The Material Sublime of Women Romantic Poets

by John G. Pipkin
The Material Sublime of Women Romantic Poets
John G. Pipkin
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
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The Material Sublime of Women
Romantic Poets


Of all the qualities of Art, the sublime is that which appears to be the most vague, irregular, and undefined . . . for those who talk rationally on other subjects, no sooner touch on this, than they go off in a literary delirium; fancy themselves, like Longinus, "the great sublime they draw," and rave like Methodists, of inward lights, and enthusiastic emotions, which, if you cannot comprehend, you are set down as un-illumined by the grace of criticism, and excluded from the elect of Taste.

-Martin Shee, Elements of Art

Any attempt to understand the complex position of women poets in the intertextual network of British Romanticism must take into account the gendered tropes of the sublime which circumscribe the aesthetic possibilities of female authorship in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries1 Historically, the aesthetic discourse of sublimity has been articulated through an idiom of teleological belatedness in which critics have assumed that the ambiguous applications to which their contem- poraries put the term "sublime" necessitated the recovery of the sublime's original-and therefore (so the assumption goes) primary-signification. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed a myriad of essays and inquiries (by such thinkers as John Dennis, Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, Alexander Gerard, Archibald Alison, Richard Payne Knight,

John G. Pipkin is an assistant professor at Boston University. This essay is part of a larger project on women writers of the Romantic period. He is currently editing the manuscript of Mary Tighe's unpublished novel, Selena.

Lord Kames, Friedrich Schiller, and Immanuel Kant) attempt- ing to reformulate and refine Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux's popu- lar seventeenth-century translation of Dionysius Longinus. Consistent among these disparate redefinitions, however, is a set of rhetorical maneuvers concurrently establishing the sublime as a tropological and phenomenological index of masculinity while representing female experiences and articulations of sublimity as "unnatural."

In the twentieth century, the Romantic critical tradition extending from Rent5 Wellek, M. H. Abrams, and Harold Bloom to Geoffrey Hartman and Thomas Weiskel has reiterated this strategy by selecting, from the sublime's varied and often conflicting historical representations, only those formulations reinforcing the mythic identity of the self-begotten male poet and his ability, as Weiskel puts it, to "transcend the human.":! Traditional Romantic scholarship, according to Marilyn Butler, Clifford Siskin, and Jerome McGann, has chosen the aesthetic ideals of a handful of male poets to create the definitive stan- dard against which other writers of the period are now evaluated. In creating this standard, Romantic studies have been "domi- nated" by what McGann describes as "an uncritical absorption in Romanticism's own self-representations," and when Roman- tic scholarship valorizes "'creativity,' 'imagination' or 'expres- siveness,"' as Siskin argues, it joins William Wordsworth "in taking the 'mind of Man' to be the 'main haunt and region' of our 'song."'3 More recently, Orrin Wang has likewise observed that Romanticism "has arguably always been a cultural invention, a historical and literary phenomenon that has always necessar- ily been the~rized."~

In the traditional six-poet Romanticism that these and other critics describe, the sublime reaches its concep- tual apex in Wordsworth, and the Mount Snowdon episode from Book XI11 of The Prelude (1805) with its powerful image of the poetic mind transcending its own physical limitations has come to represent the quintessentially sublime response of the human imagination to the overwhelming power of nat~re.~

In recent years this paradigm has not gone unquestioned. Feminist critics in particular have challenged this popularized version of the Romantic sublime by formulating alternative aesthetic discourses of Romanticism to explain the absence of articulations of transcendental sublimity in the works of women Romantic writers. Most notably, Anne Mellor has persuasively argued that women writers make use of what she has termed a "femininen or "domestic sublime" to celebrate their unbroken, archetypal bond with the natural world, a bond that their male contemporaries have lost."n the context of Mellor's arguments, the transcendental or "masculine" sublime represents the male writer's desire to control the natural world, a world from which he feels alienated and by which he feels threatened; through transcendence, the male writer seeks to escape the confines of the physical world in order to rejoin, on a "higher" spiritual/intellectual level, an idealized nature that he has subdued. Mellor's "feminine sublime" echoes the early feminist theories of Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow and perpetuates the essentialist assumption that women participate in an unbro- ken continuum that connects them, through the reproductive capacities of their bodies, to the natural world, to as Mother, it is this rootedness in the physical world that gives women Romantic poets a heightened sense of social responsi- bility and a greater awareness of the material repercussions of their writings. By contrast, the discourse of sublimity articu- lated by male Romantics can only be seen as necessarily bound up with the male writer's reluctance to face the quotidian conse- quences of pursuing radical ideals such as free love, spontaneous emotion, and political rev~lution.~

Barbara Claire Freeman has responded to the essentialist limitations of the feminine sublime by insisting that it does not represent an "innate femininity or unique style of women's writing," but in her own argument the dichotomy remains: "Unlike the masculinist sublime that seeks to master, appropriate, or colonize the other, I propose that the politics of the feminine sublime involves taking up a position of respect in response to an incalculable otherne~s."~

The problem for contemporary Romantic scholarship is that the "feminine sublime" of Mellor and Freeman is unable to account for the ambivalent responses to nature's power that appear in poems such as Dorothy Wordsworth's "The Floating I~land."~

In this account of a slip of land that has broken away from the shoreline at Hawkshead, the speaker solemnly recog- nizes the destructive processes of nature, which "though we mark her not, / Will take away-may cease to give" (lines 19-20), and the poem predicts that this island, "a peopled world . . . in size a tiny room" (line 16), is fated to be "buried beneath the glittering Lake! / Its place no longer found" (lines 25-6). In contrast to William's conviction in "Tintern Abbey" that "Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,"1° Dorothy's own experience teaches her that the natural world, in which "Harmo- nious Powers with Nature work / On sky, earth, river, lake, and sea" (lines 1-2), necessitates random acts of destruction in order "to fertilize some other ground" (line 28). This seemingly subversive manipulation of those same tropes that usually lead to articulations of transcendence in male-authored Romantic poems represents a technique employed by many women poets of the period. However, this strategy is not an essentially "femi- nine" discourse of the sublime; rather, it calls upon another discourse of sublimity, the discourse of a "material sublime" that was already in circulation during the Romantic period. If, as I will argue, the rhetorical success of the transcendental sublime is dependent upon the poet's successful suppression of encroaching material forces in Romantic texts, then the "mate- rial sublime" denotes those moments either when the physical world announces itself within the textual gesture toward tran- scendence, effectively disrupting the act of suppression, or when the text itself foregrounds the materiality upon which the sublime experience is based.

The idea of transformation lies at the heart of all theories of sublimity, following the rediscovery of Longinus in the seven- teenth century; a sublime encounter with a terrible or awe- inspiring object transforms the simple reactions of fear and terror into something altogether different, something unex- pected and paradoxical. In gothic and sensationalist versions of sublimity, the poet or novelist transforms ordinary terror into a thrilling form of pleasure that usually makes no pretensions to transcendence. Romantic poets working in the discourse of the transcendental sublime attempt to transform awe or fear into an epiphany of spiritual self-awareness and imaginative empower- ment. In the twentieth century, Marxist critics describe the sublime as a therapeutic process through which the prosperous middle class transforms aesthetic experiences of fear into a vicar- ious form of spiritual labor that supplants the purgative benefits offered by physical work." Psychoanalytic formulations of sublim- ity, by such theorists as Neil Hertz and Slavoj Zizek, blend Lacan- ian psychoanalysis with semiotics to describe the sublime as the point of semantic saturation where the apparent breakdown in the network of representation leads, not to confusion, but rather to a transcendent meaning beyond signification itself.'* Regard- less of their varied theoretical underpinnings, at some point these disparate formulations of the sublime all involve a denial of, or a turning away from, the powerful, material source of awe, terror, or linguistic/psychological saturation that has initiated the sublime experience, and a turning inward to locate within the self an analogue to this external power. But there are also instances in the discourses of sublimity where the transformative turn away from the feeling of terror is paradoxically accompanied by a turn toward the material source of that same terror; these are the transformations encompassed by the material sublime.'"

In the works of many women writers during the Romantic period, the material sublime transforms fear and anxiety into feelings of commiseration or identification with the material world, resulting in a moment of personal defiance, empower- ment, or self-realization. As an aesthetic strategy, the material sublime is not employed by all women writers, and those writ- ers who participate in the discourse of the material sublime do not always do so in the same manner; it is, therefore, not a uniformly or exclusively feminine technique. The reason for this ambiguity is that the material sublime is not a discrete aesthetic category distinct from or diametrically opposed to the tran- scendental sublime. Rather, the material sublime is always already embedded within the discourse of the transcendental sublime, and as such it is also already incorporated in the texts of male Romantic writers. But whereas the emergence of the material sublime signals a disruption in male writing, its deploy- ment becomes a prominent strategy for many women writers struggling against an aesthetic ideology bent on masculinizing the discourse of transcendental sublimity.14

In Romantic poetry by women, the material sublime takes many forms, most often beginning, like the transcendental sublime, as an encounter with something terrible, overwhelm- ing, or awe-inspiring in nature. The dialectic of self-other typi- cally structuring this encounter with nature's power is not dissolved through a synthesizing moment of transcendence, as it is in many male-authored descriptions of the sublime; instead, the dynamics of the material sublime underscore the tension of this self-other relationship in order to stress the identity of the self as a conscious and distinct participant in the dialectic. Among women writers of the Romantic period, the fore- grounding of materiality in articulations of the sublime repre- sents not only the textual incorporation of the culturally inscribed codes of female bodiliness, but also the rhetorical means by which these writers could announce their presence within the proscribed aesthetic discourse of Romanticism.

Twentieth-century Romantic criticism has responded to non- transcendental accounts of the sublime either by dismissing them as disarticulations or by labeling them as lesser offshoots from the main branch of an aesthetics of transcendence. NTeiskel writes that the "gothic sort of writing" is the sublime's "bastard scion" and this comment is indicative of the critical tradition that has elevated articulations of transcendence above other expressions of sublimity.15 It has already been theorized by feminist and New Historicist criticism that the transcendental sublime in British Romanticism demarcates an exclusively masculine realm of discourse, in which the poet, through the sudden expansion of his imagination, responds to the overwhelming power of the natural world by crediting himself with momentarily overspilling the finitude of his own corporeal existence. But the success of this transcendental moment, I argue, is predicated upon the unac- knowledged suppression of the material world and its physical limitations. Theories of the transcendental sublime concurrently associate the figure of woman with physical limitation, troping her as the embodiment of the body, in order to advance a masculine discursive strategy for gaining physically unencumbered access to the infinite. However, the concurrent suppression of both the material world and the feminine body has been overshadowed, in aesthetic theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by the dominant psychology of transcendence, which empha- sizes the supposed universality of one discourse of sublimity at the expense of the other discourses that its historical constructions have specifically excluded.

Before examining some of the crucial moments in the history of the sublime, I want to stress that I am not making the essen- tialist claim that Romantic women writers are incapable of, uninterested in, or ethically opposed to the psychology of tran- scendence or to the phenomenological realm that it demarcates; such assertions are beyond the scope of my present argument, which aims at historicizing the sublime as a discursive strategy. To put it simply, whether or not men and women can actually experience something called the "sublime" when they gaze at a mountain or witness a violent storm is a question for psycho- analysis and points to a highly subjective and affective inquiry that should be kept distinct from an investigation of the sublime as a discursive aesthetic category in the Romantic period. Weiskel assumes that "any aesthetic, pressed beyond a certain point, becomes or implies a psychology," but I want to examine the textual moments prior to that at which "the sublime makes evely man his own psychologist" in order to historicize a network of discourses that are at once more diffuse and more interwo- ven than the monolithic paradigm of transcendence allows us to see.'6

The heterosexist discourse running through the strategic containment and disempowerment of women in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuly theories of the sublime can be found already at work in Longinus's On the Sublime. Longinus's text is concerned less with the psychology of aesthetic experi- ence than with the rhetorical art of persuasion, and he tells his students that they must imitate the "great writing" of earlier generations if they wish to move or transport their own audi- ences. The origins of the sublime may seem far removed from its Romantic and modern formulations as an exclusively tran- scendental experience, but Longinus's analogy for the inspira- tion that is transmitted through sublime writing links the sublime with one of the root metaphors, in Western aesthetics, for poetic creation.

For hence it is, that numbers of imitators are ravished and transported by a spirit not their own, like the Pythian Priest- ess, when she approaches the sacred tripod. There is, if Fame speaks true, a Chasm in the Earth, from whence exhale Divine eva~orations, which impregnate her on a sudden with the inspiration of her god, and cause her the utterance of oracles and predictions. So from the sublime spirit of the ancients there arise some fine effluvia, like vapours from the sacred vents, which work themselves insensibly into the breasts of imitators, and fill those, who naturally are not of a towering genius, with the lofty ideas and fire of others.17

For Longinus, inspiration is an act akin to divine impregnation, and male poets analogously re-enact this procreative moment by emulating each other, homosocially masking the intervention of a priestess in the creation of literary texts. The classical image of writing as a heterosexual (yet exclusively masculine) procre- ative act accompanies the concept throughout its subjective codification in the works of Burke, Kant, and later theorists. Even the very image of inspiration as a preternatural vapor that impregnates the faithful poet with lofty visions survives in the Romantic period in such metaphors as the "unfather'd vapour" of Wordsworth's imagination in The Prelude.18

In what are usually considered the major documents of the sublime for Romanticism,lg Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautifid (1757) and Kant's Critique of Judgment (1799), the discursive containment and usurpation of female sexuality generates both an aesthetic concept that guarantees the rhetorical viability of masculine transcendence and a social code that ensures the propagation of human society. Burke's formulation of the sublime is almost as distant, in its theoretical orientation, from the transcenden- tal sublime of Wordsworth, as it is from the more rhetorical concerns of Longinus, but Burke codifies the sexual tensions implicit in earlier theories of sublimity, and this codification persists in Romantic aesthetics. The logical structure of his argu- ment generates a series of basic oppositions which characterize the sublime as a Foucauldian discourse of power. No one can claim to possess the sublime, in the manner that one can possess physical beauty; one can only experience and express this power. For Burke, as well as for the male Romantic poets, the site of this power is the point of conflict between such oppositions as self and other, imagination and nature, the terrible and the beau- tiful, and male and female.

Burke's definition of the sublime contains few hints of the creative transcendence that has become the defining charac- teristic of sublimity for most twentieth-century readers. Instead, he is primarily concerned with explaining the means by which an experience of terror brings about sensations of pleasure. The capacity for instilling terror, therefore, becomes the defin- ing characteristic of sublime objects: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, what- ever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime."20 In order for the paradoxical transformation from terror to delight to occur, the materiality of the sublime's source must be erased, forgotten, or suppressed, and in Burke's trea- tise this suppression is effected under the rubric of "distance." According to Burke, the subject must place a safe distance between himself and the terrible object if an experience of sublimity is to be possible. "When danger or pain press to [sic] nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifica- tions, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience" (p. 40). The central paradox of the sublime is that the same material forces constituting the initiating experiences of sublimity are at the same time, if left unchecked, a source of disruption to transcendence. "Distance" is the means by which Burke suppresses this disruption.

The emphasis that Burke places on the need for physical distance between the terrifying object and the subject experi- encing the sublime remains a consistent stipulation in Roman- tic formulations of sublimity. In a passage that Wordsworth left out of the final version of A Gu.ide through the District of the Lakes (1835),he concludes that "it may be confidently affirmed that no sublimity can be raised by the contemplation of such power when it presses upon us with pain and individual fear to a degree which takes precedence in our thoughts [over] the power itself."*l Likewise, Kant argues that "one who is in a state of fear can no more play the part of a judge of the sublime of nature than one captivated by inclination and appetite can be of the beautiful."" Kant's theory necessitates the suppression of material danger in experiences of the sublime because the threat of physical harm interferes with the purely intellectual task of aesthetics. But despite the theoretical necessity of Kant- ian "disinterestedness" and Burkean "distance," not all theorists agreed that it was possible to derive pleasure from pain while simultaneously erasing the physical threat that the pain itself signified. In 1798, Joanna Baillie, alarmed at the sadistic impli- cations of deriving pleasure from pain, introduced the idea of the "sympathetic curiosity" to explain that people enjoyed witnessing the suffering of others in order to gain a greater appreciation of the extent of human fortitude.*"n the early nineteenth century, Richard Payne Knight argued that since "corporeal pain and physical evil are [according to Burke] the means of the sublime, and self-preservation its principle," the Burkean system inevitably "leads directly to materiali~m."~~

As Baillie and Knight show, materialism becomes a recurring conceptual dilemma for theorists of the sublime; although it plays a necessary part in the dialectical construction of sublim- ity, its continued presence poses a threat to the success of the dialectic's transcendental resolution.

In addition to the physical dangers that threaten to disrupt the pleasure of the sublime experience that they themselves initi- ate, Burke also identifies a second source of disruption for the sublime: beauty. For Burke, the category of the beautiful serves several important purposes: it demarcates the limits of the sublime, maintains the social order by transforming lust into love, distinguishes feminine from male characteristics, and provides the material sign of female submissiveness. Burke defines beauty not only in aesthetic terms, but in terms of its util- itarian effects as well. Whereas the sublime promotes self-preser- vation, beauty guarantees the propagation of the human race by making women physically attractive to men. "By beauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it" (p. 91). More importantly, for Burke beauty is also the sign of weakness inscribed on women's bodies: "so far is perfection, considered as such, from being the cause of beauty, that this quality, where it is the highest in the female sex, almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection" (p. 110). Since the strong passions of the sublime are beyond the limits of female experience, Burke's formulation ensures that a woman can seek her own self-preservation only by relying upon the sublimity of her husband, whose fidelity is secured by the beauty of her submissiveness.

But while beauty makes women attractive to their sublime husbands, it also poses a great threat to male autonomy: the "smoothness," "softness," and the "insensible swell" of a woman's "neck and breasts" form a "deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye glides giddily" (p. 115). Burke inscribes deceit onto the beautiful female body, a body that he considers the most dangerous at precisely those places where he regards it as being the most beautiful, the most sexually arousing. The beauty of the female body threatens male self-preservation because it undermines the disinterestedness required for the pursuit of the sublime. But Burke is careful to assert that the disruptive capac- ity of female beauty does not itself represent a form of power, because the "beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy, and is seen enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it" (p. 116).

These heterosexist views are not singular to Burke, but rather are part of a historically gendered aesthetic which reflects and spills over into its social and cultural context. A half-century before Burke, Dennis set out to "restore Poetry to all its Great- ness, and to all its Innocen~e."~~

Credited by Samuel Monk with being the first Englishman to focus specifically on the subjec- tive, emotional aspect of the sublime, Dennis insists that passion is the defining aspect of the sublime, and his brief definition looks to a violently charged sexual metaphor to express the effects of this passion: "it gives a noble Vigour to Discourse, an invincible force which commits a pleasing Rape upon the very soul of the Reader; that whenever it breaks out where it ought to do, like the artillery of Jove, it Thunders and blazes and strikes at once, and shews all the united force of a Writer."26 In Dennis, the misogyny inherent in the historical discourse of sublimity manifests itself as an aggressive sexual act that is supposed to be "pleasing" to the feminized soul of the male reader. Although women are theoretically denied access to the discourse of the sublime because they inhabit the antithetical realm of the beautiful, the submission required of the male during the initiating, overwhelming experiences that eventually lead to sublime transcendence necessitates the discursive femi- nization of the male's soul in order to preserve the masculine autonomy and authority needed afterward for articulating the experience itself.

In contrast to the complex theoretical abstractions of The Critique of Judgment, Kant's earlier work on the sublime, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, a work often over- looked or dismissed on account of its informal, uncritical style, is filled with examples and metaphors that clearly participate in the sexualized aesthetics of the time. "The fair sex," Kant asserts, "has just as much understanding as the male, but it is a beautiful understanding, whereas ours should be a deep understanding, an expression that signifies identity with the sublime."27 A sublime or "deep" understanding is inappropriate for women, because it interferes with their ability to remain attractive to men: "a woman who has a head full of Greek . . . or carries on fundamental controversies about mechanics . . . might as well have a beard."28 According to Kant, women are not intellectu- ally incapable of sublime thoughts, but the powerful emotions and intellectual rigors that men experience in the sublime would prove disfiguring to a woman's overall appearance, the beauty of which must be preserved in order to attract a husband. While men pursue the infinite, "the sublimity of [a woman's] soul shows itself only in that she knows to treasure these noble qualities as far as they are found in him."29 For Kant, then, a woman who pursues the heights of the sublime actually deprives herself of her only access to it because the only "feminine" sublime is a vicarious one.

Male writers were not alone in perpetuating the gendered bias of the sublime. Frances Reynolds, sister to Sir Joshua Reynolds, maintains the distinction that the "softness and mild- ness of the feminine expression would be displeasing in a man," and likewise "robust and determined expression of the rigid virtues, justice, fortitude, kc. would be displeasing in a woman."30 In accordance with eighteenth-century essentialist ideology, she insists that it "is the feminine character that is the sweetest, the most interesting, image of beauty; the masculine partakes of the sublime."31 What is most significant about Reynolds's essay is that even at the late date at which she is writ- ing, 1785,there are still versions of sublimity in circulation that involve neither transcendence of the human mind nor the usurpation of nature's powers. Reynolds's sublime is a religious one; it finds its initiating experiences in the same objects that point the way to transcendence for other writers, but for Reynolds these experiences culminate in the discovery of "Grace." Reynolds's sublime, like the material sublime, is another of the strategies that women employed in circumvent- ing the forbidden discourse of transcendence, but whereas the religious sublime is often linked to other, spiritual interests that are quite removed from the aesthetic discourse of sublimity, the material sublime is itself a product of the same discourse that seeks to masculinize transcendental sublimity. What is at stake in the aesthetic of the sublime, for Burke, Kant, and Wordsworth alike, is the power to observe, to judge, and to articulate, but the power to speak of sublimity is contingent upon the ability to hold the material world at arm's length, and as this discursive power is colonized by male writers, the beautiful and the mate- rial become troped as exclusively, and derisively, feminine.

The masculinization of the transcendental sublime is accom- panied by a complex shift in the figurations of gender in West- ern philosophical and aesthetic discourse, and this shift produces a series of telling contradictions. Theoretically, women are supposed to be incapable of experiencing, embodying, or articulating the sublime; yet in the Romantic period, more women were writing poetry than ever before, and their poems often aggressively engaged the same tropes of nature and terror popular with male writers. As a genre, poetry is supposed to be an inappropriate medium for women writers, since it is, accord- ing to Burke, the most sublime medium of artistic expression; yet many women writers were praised for their poetic accom- plishments by male writers and critics of the period. Finally, and paradoxically, men alone are supposed to be capable of expe- riencing and describing the sublime, and yet, those mental faculties that are most affected by the sublime are frequently troped as feminine. As Dennis's account of the sublime rape of the intellect shows, male writers, referring to their own imagi- nations at the moment of transcendence, often identify their minds, their souls, or their spirits (in other words, the immater- ial elements of selfhood) with feminine pronouns. This kind of pronoun slippage also appears in John Baillie's An Essay on the Sublime (1747), where he states that that "object only can be justly called Sublime, which in some degree disposes the Mind to this Enlargement of itself, and gives her a lofty Conception of her own Powers."3* More notably, in The Prelude, Wordsworth proclaims "my soul / Did once again make trial of her strength / Restored to her afresh" and he suggests that "the mind itself' is "best pleased perhaps / While she, as duteous as the Mother Dove, / Sits brooding."33 Since the transcendental sublime demands that an observer first submit to nature's power in exchange for the intense feeling of self-expansion that follows, the masculine discourse of sublimity encounters an awkward contradiction. As a feminine trait, submission threatens the

autonomy of the male subject undergoing the sublime experi- ence. Therefore this submissive capacity must be circumscribed within the feminized sphere of the intellectual or the spiritual self so that the male body can retain the strength and inde- pendence necessary for withstanding the overwhelming sensa- tion of transcendence that has been deemed inappropriate, and even dangerous, for women.

If the Romantic sublime finds its best subjects in intense emotions, chaos, disorder, and mystery, then the problem that subsequently arises for male writers in the early Romantic period is that women-as the discursive figuration of the unspeakable and unknowable-stand poised to inhabit the powerful realm of the sublime. As the signifiers of the other, the stereotypical figure of woman in Western Culture already occupied the space that Burke identifies as the best source of sublime imagery: "in nature dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions than those have which are more clear and determinate" (p. 62). Obscurity is essential to the sublime, Burke explains, because "it is our igno- rance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions" (p. 61). As Margaret Homans has shown in Bear- ing the Word, the female has traditionally been used to signify the unknown, the mysterious, the "silent object" that is both inex- pressive and ine~pressible.~~

In Longinian and Neoclassical aesthetics, such ambiguous attributes were antithetical to the strict demands of rhetoric, but by the late eighteenth century, the emerging forms of Romanticism that subordinated mimesis to self-expression concurrently emphasized an independence from structure that posed a dilemma to male literary aestheti- cians. As a result, the epistemology of woman undergoes a radi- cal modification in the eighteenth century as the tropes and figures of the female become more explicitly aligned with the material in the dominant aesthetic theories of the period. Yet, the old discourse linking the feminine to the mysterious survives in the figuration of the male's intellect as itself feminine. Julie Ellison observes that "the key terms of romantic poetics-the sublime, the haunted, the grotesque, the sentimental, the ironic, memory, desire, imagination-are accompanied by a demand to be understood intuitively," and intuition "is marked as a femi- nine quality."3j If the mysterious survives in Romanticism as a characteristic of women, it finds itself contained and weighted down by an inescapable bodiliness, representative of all the material concerns that the male Romantics strive to cast out of their own intellectual/spiritual pursuit of the infinite.

Many women writers respond to this new figuration by isolat- ing those moments in their poetry when the material, refusing to be suppressed, returns (or resurfaces) within the text to intensify the physicality of the overwhelming, terrifying moment of sublime self-diminution. These moments often specify the economic and social restraints, singular to female experience in the Romantic period, that interrupt or preclude transcendence. For women in the Romantic period, to write is to engage in a process of signification that has already aligned them with the materiality of the signifier; however, Romanticism valorizes, in the linguistic terms of the transcendental sublime, the semiotic breakdown that liberates the material sign and permits access to the unnamable signified. For the male Romantics, self- annihilation opens a space in which the poet can re-create a noncorporeal poetic self by means of the figuratively usurped procreative powers of Longinus's Pythian priestess; for female Romantics, however, poetic self-annihilation is suicide. Through the material sublime, then, women poets find a means of rein- forcing their authorial identity while articulating a desire to shatter that identity and escape the oppressive forces that discur- sively circumscribe their limited expressions of selfhood.

Charlotte Smith's poetry demonstrates how the material sublime provides a means of self-empowerment for women work- ing within the discourse of Romanticism. Smith's sonnets neither domesticate the sublime in order to express a "feminine" unity with nature, nor do they exhibit the transcendence character- istic of many male-authored poems. Mellor has argued that women Romantic writers articulate their relationship to nature through an aesthetic that identifies "sublime landscapes" with "blissful childhood memories"; in her view, women repre- sent the sublime "as a flowing out, an ecstatic experience of co- participation in a nature they explicitly gender as female."36 But Smith's "On passing over a dreary tract of country and near the ruins of a deserted chapel, during a tempest," does not embrace nature as a loving sister, and her experience in the natural world is not one of co-participation but rather one of solitude. Smith appropriates the popular Romantic trope of a violent storm in order to construct relationships of commiseration with other unfortunate "beings" who seem to take pleasure in the temporary solitude that physical suffering brings.

Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky, Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast; While only beings as forlorn as I,

Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.

Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food,

The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,

And in his cave, within the deepest wood,

The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.

But to my heart congenial is the gloom

Which hides me from a World I wish to shun;

That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,

Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.

Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,

Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.37

Nature is strangely divided against itself in the opening lines, shuddering at its own destructive power, while Smith's "forlorn" disposition draws her into the midst of this division, where she courts the approaching storm. The "crumbling walls" in the background may at first seem to locate this sonnet in the Roman- tic subgenre of the "ruin-poem," a genre which makes use of imagery that, as Anne Janowitz argues, serves as a marker of national history and enables the poet to "shift the opposition of art and nature into a convergence of not only materials, but also

intention^."^^ However, what is stressed here are not conver- gences, but the continued oppositions between Smith and the natural world. The ruined wall, in fact, does not become a trans- formational symbol but remains in the background while the poem focuses on the small animals running for cover in the fore- ground.

The threatening storm discourages the owl and the fox from satisfying their material needs, but for Smith, the "gloom" provides an obliterating refuge from the more terrible trials of the quotidian world to which she cryptically alludes. Smith's desire to court the raw power of the natural world is not, in itself, unique among Romantic poems; in fact, this is the perplexing desire that Burke attempted to explain as motivated by the intense passions promised by the sublime. But at the point in Smith's sonnet where we might expect her to turn away from this physical terror to describe a pleasurable sensation or a moment of spiritual or intellectual transcendence, she does just the opposite.

The sonnet closes by again emphasizing that no aspect of nature holds greater terrors than her own "fate" and "despair." In response to the quotidian concerns of her domestic life, Smith turns to a kind of spiritual liberation in the terrors of the natural world; she finds temporary relief by identifying herself, directly, with the physical dangers that male viewers pursue and then suppress in their quest for transcendence. Thus, the eleva- tion of self produced by the material sublime stems from the realization, in the poem's final lines, that the natural world holds no threats greater than those that the poet faces in her daily life. According to Schiller, a declaration of freedom from the forces of nature is a futile gesture since no human is physi- cally strong enough to withstand its superior power; one can only achieve independence from nature's destructive power by submitting to it and thereby becoming one and the same with it.3g For Schiller, the confused feelings of the sublime demon- strate the imaginative independence that the mind purchases by submitting to nature's power. Smith strikes a similar bargain in her use of the material sublime when she embraces the mater- ial forces of the natural world in order to draw from them an expanded sense of selfhood.

There is, perhaps, no better example of Smith's deployment of the material sublime than sonnet 44, "Written in the Church- yard at Middleton in Sussex," a sonnet that Wordsworth liked well enough to copy out by hand on the flyleaf of his copy of Smith's Elegxac Sonnets.40 Once again, Smith implies that her strength as a poet comes from her ability to withstand the terri- fying forces of nature. The poem begins with an image that was common among the late-eighteenth-century poets of sensibility and that would become a popular symbol among the Romantics.

Press'd by the Moon, mute arbitress of tides,

While the loud equinox its power combines,

The sea no more its swelling surge confines,

But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides.41

As in no other poem in the Romantic period, this sonnet depicts the sublimity of the moon in a manner that is not only visually startling-as in the description in the "Simplon Pass" episode of Wordsworth's Preludebut quietly destructive as well. Unlike gothic accounts of the sublime, in which nature becomes the sign of threatening patriarchal power, Smith genders the dominant forces of nature as indifferently feminine. The storm and sea are under the tempestuous influence of the female moon, the "mute arbitress of the tides," and the destruction and terror that follows results from the powerful expression of her will, assisted by the supplementary masculine power of the sun at equinox.

The destruction brought on by the invisible workings of the sun, moon, and earth not only poses a physical threat to living creatures, but also violates the peaceful rest of the dead, who have passed beyond the effects of the material world.

The wild blast, rising from the Western cave,

Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed;

Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,

And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!

With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore

Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;

(lines 5-10)

Far from being a horrific experience, this mass exhumation is a dark epiphany revealing that the storm's power to violate the physical remains of the dead does not extend to disturbing this final sleep. Death represents a means of escape from the kinds of natural forces that Schiller claims can only be escaped through submission.

But vain to them the winds and waters rave;

They hear the warring elements no more:

While I am doom'd-by life's long storm opprest,

To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

(lines 11-4)

Smith does not entertain thoughts of suicide despite her realiza- tion that the dead have finally escaped nature's power to torment them; instead, the poem's conclusion turns from the storm to contemplate the poet herself, who stands alone in stark contrast to the recently exhumed bodies scattered before her. The dynam- ics of the material sublime lead Smith from a predictable expres- sion of horror to one of envy. According to Kant, in order for the sublime to bring about the agreement of reason and imagination that produces pleasure, the subject must experience terror or awe without fear of actual physical harm. The danger that Smith feels comes not so much from her immediate surroundings as from the personal, domestic struggles to which she alludes as "life's long storm."42 Smith does not transcend the self-other dialectic by finding an analogue within herself for nature's immense power, since the storm has literally thrown at her the physical evidence of human limitation; however, the intrusion of the narrative "I" (line 13) asserts Smith's continued position within the self-other dialectic, a life-long struggle to which she has been "doom'd."

Like Smith, Mary Tighe also deploys the tropes of the mater- ial sublime to assert her self-identity in "Written at Scarborough" (1799). Beginning in a moment of quiet reflection that is consis- tent with the rhetorical technique characterizing the "conversa- tion poems" of Wordsworth and Coleridge, "Written at Scarborough" blends the productions of memory and imagina- tion to draw a series of parallels between personal experience and natural landscape. But these analogies do not produce the restoration that Wordsworth so often seeks in nature; rather, the sonnet underscores the solitude of the narrator's suffering.

As musing pensive in my silent home

I hear far off the sullen ocean's roar,

Where the rude wave just sweeps the level shore,

Or bursts upon the rocks with whitening foam,

I think upon the scenes my life has known;

On days of sorrow, and some hours of joy;

Both which alike time could so soon destroy!

And now they seem a busy dream alone;

While on the earth exists no single trace

Of all that shook my agitated soul,

As on the beach new waves for ever roll

And fill their past forgotten brother's place:

But I, like worn sand, exposed remain

To each new storm which frets the angry main.43

Like Smith, Tighe unravels the metaphors that lead to tran- scendence in much of the male-authored poetry of the period by turning, in the couplet's volta, away from joyful resolution to a reaffirmation of self that is predicated upon the material real- ity of her continued suffering. Both Smith and Tighe supplant the apotheosis of the transcendental sublime with an elevated sense of personal physical endurance. Burkean and WTordswor- thian accounts of the sublime necessitate a distancing of the subject from (and a subsequent suppression of) the material object of terror because the proximity (even in contemplation) of the physical source of emotional pain foregrounds the subject's own bodily danger, thereby forestalling the subject's approach to transcendence. For Tighe, however, the source of her grief in this sonnet is found in the absence of the material objects which have brought about the feelings of "joy" and "sorrow"; her feeling of self-diminution, a feeling usually antic- ipatory of the self-expansion that characterizes the transcen- dental sublime, is brought about by the realization that "no single trace" remains of her earlier troubles. In fact, her pensive musing is itself initiated not by the immediate presence of a sublime scene, but rather the absence (the spatial, though not aural, displacement) of the violent ocean: "I hear far off the sullen ocean's roar." What results from Tighe's musings is not Wordsworthian "recollection in tranquillity," but rather the sober realization that the remembered events of her life now "seem a busy dream alone." Far from looking for an escape, Tighe longs to anchor her ephemeral memories in the tangible world to preserve them and to give an external, verifiable refer- ent to her emotions.

Is Tighe's sonnet, then, a lament over the dream-like imper- manence of remembered events, or is it actually a bold assertion of self in the mutable world? Like many of Smith's sonnets, Tighe's "Written at Scarborough" appropriates the initiating tropes of the transcendental sublime to underscore the discur- sive rootedness of the female subject in the material world. Tighe's lament at the poem's conclusion actually fulfills her own desire for some material sign of her past, and continued, presence in the world. The palpability of that presence is stressed by the metaphor of the resilient "worn sand" exposed to the waves that ceaselessly roll onto the beach. The conclusion represents an assertion of self that is neither the product of sublime transcendence nor an expression of what hlellor's "femi- nine sublime" identifies as a woman poet's celebration of conti- nuity with nature and the surrounding landscape. In opposition to the natural world, Tighe draws her identity from her contin- ued endurance of time and nature instead of escaping them through sublime transcendence or through dream visions of the imagination.

To reiterate my earlier assertion, the material sublime is not exclusively a female strategy; it is also occasionally deployed by male Romantics, but less as a complaint about cultural construc- tions of selfhood and more as a lamentation over the inescapa- bility of corporeality and its limitations. One of the best examples of this is Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," where the material signification of the word "forlorn" invades the poem's approach to transcendence, just as Keats feels that his imagination is about to take flight with the nightingale. "Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!"44 The worldly agonies, the "weariness, the fever, and the fret" that the poem enumerates early on, refuse to be suppressed at the poem's close; the bird leaves, and we are left with the Keatsian motif of bittersweet uncertainty. "Fled is that music:-Do I wake or ~leep?"~"he conflict between materiality and transcendence is clear to Keats, but his inability to suppress the material world, in this particular poem, does not preclude his engaging the tropes of the sublime to underscore his poetic selfhood. What makes this instance of the material sublime different from those that appear in the works of many women writers is that its conflict with transcendence is immediately played out within the text of the poem. Keats repeatedly attempts to move toward transcendence, but ultimately the material world forces its way into his illusory flight. By foregrounding the confused state of his consciousness at the poem's close, Keats leaves the reader with a powerful image of a poet whose inability (at least in this poem) to "tran- scend the human" actually heightens his self-projected sense of humanness. The material sublime does not signiQ a failure of the Romantic consciousness, but represents another way of coming to a heightened sense of self-awareness through language, precisely at the moment when the language of the transcen- dental sublime breaks down. For women writers, the material sublime provides an idiom through which to articulate the epis- temological uncertainty surrounding their ambiguous status as poets in an age that would not allow them to discard the discur- sive trappings of material existence in pursuit of the transcen- dence valorized by their male contemporaries.


'The epigraph is from Martin Shee, Elements of Art, a Poem; in Six Cantos; With Notes and a Preface; Including Strictures on the State of the Arts, Criticism, Patron- age, and Public Taste (London: M7. Bulmer and Co., 1809), p. 193, note.

'Thomas M'eiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychol- ogy of Transcendence (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976),

p. 3.

3Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideolo~: A Critical Investigation (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 1; Clifford Siskin, The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 7-8.

40rrin N. C. Wang, Fantastic llfodernity: Dialectical Rvadings in Romanticism and Theory (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996), p. 2.

"William M'ordsworth, The Thirteen-Book "Prelude, "ed. Mark L. Reed (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991). All subsequent references to The Prelude are to this edition; book and line numbers will be given.

"nne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York and London: Rout- ledge, 1993).

:See Marlon Ross, The Contours of masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989). Ross points out that "M'omen poets are so sensitive to the potential conflict between domesticity and the wider world of public fame because the conflict is so palpable in their private lives and in their poetic careers" (p. 289). Like Mellor and Barbara Claire Freeman (The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women's Fiction [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995]), Ross also suggests that the aesthetic discourses of male and female writers should be viewed not as diametrical opposites but rather as points along a complex continuum. However, I am arguing that, in discussions of the sublime, the continued use of the labels "masculine" and "feminine" and the insistence that certain artic- ulations of sublimity arise from specifically female experiences (even though we may find these articulations interwoven through, and suppressed by, "masculine" discourses) ultimately return us to an essentialist view of Roman- tic aesthetics.

8Freeman, p. 11.

9Dorothy M1ordsworth, "The Collected Poems of Dorothy Wordsworth," in Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, ed. Susan Levin (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1987), Appendix One, pp. 207-9.

loM1ordsworth,The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest De Selin- court and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1940-49), 2:259-63, lines 123-4.

"See Tom Furniss, Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender, and Political Economy in &volution (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993); and Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

"Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985). See also Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideolog3: (London and New York: Verso, 1989) for a Marxist-Lacanian approach to the sublime.

I3My use of the term "discourse" is informed by Peter De Bolla's important distinction that the "discourse ofthe sublime," which is itself supposed to be productive of sublimity, actually comprises a vast network of discrete and historically contingent "discourses on the sublime," which are enabled by, and in fact only have meaning within, the larger network (The Discourse of the Sublime: Rvadings in History, Aesthetics, and the Subject [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989]), pp. 34-5.

am using the term "material" in two senses: 1) in its most comprehen- sive New Historicist and Marxist sense-to encompass the historical, political, and economic forces that shape poetic texts as they respond to the quotidian concerns of nineteenth-century England-and 2) as a reference to the signs of the spatial and temporal limitations, and the physical needs and desires of the human body. Materiality functions as an uncomfortable reminder to the theorizing self that it is the product of social and historical forces; that its survival and quality of life are dependent upon economic forces and sexual mechanisms; and that, as a mortal being, its ultimate physical end is death.

'Weiskel, p. 112.

'%M'skel, p. 83. Weiskel's passionate argument brings to the study of liter- ature what much criticism too quickly dismisses: an openly stated emotional and ethical commitment to giving meaning to life through the production and study of literary texts. The major problem with works such as M7eiskel's, however, is that they cloud historical issues by foregrounding spiritual beliefs and personal intuitions that make such theories as the sublime even more inaccessible. Our necessarily mediated understanding of what the Romantics thought and wrote about the sublime must be kept separate from whatever subjective opinions we may have with regards to nature, psychology, and the possibility of transcendence. Understanding the human capacity to compre- hend the infinite is not necessarily bound up with tracing the connotative and denotative functions of the sublime as an aesthetic concept in the Romantic period.

':Dionysius Longinus, Dionysius Lonpnus On the Sublime, trans. William Smith (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1819), pp. 111-2. I have used William Smith's 1739 translation of Longinus instead of the standard Rhys Roberts edition of 1899 because late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers would have known the Smith edition.

'Wordsworth, The Prelude, 6.527.

*?See RenC M7ellek, Immanuel Kant in England, 1793-1838 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1931) and Samuel Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Criti- cal Theories in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: MLA, 1935).

20Ednlund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origns of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 19\58), p. 39. All subsequent references are to this edition and page numbers will be given parenthetically in the text.

2'William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, 3 vols., ed.

W.J. B. Owen and Jane M7orthington Smyser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974),

2.354. zIn~manuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (1952; rprt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 110.

23Joanna Baillie, '4 Series of Plays: In Which It Is Attempted to Delineate The Stronger Passions of the Mind (London: T. Cadell Jr. and W. Davies, 1798; rprt. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1996), p. 12.

24Ricllard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (London, 1805), p. 374. 25John Dennis, "Proposal," in The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (London:

Strahan and Lintott, 1704), p. 1. 2"ennis, The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry , p. 79. 27Kant,Observations on the Feeling ofthe Beautiful and Sublime, trans. John T.

Goldthwait (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960), p. 78.

28Kant,Observations, pp. 78-9.

2%nt, Observations, pp. 93-4.

30Frances Reynolds, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Taste, and of the Orign of Our fdeas of Beauty, etc. (1785; rprt. Los Angeles: Augustan Reprint

Society, 1951), p. 23.

31Reynolds, p. 29.

"John Baillie, An Essay on the Sublime (1747; rprt. Los Angeles: Augustan Reprint Society, 1953), p. 4. 33Wordsworth,The Prelude, 1:102-4, 1 :150-3. 34Margaret Homans, Bearing the PVord: Language and Female Experience in Nine-

teenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986). 35Julie Ellison, Delicate Subjects: Romanticism, Gendq and the Ethics of UndPr

standing (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 10-1. 3%~e110r, p. 97. 37Cllarlotte Smith, The Poems of Charlotte Smith, ed. Stuart Curran (New York:

Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), p. 59, lines 1-14. All references to Smith's poetry are from this edition. "Anne Janowitz, England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and ~Vational Landscape (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 5. 3%riedricll Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetq / On the Sublime, trans. Julius

A. Elias (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984), p. 195.

*Osee Bishop C. Hunt, "Wordsworth and Charlotte Smith," VVC 1, 3 (Summer 1970): 85-103.

"Smith, p. 42, lines 1-4. Henceforth, line numbers will be cited paren- thetically in the text.

"For details of Smith's domestic and financial hardships, see Florence Hilbish, Charlotte Smith: Poet and iVovelist (1749-1806) (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1941). Smith initially turned to publishing her poems, and later to publishing novels, as a means of supporting her ten children after she and her husband separated.

"Mary Tighe, "Written at Scarborough," in Keats and Mary Tighe: The Poems of Mary Tighe with Parallel Passages from the Works of Keats, ed. Earl Vonard M1eller (New York: MLA, 1928), p. 220, lines 1-14.

44John Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale," in Complete Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 279-81, lines 71-2.

'jKeats, line 80.

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