May 01, 2006

Dogs of Love and War: Which Women?

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Artemis and Actaeon
In 'Quiver', Deryn Rees–Jones subverts Ovid’s story of Artemis and Actaeon in which Acateon is punished for looking at the goddess bathing. The scene of the chase and the hunting of Actaeon after he has been turned into a stag is one of suspense and tension in Metamorphoses. Ovid builds up tension by describing the dogs, their personalities and histories in intricate detail: ‘Pterelas, the swift runner, was there, and keen scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog’. (79)

Rees–Jones subverts the description of the hounds by transforming them from a lineage of proud beasts to a lineage of feminist women. Here is the lineage of gynocracy figured as hounds or furies demanding justice for the endangered goddess:

From 'Quiver'

[Ö] the stag ripped apart by the houndsÖ.
Those hounds! Imagined now as what?
An ever–changing line of mothers, daughters, long–lived women?
Antigone and Clytemnestra, Penelope and Joan.
The names might go on, being all things and nothing,
finding within themselves routes to becoming:
lovers of women, lovers of men. Names
trip off the tongue: Millicent, Sylvia,
Christabel, Emily, Angel Virginia, No–nonsense Simone,
Glorious Gloria, Unblushing Germaine;
Fierce Luce, Brave Julia, la belle Hélène.
They burn like a catechism, are worthy of praise.
Here’s hound Catherine, now, with her crown of thorns,
Little Saint Bride with her cow print jacket,
Agnes the Borzoi, the Windhound Poor Clare.
Here’s Sappho, Felicia, Aphra, Christina,
so many Elizabeths they can’t all be named. (33.109, 114 – 130)

Which women?

The question is who are the women? Here is what I have worked out. If you can add anything, please do.

From Ancient Greek mythology and literature.

Women Poets
Sylvia (Plath),
Felicia (Hemans),
Christina (Rossetti).

Women Novelists
Aphra (Benn),
Virginia (Woolf, who wrote of ‘the Angel in the House’)
Simone (de Beauvoir).

Historical Women
Joan (of Arc),
Millicent (Fawcett who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in 1897)
Sylvia, Christabel and Emeline (Pankhurst)

Anne Catherine Emmerick (a stigmatist at the turn of the eighteenth century who was offered a crown of thorns in a dream),
Saint Birgitta (known as Saint Bride),
Jeanne de Jussie (who wrote The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare's Account of the Reformation of Geneva in the fifteenth century).

Germaine (Greer),
Luce (Irigaray),
Julia (Kristeva)
Hélène (Cixous).

But I'm still not sure about Agnes…? A Borzoi is a kind of Russian hound, I think. Is there a Russian Agnes?

I think that the list teeters on the Elizabeths who cannot be named. The Elizabeths mentioned could be any number of acclaimed women (any ideas?), but I think that one exists at the heart of the list, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I will be writing something on thsi shortly – the influence of the Victorian poetess etc.

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  1. you're missing loooaaaaads but I don't have the time to actually help you, just to cluck at you.


    01 May 2006, 17:53

  2. 'Emily' may refer to Emmeline Pankhurst.

    "So many Elizabeths they can't all be named" subverts the poet's inability to fully ennumerate the catalogue he begins, a standard epic topos (cf. Met.III.225). But if Elizabeth Barrett Browning is to be counted amongst these Elizabeths (as I am sure she is), what makes you think she is at the heart of the list? It seems to me that the play on the figures of Queen Elizabeth I and II is of equal, if not greater importance. These two women are amongst the most famous in our contemporary society, and yet their status is classified not so much as by their name as by their number. Such numbers are of greater importance than names in distinguishing between the two. This leads to the question of who is (or will be) Elizabeth III, IV, V and so on? And just as numbers stretch out infinitely, so too there have been, and will be, countless Elizabeths who cannot all be named. The line does not question who has been passed over but rather how we classify our Elizabeths. They can not all be named, neither in our society nor in the poem, resulting in a case of classification through nummeration, be it concerete (I, II, III etc.) or ambivalent ("so many").

    Also, if Ovid's list is a "lineage of proud beasts" it is a highly ironic one at that, subverting the traditional Catalogue topos (most famously of ships, in Iliad II). I'm not sure whether you can read too much into this in this context. But it does make you wonder if a subversion of a subversion should really be taken so seriously.

    01 May 2006, 18:23

  3. George

    Hi Zoe,

    Interesante. I've had a glass of wine, but my first association with Agnes was with "Agnes of God". She's a fictional character, which works with the relation to the other fictional character on the same line – Poor Clare. That traces back to the saints in the stanza, via Saint Agnes, the 'bride of Christ', but doesn't quite account for the borzoi reference.

    It might be related to Dr Agnes Koppany, the world renown breeder of borzoi, of course, but that might just be the glass of wine. I'll be sure to ask Deryn next time I bump into her….


    01 May 2006, 20:45

  4. OK Philip, I guess I'll think some more about the Ovid. As for Elizabeth, I guess that I have to explain the context of the poem more throughly.

    The poem is part of a collection called Quiver which is a novel-in-verse. I think that it resembles Aurora Leigh in many ways, so the Elizabeth would be quite relevant to that interpretation. Also Rees–Jones refers to many Victorian women poets throughout the collection.

    I like what you say about the inability to count. I am aware that 'how' is a question to ask as well as 'who' – this is something that I deal with in a recent paper on the topic. But I revisited this poem recently and wondered I was missing something specifically regarding the names.

    As for it being a subversion of a subversion and whether this is worth analysing, I have to say that Deryn Rees–Jones' poetry is all about subversions that are subversions of subversions. I think this is why the metaphor of cloning is so significant in her work.

    02 May 2006, 18:10

  5. George,

    Thanks for this. I'll follow up that lead. Lizzie said that it could be Saint Agnes, that she refused to marry and founded a convent– maybe in Russia. I guess that I could just ask Deryn, but I think that poets can be tricky sometimes. They like to have their secrets.

    Fred Holland gave me some good leads. He told me of an Agnes Weston, the founder of the Homes for Sailors. He also suggested Elizabeth Gaskell, whom I had considered. Bess of Hardwick, a woman who saw off several husbands apparently. And best of all Lizzie Borden:

    Lizzie Borden took and axe
    And gave her mother forty whacks.
    When she saw what she had done
    She gave her father forty–one.

    02 May 2006, 18:16

  6. Zoe– I thought there might be somewhat more to your thinking and you make the point convincingly. This proliferation of interpretations is perhaps what the author was aiming at, and the poem is certainly the better for it. Good luck with the research.

    04 May 2006, 11:06

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