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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)[Record]

  • Fred Botting

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  • Fred Botting
    Lancaster University

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. 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 …