Defusing the discharged soldier: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and homosexual panic.
We will not fully understand these complexities of Wordsworthian self-information, or the curiously unstable displacements they produce in his texts, until we acknowledge and attempt to explore the degree to which both are affected by repressed but powerful homoerotic tensions. A decade has passed since Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Between Men as a wake-up call to feminists, and six years since Wayne Koestenbaum's brilliantly provocative reading of the Wordsworth-Coleridge collaboration in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 (71-111). Nevertheless, these tensions continue to be largely ignored in the currently dominant feminist paradigm of English Romanticism and gender, which on the one hand laudably recuperates and valorizes texts by women writers but, on the other, deplores the canonical male poets' imperialistic appropriation of "the feminine"(1) without noting how often that "feminine" Other may be located not within a mother, sister, mistress, or wife but within the male poet himself or a male companion or rival. More recently, however, Tilottama Rajan has helpfully argued that Wordsworth defines Coleridge as both his Other and his negative, and that Coleridge seems both passively to accept this shadowy role of double and actively to resist it (64). Rajan's awareness of this disturbingly simultaneous mutual perception of difference and identity closely parallels Jonathan Dollimore's definitions of the perverse, which he sees not just as an evil Other but also as a negative, as a turning away from religious or sexual orthodoxy (136), and of a "perverse dynamic" (121) of fractured yet still interconnected binaries (229). I propose, then, an extension of Koestenbaum's project, believing that what Magnuson -- with Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" in mind -- calls Wordsworth's and Coleridge's "fears about amalgamation" (3-4) begs further exploration in terms of Dollimore's perverse dynamic and Sedgwick's paradigm of homosocial male bonding, homosexual panic, and homophobic flight and vengeful pursuit (1-5, 89).(2)
My own exploration here focuses on Wordsworth's "Discharged Soldier," the first and the most haunting of his male solitaries. I retrace the complex history of the text, beginning with its original composition early in 1978, while Coleridge was still writing The Ancient Mariner and shortly before he began Part One of Christabel, and then proceeding to its subsequent inclusion with cuts, supplements, and various other revisions into Book 4 of the 1805 Prelude -- and, with even more alterations, the 1850 Prelude. We shall see that this unstable text does not inscribe a gradual Jungian process of integration of the shadow, as one critic has argued (Brennan), but almost the opposite. an increasingly close-minded Wordsworthian refusal to view the midnight meeting at the bend of the road as a scene of erotic instruction regarding the poet and his Coleridgean Other-negative. Yet in spite of the Prelude revisions, which pointedly include the introduction of heterosexual desire and the spiritualization of the poet's feelings for the soldier, the psychically and socially disruptive homoerotic tension (Bersani), "something under erasure, even in its emergence" (Dollimore 32), never entirely disappears from Wordsworth's text; indeed some of Wordsworth's later revisions do as much to reinscribe as to remove it.
Alan Richardson has commented on the autoerotic dimension of some of the early "spots of time" in The Prelude, especially the stolen boat episode (16-17), but it may seem rather a stretch at first to see the debilitated soldier as a "character" of the poet's "danger or desire" (1799, 1:194-95). Certainly the ill veteran is no more overtly attractive to the young poet than the Mariner was to the Wedding-Guest, or than the suddenly looming "huge cliff" (1799, 1:108) was to the guilt-driven young oarsman in the stolen boat. Nevertheless, still big though no longer mighty, the lank, wasted man provides a prototype of those uncanny but formative projections of the young Wordsworth's mind, those "huge and mighty forms" -- unnatural, monstrous, or even Satanic (Stevenson) -- "that do not live/ Like living men" (1799, 1:27-28) but were a trouble of his dreams (1799, 1:129). That the soldier troubled Wordsworth's writing is amply demonstrated in the numerous revisions which occurred (Darlington 438-39) as he attempted, over and over again, to reduce the unmediated intensity of his earliest drafts, to relocate the figure of the soldier within the natural and social order (Magnuson 92), and thus to maintain personal and textual control. The editors of the Norton Prelude particularly lament the permanent removal, from the original text of winter 1798, of two powerful descriptive passages (142-51, esp. 146n.). I suggest that these passages, which follow, record obscurely provocative suggestions, respectively, of detumescence and of strange yearning.
There was in his form
A meagre stiffness. You might almost think
That his bones wounded him. His legs were long,
So long and shapeless that I looked at them
Forgetful of the body they sustained.
(lines 43-47, Darlington 434)
His face was turn'd
Towards the road, yet not as if he sought
For any living thing. He appeared
Forlorn and desolate, a man cut off
From all his kind, and more than half detached
From his own nature. (55-60, Darlington 438-39)
If he does not seek "any living thing," the soldier may instead be looking for what the poet seems to find in him, those same aberrant "forms that do not live / Like living men," and Wordsworth may in effect be prewriting those lines in this even earlier Prelude manuscript. His repressed attraction to the soldier's aching, diminished, but still impressive physical presence in the first passage is strangely complemented in the second, which emphasizes the soldier's alienation both from "his kind" and from "his own nature" but paradoxically bonds him even more closely to Wordsworth since he is describing the same sense of social and psychic disruption that characterizes his own prevailing mood in the "spots of time": as Jonathan Wordsworth has written, in the soldier the poet "comes upon a curious version of himself" (Borders 12). This initial sympathetic recognition of the soldier complicates itself drastically as Wordsworth revises: homosexual panic asserts itself, danger dominates desire, and Wordsworth more than half detaches the passages themselves, metaphorically emasculating the veteran in the process of attempting to spiritualize his significance. Yet their bond is restated even in this violent textual excision, for the severing of that bond is also a self-mutilation: both poet and soldier remain men cut off -- from themselves, from each other, and from the rest of society.
The homoerotic tensions of the "Discharged Soldier" appear even more clearly when we situate Wordsworth's text in relation to The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Norman Fruman, Stephen Weissman, and Wayne Koestenbaum have argued that Coleridge was unconsciously in love with Wordsworth during the time of the writing of the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and that Wordsworth was unconsciously disturbed by this (Fruman 375, 407,429; Weissman xiv, 285-88; Koestenbaum 71-74). Indeed we may understand the Ancient Mariner's shooting of the albatross as either a furtive (and possibly forced) homosexual act -- the perverse violation of another man's body -- or the opposite: a self-violating refusal to pursue a homosexual inclination; I believe that driven like Wordsworth by homosexual panic, Coleridge later added diversionary introductions, conclusions, and/or marginalia to all three of his three dream-poems that screen but do not erase the already obscure homoerotic traces in those texts.(3) Composed while Coleridge was still at work on "The Ancient Mariner," and widely referred to as "Wordsworth's Ancient Mariner," even the 1798 manuscript of "The Discharged Soldier" offers an am++bivalent but mainly denying response to Coleridge and his poem of obscure transgression, alienation, and suffering. Denial centers here in the fact that the Wordsworthian speaker, who plays the role of the Wedding-Guest, will not even let the soldier narrate his own story but summarizes it himself.
He told a simple fact@ that he had been
A Soldier, to the tropic isles had gone,
Whence he had landed now some ten days past;
That on his landing he had been dismiss'd,
And with the little strength he yet had left
Was travelling to regain his native home.
(99-104, Darlington 435)
The speaker not only hears, appropriates, and then refuses to communicate the soldier's story; he only partly acknowledges the soldier's -- and thus Coleridge's and the Mariner's -- power over him in self-descriptions that combine unmanly terror with macho bravado and moral censorship in what amounts to a dismissive parody of the much more serious reactions of the Wedding-Guest to the Mariner. He hides in the shade of a thick hawthorn, paralyzed by "specious cowardice" (85, Darlington 435) as he gazes upon the soldier, but finally emerges confident enough to hail the stranger. Their much excised, revised, and overwritten dialogue begins, he soon gains control of the situation, and he goes so far as to berate the all-but-silenced soldier, "feeble as he was" (161, Darlington 437), for not seeking shelter for the night (and thus staying out of the poet's way). With the Wedding-Guest the Mariner may have his will (Koestenbaum 71), but the Wordsworthian poet will not let the soldier dominate him. When they converse, the poet senses the older man's terrible knowledge, suffering, and alienation, but he will not face this directly in terms of what it means for either the soldier or himself. Indeed he suggests that the soldier has become as numb to his experiences as the poet evidently wishes himself to be: "in all he said / There was a strange half-absence & a tone / Of weakness and indifference, as of one / Remembering the importance of his theme, / But feeling it no longer" (142-46) Darlington 436). Dismissing the question of the soldier's feelings, the poet leads him to the laborer's cottage, his Cumbrian homeless shelter for the night, instead of caring for him personally; he does not mention in 1798, as he does in the Prelude accounts of the meeting, that his own home is "distant," and he seems simply to want to get rid of the man. Nevertheless, in the soldier's heavily meaningful final statement, "My trust is in the God of heaven, / And in the eye of him who passes me" (164-65, Darlington 437),Wordsworth strangely, strongly reaffirms the Coleridgean bond he has done so much to break, alluding both to the homoerotically suggestive power of eye-contact, upon which the Mariner's bond with the Wedding-Guest was also established (Koestenbaum 76-77), and also to Coleridge's own efforts to conceal sexual unorthodoxy with religious orthodoxy. And years later, in the much-overworked 1850 Prelude text, Wordsworth nostaligically inserts introductory images of solitaries that recall those of The Ancient Mariner: the hermit, the cathedral votary kneeling at prayers, and the "watchman on the top / Of liqhthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves" (1850,4:359-64).
Not just a response to The Ancient Mariner's oblique evocation of unspoken tensions in the relationship between the two poets, "The Discharged Soldier" prewrites the first part of Christabel, which contains Coleridge's elided but unmistakable portrayal of a homosexual experience in the embrace of Christabel and Geraldine. This relation is clear from Wordsworth's opening lines of 1798:
I love to walk
Along the public way when for the night,
Deserted in its silence, it assumes
A character of deeper quietness
Than pathless solitudes.
(1-5, Darlington 433)
The Wordsworthian poet's eagerness to be alone in a vulnerable spot at night reappears in Christabel's midnight journey beyond the castle-gates; although neither can admit it, both are eagerly setting themselves up for the strange meetings which then almost obligingly follow. Christabel's ostensible reason for being out, to pray for her "betrothed knight" recalls the wedding-feast of The Ancient Mariner -- not, however, as a simultaneously occurring event but as a heterosexual resolution evermore about to be -- and in turn anticipates Wordsworth's subsequent insertion of "The Discharged Soldier" into Prelude 4 after passages describing parties, dancing, and boy-girl attraction.
Adding considerably in 1798 to the disruptiveness of the meeting for both the poet and the soldier, but deleted from all the Prelude accounts of it, is the ceaseless howling of a mastiff in the nearby village, a detail which Wordsworth took from his sister Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal (3) and which of course Coleridge also used as one of several devices to heighten the Gothic terror of the Christabel-Geraldine encounter. First the young poet comments narratively on the unnerving noise of the watchdog:
Yet all the while
The chained mastiff in his wooden house
Was vexed, & from among the village trees
Howled never ceasing. (80-83, Darlington 435)
The soldier's remarks about the howling come in response to the poet's asking him why he had stopped to rest instead of seeking shelter. This constitutes his longest speech, the only place where Wordsworth had ever really given him a voice:
My weakness made me loth to move, and here
I felt myself at ease & much relieved,
But that the village mastiff fretted me,
And every second moment rang a peal
Felt at my very heart. There was no noise,
Nor any foot abroad -- I do not know
What ail'd him, but it seemd [sic] as if the dog
Were howling to the murmur of the stream."
(128-36, Darlington 436)
Thus Wordsworth allows a parallel between the mastiff noisily guarding the village and the soldier as ineffectual watchdog for his country's interests, a parallel suggesting a larger awareness of the savagery and stupidity British society may support to maintain order in either the public or private spheres. The painfully charged tenderness of the soldier's voice, as he compellingly echoes and expands the poet's own awareness of the mastiff's sound, anticipates that locus classicus of Sedgwick's homosexual panic, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein -- most particularly the monster's narration to Victor of the story of his early life in the forest. One wants to hear more of this matter-of-fact, alienated, yet intimate voice, this voice eager to communicate information and emotion in spite of suffering, and less of the poet's selfish delights, evasions, and exhortations. But Wordsworth cuts both references to the mastiff, disruptive in itself, the howling perhaps too emphatically hinted at disruptive elements in the intimacy of poet and soldier.
Strikingly, in both the 1805 and 1850 Preludes the poet meets the soldier directly after what is perhaps the most overtly heterosexual passage in the entire poem, one which might be spoken by Mr. Bingley describing the first ball at Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice (that is, if Bingley could speak in blank verse):
In a throng,
A festal company of maids and youths,
Old men and matrons, staid, promiscuous rout,
A medley of all tempers, I had passed
The night in dancing, gaiety and mirth --
With din of instruments, and shuffling feet,
And glancing forms, and tapers glittering,
And unaimed prattle flying up and down,
Spirits upon the stretch, and here and there
Slight shocks of young love-liking interspersed
That mounted up like joy into the head,
And tingled through the veins.
(1805, 4:316-27; see also 1850, 4:309-20)
The well-known, pompously sublime sunrise dedication scene follows immediately (1805, 4:330-45; 1850, 4:323-38), with its Miltonic images of "empyrean light" in the dawn skies (1805, 4:335;1850,4:328; see also Prelude 142 n.) the poet's answering conviction that, although he made no bonds, he should be -- else sinning greatly -- / A dedicated spirit" (1805,4:343-44; 1850, 4:336-37), and an obfuscating, patronizing address to Coleridge, "Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim / My heart was full?" (1805, 4:340-41; 1850, 4:333-34). Thus, as he writes the "Discharged Soldier" manuscript into Prelude 4, Wordsworth introduces heterosexual attraction, but only as a temptation to contrast with his increasingly spiritualized quest for his poetic self, a quest which he consciously associates with the now-altered, less sexually threatening soldier. Throughout the book the poet laments "an inner falling off" (1805, 4:270; 1850, 4:278), attempting repeatedly to privilege his high calling of "Nature and ... books" (1805, 4: 282) over the often very physical, and thus presumably no less natural, pleasures of his "Summer Vacation." As if in spite of himself, these "vanities" (1805, 4:288) keep interrupting and interrogating the growth of a mind which the poet, like M. H. Abrams, would obviously prefer to have remain naturally supernatural. The "gawds / And feast and dance and public revelry / And sports and games" are rituals, he pointedly comments, "less pleasing in themselves / Than as they were a badge, glossy and fresh, / Of manliness and freedom" (1805, 4:273-77; see also 1850, 4:281-86) -- a manliness and freedom that may unconsciously require sporting activities and socializing with women as diversions furthering the homosocial drive for control and masking the corresponding homophobic fear of potentially disturbing relationships with other males. Such activities, the poet continues, "did now / Seduce me from the firm habitual quest" of nourishing the mind (1805, 4:277-79). The sexual metaphor of seduction seems particularly revealing here: if such "trivial pleasures" (1805, 4:305) as athletics and women can "lure" his mind (1805, 4:287) away from his spiritualized calling to poetry, then the soldier, however emasculated and spiritualized, is introduced into the text in order to lure him back to it and rebuke him for having enjoyed dancing with women at the party. Similarly, as he attempts to summarize these confused feelings -- which are not atypical for male adolescents in a patriarchy -- he writes: "Strange rendezvous my mind was at that time," he comments, "A party-coloured shew of grave and gay, / Solid and light, short-sighted and profound" (1805, 4:346-48; 1850, 4:339-41): he officiously confesses that he has "slighted and misused" his higher powers (1805, 4:352; 1850, 4:345) while using the sexually charged term "rendezvous" to describe this state of mind.
Nevertheless, the 1850 text enlarges the moralizing smokescreen around the soldier by additional introductory lines praising "gracious" and "benign" Solitude (1850, 4:356) in the passage beginning "When from our better selves we have too long / Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, / Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired" (1850, 4:353-55). The later Wordsworth not only insists on linking the soldier with a better -- that is, a more spiritualized -- self, but he completely omits the provocative physical excitement of the opening lines of the 1798 poem quoted above in connection with the beginning of Christabel, "I love to walk / Along the public way . . ." (1-5, Darlington 433), which had survived almost intact in 1805 and which describe an adolescent by no means tired of the world's pleasures. Wordsworth at this point keeps through all the revisions a powerful line of description that originated in his sister's Alfoxden Journal (3): "the road's watery surface to the ridge / Of that sharp rising glittered in the moon / And seemed before my eyes another stream" (7-9, Darlington 433). Thrilled by the nocturnal reversal of ordinary restraints and expectations, whereby the road becomes a river, and the public way his own private stream of sensations and feelings, the young poet, in both 1798 and 1805, responds with "a consciousness of animal delight" to "beauteous forms" that "rose in harmonious imagery" in his mind and "came along like dreams" (392-97, Darlington 433). Insertion into Prelude 4 at this point of course acts to restrict interpretive possibilities by implying that in the "beauteous forms" the poet is remembering the "glancing forms" of the dance described earlier rather than "the huge and mighty forms" of Prelude 1. The 1850 text replaces these lines with another reference to dance and sport and games, a brief description of the Windermere sailboat race and evening party which preceded Wordsworth's meeting with the soldier.
Using the same form of comic relief found in some of the Leech-Gatherer's responses in "Resolution and Independence," Wordsworth injects additional self-directed irony into the 1850 text. First the poet suggests that he has been overintrusive with the sick soldier, "Sprinkling this talk with questions, better spared, / On what he might himself have seen or felt" (1850, 4;437-38). Then, near the end of the passage, "the poor unhappy man" (171, Darlington 437; 1805, 4:501) becomes in 1850 "the patient man" (1850, 4:465, my emphasis) -- "patient in adversity," to be sure, but also "patient in his forbearance regarding the young poet's strange behavior." Finally, at the very end of the passage in both Prelude texts Wordsworth adds these self-contradictory lines: "Back I cast a look, / And lingered near the door a little space, / Then sought with quiet heart my distant home" (1805, 4:502-04; 1850, 4:466-68). Thus the poet no sooner Implies a sense of something lost or unfinished than, without further contact with the soldier, he leaves him with a quiet heart. But as much and more in the way of unspoken feelings was already implied in the original conclusion of 1798: "I returned / The blessing of the poor unhappy man, / And so we parted" (170-72, Darlington 437). By adding both the hesitation and the "quiet heart," Wordsworth, it seems, is attempting once again to dismiss the soldier's troubling aspects more forcefully from his consciousness while simultaneously confessing that the soldier still disturbs or frightens him.
Even apart from repressed sexual tensions, the young Wordsworth had reason to regard the soldier in the shadows with fascinated mistrust. It was peacetime -- between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the beginning of hostilities against France ten years later -- and it was well known in late eighteenth-century England that soldiers returned from abroad drastically swelled the crime rate (Liu 226). Thus Wordsworth may well have surmised, initially at least, that the returned soldier was waiting to assault and rob passersby on the lonely road. It is worth noting also that British servicemen sent to the "tropic isles" of the Caribbean had particular reasons to return disillusioned and embittered. The seductively lucrative sugar trade had created a vice-ridden and inherently unstable colonial society of white planters and overseers, tradespeople, African slaves, soldiers, and sailors. The later eighteenth century was a particularly volatile time in the Caribbean; in addition to the slave uprisings, acts of piracy, and plantation burnings that were endemic, tensions from the American wars occasionally erupted in skirmishes mostly between British and French forces. In the meantime yellow fever, the illness that had probably cashiered Wordsworth's soldier, was rampant (Mintz; Hamshere 124, 135).
It is difficult to say whether Wordsworth might have consciously recognized any homoerotic tension in the meeting with the soldier, either when it happened or when he wrote about it. Alan Bray argues that the homosexual "molly" subculture was well established -- and well known -- in London as early as 1700 (81-85). Among the mollies it was widely understood that soldiers' sexual services could often be had or purchased by other men (Norton 47, 49, 52, 84 et passim); along with public parks and courtyards, areas near garrisons sometimes became cruising grounds. Wordsworth might not have heard of the vices of the metropolis at the time of his meeting with the soldier, but he had passed several sojourns there by the winter of 1798. In one of the crowd scenes he later wrote into Prelude 7, Wordsworth briefly singles out a soldier in what may be a sexually charged moment:
The nurse is here,
The bachelor that loves to sun himself,
The military idler, and the dame
That field-ward takes her walk in decency.
The "military idler" and the sunning bachelor may or may not be engaged in the rituals of what we would now call a gay pickup, and Wordsworth may or may not have been aware of it if they were. But it is at least possible that the decent dame -- and the decent poet -- walked elsewhere because they noticed something odd or objectionable in the men's behavior.
In any case, long before friendship with Coleridge blossomed in 1797, Wordsworth had earlier experienced the male intimacies and conflicts of British boarding-school life at Hawkshead, reveling in the close friendship of boys like John Fleming, "then passionately loved," but afterwards alienated by years of silence (1799 Prelude, 2:383-88) almost in the manner of Sir Leoline and Lord Roland in Christabel. Two of his best friends at Cambridge were the easygoing Welshman Robert Jones, with whom he crossed the Alps in 1790 and climbed Mount Snowdon in 1791, and the nervous Londoner William Mathews, who would most likely have been another lifelong friend had he not died -- ironically in this context -- of yellow fever in the West Indies in 1800 (Moorman 91-92, 130-31). Wordsworth's earliest extant letters, written to Mathews in the summer and fall of 1791, establish the pattern that friendship with Coleridge would later take. In them he attempts both to cheer and to improve Mathews, who was depressed about family and career problems. When Mathews proposes that the two of them drop out and become tramps together, Wordsworth reacts with both youthful affection and patriarchal, controlling advice: obviously pleased by the idea of traveling together with his friend, he nevertheless does everything he can to talk him out of it, lamenting their lack of money and the sorrow Mathews would inflict upon his parents by such a decision -- a rather disingenuous argument since Wordsworth knew he had grieved his own relatives by failing to choose a profession (Moorman 164-66).
Then of course there is that preeminent dead soldier of The Prelude, the highly idealistic and highly idealized Michel Beaupuy, whom Wordsworth eagerly befriended in France in 1792. In many ways the opposite of the discharged British veteran, Beaupuy is described in a tone often used by men to describe noble, intellectual -- but still attractive -- women:
Somewhat vain he was,
Or seemed so -- yet it was not vanity,
But fondness, and a kind of radiant joy
That covered him about when he was bent
On works of love or freedom, or revolved
Complacently the progress of a cause
Whereof he was a part -- yet this was meek
And placid, and took nothing from the man
That was delightful. (1805, 9:320-28)
Obviously drawn to each other, the naively admiring young Englishman and the Frenchman, older but himself naive in his hopes of the Revolution, stroll together in the deep forests of the Loire, mixing history, politics, and literature in "many a long discourse" (1805, 9:428), including one in which a "hunger-bitten girl" leading a cow becomes a bit too quickly an abstract symbol of what the Revolution is about (1805, 9:511-20) rather than a human being to be either loved or helped; it is a more overtly politicized, yet simultaneously a less fully realized version of the pitying but condescending male dialogues of the Pedlar and the Poet discussing, defining, and dismissing Margaret's suffering in "The Ruined Cottage."
Of course the most thoroughly loved, and thoroughly rejected, male solitary of The Prelude is its much-praised addressee and official reader Coleridge, once briefly and disastrously a soldier in and around London (Holmes 53-58), who begins his year of most intense interaction with Wordsworth a far better-known poet but quickly becomes a drug addict, a failed husband and father, and, as Rajan has argued, a self-abjecting creator of abortive texts (62, 64). Wordsworth seems to need Coleridge's assurances that he is becoming a great poet, builds up in The Prelude what Eugene Stelzig has well named a "fiction of alterity," and addresses him affectionately and respectfully in 1799 as someone to whom "The unity of all has been revealed" (1799, 2: 256). Yet Wordsworth also wants to be sui generis, self-fathering and self-befriending as Wolfson and Richardson have suggested; he imagines Coleridge on Etna not sick or lonely but "a gladsome votary" (1805, 10:1037) while almost fiendishly reminding him in the same passage of Empedocles, who according to tradition killed himself by jumping into the volcano (1805, 10:1006-38). Even more seriously, as he concludes his great poem of self-information, he trivializes with sentimental nostalgia the two Coleridgean masterpieces whose textual history is so intertwined with that of "The Discharged Soldier":
That summer when on Quantock's grassy hills
Far ranging, and among the sylvan coombs,
Thou in delicious words, with happy heart,
Didst speak the vision of that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner, and rueful woes
Didst utter of the Lady Christabel ...
Thus in 1806 he overwhelms Coleridge, returned from Malta old before his time, with thousands of lines of discourse in order to become a strong, independent, masculine, heterosexual, but continually self-questioning -- and eventually self-overwhelmed -- male Romantic poet, relentlessly stalked by those huge forms of danger and desire he could never quite assimilate. Still Coleridge's response to The Prelude, in "To William Wordsworth," is as Rajan suggests both masochistic and, in its very exaggeration of admiration, perversely resistant (64). That Wordsworth wrote little more great poetry after this time may thus be attributed as much to his problematical vanquishing of the all-too-vanquishable Coleridge, and thus to the end of their writing relationship with all its strange turnings, as to the change in his relationship with Dorothy after his marriage to Mary Hutchinson: even with two Juliets, Romeo begins his slide towards death after fey, fabulous Mercutio has died, the victim of Romeo's own interfering machismo. Romantic gender studies, already changing rapidly to accommodate our growing knowledge of previously marginalized or forgotten women writers, needs to engage in another and more difficult accommodation. Along with Charlotte Smith and Joanna Baillie, Margaret and Martha Ray, and boy-girl "love-likings," we must deal more boldly with the substantial realities and textual disruptions of male muses and rivals, male reason and energy, male attraction and repulsion.(4)
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Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York. Norton, 1979. (1) Feminist studies of Romanticism have emphasized a heterosexist politics of domination in male-authored texts (Mellor, "Feminism" 7-8), arguing that male Romantic poets appropriate the conventionally feminine domain of sensibility in order to enlarge their controlling male subjectivity (Richardson 22) while exploiting the realities of women's lives and writings. Alan Richardson calls this colonization Diane Hoeveler calls it cannibalism (xv-xvi); Marlon Ross brilliantly suggests that the male Romantics, "some of them unwittingly, help prepare England for its imperial destiny" (31) of foreign conquest. Although she acknowledges that the binarism makes her uneasy (Gender 2-3), Anne Mellor more recently distinguishes between a masculine Romanticism of the transcendent individual imagination and a feminine Romanticism that privileged reason and community, posits a continuum between extremes of masculine and feminine Romanticism, and pays useful attention to writers such as Keats and Emily Bronte who stray beyond societally established gender boundaries. I realize that feminists may be made still more uneasy by the Wordsworth I present here; instead of dominating women or coopting their abilities, this Wordsworth simply avoids them as much as he can, thus preparing England for an imperial destiny based at least as much on male bonding and battling as on displaced heterosexual desire.
(2) This essay was essentially complete before I read David Collings's Wordsworthian Errancies, the most thorough going attempt yet to "queer" Wordsworth. Collings forefronts texts, including "The Discharged Soldier," where a male "wanderer strays beyond the law into the sublime or outside it into a world of violence" and then can no longer distinguish the true path from the false (4). Although he does not cite Dollimore, their points of view partly coincide: for instance, what Collings calls Wordsworthian "attempts to make unreadability readable,...to write a culture that survives in the form of its own destruction" (3), closely parallel Dollimore's perverse dynamic of fractured-but-interconnected binaries. Collings is surely right to insist that the theme of deviance is pervasive within the canonical male tradition of nineteenth-and twentieth-century English poetry, rather than marginal to that tradition, and to imply that Wordsworth does much more than has heretofore been recognized to afford deviance a place there (14). But Collings chooses, wrongly, I think, not to follow Magnuson's and Koestenbaum's lead add historicize his study in terms of Wordsworth's personal and textual relations with Coleridge or other male friends; and his insufficiently discerning reading of Leo Bersani, and a resulting overemphasis on an alleged Wordsworthian obsession with physical pain and sadomasochistic violence, rather than the desire to control, envy, guilt, and other painful feelings, lead him to dismiss Sedgwick's homosexual panic too lightly (59) and thus to construct an "outrageous" (13) Wordsworth, a flaming deviant (14), an "impresario of enchanting disaster" (13) that I simply cannot recognize from reading the poet.
(3) I have developed these arguments in an article, "Glossing Over The Ancient Mariner: Perversion, Panic, and Collage-Texts," TWC 26 (1995), 162-64. (4) An earlier, shorter version of this paper was read at the second annual conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism at Duke University in November 1994. I am grateful to Dr. Ronald Lunsford, Chair, and the Advisory Committee of the Department of English, UNC Charlotte, for released time in fall 1994 that facilitated this revision, and to the helpful comments of my colleague Tony Jackson, who unflaggingly read and critiqued several of its various drafts.
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|Author:||McGavran, James Holt|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1996|
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