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Tim Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity: Gender, Politics, and Poetics in the Writings of Burke, Coleridge, Cobbett, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Hazlitt. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1999. ISBN: 0-333-68325-0; 0-312-22039-1. UK £47.50 (US $72.00).

  • David Vallins

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  • David Vallins
    University of Hong Kong

The growth of gender in Romantic Studies has coincided closely with the increasing prominence of Edmund Burke, since the latter seems literally, and almost self-incriminatingly, to highlight the masculinist politics of power which critics such as Anne Mellor suggest is implicit in the 'Romantic sublime'. Kant and his followers, of course, saw things rather differently, stressing the sense of unity with the forces underlying the natural world which is produced by confrontation with objects too vast to comprehend in a single intuition, or with uncontrollable forces from which, in our spiritual essence, we seem nevertheless to be secure. We opt (it may be said) for Burke or Kant as our convenience requires; yet in those authors whose philosophical position is predominantly idealist, the grounds for identifying the sublime with terrifying and oppressive masculinity may not always be compelling. Even if the trope of nature as female is interpreted as evoking something more than its generative and nurturing capacity, indeed, Wordsworth's 'conquest' of physical nature may well be elevating (or 'sublime') for no other reason than that, in overcoming the vastness of the physical, he seemed to discover his identity with the deeper, spiritual force which underlies appearances. Ironically, indeed, the Burkeian sublime of 'terror' is more prominent in the works of women writers of the period (Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley are obvious examples) than in those of William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge—a fact which, however, seems to reflect a widespread sense of female disempowerment, as distinct from the unlimited creative and spiritual energy which enables their male contemporaries to overcome all earthly limitations. Perhaps, therefore, our emphasis should not be on Wordsworth's effort to conquer (metaphorical) woman and thereby become 'masculine', but rather on the extent to which his (or Coleridge's, or Kant's) sense of unity with the spiritual essence of nature fails to register their female contemporaries' experience of a continuing powerlessness or oppression.

Tim Fulford's emphasis, however, is neither on these limitations of the Kantian sublime, nor on the practical disempowerment of women in this period, but rather on the widespread quest for an ideal of 'masculinity' which is not only inherently fictive, but also plays a central role in conservative political and social discourses, among which those of Burke are most prominent. Burke's analysis of the sublime, he suggests, evokes an ideal of thrilling and terrifying power which authors such as Wordsworth and Coleridge seek to emulate in many of their self-representations, thus securing themselves from the fear (or at least the appearance) of weakness or 'effeminacy'. The same dualism of the 'masculine' and the 'effeminate', Fulford suggests, is used by these authors to distinguish their loyalty to the state from the Jacobinism and gender-ambiguity of their opponents. In Burke, indeed, the preservation of male rights is specifically linked to a natural order which Britain has protected against the moral anarchy of feminized France (pp. 51-2), while Coleridge—with scarcely less aggressive conservatism—describes French literature and philosophy as fatally flawed by an effeminacy which also threatens the British state (pp. 20, 24). As Fulford shows, however, the ideal of British 'manliness' implied in these attitudes differs sharply from Coleridge's private celebration of the 'androgyny' characteristic of 'great minds'—a notion which, he argues, arises principally from his envy of Wordsworth's strikingly 'masculine' writing, and his search for an alternative form of 'manliness' which (paradoxically) depends upon a greater degree of androgyny than is found in Wordsworth, and which is most vividly evident in the works of Shakespeare (p. 23). Coleridge's only direct reference to androgyny occurs in a notebook-entry of 1820, from which his nephew derived the well-known passage in the Table Talk; yet Fulford's emphasis on this concept derives additional support from the Schellingian theory of a union of active and passive (or the rational and intuitive aspects of the mind) in the acts of imagination—the likeliest source of Coleridge's gendered model of the reconciliation of opposites into unity.

According to Fulford, however, not only this unification of opposites into the 'androgynous' ideal of genius, but also Coleridge's decision to focus on criticism and philosophy rather than poetry after 1802, was due to 'the inadequacy of his poetic models of manliness and ... Wordsworth's omission of "Christabel" from Lyrical Ballads' (p. 129). This is an adventurous biographical claim, and one which notably eschews Coleridge's own explanation of this change—namely that his philosophical pursuits alleviated his mental and physical sufferings through the transcendent intellectual and imaginative activity which they involved. Still more adventurously, Fulford writes that Coleridge's 'deduction of imagination' in Biographia acts 'as a rhetorical displacement of [his] sexual and authorial anxieties', and had to be left incomplete because 'to state explicitly how imagination repeated the creation of the patriarchal Hebrew God (the I AM) might reveal a bastard and incestuous offspring—one involving the feminine and therefore, like Satan's in Paradise Lost, an evil parody of the original' (p. 142). That the relationship between the creative mind and the omnipresent deity was a source of anxiety (and of logical perplexity) to Coleridge for much of his career is undoubtedly true; yet though Fulford may be right in saying that Coleridge's 'exaltation of contemplative imagination and genius...originated as a tactical and rhetorical ploy in a personal and implicitly political debate' (p. 130), the extensive prefiguring of Coleridge's theories in Schelling and other thinkers raises broader questions about the relative importance of gender and other factors in the development of Romantic idealism which might interestingly have been explored more fully.

The description of Coleridge's views on prose-style as arbitrarily associating the 'enervating' superficiality and fragmentariness of popular literature both with the French and with the feminine, however, derives substantial justification from several passages in The Friend and in his letters (pp. 146-8). Fulford is undoubtedly right, also, in highlighting the value Coleridge attached to the 'deferred gratification' of his own prose-style and its 17th-century models (pp. 146-7). In suggesting that this value is explicable solely in terms of the 'masculine' intellectual power which it evoked or symbolized (pp. 147-9), however, he again implicitly questions Coleridge's own explanation—namely that the value of this style resided in its ability to involve both author and reader in a process of reflection which, by highlighting the falsity of empirical arguments, itself produced an intuition of the infinite. That Coleridge's celebration of this style involves the political aim of deprecating empiricism and the popular in favour of his own transcendental sympathies—not to mention deprecating the French and advertising his own, anti-Jacobinical loyalties—is undoubtedly true; yet Coleridge's numerous descriptions of the pleasurable sense of calmness and enlightenment resulting from creative reflection might perhaps have been considered alongside these political concerns. Fulford's ironic description of Coleridge as suggesting that 'the perceived dullness and obscurity of his own discourse resulted from an inherent and traditional manliness the age could not understand' (p. 149) derives some sanction from his criticisms of the effeminacy of the contrasting style which he associated with the French; yet however 'elitist' Coleridge's intellectual demands may seem today, his emphasis is rarely on exclusiveness or unpopularity per se, but rather on the value of intellectual exercise, and specifically of requiring both himself and his readers to engage in thought of sufficient vigour to raise them above conventional opinions and produce a liberating sense of insight into fundamental truths. Though notable for their prejudice, indeed, the related oppositions in Coleridge's discourse which connect vigour of reflection with masculinity and Britishness, and superficiality with femininity and the French, are—I would argue—primarily rhetorical structures through which he seeks to reinforce his recommendation of intellectual and discursive practices whose subjective value is evident from his numerous evocations of the pleasure of thought, and especially of the 'peace' or 'intellectual happiness' to be derived from metaphysical inquiry.

Fulford's discussions of Coleridge's and Wordsworth's poems echo his analysis of Coleridge's prose in tracing a hidden femininity beneath their implicitly masculine self-representations. The androgyny of Geraldine in "Christabel", for example, is described as 'an idea....which both attracted and repelled [Coleridge], as a blessed state beyond sexual division and the language of mastery, and as an ambiguous and possibly guilty extension of his own feelings of femininity' (p. 105), while Wordsworth's "Nutting" is interpreted—by highlighting its ambiguous gender-symbolism—as asserting the poet's masculinity through its portrayal of an act of violence towards the nut-tree which 'repress[es] his own attraction' to the 'bisexual bliss' of the forest to which it belongs (p. 190). Though the conclusions are similar, however, Fulford's techniques are eclectic, ranging from the psycho-biographical (in the case of Coleridge) to a detailed textual analysis more akin to deconstruction, ingeniously using the aporias or ambiguities of Wordsworth's language to subvert his apparent assertions of masculinity.

In contrast with these discussions, Fulford's chapter on the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820 charts the gradual convergence of the previously opposed positions of Coleridge and Cobbett through, on the one hand, Coleridge's sense that the delinquency of the ruling class required the 'education of the people into a critical readership capable of maintaining the values that the aristocrats and commercial interests had once held', and on the other, Cobbett's 'attempt to show that the preservation of women's traditional legal and social position...depended on radical reform, since the ostensible guardians of that position (monarchy and aristocracy) were now undermining it' (pp. 162, 174-5). Since 'the established powers' prosecution of Caroline [thus] undermined their ideology', Fulford argues, Cobbett was able to suggest that the '"lower orders"...themselves embod[ied] the values their lords only claim[ed] to uphold' (p. 165), while both his and Coleridge's response to these events involved a relocation of 'chivalric' values from the aristocracy to the middle classes (pp. 161, 175). This is among the most persuasive parts of Fulford's study, skilfully surveying the paradoxical dynamics of power, class, gender, and social and political discourse in this period.

So many other texts—from Lewis's The Monk to the poems of Mary Robinson—are examined by Fulford that not all can be discussed here in the detail which his complex, individualistic, and finely-written text deserves. His description of Lewis's sensationalist novel as 'an attack upon the institutional repression of the desiring self' (p. 92), however, clearly focuses more on the work's Freudian potentialities than on what might seem the richly-comedic hyperbole of its drama, while his interpretation of the same work as suggesting 'that the essence of the sublime may be a sadistic ... voyeurism' (p. 93) again highlights Fulford's preference for the Burkeian aspects of an aesthetic which, in Coleridge (for example), is often associated primarily with spiritual calm and visionary intuition. Similarly, De Quincey's comic portrayal of Madame de Stael is described as masochistically and misogynistically 'deform[ing] women in order better to enjoy the delightful pain of the sublime' (p. 216), while Wordsworth's poem describing his ascent of Helvellyn with a young woman is interpreted (through a technique resembling that applied to "Nutting") as staging a 'drama of Satanic authority which is also a masked sexual seduction' (p. 198). In many of these discussions one can be in no doubt of the breadth of Fulford's knowledge or the fluency and skill of his analysis; yet some readers may feel that the 'transcendent' sublime of spiritualized landscapes which characterizes so many Romantic texts from Akenside to Wordsworth might have been more fully represented alongside the analyses of Burkeian terror. His discussion, in the concluding chapter, of how Hazlitt 'challenges Wordsworth's sublime of self-empowering usurpation by inserting embarrassment into the endless circuit of pain becoming pleasure, slave becoming master' (pp. 239-40), indeed, reminds us that in Kant's analysis this 'circuit' is only a metaphorical one, since the 'pain' of the Kantian sublime is nothing more than an initial sense of the 'menacing' quality of overhanging glaciers, or of the difficulty of comprehending (for example) the size of the dome of St. Peter's, which is immediately converted into an elevating sense of one's inward transcendence of the physical. Hence, while entirely sharing Fulford's emphasis on the undesirableness of any 'power-battle' (p. 240), one wonders whether the Romantic sublime is invariably implicated in such a conflict. Though the tradition of Gothic terror closely reflects key aspects of Burke's conceptualities, and though a feeling of elevation (though not necessarily of strength) is involved in the emotions which Coleridge and Wordsworth associate with sublime landscapes and ideas, indeed, their chief concern—I would suggest—is often with an inner freedom from precisely the anxieties and conflicts in which Fulford reinscribes that sense of liberation. The theory that transcendence implies indifference to social ills is of course well-known; yet considering the radical views of the Coleridge who wrote (for example) "This Lime-Tree Bower" or "Frost at Midnight", and the close connections between sublimity and progressiveness in many of his early writings, we should perhaps not insist too strongly on the oppressiveness of his rapture.