Scarlette-Electra LeBlanc (University of St Andrews)
When we think of literary mermaids, it is hard to resist the siren-song of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ which was first published in English in 1845. The enduring cultural impact of the tale makes it easy to assume that its demure, silenced mermaid is simply the most famous of a long line of similar figures. However, Andersen’s story comes in the wake of a small subgenre, where female poets depicted the mermaid as particularly vocal, possessing powerful, and occasionally destructive, methods of expression. This article will give an overview of some of these poems, from Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Sea-Nymph’ in The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, to Maria Jane Jewsbury’s ‘The Sunken Rock,’ published in 1833.
Radcliffe and Bannerman
Radcliffe’s sea-nymph initially appears overwhelmingly harmless and virtuous, discarding, to the best of her ability, the associations of sirens luring sailors to their deaths. Her actions, whether they be protecting ships from storms, ‘guid[ing] the bark to peaceful shore,’ or ‘[s]oothing the ship-wreck’d sailor’s heart’ by leading him through the desert to ‘lofty groves, […] [w]here sweet fruits bloom,’ are curiously domestic. Although inhabiting the ocean, she provides sustenance, emotional comfort, and protection to men, and thus almost falls in line with the expected behaviour of a good eighteenth-century woman – but not quite.
Her transgressions are made clearer by ‘Neptune,’ acting as a tyrannical patriarch, chaining her to the sea floor for her behaviour, as if it goes against the natural order of things. There is something uncanny, almost blasphemous about Radcliffe’s transformation of domestic tasks (e.g. food preparation) into the divine. As well as leading the men to safety, her ‘warbled songs’ influence the weather, as ‘the spirits of the air obey / My potent voice they love so well.’ Her ability to tame ‘the mighty rivers,’ ‘guid[ing] their streams through Neptune’s waves / To bless the green earth’s inmost shore’ may appear nurturing, but has an ominous undercurrent, gesturing towards her own immense strength.
Looking at the poem’s descriptions of sound, her rebellious nature is accentuated, as by saving sailors, she ‘hush[es]’ their ‘fearful groan[s],’ silencing them. While her song is deliberately composed, built from ‘swell[ing]’ ‘single note[s],’ ‘choral voices,’ ‘chant[ed] ditties,’ and ‘warbled songs,’ the sailors make only guttural, instinctive utterances, ‘groans’ and ‘cries.’ These accentuate the men’s mortality and vulnerability in comparison to the sea-nymph, who abounds with ‘charmful pow’r.’ Neptune’s preference for human anguish, the sound of ‘drowning seamen cry[ing] in vain,’ over the sea-nymph’s musical offerings, hints at the purposeful suppression of female voices. It implies that there is a class of men who would rather that women stay silent, bound ‘fast to rocks below,’ even if they could produce poetry that would provide relief to men who are suffering.
Anne Bannerman’s contribution, ‘The Mermaid,’ which was published in 1800, reads as a demonic inversion of Radcliffe’s creature. Bannerman’s mermaid, who is called Ajut, can also manipulate the weather, but actively encourages ‘ye death-fraught whirlwinds’ to ‘blow on’. Both mermaids keep watch during storms on a ‘high cliff,’ but Bannerman’s does so with the intention of ‘luring’ sailors to their ‘doom,’ rather than saving them.
Ajut does this by appropriating the voice of a dying sailor, which frightens the still-living sailors by prefiguring their deaths. She:
pour[s] the syren-song of woe;
Like the sad mariner’s expiring cry,
As, faint and worn with toil, he lays down to die.
Her entwinement with murderous classical sirens is thus increased, as, like her Homeric ancestors, ‘[t]he content of the song is knowledge, the threefold wisdom possessed by beings who are not subject to time: knowledge of the past, of the present, and of the future’ (Warner 399). By replicating ‘the sad mariner’s expiring cry’, she burdens the sailors with knowledge of their future deaths, and therefore renders those deaths inevitable; once the sailors learn the sound of their ‘expiring cry’, they have no choice but to mirror it with their own ‘shrieks of anguish.’
Both Radcliffe’s sea-nymph and Ajut are connected to Mother Nature, as powerful, otherworldly women inhabiting landscapes of unrestrained wildness. However, Bannerman’s Nature is noticeably more destructive, far from Radcliffe’s bountiful wild groves that save men from starvation; Ajut freely roams ‘this unbounded waste of sea’ ‘along this wild untrodden coast.’ Margaret Homans has suggested that Mother Nature is ‘not a helpful model for women aspiring to be poets,’ because she is ‘prolific biologically, not linguistically’ (13). Nevertheless, Bannerman’s poem suggests that Ajut’s connection to nature is the source of her power, rather than an obstacle to reaching it. Even the sailor’s ‘expiring cr[ies]’ are composed by Ajut, making her the author of her victims’ most primordial expressions of pain. Just as in Radcliffe’s poem, a juxtaposition between Ajut’s ‘seraph-strains’ and the sailor’s voices is created, as Bannerman defies the idea that women are not capable of composed, purposeful language. Instead, it is men who are rendered brute and inarticulate in the face of nature’s majesty.
Stewart and Jewsbury
Jessie Stewart’s ‘The Sea Nymph,’ published in 1806, and Maria Jane Jewsbury’s ‘The Sunken Rock’ both offer virtuous mermaids that inhabit violent narratives. Jewsbury opens with a ‘cruel’ ‘syren-song’ causing a ship to sink, before turning to the ‘milder music’ of ‘milder ocean’s daughters,’ while Stewart’s scenes of bloody carnage are very similar to Bannerman’s descriptions of shipwreck. Subsequently, these poems can be read as attempts to create a synthesis of their predecessors’ mermaid poems; each poet chooses and discards elements from Radcliffe and Bannerman’s narratives.
In comparison to Radcliffe’s sea-nymph, these mermaids are completely unsuccessful at saving drowning sailors. While Stewart’s creature can conjure ‘the blush of pure delight, / To warm the pallid cheek of death’ through her music, in contrast with Ajut who ‘mark[s] each hardy cheek grow pale,’ her influence over the elements is greatly reduced from Radcliffe’s sea-nymph; she must fiercely ‘combat Heaven’s unyielding storm’, rather than effortlessly commanding the ‘spirits of the air.’ Similarly, Jewsbury’s oceanides ‘would save,’ if they could, ‘but are weak’.
As if to cope with their inability to save sailors from death, Jewsbury and Stewart’s mermaids busy themselves by tending to the graves of the drowned. In a strange variation on traditional scenes of domestic arrangement on land, both poets describe the assembly and bejewelling of these graves. Upon the ship’s sinking in ‘The Sunken Rock’, the oceanides are immediately identifiable as responsible for burials; they weave ‘many a weedy shroud’ and sing ‘a funeral dirge.’ A similar repurposing of funereal language takes place in Stewart’s poem, as rather than ‘embalm[ing]’ the sailors’ bodies, the sea nymph ‘embalm[s]’ ‘the billows […] o’er the sailor’s tomb’ with ‘deathless’, endlessly ‘bloom[ing]’ ‘sea-flowers’. While these attempts are not perfect, as the oceanides can only impermanently ‘[h]ide […] the limbs of youth / From some monster’s ravening tooth’, a great effort to individually tend for each victim is made, rather than allowing them to become part of the indeterminate hordes of the sea’s dead.
Jewsbury’s largely powerless oceanides, with grave maintenance being ‘all that […they…] can do,’ represent the beginning of the end for empowering mermaid poetry. While representations of patriarchs who limit female power are present even in Radcliffe’s iteration, it is here that any traces of a liberation fantasy are demolished. Jewsbury appears to find Stewart’s mediation between Bannerman and Radcliffe’s mermaids too optimistic, dividing her mermaids into the weak-willed oceanides, and brutal syrens. However, although the oceanides more closely conform to the period’s expectations for women, they are still vocal, and participate in artistic expression in multiple ways. They perform poetry, even if its purpose is to lament, and their attempts to improve the conditions of the sailor’s bodies could be read as a creative endeavour.
These poems trace a gradual dwindling in the mermaid’s power, but it was not until 1845 that Andersen’s fairy tale silenced the mermaid’s voice. Despite her virtuousness, his mermaid is gradually reduced to nothing; she gives up her voice, has her tail cleaved into legs, and gains feet which perpetually bleed, but none of this is enough. Her soul is only saved after she turns to sea-foam, enacting ‘self-obliteration, dissolution’ (Warner 398). Instead of mermaids being the ones saving, condemning, or burying sailors, it is they who become lost. With this shift, they no longer serve as an intriguing metaphor for female creative power.
Scarlette-Electra LeBlanc recently graduated from her Master’s in Romantic and Victorian Studies from the University of St Andrews. Before that, she read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Her current research interests are eighteenth- and nineteenth-century representations of fairy tales, folklore and the supernatural; self-construction, author status, and identity formation in mid-Victorian novels; and the relationship between motherhood and death. Her dissertation explored the fallen woman’s survival through motherhood in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.
Andersen, Hans Christian. ‘The Little Mermaid’. The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism, edited by Maria Tatar, 1st ed, Norton, 1999, pp. 216–32.
Bannerman, Anne. ‘The Mermaid’. Poems, Mundell, Doig, & Stevenson, 1807, pp. 20–24.
Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton University Press, 1980.
Jewsbury, Maria Jane. ‘The Sunken Rock’. The Oceanides, edited by Judith Pascoe, 2003, https://romantic-circles.org/editions/oceanides/poems/4oceanides.html.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. G.G. and J. Robinson, 1794.
Stewart, Jessie. ‘The Sea Nymph’. The Poetical Register: And Repository of Fugitive Poetry, vol. 4, Jan. 1806, pp. 58–61.
Warner, Marina. ‘The Silence of the Daughters: The Little Mermaid’. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, pp. 387–408.