Women Poets and the Romantic Sublime

by Kerry White

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 (qtd in Pipkin)]


The role that the sublime played in Romantic poetry may be over-stated given the increasing acknowledgement in the past century of the quality and quantity of poetry produced by female writers of the period. Treatises on the sublime tend to look at it from a gender point of view, from opposing, or at least contrary, perspectives. While it is argued that men have attained the sublime level at times, women also reached great heights of expression. Rather than sublimity being an exclusive world of male writers, perhaps in this literary world of the sublime there are two hemispheres, one for males and the other for females. Or maybe in this area of subjectivity and intangibles, it is a celestial place which is two-dimensional: male and female; even everyday/worldly and imaginative/other-worldly.

Judgement of what is sublime is subjective, but even its meaning has differing degrees of aspiration to some. What impels either writer or reader to reach this pinnacle: some experience of mental or sub-conscious levitation? Few writers would have reached the lofty heights of the sublime, as identified by Edmund Burke in 1757 (qtd in Day), who knew "of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power ... rises ... from terror, the common stock of everything that is sublime"; more moderate is the idea of "Belonging to the highest regions of thought, reality or human activity ... of language, style or a writer: Expressing lofty ideas in a grand and elevated manner" (Onions); or "That quality of a literary work that elevates the reader to a higher plane" (Murfin & Ray). The latter also refer to Burke's distinction between the sublime (as infinite) and the beautiful (finite), and an association of the sublime with terror. John Pipkin provides this explanation:

For Burke, as well as for the male Romantic poets, the site of this power (the sublime) is the point of conflict between such oppositions as self and other, imagination and nature, the terrible and the beautiful, and male and female ... 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 (author's emphasis).

Out of the romantic period - or at least out of subsequent study of it - came the notion that the sublime was the property of male writers and that the beautiful, in a general sense, was the property of women writers. That was the contemporary view at least, because women writers of the time did not receive the same recognition as did their counterparts until much later, even into the 20th century. Those counterparts, to their credit, did to some degree recognise women writers though perhaps they did not share the spoils they received as recognised male writers from a country, and even a world, that was becoming increasingly literate and hungry for literature, a demand in turn being met by technology's benefits for the printing industry. In reflection, though, it has been determined that women were more productive than men, "at least for a time, predominant" (Curran 187). Pipkin challenges the supposed male dominance both of "the sublime" and writing output:

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.

The period of history that has become associated with "Romanticism" in English literature was a dynamic and decisive one. Apart from the "political" revolutions in France and America, the "social" upheaval of the Industrial Revolution was having significant effect, leading to a shift in attitude towards Nature, a renewed belief in Nature and the link with God - romantic pantheism; as well, writers were prepared to note the affects of change, if not in a revolutionary way, at least in pointed commentary. The concentration on Nature was also seen as a counter to the "unnatural" effects of this political, social and industrial change - even upheaval; Nature was an "antithesis of the materialism" (Murfin and Ray 417); in summary, a period that saw "the rise of radical dissent within Britain and the British Government's conservative reaction to that dissent, and the industrial and agricultural revolutions" (Dixon, 1.3, writer's emphasis).

Studies of the period have focussed on "The six canonical writers (who) believed that a better world was possible" (Wu xxxii) - William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats. An equivalent group of six female writers could comprise: Anna Barbauld, Hannah More, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Helena Williams and Mary Robinson (Curran 189). Note: there is no mention of Dorothy Wordsworth, but she will be discussed later.

Related to the emphasis on nature was a turn to "organic" rather than the "mechanical" form of the past, rejecting many of its "forms and conventions", and escaping into "fancy" (Murfin and Ray 416-7). This "rejection of classical generic convention" taking "poetic language back into the common sphere" also was seen as beneficial for women writers (Blain 162).

It was, though, a period where males still dominated most aspects of society, but this was being challenged as debate on "rights" proliferated and new, improved opportunities for women began to evolve. Not that the genders were cliquey or even at war, though there was the occasional snipe between them - and within each group for that matter. On the other hand, Wu (xxxi-ii) suggests there might be some semblance of a "community" of contemporary writers, "although they did not consolidate themselves as a movement". They also corresponded, addressed poems to one another and paid tributes to fellow members at times, for example, Coleridge and Robinson on his "Kubla Khan" (Wu 523) and her "Mrs Robinson to the Poet Coleridge" (Wu 124); or Wordsworth's lament for a contemporary writer, Felicia Hemans: "Mourn rather for that holy spirit/ ... /Has sunk into a breathless sleep" - though without Blake's "terror", it is surely verging on the sublime; and a young Wordsworth at Cambridge "was most anxious to emulate" Charlotte Smith (Wu, xxxvi).

Both genders wanted to be seen as writers first, women particularly - not as women/female writers, not even as women able to write, but as "participants in the cultural mainstream" (Wu xxxvi), though many commentators then and since have concentrated on the gender aspect. The likes of Rousseau had dwelt on the "pretty" aspect, as paraphrased by Taylor:

Sublime - that thrilling domain of the wild and terrible associated with images of phallicised Nature (craggy mountains, surging seas, cascading waterfalls, dizzying heights and so on) and a general sense of overwhelmingness. ... in sharp contrast to the Beautiful (or the merely pretty, as Rousseau would have it) with its soft, shallow associations to the fanciful and the feminine. (63-4).

This is a work on Mary Wollstonecraft, and Taylor refers to her "The Cave of Fancy", as "a proto-feminist whose sublimity points to a moral stature rarely accorded woman", mimicking a question Wollstonecraft might have asked: "Why should imaginative grandeur be all on men's side, while women are consigned, like the shipwrecked mother in the tale, to the pretty and the petty?" (63-4). This pioneering romantic feminist was not afraid to challenge the likes of Burke over the male emphasis and perspective they placed on their literary discussions. She received little contemporary support in challenging these views that led to male-dominated discussion of topics such as "the sublime", but one to also speak out was Robinson, claiming that women were "expected to act like a philosopher", but "not allowed to think like one" (qtd in Taylor 181-2).

Writings on the Romantic sublime usually make reference at some point to the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Interestingly, both Burke contemporarily and Pipkin, citing modern critics, refer to one of the master's poems, "The Climbing of Snowdon" (from Thirteen Book Prelude Book XIII). Burke (qtd in Day, 187) refers to the "sublime moment" in Wordsworth's line: "The soul, the imagination of the whole" (line 65). Burke says this refers to an earlier "sublime spectacle", when for Wordsworth:

... I looked about and lo!
The moon stood naked in the heavens at height
Immense above my head, and on the shore
I found myself of a huge sea of mist
Which meek and silent rested at my feet. (lines 39-44)

Pipkin writes that this is where "the sublime reaches its conceptual apex", referring to the "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 nature". Another sublime moment can be sensed in "Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood":

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
In the primal sympathy...
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind. (Wu, 379, lines 182-189)

Discussion on Coleridge in this context often refers to his eccentric "Kubla Khan" with its sexual connotations. Perhaps here there is a higher plane that is a sexual sublime, or even an opiate sublime, as Coleridge was a regular user, a habit that was to result in "increasingly fragile health aggravated by opium addiction". "Kubla Khan", written around 1797 but not published until 1816, has these lines which are of a sublime tendency:

A savage place, as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By a woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil soothing... (Wu 461 and 523, lines 14-17).

However, the next line all but changes the mood from the sublime to the ridiculous, as the reader is made aware of what the poem is all about: "... As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing". A reference made by Pipkin has relevance here:

As Dennis's account of the sublime rape of the intellect shows, male writers, referring to their own imaginations at the moment of transcendence, often identify their minds, their souls, or their spirits (in other words, the immaterial elements of selfhood) with feminine pronouns.

And Curran also refers to this "fragmentary" work, serving to "implicate planes of reality beyond the power of words to image" (190). In "The Ancient Mariner", Coleridge more seriously connects with the sublime on several occasions, for example: "Like one that on a lonesome road/ Doth walk in fear and dread/ ... / Because he knows a frightened fiend/ Doth close behind him tread." (Wu 539, lines 446-451).

Curran is a strong advocate for the role of women writers in the Romantic period, and refers glowingly to two of Robinson's works. He cites "January 1975", a subtle but powerful comment on the war with France with "clashing juxtapositions". In her four-line stanzas, she has the everyday occurrences for three lines, followed by the bang! of the war line: "Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding" and "Hospitals, and groans of anguish". Curran refers to her "tour-de-force", "Winkfield Plain; or, a Description of a Camp in the year 1800", "an evocation of sheer energy continually reverting to its sexual base". Robinson wrote: "More of war than profit dreaming/... / All confusion, din and riot, /Nothing clean - and nothing quiet". Curran comments that "the quotidian is absolute", but surely there is a degree of the sublime, descriptions that should not be regarded as mutually exclusive. Were women writers able to achieve sublimity without aiming to? Was Robinson suggesting this in "Mrs Robinson to the Poet Coleridge" (Wu, 124), a response to "Kubla Khan"?

She sings of thee, oh favoured child
Of minstrelsy, sublimely wild! -
Of thee whose soul can feel the tone
Which gives to airy dreams a magic all thy own!

No discussion on this subject would be complete without reference to Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William. While both are regarded as great writers, they were very different, as Homans noted: "... she speaks for the literal nature that is most often silent within his texts: (qtd in Day, 196). Day found "something which runs distinctively counter to William Wordsworth's masculinized and egocentric sublime in Dorothy Wordsworth's rejection of the sublime" (197). She is remembered mostly for her journals, which were not intended for publication, but only for her and her brother's eyes; "her close, detailed observations of the natural world were the inspiration for much of her brother's poetry" (Wu, 432). She does reach an arguably sublime level in some of her poetry, for example, in "Floating Island at Hawkshead: An Incident in the Schemes of Nature": "Food, shelter, safety there they find, / ... /There insects live their lives and die - /A peopled world it is, inside a tiny room" (Wu 438, lines 13-16). A few years later she was entering another world, that of dementia, and referred to her brother's 1798 classic, "Tintern Abbey" (Wu 265), written to her: "For thou art with me, ...". She wrote in 1831:

No prisoner in this lonely room,
I saw the green banks of the Wye,
Recalling thy prophetic words -
Bard, brother, friend from infancy!
I though of nature's loveliest scenes,
And with memory I was there. ("Thought on My Sickbed", Wu, 439)

While there is not the "terror" in these lines that Burke would want as referred to earlier, these lines surely are in Onions' "highest regions of thought, expressions in a grand a lofty manner", and they have the potential to take "the reader to a higher plane" (Murfin & Ray); they are in the realm of the sublime and, perhaps, there was fear close to "terror" as she imagines a fate with increasing dementia.

Having referred to and discussed just a fraction of Romantic works of both male and female writers, there can be seen a potential to perceive the sublime in the works of both. Of course, there may be way too much attention paid to the place of the sublime in romantic poetry, as Shee insinuates on the title page to this essay, and as Cole and Swartz suggest in wondering "what would happen if we simply stopped playing the game of aesthetic mastery in relation to the sublime", and focus more on aspects such as "social relations, ... mastery and competency" (162). Back to the subject though: There seems to be more than one spectrum of sublimity. Pipkins' discussion on a variety of sources leads him to suggest that there are two sublimes: There is a transcendental or "masculine" sublime and a material or "feminine" sublime. In general terms, the former comes out of the male "desire to control the natural world" and the latter comes out of an expression of a "unity with nature". So gender does not really limit use of the "concept of the sublime", but it does influence what hemisphere or dimension of the world it will inhabit.

Works cited

Blain, Virginia. "Women poets and the challenge of genre". Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900. Ed. Joanne Shattock, University of Leicester. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful. Edited by Adam Phillips. Oxford and New York: World's Classic, 1790 (1986).

Curran Stuart. "The I Altered". Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Day, Aiden. Romanticism. London: Routledge, 1996.

Dennis, John. "Proposal". The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry. London: Strahan and Lintott, 1704. qtd in Pipkin.

Dixon, Robert, with contributions by Alison Bartlett, Laurence Johnson, Simon Ryan and Shirley Tyler. ENL 2002 Nineteenth Century Literature Study Book. University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, 2005.

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Second Edition). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's 2003.

Onions, C. T. ed. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, Reprinted 1970.

Pipkin, John G. "The Material Sublime of Women Poets". SEL: Studies in English Literature, Autumn 98, Vol. 38, Issue 4. Published for Rice University Texas by John Hopkins University Baltimore. Academic Search Premier http://web30.epnet.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/ accessed 23 October 2005.

Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Cole, Lucinda and Richard G. Swartz. "Why Should I Wish for Words?: Literacy, Articulation and Literary Culture". At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist and Materialist Criticism. Ed. Mary A. Favrett and Nicola J. Watson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism. An Anthology. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

© Kerry White, March 2007
University of Southern Queensland www.usq.edu.au

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