Creating a Feminist-Communitarian Romanticism in Beloved: Toni Morrison's New Uses for Blake, Keats, and Wordsworth

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Despite the large secondary literature on Beloved, critics have still not done full justice to the variety of sources Toni Morrison re-envisions as she reconstitutes her manifold cultural heritage. In particular, she devises fascinating strategies, none of them yet noted, for re-creating British romanticism. Simply to list a few of Beloved's major episodes--ice skating, boat stealing, gigantic shadow, carnival "freak" show, water-voices sounding the depths--is almost to create a rapidly scrolled plot synopsis of Wordsworth's Prelude. When Baby Suggs declares that the only grace we will receive is the grace we can "imagine," or when Sethe tells how Paul D's visionary capacity makes "windows" suddenly have "view," we hear the voice of William Blake. When we learn, further, of Denver's "bower" of greenery where she goes for imaginative solace, of Sethe's yearning for "easeful death," or of Paul D's musings on the superiority of imagined love to mere physical sex, we know we are in Keatsian territory. And these few examples are by no means a complete listing of all the Romantic allusive motifs that combine to help make Beloved the visionary masterwork it is.

I want to show that one of Morrison's chief goals in Beloved is to rethink and transform major British romantic poets.[1] By taking a romanticist tour of Beloved, we can see with what startling originality she reshapes the literary past. In rewriting Blake, Keats, and Wordsworth, Morrison joins a vital tradition of twentieth-century American authors who have each, in their own way, refashioned British romanticism for new purposes: Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, John Cheever, Harold Brodkey, James Dickey (Bidney 1990, 1985, 1986, 1994a, 1994b, 1995). But as she adds to this transcontinental tradition, Morrison decisively alters it.

Morrison--who, unlike the three British romantics listed and the Americans who have reworked them, is an African- American woman--redirects the traditions both of British romanticism and of its American rewritings insofar as these have been predominantly white and male. First, Morrison places her romanticist motifs within a legacy nourished by African-American oral narratives and slave histories (see Wyatt, Carby), and thus forges a synthesis with a new emphasis on community, shown in all of her romanticist remakings but most dramatically in her communitarian rewriting of Wordsworth. Second, Morrison revises romantic tradition in a feminist direction--most strikingly by giving us four female romantic seers (Baby Suggs, Sethe, Denver, Beloved) to one male (Paul D). Finally, by applying the symbolism of psychological and spiritual progress taken from white male romantics to a narrative centered on aggrieved but sympathetic and resolute women (the charismatic preacher Baby Suggs, the troubled but determined maternal quester Sethe, the perceptive and finally victorious Denver, and even the deeply disturbing but indispensable Beloved), the novel conveys the imaginative and spiritual strength of African-American women and of Morrison as their muse and bard. Morrison's feminist-communitarian[2] insight remakes romanticism at its deepest level.

The romantic poets Morrison has chosen to rewrite have each manifested, in the course of their development, the same pattern of psychological and moral progression that Sethe, Denver, and Paul D illustrate in Beloved, a maturation from an earlier, more self-absorbed mindset to one of greater imaginative openness and empathy. We can summarize this progress in broad outline for Wordsworth, Blake, and Keats. In the narrative of memories that forms his autobiographical Prelude, Wordsworth advances from a more purely individual, childlike love of nature to a maturer love of humanity, an evolution summed up in his celebrated "Ode." Blake likewise evolves away from the more self-assertive psychological project of promoting passion to an equality of importance with reason in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and moves on to the inclusively empathetic outlook of his later "Laocoon," where we learn that "Imagination" is the "Divine Body" and that "we are" all "Members" of this common body (E 273). …