Byatt: Victorian Poets in Possession

Here undergraduate Laura Kilbride outlines some of the ways in which Possession touches on the work of real, as well as fictional, Victorian poets. Readers of the novel don't necessarily need this knowledge, but those who have it can appreciate some of the more subtle features of Byatt's work.


Robert Browning (1812-1889) was an accomplished poet and critic, married to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He is often identified as the model for Randolph Henry Ash. Ash shares with Browning a preference for the , which Byatt draws on in poems such as 'Swammerdam' and 'Mummy Possest'. Ash and Browning show similar interests in spiritualism, the social conditions of the period, the religious and cultural consequences of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, changing attitudes towards the Bible, and love in the modern age.

Echoes of Browning's poetry and life are ample in Possession. Sometimes these are present at the level of plot and character. The are one obvious source for the correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. Ellen Ash's dilemma of how to deal with a pregnant maid is also in part biographical borrowing. In contrast to Ellen Ash's dismissal of her maidservant, the Brownings made financial arrangements for the mother and child. Browning's poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came' is one possible source for Byatt's wandering academic in the wilderness, who also stumbles across his destination quite by accident. More subtle ideas in Browning's poetry can be found in '', a poem which questions the ethical claims of . These ideas are played out via the discourse of a drunken, womanising monk. Like Fra Lippo Lippi, Byatt is also concerned with the differences and similarities between art and narrative, the visual and the linguistic:

I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the ,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found eyes and nose and chin for A's and B's,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun (ll. 129-134)

The importance of 'Mr Sludge, The Medium' in Possession is indicated by Byatt's choice to include part of the poem as an epigraph for her novel. This poem is a long dramatic monologue spoken by the poetic persona, Mr Sludge, a spiritual medium who has been caught in the act of tricking his audience. The extract in the epigraph introduces the reader to the question of truthfulness in fiction, and the idea of the writer's voice as a for past or dead voices. In 1854 Browning and Elizabeth were present at a séance held by Daniel Dunglas Home, a famous American spiritualist. Elizabeth was impressed by the experience, while Browning remained cynical, as his poem shows. Sludge's defence depends on the collapsing of the boundary between reality and fiction. The poem is also important stylistically. Browning's line and chatty, which are shot through with and frequently terminate in are easily identifiable within 'Swammerdam' and 'Mummy Possest':

There's another picker-out of pearl
From dung heaps, ay -, your literary man,
Who draws on his kid gloves to deal with Sludge
Daintily and discreetly, - shakes a dust
O' the doctrine, flavours thence, he well knows
The narrative or the novel, - half believes,
All for the book's sake and the public's stare,
And the cash that's God's sole solid in this world!
Look at him! Try to be too bold, too gross
For the master! Not you! He's the man for muck;
Shovel it forth, full-splash, he'll smooth your brown
Into artistic richness, never fear!


I too have seen S.T.C. I was but an infant - his pudgy Hand rested on my golden curls - his Voice remarked on their flaxen paleness - he said - or I have since by thinking created his voice saying - for I too, like you, must be imagining, I cannot let things alone - I believe he said 'It is a beautiful name and will I trust not be a name of ill omen.' Now this is all the Clue I have to the end of the poem of Christabel - that i's heroine was destined for tribulation - which is not hard to see - though how she might obtain Happiness thereafter is harder, if not Impossible.
(Christabel LaMotte to Randolph Henry Ash in 'The correspondence', Chapter 10.)

The poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is key to an understanding of Possession. The incompleteness of his narrative poem 'Christabel' (which Coleridge, in his Preface, confessed was due to his 'own indolence') leaves the fate of the eponymous heroine open to the imagination. By naming her Victorian poetess after the heroine of Coleridge's poem, Byatt establishes links at the level of plot and theme. The reader who is aware of the plot of 'Christabel' and its uncertain ending is made doubly aware of the unstable future faced by Byatt's heroine.

Coleridge's poem tells of Christabel's midnight discovery of a mysterious character called Geraldine, who has been snatched from her home by a group of men and abandoned in the wood. Christabel, who had been praying for her knight-errant, offers to help Geraldine to a place of safety. They move within Christabel's father's walls and lie down to sleep. During the night a tremendous conviction of having sinned creeps over Christabel. In the morning they ask for the help of Christabel's father, Sir Leoline, who is entranced by Geraldine. Christabel cannot communicate her growing sense of dread to anyone because she is has been struck dumb by Geraldine's spell. The poem as it stands ends with Christabel's helplessness as Sir Leoline prepares to send out a party to inform Geraldine's father that she is safe.

The reader who is aware of the literary heritage of the name 'Christabel' will be able to detect traces of related themes and ideas in Byatt's narrative. Female vulnerability, safety within walls, female friendship and sins which cannot be named are therefore made more prominent. Byatt encourages the reader to reach across literature, weaving correspondences, echoes and expectations into their own experience of reading.

'Christabel' can be found in many places, but you could start with


I read and reread Emily Dickinson, whose harsher and more sceptical voice I found more exciting than Christina Rossetti's meek resignation. I wanted a fierce female voice. And I found I was possessed - it was actually quite frightening - the nineteenth-century poems that were not nineteenth-century poems wrote themselves, hardly blotted, fitting into the metaphorical structure of my novel, but not mine, as my prose is mine.

 (A.S Byatt 'On Writing Possession')

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is one of the major models for Byatt's poet Christabel LaMotte in terms of both style and character. Dickinson suffered numerous family deaths throughout her life and this, combined with a lifelong struggle with , may have led her to choose a secluded existence. After 1867 she refused to open the door to callers, talking to them from the other side of the door, and in later life did not leave her room. She became a model for Christabel LaMotte's conception of female creativity as walled up, sheltered from the concerns of the outside world. Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems, mostly untitled, which she sowed into bundles of and were only discovered after her death. Her themes include pain, death, identity and the troubled relation between creation and God. For a more detailed comparison of the style and thought of Christabel LaMotte and Dickinson you should consult the 'intertextuality' resource on this site.


My mind has been full since childhood of the rhythms of Tennyson and Browning, Rossetti and Keats.

 (A.S Byatt 'On Writing Possession')

Aside from Emily Dickinson, Byatt found a further model for Christabel LaMotte in the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Like Dickinson and LaMotte, Rossetti also experienced and wrote about pain. She was connected to the group of writers and painters through her brother Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, although her involvement within the group tended to vacillate. Several of her poems make interesting readings against Possession in terms of content and idea. It is tempting to posit the enigmatic 'Winter: My Secret' as a possible source for the LaMotte poem 'Dolly keeps a Secret' (you can compare the two below) which leads to Maud's discovery of the love letters in Christabel's bedroom. The poem's teasing hint towards a hidden truth which cannot be revealed has raised biographical speculation. Byatt parodies this kind of guesswork in Leonora Stern's conviction that LaMotte suppressed her homosexuality.

'Introspective' and 'The Hearth Knoweth Its Own Bitterness' are both poems which might be read alongside LaMotte's poem 'Our Lady- Bearing- Pain' for their attempt to contemplate inexpressible pain and sheer depth of emotion in words, using such techniques as repetition and paradox. Furthermore, at the age of nineteen Rossetti also wrote a novella entitled Maude, which was published after her death. Its portrayal of a young female poet who meets her tragic death in a road accident has often been read as a conscious self-portrait. This work is also relevant in so far as it provides a model for Byatt's Maud and calls to mind the literary heritage of the character in Possession.

Christina Rossetti, 'Winter: My Secret'

Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not today; it froze, and blows and snows,
And you're too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret's mine, and I won't tell.
Or, after all, perhaps there's none:
Suppose there is no secret after all,
But only just my fun.
Today's a nipping day, a biting day;
In which one wants a shawl,
A veil, a cloak, and other wraps:
I cannot ope to everyone who taps,
And let the draughts come whistling thro' my hall;
Come bounding and surrounding me,
Come buffeting, astounding me,
Nipping and clipping thro' my wraps and all.
I wear my mask for warmth: who ever shows
His nose to Russian snows
To be pecked at by every wind that blows?
You would not peck? I thank you for good will,
Believe, but leave the truth untested still.
Spring's an expansive time: yet I don't trust
March with its peck of dust,
Nor April with its rainbow-crowned brief showers,
Nor even May, whose flowers
One frost may wither thro' the sunless hours.
Perhaps some languid summer day,
When drowsy birds sing less and less,
And golden fruit is ripening to excess,
If there's not too much sun nor too much cloud,
And the warm wind is neither still nor loud,
Perhaps my secret I may say,
Or you may guess.

Christabel LaMotte, 'Dolly Keeps a Secret'

Dolly keeps a Secret
Safer than a Friend
Dolly's Silent Sympathy
Lasts without end.

Friends may betray us
Love may Decay
Dolly's Discretion
Outlasts our Day.

Could Dolly tell of us?
Her wax lips are sealed.
Much she has meditated
Much -ah - concealed.

Dolly ever sleepless
Watched above
The shreds and relics
Of our lost Love
Which her small fingers
Never may move.

Dolly is harmless.
We who did harm
Shall become chill as she
Who now are warm
She mocks Eternity
With her sly charm.


Think of me if you will as the Lady of Shalott - with a Narrower Wisdom - who chooses not the Gulp of outside Air and the chilly river-journey deathwards - but who chooses to watch diligently the bright colours of her Web - to ply an industrious shuttle - to make something - to close the Shutters and the Peephole too -

 (Christabel LaMotte to Randolph Henry Ash in 'The Correspondence', Chapter 10, p. 187)

Tennyson's poetry features in Possession directly when in Chapter 5 Roland, being driven through Lincolnshire by Maud to visit Christabel's grave, recalls three lines from 'The Lady of Shalott':

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wolde and meet the sky.

Byatt writes that 'Roland saw immediately that the word 'meet' was precise and surprising, not vague'. Byatt has Roland use the poem in a number of ways. He reverts to the lines of Tennyson to communicate the landscape before him, while also acknowledging that the countryside in question is significant because Tennyson has communicated it in a poem, creating a on the scene. Byatt uses the poem to convey both the scene and Roland's biographical approach to the world.

The poem itself is also significant considering Byatt's portrayal of female creativity in the character of Christabel LaMotte. 'The Lady of Shalott' narrates the story of a beautiful woman who lives alone in a tower cut off from the world. Forbidden to look out of the window, she views the world with the aid of a huge mirror, and passes the time by weaving those things she observes onto her loom. The appearance of a young knight, Lancelot, causes her to break her pact: she turns to look out of the window. The mirror cracks and the Lady realises she is fated to die. She leaves her tower, unmoors a boat and pushes off down the river in the direction of Camelot. Her body is discovered by Sir Lancelot, who remarks that 'she has a lovely face'. The poem was a popular subject among painters of the period as an emblem of female creativity and power. The plot of the poem clearly has resonances with Byatt's own creative female, Christabel, whose life of seclusion is interrupted by her correspondence and affair with Randolph Henry Ash, after which her life is altered irreversibly.

Tennyson also wrote a long narrative poem entitled 'Maud, A Monodrama'. Like Browning's Dramatis Personae this poem, which takes the form of a dramatic monologue, communicates an entire story through the voice of one character. It charts the flowering relationship of a lower-class, unnamed speaker with the initially 'proud' and beautiful Maud. They fall in love, but the marriage is not supported by society and the end is not a happy one. Tennyson wrote that 'This poem of Maud or the Madness is a little Hamlet, the history of a morbid, poetic soul, under the blighting influence of a recklessly speculative age'. Byatt is clearly drawing on her literary heritage and reading of Victorian poetry in her depiction of her two modern characters, Maud and Roland.

Further Reading and Thinking

Obviously the big thing you can do to follow up this survey is to read the poems themselves, and to think about how they work in relation to Possession - whether as something in the background of the work and its creation, or as a clue to unlock its secrets. Most of the poems mentioned can be found online without much difficulty.

In this piece there are also artists, portraits, poems about artists, and so on. The web is a wonderful source for Victorian art as well - though you could chase up these artists in a gallery near you.

You can find portraits of figures mentioned here at the National Portrait Gallery and its website, The one of Browning by George Frederick Watts is of particular interest because of a passage in Possession: 'The portrait by Watts [of Ash] was mistier and less authoritative; it had been painted in 1876 and showed an older and more ethereal poet, his head rising, as is common with Watts's portraits, from a vague dark column of a body in a spiritual light' (pp.16-17). Is this a good description of the artist's style?

One of the greatest pictures of 'The Lady of Shalott' is by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. It is held at the Manchester Art Gallery, and it is beautifully reproduced on their website,

A poem in which a character, real or not, relates their story and/or feelings. This form was popular among Victorian poets, and Browning's My Last Duchess is one of the most acclaimed. It is not only a Victorian genre, however, and Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus is a later example.
One fine example can be found at
I.e. Brother Filippo Lippi, an Italian monk who was also one of the most important artists of the fifteenth century. He had a colourful life, which we know about not least because of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists
Idealist art would aspire to portray the ideal essence of reality, e.g. perhaps the soul rather than the body, whereas Realist art would focus on the thing itself as perceived. Behind these artistic practices lie different philosophical opinions as to the nature of reality.
The margin ('marge') of a book of antiphons, i.e. religious call-and-response chants.
A channel.
A term often used for unrhymed iambic pentameter verse.
Style favouring short clauses and short sentences.
Rhetorical questions do not expect an answer, sometimes because they are unanswerable.
A rhetorical figure in which the voice breaks off, perhaps because of inability or unwillingness to continue; 'I can no more'.
A kidney complaint causing pain, vomiting, fever, swelling, and urinary problems
Bundles or clusters, used of papers in this case.
The name derives from the group's belief that art should be freed from the classical elegance and formal technique they felt was prevailing in art theory and education at the time. They traced this back to the Italian painter Raphael - Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520 - and themselves aimed to emulate the freer, vivid, complex vision of earlier Italian painters.
A comment; traditionally 'glosses' are explanatory comments on features of texts such as the Bible, poems, etc.

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