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.