I became determined to write about Braddon’s poetry when I realized that only one of her poems had been included in the immense Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory (1999).* Admittedly, from a certain perspective, it’s remarkable that she was included at all. There is an overabundance of Victorian poetry to consider when anthologizing, and Braddon’s own opinions about her poetry were less-than-enthusiastic. In Sensational Victorian: the Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, for example, Robert Lee Wolff makes particular note of Braddon’s belief that “she seldom rose above ‘Poet’s Corner’ verse” (112). Nevertheless, that one lonely poem the Broadview editors included—titled, almost accusatorily, “Waiting”—stoked the recuperative fires within. I flipped through nearly a thousand pages and read the first lines, ensnared by the haunting quality of the simple encounter Braddon’s speaker depicts:
Two women stood upon the yellow sand,
The waves and sea-weeds curling round their feet,–
One shaded with a brown but slender hand
Her dark eyes from the heat.
I asked, “Why watch ye thus beside the deep, 5
Whose rise and fall the hidden moon controls?”
“We wait a touch shall wake us from our sleep;
We’re waiting for our souls.”
For those who aren’t familiar with the poem, it was published in 1861, part of Braddon’s only volume of poetry: Garibaldi and Other Poems. The volume itself met with primarily encouraging—if patronizing—critical reception, though the title poem was heavily criticized for its political subject matter. None of the reviews make note of “Waiting,” though “Olivia” and “Among the Hyacinths” seem to have been much admired.
As indicated in the poem’s first lines, in “Waiting” Braddon portrays a brief, seaside encounter between a first-person speaker and two women. The majority of the poem’s thirteen stanzas (2-8 and 10-11, to be precise) are dedicated to the conversation between the speaker and one of the women, who claims “‘We wait a touch shall wake us from our sleep; / We’re waiting for our souls[‘]” (lines 7-8). Their conversation briefly turns to the other woman who “neither sp[eaks] nor move[s]” (line 33), an absence of action and oration which the speaking woman attributes to personal tragedy before turning the conversation back to her own experience. In spite of the brevity of this consideration, the speaker’s imagination is captured by this silent, motionless woman. Indeed, this momentary attention overwhelms and decenters the poem such that the final lines—“But evermore my memory would return / To her who never spoke” (lines 51-2)—place the poem’s semantic and symbolic weight upon this woman’s silence, on the haunting absence of her voice. Regardless of the fact that only three of the poem’s thirteen stanzas directly reference her, and regardless of the fact that the only information we get about her is merely conjecture, “Waiting” is ultimately about “her who never spoke” and the words she never said.
What is it about the woman’s silence that is so hauntingly memorable? Why is it her silence, and not the speaking woman’s tale of tragedy and loss, upon which the speaker meditates? The answer, of course, depends upon one’s interpretative approach. Reading from the perspective of disability studies, I recognize this exchange as what Lennard J. Davis, in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, has called a “deafened moment” (100-1). For Davis, a deafened moment is “a contextual position, a dialectical moment in the reading/critical process that is defined by the acknowledgement on the part of the reader/writer/critic that he or she is part of a process that does not involve speaking or hearing” (101). In “Waiting,” that is, the silent woman’s silence initiates a recognition that the text we are reading is not aural or oral, that neither the speaker nor the subjects actually speak, that we ourselves are silent, unhearing auditors.
Aesthetic theorizations of such poetic silence have been part of our scholarship for some time. Perhaps one of the foremost, Barbara Johnson’s “Muteness Envy” posits that “the ego ideal of the poetic voice would seem…to reside in the muteness of things,” adding, “there is, of course, nothing new in saying that in Western poetry, women are often idealized, objectified, and silent” (338, 340; my emphasis). Adding a disability studies perspective to this aesthetic approach allows us to consider the textual and contextual function of the woman’s silence in “Waiting.” If we understand “Waiting” to initiate a deafened moment, that is, the poetic representation of disability complicates audience understanding of disability by displacing it from the silent woman to the silent reader and, perhaps, to the speaker and the silent woman’s chatty companion. Stated differently, this content-based “deafened moment” in “Waiting” initiates an awareness of the way silence exceeds the bounds of the text, affecting us, as well as of the ways in which the poem’s symbolic and formal properties “are part of a process that does not involve speaking or hearing” (Davis 101).
Although the opening lines may seem a bit melodramatic, “Waiting” takes up a poignant moment of exchange and silence, and, I think, demonstrates not only the ways in which Braddon’s poetry might intersect with contemporary interests and approaches in Victorian scholarship (affectivity and disability studies, for example) but also highlights a significant silence at work in the aesthetic conventions of poetry itself. No small feat for a poem in a collection consigned by its author and a succession of critics alike to ignominy and obscurity as nothing more than “‘Poet’s Corner’ Verse” (112).
Courtney A. Floyd
Note: *The more widely available concise edition, released a year later, does not include any of Braddon’s poetry.