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Daniel P. Watkins, Sexual Power in British Romantic Poetry

Tuesday, March 10, 1998 - 03:18
Daniel P. Watkins, Sexual Power in British Romantic Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. vxii + 157 pp. $34.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8130-1438-7).

Reviewed by
Samuel Lyndon Gladden
Texas A&M University

Daniel P. Watkins's study of works by three major Romantic writers—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats—examines the place of sexual roles and gendered struggles for power within a social and political landscape marked by profound economic change. Specifically, Watkins investigates the shift from an aristocratic, feudal economy to an emerging capitalism, and he points to gendered subjectivity as the primary experiential space through which anxieties over that shift were mediated. Posing the model of "sadeian logic" as the template for making sense of both social and interpersonal relations, Watkins reads a number of well-known Romantic works through the lenses of gender, class, and power finally to conclude that while the idealistic tendency of Romanticism remains compromised by the masculinist biases of its day, a feminist materialist investigation of the history and historicity of that dilemma—the very sort of project in which Watkins' study participates—offers Romanticism its only way out of the convoluted patriarchalism that structured social, economic, and interpersonal relationships in the early nineteenth century.

Throughout his book, Watkins argues that "during the romantic period there are close relations between visionary idealism, patriarchy, and sadism" (60), and he demonstrates how "[the] three admittedly nonparallel categories of society, philosophy, and sexuality seem . . . to be crucial in the attempt to locate and explain, in historical terms, the romantic imagination and romantic textuality" (xvi). Anticipating skepticism about his subject and approach in the brief "Introduction" that opens the book, Watkins remarks that a central "problem" of Romanticism—in particular, how that movement's " . . . entanglement in the turbulent conditions of both feudalism and capitalism [and] its involvement with the declining energy of the Enlightenment project . . . [shapes] the romantic understanding and portrayal of gender" (xv)—"can be considered most usefully when gender is cast in its strongest possible form and then set in relation to other prominent, or constitutive, features of romanticism" (xvi). Indeed, for Watkins, the hallmarks of Romanticism—"[f]ragmentation, alienation, and reification"—are never overcome but, instead, are "pushed further down into the inner recesses of social life until they are almost hidden away in one of the most basic relations of human existence-sexuality" (120). Watkins offers the strongest support for his subject and methodology near the end of his chapter on Keats where he justifies the turn to sadeian logic by underscoring a phenomenological link between the almost simultaneous and, Watkins suggests, the contingent emergence of the works of Sade and the development of the Romantic attitude. Of the particular gender bias for which Romanticism has long been attacked, Watkins writes that "[i]t is important to call the logic of this masculinist poetic strategy sadeian because the word both suggests the severity of the poem's portrayal of gender and helps to link various social and cultural energies of the age within a single historical and cultural framework" (123). Watkins concludes his study by pointing to the three ways in which such a project—which, he maintains, might seem to invalidate any reading of Romantic poetry as anything other than oppressive, particularly at the level of gender—remains useful to larger questions about Romanticism and its cultural moment. Specifically, Watkins argues that "feminism must explain the enabling logic and shaping conditions of violence if it is to be defused and its energies positively redirected"; that his project "calls attention to the historical field where oppression takes place and, therefore, where goal-oriented materialist feminism must always begin"; and that "feminist intervention . . . enables romanticism to be brought forward as history rather than as ideology or nostalgia, serving not only as a poetic expression of hope but also as a historical register of the real conditions of that hope" (129).

This reviewer's lengthy focus on Watkins' subject and methodology underscores the anxiety the author himself voices throughout Sexual Power and British Romantic Poetry; indeed, Watkins admits that his decision to focus on exclusively a few well-known works by canonical writers results from the fact that while he believes his model to hold true for the larger Romantic movement, these familiar and easily accessible texts function as test cases in which his theory may be satisfactorily investigated. Watkins begins with Wordsworth, whose own attitude about political revolution and whose plan for poetic revolution mark him as an important figure to consider in terms of the shifting climates that shaped the early portion of the Romantic age. Focusing on "Tintern Abbey," "Nutting," and the "stolen boat episode" from The Prelude, Watkins argues that Wordsworth's meditations on the self and its place both in the narrow register of individual imagination and in the larger scheme of social relations demonstrate an obsession with emerging subjectivity, which Watkins ties to a cultural and economic shift from feudalism to capitalism. As a member of a developing capitalist society, Watkins argues, Wordsworth struggles to find a place for himself in an increasingly self-made world.

Watkins acknowledges the now familiar argument about Wordsworth's masculinist bias, but he urges the reader to reconsider this problem apart from the concerns of identity-politics and to focus instead on the ways in which the poet's attitude speaks about the "social logic of exploitation and domination" that is manifested not only in Wordsworth's treatment of gender relations but also throughout the larger corpus of Romantic writing (32). Approaching "Tintern Abbey" with the understanding that Wordsworth's retreat from the political in no way signals his retreat from the ideological, Watkins argues that in its nostalgic appreciation of a ruined, feudal structure, the poem demonstrates "not a simple escape from politics but rather an embrace of a masculinist logic that is vigorously ideological and hence political" (35), for the poem's understanding and depiction of gender, exemplified in the relationship between Wordsworth and Dorothy, "participates in the cultural and social realities of its day-particularly in the assumption of the autonomy and authority of the masculine subject and the absolutely dependent status of femininity" (42–43). Watkins also points to the extra-textual circumstance surrounding the composition of Wordsworth's The Prelude, which was written primarily to Coleridge, to underscore the homosocial nature of Romantic exchange, not only at the level of the textual, Watkins argues, but at the levels of experience and ideology, as well (52).

While his reading of "Tintern Abbey" does indeed advance a provocative argument about the depletion of feminine subjectivity in the service of masculine autonomy, Watkins' reading of the "stolen boat" episode in The Prelude demonstrates far more convincingly the intricate links between Wordsworth's vision of the formation of an autonomous, subjective identity and the larger cultural shift in economic relations. In short, Watkins understands this episode as primarily masturbatory in nature, and, accordingly, he reads the poet's rowing of the boat and the rise of the mountain before him as auto-erotic in its symbolism. And where masturbation functions in the interest of selfish pleasure, so, too, Watkins argues, does the emergence of individual understanding as it is depicted in The Prelude: for Watkins, the stolen boat—the object crucial to ego-formation and the development of individual subjectivity—represents property-to-be-overtaken, which represents woman as she is appropriated by man, which represents bourgeois social and psychological terrain, which manifests capitalism at the register of interpersonal relations (51). Wordsworth's focus on the particular nature of the boat—its stolen-ness, we might say—further emphasizes the poet's understanding, appreciation, and value of individual property as identity: in stealing the boat Wordsworth claims some sort of power or control through that property itself and in returning the boat after suffering from guilt over this transgression of property, Wordsworth solidifies his own complicity in such an economic system, the return of the boat signaling Wordsworth's tacit acceptance of and respect for the property—the masculinity—of another (55). In a powerful assertion, Watkins subsumes guilt within the larger framework of sadeian logic by arguing that the psychic phenomenon "humanizes and personalizes the sadistic actions that have transpired, cleansing them of their violent horror and civilizing them without changing them; in this way, guilt assures that sexual violence and imperialist conquest are sanctified" (56–57, emphasis added).

Watkins opens his study of Coleridge by focusing on Christabel, a poem that recounts a "problematic social situation [that] renders extraordinarily complex the relation of individuals to one another, to the society whose authority they vocally support, and to the values and principles that seem in fact to motivate their personal lives" (67); in short, Christabel demonstrates the intrinsic links between individual relationships and social structures or, more generally, the private and the public. For Watkins, the central figure of Christabel operates as "both a model daughter of patriarchy and an agent of its disruption" (72), for her "transgression" with Geraldine is "motivated by personal desire that . . . is not entirely hers; at the very least, the form of her desire derives from the rule of the father" (73). The women's "single sexual embrace," which is "generated entirely within a frame of feminine sexuality" (78), "locate[s] sadeian thought at the intersection of the body, the mind, and society, and that intersection is portrayed in such a way as to desanctify 'the idea of any community' [Annie Le Brun's phrase] and to emphasize the particular arrangement of bodies within the desanctified-or fully secularized-community" (79). Geraldine's violation of Christabel offers the innocent maiden the only way out of the ideology in which she remains trapped, for the lesbian embrace "marks the claim of the female body against a centralized masculinity and masculine definitions of the female body" (81). In this way, Watkins argues, Coleridge demonstrates the efficacy of sadeian logic to cultural transformation, for it is from the pleasure-and-pain Christabel experiences at the hands of Geraldine that another sort of social structure emerges which threatens to topple the dominant patriarchalism of Christabel's world by enabling "a reclaiming of the female body" (83). Such a reclamation is not unproblematic, however, for if the poem's real figure of feminine liberation is Geraldine, that evil woman who seduces Christabel into her own ways, we see that the hope of a different kind of order, though present at the level of Christabel's transgression, is nevertheless compromised and trapped beneath the weight of masculine feudal and aristocratic authority (86).

Similarly, Coleridge complicates the liberatory potential of "The Nightingale," for not only does he reverse the usual symbology of the central character to align the bird's song with joy rather than with melancholy, but he also reminds us of the history of the nightingale and its mythological association with sexual violence. In sum, the essentially masculinist vision of "The Nightingale" fails to make room for a feminine subjectivity, for its very vision is predicated upon-derives from-an artifact of sexual violence and gender inequality, the mythological origin of the nightingale itself (91). The only fissure in this construction, Watkins observes, emanates from that same mythic figure, for it is the nightingale's song that motivates the narrator's masculinist vision, and thus it is on the basis of that song that masculine authority is simultaneously perpetuated (in the poet's vision) and disrupted (in the nightingale's own sexual history) (96).

Watkins closes his discussion of the place of sexual power in the works of Coleridge by pointing briefly to "The Eolian Harp" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In the former, the female figure, Sara, is constructed specifically in the interest of drawing the male narrator away from the larger, social world and into the smaller, more narrow, and ultimately more controllable world over which he may exercise his own mastery; thus, Sara functions as a guarantor of the unchecked control of masculine authority (100). In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the poet similarly retreats from the unfamiliar world—the threatening and specifically feminine specter of "the skeleton ship carrying Death and Life-in-Death" (101)—to escape to safer, more familiar territory, "retreating rapidly into the secure arms of domesticity and conventional religious belief" (101). Ultimately, Watkins shows how "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" maintains existing social structures by warning against all forms of transgression and by containing the figure of the "demonic" in a specifically feminine vessel-the ship itself (101, 103).

Watkins' brief chapter on Keats focuses solely on the "Ode to Psyche," a poem that represents the typical Romantic impulse toward idealization only to lay that impulse bare as ultimately unobtainable (107). Indeed, Watkins insists that Keats's poem suggests the poet's anxiety over the possibility that love and integrity may disappear amidst rampant social turbulence (107). In demonstrating such a disappearance, Watkins reads the poem in the context of commodity exchange to argue that the poem's ideal depends entirely upon the processes of shrinkage and loss-upon the complete isolation of the individual from the world around him (109–110). Watkins finds Keats's dilemma—the inability to realize his vision of liberation in the world around him and the consequent retreat into nostalgia (112)—to be representative of mainstream Romanticism, as is Keats's appropriation of a feminine figure, the goddess Psyche, in the service of his own empowerment (118). Throughout the poem, Keats's language of labor and fulfillment inscribes contemporary anxieties about alienated labor and class division (120), even as the poem unselfconsciously leaves in place the particular phenomenon—masculine authority—that underwrites those social issues.

Watkins concludes his book by acknowledging his debt to a range of other studies that preceded his own. Specifically, he places his work in the context of Marlon B. Ross's The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), which Watkins reads as another attempt to employ a feminist model to rescue Romanticism from the very ideology it simultaneously attacks and reaffirms-an ideology that Watkins believes is rooted in the sadeian logic of sexual violence and gendered inequality. But Watkins's study might have been more fruitful had he expanded his survey beyond the genre of poetry to take as test cases the novels of women, whose own struggles with the very set of issues Watkins describes offer alternatives to the simple reinscription of masculine authority. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, considers the problems with masculine authority as the stability of an aristocratic family unit succumbs to the radical instability of the single male who must create a place for himself in an ever-hostile world, and it points to communication and understanding as the processes that may ease social, political, and interpersonal crises. Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria explores the problems women face in an emerging capitalist society, and it offers a way out of that dilemma neither through a Keatsian retreat into nostalgia nor through a Wordsworthian assertion of masturbatory masculine prowess, but instead through the formation of the feminine community, in which class structures dissolve as a new sort of family unit promises the health and well-being of Maria's own daughter.

Watkins might also have investigated alternatives to the re-inscription of masculine authority that are celebrated in the works of other canonical male writers; Byron's Sardanapalus, for instance, offers a critique of gender from the position of the "other" that is similar to Mary Shelley's and Mary Wollstonecraft's, for in the end, Byron's hero neither asserts his own masculine autonomy nor retreats into nostalgia; instead, he sacrifices his own life as a testament to his dedication to femininity, the very crisis for which he had come under attack. Even some of the obvious texts by the writers Watkins does consider—Wordsworth's "Michael" and Keats's "Isabella; Or, The Pot of Basil" and "The Eve of St. Agnes"—might have been better employed to examine the link between social structures, interpersonal relationships, and the psychology of the autonomous individual, for each seems to indict, rather than to return to, the privileges and pleasures of masculine authority and what in Watkins's view seems inevitably to be their bases in sexual domination and gendered inequality. Finally, Watkins's attention to shifts in the economic bases of society could have been more carefully nuanced: though he mentions the issue of class several times throughout his book, Watkins really leaves the matter unexamined, so that in the end the only real sense of class the reader is left with is a purely gendered one, masculine and feminine representing the privileged and the underprivileged classes, respectively.

Despite these problems and Watkins's focus on such a relatively small number of texts from such a canonical group of writers, his arguments about the relationship between sex and power in Romantic poetry are well proven, and his suggestion that Romanticism is profoundly affected by the shift from aristocratic feudalism to capitalism is made convincingly as well. Indeed, Sexual Power in British Romantic Poetry opens the door for a range of similar studies of lesser-known works, and, for this reason, Watkins's brief work accomplishes much.