Warren Stevenson, Romanticism and the Androgynous Sublime. Cranberry, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1996. ISBN: 0 838 63668 3 (hardback). Price: £23.00.Johanna M. Smith, Mary Shelley Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 0 805 77045 3 (hardback). Price: £16.95.[Notice]

  • Julia Paulman Kielstra

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  • Julia Paulman Kielstra
    Merton College, Oxford

To find two books of criticism, both of which eschew the crutch of a lengthy or unnecessary subtitle, is merely unusual. To find two books of criticism, both of which rely almost solely on close readings of primary material to sustain and substantiate their arguments, is practically unheard-of in these days of academic job-jostling and sabre-rattling. Warren Stevenson and Johanna M. Smith should reap the rewards of their courage which propelled them onto the battlefield of criticism armed only with the original texts and their own extensive knowledge of the subject and period. This is not to say that Stevenson and Smith are unaware of contemporary work on the sublime as it was manipulated by the Romantics or on Mary Shelley's contribution to literature: it is only to emphasize that their work is blessedly free of references to similar but irrelevant criticism, and that these authors do not rely on other critics' arguments for the structure and proof of their own. Stevenson does pay tribute to Thomas Weiskel's idea of the phallic sublime, but says that he not only read The Romantic Sublime with "wonder and delight", but also was "provoked into carrying the idea a stage further" (13); there are no slavish references to Weiskel, merely the recognition of his ideas as a springboard for Stevenson's own, which extends the idea of the phallic sublime to the androgynous sublime. Stevenson helpfully includes a glossary in which he sets out clearly what he means by the "androgynous sublime": it is "That mode of sublimity which, characterized by a limber style suffused with intimations of androgyny, stands in marked contrast to Edmund's (sic) Burke's 'terrible sublime,' Wordsworth's egotistical or patriarchal sublime, and Weiskel's 'phallic sublime,' although any combination of these may coexist within a given work." (143) In his analysis of romantic texts, Stevenson shows the overlap of the different modes of sublimity. For example, he discusses the aqueous and admonitory sublime particularly effectively in the Wordsworth chapter: in his analysis of the "beauteous evening" sonnet and selected passages from The Prelude , he writes, "This thundering, patriarchal voice, whose reverberations are heard throughout Wordsworth's poetry, usually in association with water imagery, presents a marked contrast to the murmuring and androgynous voices of the rivers Wye and Derwent, as well as of Dorothy. The former is meant to be 'sublime' and the latter 'beautiful,'" (53). Stevenson argues that the sublime experience, for the Romantic poets, was not wholly reliant on a sense of awe inspired by beautiful scenery, or on a sense of power afforded by a masculine response to the landscape. Instead, the sublime was essentially an experience of "psychic androgyny...a transcendence of self and sex in a moment...of total otherness and integration." (9). Stevenson points out that the word 'sublime' itself is androgynous, possessing a semantic ambivalence and an internal oxymoron, 'sub' meaning 'under' or 'up from underneath', and 'limen' meaning 'threshold' or 'lintel' (14). He briefly traces the myth of the androgyne from Aristophanes to Freud and Jung, and writes that the myth in England was more theological than secular: "In so far as God has what we call both male and female characteristics, he becomes an androgynous God. This idea too influenced the English romantics." (17) Psychic androgyny (in Stevenson's words, "the only kind worth writing about" (10)) assumes several guises: structural (or rhetorical), mythological, and religious. Through close readings of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Keats, Stevenson argues his point about the prevalence of psychic androgyny in romantic poetry. Having stated in his Glossary that the androgynous sublime is "characterized by a limber …