Defusing the Discharged Soldier: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Homosexual Panic

By McGavran, James Holt | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Defusing the Discharged Soldier: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Homosexual Panic


McGavran, James Holt, Papers on Language & Literature


The Bakhtinian "lyrical dialogue" which Paul Magnuson traces through Wordsworth's and Coleridge's texts is challenged almost from the start by words worth's desire to escape dialogics, win a poets' battle with Coleridge, and "describe himself as a self generated poet" (10). But as Keats wisely saw, Wordsworth's attempts at the egotistical sublime lead him Inevitably to dark passages -- to repeated, disturbing interrogations of self and other. Articulating the Wordsworthian double-bind in the revisions to The prelude, Susan Wolfson has observed that the poet's "illusion of mastery propels him to revise, to devise a more nearly exact autobiography for the information of the self, but the process of revision often revives complexities of selfhood" (917) which leave their traces in his texts (see Arac 243, Manning 26).

We will not fully understand these complexities of Wordsworthian self-information, or the curiously unstable displacements they produce in his texts, until we acknowledge and attempt to explore the degree to which both are affected by repressed but powerful homoerotic tensions. A decade has passed since Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Between Men as a wake-up call to feminists, and six years since Wayne Koestenbaum's brilliantly provocative reading of the Wordsworth-Coleridge collaboration in the Lyrical Ballads of 1798 (71-111). Nevertheless, these tensions continue to be largely ignored in the currently dominant feminist paradigm of English Romanticism and gender, which on the one hand laudably recuperates and valorizes texts by women writers but, on the other, deplores the canonical male poets' imperialistic appropriation of "the feminine"(1) without noting how often that "feminine" Other may be located not within a mother, sister, mistress, or wife but within the male poet himself or a male companion or rival. More recently, however, Tilottama Rajan has helpfully argued that Wordsworth defines Coleridge as both his Other and his negative, and that Coleridge seems both passively to accept this shadowy role of double and actively to resist it (64). Rajan's awareness of this disturbingly simultaneous mutual perception of difference and identity closely parallels Jonathan Dollimore's definitions of the perverse, which he sees not just as an evil Other but also as a negative, as a turning away from religious or sexual orthodoxy (136), and of a "perverse dynamic" (121) of fractured yet still interconnected binaries (229). I propose, then, an extension of Koestenbaum's project, believing that what Magnuson -- with Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" in mind -- calls Wordsworth's and Coleridge's "fears about amalgamation" (3-4) begs further exploration in terms of Dollimore's perverse dynamic and Sedgwick's paradigm of homosocial male bonding, homosexual panic, and homophobic flight and vengeful pursuit (1-5, 89).(2)

My own exploration here focuses on Wordsworth's "Discharged Soldier," the first and the most haunting of his male solitaries. I retrace the complex history of the text, beginning with its original composition early in 1978, while Coleridge was still writing The Ancient Mariner and shortly before he began Part One of Christabel, and then proceeding to its subsequent inclusion with cuts, supplements, and various other revisions into Book 4 of the 1805 Prelude -- and, with even more alterations, the 1850 Prelude. We shall see that this unstable text does not inscribe a gradual Jungian process of integration of the shadow, as one critic has argued (Brennan), but almost the opposite. an increasingly close-minded Wordsworthian refusal to view the midnight meeting at the bend of the road as a scene of erotic instruction regarding the poet and his Coleridgean Other-negative. Yet in spite of the Prelude revisions, which pointedly include the introduction of heterosexual desire and the spiritualization of the poet's feelings for the soldier, the psychically and socially disruptive homoerotic tension (Bersani), "something under erasure, even in its emergence" (Dollimore 32), never entirely disappears from Wordsworth's text; indeed some of Wordsworth's later revisions do as much to reinscribe as to remove it. …

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Defusing the Discharged Soldier: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Homosexual Panic
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