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Reviews

Sheila M. Kearns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography: Reading Strategies of Self-representation. London: Associated University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0838635466 (hardback) Price: £26

  • Michael Laplace-Sinatra

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  • Michael Laplace-Sinatra
    St. Catherine's College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

Sheila M. Kearns' Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography: Reading Strategies of Self-Representation is the most recent work in a long series of attempts at interpretating Wordsworth's The Prelude and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria from an autobiographical point of view. However, Kearns' book stands apart from the previous works on this subject by the extent of her analysis of The Prelude and Biographia Literaria which is in the best scholarly manner. This is certainly one of the best book to have appeared on the subject of autobiography in relation to Wordsworth and Coleridge for several years; anyone interested in that subject should definitely read it.

Kearns is perfectly aware of the intrinsic difficulty of discussing autobiographical works following the "advent of poststructuralist theories of language and subjectivity" (13) Thus, she devotes her first chapter to a presentation of the current theories, evoking first the 'traditional' notion of autobiography (with references, among others, to Roy Pascal's Design and Truth in Autobiography , James Olnes' Metaphors of the Self , and Philippe Lejeune's Le Pacte Autobiographique ). She then moves on to discuss Derrida's important contribution to the genre of autobiography, and discusses briefly Starobinsky's article 'The Style of Autobiography'. Starobinsky comments that "Every autobiography—even when it limits itself to pure narrative—is a self-interpretation".  [1] There is indeed an element of doubt about the veracity of the story which should be borne in mind whenever one reads an autobiography, the story perhaps being fictionalised. The problem that the reader faces is that s/he cannot know whether the story is autobiographical or fictionalised if s/he does not have a preliminary knowledge of the author's life. Although Starobinsky's account contains valuable insights, Kearns mentions the limit(ation)s of Starobinsky's analysis by pointing out that he "examines autobiographical writing so as to try to see through it and to gain a view of the essential subject of the text" (24). John Sturrock argues along the same line as Starobinsky when he declares:

In autobiography, if anywhere in literature, we are expected to sense that these are texts inhabited by a living person, that an author who was particularly present to himself while he was writing is now present to us as we read.  [2]

However, a question arises: how are we to define the author? Indeed, even though it is agreed that it is by comparing the past 'I' with the present 'I' that the autobiography can take place, Benveniste observes that, linguistically speaking, there is no concept such as 'I' and that the 'I' refers to the one who is speaking and that we can identify him/her by the very fact that s/he is speaking.  [3] This remark is crucial in the sense that, for a text to be autobiographical, the 'I' has to refer to the author, and if there is no longer an author, a text cannot be autobiographical; the text being only text and nothing outside of it. Of course, one is reminded of Roland Barthes' statement that

the author is never more than the instance writing, just as the I is nothing other than the instance saying I : language knows a 'subject', not a 'person', and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language 'hold together', suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it.  [4]

Surpringly, Kearns does not mention Roland Barthes in her book, nor even includes him in her bibliography, the only minor flaw in the entire book.

Kearns accurately asserts that the conventional view of autobiographical writings as defined by Starobinsky is challenged by poststructuralist theories of language with regard to the notion of stability in writing and the possibility of recovering an author's past through language. Kearns also discusses Foucault's theory of "author-function" from his essay 'What is an Author?', and rightly retains its main argument for her own analysis of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's works. In fact, one of the very good points of Kearns' study is that she manages to bring into the discussion 'controversial' issues (especially at a time when referring to poststructuralism is certainly not in conformity with the New Historicist approach of the day) and then provides the reader with an in-depth analysis of The Prelude and Biographia Literaria , thus preventing her study from turning into what Shelley calls "a sort of Asymptote which seems ever to approach & never to arrive".  [5]

After her analysis of Vico's Autobiography "as an example of the shift in the nature of self-representation that occurs with the developement of print-culture during the Romantic period at the end of the eighteenth century" (15), Kearns gives the reader a challenging reading of Wordsworth's The Prelude by demonstrating how Wordsworth's strategy of self-representation within the poem attests his "power to read/write the text of his life and to set up that model as the guide to be followed by any reader of the poem" (80). She first pays particular attention to Book I to illustrate her argument that Wordsworth defines his reader with regard to the inscription of his life and the relationship to The Recluse project. Then, she highlights the way in which Wordsworth represents himself to his readers in Book 4. Kearns' detailed analysis of Wordsworths poem can be seen as exploring to its utmost Hugh Silverman's remark that "In autobiography, the self or subject is written as text. Auto-bio-graphizing is the writing of the self as text".  [6]

Moving swiftly to Coleridge, Kearns' Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography presents the reader with a brilliant analysis of the literary relations between Coleridge and Wordsworth. Although, as Kearns herself acknowledges, recent studies by Lucy Newlyn, Paul Magnuson and Gene Ruoff have focused on this subject, Kearns' account is interesting and different in many ways. By refering to The Friend and the poem 'To William Wordsworth', Kearns expands the scope of her analysis and manages to demonstrate how Coleridge appropriates Wordsworth's work in his own writings in order to re-affirm his status as a writer. Kearns' references to Hazlitt's reviews of The Stateman's Manual and the Biographia Literaria are cleverly integrated within her discussion of Coleridge's textual and reading strategies as regards Wordsworth. Kearns' account of the public and private exchanges between Coleridge and Wordsworth is well-detailed and definitely thought-provoking. Her reading of Biographia Literaria , and in particular the famous Chapter 13, presents Coleridge's own definition of "author-function", and pertinently refers to his Logic and his theory of language.

If, as Paul De Man argues, autobiography is "a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts",  [7] there are other texts from the Romantic period which are waiting to be discussed and, no doubt, will be soon in other studies. In the meantime, Kearns' Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Romantic Autobiography contains an excellent new reading of two major works famous for their difficulty. Richard Holmes' remark in the introduction to his biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley remains truer than ever: "What is constantly new is not the past itself, but the way we look back on it".  [8]

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