“Being sexless, wilt thou be”: Nineteenth-Century British Poetry and the Challenge of the Androgynous Mind
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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This dissertation occasions a recognition and discussion of androgyny by taking on the challenge of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nineteenth-century claim that “a great mind must be androgynous.” Drawing on Judith Butler’s contemporary concept of undoing gender, this project explores the tension between how some nineteenth-century poetic representations of androgyny produce restrictive performances that can “undo one’s personhood,” but also that can create spaces for greater livability. Each chapter exhibits why poetry as a genre became such a fertile site for testing the possibilities of the androgynous mind during the nineteenth century and how the idea of the greatness of the androgynous mind poses several challenges to readers through depictions of androgynous figures, language, and poets. These challenges include how to recognize, discuss, and teach androgyny given the dominance and, for the sake of being able to communicate, necessity to use normative binary language. Starting with Coleridge’s poem Christabel, the first chapter highlights the challenges presented by the androgynous character Geraldine by drawing out the tension between the destabilizing monstrous depiction and the sublime qualities of Geraldine’s androgyny. Reading Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan with attention to Byron’s technique of self and culturally reflective poetic performances, the second chapter works to better understand how Byron’s celebrity status simultaneously enhances and stifles his ability to engage in revolutionary poetics that produce gender trouble. The third chapter explores how Charles Algernon Swinburne’s pendant poems, “Hermaphroditus” and “Fragoletta,” produce spaces for rebellion against medical and legal classifications of sex, gender, and sexuality while simultaneously exhibiting the eponymous androgynous figures as objects of curiosity. The final chapter examines the complex play between gender and sexual identity produced by adaptations of Sapphic fragments in Michael Field’s, Long Ago. The conclusion addresses more thoroughly how these poetic performances relate to contemporary feminist, gender, and queer theory. As using Butler’s idea of undoing gender as a frame for reading suggests, the greatest challenge that we face with respect to androgyny is the challenge of achieving the goal of greater livability.