George Eliot wrote the dramatic poem ‘Armgart’ in 1870. It was published the following year. Shortly after she completed this manuscript, Eliot started what would become her novel Middlemarch. Like Middlemarch, ‘Armgart’ tells the story of a talented and passionate woman unable to fulfil her potential.
The poem’s title character is a successful and ambitious opera singer. Her suitor, Graf, expects her to stop singing publicly after marriage. Armgart rails against the view that a woman’s highest calling is marriage and motherhood, declaring ‘I am an artist by my birth –/ By the same warrant that I am a woman:/ Nay, in the added rarer gift I see/ Supreme vocation’ (Scene III). She refuses Graf’s proposal, identifying the double standards facing men and women: ‘You claim to be/ More than a husband, but could not rejoice/ That I were more than a wife’ (Scene III).
After Armgart and Graf have parted, Armgart becomes ill and permanently loses her ability to sing. Without music as a means of self-expression, she feels ‘hemmed in with thoughts and rules’ (Scene VII). She resigns herself to feeling like ‘a broken thing’ for the rest of her life (Scene VII).
‘Armgart’ was published in July 1871 in Macmillan’s Magazine (UK) and the Atlantic Monthly (US). However, the poem’s published forms are different from its manuscript form: whereas the manuscript has seven scenes, the Atlantic Monthly divides the poem into six and Macmillan’s into five. It was republished in 1874 and 1878, both times with five scenes, and with some further changes.