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Andrew M. Stauffer. Anger, Revolution, and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN: 0-521-84675-7. Price: £45/US$80.

  • Linda L. Reesman

…plus d’informations

  • Linda L. Reesman
    City University of New York

Corps de l’article

As early as the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates believed the brain to be the seat of human intelligence and emotion. Even today scientists and psychologists are still learning, however slowly, the nature of human emotion through a mapping of the human brain. It is no wonder then that the subject of anger has remained such a demanding and intriguing one that Andrew Stauffer has undertaken to explore this tenuous emotion as it appeared during the Romantic period. Readers of the January 29, 2007, issue of Time magazine can surely attest to the importance of this ancient topic on the dichotomy of the mind and body from the cover article “The Brain: A User’s Guide.” While leaving a study of the brain to neuroscientists, Stauffer instead attempts to map the history of anger by delineating its literary roots from the satirists of the Renaissance and from even earlier sources of Greek and Roman rhetorical writings, thereby illustrating how writers of the Romantic period classified, understood, and expressed anger during the turbulence of the French Revolutionary age.

Stauffer builds his perspective of Romantic anger on the political concerns, historical contexts, and public consciousness developing in England during the 1790s through the forms of revolutionary rhetoric that began with Edmund Burke’s inflammatory discourse Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He focuses primarily on the effects of anger on the literature of this period to enhance the attention already given to the human emotions in studies of grief, melancholy, and fear. The six chapters that follow his introduction demarcate the emotional particularities of Romantic writing, directly addressing the nature of Romantic anger with a poignant examination of the values inherent in this emotion, values that consider the ethics and judgment of anger. The reader not only becomes increasingly aware of the importance of this study and its contribution to Romantic period literature, but is also immersed in a realm of inquiry that elucidates the imaginative production of ideas and their relevance to understanding the socio-political timeline of a revolutionary culture.

In his opening chapter Towards Romantic anger Stauffer grounds his argument about the aesthetic development of Romantic anger on eighteenth-century issues of sensibility and the sublime in an attempt to show that “the Romantics inherited a tradition of thinking about (and writing in) anger that led to a seeming aesthetic paradox: how can a poet be filled with fury yet pleasingly terrified, enraged yet in control, angry yet a figure of sympathy to an audience?” (16). To explain this contradiction of the varying expressions of anger, Stauffer examines the historical evidence of classical writers such as Plato and Aristotle, Homer, Seneca, and Horace, as well as Longinus and others whose writing on anger and its control reveal conflicting attitudes that have arisen in the dramatic poetry and discourse of the Romantics. As Stauffer thoughtfully unravels these conflicts, he portrays the complications that anger creates in its magnitude and its intensity in both individual and public expressions and reactions. For instance, he cites the Stoic viewpoint of Senecan anger as an unsympathetic expression in contrast with Horatian grief and Aristotelian fear and pity that readily evoke sympathy from their audiences. Looking beyond the apparent contradictions, Stauffer delves into this paradox of rage and sublimity as he links Homer’s depiction of rage in the Iliad with Longinus’ writings on the sublime where anger is judged an acceptable expression of violent passion, clearly justifiable in Longinus’ words: “‘a wild gust of mad enthusiasm’” (22). Stauffer further develops his exposé of the rhetorical role anger played in eighteenth-century writing as he puzzles out the complicated threads of anger intertwined in its literary roots resulting in the emotional distance evidenced in the works of many eighteenth-century poets.

In the second chapter of his book, Stauffer lays the groundwork for the political and historical contexts that define genres of anger as “noble indignation,” for conservatives like Burke, and as “blind and ferocious rage,” for revolutionaries and other sympathizers. He associates Burke’s angry rhetoric with the irrationalities of Juvenalian satire, a kind of madness and fury that turns the irrational into the rational. Justification of anger for Burke meant the attribution of wisdom, virtue, and sincerity to passionate discourse on revolutionary language to counteract Jacobin ravings and irrationalities. Stauffer also embraces the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the voice of opposition that reconceptualizes and redefines anger for the Romantics through his poetics, thereby judging anger from a place of both provocation and awareness. Here Stauffer pinpoints the organic nature of the emotional tenor of anger that conforms to the poetic irony permeating Coleridge’s writing. He points to Coleridge’s revision in diction to his poem “Monody on the Death of Chatterton,” originally written in 1790 and revised in 1794. As Stauffer explains, “Coleridge’s renaming of his emotion (from ‘Rage’ to ‘Indignation’) is symptomatic of the widespread revaluation of these terms in British discourse during the 1790s which we have traced, whereby ‘indignation’ had become a locus of rational judgment almost separate from anger itself, and ‘rage’ had been firmly associated with blindly destructive, animal fury” (59). The political effects of anger on the Romantic imagination and its social legitimacy are carved out in moments of literary expression that Stauffer brings to light throughout his investigation.

Exploring Romantic anger beyond the political to the social arena, Stauffer further elaborates his argument to show the development of the social legitimacy of anger as it became popularized in public discourse. Radical writers such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Burke’s attempts to evoke public reaction to the outrageous treatment (in Burke’s opinion) of the French aristocracy. Inflammatory speeches charged the atmosphere with currents of contagious retaliations in the production of an increasing number of publications. Paine and Wollstonecraft attacked Burke’s efforts to inflame the imagination as they championed the democratic rights of the people. As these inflammatory responses spread throughout the literature, Stauffer notes that the British government “came to require indignation against France and French principles, thus institutionalizing what had been the conservative position from the beginning” (49). As Stauffer maintains, the changing attitudes towards anger, the driving force of the culture and politics, can be recognized through the physical role of inflammation in the human system. He draws on historical details that link events with medical treatments for the symptoms of rhetorical anger through the metaphor of bloodletting as an anti-inflammatory cure. The question raised by Stauffer on the pathology of public rage is addressed in chapter three where therapeutic approaches to current political turmoil illustrate the impact of language on politics. Numerous examples from the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Blake, and other Romantic poets provide ample evidence of the interpretations to which anger and its many connotations of inflammation are subjected and scrutinized during this period.

Stauffer begins his fourth chapter on the plot of anger and its relationship to provocation in the legal system, as he shows how defendants were held more or less culpable for murderous actions when seen as victims of their own anger, incapable of self-control. He relies on William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams to focus his argument on the historical development of anger through a plot that makes clear reference to the story of Alexander the Great. Through this prime example Stauffer explains critical distinctions of anger as Godwin’s protagonist Falkland defends his own loss of control when provoked by his victim to commit the very act that he fears will dishonor him. The conflicted attitudes over culpability for the murder in Godwin’s plot as well as the redefinition of guilt in the courts are linked by Stauffer as he weaves a web of insights into the kind of anger exemplified by Romantic concern over how to judge this emotion. Stauffer continues to perform a delicate dance throughout the chapter as he choreographs the developments of Romantic anger to show how the works of other Romantic writers such as Joanna Baillie and Mary Godwin Shelley illustrate historical likenesses, on the one hand, and yet resist the baneful effects of anger on the other, ultimately surmising that angry reactions lack for sympathetic audiences.

Concerned with how sympathy employs anger or how anger evokes sympathy (or not) in both ancient literature and during the Romantic period, Stauffer in his final chapters examines two of the younger poets in their writings on satire, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. As Stauffer points out, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein fostered an attitude of noble anger as the creature was driven to violent crimes personalized against Victor Frankenstein but caused by an unfeeling and often hostile world. According to Stauffer’s intertexual analysis, this view of sympathy for the perpetrator along with the eighteenth-century law of provocation justifying murderous crimes became a pivotal point in Romantic culture raising doubts of sincerity and falsehood that underlie the poetry and drama of Shelley and Byron. Stauffer posits the question central to the revolutionary spirit: how can anger function as a means of revenge while still commanding sympathy? His analysis of the works of Shelley and Byron illustrates their opposing approaches where the former poet reveals his idealism and pacifism through masked layers of poetic expression, and the latter poet writes from the raw emotion of anger through the satiric form. As Stauffer asserts, Shelley struggles with ambivalence towards anger while Byron confronts the hypocrisy of anger in his work and himself. He maintains that Shelley admires the ability of anger to reveal “the true nature of humanity” and “to unmask figures of deception and vice” (116). Byron, on the other hand, represents the anti-thesis of Romantic ideals in his “ironic masquerading. . . of sincerity and spontaneity” as well as openly displaying anger in the Romantic poem (134). Both poets demonstrate the range that Romantic anger reached, as Stauffer brings out in his poetic examples of their works.

The demands of this subject are enormous and, as Stauffer has shown, the nature of Romantic anger becomes more transparent through a scrutiny of the historical and political threads of events and a discernment of cultural reactions to these events witnessed by the rhetoric of the Romantic period. Stauffer concludes that the literary works written after 1819 demonstrate a revision in how anger expresses more “stylized and aestheticized forms” taking on a theatrical life of comfort wholly separate from the political fires that spurned this powerful emotion during the 1790s (165). Given the wealth of literary scholarship that supports Stauffer’s argument that Romantic anger formed the identity of self and world, a further undertaking of the Biblical influences and religious devotions during this period would provide an essential piece of the anger puzzlement that appears to be missing from this text. To unravel the Romantic works without giving substantial attention to this aspect of the writers’ intentions creates a gap in understanding the Romantic need for forgiveness and benevolence made apparent in Stauffer’s examples. However, the subject of anger, as large as it is, will require yet another volume to further explore its dimensions and position its intense ramifications. Indeed, there is much to be learned from the role anger plays in our lives and in how we see its methods and means revealed in our negotiations of self and world as the Romantics explored in their writings. For these reasons, Stauffer’s text brings forth a seminal study on Romantic anger that accomplishes an essential role in Romantic scholarship, placing his interpretations on anger within the context of cultural understanding.