William Dean Howells’ “Editha,” Richard Lovelace, and Shakespeare

Typically, critics read William Dean Howells’ “Editha” as a story that comments on our need to proclaim our national identities through patriotism and war and how that continual proclamation does more harm than good. Others read “Editha” through a feminist lens arguing that the focus of the story lies in the ways that Editha and Mrs. Gearson work to exert power over George. Today, I want to offer a reading that exists in the middle ground between these two position by examining the allusions to works by Richard Lovelace and William Shakespeare that appear in the story.

After George and Editha discuss his possible involvement in the Spanish-American War, George leaves, still uncommitted to the patriotic act of enlisting. Editha dismisses George’s reluctance to enlist and issues him an ultimatum: He may return to her if he signs up and fights for the nation as God wants him to do. While he is away, Editha becomes frustrated and begins to prepare for life without her fiance, gathering up his gifts to her and even composing a letter expressing her views. Within the letter, Editha tells him that they can not be together if they do not views things in the same manner. She adds that she will not marry another man, and if he wants that to be him, “[George] must love his country first of all” (47).

It is at this point in her missive that Editha quotes the final two lines of Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to Wars”:

‘I could not love thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honor more.

Editha concludes by telling George, “That there is no honor above American with me. In this great hour there is no other honor” (47).

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Richard Lovelace

While not necessarily something unusual, what strikes me with Editha’s choice of poems is the speaker, a man going off to war and leaving his lover.By choosing to use a poem with this perspective, Editha flips the script and takes on the role of the male voice, mimicking the patriotic/masculine rhetoric of war . She cannot participate in the war and fight for her nation; however, she wants to receive, even vicariously, the “honor” that comes along with such an endeavor.

Writing about Lovelace’s poem on his blog, Tim Kendall states that we need to pay particular attention to the word “honor” in the final line and its duel meanings.

‘Honour’ is a concept which applies as much to the battlefield as to love. It is the poet’s love of Honour which allows him to love Lucasta ‘so much’, with the implication that if he were to stay with her it would show a lesser love. By avowing his commitment to Honour before all else, he attempts to show that he is being true to Lucasta in the act of abandoning her.

Read in this manner, Editha’s quotation of Lovelace reinforces what she has written before, as is obvious, but it also draws upon her engagement with George because if he chooses to enlist he shows “that he is being true to [Editha] in the act of abandoning her.”

Rather than send the package and letter, Editha decides to wait and see what George decides, because, as she thinks, “[s]he could not accept for her country or herself a forced sacrifice” (47). Notice the placement of “country” and “herself” here; in this configuration, country, for Editha, even comes before herself. She will even sacrifice her relationship with the man she loves before turning her back on her country.

(c) Sir John Soanes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mark Antony Reading the Will of Caesar William Hilton 1834

When George returns, he tells Editha that he has decided to enlist, and in fact, he was the first person to sign up. During he meeting, he wished “to sprinkle a little cold water” on the patriotic rhetoric and fervor surrounding him; instead, he became swept up in its pull and began to rain down “hell-fire on them,” quoting Mark Antony from Julius Caesar. George lets fly with a line from Antony’s speech at the end of Act 3 Scene 1 after the assassination of Caesar: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” Taken as it is, the line matches the sweeping nature surrounding the rhetoric of war and call to arms; however, taken in relation to he whole soliloquy, we must take George’s choice of allusion on another level.

After lamenting his deeds, Antony prophesies that the assassination will lead to war and devastation. The entire second part of the soliloquy centers on this, but for our purposes, I just want to highlight the lines immediately before and following the one that George speaks.

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (272-277)

The full horror of war appears in these few lines. The past atrocities rise up and lead to new ones, and they ultimately cause men to beg for death while the smell of battle lingers in the air. If we look at this whole section in relation to George, it lends credence to the idea that “Editha” focuses on the detrimental aspects of overzealous patriotism and nationalism and the ways that those feelings lead to war, imperialism, and ultimately death.

George, through his use of the lines from Mark Antony’s speech, becomes the idealistic representation of patriotism, one that does not necessarily consider the consequences of the impending engagement. I cannot help but think about this aspect of “Editha” in relation to Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a story which I have written about before and which was also written around the same time as Howells’ story. We must remember that for all of George’s fiery zeal, he does not return home. Instead, he dies in battle and Editha must go to Mrs. Gearson and tell her that her son perished. Even her confrontation with George’s mother does not phase the indomitable Editha who ends the story beginning to live in the “ideal” again.

There is more that could be said here, of course. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Howells, William Dean. “Editha.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 43-54.

 

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