The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Prologue. The poet and three college companions join their friend Walter Vivian on his father’s estate. Sir Walter Vivian has opened his grounds to the nearby village and a neighboring educational institute, of which he is patron. A number of mechanical inventions are on display. A book of family history relating the courage of a female ancestor inspires Lilia, Walter’s sister, to speak out for women’s rights, particularly to higher education. Walter mentions how at college the friends tell chain stories to pass away the time; Lilia suggests that they tell such a story now. Walter agrees and decides that Lilia will be the heroine—“grand, epic, homicidal”—and the poet, who will begin the story, the hero. Each of the seven people in the group, which includes a maiden aunt, who shares Lilia’s views, will narrate part of the story.

Part 1. A country is divided into a southern and a northern kingdom. The young prince learns that the princess to whom he was once betrothed as a child now rejects him and wishes to “live alone/ Among her women” in a castle set aside for a women’s college just over the border in the southern kingdom. He begs his father to be allowed to investigate her refusal, but the warlike king, believing a binding treaty is being broken, replies that they will settle the dispute by war. Driven by an inner conviction, the prince rides off to the southern kingdom, accompanied by his two friends Cyril and Florian. At a town near the castle, the prince obtains women’s clothes for Cyril, Florian, and himself, and they enter the college disguised, despite the gates stating that any man shall enter on pain of death. The prince bears a letter of introduction from King Gama, the princess’ s father, whom he has earlier met.

Part 2. The college porter leads the disguised males to Princess Ida, who greets them as new students and explains the rules to them: For three years they must not correspond with home, leave the boundaries of the college grounds, or converse with men. Ida tells them they must give up their conventional thinking and work for the freedom of women. She seems surprised when the newcomers extravagantly praise the prince, her former suitor. The men next encounter Florian’s recently widowed sister, Psyche, Ida’s favorite tutor. They admire Aglaia, Psyche’s daughter, while Psyche lectures them on feminist history. When Psyche recognizes her brother and the others beneath their disguises, she nearly betrays them, but her...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)