Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site

Reviews

Morton D. Paley, Coleridge's Later Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 19 818372 0 (hardback). Price: £25.Andrea K. Henderson, Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity: 1774-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 521 48164 3 (hardback). Price: £30 (US$44.95).

  • Kenneth Larry Brewer

…plus d’informations

  • Kenneth Larry Brewer
    Stanford University

Corps de l’article

These two texts, as their titles suggest, represent very different approaches to Romanticism. Morton D. Paley's study takes the oeuvre as its object, and his aim is a modest one: "It is the argument of this book that [Coleridge's later poetry] is worth serious attention" (2). Andrea Henderson, on the other hand, not only wants to change the way we understand the literature of the period but to use Romantic texts to break through "the stalemated arguments within literary studies," as "historically remote texts . . . can provide ways not only to challenge the usefulness of a theoretical construct in a particular instance, but also to help us rethink the terms and assumptions of that construct" (6). That 'construct' is the notion that we must choose between a 'deep' subjectivity model of the self or a model which dispenses with the 'self' entirely. Certain "popular Romantic conceptions of identity," Henderson suggests, can lead us out of this dilemma.

Coleridge's Later Poetry will become, I believe, the necessary starting-point for critics working on Coleridge's 'later poetry.' Paley notes that it is unclear when Coleridge's later poetry begins; the answer has traditionally depended on when critics believe that Coleridge became a less-than-great poet, so 'later' has historically been a synonym for 'inferior.' This is the assumption Paley challenges, and his book is a model of thorough scholarship: he draws on manuscript sources to discuss variants in the poems, discusses Coleridge's comments on his work in his letters and prose, examines interpretations of the poetry by other critics, and offers careful readings of particular poems. Paley's thesis is a modest one, as I have noted, but I would argue that this is a benefit: because Paley is not riding a hobbyhorse, he does not try to fit the later poetry into a predetermined schema. This is not of course to suggest that Paley's readings are unimpeachable, but he has certainly provided a model of judicious scholarship in his approach.

Paley in fact avoids a statement along the lines of "Coleridge's later poetry is worth serious attention because of X, Y, and Z," preferring instead to allow the reader to draw her own conclusions from his close readings. Among Paley's implicit criteria are a high level of craftsmanship—Paley demonstrates the considerable labor Coleridge put into much of this poetry—, density of meaning, and a constant theme Paley locates in the later poetry which is of considerable interest for studies of the creative process: Coleridge's "strategy of recuperation," the way "Coleridge makes his sense of loss a source of lyric expression, turning what he experiences as personal weakness into poetic strength" (77). Far from wallowing in self-pity, Paley suggests, Coleridge put his despair to work creatively, and these poems therefore have a unifying theme: they are more than the desultory productions of a wasted soul. "When a Man is unhappy, he writes damned bad Poetry, I find," Coleridge claimed in 1794, but what he discovered is that he could write quite good poetry if he made his unhappiness a poetic subject. Paley's book shows how Coleridge spent much of his poetic career disproving his statement of 1794.

Of course, as Paley is quick to note, Coleridge was himself largely responsible for this view of him "as a burnt-out case wandering in a wilderness of abstraction" (3). By 1801 Coleridge was writing to William Godwin that "The Poet is dead in me" because of his research into metaphysics (2). To some extent, Paley suggests, we should question the standard division of 'early' and 'late' Coleridge, as "Coleridge always had a number of poetic voices" (2); we should also not accept Coleridge's dismissal of his later poems "at face value without considering the evidence of Coleridge's deep ambivalence" (2), evidence which Paley marshals convincingly in his discussion. Coleridge thought enough of this poetry to expend considerable effort on writing and revising, and he published poems such as "The Two Founts" in The Annual Register and the Monthly Repository to ensure that they "reached a very large reading public" (98). These are not the actions of someone who believes his work is not worth reading, and we often find in Coleridge "justifiable expression[s] of pride in his later accomplishments" (2).

Andrea Henderson's study shares Paley's methodological approach of close reading. Henderson, as I have noted above, wants to show how certain Romantic texts provide alternative models of subjectivity to the 'deep' self that became so dominant that generations of critics had no trouble locating the source of this view in the Romantics. While De Man and his generation of critics resisted this model by changing the subject to language, Henderson takes a more direct approach, arguing that these texts do not articulate a 'deep' version of the self in the first place, but rather offer representations of various, and competing, types of subjectivity.

Her first chapter, 'Doll-machines and Butcher-shop Meat: Models of Childbirth in the Early Stages of Industrial Capitalism,' focuses on eighteenth-century gynecological texts, arguing that the Industrial Revolution necessitated radical changes in the characterization of childbirth by the late eighteenth-century: "Avoiding the conflation of childbearing and economic production became an ever-more pressing task during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century." Early eighteenth-century writers such as William Smellie expressed few anxieties about mechanistic accounts of the process of childbirth; later writers such as William Hunter moved away from such models. This shift also entails that the fetus must be understood to some extent as self-developing, not "the mere product of its mother's body," as this "epigenetic model" allows the fetus "to avoid slipping into the world of commodity-like objects" (33). Of course, such a reconfiguration of childbirth does nothing to dislodge "a system of economic relations that perpetually threatened to make a child merely a commodity in a world of commodities," Henderson concludes (37). The fetus may be conceived as self-developing, but the child confronts the world of grim economic necessity in which the means for self-determination are granted only to the privileged few.

Thus Henderson begins with a discussion of texts which are likely to be unfamiliar to most readers in order to show how "the birth of canonical Romantic subjectivity . . . . what we have assumed to be the achievement of a cluster of gifted poets [was] anticipated in the realm of science and medicine," where we find "fetal development and birth [represented] as activities that transcend the world of mechanical laws and commercial relations" (6). The second chapter moves to ground more familiar to readers acquainted with the expansive definition of 'Romanticism' that has become current: the early gothic novel. Henderson argues that the gothic novel is obsessed with exchange-value, which it represents through a notion of identity being a matter of one's relations with others, a "differential display of character" (48). We tend to regard the characters in these novels as 'flat,' Henderson suggests, because we are so invested in the depth model as our only "protection against the effects of capitalism, and this gives rise to our blindness to the special insights of the gothic" (58). By not retreating into the depth model, however, the gothic novel is able to present "a more thorough analysis of certain social pressures than much of the lyric poetry that dominates our sense of the literary period" (58). Such novels lay bare how capitalism makes identity merely another commodity to be exchanged: these novels may tell us more about the construction of identity under capitalism than canonical lyric poetry, and this is perhaps what makes them so unsettling, Henderson concludes.

The third and fourth chapters focus on texts more traditionally associated with Romanticism: Byron's 'The Prisoner of Chillon,' and Percy Shelley's The Cenci . The Byron chapter focuses on conceptions of identity which were influential in the French Revolution, which Henderson also locates in biological texts of the period. Critiques of essentialist models of the self by English radicals such as Godwin argue the subject must define himself in opposition to his surroundings; this is the liberal individualist model of the self that became hegemonic. Between this model and the older one of hierarchy and essentialism, Henderson argues, "stands a model of contextual identification that facilitates the logical and historical transition from a transitional to a modern notion of identity" (74). To the extent that 'The Prisoner of Chillon' has been understood as a political poem, its political perspective has been considered 'republican,' Henderson observes. However, in light of the more complicated version of 'identity politics' Henderson lays out, "one discovers that it offers a subtly anti-republican message in that it represents the Revolutionary shift from rank- to context-based identity as tragic" (75). The Cenci , as well as Mary Shelley's Mathilda , represent the tragic consequences of attempts to assert identity. Whether grounded in the body (Count Cenci) or in the 'inner' self (Beatrice), the struggle for identity "can have profoundly pernicious consequences" (8). Mary Shelley "ultimately can only imagine her heroine dead," and "like Mathilda , The Cenci offers a sacrifice where it cannot offer a solution to the difficulties posed by the canonical Romantic opposition of spirit and body" (129). These texts, then, are hardly unambiguous portrayals of the value of the 'deep' self.

Henderson's final chapter, 'Centrality and Circulation in The Heart of Mid-Lothian,' argues that Scott offers a critique of "interiorized Romantic identity," which "precisely because of its hiddenness and changeability, comes to be associated with the incomprehensibility and unpredictability of market relations" (144). Scott's model of the good society is one that does not have a 'heart,' precisely because a heart is hidden, inner, and therefore unpredictable. Rather, in this "colonial pastoral" version of utopia "there would be no need to distinguish a core from a periphery or a surface because circulation would not be necessary to social life and individual persons would be utterly static and straightforward" (161). Thus by the time Scott's novel is published, the Romantic deep version of the subject has been sufficiently canonized to become the subject of a thorough, and deeply conservative, novelistic critique. Rather than seeing this model of the subject as resistant to capitalism, however, Scott identifies it with market society.

Henderson's book is ambitious, provocative, and for the most part persuasive, but I have a few reservations. While she rightly argues that 'Romanticism' as a historical phenomenon does not obey the logic of our current disciplinary boundaries, and thus must also be looked for in gynecological and biological texts, she does not herself draw on current research from other disciplines as much as one might expect. For example, when Henderson discusses critiques of the depth model of subjectivity in her introduction, she rounds up the usual suspects: Zizek, Derrida, Lacan. Some of the most compelling critiques of the depth model in recent years, however, have come from 'communitarian' philosophers and political theorists such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. Taylor's Sources of the Self in particular seems to me a potentially rich resource for a study like Henderson's, though she would no doubt find much in it to criticize. While focusing on a later period than Henderson's study, Regenia Gagnier's Subjectivities has demonstrated the usefulness of communitarian arguments for understanding how working-class autobiographers conceived of themselves as 'subjects.'

The analyses offered by philosophers such as Taylor also complicate one of Henderson's arguments that seems to me misleading. She argues that the "contextual" model of identity "based hope for human freedom in the belief that human beings, like paper, took their character from external impressions" (4). This is correct, but this model is not incompatible with the depth approach. John Stuart Mill, for example, agrees that subjects are formed by their environment, but he also believes, clearly, in a 'deep' self. The issue is one of origins: where does the deep self come from? Is it innate, or formed through one's environment and associations? We can believe that the self is thoroughly determined by environment, but this does not mean that it has no depth: we just have a different notion of how it acquires that depth. For Mill, and probably also for Wordsworth, 'deep' subjectivity consists in understanding ourselves through the use of memory to reflect on the objects and people that shaped us. This does not require that there is some 'true' self waiting to be discovered, but that deep self-consciousness is necessary for subjects to fully understand certain aspects of their personalities. The depth of the self is a question of temporality, not essence, in this version of the 'contextualist' model, but there is most definitely such a self.

Finally, a more general comment that admittedly may have to do more with my own reading 'horizon' than with any flaw in Henderson's generally excellent study. So adept is Henderson at finding allegories of market relations in the texts she analyzes that I could not help but wonder if capitalism really dominates every nook and cranny of social and psychological life in the way she seems to assume. Is it possible that the precarious sense of identity one finds in gothic novels is not about exchange value at all, but rather a comment on an aspect of human behavior that predates market society? In this sense, too, Paley's book also provides an interesting contrast to Henderson's, because in it capitalism is hardly a presence at all. Whether Paley's approach is a valuable corrective to Henderson's, or Henderson's to Paley's, readers will have to decide, but we should note that beneath their apparent ideological differences lies a common methodological commitment to close, careful readings of texts that make both of these studies excellent examples of contemporary scholarly work on Romanticism.