Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 73-91
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Female Romanticism at the End of History
With the slogan "now and again anachronize," Jerome Christensen has suggested that future readings of romantic literature produce interpretive moments designed to threaten the idea of a hermetically sealed telos of ideological evolution that has culminated in liberal democracy (476). Perhaps the most interesting feature of this imperative is that, read into the network of texts issuing from the period commonly designated as romantic, it hardly even seems necessary when one considers the asynchronous perspectives between male and female romantic poets precisely on the subject of historical time and the human individual's place in it. Female romantic poets were committing themselves to anachronism, that is, to moments of time out of the "proper order," in the very inscription of their literary production. Indeed, the example of anachronism exemplified by female romantic writers represents a structural form of intervention into the sphere of political commentary dominated by men. 1 Hence the well noted, and promoted, instructive capacity of romanticism devolves as much on anachronism as a female creative gesture as it does on any particular substantive male ethos generically and stereotypically characterizing the literary period. 2 Moreover, taking seriously the female romantic poet's role as pedagogue, this instructive potential of anachronism clearly speaks to contemporary speculations in post-historical theory, which has recently re-expressed ideological themes common to much male romantic poetry and therefore gives female romanticism a timely relevance.
The traditional inventory of characteristics that has come to distinguish canonical male romantic literature is by now so well rehearsed as not to require comprehensive reiteration here. By way of reminder, Anne K. Mellor provides an able summary, noting the male romantics' concern with
the capacities and value of the creative imagination, with the limitations of language, with the relation of the perceiving subject to the perceived object, with the possibility of transcendence or apocalyptic of self-consciousness, with political (as opposed to social) revolution, [End Page 73] with the role of the creative artist as a political leader or religious savior. ("Criticism," 31)
Add to this the poet's celebration of nature as a potential source of, or conduit to, essential Truth uncorrupted by historical interests and institutional agenda, and the list is fairly complete. The most famous discussions of male romanticism in the twentieth century, beginning perhaps with A. O. Lovejoy's "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms" (1924), and including C. M. Bowra's The Romantic Imagination (1949), Rene Wellek's two essays addressing "The Concept of Romanticism in Literary Scholarship" (1949), and M. H. Abrams's magisterial works The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) and Natural Supernaturalism (1971) all elaborate variations on these consistent thematic concerns.
Jerome McGann's The Romantic Ideology, which was published in 1983, was the first to challenge much of this extant scholarship on the grounds that it tended to be trapped uncritically in its own assumptions about, and representations of, romanticism. According to McGann, romantic criticism consequently often became mired in long sedimented generalizations simply not applicable to all romantic literary texts. 3 As an alternative to such reductive claims, McGann proposed three "phases of English Romanticism," whereby romantic texts could be located according to their representation of poetic consciousness as it recorded and responded to the historical events of and following the French Revolution. Some romantic poets, like Blake and the very early Wordsworth and Coleridge, were able to maintain the profound utopian hope of the revolutionary events of 1789, which apotheosized the end of material struggle in favor of a post-historical vision defined by the realization of universal liberty, fraternity, and equality. A next generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge poems reveals a much more problematized relationship to the post- historical dream, reflecting with nostalgia on lost promise as it displaces material commitment with attempted expressions of purer and purer consciousness (90-91). A final phase of romanticism, best exemplified by the "second generation" English romantics Byron, Shelley, and Keats, is so far removed from the early...