotion – as well as being notably deficient in any physically significant performative aspect. Combine this concept with the intolerance and prejudice that actresses (and actors) were viewed with and it becomes extremely difficult for a woman to venture outside of her societally “designated space”.
In the case of Anna Cora Mowatt, it is a testament to her performative ability that Edgar Allen Poe had criticized (or at least remained largely unimpressed with) her poetry. As a noteworthy and supportive critic of Mowatt, I believe that Poe only remained unaffected by Mowatt’s poetry because he knew her to be capable of so much more. He wasn’t saying that she was incapable of producing poetry as much as he was saying that he was uninterested in it because he knew how vast her talent was, and poetry simply did not accommodate such tremendous talent. In a sense, this was an affirmation of her true ability to write, read, perform, and maintain her status as a “lady” in the intolerable eyes of a Victorian society in which she lived.
Reprinted with permission