Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself:

” … [the women] weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. …In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again.”

This sudden twisting of the beautiful into the violent is shockingly effective, and I love how her writing creates its own mimetic memorial, structuring itself into an object of beauty looped around the idea of women’s absence from historical monuments, just like the lacework it describes. But her mimesis approach made me think about how language, itself functions as a memorial, and the way that idea is gendered.

It’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this term. I’m working on trauma and memory, and my students – who’ve finished their medieval dissertations – have been preparing to sit their final exam, the Tragedy paper. Yet, tragedy, in the Western literary tradition, is very often an extended exploration of men doing unspeakably awful things to women, and authors constructing something beautiful and memorable out of these actions. It poses an ethical real problem: how do you ask women to study 2000-plus years of literature which is, amongst other things, interested in violence against women as an aesthetic process?

First I thought about women’s speech. A friend of mine recently wrote this piece, titled ‘Why Women Talk Less’, about the dynamics of male/female speech within mixed gender groups. It has a huge amount of research behind it, and for me, the stand-out point is that the problem isn’t women failing to speak; the often-proposed solution – that women should be more assertive, more forceful – simply doesn’t work. Women who attempt that approach are penalised for it, perceived as rude interrupters (a perception I notice a lot when teaching medieval woman writers). Women are expected to spend time, and words, validating male peers, and this reinforces male authority to speak up.

We can see this throughout history. We tend to see women’s speech, and women’s writing, as insubstantial, provisional, lacking the weight and authority of men’s words. Writing in the first century BC, Catullus declares that the words of a woman in love are so fluid, so fleetingly true, ‘in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua’: they should be written in the wind, on the rushing water’. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the only woman whose words have any power is the Sibyl of Cumae, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, her body racked with pain as he forces her to speak not her own words, but his. Yet she also figures the fragility of women’s speech, for she scribbles her messages on fluttering leaves, which are blown into disorder by the wind. Her legend links her raving and her ineffectual attempts to communicate to her physical imprisonment in an ageing female body: coerced to give up her virginity to the god Apollo, she bargained for as many years of life as the grains of sand in her hourglass, and so lives on in painfully protracted old age, shrunken to tiny size:

‘For I saw the Sibyl of Cumae with my own eyes, hanging in a little jar, and when the boys asked her: “Sibyl, what would you do?” she replied “I would die.”‘ 

These powerful tropes of ephemeral, disordered female speech lie behind a more violent tradition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid imagines women deprived of their human voices through literal, oral violation. I wrote a while ago, following on from comments by other scholars, about the way in which women’s speech is marked in medieval literature as the speech of the Other, as birdspeech. The paradigmatic example of this Ovid’s story of Philomela, raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. Her tongue cut out, Philomela is forced to weave her story in order to communicate with her sister, and once this is done the two take gruesome revenge by killing and serving the body of Tereus (and Procne’s) son Itys to his unsuspecting father. Philomela’s communication becomes – of necessity – another looping-together of words around an absence: the physical mutilation, the loss of her tongue, driving her back to that seemingly decorative ‘woman’s work’ Ditum describes. 

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail).

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

As Tereus pursues the two women in murderous fury, they are miraculously transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow, forced to cry out the swallow’s song of ‘Itys, Itys’ in echo of her dead son’s name. The sound telescopes her grief to a single word, reducing it to birdsong, and it echoes backwards and forwards in literature to other women, losing its specificity of reference: Aeschylus’ Cassandra, doomed never to be believed, cries out with the same bird-like sounds, ‘like swallows, in some barbarian language’, ‘a tuneless song … Itys! Itys!’; Pound’s Canto 4 places the same horrified cry into the mouth of the medieval Frenchwoman, fed the heart of her lover Cabestan, as she throws herself to her death:

Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!
And she went toward the the window and cast her down,
All the while, the while, swallows crying:
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”
“Is it Cabestan’s heart in the dish?

… the swallows crying:
‘Tis. ‘Tis. Ytis!”

These echoes empty out the significance even of women’s bird-like mutilated speech, reducing it to a shared effect of sound, as if all women’s voices blur into one unintelligible twittering. Eliot, incorporating the story of Philomel into The Wasteland, reduces this song further. Responding to Ovid in the sixteenth century, writers claimed that the soft ‘tereu, tereu’ sound of the nightingale represents Philomel’s crying after her rapist; they also hear the word ‘fie’, and, inexplicably (but accurately representing the birdsong), ‘jug, jug’. Eliot’s Philomel once sings ‘Tereu’ but her speech is dominated by the jarringly incomprehensible: ‘twit twit twit/ jug jug jug jug jug jug’.


Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

The contrast between these evocations of women’s empty speech, and men’s depictions of their own words, is striking. Male writers and speakers aspire to permanence for their words, and with their words they construct memorials cemented in stone and engraved in metal. Horace, writing between Catullus and Ovid, offers this image:

“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze
Higher than the royal structure of the pyramids
… I shall not wholly die, and a greater part of me
Will escape Lady Death.”

(Exegi monumentum aere perennius/ reglalique situ pyramidum altius … Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei/ vitabit Libitinam).

For Horace, words – the words that for women are ‘wind-written’ and fleeting, twittering and muted, looped beautifully around absence –  are paradoxically concrete and lasting. And, whereas the repetition of the words attributed to women create an echo-chamber of twittering confusions, we find later writers build on Horace’s image as if it were the solid structure it describes. Chaucer’s House of Fame pays tribute to Virgil’s Aeneid by picturing it, engraved on a tablet of brass; Shakespeare adapts it into his sonnets. But this image of permanence – of the memorialising quality of words – also stands behind violent displays of eloquence in which masculine memorialisation acts upon voiceless women. So, Othello muses:

I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

His words construct a memorial for Desdemona in the Horatian tradition, an aesthetic object that takes on the function of the marble statue it describes. There is something psychopathically disturbing about the way Othello slips, so readily, from the act of smothering his wife to the glibly eloquent image of a funeral memorial, as if to elide the intervening death and his own part in it. The violence of this memorial image is something in which Shakespeare becomes complicit, because he participates in the process Horace describes – making a memorial, an aesthetic object, out of words – but uses as his raw material, his sculpting block or tablet – the image of Desdemona’s dying body.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

This unsettling linguistic memorialising becomes grotesque when it is brought into contact with the tradition of treating women’s words as muted and mutilated language, as in Titus AndronicusTitus is an incredibly violent play – the plot revolves around acts of murder (or human sacrifice), counter-acts of revenge, the threat of forced marriage and the horror of rape. Its rape subplot is based, explicitly, on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and where the tongueless Philomela weaves a tapestry to tell her story, in Shakespeare’s version, the rapists tauntingly anticipate this possibility, and cut off not only Lavinia’s tongue, but also her hands:

Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.

Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

It is in this state that Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, finds her. Like the mutilated statue of the goddess at the top of this post, she wants to speak but her body stands poised in a frozen space, mouthless and armless, unable to speak or communicate. This moment is one of the much-discussed scenes of Shakespeare’s work, for, as Lavinia stands bleeding, Marcus launches into a speech whose length and self-conscious rhetorical eloquence seem jarringly out of place. His attempt to find beauty in the horrific image, to construct an aesthetic object out of his own emotional response, echoes Othello’s memorialising self-justification, yet agonisingly prolongs the display of Lavinia’s unanswered suffering. Her pain becomes, as we listen, somehow unreal; her bleeding seems fake, because quite obviously she would have died of blood loss had the wounds been genuine. The words memorialise Lavinia at the expense of making her pain, and her humanity, seem unreal.

This speech prepares for Titus’ own response to his daughter’s violation, which bursts out of him when he discovers – as she manages to trace out a message in the sand, holding a stick between the stumps of her hands – who her rapists are. Echoing Horace, he vows:

I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands, like Sibyl’s leaves, abroad,
And where’s your lesson, then?

I can’t help reading Titus’ image of engraving words in brass as a violent one, the words cut sharply into the surface of the metal, penetrating its surface in a disturbingly pseudo-sexual way (I’ve written about the history of writing as penetration before). As with Othello, the act of memorialisation is also – although inadvertently – an act of silencing, as Titus vows to ‘lay it by’ once he has recorded the story: to preserve it, but, also, to set it aside, a memorial, but an unread memorial. In proximity to the image of Sibyl’s leaves, too, the image of scattered sand carries a submerged reminder of the coercive sex that reduced the Sibyl to a woman trapped in a failing, constraining body, wishing for death. The lines insert a masculine, permanent, solid written text over the already-scattering feminine words, and over Lavinia’s enforced muteness, speaking for her but also speaking over her.

The horror of the tragedies comes from their attempt to make beautiful – and then to make permanent – the suffering of the women they depict. But their power also comes from the long histories of conceptualising male and female speech in different ways, of imagining men’s words as permanent, inscribed, gouged upon the memory while women’s words are scattered, muted, mutilated birdspeech, a series of echoes looped around silences. If we see literature as a long conversation, stretching forward from Horace and Ovid to Shakespeare and onwards, we can interpret the repeated processes of citation and adaptation as something akin to the validation of men’s voices we see in conversations.

So what does reading tragedy – or reading literary history – achieve, especially for women literary critics? How does it relate back to that dynamic of the silencing of women, which exists outside literature, in debates between men and women?

Running a commentary around these words – knitting them up into a new pattern – feels substantial to me. Commentaries are seen as reactive work, not original work, but, like Ditum’s lace-making, they create something much more than the sum of their parts. In the context of female absences and silences, building this structure – writing this piece – feels productive, a way of relating to these texts and responding to these tropes, without replicating them. By analysing the imagery of male speech as solid, concrete and authoritative, we can deconstruct it, unpick it, turn it into the sort of text that can be unravelled and understood. Writing this, I had at the back of my mind a question about women studying tragedy: should we do it, or is it unfair to expect women to immerse themselves in literature that is so filled with violently silencing images of women? I think writing can function as a form of memorialising of that problem, a mode of ‘speaking up’ for women that fills in their silences without speaking over them.

Note on Copyright

35 thoughts on “Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech

  1. This is a splendid, thought-provoking essay. At what point did women lose their power – with the end of the Minoans perhaps, and the rise of patriarchal Greek culture? Where did all the hatred come from, and why, through the medieval period especially did the Church continually reinforce this attitude. Do men really feel so bad themselves in their secret recesses that they have to project all this self-loathing onto women? Envy of their life-making creativity perhaps? The image of lace-making is heart-breaking actually, though valiant too.

    • Yes, the lace-making image is amazing: it took me a good long time to figure out how to write about that, because it is just so full of nuance. Ditum’s a great writer.

      And I wonder the same things … I doubt we’ll ever know, which is depressing.

      • It’s perhaps a bit simplistic, but in traditional semi nomadic societies of shared territory, women and men seem to have equal status. I wonder if the negative view of womanhood is something to with private landownership, and the commoditising of females for marriage purposes, and thus the need to control them. Just a passing thought.

  2. I thank you for an extraordinarily well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking essay. I’d like to add a layer if I may. Consider that when Shakespeare was writing, Lavinia would have been played by a boy. Her agony, her suffering, and even her silence were not her own, but were rather contained in and represented by a male body. The audience simultaneously saw and erased the woman as they gazed at the young man on the stage. I wonder if for the men at the Globe, the idea of a silenced male added an extra frisson of terror to the bloody scene.

    Again, I thank you for an essay that I will be thinking about for a long while.

    • Oh, yes, that’s terrifying, and you’re right. Thank you! That idea of simultaneous objectification/erasure – that’s exactly it.

      I wonder, as well, how it felt to women watching. I can imagine it might have felt like a warning: ‘see what is done to women’. And there’s something very excluding about watching a group you’re not part of tell you what your experience is.

      This relates to the Classics as well, I think: I think performance contexts could be quite male-dominated for Virgil, and certainly later, it was a text read by men.

      • You’ll recall that Ben Jonson’s play, Epicoene, stopped being performed after the Restoration because the joke, that the only way a woman could be silent was if she were in fact a man, stopped working when actual women appeared on the stage. The audience watched a male actor playing a silent woman, and saw him as female, right up to the moment that she, the character, was revealed to be a man. Big laughs! If this makes you crazy, consider Rosalind in As You Like It. A man playing a woman who, disguised as a man, pretends to be a woman. You have to admire, by which I mean be appalled at, patriarchy’s astonishing skill at silencing and erasing women even as the patriarchs pretend to allow women to speak, pretend to listen to what “she” says..

  3. Tish, yes, I think it must be partly to do with land ownership (though, one of the books that has really stayed with me is Waris Dirie’s account of her upbringing in a nomadic culture that practised FGM). It is really noticeable in the *Aeneid* that women are useful precisely insofar as they relate to Aeneas’s quest to found Rome, which is a frightening foundation myth for a people.

  4. Deborah – oh, you’re generous, but I don’t actually know that play (and clearly should). I can see how that would be, though.

    I am very aware of a similar dynamic with what I’ve been teaching, though – it is so easy to treat Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ as a speaker representing the ‘woman’s voice’, and to forget she’s a construct by a male author.

    • Thanks – but, would you mind asking another time? I will almost always say yes, but it helps me keep track of where posts have been reproduced, and I need to do that for my work.

      • Go into your Dashboard and turn off the reblog feature under Posts. Then you won’t have the unwanted problem of people actually wanting to share what you’ve said when they admire it.

      • Oh – I’m happy for people to reblog, I just like to know, because it helps me keep track, and because it reminds people about copyright in general (which I’m sure isn’t a reminder you need, but some do!). I’m sorry if I’ve offended you somehow.

  5. Brilliant and poignant write. I am so grateful for your presence in the world (and on WordPress). You have a much needed voice; it is a powerful and sacred gift.

    May I reblog this?

    Threefold Blessings of the Goddess to you,


    Holly Emberhawk
    Inkberry’s Quill: Lost Ink of a Bardic Amazon

  6. On a different blog I read the author discussing her early creative writing classes and how her teacher had asked her reason for writing. What was it that made her write and keep writing and know she had to. After a few idealistic reasons like “passion” or “altruism” she got to the bottom of why all writers write. We all write from where we are wounded. So the study of literature has to be about the study of tragedy and trauma from all different angles in order to be fair. Writing about where the predominant “gaze” comes from (patriarchal creations and interpretations) are the academic wounds women scholars write from and we reader/students/feminists need you to continue do this work. Your work matters. You’re one of the best historian-literature-art professors to date. I hope you know this.

    • Oh, gosh … I don’t deserve that comment at all, thank you so very much! It’s really lovely of you.

      And I think you are absolutely correct: we write from where we are wounded. That is a phrase I’m going to keep thinking back to. Thank you.

      • Of course you deserve it, but you are not expected to take it. 🙂

        I have had excellent history teachers and I am placing you among my personal cream of the crop in any case. I also had a roommate in college who took latin and her teacher never allowed absences… so when she was sick in bed for a week he brought the entire class to our room and conducted his lessons. We couldn’t believe it! But ever since I’ve adored latin and have reflected on such a commitment he felt as to force us! We laugh about it now. But back then I admit we ran from him on more than one occasion.
        Your latin translations and discussions are far more interesting and meaningful than his and I realized how much I liked source languages through reading your work for about a year now. But maybe I’m on too much of a tangent with this story. I don’t mean to distract from your current article.

        The sentiment about us all writing from a “wound” came from an author and blog person named Vanessa Martir (from New York) and I thought you might be interested in the post it came from…

        Keep up the good work! And thanks for sharing knowledge and perspectives.

  7. Thank you so much for this – a really thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, wonderfully expressed, and I agree with you about Sarah Ditum’s imagery too

    By coincidence I read this the same day I watched the latest episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (not sure whether you are watching) where a woman who was brought back to life by a magician to prove his skill, has had half her life sacrificed by the magician to a fairy for this to be achieved. Which means all night she is the fairy’s, and this tortures her during the day, and when she tries to tell people about what is happening to her nonsense comes out of her mouth, and they think her mad. So she portrays what is happening to her in tapestry, cutting up her dresses for the fabric. This isn’t a terribly useful comment, but I was struck by the parallel with Philomela, as well as the symbolism of the silencing of women from voicing their distress in their own words

    • Ooh! I love that … I haven’t watched the last episode and somehow missed that in the book (must re-read). That’s brilliant! I need to think what’s going on with genre there.

    • You’re absolutely fine! I was so very touched by your lovely comments, and it’s really kind of you to share this.

      I had (after a certain amount of worrying) put the warning on the blog because I am aware some people don’t realize that blogs are copyright, and, as a person who teaches, I was beginning to be concerned that I wasn’t being very clear about what kinds of content ought to be lifted out of context. So I was hoping the reminder would help clarify that. It wasn’t intended to make people feel bad for wanting to reblog, let alone post links (for which you wouldn’t need permission at all).

      • Thank you. I’m not always clear on the sharing etiquette. I think the copyright info you’ve shared is helpful to all to be sensitive to your work and people probably want to be aware of it for their own blogs too. 🙂

  8. I included a quote from this in an article about content warnings in academia. From this comment thread, I realise you would have preferred me to ask permission before I quoted you – I’m ever so sorry about that. If I was my personal blog, I’d take it down and ask you now, but if you’re unhappy with its inclusion, I can make sure it gets removed from the article (your quote is about two thirds down).

    • Ooh, no, I’m thrilled, very kind of you. It’s when people take the post wholesale (or quote without attributing that I get a bit worried – the warning looks like overkill to most of us reading, I know, but there are a few people out there who don’t know (and why should they?) that stuff on the net should be treated like any other written text. That’s all. 🙂

      Now off to read the article, thank you!

  9. Pingback: ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices': On Speech and Language Policing | Jeanne de Montbaston

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