Category Archives: Jen Golightly

Parker Chapter Three: “Pope and Mature Augustanism”: Some Reflections

Reading Parker’s chapter on Pope was both difficult and interesting for me. Difficult because I have not done much work in the beginning of the century for years now, and interesting because the Augustan poets created my early love affair with the eighteenth century. The first class I took for my masters degree, nearly 10 years ago at the tender age of 21, straight out of my bachelors program, was Augustan Satire, Parody, and Burlesque. The course followed the same rough outline that Parker takes in his book: we began with Butler’s Hudibras and continued on with Swift’s scatalogical poetry, which fascinated and mystified me, and moved on to Pope and Gay. As Dave wrote, there were numerous sections in Parker’s book that pulled together a lot of things about the individual writers I had previously thought but not in an organized way. Parker’s book is so dense and his analysis so layered that I have found it enormously difficult to be critical–I feel like my three year-old daughter must feel when she looks at the selection of princess dolls at the Disney store and all she can say is, “Wow.” There were so many different ideas that really intrigued me that I am having a hard time picking just a few to discuss.

There are aspects of the chapter that are brilliant. Parker’s analysis of the meaning of the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock is one such aspect. Rejecting previous interpretations of the sylphs and their role within the poem, Parker suggests rather that the sylphs have no real function in the poem, and that this is Pope’s point in including them. They are not real; they do not exist. Parker writes, “The imagination alone can add them. They are beautiful traces of cultural memory. Their elaboration only enforces the strict realization of their metaphysical impossibility” (106). The non-existence of the sylphs works, according to Parker, to emphasize to the reader Belinda’s “autonomy–and through Belinda the autonomy of the man or woman of sentiment. By collapsing the heavenly and the demonic spheres, the binarism of Renaissance spirituality becomes purely psychological” (106).

Another intriguing aspect of Parker’ s argument in this chapter is his notion that Pope’s inclusion of the sylphs helps make the satire in the poem seem gentler and thus “masks” the Hudibrastic elements of the poem: “The sylphs, the sphere of the angelic and the fatal, lack the real force and weight of the personified ‘Discord’ of Boileau, the ‘Ignorance’ of Butler, the ‘Absurdity’ of Hobbes, or Dryden’s ‘Dullness.’ All these are substantial elements in the moral landscape of the Augustan world. Their role is to anatomize the vices of the vain and ignorant and to clear a space for the Lockeian sensus communis. Such a withering critique retains the normative power of traditional satire. In this difference lies the particular power and charm of Pope’s poem. For the modern reader, Butler and Swift may appear to bludgeon mankind. Their satire is often violent, sometimes repellant. The Rape of the Lock, while performing the cultural work of Augustan satire–that is, clearing away the rubble of the past, and making a space for the imperturbable observer–does it with such grace and elan that it goes unnoticed” (107). In all, Parker’s discussion of The Rape of the Lock and particularly of the role of the sylphs within the poem made me wish, as I think Carrie and Dave have also, that I had read this book before now.

What most intrigues me is Parker’s larger point about the scope of the Augustan “project,” if such it can be called, and the ways in which he suggests poetics dictates similar shifts in other fields. I am really interested in his notion that imaginative shifts create philosophical ones, rather than the other way around. There was one particular section that struck me in this regard: “Although the low Augustan, the Hudibrastic, has an obvious counterpart in the practice of Hogarth, and the higher in Gainsborough and Wilson, these connections point to an underlying departure from emblem and icon. Landscape and history painting invoke the classical as literal” (122). This passage encapsulates a primary point of Parker’s third chapter: the classicism in Pope is transformed from analogical to literal through Pope’s use of what Parker calls “the method of the empirical within poetry” (122). However, the passage also points to the broadness of Augustanism in the early 18th century and reinforces his previous hints about the connections between Augustan poetics and novelistic writing. These hints were tantalizing to me, almost in an agonizing way, because they were just hints–I wanted more in-depth discussion of the connections between Augustan poetics and the novel, though I recognize that such a discussion lies outside of Parker’s purpose in this work.

There were so many of these types of hints that made me stop reading and just think for a while–one or two sentences in which, as I said above, random thoughts I’d had about the writers coalesced into more distinct shapes–and the more I try to write about them, the less satisfied I become with this post. So I will stop here and hope to continue the discussion in the comments area.

In which my obsession with Romantic novel continues

I’ve just finished reading an essay by Robert Miles, published in Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.2 (Spring 2001), titled “What is a Romantic Novel?” It’s an interesting essay; Miles investigates the “embarassment” with which he says the Romantic novel has always been viewed as a result of the institutionalization of Romanticism. He identifies what he terms the “hermeneutic paradigm” as part of this institutionalization and describes this paradigm as one focused primarily on the transcendental aspect of Romanticism–and thus on Romantic poetry. Miles writes, “The hermeneutic paradigm the Kantian narrative was designed to protect can best be put in terms of transcendentalism. To the Romantic poet, as Romantic hero, there falls the task of peering into the life of things in order to spy out the noumenal presence that ultimately binds together subject and object, words and things, the material world and its underlying meaning, a transcendental glimpse capable of rebuilding the ruins of history” (184).

Thus Miles says the problem in defining the Romantic novel is actually a problem of defining Romanticism itself: “‘What is a Romantic novel?’ is a version of another, equally problematic question: what is Romanticism?” (184). Transcendentalism as a defining characteristic of Romanticism will of course lead to definitions of Romanticism that privilege poetry: “The centrality of the hermeneutic paradigm in the construction of Romanticism adversely affected the reception of the Romantic novel, as even the subjectively driven Romantic novel…with its residual attachments to narrative, community, and realism, is at a disadvantage in comparison with poetry when it comes to giving literary form to the drama of fleeting transcendental insights” (185). Miles goes on to suggest that Romantic poetry and the Romantic novel actually have more in common than has been hitherto suggested. He argues that the basis for the Romantic novel is its “historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology. Of course, all works are ideological, as everything else is too. My proposition, rather, is that a significant difference of a subset of Romantic-era novels is their striving toward not ideological representation, but representations of ideology as ‘ideology.’ I am not saying that the Romantic novel does this, and the Romantic poem does not. On the contrary, I am arguing that this is an important affinity between the two” (186).

Using this idea as the basis for his definition, Miles goes on to identify several characteristics of the Romantic novel: it is, he writes, preoccupied with questions about family origin, a feature that he finds to be drawn from Shakespeare’s romances; it makes extensive use of theatricality as characters whose family origin is unknown struggle with questions about their identities and thus take on a variety of “roles,” usually linked to a particular nationality; and it employs a self-conscious rejection of the novel in favor of the romance, which, Miles suggests, allows writers to explore positions outside history and probability. It is in these novels, according to Miles, that we can first see an awareness of ideology as ideology in the modern sense.

Here’s my standard disclaimer: by no means am I doing justice to Miles’ argument, which is quite “involved,” as he himself admits. However, I am troubled by two aspects of his essay, and the first is that it seems to focus selectively on national tales, novels that deal primarily with questions of national and/or family origin as their primary plot. For instance, he talks a great deal about Sir Walter Scott’s novels, particularly Ivanhoe. He traces the type of novel he’s describing (which, by the way, he calls “philosophical romances” rather than “Romantic novels,” though he uses both terms) up through the novels of Hawthorne and Melville: “If the philosophical romance is antagonistic toward the renewed legitimacies of nationalism, it remains the case that both it and nationalism arise out of the same cultural moment of questioned origins. Hence the unsurprising recrudescence of the philosophical romance in Ireland, Scotland, and mid-nineteenth century America, as these were similarly rich periods in which the spirit of critique conflicted directly with nationalist myth-making” (198). By the end of the essay, the focus of Miles’ observations about the Romantic novel are all pointed toward this sort of nationalism or rejection of nationalism, which is interesting to me in the extreme but seems to exclude a large number of novels that other scholars have termed Romantic novels–primarily (of course, for me) the Jacobin novels of the 1790s. This leads to my second reservation about Miles’ essay: though he writes that “No theory of the Romantic novel that did not account for Caleb Williams or Frankenstein would be worth much,” he really only devotes a paragraph or two to Godwin at all, and the bulk of this discussion does not concern Caleb Williams but rather Godwin’s unfinished essay “Of History and Romance” (197). The other Jacobin novelists are not mentioned at all: the exception is Mary Hays, who is mentioned in passing by name only in a list of writers. This seems to me (as it of course would) a striking omission in an essay arguing that the Romantic novel is “the class of prose fictions that has the historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology” (186). However, by the end of the essay, it seems that Miles’ argument is focused on a specific type of ideology–nationalism–and the ways in which the Romantic novel was deployed against this ideology. At this point, the Jacobin novels of the 1790s no longer seem to fit with his definition. I don’t find, for instance, massive concern with questions of origin in the Jacobin novels, especially national origin, nor do I find theatricality a prominent feature in the novels I have studied.

And so while I am intrigued by his ideas about form–he writes at length about the special form of romance employed by these novels and its connection to epic–at last I remain frustrated by the problems that seem to me inherent in the use of the term “Romantic novel.” As always when I read these essays, I am left thinking of many, many examples of works that are omitted or excluded through the attempt to pin down what precisely determines which novels are “Romantic.” My suspicion is that the definitions of “the Romantic novel” depend in large measure (as is perhaps obvious) upon the particular works being used as examples. Thus, if you use Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Charles Maturin, and Clara Reeve as your core group of Romantic novelists, you get a very different idea of what the Romantic novel is than if you use Jane Austen and Frances Burney, or Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Matthew Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe, or indeed Mary Hays, Eliza Fenwick, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charlotte Smith. My other suspicion is that this problem is precisely why so many Romantic scholars now define Romanticism by period rather than by characteristics: the most obvious similiarity of these works is their historical situation.

Romanticism: A Period or a Sensibility?

As I finish my dissertation, I’ve been forced to think more about the way that I categorize the novels upon which I work. They are the radical novels of the 1790s to me–I haven’t been particularly anxious to group them in terms of a larger period or movement. However, I’ve been told twice recently that the novels I’m working on are (no ifs, ands, or buts, it seems) Romantic novels simply because they fall within a certain time frame that I am told is now widely considered the “Romantic period.”

I haven’t done tons of reading on Romanticism yet–a bit here and there, but no real depth–but this strikes me as strange on the one hand and really unhelpful on the other. I’ve always understood Romanticism as a set of characteristics of literary works. My primary objection to calling “my” novels Romantic novels is that it classifies them with novels that are so different that it makes the label practically worthless. What does grouping Mary Hays’ Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley together under the rubric of “the Romantic novel” tell you about what a Romantic novel is? What does it tell you about either of the novels? What does Romantic mean in this sense?

Obviously we do this kind of broad grouping all the time–what does it mean to call novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk eighteenth-century novels?–but such grouping under the term “Romantic” seems to me different. Does anyone else have thoughts about the “periodization” of Romanticism? Is this so widely accepted now that no one thinks twice about it?

Teaching Philosophies and the Job Search

Oy vey. I’m preparing to enter the job market and I’m facing the prospect of having to write a statement of teaching philosophy. I find these statements to be the hardest things of all of the application materials to write. I’ve written some informal statements before, for use within the writing program at DU only. These were very brief–about a paragraph–and focused on my teaching of writing. Now, however, I’m faced with the prospect of writing a statement that is much longer, much more complex, and much more important.

The problem is that my “philosophy” of teaching is pretty intuitive. I am having a really hard time describing why and how I do the things I do on a daily basis in the classroom. I’ve looked at a variety of online guides for writing the statement of teaching philosophy and I’ve looked at a few sample statements–most of which were not written by English professors. So I wondered if anyone has any suggestions or indeed any comments about how these statements are used/have been used by hiring departments. My fear is that, as one article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested, these statements can hurt more than they can help.

The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s

I’ve just finished reading the first three chapters of a new book by John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (OUP 2006). It’s a book that is particularly interesting in light of my own work but also in light of the conversations here a few weeks back about Habermas and the coffeehouse, so I thought a brief summary of his argument with a quotation from his section critiquing Habermas might be in order. However, I admit openly that I have read only the first three chapters of the book (which is not terribly long, not McKeonesque at all–it’s around 300 pages), and I will therefore not claim to give a complete account of his book or his argument, which is much more complex than I can indicate here.

Barrell’s purpose is to investigate the ways in which the political conflict and consequent atmosphere of suspicion in Britain during the revolutionary decade pervaded all aspects of life and thus blurred the lines between what had been conceived of as “public” and “private.” Increasingly, as the political furor in Britain grew over the decade, the private realm became politicized, private conversation became public, and even off-the-cuff remarks in spaces (such as the coffee house) that had been conceived of as “private” in some measure were potentially politically dangerous.

In the interest of space I’ll skip over his first chapter and go directly to the second, which relates more directly to our earlier conversation about coffeehouses and Habermas. The chapter is titled “Coffee-House Politicians”; in it, Barrell suggests that the coffeehouse–or rather, two fascinating trials that develop out of “seditious utterances” made inside two of London’s coffeehouses–is one example where the politicization of private speech during the 1790s is clear. In the first case, an attorney named John Frost was reported for using seditious language in Percy Coffee House. After a delay of several months, one of the witnesses reported Frost to the authorities and Frost was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “six months imprisonment and an hour in the pillory” (79). The second case is similar, though it involves two men who were arrested for making seditious remarks in the New London Coffee House; one man was a penniless gentleman and the other an impoverished doctor. The gentleman, Charles Pigott, was released without being charged; the doctor, William Hodgson, was indicted, tried, and convicted. The defense made by Frost’s attorney, Thomas Erskine, and Pigott (Pigott published a pamphlet on the eve of Hodgson’s trial that offered a defense of himself and to a lesser extent Hodgson) was based on the same assumption: that a coffeehouse was understood by all “polite” people to be a place in which the conversation is “private.” Whatever was overheard in the coffeehouse could not actually be “heard.” Both Erskine and Pigott therefore protested that a “gentleman” should not be subject to eavesdropping much less prosecution on the basis of conversation that should ostensibly be “private,” despite its having taken place in a “public” place. Erskine argued that “words spoken in a public coffee house were words spoken in a private space; that they were, so to speak, privileged; that they should not have been heard by those to whom they were not addressed; that, if inadvertently overheard, they should not have been reported” (83).

The point that Barrell is making in highlighting the defense offered by Erskine and Pigott is that it is class-based. Two men who claimed liberal, reformist sympathies in the event fell back upon essentially aristocratic defenses, motivated at least in part by a distaste for the circumstances of their arrests. Both express disgust at the lack of “politeness” of the men responsible for reporting them, Erskine by frequent emphasis upon the “spirit of a gentleman” and Pigott by highlighting the informers’ (lower-class) professions. Barrell concludes, “It is an intriguing index, however, of the difficulty with which the discourse of rights became established, that [Charles James] Fox, Erskine, and others, especially Pigott, who seem to have regarded this [freedom of speech] as a civil right essential to the survival of civilized society, found it so hard to express, except in terms of class difference, the right of an elite not to be overheard by their social inferiors and dependants. The spirit of despotism was not the exclusive property of loyalists” (102). The fact that the defense of these two men was class-based tends to undermine Habermasian descriptions of the coffeehouse as an essentially egalitarian place wherein two men could meet as private men, leaving their public identities (as a hairdresser and a lord, for example) behind, and this is the basis for Barrell’s critique of Habermas (which I will quote and then be quiet!):

“‘Provided a man has a clean shirt and three-pence in his pocket, he may talk as loud in the coffee-house as the “squire of ten thousands pounds a-year”‘, wrote the celebrated late eighteenth-century antiquary Francis Grose. Well, perhaps; but this kind of patriotic egalitarian ideology seldom meant quite what it said, and anyone who has been brought up within the English class-system, even as it is 250 or 300 years after the heyday of the coffee house, is likely to have doubts about how far distinctions of rank could possibly have been suspended in public coffee rooms…I am doubtful, too, about the supposed demise of the coffee house in the second half of the century. There were, famously, thousands of coffee houses in London around 1700, but the vast majority of these must have been little local caffs, often in basement rooms, open only for a few hours a day, and patronized by tradesmen on their way to work, who no more expected to be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities than to be offered a latte when they ordered a milky coffee. No more than a handful of early eighteenth-century coffee houses can have come close to Habermas’s or Sennett’s ideal” (81).


Theories of the Novel

I’m gearing up to teach The British Novel to 1800 this fall (we’re on a quarter system and so don’t start back until after Labor Day), and I’ve been re-reading various histories/theories of the novel: Bakhtin, Watt, McKeon, Spencer, and Armstrong. After reading the introduction to McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel and then skimming some reviews of the book, many of which predict the “replacement” of Watt’s model by McKeon’s–an accurate prediction, at least to some extent–I wondered whether McKeon’s is still the dominant one. Is there a particular study of the novel that is especially convincing to you? Which model of the novel’s development do you present when you teach the novel?