We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sunday Bloody Sunday and Jane Austen: Poetry by Anne Stevenson · 24 April 05

My dear Fanny,

Another of my favorite modern women poets (I do have many) is Anne Stevenson.

I just read the following in the most recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement:

"In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls"

by Anne Stevenson

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell, for example in the water church of Torcello,
The wicked receive their deserts. Disembowelled and disremembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless suls, flushed out of theflesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness so pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolizes torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To hell for bad Italians, who, being damned, are being saved as well.


Stevenson has also written greatly on Jane Austen:

"Re-reading Jane"

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley’s _were she your equal in situation
but consider how far this is from being the case_
shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners! Hymeneal theology!
Six little circles of hell, with attendant humours.
_For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn?_ The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr Bennet’s century;
The Garden of Eden’s still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph’s ‘benevolence of heart’
precedes ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we’d look to you.
You knew the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of _its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely_, she spoke for you.


Austen does not blot out war bloody war. Two novels skirt round it (Mansfield Park and Persuasion); a third exploits the presence of local militias in English counties (Pride and Prejudice). She presents a set of values that decry the mindless macho masculinity and caste arrogance that is one of the ways the powerful manipulate the primordial impulses of some males to go kill and be killed. Mr Knightley will not hit at people because of their class, in all its forms the center of social cruelty: "but consider how far this is from being the case . . . " In her letters she is dryly acid on her brothers’ slaughter of birds one September, no self-pity there. She loved Johnson, planted flowers Cowper loved and imagined herself so close in spirit to Crabbe that she was his wife.


Posted by: Ellen

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