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Historicizing Romantic Sexuality

"Put to the Blush": Romantic Irregularities and Sapphic Tropes

Susan S. Lanser, Brandeis 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. "Edleston and I have separated for the present," Byron laments from Cambridge in a letter of 1806, "and my mind is a chaos of hope and sorrow. . . . I certainly love him more than any human being, and neither time nor distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable disposition. In short, we shall put Lady E. Butler and Miss Ponsonby to the blush, Pylades and Orestes out of countenance, and want nothing but a catastrophe like Nisus and Euryalus, to give Jonathan and David the 'go by'"(30).

  2. When Byron includes a pair of women in his mythography of friendship, he marks a new moment in the long history of same-sex bonds. By 1806 the public image of friendship had undergone something of a sex change, and Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the so-called "Ladies of Llangollen" who eloped to Wales in 1778 and lived together until Butler's death in 1829, became the first female emblem for the kind of classical friendship that early modernists such as Michel de Montaigne and Jeremy Taylor had resurrected as an affair between men. As I have written elsewhere, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries private intimacies between women became public relations: European gentlewomen appropriated the cultural capital already attached to friendship between elite men as a resource in their struggle for autonomy, authority, and class privilege (Lanser 179-98). [1]

  3. Yet notice the asymmetry of Byron's tropes. He doesn't speak of putting any of the male couples "to the blush," but imagines irritating and besting them as he flaunts his love for Edleston. Does the blush merely echo the cultural commonplace that renders men combative but women merely delicate? Do Butler and Ponsonby blush only because Byron's love would best theirs, or does the blush hint at something more than friendship between Butler and Ponsonby, as was possibly the case between Byron and Edleston? Whatever Byron's logic, his gendered tropes underscore the limits of imagining female-female relations within a male-male lineage. For when two men choose one another, patriarchy may be altered but is not overturned, but when two women do so, structures of male dominance are potentially compromised. As David Halperin reminds us, in patriarchal systems "women must submit to a system of compulsory heterosociality" in which "the dominating feature" is "the inescapability of sexual relations with men." Thus "sexual relations among women represent a perennial threat to male dominance, especially whenever such relations become exclusive and thereby take women out of circulation among men" (Halperin 78).

  4. This threat is recognized in contemporary defenses of Butler and Ponsonby. Mary Pilkington's Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters (1804), for example, comments that "so completely gratified" were Butler and Ponsonby "in the society of each other, that they entertained the determination of never becoming wives." But she acknowledges that their families thought this decision "very unnatural" and that the two women had to "def[y] the opinion of the world" in order to "reside in the harmony of true friendship." Pilkington then uses Butler and Ponsonby to refute the assertion "that females are incapable of a permanent attachment" and to argue that women cannot to be "disqualified from feeling a passion which is calculated to dignify the human mind" (Pilkington 64-5). Anna Seward's heroic poem Llangollen Vale (1796) likewise recognizes Butler and Ponsonby's "sacred Friendship" as having been "assail[ed]" alike by "stern authorities" and "silken" efforts at "persuasion" (5).

  5. These tributes to Butler and Ponsonby suggest that Byron's blush might stand in for both delicacy and defiance, characterizing exclusive female coupling at once, and paradoxically, as an epitome of virtue and a transgression of social and sexual norms. This paradox may explain why, especially during the last quarter of the century, an eruption of bawdy and satiric texts coexisted uneasily with, and could potentially undermine, idyllic representations of female friendship that seemed to be their opposite. Where friendship was a substitute rather than a supplement for marriage, and thus a transgression of the heterosexual order whether or not the relationship was itself "sexual"—and who could know?—the lines separating virtuous from transgressive alliances were often literally paper thin: a public word could make or break a reputation, especially after what Katharine Binhammer has called the 'sex panic' of the 1790s when Marie Antoinette's putative sapphism helped to pave her journey to the guillotine (409-35).

  6. It is this light that I want to explore the place of women's erotic affiliations in the Romantic imagination and the tensions around which they get configured in Romantic verse. In the larger project from which I draw this discussion, I argue that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries female intimacies become a charged site for working out the epistemic changes of modernity. By the late eighteenth century, when Butler and Ponsonby had themselves become a charged site, the fragile lines separating chaste friendship from suspect sapphism were heavily class-inflected, favoring gentlewomen who did not transgress external codes of propriety and femininity. In the end, though, the fine lines of distinction depended on the words and images that surrounded a particular relationship and on the interpretive conventions through which these could be read.[2] As with Gestalt psychology's famous figure of the vase that is also two faces in profile, or the "ingenue" who can turn into a "hag," the alternative reading lurks—and becomes startlingly obvious once the figure-ground system is reversed though a perceptual shift. On paper, Butler and Ponsonby were thus variously celebrated (for the most part) and denigrated (privately and sometimes publicly) for a way of life that itself did not change: in 1790, for example, fully twelve years after their elopement, a newspaper story suddenly appeared mocking Butler as "masculine" and the couple as odd and implying that they had something to blush about. Not surprisingly, women like Butler and Ponsonby and defenders like Pilkington and Seward also took part in manipulating representations, in what sometimes amounted to an elaborate public relations scheme (Lanser 179-98).

  7. I want to suggest that the transgressive potential of female friendship, with its tenuous distinction between virtuous friendship and sexual sin, urged the inscription of female intimacies into the ambiguities of figuration and hence into poetic forms. One can argue, of course, that in Romantic poetry all sexuality is so figured, that—to cite Stuart Curran—in Britain "there is little sex, seldom an actual body, and virtually no romance in Romanticism" ("Of Genes"). But for two somewhat contrary reasons Romantic writings may be especially important to the history of female homoeroticism. First, it is arguably the Romantic moment that spawned the modern constructions of sexual subjectivity and the attendant values of individual difference, self-fulfillment, the fatedness of attraction and the primacy of desire that have legitimated modern same-sex bonds. It is no accident that Anne Lister (1791-1840), the first Englishwoman known to have left explicit records of a self-conscious, actively sexual, and firmly homoerotic orientation, looked to Rousseau's Confessions and Byron's poems for the self-authorization that enabled her to see the love of women as her proper state, the "straight" path that "nature seemed to have set out" for her (qtd. in Liddington 182).

  8. Secondly and somewhat contrarily, however, female intimacies may offer a limit case for Romantic sexual ideology. It is a commonplace that many Romantic writers were accused of libertine sexual beliefs and practices, yet (or perhaps for that reason) as Richard Sha has observed, a notion of Romantic transcendence, along with Foucauldian sexual chronologies, have also tended to erase sexuality from Romanticist scholarship (Sha). Now that scholars have begun to restore sexuality to Romanticism in the process of historicizing "Romantic ideology," it becomes important to investigate the specific contours of Romantic values about sexual forms and alliances. Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role gives the most fully articulated expression of this new project when he suggests that "sexual transgression" underwrites the genius of Romantic art and that homoeroticism in particular became a way for writers to mark their superiority.[3] Elfenbein's study explores the association of sapphism with genius in Anne Damer's life, in Anne Bannerman's poetry, and in Coleridge's self-fashioning through "Christabel." Here I want to ask what we can learn about the place of sapphism in the Romantic imagination by looking at poetic tropes—that is, at the uses of language and form in "a sense other than that which is proper" to them.[4] If, as I implied above, poetic discourse is a fertile site for transmuting suppressed content into symbolic form and for inscribing the ambiguous, the contradictory, the unspeakable, then it may hold a significant place in the history of sexuality. Parsing out the poetic contours of sapphism in Romantic poetry could thus help us accomplish one piece of the history of female homosexuality that, as David Halperin recognizes in his "History of Male Homosexuality," must be pursued separately in recognition of the enormous difference patriarchy makes in the social construction of same-sex bonds.

  9. As one contribution to such a project, I will focus here on a loosely interconnected set of poems about the nature and implications of female coupling. I'll begin by revisiting "Christabel" (1816) and its exclusion from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), where it was hastily supplanted by William Wordsworth's "Michael." I'll then explore an implicit contest about female intimacies carried out in poems by two Wordsworths: an occasional sonnet published in 1827 that William composed while visiting Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby during an 1824 tour of Wales with his wife and daughter, and a longer work titled "Irregular Verses" that Dorothy began in 1826 or 1827 for the daughter of her beloved friend Jane Pollard but which was not published until 1987. Finally, I will take up a metrical figure present in "Christabel," "Irregular Verses" and Percy Shelley's "Rosalind and Helen" (1818), with a bow as well to Anne Lister's diaries. Without arguing for direct influence, I want to read these poems as an implicit Romantic conversation that advances different models of sapphic sublimity in a tropological contest about the nature and place of female affinities.

  10. "Christabel" is, of course, the best known of these poems and also the most openly sexual. Although the encounter between Geraldine and Christabel is shrouded in mystery, the poem makes clear as much through its silences as through its images that something sapphic happens in Christabel's bed that fateful night. Both Geraldine and the scene of seduction are represented primarily through metonymy and synechdoche: we know Geraldine as a "faint and sweet" voice, as white garments and a whiter neck, bright eyes, a "bosom" and "half [a] side"; we know that both women undress and become the objects of one another's gaze; that Geraldine "had" her "will" with Christabel after a psychic struggle with Christabel's "wandering mother"; that Geraldine's "spell" becomes "lord" of Christabel's "utterance"; and that the "touch" of a "bosom" reveals a "mark" of "shame" that creates a tightness "beneath [Christabel's] heaving breasts." We know that Christabel recognizes that she has "sinn'd," but experiences only "perplexity of mind" about its occasion. Of what passes in the bed we know only that Geraldine held "the maiden in her arms" and "worked" her "harms." The scene carries images of both pleasure and danger: that it is "a sight to dream of not to tell" suggests that sapphism, though unspeakable, may also be desired.[5] Herein lies the transformation into "forbidden mystery" of which Elfenbein writes: in contrast to a text like Henry Fielding's Female Husband (1746), which makes sex between women only a matter "not fit to be mentioned," "Christabel" transmutes sapphic silence into the stuff of fantasy.

  11. Elfenbein has argued persuasively that "Christabel" marks at once the culmination of eighteenth-century anti-sapphic satiric discourse and a transmutation of that discourse into a "lesbian sublime" (Elfenbein 177). But the fullness of this transmutation depends on a reader's ability to suppress the satire, and thus the referentiality, that underwrites the poem. Arguing that "the poem is virtually immune to historical allegory of the kind that has traditionally been associated with lesbianism," Elfenbein dismisses Hazlitt's and Wordsworth's readings of "Christabel" as obscene—and indeed one anonymous reviewer called the poem "the most obscene poem in the English Language"—as lapses of judgment to which "more discriminating readers" with a "finer aesthetic taste" would not succumb (Elfenbein 188,177). I would suggest, however, that literalized readings of "Christabel" point to an inability less aesthetic than social, and one encouraged by the poem's own recourse to the very tropes it seeks also to transcend. What I find transgressive about "Christabel" is the way in which it treads upon the fine line of external appearance that separates the gender-bending sapphist from the virtuous friend. By figuring both Christabel and Geraldine as beautifully feminine on the surface, the poem suggests that "surpassingly fair" women of high birth—and not only the potentially demonic Geraldine but the innocent Christabel—might be harboring homoerotic desires. When Coleridge makes Geraldine's body only half visible, he exploits and arguably plays with old fears that women who desired women were hermaphrodites, and some of Coleridge's reviewers did imagine Geraldine's hidden side as "terrible and disgusting" and "all deformity."[6] Moreover, in a perverse doubling, Geraldine seems to be exploiting lesbianism in the service of a marriage plot just as eighteenth-century "female husbands" were accused of doing when they seduced innocent young women with an aim toward marrying for wealth or rank. And at least one reviewer did fret that Geraldine's seduction of Christabel resembled "the spells of vicious example in real life" (Condor 210).

  12. We may never know whether this anxiety about "real life" figured in the oddly belated distress "Christabel" created for one or both Wordsworths. Coleridge had written the poem's first section in 1797 and completed Part II for the second (1800) edition of Lyrical Ballads, for which it was to serve as the concluding poem. As biographers have reported, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in her journal on October 4, 1800, after a visit in which Coleridge apparently read the poem aloud, the subjectless sentence, "Exceedingly delighted with the 2nd part of "Christabel." Coleridge apparently read out the poem once more on October 5 and, says Dorothy, "we had increasing pleasure." Yet on the third day, the journal states without elaboration: "Determined not to print 'Christabel' with the LB" (Wordsworth, Journals 24-5).

  13. Scholars have of course wondered why "Christabel" was so "suddenly and inexplicably dropped," and John Worthen has claimed that there is "very little evidence and very few facts" to justify contentiously partisan readings of this development (Eilenberg 4; Worthen 10). Richard Matlak speculates that Wordsworth had begun to recognize the need "to battle for his creative life against the remarkable gifts of originality and imitative prowess Coleridge possessed" (Matlak 82). It's most probable that in the end "Christabel" seemed too great a departure from the poetics of Lyrical Ballads as a whole; William did write to his publisher that the style of "Christabel" "was so discordant from my own that it could not be printed along with my poems with any propriety," though as Susan Eilenberg points out, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is surely discordant as well (qtd. in Eilenberg 10). Taking "propriety" to signify both decorum and property, Eilenberg argues that Wordsworth rejected "Christabel" in a struggle against Coleridge for literary ownership. Others have suggested that Wordsworth may simply have chosen the path of prudence: the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads had already faced troubles, and when "Christabel" finally was published, it did meet with several mocking and scathing reviews. It's possible that the Wordsworths were concerned too about Coleridge's failure to complete the poem and did not think it could be printed in its unfinished form.

  14. None of these plausible answers explains why William's and/or Dorothy's negative reaction to the poem was so sudden and belated, nor do we know whether William or Dorothy led the charge. In any event, it is tempting to see in this decision a re-enactment of "Christabel" itself, with the Wordsworths belatedly resisting a seduction that would have turned into a malediction. If so, then belated concern about the sexual tenor of the poem cannot be ruled out. Alaric Alfred Watts reports his mother's description of a visit with Wordsworth in 1824 or 1825 in which the subject of "Christabel" came up; as she reports, Wordsworth "'did not dissent from my expressions of admiration of this poem, but rather discomposed me by observing that it was an indelicate poem, a defect which it had never suggested itself to me to associate with it."[7] Like the Janus-faced Gestalt portraits, "Christabel" lends itself to partial screens.

  15. Whatever the Wordsworths' motives, the decision to exclude "Christabel" certainly posed immediate problems: the new edition of Lyrical Ballads was already in press and Wordsworth had to order the proofs destroyed. It was in this pressure for composition that Wordsworth's "Michael" had its genesis. I am not the first to suggest that "Michael" carries on an internal dialogue with "Christabel." Eilenberg has argued that "Michael" is "a work of [conscious or unconscious] usurpation" that re-enacts Wordsworth's anxiety about the "foreign" within his own literary property but that, in reworking "Christabel," leaves in its "self-thwarting narrative structure" the traces of Wordsworth's transgression against his friend (Eilenberg 97). Building on Eilenberg's recognition that "Michael" appropriates many concrete details of "Christabel" ("oak tree, faithful dog, troubling dream, and morally emblematic lamp," the alienation of children from parents, an old friend's evil to which a child is sacrificed), I want to suggest that "Michael" also revises "Christabel's" constructions of gender and sexuality to reinstate a socially safer emotional economy (Eilenberg 98-9).

  16. I read "Michael" as at once a heterosexual pastoral and a paean to male bonding, twin projects that, as Eve Sedgwick famously demonstrated in Between Men, are often mutually constitutive. If "Christabel" offers us an unholy aristocratic alliance, "Michael" recreates the poor but honest Holy Family of loving father, loving mother, and beloved son. The poem makes a point that Michael "had not passed his days in singleness. / He had a Wife" (80-81), but she is not named until the time of Luke's departure in line 254. Twenty years Michael's junior (as Geraldine is presumably junior by a generation to Sir Leoline), Isabel is without question the least important family member, the one who makes the homosocial bond of father and son materially possible, the one who knows and keeps her place. Michael is as much mother as father, doing "female service" to the child and rocking his cradle "with a woman's gentle hand," further subordinating the need for the mother just as the pre-eminence of the father-son bond subordinates the marital to the filial relationship: Michael and Luke even become "playmates."

  17. In substituting "Michael" for "Christabel," then, Wordsworth restores the dignity of the paterfamilias and privileges filial alliances between men over erotic relations with women. If Geraldine is a dangerous shape-shifter wreaking domestic havoc, Michael is a safe one who reaps domestic bliss: he is at once father, brother, and mother to his only son, yet he is as upright as Geraldine is queer. When trouble enters, it remains afar, and while the mountaintop cottage will ultimately be destroyed, while Michael and Isabel live it is incorruptible. Insofar as we can read "Michael" as an instance of the sublime, its sublimity seems to me to lie in the tragic demise of the humble trinitarian family that had been elevated wholly by virtue and industry to its high place.

  18. The project of substitution that erases "Christabel" for "Michael" is also enacted in the sonnet to Butler and Ponsonby that Wordsworth wrote in 1824. If "Christabel" uncovers the possibility that sapphic desire can overtake the daughters of noblemen, "To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P.," seems bent on re-covery. Titled to convey nothing so much as title itself, the poem mutes sapphic desire through re-naming and metaphor. Like "Michael," "To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P." instantiates pastoral over gothic sublimity, repeating what became a longstanding difference of more than poetics between Coleridge and Wordsworth. Where "Christabel" feigns silence yet tells all in a poem left deliberately unfinished due to its "subtle and difficult" idea, William's sonnet gives a sense of fullness and closure, of an absence of mystery, a translation of anything foreign into ordinary Englishness (Coleridge, Specimins 114).[8] At the same time, however, Wordsworth inscribes this project of substitution into the sonnet itself, so that the cover-up can be dis-covered quite readily.

                To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P.
                Composed in the Grounds of Plass Newidd, near Llangollen, 1824.

    A Stream, to mingle with your favourite Dee,
    Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
    So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
    In Nature's face the expression of repose;
    Or haply there some pious hermit chose
    To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;
    To whom the wild sequestered region owes,
    At this late day, its sanctifying name.
    Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
    In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
    Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,
    On Deva's banks, ye have abode so long;
    Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
    Even on this earth, above the reach of Time![9]
  19. "To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P." is sparing in references to its addressees, who appear only twice, and only as pronouns, before the thirteenth line. The poem subordinates them to the landscape of Llangollen Vale in which legend and literature had inscribed them, yet the sonnet never names Llangollen itself. Instead, an elaborate set of synechdoches ends up carrying so attenuated a relationship to the women as to substitute the place for the persons rather than evoking the persons by the place. Instead of the "mingling" of Butler and Ponsonby, we get the "mingling" of stream and river; the women "favour" the river rather than one another; they "have abode so long" not with each other but "on Deva's banks"; and when their love is finally proclaimed—twice over—in the closing couplet—it arrives in the trope of sisterhood, a trope arguably not devoid of erotic potential for a Wordsworth, but hardly the marital partnership that Butler and Ponsonby lived out. And they have been faithful not to one another but to "a low-roofed Cot," an image that rather flattens the imposing enough two-story home of whose improvements they were so proud. (Arguably the "Cot" could also stand for their shared bed, a place, like the vale itself, not of excitement but of "repose," its low roof a signifier of the phallic lack.) Eventually—in the sonnet's last couplet—the love does rise—or rather, more laboriously, climb—but only, it seems, because it is "allowed" to do so, as if against someone's will. Transcending "the reach of Time," it receives immortality—and perhaps sublimity—at the body's expense.

  20. The sonnet's central project is one of renaming, of purifying the "new place" (Plas Newydd, as Butler and Ponsonby had named their home) that had become a cultural metonym for women in love. Although "fierce Britons" have already supplied a sanctifying place-name, Wordsworth must rename the vale yet again, displacing the "Cambrian tongue" to cover or supplement the sanctifying name with one that reinforces the Anglicization of Celtic space. In naming the Glyn the Vale of Friendship, whatever is fierce or wild is yet a second time covered by English gentility. One must smile, however, when one learns that in the Welsh, Wordsworth in his misspelling has actually named this the Vale of Horse Haunches or Horse Shanks—"Glyn Cafaillgaroch"—close to, but not the same as, the correct word for friendship, "Cyfeillgarwch"—an unintended signifier of the physicality that the poem shows itself in the act of covering.

  21. That the sonnet is a cover story is suggested by Wordsworth's private account of meeting Butler and Ponsonby, which was published with the poem in 1881. The women appear to him a bizarre and rather gothic pair: "so curious was the appearance of these ladies, so elaborately sentimental about themselves and their 'Caro Albergo', as they named it in an inscription on a tree that stood opposite," and "so oddly was one of these ladies attired that we took her, at a little distance, for a roman Catholic priest. . . . They were without caps, their hair bushy and white as snow, which contributed to the mistake" (Wordsworth, Complete). Such a passage makes clear the selectivity of the images in the sonnet and the project of substitution that erases Butler and Ponsonby's strange, curious, odd, old, and foreign—Catholic, Italian—style.

  22. "To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P.," then, reaffirms the difference between "Michael" and "Christabel" in the Lyrical Ballads, instantiating English domesticity where alien wildness and transgressive gender might have reigned. Against Coleridge's gothic horror we have Wordsworth's cleansing rite. Where Coleridge points to the sexual through metonym, Wordsworth erases it through metaphor. These two poems, aesthetically and formally incommensurate to be sure, seem to me nonetheless to embody the oppositions that sapphic subjectivity is negotiating in the Romantic age: on the one hand, the secret realm of the sexualized and dangerous, on the other the public and sisterly space of the pastoral.

  23. Mediating these poetic postures, whether in explicit response or only implicit dialogue, is Dorothy Wordsworth's "Irregular Verses," which laments the loss of just the kind of female affinity that Butler and Ponsonby lived out. Wordsworth lost her mother at six and her father at twelve and lived most of her childhood apart from her family. She loved two people with particular passion and in different ways lost both of them. Much has rightly been written about Dorothy's devotion to William, and without question William provided the most lasting connection of her life. But Dorothy also loved Jane Pollard, her closest friend in Halifax, and the biographical record has played down the intensity of that love. Dorothy had hoped to make a life with Jane, assuring her in one early letter that "no man I have seen has appeared to regard me with any degree of partiality; nor has anyone gained my affections, of this you need not doubt" (Dorothy Wordsworth, Letters 26). As her own doubts assail her, she tells Jane that "no words can paint my affection and friendship for you my dear Girl. When shall we meet! sometimes I am in despair and think that happy time will never arrive, at others I am all hope, but despair, alas! frequently gets the better of me" (Letters 14). Another letter imagines their reunion:

    I entreat you my love to think . . . of what will be our felicity when we are again united . . . think of our moonlight walks attended by my own dear William, think of our morning rambles when we shall--after having passed the night together and talked over the pleasures of the preceding evening, steal from our lodging-room, perhaps before William rises, and walk alone enjoying all the sweets of female friendship. I have nothing to recommend me to your regard but a warm honest and affectionate heart, a heart that will be for ever united to yours by the tenderest friendship, that will sympathize in all your feelings and palpitate with rapture when [I] once more throw myself into your arms (Letters 100).

    It is interesting that the triadic family Dorothy imagines here bears the shape not of "Michael" or of the biographical threesome that forged the Lyrical Ballads—two Wordsworths and Coleridge—but that of the Leolines: two women and a man. Here Dorothy is the hinge uniting William and Jane.

  24. But William, of course, married, and so did Jane, and in her later years an ill and emotionally isolated Dorothy lamented happier times when longing was still tempered by hope. Most of Dorothy Wordsworth's poetry dates from these years; she seems to have used the poems as a means of measuring early fantasies against her later life. Among the several interesting features of this poetry are lush images that one can read as sexual: "foaming streamlets," "secret nooks," and rocks "with velvet moss o'ergrown" and "hips of glossy red" to which the poet is "tempted" and "seduced." But Wordsworth's most pervasive image is the woodland cottage that she chooses explicitly against the sublimity of a "Kubla Khan" in a passage that also opposes womblike shelter to phallic heights: "the shelter of our rustic Cot / Receives us, & we envy not / The palace or the stately dome" (Dorothy Wordsworth, Romanticism 175-237).[10]

  25. Asked by Jane Pollard's daughter Julia to write a Christmas verse, Dorothy began her extended work on the poem she would call "Irregular Verses." While the poem is clearly not a direct response to William's sonnet, it imagines a romantic pastoral much like the one associated with Butler and Ponsonby: a life "exquisite and pure" in "a cottage in a verdant dell" enveloped by plenitude. The Llangollen couple were famous for their gardens, and Dorothy creates here likewise a "garden stored with fruits and flowers / And sunny seats and shady bowers," supporting a life whose completeness is emphasized through the repetition of "all" and "every" in lines 7-8. But Dorothy infuses sexuality back into the scene, as if revising her brother's imagery and suggesting the compatibility of pleasure and virtue in female same-sex bonds. Where Butler and Ponsonby were described as faithful to a "low-roofed Cot," Dorothy and Jane "raised a tower/Of bliss" (13-14). Their stream does not merely "mingle" but "foams"; their wanderings "to the topmost height" are invited rather than simply allowed; and there is no "lack." This project of "hope untamed" is not "vexed" by "maxims of caution" or "prudent fears." Moreover and defiantly, this is a state that has no need of poetry or of the now-reverenced "Poet" (evoked in line 60) who might as likely be William as a generic type.

  26. Surely this scene figures a sapphic sublimity implicitly as sexual as that of "Christabel" but without any of Coleridge's predatory and foreboding images. The difference makes it worth speculating that Dorothy may have influenced the rejection of "Christabel" for the Lyrical Ballads once she came to terms with its partially demonic rendering of sapphic desires. But "Irregular Verses" turns away from its own "sight to dream of" to the barren reality that befalls not those who transgress but those who are afraid to transgress, as we suddenly learn that "the cottage fled in air" and the "streamlet never flowed." These images—a cottage that flees, a stream that never flowed—suggest an unnatural turn, "by duty led," from what would have been a natural happiness with Jane, who has traded the "brighter gem" of their youth together for a "prince's diadem." (Jane Pollard married a linen manufacturer from Leeds and bore eleven children.) Jane's daughter, the "natural" fruit of this marriage, is figured as "placid" and "staid," a poor copy of the mother with whose heart the writer's own still beats in unison. And even poetry—William's child, one could argue—is superfluous where there is love, Dorothy suggests in a passage that surely raises questions about a woman who centered her life on her brother and his work.

  27. Wordsworth apparently worked intensely on this poem over a period of several years; that she made at least three fair copies suggests that she wanted the poem to circulate. But key lines and sections of the poem are absent from the two variant copies: the entire last section (84-107); the mention in line 16 of a "bliss that (so deemed we) should endure" and, most dramatically, the section that begins with the fleeing cottage and extends to the prince's diadem (39-55). In other words, the variant versions skirt the drama of homoerotic desire and its concession to heterosexual convention that is at the heart of the poem: the rupture itself and the constancy of the longing after so many years: the love that is also, if differently, "beyond the reach of Time." If this kind of self-silencing testifies to the difficulty of articulating sapphic desires and losses, it also leaves an idyllic residue in which the scene of parting is erased.

  28. The representation of female intimacy in "Irregular Verses," as the poem's own title suggests, extends beyond content and image to poetic form. Dorothy used the word "irregular" in the titles of three of her poems, but "Irregular Verses" bears the most glaring metrical aberrance of the three: the moment in line 43, the only line of heptameter in the poem: "Though in our riper years we each pursued a different way." Visually as well as aurally distinct, this line breaks the poem in two just at the moment of breach in the relationship. This "irregularity" seems to me to be a powerful poetic statement in itself, a truth the speaker "ne'er strove to decorate" and thus refuses to reduce to the tetrameter that is the poem's basic metric form. The few lines of hexameter also stand out for their common theme: the brightness of youth, the joys one remembers, the beloved's "rising sigh" for what could not be. In this uses of irregular metrics, prosody itself turns into trope: it stands in for, or figures, something that cannot be said straightforwardly.

  29. But as readers of Virgil well know, the pastoral is already charged with homoerotic possibilities.  It is a female inscription of these possibilities for bliss in a "humble cottage"—a gender swerve that parallels the one Byron makes in his list of loving couples—that Dorothy Wordsworth's "Irregular Verses" takes up as it mediates the poetic poles here represented by Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Whether in explicit response to her brother or only in implicit dialogue, "Irregular Verses" mourns for just the kind of female affinity that Butler and Ponsonby lived out. Wordsworth loved two people with particular passion and in different ways lost both of them. Much has been written about the metrics of "Christabel," and it is not my intention to argue that Coleridge's meter (which, as several critics have noted, he himself does not accurately describe)[11] is simply a function of the "irregular" sexuality of the text. But the preface does suggest some connection between the text's "imagery or passion" and its prosody and Coleridge's choice of the term "wantonly" underscores the possibility that the "passion" in question is sexual. Ann Batten Cristall's use of "irregular" in the subtitle for both her 1795 volume Poetical Sketches in Irregular Verse and for a very specific (male-female) love poem, "Thelmon and Carmel: An Irregular Poem," also links sexuality to irregular prosody.

  30. My suggestion that sexual content in particular may be connected to professions of irregular poetic form finds a further source in yet another poem about two women, Percy Shelley's "Rosalind and Helen" (1818). Shelley's "modern eclogue" is prefaced by a disclaimer similar to that of "Christabel" and possibly influenced by it: "the impulse of the feelings which moulded the conception of the story," says Shelley, "determined the pauses of a measure, which only pretends to be regular inasmuch as it corresponds with, and expresses, the irregularity of the imaginations which inspired it" (Shelley 186). As Shelley scholar Neil Fraistat assures me, this claim of "irregularity" is rare if not unique in Shelley's work. A poem that is probably biographical in source, evoking what John Donovan describes as a rupture of "the long intimacy between Mary and her girlhood companion Isabel Baxter," "Rosalind and Helen" projects a fantasy of reunion that "transforms into a critical and revisionary feminism that is plotted so as to close on an image that marries the domestic and the sublime" (Donovan 245, 269). It's important to point out, however, that this sublimity, like that in Wordsworth's sonnet, is also structured to transcend time; the poem devotes much less attention to Rosalind and Helen's union than to their deaths, and the final, conditional message is that "if love die not in the dead / As in the living, none of mortal kind / Are blest, as now Helen and Rosalind" (ll. 1316-1318).

  31. Moreover, while this sublime and domestic union of two women is never articulated as sexual—though the use of the Shakespearean names is certainly suggestive—the early tension between the two women is marked as a bodily phenomenon, as if subliminity has to overcome a certain physical repulsion that subtly evokes "Christabel." When the two first re-encounter one another, although Helen asks her "sweet Rosalind" to "come sit by me" and recalls the "cherished token" of Rosalind's "woven hair" (36-37) that she still keeps, Rosalind speaks of Helen's "tainting touch" (42) and Henry describes Rosalind as "strange" (91). When Helen finally takes Rosalind's hand as they meet again at evening, the text makes a point to say that Helen is now "unrepelled" (my emphasis), implying an earlier repulsion. While this "taint" and "repulsion" can be explained on one level by the friends' painful history, it sits upon the text as a physical obstacle to be overcome before the pair can settle with their children in what Dorothy Wordsworth might have called a "cottage of bliss." But the metrical scene of this domestic union is a scene of irregularity; it's worth noting that one of the least euphonious if not technically irregular pairs of lines in the poem is the one that tells us: "So Rosalind and Helen lived together / Thenceforth, changed in all else, yet friends again" (1275-76).

  32. Without reducing metrics to sexuality, I would note that even William Wordsworth's sonnet to Butler and Ponsonby is irregular within the context of his oeuvre: while the overwhelming majority of his sonnets are Petrarchan, "To the Lady E.B. and the Hon. Miss P." is mainly Spenserian, with an oddly Petrarchan third quatrain, and its final rhymed couplet is an exceeding rarity among Wordsworth's 500-odd sonnets. (I've found it only in "Scorn Not the Sonnet," where Wordsworth purposes are manifestly metatextual.) Whether to heroize Butler and Ponsonby or to foreclose all openness, that couplet puts the poem, like the "sisters in love," beyond the reach of earthly scrutiny.[12]

  33. Dorothy Wordsworth's poems, however, show a fascination with an irregularity that is aberrant in the works of William Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley. There are images of being "tempted" to a road with a "serpent line" or "lured by a little winding path" for which the speaker quits "the public road." But irregularity is even more prominent in Wordsworth's prosody. Several poems have stanzas of differing lengths, and many feature irregular lines. A sudden hexameter will burst forth from a poem written in tetrameter, for instance, or a line will turn up that is difficult to scan at all. I am struck by the fact that many of the irregular lines express loss and longing: for example "Thither your eyes may turn—the Isle is passed away" in "Floating Island," or the more hopeful "And I can look upon the past without a pang, without a fear" in "To Rotha Quillinan." Three of her twenty-five or so poems use "irregular" in their titles or subtitles: "A Holiday at Gwerndovennant: Irregular Stanzas," "Loving and Liking. Irregular Verses Addressed to a Child," and "Irregular Verses."

  34. These multiple instances suggest that for Dorothy Wordsworth, "irregularity" was a declaration of poetic style and arguably of identity. Since Dorothy reworked most of her poems on several occasions, she certainly could have purged them of metrical anomalies. (And surely William could legitimately have labeled his "Ode: Intimates of Immortality" as "Irregular Stanzas" too.) It is also clear that Dorothy Wordsworth knew how to write in common scansion, yet her niece Dora Wordsworth claimed that "Aunt cannot write regular metre," and Dorothy herself wrote in 1806, "I have no command of language, no power of expressing my ideas, and no one was ever more inapt at molding words into regular metre. I have often tried when I have been walking alone (muttering to myself as is my Brother's custom) to express my feelings in verse; feelings, and ideas such as they were, I have never wanted at those times; but prose and rhyme and blank verse were jumbled together and nothing every came of it" (Dora Wordsworth [needspg#]; Dorothy Wordsworth 66). Given her rejection of more regular verse as "jingling rhyme," however, might this apparent self-criticism not function as a backhanded claim to originality? In the Preface to her Poetical Sketches Ann Batten Cristall apologizes in what may be a similarly disingenuous way for her irregularities of prosody by saying that they are the "wild" practices of one "without the knowledge of any rules" and that her poetic subjects are likewise perhaps ill-advised; but she also uses that irregularity as the grounds for a claim that her work is original: "I can only say that what I have written is genuine, and that I am but little indebted either to ancient or modern poets" (Cristall 11).

  35. I want to speculate that Dorothy Wordsworth's insistence on "irregularity," repeated in the tropes of so many poems, constitutes something of what Foucault would call a "reverse discourse" or "reverse practice" that was also produced by women of more obvious sapphic propensity such as Anne Lister, and that serves to tie sexuality to genius in yet another way. If, as I have written elsewhere,[13] gentrywomen could create cover stories for sapphic affinities by asserting both their class status and their femininity—hence their regularity—it is all the more interesting that some of them nonetheless present themselves as irregular. Even as Butler and Ponsonby nurtured a surface—and a surfeit—of pastoral and domestic tropes that helped to screen out sexual suspicion, they also named one of their dogs Sapho, made no pretense of separate rooms or separate beds, called one another "my Beloved," wore mannish riding coats long after these were in fashion, and allowed themselves numerous eccentricities that set them apart from the norms of women imagined by Rousseau. Anne Lister, indeed, as much as becomes Rousseau: in her journal Lister quotes from the Confessions that "I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world" and fashions herself as a "soft, gentleman like" and quite self-consciously irregular figure.

  36. In this light, Anne Lister and Dorothy Wordsworth bear some striking sympathies. Like Wordsworth, Lister longed for a primary affiliation with a woman (Mariana Lawton) who grieved her by marrying. Wordsworth created irregular verse forms for sexual images; Lister wrote sexual acts into her journals in secret code. When Lister finally visited the home of Butler and Ponsonby, her longing evokes the mood of "Irregular Verses": Llangollen, she says, "excited in me . . . a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy. I could have mused for hours, dreampt dreams of happiness, conjured up many a vision of . . . hope" (44). Lister's diaries evoke the plot of "Irregular Verses," a plot of love, loss and longing for a woman who has chosen marriage to a man, and Lister shares Dorothy's disdain for those who marry from "caution" and "prudence": Mariana, like Jane Pollard, is "too tamely worldly." Lister reports that she "felt low" after leaving Llangollen, wistful to see Butler and Ponsonby together, with Mariana at her side.

  37. In Anne Lister's diaries and Dorothy Wordsworth's poems, sapphic scenarios get written into what their contemporary Felicia Hemans might have called "the stately Homes of England"—or in Wordsworth's case, the "cottage Homes." For Lister, as for Wordsworth, writing was the primary way to make sense of oneself in a world where "elective affinities" were still rarely—and not even in Goethe's novel of that name—to be lived out. As she recasts her desires as language, Lister, like Wordsworth, holds on to irregularity as a kind of master trope for inscribing herself as a subject, and like so many men and women both during the Romantic moment and since, she invokes an image of Butler and Ponsonby, more or less put to the blush, as the Personification of same-sex desire. "Throwing my mind on paper always does me good," Lister writes after her melancholy visit to Llangollen. One can see Byron making a similar use of writing when he soothes the "chaos of hope and sorrow" of parting from Edlestone by vowing to put Butler and Ponsonby "to the blush." Indeed, the "Ladies of Llangollen" can also be understood as a Romantic trope figuring the sublimity and the sorrows of same-sex desire at a time of intense cultural ambivalence and ambiguity.

  38. The poems I have examined here inscribe that ambivalence and ambiguity both in their configurations of desire and in their visions of its fulfillment. If "Christabel" makes sapphism a mysterious compulsion with devastating effects, William Wordsworth tames it into chaste sisterhood while Dorothy Wordsworth restores its erotic sublimity through metaphor. But Dorothy also inscribes the materiality of desire: the pastoral spaces where it might dwell, the social and economic barriers to its fulfillment, and the emotional consequences of abandoning desire for safety. It's also worth nothing that of all the poems, it is only Wordsworth's sexless sonnet that sustains a union of two women against some form of loss.

  39. The political philosopher Jacques Rancière has suggested that it is metaphors and stories, not rational argument as Habermas would have it, that most effectively shepherd previously unrecognized groups into a position where their rights can be recognized. This is indeed the value (and also the limitation) of the trope: it can figure without even confronting its own implicit ideology. In this light, the figurations of sapphism in Romantic poetry may have helped to make possible the social changes that the poets themselves might neither have imagined nor approved. It is worth remembering, therefore, that the very meaning of "trope" lies in irregularity. Drawn from the Greek tropein, to turn, the trope is a perversion, a breaking of rules, a seduction of language from its proper course. It is also perversely true, of course, that without tropes there is not much that we can say. Rather like same-sex union itself, then, the trope is a kind of 'elective affinity,' and one without which there would surely be no representation, no poetry, and perhaps nothing to blush about.


Works Cited

Binhammer, Katherine. "The Sex Panic of the 1790s." Journal of the History of Sexuality 6 (1996): 409-34.

Byron, George Gordon. "To Elizabeth Pigot." 5 July 1807. Byron: A Self-Portrait: Letters and Diaries 1798 to 1824. Ed. Peter Quennell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Cristall, Ann Batten. Preface. Poetical Sketches. London: J. Johnson, 1795.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel." The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 1912. London: Oxford UP, 1964.

---. Specimins of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1835.

Condor, Josiah. Rev. of "Christabel," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge: The Critical Heritage. Ed. by J. R. de Jackson. London: Routledge, 1970.

Curran, Stuart. "Of Gene Pools, Genetic Mapping, Recessive Chromosomes, and Freaks of Nature." Romantic Circles NASSR 1996. University of Maryland. 6 September 2005 <>.

de Montaigne, Michel. "Befriending the Body: Female Intimacies as Class Acts." Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (1998-9): 179-98.

Donovan, John. "'Rosalind and Helen': Pastoral, Exile, Memory." Romanticism 4 (1998): [needs page numbers].

Eilenberg, Susan. Strange power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Literary Possession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Elfenbein, Andrew. Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Halperin, David. How to do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 78.

Lanser, Susan. "Befriending the Body." Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (1998-9): 179-98.

Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: Volume I: The Early Years. Ed. by Chester L. Shaver.

Liddington, Jill. Female Fortune, Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833-36. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1998. 182.

Lister, Anne. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister: 1791-1840. Ed. by Helena
Whitbread. London: Virago, 1988.

Matlak, Richard E. The Poetry of Relationship: The Wordsworths and Coleridge, 1797-1800. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

O'Donnell, Brennan. "The 'Invention' of a Meter: 'Christabel' Meter as Fact and Fiction." JEGP 100 (2001): 511-36.

Pilkington, Mary. Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters. London: Albion Press, 1804.

Russett, Margaret. "Meter, Identity, Voice: Untranslating Christabel." SEL 43 (2003): 773-97.

Seward, Anna. Llangollen Vale, Inscribed to the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler, and Miss Ponsonby. Poetical Works. London, 1810.

Sha, Richard C. "Romanticism and Sexuality - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net." Romanticism On the Net 23 (August 2001) 6 September 2005. <>

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Ecologue. The Complete Poetry of Keats and Shelley. New York: Modern Library [no year listed].

Taylor, Jeremy. "The Political Economy of Same-Sex Desire." Attending to Early Modern Women V. Newark: University of Delaware Press, forthcoming 2005.

Watts, Alaric Alfred. Alaric Watts: A Narrative of His Life. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1884.

Wordsworth, Dora. "Letter to Edward Gullivanan." [needs the rest of the citation].

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---. The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. by William Knight. McMillan & Co., London, 1925.

---. Letters to Jane Pollard: 14 January 1788, 30 June 1793, 10 July 1793, 14 July 1793. Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: Volume I: The Early Years. Ed. by Chester L. Shaver. London: Oxford UP, 1967.

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---. "To the Lady E. B. and the Hon. Miss P." Poetical Works of Wordsworth. Ed. by Thomas Hutchinson. 1904. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

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1 See, "Befriending the Body: Female Intimacies as Class Acts," Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 (Winter 1998-99), 179-98, and "The Political Economy of Same-Sex Desire," in Attending to Early Modern Women V.

2 In the later eighteenth century, public opinion seems to have been especially susceptible to three particular axes of perception: the "femininity" or "masculinity" of the women in question; the extent to which they adhered to proprieties of class and gender; and their social rank. Long-term, female attachments that conformed externally to social codes, and were lived out by women of what I call the gentle classes, had the greatest chance of passing for pure.

3 See Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role, 203, 14, and passim.

4 I take this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary.

5 At another level of figuration, one could argue that Geraldine and Christabel are themselves metonyms of their fathers: just as the spell upon Christabel becomes "Lord of [her] utterance," so Geraldine's seduction of daughter and father alike can be read as the revenge of her own father, Lord Roland de Vaux. But Geraldine is also arguably taking her revenge against patriarchy itself; seized forcibly at the outset by "five warriors," left "scarce alive" beneath the maternal "broad-breasted" oak, Geraldine wreaks vengeance on the Father by violating first the daughter and then perhaps the family line.

6 Had Coleridge not excised the description of Geraldine as "old and lean and foul of hue," or "Hideous, deformed, and pale of hue," it might have been more difficult to read sublimity into the poem. Susan Eilenberg reports the former deleted line in Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Literary Possession, 104; Arthur Nethercot reports the latter in The Road to Tryermaine: A Study of the History, Background, and Purposes of Coleridge's "Christabel", 32.

7 Alaric Alfred Watts, Alaric Watts: A Narrative of His Life, I, 239. I owe my knowledge of this reference to Elfenbein's Romantic Genius, but Elfenbein does not explain that Wordsworth's comment postdates by half a century his decision about the Lyrical Ballads.

8 I thank Neil Fraistat for suggesting this contrast between "Christabel" and the sonnet.

9 "To the Lady E. B. and the Hon. Miss P." was first published in Miscellaneous Sonnets (1827) as part of the five-volume edition of Wordsworth's Poems. I have taken this version from The Poetical Works of Wordsworth, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, 216.

10 Dorothy Wordsworth's extant poems have been gathered and edited by Susan M. Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism, 175-237.

11 See, for example, Brennan O'Donnell, "The 'Invention' of a Meter: 'Christabel' Meter as Fact and Fiction," JEGP 100, 4 (October 2001): 511-36; and Margaret Russett, "Meter, Identity, Voice: Untranslating Christabel," SEL 43, 4 (Autumn 2003): 773-97.

12 It's also worth noting that each of these poems also yokes female affiliations to charged family ties, supporting Foucault's hypothesis that at the turn of the nineteenth century kinship and sexuality have converged in ways that give domestic relations a new burden of affectivity. Sapphism and incest both stand at the crossroads between kinship demands and elective desires: if incest undoes kinship by overloading it from within, sapphism undoes it by displacing it from without.

13 See Lanser, "Befriending the Body."

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January 2006