As a recently admitted student to a doctoral program in English, for my first blog I figured I would reflect on why I am pursuing the study of British Romanticism. Be forewarned: some of my reasons are un-academic, wildly emotional even, and in some ways flagrantly partake of the Romantic ideology (See McGann). But I’m ok with this.
I will organize my reasons for my love and pursuit of Romantic studies around two working axioms: 1) “The Romantics were audacious and/or eccentric” and 2) “Their writing is pretty good, too.” I will conclude by reflecting on my (almost) libidinal reasons for my attraction to the Romantics–(you have to read up to the ending, see?)
Before elaborating on each axiom, I will first discuss how I stumbled across the Romantics and then proceeded to fall wildly in love with them and their writing. As a junior Honors English major, I had a day left before deciding on an honors elective seminar. The following course title leaped out at me: “Sex, Drugs, and Rights: Experimentation in the British Romantic Era”–with a course title like that, who wouldn’t be immediately intrigued by the Romantics? I signed up right away. I showed up to class and we began to work our way through the “Rights” portion of the syllabus. We read William Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Mary Hays’s Victim of Prejudice against the backdrop of the so-called Pamphlet Wars: Burke contra the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft contra Burke, and so on. The idea that the political and the aesthetic and their intersectionality were at this period so urgently and publicly debated grabbed a hold of my imagination.
Moreover, being a double major in Chicana/o Studies, the idea that civil rights and reformist politics were not solely an American 1960s phenomenon, threw off my sense of a progressive sense of history–an aporia: before the 1960s, the British (of all people!), were in the vanguard of reform and demanding civil rights for women, the working class, etc? And as far back as the 1790s? The thought was staggering and led to more questions, one being: what happened to civil rights reform in England and the U.S. in the 1790s–1960s interval? These types of historical questions set the tone for the rest of the semester and have continued to inform my studies of the Romantics and of Civil Rights history & literature, generally. (I recently discovered the concept of “postmodern Jacobinism” in Orrin Wang’s Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory which provided me with the means for theorizing the link between the French Revolutionary 1790s and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.)
We also read De Quincey’s Confessions and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and William Beckford’s Vathek. (Here, I will only discuss De Quincey). Wow. Though De Quincey’s elaborate and operatic drug-induced hallucinations fascinated me to no end, the first half of the book–the “sober” portion–also grabbed my attention. Here was this son of a merchant who though materially impoverished, knew his Greek and Latin (something he reminds his reader of continuously and at one point, I think, claims to know better than an uppity man of the cloth). De Quincey’s self-representations were contradictory but intriguing. On the one hand, he is quick to remind readers of his classical learning; while on the other, even as he strains to define himself against London’s lumpenproletariat, there is a sense of empathy for the disempowered, evidenced especially in his sympathy for his friend, the prostitute Ann, and for the orphan girl. Of course, his drug use and its mental effects were interesting too, filtered as they were through orientalia and grotesquely beautiful imagery, all interspersed with philosophical ruminations. All these elements combined to give a sense of a troubled but brilliant mind (his syntax was so fine, too, so precise yet poetic). In short, the class whet my appetite for more of the same: complex and disturbing political material packaged in pleasing (to me) aesthetic form.
After finishing up the class, I then took several other Romanticism courses (with Romanticist Ranita Chatterjee), such as a “The Construction of Romanticism: Wordsworth and Shelley” and “The Traumas of the Godwin-Shelley Circle,” and continued to read primary and critical texts during my free time. I read Percy’s “The Mask of Anarchy” and De Quincey’s satirical essay “On Murder Considered as a Fine Art.” As far as criticism, I perused sources diverse in their ideological orientation, such as Wang’s book, M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, Frances Ferguson’s Solitude and the Sublime: The Romantic Aesthetics of Individuation, and Tilottama Rajan’s Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice. These not only helped me engage with the changing conceptions of what constitutes Romantic Literature but also to become aware of the extent to which critical methods enable these and other scholars to read, extend, and problematize Romantic Literature. It seemed to me that Romantic texts were somehow inherently capable of generating new readings, inexhaustible in their capacity to stretch and bend to the probing eyes of scholars who used novel theoretical lens.
Once, while reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man under a canopied tree on my campus, I had the thought that Romantic Literature, through its aporias–in Mary Shelley’s novel, the narratological disjunction caused by the prologue which mentions that the “last” man’s ensuing narrative is edited by two tourists—was like this organic, mystical clay that continuously took on amorphous shapes, receptive to the critic-claymaker’s deft touch. Yes, I had this very strange thought that is very Romantic and a little screwy. (But it only certifies—makes me certifiable?—that I’m pursuing the right literary period.)
Romanticism, on a bad day, makes me grumble, “These interesting writers are nuts.” On a good day, reading these writers stimulates my own inner-Romantic lunacy.
McGann, Jerome J. Introduction. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. By McGann Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. 1-20. Print.
Stay tuned for Part II…