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Real and Imagined Women in British Romanticism

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Gaura Shankar Narayan

Real and Imagined Women in British Romanticism uses feminist ideology and deconstructive criticism to reconstruct the cultural context embedded in Romantic canonical texts. To achieve this end, the book undertakes a close textual study of these texts and places them in the intellectual context of Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of culture. As a result of intellectual contextualizing as well as theoretical applications, the Romantic imagination, as represented by William Wordsworth and John Keats, emerges as the place where gender division and gender certitude break down. This book intervenes in the traditional critical debates about the Romantic imagination to show that the Romantic imagination, as set forth in these texts, registers the vigorous cultural politics of gender and aesthetics that defined the 1790s and continued to exert influence for decades.

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Introduction 1

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Introduction R The central canonical texts of Romanticism resonate with gender instabilities that were concealed from view as long as Romanticism was critically regarded as a singular type of literature dominated by six male poets, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, who could be abstracted from their time. The poets themselves contributed to this view by celebrating the individual, the lyric, the subjective, and, most significantly, the non-historic. The work of powerful cultural custodians such as Matthew Arnold reinforced the notion of a time- less Romanticism that best expressed an ideal Englishness. Matthew Arnold’s preface to his edition of the poems of Wordsworth and his 1880 essay on Keats initiated a critical tendency to articulate critiques of Romanticism that restate the Romantic revolution in Romantic terms. This sense of Romanticism has been defined by elements such as the concept of the transcendent imagination, the subjectivity of the poet, his experiments with genre, and his celebration of nature. Morse Peckham’s article “Toward a Theory of Romanticism” exemplifies this critical practice.1 Peckham restates the Romantic ethos in his theory of Romanticism and remains within the parameters of the agenda announced by Romantic writers in public and quasi- public documents such as the “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads, The Biographia Literaria, and letters and journals. The conceptual product of Peckham’s theory is homogenous and singly gendered. His work is a symptom of a critical attitude that has participated in a virtuous circle created by the...

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