Poetics of Sensibility
Lawrence R. Kennard
In a well-known passage in the introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft speaks out against the gendering of language. “I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style,” she announces; “I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided [sic] from essays into novels.” Renouncing the language of feminized politeness, she will “be employed about things, not words” (112). As we know, Wollstonecraft protests too much; she is indeed employed about words, as the rhetorical strategies of The Rights of Woman demonstrate.1 But the statements about language are useful, because they show how, in writing a work that opposes one kind of gender ideology, she is aware that language is part of the problem; the writer who challenges a dominant ideology must, somehow, find literary forms that are appropriate to the task.
By examining her attempt to renegotiate the poetics of sensibility, I will focus on one way in which Wollstonecraft tries to find new forms. In doing this I will initially consider her late essay “On Poetry” (1797), setting it in the context of two prior works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and her epistolary travel journal, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark(1796).
Notes are on pp. 67–68.