Unconventional views : the revolutionary work of the romantic sublime
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The Romantic sublime is often interpreted as an escapist renunciation of social and political involvement. However, Unconventional Views: The Revolutionary Work of the Romantic Sublime argues that the sublime becomes a crucial avenue for poets and novelists of the period to render themselves capable of shaping their society. The sublime, therefore, is not an exclusively aesthetic concept. Recognizing its popularity, writers use it as an effective hook for luring late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century readers. Then, having attracted a readership, Romantic authors further use the sublime to depict vividly a host of contemporary threats—the war between England and France, the oppression of women, the increasing passivity of consumers—and to argue against them. Ultimately, through a variety of devices, the sublime serves to increase both writers’ and readers’ sense of self-worth and their belief in individual agency in the face of these threats. This analysis allows us to see forms of the sublime after Edmund Burke’s as countering his model’s aesthetic and vii political failings. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria (1798) and William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) invoke the vocabulary of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) to underscore that theory’s errors and to argue for versions of the sublime that might directly benefit oppressed women and disappointed activists. Charlotte Smith’s long poems, The Emigrants (1794) and Beachy Head (1807), Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), and Mary Shelley’s Valperga (1823) explore the potential of sublime personification to assert individual capability—or lack thereof. This new understanding of the sublime also has ramifications for feminist discussions of Romanticism. In particular, this dissertation challenges the views of critics who reject the sublime as misogynist and conclude that women writers either oppose, or stand in an entirely different tradition from, their male contemporaries. Instead, I show that, despite sometimes divergent political concerns, Romantic writers—men and women alike—employed a sublime mode to imagine and transform their social circumstances.