Summary and critical analysis of the poem The Improvisatrice by Letitia Elizabeth Landon

The Improvisatrice is a long narrative poem by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, published in 1824. Set in Italy, it recounts the doomed love of a beautiful young female minstrel and artist, the Improvisatrice of the poem’s title, for the impossibly handsome, raven-haired, pale-cheeked youth, Lorenzo, with whom she is infatuated, loving him, in her own words, ‘wildly’. Though he is drawn to her, he does not declare his love, and, sensing his inconstancy, she wastes away with grief. When she is on the brink of death, Lorenzo returns to claim her as his own, explaining that his wife (whom he married out of duty because of a childhood betrothal, and whom he loved as a dear friend) died following their wedding. But the Improvisatrice has sunk too low and Lorenzo’s love fails to rescue her from an untimely demise.

The tale of the Improvisatrice is related in her own words, but is intermixed throughout with other episodes, such as ‘Sappho’s Song’, ‘A Moorish Romance’, ‘The Hindoo Girl’s Song’, that call forth similar scenes of doomed love affairs and female suffering, portending the Improvisatrice’s own fate. The device of the interpolated narratives allows the Improvisatrice’s individual tale to become every woman’s story, and the whole can be read as a lament for, but also a vindication of, erotic and passionate female love.

Jonathan Wordsworth in his 1996 edition of the poem suggests that Landon writes from books and from heightened imagination, seldom from experience. Indeed, the plot of The Improvisatrice carries strong echoes of Madame de Staël’s influential French romance Corinne (1807), a novel about a beautiful female artist-a poet living in Italy, who dies grief-stricken, when her lover rejects her for a more conventional woman. Corinne is notable as a literary work that imagines what life for a female poet or imaginative artist might be like, and Landon takes up this theme in The Improvisatrice, her most important and best-known work.

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