In his splendid study, The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism, William Galperin takes issue with the assumption that Romanticism may be definitively characterized by its rebellion against ‘the tyranny of the eye’. 1 Romantic poets like Shelley may insist that their concern is with ‘invisible nature’, and ‘perception’, in poems such as ‘Tintern Abbey’, may give way to ‘conception’ as the ‘eye’, so keenly active in the poem's first paragraph, is supplanted by the ‘I’, and yet, Galperin argues, the repressed term always threatens to return. Objects resist their transmutation into symbols, or, in the terms Galperin borrows from Norman Bryson, the artist's attempt to subject all he sees to his commanding gaze is always likely to be frustrated by the intrusion of an insubordinate glance, which restores to the natural world its haphazard, uncontrollable contingency. Readers of Romantic poetry by women have pointed out that this willingness to subordinate facts to meanings is in any case a characteristic only of male artists. Stuart Curran, for example, celebrates the manner in which Charlotte Smith, in a poem such as Beachy Head, refuses to allow the details of the landscape to be absorbed within her theme. When her glance falls on ‘the wood sorrel with its light thin leaves, / Heart-shaped and triply folded, and its root / Creeping like beaded coral’ (361–3), what her eye sees is enough for her. 2 But Charlotte Smith, like the women poets who were her contemporaries, was largely forgotten by her Victorian successors, and though, in the work of the male poets who were remembered, the visible world is repressed only to make its sly returns, Galperin would accept, for his argument depends on it, the fact of the repression. In his reading of Constable's ‘Haywain’ (1820–1), for example, the spectator of the painting is disembodied, and allowed to survey the scene from an impossible vantage point, some fifty feet above the richly dappled surface of the Stour. The painter, just as readily as the poet Keats, seems
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Publication information: Book title: Romantic Victorians:English Literature, 1824-1840. Contributors: Richard Cronin - Author. Publisher: Palgrave. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 2002. Page number: 194.
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