Defenestration of Prague

by Susan Howe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

Defenestration of Prague is a complex interweaving of various perspectives and commentaries on the nature of being female in a world of patriarchal institutions. Primarily the poem is about the life and times of Hester (or Esther) Johnson (1680-1728), an Englishwoman who became the mistress of Jonathan Swift (1668-1745), the Irish satirical poet and Anglican bishop. Hester, or Stella, as she was known to Swift, remained Swift’s mistress and housekeeper throughout her adult life. Their relationship was kept a careful secret over the years, which is part of what the poem explores.

The poem is divided into many separate units of discourse, each varying its mode of articulation as the subjects of women and gender oppression are scrutinized. The poem has a wide range of formal strategies, from loose-knit fragments of memory and historic allusion to the fully fleshed lyrics of “Speeches at the Barriers,” which develop certain of the basic themes of the poem, to the dramatic episodes of the second part of the poem, “The Liberties.”

Though a narrative in the general sense of a story, the poem also experiments in telling a tale from multiple points of view anchored in the poet’s own personal examination of female suppression. Hence, the story is told by a narrator who is herself anxiously engaged in the process by which even the terms to be used are sifted for their meanings, their historical and etymological content. What serves as evidence is a composite of widely scattered forms of personal testimony—not only from the bits and scraps of Hester Johnson’s few lyrics and comments but also from other writers, male and female, who have versions of the story or parallel situations to report.

Susan Howe’s finished version achieves two goals simultaneously: to study the life of one woman whose existence is utterly eclipsed by the fame and influence of her male lover, and to argue that such a case is not unique to one century or culture but unfolds a principle underlying much of Western existence. There is a third, more tentative purpose in telling this story: to indicate in hazy outline something of the battle that rages between self and soul, as encoded in these images of men and women participating in a relationship fraught with tension, conflict, and unequal privilege. Howe’s concern is how such lives turn out to be keys to understanding the lopsidedness of cultural life and the chaos that rages behind conventional historical assumptions.

The work is divided into two main parts. The first, entitled “Defenestration of Prague,” has mainly to do with Hester Johnson’s voyage to Ireland to join Swift and to look after her inherited properties there. The experience of the voyage and arrival in Ireland, a kind of wilderness, is equated in the narrative with other women’s adventures trekking to frontiers in colonial America. The second part, “The Liberties,” is concerned with the nature of Johnson’s relationship to Swift and with analogous relations between powerful patriarchs and their mistresses, wives, or daughters. In particular, Howe comments on the situation of Emily Dickinson, who remained housebound much of her adult life while writing brilliant but unpublished poems. Lines and phrases of Dickinson’s poems come into the text at various moments. In the “Book of Cordelia,” a dramatic masque compares the crises of Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, and Stella as they confront the emptiness of their lives as victims of sexual inequality. Like other of William Shakespeare’s victims, Cordelia achieves liberation only through death, as does Stella. Hence the title of the second part is “The Liberties”: It recounts the women’s final moments of life as they escape from the bondage of being female.

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