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"Romanticism" in Crisis

Position Paper

Beth Lau

My position is very similar to Chuck Rzepka's. Like him, I am concerned about the lack of attention to aesthetic merit in much current discourse about Romantic poets and canons. This is not to say that either of us is calling for a neo-aestheticist movement, or a return to New Criticism and the notion that texts should be analyzed apart from their contexts. I myself love historical study; I am also very interested in gender issues and have taught many courses on women writers. I do believe, however, that historical and gender considerations should accompany and inform, but not completely supplant aesthetic evaluation, as I fear they are doing in some recent criticism. Ultimately, I contend, the central criterion that should be used in determining which works are canonized, which works are taught to students without much background in the field, and which works we should base our characterizations of the period on, should be the most distinctive literary achievements.

Now, I realize that judging literary achievement is not a cut and dried issue and that such judgements are influenced by all manner of cultural factors. This qualification, however, does not cancel out all possibility of assessing literary value. As professors we routinely evaluate student writing and one another's books and articles. It should also be within the range of our professional expertise and duties to distinguish major from minor writers and to be able to articulate our reasons for doing so.

My own criteria go something like this: a great work of literature is one that has intense appeal for a critical mass of people from different time periods and cultures. People will report that the work in some sense changed their lives; the experience of reading it is powerful and akin to falling in love. If it is poetry, certain passages will stand out and run in one's head; the language itself will be apt and memorable. Further, the more one studies the work, the more richness one finds. Every element of the work will have a function that contributes to the total effect; every feature of the writer's art will be employed to good purpose. The image patterns, the sounds and rhythms, the word choice and order, the title, the structure, the verse form--all will yield significance upon analysis. Such works are virtually inexhaustible; they can be interpreted coherently from a multitude of different approaches. Such works also are to me among the most impressive human achievements, and I think they ought to be respected and preserved.

The "big six" male Romantic poets all wrote at least some works that fit these criteria. In fact, one of the chief reasons why the Romantic period has been studied and taught as a separate area despite its short time span is that so many important poets flourished within those years. This does not mean that other writers from the period should not also be studied. There are many perfectly legitimate reasons for studying writers who are not of the highest order of genius. If the claim is made that a writer deserves the same status and recognition as the major male Romantic poets, however, that claim should be supported by evidence of comparable craftsmanship and textual richness in the writer's work. Being female or being neglected should not by themselves qualify a writer for canonical status.

The major challenge to the traditional canon has come from critics who wish to resurrect women writers active during the period and introduce female voices into the canon. This is a worthy enterprise with which I am very much in sympathy. Certainly I believe that the neglected women Romantic poets ought to be resurrected and given a fresh reading, informed by all we have learned from feminist criticism. The major goal of such a quest, however, is to discover unjustly neglected writers. Surely some writers, men as well as women, have been justly neglected. To me, it is not good feminism to treat all women writers as a monolithic group, and not to distinguish between the women who did write truly distinguished works and those who have more in common--both in style and level of achievement--with the minor, neglected male writers of the early nineteenth century than with the big six male poets.

Our period is graced with one distinguished woman writer, in fact the first truly major woman writer in English literary history: Jane Austen. Austen's works fulfill all the criteria for literary distinction that apply to the works of male writers, and she unquestionably deserves to be studied and taught alongside the big six poets as an integral, defining figure of the Romantic period. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is also a compelling work that lends itself to a multitude of different interpretations; I believe Frankenstein should be part of the central canon of Romantic literature, as indeed it is considered to be by most people. Some may object, however, that Austen and Shelley are novelists and not poets like the men, but my answer is, so what? Why do all the major figures we study have to write in the same genre? Moreover, women were able to achieve distinction as novelists before they were able to do so as poets. There are good reasons for that fact: poetry was considered the more elite genre, and women were inhibited both by forces from without and insecurities from within from feeling as comfortable writing poetry as novels in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In summary, I am not calling for an end to the study of other women writers of the period besides Austen and Shelley or of other male writers besides the big six. I do believe, however, that literary quality matters, and that we should distinguish in our anthologies, our teaching, and our professional writing and discourse between major and minor figures.

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