Sha, Introduction

Historicizing Romantic Sexuality


Richard C. Sha, American University

Without arguing for direct influence, this essay reads a group of English poems as an implicit Romantic conversation that advances different models of sapphic sublimity in a troplogical contest about the nature and place of female affinities. I begin by revisiting the exclusion of 'Christabel' from the _Lyrical Ballads_; I discuss the implicit dialogue enacted through William Wordsworth’s sonnet to the 'Ladies of Llangollen' and Dorothy Wordsworth’s poem 'Irregular Verses'; and I conclude with a look at the metrical practices of these poems and of Shelley’s 'Rosalind and Helen' as a way to explore the ambivalences and ambiguities in Romantic configurations of female same-sex desire. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. In How to Do the History of Sexuality, David M. Halperin puts to rest the idea that Michel Foucault meant in the History of Sexuality to separate sexual acts from identity. According to Halperin, Foucault never intended to encourage historians of sexuality to neglect the connections between sexual subjectivities and sexual acts. I found this corrective especially fruitful for Romanticists who have long known that Byron's sexuality had something to do with his identity. Coleridge also insisted that it was "wise to think of  [sodomitical] disposition[s], as a Vice, not of the absurd and despicable Act as a crime" (Marginalia 1:43). Although this statement can be pressed in service of the binary opposition between sexual acts and sexual identities, Coleridge's statement that it is wise to think about sodomy as a vice refers to dispositions, a term that bespeaks identity. The reflexiveness of his remark implies that it is possible to think of non-normative forms of sexuality outside of vice and outside of crime.  Thus I envisioned a volume of essays that would take on the history of sexuality in the Romantic period, and in so doing use Halperin to rethink what we now know to be a pseudo-Foucaultian divorce between acts and identities, a divorce that has made sexual subjectivities before sexology an historical black hole.

  2. The contributers and commentators have accomplished more than I could have hoped for. As I wrote in my introduction to Romanticism and Sexuality, which appeared on Romanticism on the Net in 2002, the history of sexuality in the Romantic period has been regarded if at all as little more than a speedbump on the way to Victorian sexuality. The essays herein give us many reasons to slow down and enjoy the ride. With the exception of Jonathan Loesberg's essay on Foucault, each essay shows a powerful form of sexual subjectivity, and together the essays imply that the history of sexuality in the Romantic period must remain a deeply collaborative enterprise since no one scholar can master the discourses that are subsumed under sexuality. Loesberg, by contrast, hopes to encourage others to think outside of subject positions altogether.

  3. In my own essay on David Halperin's and Percy Shelley's interpretations of Ancient Greek Sexuality, I look at the ways in which alterity has become a post-modern form of objectivity: one that masks the controlling of traffic between identity and difference under the guise of an historical otherness. Jonathan Loesberg's powerful essay on Foucault reminds us of the philosopher's investment in an aesthetic inauthenticity, an inauthenticity that mandates a kind of aesthetic apprehension of history whereby arguments do not take their value from subject positions but rather from indifference. When Halperin acknowledges that Loesberg has left him no subject position from which to respond, he misses the fact that it is precisely Loesberg's Foucauldian point to get historians of sexuality to think outside of subject positions altogether. And while Halperin's work is admirably self-conscious in its use of alterity, my point is that Halperin still needs the alterity of the Greeks to prevent his history from being reduced to mere autobiography. Halperin's calculated alterity does not explain why he misreads the Pseudo-Lucianic Erotes or overstates his case. It is because he needs the Greeks to undermine our notions of sexuality that he engages in what I call "surplus alterity": the use of more alterity than is necessary to change our concepts of sexuality. When alterity becomes about our needs rather than the needs of the Greeks, distortion is inevitable. Rather than arguing for objectivity, I want us to consider the extent to which alterity has become a post-modern form of objectivity in hopes that we can start to value concepts like proximity instead.

  4. For Elizabeth Fay, even costume provides Mary Robinson and Princess Caroline with sexual subjectivities, while Jill Heydt-Stevenson finds a brocade of sexual innuendos in Jane Austen's Juvenilia: innuendos that suggest the proper lady has no clothes. For Fay, costume provides an important if precarious form of agency, in that it can set into motion sexual narratives that have unintended consequences. For Heydt-Stevenson, by contrast, Austen is able to revolt successfully against official sexual identities. Susan Lanser's delicious essay argues that metrical irregularity could be a code for Sapphic irregularity, a maneuver that might encourage historians of sexuality and literary critics to dust off their prosody manuals. Bradford Mudge's essay asks what it means that the history of pornography begins at the moment when the word threatens to evaporate, and reminds us once again that far from being separate discourses, the novel and pornography coexist. His essay amply shows the benefits of seeing pornography as an imaginative construct rather than in terms of semantic absolutes. By situating Equiano's narrative within a masochistic discourse of sodomitical desire, Daniel O'Quinn reminds us that the discourses of abolition and the slave trade had much to say about alternative forms of sexuality.

  5. I am deeply grateful to the hard work of the authors herein, to Orrin Wang, the editor of Romantic Circles Praxis Series, and to George Haggerty, reader of the volume, whose tough but sobering criticisms kept us rewriting even after we thought we were done. I must also thank Andrew Elfenbein and David Halperin, for graciously responding to the essays in the volume. David Halperin productively takes on the essays that most engage his own work, while Andrew Elfenbein provides thoughtful commentary to all the essays. One could hardly wish for a fitter initial audience. While Joseph Byrne did a magnificent job digitizing this volume, the essays are stronger for the copy-editing of Melissa Sites.


Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Marginalia.  Vol. 1.  Ed. George Whalley. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton:  Bollingen Series, 1980.

Halperin, David. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: U. Chicago P., 2002.