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Complaining but not Forsaken: Native American Women and Romantic Complaint

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posted on 18.05.2021, 04:43 by Godfery, Millie

Although Romantic poetry is touted for its melancholic and introspective nature, the presence of complaint poetry in this period has been paid little attention by scholars. Embracing an aesthetic of lament, the mode’s primary intention is to amplify the speaker’s grief and / or protest to a given circumstance or event, privileging the subjective “I” as the central voice of the poem. More commonly known as a mode used by early modern male poets to imagine the grievances of the opposite sex, this thesis considers a poetics of Romantic complaint, looking at two distinct, but intimately connected groups of writers. Chapter one identifies three British Romantic poets – William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Felicia Hemans – to discuss why they adopted complaint to literarily (note not literally) place themselves in the shoes of the Other: the “forsaken” Native American woman. Simultaneously sympathetic and reprehensible under the British feminine model, this Romantic Indian woman figure embodied the simplicity and “spontaneity” idealised by these British poets, who thereby fabricated her lamenting voice to complement their poetic projects of ballad and song restoration in the name of creating an identifiably British national literature. The mode of complaint and the voice of the Romantic Indian woman are thus argued to be integral to the formation of Romantic poiesis, this chapter emphasising how, by appropriating the voice of the female Other, these poets attempted to establish a sense of British literary identity.

Redressing the fictionalised portraits cast by these British-authored complaints, this thesis then turns to the poetry of actual Native American women writing during and after the Romantic era. Paralleling (although not descending from) the female-authored, female-voiced complaints of early modern women in Europe, the demotic, woeful rhetoric of complaint becomes a similarly powerful tool for a number of Native American women, whose work offers a diverse range of laments from land loss and cultural displacement, to the death of children and the experience of motherhood. Chapter two of this thesis concentrates on a body of complaint poetry by Bamewawagezhikaquay, or Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, a central figure in both Native American and Romantic literature in America. Building on the arguments I make here, chapter three then expands out to offer case studies of the complaints written by four Native women: E. Pauline Johnson (Kanienʼkehá꞉ ka or Mohawk); Ruth Margaret Muskrat (Cherokee); Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Sioux); and Mabel Washbourne Anderson (Cherokee). Acknowledging the centrality of rhetorical sovereignty and kinship to the lives and writings of these women, this thesis determines a way of accessing their English-written poems via the frame of Romantic complaint. In doing so, we can consider a tradition of female-voiced complaint that is not necessarily self-conscious in its construction, but nevertheless vital to how we think about and study Native American literature, women’s writing, and, of course, Romantic literature.


Advisor 1

Hessell, Nikki

Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License

CC BY-ND 4.0

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

950203 Languages and Literature

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre, Media Studies and Art History