Studies of Florence Nightingale over the past century have focused on liberating the historical figure from the popular iconography associated with her. In the first comprehensive biography of Nightingale in 1913, Sir Edward Cook claims her “character . . . was stronger, more spacious, and . . . more lovable than that of The Lady with the Lamp” (1: xxxi). Adopting a far less reverent tone, Lytton Strachey takes a similar approach five years later in
In April 1856, the American illustrated weekly newspaper
My analysis of popular poetic representations of Nightingale in Victorian periodical poetry builds on Natalie Houston’s recent work to investigate the newspaper poem’s “ideological function within the public sphere” (“Newspaper” 234). In particular, I want to place critical pressure on one of her central claims concerning poetry’s mediating function between public events and private feeling: “Poetry was one way that individuals participating in the communal nation-defining experience of reading the newspaper described by Benedict Anderson were guided toward emotional and aesthetic interpretations of different national events” (“Newspaper” 241). Firstly, I suggest we need to expand our critical analysis of the ideological function of newspaper poetry from a national to transnational context. For instance, what sort of “communal nation-defining experience” did an American newspaper reader in Ohio in 1856 undergo when reading a poem celebrating an English nurse’s heroics in the Crimea? Secondly, I wish to theorize further the relationship between “emotional and aesthetic interpretations” of national events. Houston claims that “newspaper poems were used to refine, amplify, or comment upon the emotional responses that news reporting could produce,” but what sort of emotional responses did these “aesthetic interpretations” seek to elicit in turn from their readers (“Newspaper” 241)? How did the aesthetic performance of feeling in response to a national event appeal to the emotions of Victorian newspaper readers?
In an earlier article on sonnets and photographs of the Crimean War, Houston argues that the “documentary and memorializing qualities” of these forms “were used to harness public history for private consumption” and to “transform the public events of the war into private memorials” (“Reading” 381, 374). Houston illustrates this process by examining the following sonnet entitled “Miss Nightingale”:
Houston makes two important points about the poem. Firstly, she argues that although the sonnet attributes the lasting affective response to Nightingale’s “perfect charity,” the poem itself enacts “a model for reading . . . [the] collection of individually affecting lyrics” (“Reading” 376). The sonnet, in this sense, memorializes itself by interpellating a type of future nostalgic reader capable of preserving its affective relevance. Although this model of nostalgic reading offers a partial explanation at least to the persistence of Nightingale’s iconic power, I disagree with Houston’s second point about the Smith and Dobell sonnet in which she claims that the poem “links the heart of the future reader to the tearful heart of the soldier in a physical and affective response that Smith and Dobell saw as the goal of their volume” (“Reading” 376). Rather, the nostalgic model of reading does not actually produce such an affective “link” between soldier and future reader, but, instead, the future reader finds herself emotionally drawn to the trope of Nightingale by the very desires created through the daily act of newspaper reading. The example represents the ways in which Nightingalean iconography reflects back to the reader her own fears and anxieties as a reified modern subject — which the newspaper, of course, assists in producing—rather than acting as a bridge between national events and individual feelings.
This argument represents in some respects a corollary of the frequent claim by scholars that the disasters of the Crimean War and their amplification by a newly emerging modern media necessitated the figure of Nightingale. Gillian Gill suggests the British press “needed a hero” because it “had touted this war that was turning into a national disaster” (318). Mark Bostridge argues that she was “set against the aristocratic— and masculine—mismanagement of the war” and even “promoted by the Government itself as a heroine in a conflict that had signally failed to produce a figure of the stature of Nelson or Wellington” (263). Although I agree with the basic premise of the necessary, or at least useful, national hero, this chauvinistic role hardly begins to explain her wide-ranging international appeal. Nightingale might
Nighingalean iconography in Victorian periodical poetry performed a crucial ideological function in relation to the dominant narrative presented in newspaper prose by providing a type of sickroom for working through the disruptive anxieties and desires produced by the war, or, more precisely, the disorienting experience of reading about the war: the simultaneous sensation of proximity to and detachment from the events reported as well as the eclectic arrangement of war coverage beside unrelated domestic and international news. My argument builds on Linda Hughes’s influential work on periodical poetry, particularly her analysis of the manner in which “generically signified intimations of the universal, the spiritual, and the permanent [in] poetry could mediate the miscellaneous and ephemerality of the periodical itself” (99). Although I agree with Hughes’s emphasis on the mediating function of periodical poetry, I would place greater critical pressure on the category of the “affective poem” which she identifies more specifically as the most common and significant poetic mediator. In particular, she insufficiently theorizes the relationship between the form and content of the affective poem by taking the predominance of Victorian love poetry in periodicals at face value: “affective poems,” in this sense, are merely poems that proclaim their own interest in affect (100). Isobel Armstrong’s theorization of poetic affect in
This generic contradiction embedded within the English hero’s name is effectively reflected in two periodical poems of the mid-1850s generically entitled, like scores of other poems, “Florence Nightingale.” The first poem, published anonymously in
The poem reifies the heroic figure of womanhood into her name’s object-parts, delegating separate comforting attributes to her composite thingness though the similes of bird and city:
The poem introduces asymmetry into the parallel structure by following the third apostrophe with an apposition rather than a simile, setting the active agent, “watcher,” apart from the metonymic function of “voice” and “heart.” This produces the effect of consolidating the comforting qualities within the historical figure, “Good Florence Nightingale,” yet also reinforcing a syntactic and thematic cleavage between the nurse as a heroic subject and her name as a collection of fragmented noble attributes. The poem ultimately gives priority to the latter by emphasizing the salutary effects of the name’s sweet sound on the reader rather than describing the nurse’s actions on behalf of sick soldiers:
Although the poet declares that she calls upon Nightingale not “for a rhyme / Nor yet to fit the time” (4-5), the poem foregrounds the name’s effect upon the reader in response to a larger narrative of newspaper reading, presupposing the antecedent events that “the sweet story comes” and the reader’s “brave eyes fill” with overwhelming emotion. Highlighting the thingness of Florence Nightingale reflects back narcissistically the reader’s own affective response to the generic newspaper story and places the reader herself at the center of the poem’s action.
This Nightingalean mnemonics, moreover, frames her name in terms of a transnational media even while chauvinistically celebrating its unifying influence on the nation. In the second example by Charles Swain, the poem’s first two stanzas end with England and Britain calling upon one name: “Nightingale! dear Nightingale!” (12, 24). The repetition of Nightingale’s name at the end of each stanza functions as a binding structure to unite the various affective responses of a praying mother, crying sister, and proud soldier invoked in the first stanza (1-8) and as an instrument of collective national amnesia:
The name, according to the poem’s logic, functions simultaneously as a collective cathartic release of emotion and as a repression of a sense of national shame surrounding the war. The final stanza, however, subtly evacuates this distinctly English concern of its national markers, reframing the final refrain in terms of Nightingale’s timeless, rather than national, context: “Time shall hear a lip that calleth / Nightingale! dear Nightingale!” (35-36). The poem memorializes her name as one that will last as long as “feeling / Throbs within a human heart” (27-28), decoupling the name’s affective function from its immediate national context.
Both poems were originally composed by British authors and published in British newspapers but later circulated widely in American periodicals. Kathryn Ledbetter’s extensive work on nineteenth-century periodicals demonstrates the manner in which the lack of copyright restrictions between Britain and the United States made the widespread redistribution of British periodical poetry popular and cost-effective. In
1For canonical poetic representations of the nightingale, see Coleridge, Keats, and Clare.
Although essentially “misrepresenting” the historical figure, as Poovey argues, Nightingalean poetic tropes consistently cohere around a central paradox concerning her status as an exceptional or a typical example of Victorian femininity (165-66). In one sense, the poems present Nightingale as an extension of middle-class domestic ideology, a real life Angel in the Hospital. Rather than presenting Nightingale’s roles as an aristocratic lady and middle-class angel as interchangeable representations of Christian womanhood, periodical poems employ these tropes strategically to emphasize the central paradox or her typical or exceptional nature. The poems emphasize consistently an implied middle-class typicality of her domestic tasks performed in the Crimea yet suggest she is fit for these duties because she is an aristocratic maiden rather than a middle-class wife or mother. That is to say, Nightingale can only perform the role of Ministering Angel (read middle-class woman) abroad because she is a lady who does not actually possess any middle-class responsibilities at home. What is particularly interesting about these periodical poems is not only the manner in which they portray an exceptional figure like Nightingale to reinforce the principles of middle-class domestic ideology but also the ways in which they employ these gender contradictions to explore problems of agency among mid-Victorian newspaper readers. The coding of Nightingale as a lady not only renders her more easily separable from middle-class domestic duties in England but also associates her with a type of modern detachment which could be contrasted with the narrow sphere of middle-class wives and mothers. These periodical poems draw upon these contradictory domestic tropes in order to address broader problems of distance and detachment in reading mid-Victorian newspapers. The poets place Nightingale’s paradoxical status as an exceptional lady or typical woman at the heart of their poems in order to cultivate a detached perspective on newspaper reading while simultaneously attempting to bind readers affectively to their poems.
Periodical poems glorifying the Crimean nurse act as a countervailing binding agent for disoriented newspaper readers by strategically interpellating them into a subordinate, vulnerable, or even infantilized relation to the heroic figure. Building on the extensive theoretical work on the notion of masochism in nineteenth-century culture, I argue that the subordinate position of the imaginary reader in the masochistic fantasy provides a form of agency for the passive newspaper reader by offering an ethical strategy for delimiting the scope of readers’ moral responsibility. As Suzanne Stewart argues, “masochism signified . . . a novel form of self-control” (10). Marianne Noble likewise suggests that “masochism in nineteenth-century . . . women’s sentimentality can be seen as an opportunity for agency that presented itself to authors
Lewis Carroll’s “The Path of Roses,” originally published in the
Echoing Nightingale’s class position and, rather uncannily, her pre-Crimean frustrations elaborated in her proto-feminist essay,
The first fifty-seven lines of the poem focus on the pale Lady’s dissatisfaction with her life in England and turn to the heroic figure of Nightingale as an optimistic alternative for women suffering from the rigid strictures of English domestic life. Unlike much contemporary poetry on Nightingale, Carroll’s poem does not imagine the aristocratic figure of the Lady with the Lamp as a surrogate for the middle-class Angel in the House but, rather, emphasizes the pale Lady’s own privileged place through such domestic details as “ancient room” and “hanging vine” (1, 3). The poem focuses on the Lady’s “weary hands” but indicates that they are tired from worry rather than work (5). Additionally, unlike many Nightingalean poems, the English lady does not cry for a wounded brother or dead husband in the war but, instead, laments the meaningless of her own life. The introductory stanza eroticizes the poem’s presentation of the Woman Question by calling attention to the pale Lady’s “large hot tears” and “low-panted sobs” which “broke awefully” the “dark silence” of the “ancient” gothic scene, emphasizing the liminality of both subject and setting (8-10). Carroll highlights the relationship between the pale Lady’s identity crisis and reading habits by displacing her anxiety onto a “great clasped volume” of heroic verse (10). We learn in the second stanza that the book represents both a symptom and cause of the pale Lady’s extreme emotional distress. As a symptom, the pale’s Lady’s clasping and unclasping of the volume marks a habitual (seemingly neurotic) action:
As she reads out loud to herself eight poetic stanzas from the volume, she calls attention to the book’s repetitious cause of her suffering, particularly the manner in which the embedded heroic verses make apparent to her the contrast between her own meaningless life and men’s ability to battle for “the True, the Right” (17).
Carroll reinforces this masochistic reading through the poem’s complex structure and presentation of social discourses. The poem can be divided into four interlocking narrative frames marked by distinctly differing social voices. The first frame is marked by the poet’s voice in blank verse framing the first and final stanzas of the poem and appearing at brief stretches throughout the poem. The second frame begins in the middle of the second stanza with the introduction of eight sub-stanzas of mock-heroic rhyming tetrameter tercets. The third frame first appears at the end of the second stanza, runs until the fifth stanza, and reappears once again in the ninth stanza. The third frame introduces a dialogue between the pale Lady and a “solemn whisper” (93). The fourth and innermost frame appears in the sixth and seventh stanzas as a type of dream vision focalized through the pale Lady’s imagination depicting first a Crimean battlefield and then a war hospital. The poem’s basic narrative logic pushes the reader to read from the anxiety-ridden first frame, depicting the pale Lady’s longing for a meaningful career, to find a solution in the fourth frame’s celebratory depiction of Nightingale. The eventual turn to Nightingale two-thirds of the way through the poem, however, offers a highly equivocal answer to the Woman Question: either Nightingale represents a model of action for eccentric aristocratic women of leisure or she functions as a compensatory fantasy for the mundane lives of middle-class women. Rather, the poem’s sentimental depiction of the pale Lady masochistically embraces her suffering as a performative gesture, transforming her professional frustration into an affective assertion of her agency as a reader.
The dream vision of the war and Nightingale in the fourth narrative frame internalizes the narrative perspective of the international journalist. The poem transports the pale Lady and its readers to the Crimea through a proto-cinematic lap dissolve—“The sunlight dying through the trellised vine—/ The one tall window—all had passed away, / And she was standing on the mighty hills” (61-63)—and offers a series of brief war sketches of a “living sea of men—/ Plunged to their death” (69-70). The poem, however, never directly references the Crimea nor the context of the war but, rather, assumes the reader’s familiarity with contemporary newspaper accounts. Likewise, the original publication of the poem never mentions Nightingale by name, referring to her merely as “one,” and later versions of the poem include a clarifying preface: “Florence Nightingale was at the height of her fame when this was written, after the Crimean War.” Instead, the brief depiction of the heroic nurse presumes the reader’s prior knowledge of a coded language — “light footfall,” “purely calm her face,” “steadfast eyes,” “ministered to each comfort and counsel,” “whispered words of peace”—rendered current already through popular newspaper sketches:
Rather than identifying herself with the Lady with the Lamp, the pale Lady places herself in her vision in the position of “pale sufferer” and “dying warrior,” introducing a pathological fantasy that associates her with the death drive rather than proto-feminist Bildungsroman. The conflation of “pale sufferer” and “dying warrior” transforms the pale Lady’s dream vision into a form of cathartic cleansing from the frustrations of both Victorian domestic ideology and newspaper reporting of the war. The poem emphasizes the pale Lady’s desire for self-annihilation in the description of her response to the vision: “watching tearfully / Her gentle moving onward, till the night / Had veiled her wholly” (90-92). Rather than merely describing the pale Lady’s helplessness, the masochistic fantasy marks a form of agency, transforming her state of passivity into a type of affective performance. Reading the poem’s narrative frames in reverse, we can see how the poem reveals a masochistic logic at the heart of contemporary periodical poetry which attempts to delimit a disorienting and overwhelming sense of moral burden placed on the liberal individual by the nascent field of international journalism.
The poem’s answer to the Woman Question in the penultimate stanza mobilizes the language of “woman’s mission” made popular through the conduct manuals but extends the logic of middle-class domestic ideology far beyond the limits of the Victorian home:
The stanza frames the idea of woman’s mission in a deliberately ambivalent manner. On the one hand, the extension of woman’s mission to where “War and Terror shake the troubled earth” sounds like a liberating call to overcome the type of social strictures lamented in the second stanza: “Hemmed in by social forms she pines in vain” (95, 41). On the other, the passage also emphasizes the necessary limits placed on women: “each hath his place assigned: / Do thou thy task, and leave the rest to God” (102-03). If women should go wherever they are needed and “[a]ll things are sanctified,” then what exactly is their “place assigned” (99, 102)? Does the example of Nightingale offer a hopeful model of agency or compensatory fantasy to reinforce female self-resignation? Is the “solemn voice” introducing these ideas closely aligned with the poetic narrator or is it a neurotic symptom of the pale Lady’s hysteria? The poem’s ambivalence towards these questions precludes what might seem like a conventionally celebratory reading of Nightingale and woman’s mission and offers instead a masochistic performance of frustration and disorientation. The poem reinforces such a reading through its dark ending:
The pale Lady’s lonely, tearful resignation towards darkness offers a stark contrast to the image of Nightingale as an icon of Christian womanhood who brings light to the world and calls attention to an inherent disjuncture between the tropes of the Lady with the Lamp and the Angel in the House which many contemporary poems attempt to conflate. The poem ultimately reveals that the greatest “scenes of horror and affright” exist at home rather than abroad and that the Nightingalean tropes reflect back the anxieties and fears of the reader herself rather than transmitting affect from the war front to the home front.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Santa Filomena” demonstrates the international scope of this phenomenon and represents a widely circulated American simulacrum of Nightingalean iconography that both celebrates her as a distinctly English hero and emphasizes the transnational effect of her noble deeds. The poem is written in rapid, rhyming trimeter and tetrameter that gives a jingoistic tone that invites less reflection from the American reader than Carroll’s poem written primarily in longer blank verse. The first two stanzas, however, introduce a causal relation between the rhyming couplets in its quatrains which suggests a more complex double poem lurking beneath the celebratory voice:
The first two stanzas frame in abstract terms the central idea explored in detail the final seven stanzas that thinking about Nightingale’s “noble deed” exerts a positive moral influence on the rest of humanity. Longfellow reinforces this idea by incorporating his own poetic persona into the fourth and fifth stanzas:
The image of Longfellow reading a newspaper offers the missing link in the abstract, causal relationships introduced in the preceding stanzas, translating the “whene’er” into a particular moment of reading and attributing to himself a type of aggrandized agency in this moral “tidal wave” (1, 5). The poet’s awkward transition, “Thus thought I,” causes us to rethink the seemingly redundant mention of “noble deed” and “noble thought” in the poem’s first two lines. Longfellow’s poem highlights explicitly the masochistic logic implicitly underwriting Nightingalean iconography: the notion that the painful pleasure of newspaper reading constitutes a form of moral good. What appears to be the Longfellow’s celebratory canonization of Nightingale in the figure of Santa Filomena constitutes the poet’s effort to delimit his own moral responsibility as a newspaper reader lacking the necessary agency to influence events abroad. Faced with the horrors of war, the poet embraces a masochistic fantasy in order to translate passive newspaper reading into an active performance by dramatizing his own sense of helplessness.
The poet’s frustrated desires produced by the newspaper reporting of “the great army of the dead” are displaced onto the eroticized figure of the female mystic. This relationship can be seen in the original historical inspiration for the poem in which, according to Woodham-Smith, Longfellow read in a newspaper about Sidney Herbert sharing at a public meeting in London on November 29, 1855 to honor Nightingale a “letter from Scutari in which a soldier described the men kissing Miss Nightingale’s shadow as she passed” (164). By the time Longfellow published his poem two years later, the image of an unnamed soldier kissing Nightingale’s shadow had already become one of the most canonical tropes in Nightingalean iconography. Like earlier poems, Longfellow draws upon the conventional image to neutralize the pejorative sexual connotations associated with nursing by imagining the kiss as an innocent form of unrequited love but reworks the trope into a love triangle between the soldier, the nurse, and the newspaper reader:
Like the pale Lady in Carroll’s poem, the newspaper reader finds his counterpart in the sick soldier in their shared experience of speechless suffering, and both figures displace their silent suffering onto the eroticized figure of the Lady with the Lamp. The power reversal of an active female hero caring for a passive sufferer mobilizes a masochistic logic to mirror back the newspaper reader’s own suffering. The figure of the Lady with the Lamp symbolizes the idea of Christian enlightenment through a seemingly empowered female saint, but it in the end it is the poet’s own desires which are satiated through his “spent” vision. The popular iconography’s canonization of Nightingale as the secular saint of modern media represents a transnational need to give form to the formless experience of the disoriented newspaper reader and the ever shifting contours of the liberal individual, periodical prose, and an increasingly globalized world.