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SUSAN J. WOLFSON Romanticism & Gender & Melancholy i. Romanticism & Gender & Mellor I N INFLUENTIAL PUBLICATIONS, FROM MARY SHELLEY: HER LIFE, HER Fic­ tion, Her Monsters (1988), through the pioneer anthology, Romanticism and Feminism (1988), and on into the brisk polemics of Romanticism & Gender (1993), the field-changer (co-edited with Richard Matlak), British Litera­ ture, 1780—1830 (1996), the history-shifting Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing, 1780—1830 (2002), and a mother-lode of articles, further editions, plenary lectures, and collegial conference talks, Anne K. Mellor has been remapping the zone marked “Romantic,” showing the difference that gender makes, to the canon and the canonicals. My essay in honor of her work tests a blue/s-print for this difference in the field of “melan­ choly.” Despite a mirror in the first three letters, this mood does not spell the warmth and good humor of a Afeflor, though its issues have been her devotions. 2. Romanticism & Melancholy: The Spirit of the Age It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age offoolishness, it was the epoch ofbelief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season ofDarkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. This memorably brilliant volley is the opening paragraph of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859),1 set in 1775, before everything exploded in France at the dawn of the literature we have come to call “Romantic,” hallmarked by unities and fragments, identity formation and identity crisis, hopeful 1. 2 vols. (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1859). SiR, 53 (Fall 2014) 435 436 SUSAN J. WOLFSON revolution, despondency and dispossession. “Melancholy” is the big tent for this oscillation—and durably forever “like the present.” In the Romantic era, melancholy haunts idealism as its shade of disillu­ sion. Here’s Wordsworth writing about one of Dickens’s two cities in 1804. Although he tells Coleridge that he regards himself (and his poetry) as composed by “two natures . . . joy the one, / The other melancholy,” the horror of Paris in the civil war that succeeded the revolutionary hopes of 1789 gives all to melancholy, its force still felt deeply years on: Most melancholy at that time, O Friend! Were my day thoughts, my dreams were miserable; Through months, through years, long after the last beat Of those atrocities (I speak bare truth, As if to thee alone in private talk) I scarcely had one night of quiet sleep, Such ghastly visions had I of despair . . .2 Resonating from bare to scarcely to despair, this poetry sounds a prelude to Freud’s iconic essay, more than a century on, on melancholy. Freud pro­ posed that whereas “in mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”3 But such refinement eluded the Romantic generation, eluded even its icon of the “egotistical sublime,” Wordsworth.4 More than any personal, self-hollowing loss, his nightmare is an arrest of historical consciousness, a “melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown” (2:448-49), as vast and as heartfelt for the poet writing in 1804 as it was for the hope-dashed young man of 1792. By 1804, even everyday Lakeland could fall to a sensation of this waste: the “miner, melancholy man, / That works by taper-light, while all the hills / Are shining with the glory of the day” (8:508—10).5 Wordsworth could hear melancholy anywhere. Touring the Highlands, he listens to a Lass at a distance, “Reaping and singing by herself. ../... a melancholy strain”: her “plaintive numbers” evoke “old, unhappy, far-offthings, / And battles long ago,” or “Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain, / That has been, and may be again!” While the exact theme remains unknown, the poet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 435-456
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-19
Open Access
No
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