Romantic Vacancy: British Women's Poetry, Skepticism, and Epistemology
Wang, Orrin N. C.
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Recent scholarship on Romantic women's writing has frequently been preoccupied with the loss, suffering, and sensibility central to women's poetry. My dissertation investigates how four women poets after the French Revolution eventually react against the cult of emotion that trapped them as primarily feeling subjects. Rather than passively depicting absence, they employ various figures of vacancy, a poetic tactic that productively and actively empties out habituated language and the regnant ideologies of the day. In vacating reified thought, women poets more importantly reconceptualize the Enlightenment thinking subject, rejecting two dominant modes of thought--sensibility and progressive reason--instead experimenting with anhedonia, non-meaning, and counterfactuals. Because these women poets view language as necessarily imposing structures of thinking, their varying poetics propose home-grown epistemologies, in dialogue with English and continental philosophy as well as Romantic theories about the revolutionary potential of language. Moreover, since these poets all share a belief in the intimate connection between poetic form and cognition, my chapters reveal how the poets' formal techniques reify, alter, and create ways of thinking. Though they often work from traditional forms, they make use of repetition, caesura, and footnotes to alter the way poems make and unmake meaning. Even more broadly, these poems about thought do not fall prey to Romanticism's tendency to escape from history into the imagination, yet neither do women poets allow themselves to be confined by either their historical place or their embodied identities. Instead, Romanticism might be defined as a movement that employs non-understanding as a means of keeping ideology, and the history that ideology presupposes, at bay. My first chapter defines vacancy as a trope for linguistic or cognitive breakdown, and my next two chapters on Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson explore how these writers engage respectively with Kantian ideas of free beauty and empiricist epistemologies about idiots. My chapter on Felicia Hemans discusses her use of brain-based models of the mind to create perceptual overload that challenges imperialist thinking, and the final piece demonstrates how Maria Jane Jewsbury uses images to dislodge reified visual representations of gendered or colonial landscapes and bodies.