Fay, "Introduction: Passion in a Barren Field"

Romantic Passions

Introduction: Passion in a Barren Field

Elizabeth Fay, University of Massachusetts, Boston

  1. Critical attention to the emotions, either as love (romantic love, as in the Shakespearian sonnet tradition), as passion (the great human passions, as in Joanna Baillie's dramatic definition), or as sex (whether hetero or homo/lesbian), has never had much force in Romantic studies. The paradox of why there is no love in Romantic period poetry has always been explained by the great poets' obsession with the heady mix of politics and aesthetics that produced poems about the French Revolution and the sublime. Rather than talk about love, poets such as Wordsworth and Keats tended to talk about why love is no longer possible, while Byron applied love to the tragic mode to show the cosmic sadness of his byronic heroes, and Coleridge and Shelley explored love as a better path to the self and the divine. All these poets provided a superior alternative to human love with their exploration of the sublime and its relevance to man's intellectual and spiritual transcendence of political and social blockages, reversions, and other setbacks to progressiveness. Our criticism has tended to follow the Arnoldian line of an emotional investment in the literature of the Romantics combined with an intellectual detachment from it.

  2. Necessarily, it is even uncertain at this point how we should define either Romantic love or passion. Romantic poems, quite simply, are not love poems. Romantic poets, at least those of the canon, do not make love to women in their passionate pleas, but instead make love to nature and natural objects. As Emerson notes, on the other side of the Atlantic and somewhat later, "I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty." Wordsworth makes some clearer distinctions concerning this phenomenon in his analysis of the "Affections," the aesthetic categories that translate emotional responses to nature into something quite different from interpersonal love. How we think about the intellectualized affects versus the more real but difficult issue of P.B. Shelley's love triangles, Byron's infamous relations with men and women, Hazlitt's infatuation with Sarah Walker and Coleridge's with Sarah Hutchinson, still leaves us with little to say about how love itself was considered during the period, or what it meant to be impassioned or emotional.

  3. Even when women writers of the period were recently recuperated from dusty library shelves and reinserted into the topography of Romanticism, their combined literary efforts on the question of love and the emotions did not alter how the critical apparatus of Romantic studies was applied. Despite the recovery of quantitatively significant numbers of marginalized or lost texts of women writers, scholars did not draw new parameters around Romanticism, but instead drew out works by these women that might be considered Romantic under the old terms. Even for well-known writers this stasis effectively confined what we could learn. For instance, despite the irrefutable fact that Jane Austen spelled her Romantic aesthetic around the question of love, the fact itself only served to propel studies of her work in two directions: assertions that she was not a Romantic writer, or assertions that the questions of finance, manners, and spatial limitation were more central to her thought and her representation of the age than questions of romantic love.

  4. Now, however, scholars have begun reassessing the larger body of literary works by both women and men of the period to see what larger parameters can be constructed. This has given rise to the study of sensibility, as well as the study of orientalism, alternative sexualities, gender politics, the theatre, the Gothic, and other culturally representative subjects. It is not clear, however, from this new research that women writers were any more interested in love as a subject in itself than were the men. In part this may be because we still have not posed the question outright, what of love in the Romantic period? Yet what have the works scholars are now examining shown us? Works that do treat love, such as Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon, seem to indicate a frustration with the possibilities of love to overcome gendered socio-political inequities much in the same way that male poets use love to show the same for socio-political injustices on a larger scale. Even Austen's Elizabeth Bennet gives up on the question of love quite early, saying in response to an invitation to the Lake District, "Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?"

  5. The essays collected in this volume of Praxis are intended to begin a dialogue that draws together the issues raised by women writers through their consciousness about gender and their tradition-inscribed relation to love. These issues work as a counter to the transcendence of love implicit in theories of the sublime. Not every area of recent scholarship could be represented by the essays that follow, however readers familiar with seminal works such as Joan DeJean's study of Sapphism, Eve Sedgwick's article on sensibility as sexuality in Austen, Louis Crompton's study of Byron and homosexuality, Lillian Faderman's study of lesbianism and "Romantic friendship," and Elizabeth Mavor's study of the Ladies of Llangollen, will be able to realize how we can even begin thinking about love and passion within the context of what had previously been an ascetic Romanticism.

  6. Most specifically, the renewed interest in sensibility, even more than that for Sapphism and Romantic friendship, has reopened the question of Romantic love. This summer an extended and impassioned exchange took place on the NASSR listserv concerning issues of how to teach poetry, how to teach women poets, and how to think about the relation between emotions and poetry. Nan Sweet's essay, which focuses on the delicate relation between passion and asceticism by discussing Hemans's exploration of "a Near Eastern religion of son-sacrifice attended by a fertile array of feminine feeling" and the Tory Anglican who disapproved such exploration, draws some of its fire from that listserv discussion to which she contributed heatedly. For such a discussion to take place, the concepts and practice of sensibility as an accepted discourse arena had to already be in place. As several contributors in the exchange noted early on, Jerome McGann's recent study of sensibility, among other new works on the subject, determined the ground for this particular arena. Similarly, Jeffrey Robinson describes his own project on the emotions as a way to broaden and contextualize our understanding of sensibility's relation to Romantic passion.

  7. Adela Pinch discusses "Romantic Love" as a question of epistemology that helps think through how we might now consider the subject. Andrew Stauffer provides an alternative view for us by analyzing anger, and by extension, the little considered emotion of hate in the case of Byron. Anger and hatred, like "the ugly" in discussions of the sublime and the beautiful, provide useful counters to any discussion predicated on sexual politics, romantic fantasy, and the human emotional register.

  8. Finally, Charles Rzepka provides a study of the sublime that usefully poses a counter to the critical tradition regarding it. If the sublime is most often associated with Burke's ideas of death and blockage, Rzepka shows how Mesmer's magnetic treatment was designed to open the flow of emotions, thus leading to transport--an idea that intrigued Coleridge and that significantly impacted his work.