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Warren Stevenson, Romanticism and the Androgynous Sublime. Cranberry, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1996. ISBN: 0 838 63668 3 (hardback). Price: £23.00.Johanna M. Smith, Mary Shelley Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0 805 77045 3 (hardback). Price: £16.95.

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra

…plus d’informations

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra
    Merton College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

To find two books of criticism, both of which eschew the crutch of a lengthy or unnecessary subtitle, is merely unusual. To find two books of criticism, both of which rely almost solely on close readings of primary material to sustain and substantiate their arguments, is practically unheard-of in these days of academic job-jostling and sabre-rattling. Warren Stevenson and Johanna M. Smith should reap the rewards of their courage which propelled them onto the battlefield of criticism armed only with the original texts and their own extensive knowledge of the subject and period.

This is not to say that Stevenson and Smith are unaware of contemporary work on the sublime as it was manipulated by the Romantics or on Mary Shelley's contribution to literature: it is only to emphasize that their work is blessedly free of references to similar but irrelevant criticism, and that these authors do not rely on other critics' arguments for the structure and proof of their own. Stevenson does pay tribute to Thomas Weiskel's idea of the phallic sublime, but says that he not only read The Romantic Sublime with "wonder and delight", but also was "provoked into carrying the idea a stage further" (13); there are no slavish references to Weiskel, merely the recognition of his ideas as a springboard for Stevenson's own, which extends the idea of the phallic sublime to the androgynous sublime. Stevenson helpfully includes a glossary in which he sets out clearly what he means by the "androgynous sublime": it is "That mode of sublimity which, characterized by a limber style suffused with intimations of androgyny, stands in marked contrast to Edmund's (sic) Burke's 'terrible sublime,' Wordsworth's egotistical or patriarchal sublime, and Weiskel's 'phallic sublime,' although any combination of these may coexist within a given work." (143) In his analysis of romantic texts, Stevenson shows the overlap of the different modes of sublimity. For example, he discusses the aqueous and admonitory sublime particularly effectively in the Wordsworth chapter: in his analysis of the "beauteous evening" sonnet and selected passages from The Prelude , he writes, "This thundering, patriarchal voice, whose reverberations are heard throughout Wordsworth's poetry, usually in association with water imagery, presents a marked contrast to the murmuring and androgynous voices of the rivers Wye and Derwent, as well as of Dorothy. The former is meant to be 'sublime' and the latter 'beautiful,'" (53).

Stevenson argues that the sublime experience, for the Romantic poets, was not wholly reliant on a sense of awe inspired by beautiful scenery, or on a sense of power afforded by a masculine response to the landscape. Instead, the sublime was essentially an experience of "psychic androgyny...a transcendence of self and sex in a moment...of total otherness and integration." (9). Stevenson points out that the word 'sublime' itself is androgynous, possessing a semantic ambivalence and an internal oxymoron, 'sub' meaning 'under' or 'up from underneath', and 'limen' meaning 'threshold' or 'lintel' (14). He briefly traces the myth of the androgyne from Aristophanes to Freud and Jung, and writes that the myth in England was more theological than secular: "In so far as God has what we call both male and female characteristics, he becomes an androgynous God. This idea too influenced the English romantics." (17) Psychic androgyny (in Stevenson's words, "the only kind worth writing about" (10)) assumes several guises: structural (or rhetorical), mythological, and religious.

Through close readings of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Keats, Stevenson argues his point about the prevalence of psychic androgyny in romantic poetry. Having stated in his Glossary that the androgynous sublime is "characterized by a limber style", he pays close attention to rhyme schemes, meter, and the structure of the poems he is discussing. He establishes the importance of noting a poem's structural features at the beginning of his first chapter during a discussion of one of Blake's earliest poems, 'To Spring' (23), and rescues 'The Tyger' from becoming an example of pure parody by pointing out that in the penultimate stanza of the poem, "The metrical and rhetorical emphasis of these crucial lines falls upon the words 'smile' and 'Lamb', and the stanza as a whole asks the ultimate ontological question in such a way as to evoke from the reader the only truly human image of God in the poem, which would otherwise degenerate into mere rhetorical bluster." (26). Stevenson's careful and confident handling of rhetorical matters continues throughout his book, and is particularly interesting in his discussion of Coleridge's alternative meter which the poet used in 'Christabel' and described in the preface to that poem (74-5). Such close analysis, unpopular among many critics with whom First Year Critical Analysis may have left a bad taste, nevertheless provides convincing evidence for Stevenson's arguments about the intrinsic connection between the androgynous sublime and the style used to convey it.

The androgynous sublime is characterized by a "limber style", but is also manifest in romantic work in the form of gender role reversals, people who change their gender, homosexual relationships, childlike men and women, and references which pick up elements of the classical myths of androgyny. Stevenson highlights these points of androgyny, always underlining the added emphasis afforded by the rhetoric, as with Byron's Don Juan , in which Donna Julia assumes the sexual power of a man (95-6), or Keats' Lamia , in which a "false androgyny" is created with the attack of the phallic snake on Lycius (127). Further, where appropriate, he shows the relevance of biographical details to the intimations of androgyny in a poet's work: in his chapter on Byron, for example, Stevenson aligns Byron's bisexuality and affair with his sister Augusta with the play Cain , and later he argues for the importance of acknowledging Shelley to have been, as Francis Thompson wrote, "essentially a child" (101).

Stevenson's discussions on the wider implications of androgyny and the androgynous sublime are brief and seem to be incomplete; however, as he makes clear in the conclusion, he wanted only to take the all-important first step of identifying the place of androgyny in the sublime mode. So thoroughly has he accomplished this, the critical student can only wait for the further research to which his conclusion (though containing a spurious but brief discussion of the "ovoid aura") points the way: "psychic androgyny, suitably sublimed, may well be a cultural force for personal, and therefore social, transformation." (130). The groundwork Stevenson has laid for future studies is solid and sure, and is a fine example of critical analysis at its most effective and poetic.

Critical analysis is wedded to historical research in Johanna M. Smith's Mary Shelley Revisited. Smith rightly points out that, until Muriel Spark's 1951 biography of Shelley, most accounts of the writer's life focused on her husband and her parents. Smith concentrates on Shelley's "continuing interest in political questions and gender issues" and locates Shelley's "work in political and cultural, as well as literary history." Smith says, "Although my critical methodologies are consistently feminist and Marxist, then, I also see this book as a work of cultural studies." (ix). Smith also describes the "artificiality of the categories of genre and period fixed by literary history" and, in her exhaustive approach to Shelley's work, which assesses each genre of writing with which Shelley experimented and most of the lesser as well as greater work Shelley produced, goes far toward addressing the issues generic and periodic divisions raise.

In chapters on Shelley's plays and poems, science fiction, historical fiction, domestic-sentimental fiction, literary biography and criticism, and travel narratives, Smith reads Shelley's work with the contradictions of both Wollstonecraft's and Godwin's politics in mind. In the opening biographical chapter, which concentrates on Shelley's feminism and politics, Smith points out that even in Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women , Shelley's mother "tends to define women not as 'human creatures' but according to their domestic relationships with men" (3). Likewise, Godwin's politics were contradictory, as Smith deftly argues (5). Shelley's own ideology was often inconsistent, as Smith demonstrates throughout her book. However, Smith's brief yet thorough explanations of the political and feminist thought which influenced Shelley do, as Smith hopes, "prepare for the contradictions of Mary Shelley's politics" which, in Smith's opinion, "are better seen as symptomatic of England's troubled industrial development." (5, 17) Throughout her book, Smith refers to the political, social, and economic events which affected Shelley, explicating the references Shelley made to them in her journals, letters, fiction, and non-fiction with concise descriptions of the events and their larger importance.

The contradictory feminist ideology of Shelley's work is, in Smith's view, largely seen in the domestic arrangements of her fiction. She writes that Valperga explores "the ways that public history infiltrates private life. That infiltration also reveals conflicts between masculine history and feminine domesticity, and her novel uses thematics of education and imagination to examine those conflicts." (69). Smith's analyses of Shelley's novels focus primarily on these conflicts and thematics: for example, in her interesting discussion of Frankenstein , Smith identifies three main themes: the "curative powers of affection"; "partial or ill-regulated education"; and "the aims and dangers of scientific discovery." (40). She also argues that Shelley's domestic arrangements may be manifestations of the struggles between feminine perception and masculine oppression: in Valperga , Smith shows that Shelley "adapts the castle, Gothic symbol of women's victimization, into a symbol of the feminine sensibility that the Gothic opposes to masculine power...it is a maternal legacy of political liberty and public virtue." (73). Despite Shelley's inversion of the Gothic castle and her interest in giving power to her female characters, Smith points out that feminine power operates primarily out of the internal, domestic sphere, and loses its force when brought into opposition with the external, masculine sphere. Shelley's feminism is as contradictory as her politics.

Feminist and political ideology in Shelley's work are strongly linked. In her chapter on Shelley's literary criticism and biography, Smith shows how "Mary Shelley's methods of biography and criticism come to literature with personal and aesthetic but also political and moral expectations." (154) For example, in her biography of Mme. Roland, Shelley "carefully stresses the feminine propriety of her political activity", praising Roland for keeping a balance between being a "great" woman and one wrongly ruled by a love of glory (144). As with her domestic arrangements, societal prescriptions for behaviour influenced Shelley's attitudes. Her politics, according to Smith, were always largely influenced by her feminism, which in turn was shaped by her desire to remain socially acceptable, if not for herself, for her son. Ironically, ideas of class and society influenced Shelley's politics through both feminism and her feminine sensibilities: Smith writes in her critique of Shelley's History of a Six Weeks' Tour that Shelley's "political tastes and aesthetic distaste reinforce each other" (159), and shows that the author's politics were further complicated by internal inconsistencies which Shelley believed perfectly justifiable: her politics were such that, as Smith writes, "a theoretical adherence to revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity extends to French servants but not to British servants or the German working class", the first, by Shelley's estimation, couth and refined, the others coarse and vulgar (159).

Though emphasizing the constant overlap of genre and historical periods, Smith delineates the rough boundaries of the genres Shelley's work covers. She creates and uses definitions of science fiction, literary criticism, and travel narrative, but perhaps most impressive is the four-page discussion of historical fiction and its sub-sections: the realistic novel, the romance, the Gothic, and Jacobin fiction (55-58). In the manner of her other chapter introductions, Smith provides information on the readers and the critics of each genre, their expectations and motivations, as well as the literary elements which align texts with different genres. She is meticulous about supplying contextual information at every turn: when discussing Shelley's short stories, she gives a potted history of annuals; when analyzing Shelley's literary criticism, she briefly surveys the state of British literary criticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; when looking at Shelley's work for Lardner's Cyclopedia , she discusses the potential readership for that work; when discussing Shelley's travel narratives, she examines differing opinions on the Grand Tour.

Above all, Smith focuses on Shelley's own words, and her extensive familiarity with Shelley's letters and journals continually reinforces Smith's sensitive reading. Smith has included a very helpful chronology and annotated bibliography, but there is no chapter of conclusion; although Smith's points have been argued thoroughly by the end of the book and there is no real need for a repetitious summing-up, the want of conclusion is a pity, for the performance is so good that the reader naturally wants an encore. This articulate book is a perfect beginning for a period of increased interest in Mary Shelley's lesser-known work, as well as an ideal end to the image of Mary Shelley as a mere cipher for the ideologies of her parents, husband, and age.