Loading

Module 1: Politics and Romantic Poetry

Notes
Study Reminders
Support
Text Version

Set your study reminders

We will email you at these times to remind you to study.
  • Monday

    -

    7am

    +

    Tuesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Wednesday

    -

    7am

    +

    Thursday

    -

    7am

    +

    Friday

    -

    7am

    +

    Saturday

    -

    7am

    +

    Sunday

    -

    7am

    +

Over the past several weeks, we explored the Romantic novel, the rise of sensibility and sentiment, we have looked at the emergence of the genres such as the Gothic, some study of the visual cultures of the period, and we have examined kinds of poetry, kinds of themes and concerns such as environmentalism. In our continuing exploration, we now turn to the politics of the English Romantic poets.We begin with gender and class. By the time Wordsworth ends his poem “Nutting” he has shown us a boy’s destruction of the woods: the boy violently cuts down branches. The boy’s actions leave him saddened, says Wordsworth: “a sense of pain” is what the boy experiences. Then Wordsworth concludes with some troubling lines: Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand Touch—for there is a spirit in the woods. So is it the woman’s responsibility to balance the actions of the boy? Does Wordsworth therefore align, in what is now a traditional stereotype, woman and natural? [What the ecofeminists describe as “naturalizing the feminine and feminizing nature”] Wordsworth’s famous Lucy poems, critics have noted, are part of a gendered theme of “naming and leaving”. (We have already cited this.) The politics of gender in the Romantic poets may be read along several lines. (Refer Slide Time: 2:20) First, there is the feminization of poetry itself by poets like Felicia Hemans. Hemans made domestic affections the ideal subject of poetry. In poems like “The Indian City”, Hemans makes domestic tragedy (the death of her young son, at the hands of the natives), the source of Maimuna’s military campaign. Thus, even as Hemans shows Maimuna as a heroic figure, she suggests that her heroism is subordinate to her feelings as a mother. The poetess figure in Hemans is one given over to such emotions, as Adriana Craciun suggests. Where couldst thou fix on mortal ground Thy tender thoughts and high? Now peace the woman’s heart hath found, And joy the poet’s eye. “The Grave of a Poetess” Notice what the lines are doing. As Craciun suggests, the poetess figure is given over to such emotions and here, the Grave of a Poetess describes how she was as a poet. Where could you on the mortal ground have fixed your tender thoughts and high? Peace the woman’s heart has found and joy the poet’s eye. So that is the first theme, the feminisation of nature, the sentimentalisation of nature. Second, there is the shift in heterosexual desire that some poets in the age dared to represent. As we have noted the audience was still being shaped and we have spent some time talking about the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads where Wordsworth was trying very hard to justify the kind of poetry he was writing, the kind of poetry that Coleridge had put together in the Lyrical Ballads volume. But it was also important for them to not displease the audience altogether. So there is this balance, this tension between having to cater to existing tastes but also to generate new taste. The most famous of these would be Coleridge’s famous scene in “Christabel”, where Geraldine disrobes before Christabel’s eyes, and thus offers us one of the first direct instances of lesbian desire in English poetry: [Critics and reviewers called the poem, as a result of the account of Christabel’s veiled homoerotic longing, “the most obscene poem in the English language”.] So half-way from the bed she rose, And on her elbow did recline To look at the lady Geraldine. Beneath the lamp the lady bowed, And slowly rolled her eyes around; Then drawing in her breath aloud, Like one that shuddered, she unbound The cincture from beneath her breast: Her silken robe, and inner vest, Dropt to her feet, and full in view, Behold! her bosom and half her side— A sight to dream of, not to tell! O shield her! shield sweet Christabel! “Christabel” As you can see, it is considerably erotic. It’s graphic in parts and there is evidently sexual desire between the women and the woman staring at the woman is a reversal of the traditional trope which you find in, say, erotic writing or pornography. So that is our second major theme about gender and politics. (Refer Slide Time: 5:32) Third, in poets like Keats, the soft luxuriating imagery has often been read as both sensual and sexualized, and mainly feminine. For instance, verses such as these: Yet, to my ardent prayer, Yield from thy sanctuary some clear air, Smoothed for intoxication by the breath Of flowering bays, that I may die a death Of luxury ... (“Sleep and Poetry”) James Najarian summarizes the complicated gender and sexual identity in Keats thus… Keats’s poetics of languor – of the passive experience of the senses – implies a passive acceptance not just of sensuousness, but of sensuality and implicitly sexuality, a passiveness stereotypically attributed to the feminine… Fourth, and related to the previous point, critics note that when Keats apostrophizes poetry and the muses as women, there is a rhetoric of control – implying that the masculine/male poet controls the feminine/female muse. Keats brings Psyche under his control. She becomes “the symbolic projection of the masculine poet’s dreaming ego” (Watkins 1996: 118). Throwing Cupid out of the original temple “drains the sexual energy and excitement away from Cupid and onto the identity of the poet” (Watkins 1996: 121). So Keats’s poetic identity is in part confiscated from Psyche. Watkins is on to something. Keats not only takes the place of Psyche even as he says he is asking permission to do so; he makes Cupid superfluous. He seizes much of Psyche’s role of sexual companion for Cupid, after all, if he encapsulates Psyche in his mind (cited in Najarian 535). This argument is based on lines like the following from “Ode to Psyche”: Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane In some untrodden region of my mind, Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain, Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep; And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees, The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep; And in the midst of this wide quietness A rosy sanctuary will I dress With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain, With buds, and bells, and stars without a name, With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign, Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same: And there shall be for thee all soft delight That shadowy thought can win, A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, To let the warm Love in! In poems like The Prelude, Anne Mellor notes, the representation of Nature as a feminine figure that inspires the poet’s imagination, actually shows how the masculine poet “usurps” (Mellor’s terms) Nature’s power and leaves her “silent and even absent”. Mellor’s key point is that as long as the Romantic poets depict Nature as feminine, the rhetoric of Romanticism demonstrates a clear gender politics where the masculine poet is always in control over Nature, subordinating “her” within the poem. Further, Mellor notes that all or most of Wordsworth’s women are dead, either literally or figuratively. In poems like Wordsworth’s The Prelude, the very distinguished critic Anne Mellor notes, the representation of Nature as a feminine figure that inspires the poet’s imagination, actually shows how the masculine poet ‘usurps’ and that is Mellor’s term, usurps nature’s power and leaves her silent and sometimes even absent. Mellor’s key point is that as long as the Romantic poets depict nature as feminine, the rhetoric of romanticism demonstrates a clear gender politics where the masculine poet is always in control over nature, subordinating her within the poem. Mellor argues that all or most of Wordsworth’s women are dead, either literally or figuratively. So much for gender. We now turn to our next dimension in politics, Class. (Refer Slide Time: 9:47) Class in Romantic poetry may be read along various lines and themes, all drawing upon the contexts of the age the poets were writing in: Enclosures, agrarian reform and the shifting nature of community and class (gentry, small farmers). E.g.: John Clare’s poetry, Wordsworth’s famous “The Solitary Reaper” (who owns the field she works in?) Aristocratic, upper class identity: Byron Domesticity and gender across classes: Felicia Hemans Questions of rural poverty, unemployment and lack of social support – all questions of class – may be found in Wordsworth’s texts, like “Simon Lee”, “The Old Cumberland Beggar”,“The Female Vagrant”, “The Discharged Soldier”, “The Pedlar”, All of these are figures who symbolize dispossession, poverty and destitution. In other texts, Wordsworth will attribute the suffering of particular classes of people on war, that war is responsible for this. Here are two segments from The Ruined Cottage: You may remember, now some ten years gone, Two blighting seasons when the fields were left With half a harvest. It pleased heaven to add A worse affliction in the plague of war... As I have said, ’twas now A time of trouble; shoals of artisans Were from their daily labour turned away To hang for bread on parish charity The Ruined Cottage As you can see, these are descriptions of people who work for daily wages and this segment of The Ruined Cottage will link poverty to two things: the blighted seasons as in the failure of the crops, and war. In poems like “The Solitary Reaper”, “The Female Vagrant” and Home at Grasmere, we discern both gender and class politics intersecting. In Home at Grasmere, first, domesticity in a working class home revolves around the girls (six daughters, who live with their father, their mother being dead): Companion of her Father, does for him Where’er he wanders in his pastoral course The service of a Boy, and with delight More keen and prouder daring: yet hath She Within the garden, like the rest, a bed For her own flowers, or favorite Herbs, a space Holden by sacred charter; and I guess She also helped to frame that tiny Plot Of garden ground which one day ’twas my chance To find among the woody rocks that rise Above the House, a Slip of smoother earth… Home at Grasmere As Judith Page notes, there is in Wordsworth a link forged between the girl tending to the garden and domesticity: both are cast as gendered roles. So what is it we take away from the politics in Wordsworth and his generation? One, there is a politics of gender where there is a feminization of Nature and the naturalization of the feminine. There is the question and anxiety over the gender of the poetess, the kinds of themes she wants to address. There are of course the typical concerns over vulnerable women, in England and elsewhere. The idea of the mother emerges constantly through a lot of the poets. But there is also as we have looked at today, the interest in class and the question of class and class identity where for instance what we have seen, questions of property, ownership are connected to larger social context like enclosure, dispossession, war and other texts. There was a list of poems we put up: The Pedlar, The Vague Rift, The Female Vagrant, and others, which are all peopled by those who have lost their lands, lost their livelihood. There are questions about unemployment, and of social welfare that you see constantly in these writers. .