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Reviews

Philip Cox, Gender, Genre and the Romantic Poets. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 7190 4263 1 (hardback) 0 7190 4264 X (paperback). Price: £25 (hb) £12 (pb)

  • Fred Botting

…more information

  • Fred Botting
    Lancaster University

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The rule that books should not be judged by their covers ought, perhaps, to be discarded in our incredulous postmodern times. But in regard to blurbs, it remains a generally applicable axiom which sustains a modicum of suspicion in the face of the inflated praise from an untouchable echelon of academic stars. Blurbs are either a product endorsement declaring the absolute necessity of purchase (all-too often leading to disappointed reading) or, more mundanely, an uncomfortable attempt by the retiring scholar at self-promotion, a discomfort exacerbated by the enthusiastic efforts of a publicity editor to enliven the adjectives in the interests of sales.

The blurb on the back of Gender, Genre and the Romantic Poets, however, merely announces a new introductory textbook that presents an original exploration of the important relationship between gender issues and genre choice in the work of the canonical male poets of the Romantic period. It goes on to detail the principal generic and gendered thrust of the book before quietly recommending it to undergraduates because of its sustained attention to specific examples and its suggestive and informative introduction to a complex and fascinating area of study. One could quibble about the use of original in respect of an introductory textbook, but the adjective is tempered to indicate its reference to method rather than individualistic creativity. But where is the hype? The promise of fascination and complexity hardly seems to airbrush the cover with the allure of instant gratification, almost refusing, rather, to appeal to the exchange, transfer and rapid recyclability of information demanded by the input-output models of performative pedagogy. I don't want to be fascinated! I can't bear complexity! , exclaims one prospective buyer as s/he slams it back on the bookshop shelf, I want to pass my exams. With this disarmingly accurate, even truthful, blurb, the modest scholar, it appears, has won out over the publicity machine.

Gender, Genre and the Romantic Poets does not seem, at the extremely superficial level of contemporary consumption, to be a book that the punters, be they teacher or student, must buy. Shouldn't it be advertised as the answer to every question and informational desire thrown up by the customers and purveyors of contemporary tertiary education? Given its extremely saleable combination of gender, genre, male poets, female poets, deconstruction, feminism and new historicism, should it not have been proclaimed as the ultimate object of Romanticism's commodified pedagogy? Cox's introductory text is no massive encyclopaedia of criticism, for sure, no supermarket-in-a-book attempting to incorporate every eventuality and whim of a capricious pedagogical market; nor is it an avowedly fashionable renunciation of canons in the name of whatever thing may be next and big. But neither is it a dutiful attendance to the rights and authority of a traditional and value-laden approach catechistically reciting a glossary of names, dates and themes. Nonetheless, it attends to the impact of tradition, in the sense of a Romantic narrative that persists culturally and is refracted critically, but asks questions of canon and criticism in a close and careful way, rather than through an all-too easy flaring of explosive denunciation: to attempt to move beyond the limits of Romanticism, the book acknowledges, remains a fundamentally problematic gesture, a gesture resolutely Romantic in tone and thus one which replicates the very models that are imaginarily discarded. Instead, Cox looks at the uncertainties and contradictions within Romanticism and the Romantic period as a historical association, an aesthetic paradigm and a critical construct. From within, Romantic discourses and self-engenderings are rendered less solid and sure of themselves. The disclosure of Romanticism's unstable interiors, however, has an impact on criticism: critical spaces become more mobile and difficult to sustain and the critic, and audience in turn, is called upon to undertake that most unfashionable of pre-hyperreal tasks, the task of reading.

The task of reading, neatly demonstrated, lucidly introduced and carefully plotted, is, perhaps, what makes Gender, Genre and the Romantic Poets an introductory text that refuses contemporary pedagogical imperatives to optimally circulate and commodify information. Which is not to say that it is an impossibly difficult and obscure theoretical text. On the contrary, different theories are put to work on texts with a clarity and attentiveness that illuminates both poetry and theory, a textual illumination, however, that interrogates boundaries rather than shoring them up. Critical boundaries, between new historicism, deconstruction and French feminism, are crossed and entwined, not to confound, but to inform sexual and textual readings of canonical male poets and thereby contest easy gendered or generic fixes. 'Tintern Abbey', for instance, in an analysis that embraces Bowles, Smith and Dorothy Wordsworth and the interimplication of ode and sonnet forms, discloses the literary hesitancy that comes of a composite generic mode, and along with it an uncertainty regarding the possibility of sustaining a sense of self. Similarly, in The Prelude 's movement between lyric and narrative modes, a movement in which the narcissism of familiar oedipal scenarios is presented, masculine identity is rendered less self-assured. For the 'Boy of Winander', sexed being is destabilised by textual flows as he is metaphorically received into the bosom of the (maternal) lake and drowns in a watery grave of ontological indeterminacy (p. 73). Textual indeterminacy, indeed, problematises sexed self-assertion throughout Romantic poetry. Here, perhaps, Keats comes out strongest: by way of an equation between his effeminacy and his theories of poetic (non)identity, the stability of gender relations are fundamentally upset by an erotic dynamics of the text itself. With Byron's very masculine sublime, particularly in his unstageable verse drama, Manfred, a sense of abjection and otherness diffuses and rewrites the performance of selfhood. For Percy Shelley, too, identity is sent on a path through difference that detaches self from its image and delivers it to the feminised flows of differance. As Cox concludes, this line of argument, addressing neglected theatrical aspects of Romantic writing, gestures towards the distinctly performative nature of gender difference. Throughout, however, the question of gender performativity is broached only in respect of carefully defined literary historical parameters, an issue that emerges from, rather than being imposed upon, incisive readings of the poetry. And it is the rigour of the reading process as enacted by this book that demands a lot of its readers while drawing them ineluctably into the intricacies of contemporary critical debates.

If, in the virtual future, there continues to be an area or subject called Romanticism or even an elongated, liberated and pluralised Romantic period, this text will be one of its best introductions. It might be more accurate, if a little obtuse, however, to suggest, given Machine-knows-what future, that the book will have been one of the best introductions to Romanticism, charting as it does the transitional status of the subject from a canonical big six to a diverse and dynamic assemblage of generic intertexts. That gender will be as prevalent an issue as it has only recently become in contemporary Romantic debates, however, seems less likely. For all its attentiveness to the nuances of cultural constructions of sexual difference, Cox's book makes it an unanswerable question in the way that it presents a version in which gendered essences evaporate in the face of textual indeterminacies. But this is also a strength. As identity becomes increasingly unstable in male poetry, the success of feminist interrogations becomes evident to the point that the gendered basis for the recovery of women writers as anything but an invention of the present is unwound. This is not to accuse the book, as some perhaps might, and argue that its interest in male poets serves a process of appropriation which returns to an indefensible focus on canonical texts, but to follow its implication regarding gender: that, in its unravelling of the uncertain interiors of male poetic engenderings, the text destabilises oppositions to the point that they can no longer be hypostatised or fixed in recognisable frameworks. Isobel Armstrong, in a recent essay on Romantic poetry and the gush of the feminine , takes this argument to another stage, offering a reading of Barbauld which proposes that it is time to read women poets anew, to learn to read them outside the restrictively gendered and very conventional terms that have tended to structure both sides of critical debates. For Armstrong, distinctions, for example, between male rationality and the plurally-signifying gush of feminine (feminist?) irrationality become untenable when subjected to a reading attentive to alternative, but no less rational, forms of argument emerging from diverse poetic engagements with compositional modes and political positions. As a result, standard binary axes need to be dismantled and reading must begin afresh. By working within Romanticism, Cox's text contributes to a similar process: its excavations of assumptions about Romanticism, even though they are addressed to an inexperienced reader, are taken to the point where all critical paradigms and cosy oppositions are scrutinised with an eye to the need for seriously rethinking them.