- Gender, Genre and the Romantic Poets: An Introduction
Philip Cox’s study of key texts by the five canonical Romantic poets—Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron—demonstrates the value of genre as a critical concept in poststructuralist, feminist reading. Taking as his starting point Derrida’s “The Law of Genre” (which focuses on genre’s perpetual difference from itself, its implication in other systems of categorization) together with Helene Cixous’s understanding of the ways in which the binary oppositions of sexual difference both cooperate with and undermine other systems of difference, Cox trains his attention on intersections of gender and genre. He seeks consistently to show “how [End Page 545] an attention to the poet’s use of generic conventions can alert us to the shifting—and often conflicting—gender positions within the poetry” (20). The result is a critical approach that can “trace the ways in which generic tensions rehearse the struggles, inequalities and uncertainties of gender and reveal the instabilities inherent in what is apparently the essentially masculine ideology of Romanticism” (12).
Cox’s chapters often begin with the Romantics’ contemporaries’ critical reception of the texts at hand, reminding us how central a concept genre was to late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century understandings of literature. And his own theoretical approach to genre is often salutary. In his chapter on “Tintern Abbey,” for example, Cox argues that the meanings of genre are not immanent in the text, but are rather constructed by readers as they construe its generic markers within the “conceptual syntax” of a literary history in which genres have meaning in relation to other genres (41). He focuses on the tentativeness of Wordsworth’s own hopes that the reader will consider “Tintern Abbey” an “Ode,” in conjunction with the poem’s many affiliations—in subject matter and tone—with another influential late eighteenth-century genre, the elegiac sonnet. Arguing that by the 1790s the sonnet had come to seem a feminine genre (through its identification with both woman poets such as Charlotte Smith, and with sentimental subject matter), Cox suggests that “Tintern Abbey”s oscillating affiliations with both the elegiac sonnet and the more heroic, “masculine” ode might be mapped onto the poem’s thematic concerns: the relation between Wordsworth’s own earlier self—represented in part by the feminine figure of Dorothy—and his more reconciled maturity. Thus, a historically textured understanding of genre opens up and mediates a reading of the gendered nature of the poem’s conflicts and resolutions. Similarly, in the book’s first chapter, Cox shows how gender structures the use of pastoral in two poems of the 1790s, Coleridge’s “Reflections on having Left a Place of Retirement” and Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “To Mr. C—GE.” In both of these chapters, Cox documents how “the ambiguities of the cultural constructions of gender in the 1790s are displaced onto the language of poetic genre” (22).
The book’s final three chapters—on Keats, Byron, and Shelley—all focus on the writers’ explorations of the tensions between dramatic genres on the one hand, and presumably less performative genres such as lyric on the other. According to Cox, his emphasis on Romantic drama is no accident: it reveals the extent to which all genre—and all genders—are performed rather than given. In the Keats chapter, he rehearses the persistent perception that there was something “effeminate” about the poet’s lyric subjectivity and his aesthetic as a whole (enshrined in, for example, the self-dissolving notion of “negative capability”); he then sees Keats’s turn to dramatic tragedy in Otho the Great as an attempt to overcome his residual resistance to a performative, feminine aesthetic with masculine ambition and fixity. In Byron’s Manfred, the hybridities of the Romantic “closet drama” or “dramatic poem” (Byron’s term) work out the gendered tensions between the “body” of performance, and the “spirit” of lyric, between abjection and individuation, between the doomed pairing of Astarte and Manfred, between Byron’s understanding of humanity as “Half...