Sappho's unlamented sisters

Slip-Shod Sybils
February 16, 1996

The title of this book is provocative and deliberately so," Germaine Greer declares in the "prologue" to Slip-shod Sybils, a series of loosely connected remarks on female-authored poetry somewhat bafflingly subtitled "Recognition, Rejection, and the Woman Poet".

Her scathingly portrayed "sibyl" is drawn from The Dunciad, Book III, where Pope identifies her as the muse of the King of Dunces, but Greer uses her and her sisters here to represent a supposedly slatternly sorority of undeservingly canonised literary ladies. "The term is weighted with all the contempt expressed by literary men for literary women who took themselves seriously," she admits, implying that such contempt is rightful because "second-rate, dishonest, fake poetry" - the kind produced by "a select band of arbitrarily chosen token women, all young, beautiful and virtuous" who have been "rewarded for their failures" - is "worse than no poetry at all."

The erstwhile feminist concludes the introduction to her newest opus with a rousingly misogynistic, contemptuously phrased call to arms: "To insist on equal representation or positive discrimination so that She-poetry appears on syllabuses in our schools and universities is to continue the system of false accounting that produced the double standard in the first place."

Apart from the fact that, ironically enough, Greer herself became one of a group of "token women" who were "arbitrarily chosen" to represent the second wave of the women's movement, it is hard to understand why any responsible publisher should have undertaken to print and distribute this poorly argued, badly researched and incoherently written tome.

Nor is it easy to grasp Greer's own motives for going public with such an embarrassing production. The few theoretical assumptions on which the volume is founded might perhaps be regarded as vaguely Harold Bloomian with a dash of by now standard feminist thought, were Greer to have revealed here any awareness at all of any sort of theoretical thinking. But since her bibliography and notes cite almost no current criticism, feminist or otherwise, one must assume that like the flying pigs and dancing dogs to whom (following that great feminist philosopher Samuel Johnson) she compares women poets, she has simply surrendered to the pleasure of life as an untutored natural marvel, "kept aloft by the wonder of the public".

The misogynistic thesis of her book is especially shocking because Greer herself has fairly recently participated in what must certainly be called a feminist project, coediting Kissing the Rod: an Anthology of Seventeenth-century Women's Verse. The sweep of this new book's argument is still more bizarre, however, because of the extraordinarily eccentric canon of evidence on which it is based. It contains long muck-raking chapters on the lives and reputations of the sentimental Victorian poet "L.E.L.", the comparatively obscure 17th-century writer Katherine Phillips, the enigmatic poet-playwright and proto novelist Aphra Behn, and the hapless Anne Wharton, along with a garrulous digression on Sappho and savage attacks on Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

But there is not a paragraph on Emily Dickinson, not a sentence on Emily Bront , little more than a page on Anne Bradstreet, and barely a word on such major 20th-century figures as HD, Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich. Surely only a dancing dog or a flying pig could have composed so partial a treatise.

Perhaps there is another candidate for the authorship of this surprisingly nasty book? Remember Professor von X, the paradigmatic misogynist to whom Virginia Woolf introduced readers in A Room of One's Own, crossly labouring in the British Museum on "his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex?" Perhaps Greer's speculation that some of the poetry historically attributed to women was really produced by "male hacks" is meant to hint that her book was actually authored by Professor von X himself, artfully posing as one "Germaine Greer".

Certainly the terms in which she refers to the few literary scholars and critics she mentions in her text with anything like respect make them sound suspiciously like colleagues of his, no matter what their merits: prominent among the scant accolades she offers other thinkers are those bestowed upon "the great Lobel" and "the late great Professor Turner", both of whom have strong opinions about Sappho, especially relevant to the argument of her book.

At the same time, it is hard to believe that any experienced scholar, male or female, misogynist or feminist, could have stumbled over facts quite so egregiously as Greer does in her zeal to indite her indictments of women poets. A few examples: "Mary Tighe plagiarised Keats rather than Spenser." (Never mind that the heirs of Mary Tighe [1772-1810] published in 1811 a poem entitled "Psyche" which, as a number of scholars have noted, influenced the poem "Ode to Psyche" that John Keats [1795-1821] wrote in 1819 and published in 1820.) Elizabeth Bishop "became a pupil of Marianne Moore in Boston." (Never mind that Bishop was not a "pupil" of Moore's and in any case the two met in New York.) Christina Rossetti's "small devout poems . . . may have won golden opinions from her contemporaries and family, but the verdict of history is rather less enthusiastic". (Never mind that this remark is "supported" by Greer's own note citing Lionel Stevenson's comment in 1972 that Rossetti's religious poems "merit comparison with those of Donne, Crashaw, and Herbert".) Along with a further collection of such mis-statements, a virtual anthology of Greer's odd observations about women and their work could be appended here, if space considerations did not prevent such a gesture. As it is, one of her more peculiar comments - comparable in prurience and scurrilousness to some of Camille Paglia's characteristically freakish remarks - will have to suffice as a summary of the spirit in which Slip-shod Sybils was evidently written: "Though wholesale liquefaction by love-sick females is well known to pop concert promoters, who have to undertake to re-cover the seats after rock concerts, it is not discussed in polite society. The parents of today's dripping maenads would not recognise them if they saw them in their frenzy. The spectacle of uninhibited female libido is terrifying." This passage was apparently intended to illuminate Sappho's "Ode to Aphrodite," the only text that gets anything like a "reading" in this reprehensible book about the poetry of women.

Sandra M. Gilbert is professor of English, University of California at Berkeley.

But this overview of the varying fortunes of "the woman poet" contains - when as the young, beautiful and politically virtuous author of The Female Eunuch she was pictured on the cover of Life magazine in the early 1970s -

Slip-Shod Sybils: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet

Author - Germaine Greer
ISBN - 0 670 84914 6
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 517

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