The Orphaned Imagination: Melancholy and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism

The Orphaned Imagination: Melancholy and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism

by Guinn Batten

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Studies of the English Romantic poets generally portray them either as transcending the workings of capitalism or as working in complicity with an entrepreneurial economy. In The Orphaned Imagination, Guinn Batten challenges standard accounts of Romantic poetry and argues that Wordsworth, Byron, Blake, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge—each of whom suffered


Studies of the English Romantic poets generally portray them either as transcending the workings of capitalism or as working in complicity with an entrepreneurial economy. In The Orphaned Imagination, Guinn Batten challenges standard accounts of Romantic poetry and argues that Wordsworth, Byron, Blake, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge—each of whom suffered the loss of a father or father-figure at an early age—possessed an orphan’s special insight into the dynamics and aesthetics of commodity culture and its symptomatic melancholia.
Building on the theoretical insights of Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Batten interweaves the discourses of psychoanalysis, economics, biography, sexuality, melancholy, value, and exchange to question accepted ideas of how Romantic poetry works. She asserts that poetic labor is in fact paradigmatic of the kinds of production—and the kinds of desire—that capitalist culture renders invisible. If symbolic exchange, in cash or in words, requires the surrender of a beloved object, if healthy mourning requires an orphan to “work through” emotional loss through the consolation of art or a love for the living, then the rebellious Romantic poet, Batten contends, possessed unique insight into the alternative authority of a poetic language that renounced a culture of denial. Batten urges that scholars move beyond critical approaches condemning allegedly regressive forms of pleasure, recognizing that they, too, are haunted by melancholic attachments to dead poets as they conduct their work.
The Orphaned Imagination will interest anyone concerned with the claims of the English Romantic poets to a distinctive, valuable form of knowledge and those who may wonder about the power of contemporary theory to illuminate a traditional field.

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“Batten speaks movingly to scholars and teachers, asking us to reflect on what we are doing (both to the poems and to ourselves) when we teach poetry in certain ways.”—Tilottama Rajan, University of Western Ontario

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The Orphaned Imagination

Melancholy and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism

By Guinn Batten

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9985-8


Byron's In-Between Art of Ennui: "The World Is Full of Orphans"

What is the reason that I have been, all my lifetime, more or less ennuyé? ... I do not know how to answer this, but presume that it is constitutional.... Temperance and exercise ... made little or no difference. Violent passions did;—when under their immediate influence—it is odd, but—I was in agitated, but not in depressed spirits.... in general they are low, and get daily lower. That is hopeless: for I do not think I am so much ennuyé as I was at nineteen. The proof is, that then I must game, or drink, or be in motion of some kind, or I was miserable. At present, I can mope in quietness....

LORD BYRON, Ravenna journal, January 6, 1821

Byron's great strength as a writer, in the words of W. H. Auden, is that he understands that a friend—and a writer—must never be boring, however profound his thought or deep his lassitude. Afflicted by ennui (an illness that encourages dalliance and retrospection) even during periods of intense, worldly activity, Byron in fact labored more vigorously, more regularly, and more productively than any other English Romantic poet from within the dark lacunae of loss, silence, and boredom that threaten the horizon of hope. "That awful yawn which sleep cannot abate" Byron says in describing the suffocating void of "ennui ... a growth of English root / Though nameless in our language" (Don Juan, 13.101).

A poet for whom prospects seem less before him than behind may relieve the palpable weight and jaded flight of time that is characteristic of ennui with the word it echoes, rhyme:

The world is all before me or behind,
For I have seen a portion of that same,
And quite enough for me to keep in mind.
Of passions too I have proved enough to blame,
To the great pleasure of our friends, mankind,
Who like to mix some slight alloy with fame,
For I was rather famous in my time,
Until I fairly knocked it up with rhyme.

Rhyme extends "time," echoing it across the space of silence and using that moment in the dark to seduce (and reproduce) time, disseminating (illegitimately) other, rhyming words ("chyme" is a favorite) that will extend time by filling its yawning mouth, even though these rhymes may, in turn, like chyme imitate Chronos's digestion of his progeny. Desire and ennui, as Byron keenly understood, are virtually indistinguishable "vacancies" for both sexes; although he refers, specifically, to the female in the lines that follow (in line endings that are, of course, feminine), in the most important sense the male no less than the female may, in Byron's poetry, generate from some inner space of "want" new life, or new desires, either of which leads from self to others:

A something all-sufficient for the heart
Is that for which the sex are always seeking,
But how to fill up that same vacant part?
There lies the rub, and this they are but weak in.

In the spacious stanza of the Italian ottava rima, Byron could wander leisurely before returning home to a reunion (or, more typically, a parody of a reunion) in the final, rhyming couplet. What Auden identifies as Byron's disrespect for the integrity of words served him technically, enabling him to yoke outrageous rhymes for this stanzaic form. Further, it led him to transgress both the Word of the Father and the words of any son who claimed to be a recipient of paternal favors: Plato, preachers, and Lakers.

Haunting the spurious boundaries between two fraudulent English paradises—one of active, commercial "hops and high production," another of static, aristocratic "pleasure and ennui"—Byron was at home in neither. He pitched his tent and his timbre in the spacious distance "'twixt life and death." He made a home for himself in verse, straying between a home country whose language he could not abandon and the fecund foreignness of other languages and their verse forms; idling in the moment of anticipation and fear that suspends narration between a hero's promise and his disappointment or even his death; sounding the echoing abyss between two preexisting poetic stanzas; and exploiting the invisible productivity of poetic labor that exists between the inspiration that beckons from ennui and the publication that generates readers and cash.

Byron is not, like Plato, a go-between for divine Truth and erring ("controlless") humanity, one who tells earnest and gullible truth seekers that they may make their outer lives—through systematic, intellectual rigor—metaphors for metaphysical, phosphorescent inner light:

Oh Plato, Plato, you have paved the way
With your confounded fantasies to more
Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
Your system feigns o'er the controlless core
Of human hearts than all the long array
Of poets and romancers. You're a bore,
A charlatan, a coxcomb, and have been
At best no better than a go-between.

More Hermes (who is himself, of course, a go-between) than Apollo, Byron thrives, in the dark, on seemingly "inconceivable" couplings and absorptions that prove to be outrageously, uncontrollably, metonymically procreative. No intellectual idealist, neither is he—despite his sophisticated understanding of finance and of the marketplace of poetry—one of "your men of business," a go-between who spends his life and his substance circulating goods and generating gold:

Eureka! I have found it! What I mean
To say is not that love is idleness,
But that in love such idleness has been
An accessory, as I have cause to guess.
Hard labour's an indifferent go-between;
Your men of business are not apt to express
Much passion, since the merchant ship, the Argo,
Conveyed Medea as her supercargo.

Byron refused to accept as elusive the alternatives of sublimation through work or satisfaction through sex, defining his art as productive idleness, or reproductive ennui. Hence the bad bargain that he blames his forebears for accepting in exchanging "enjoying" for "employing":

Adam exchanged his Paradise for ploughing,
Eve made up millinery with fig leaves,
The earliest knowledge from the tree so knowing,
As far as I know, that the Church receives;
And since that time it need not cost much showing
That many of the ills o'er which man grieves,
And still more women, spring from not employing
Some hours to make the remnant worth enjoying.

Willing to rhyme but not to oppose "enjoy" and "employ," Byron similarly confounds relationships of blood and ink. He cannot think of one without the other, as in these lines on his hero, Harold, inspired by thoughts of his daughter:

'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou,
Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mix'd with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crush'd feelings' dearth.
(Childe Harold, 3.6)

But despite such descriptions of his poetry as leisurely and biologically reproductive, Byron, like the poet Yeats describes in "Adam's Curse," labored privately and intensively between the lines he produced to make his hard-won poetry seem "a moment's thought." Indeed, he sometimes openly feigns a disclosure of the seams, the processes, and even the (allegedly) market-driven impulses of his poems, as we may witness in two examples:

My way is to begin with the beginning.
The regularity of my design
Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,
And therefore I shall open with a line
(Although it cost me half an hour in spinning)
Narrating somewhat of Don Juan's father
And also of his mother, if you'd rather.
(Don Juan, 1.7)

In the mean time, without proceeding more
In this anatomy, I've finish'd now
Two hundred and odd stanzas as before,
That being about the number I'll allow
Each canto of the twelve or twenty-four;
And laying down my pen, I make my bow,
Leaving Don Juan and Haidee to plead
For them and theirs with all who deign to read.

Such feigned, digressive disclosures, even though they teach the reader to be wary of the poet's seductions, nevertheless endow Byron's productions with the erotic, conversational, and affectionate qualities that he believes the earnest "go-between," whether he inhabits the world of ideals or the world of commerce, is unlikely to value or to possess, even as he investigates "the Good" or inventories his goods. For unlike the merchant, a writer cannot dun the reader to whom he turns over his merchandise: "I can't oblige you, reader, to read on; / That's your affair, not mine. A real spirit / Should neither court neglect nor dread to bear it" (12.87). The writer's success, as he moves between his offspring and his audience, depends on his skill in convincing the reader that he has not yet surrendered (and may never surrender) all. The reader must come to want the author's "hero," and to want that hero to live, as much as the author does himself. The writer who, like the Argo merchant, would sacrifice the living cargo that he carries for a stranger's money could never earn that which cannot be procured so coldly or possessed so absolutely.

Throughout his career, Byron located the place of poetry in a fallen world, and in a mature age, not only in the in-between spaces of mediation just identified but also within what he recognized as a terrifying and exhilarating moment of suspense and suspension: the boundary—the moment of almost falling—that lies between innocence and experience. Sustaining simultaneously a rational skepticism toward, and an irrational belief in, a Calvinist God, Byron was resigned to the uncertain state (and estate) called "preterition," even as he refused to accept the absence of the Father who had (like his own father) abandoned him. Hating, exaggerating, and willfully reenacting his own fallenness, Byron wrote to cast beyond himself both the irrational sinner and his irresponsible Creator and judge. In doing so he both bested and resurrected the Father (and father) who bestowed life before leaving the world. To write, for Byron, was in some sense to provoke the return of both fathers. Indeed, he wrote in order to restore some notion of familial love (even, mischievously, incestuous love) to a commercial world of exchange that is lubricated by the sacrifice of blood (in both senses). To write was to exfoliate, ridding Byron of the impoverished, depleted, and rejected self that suffered from ennui, and allowing the poet to begin life anew, with replenished reserves of affection.

If the Lord, as Lucifer remarks to Cain, created mankind in order to flee the lonely, restless ennui of perfection, Byron's adversarial creativity derived from the ennui of preterition, a terrifying inversion of Calvinist election in which sons are damned as a consequence not of paternal rejection but of paternal neglect: God failed to name (or to call) as explicitly "damned" those who are not positively elected for salvation. Living between grace and perdition, neither one thing nor the other, the preterite son—precociously "fallen" even before he is allowed to lose "freely" his innocence—is marked not by the Father's presence but by the invisible sign of his absence. In Byron: A Portrait Leslie Marchand stresses the importance of Calvinism in shaping both Byron's early childhood experiences—marked by poverty and by his profligate father's absence—and, more important, his lifelong need to resist the unforgiving theology he imbibed informally through his nurses. While Byron may joke in Don Juan that he is worldly and tolerant about religious matters because he was "born a moderate Presbyterian," his life—even at its most prodigal—betrayed the ineradicable guilt instilled by that church's teachings.

To believe in the Calvinist God without believing one is saved is to install, within the sanctuary of the self, both a judging and a condemned "self." The son who is not chosen will value himself, ultimately, according to God's Law, even as he protests the fairness of that Law and seeks to defend its victims. Such feelings of betrayal, anger, and inadequacy are, according to Marchand, the source of Byron's "Satanic pose": "[D]eeply ingrained in his unconscious mind, a gloomy Calvinism made him feel that the majority of men and he in particular had the mark of Cain on them and were slated for damnation. After exhausting his powers of reason, wit, and ridicule in trying to refute the arguments of religion, he would often say with violence: 'The worst of it is, I do believe'" (194).

Related to the absence that marks the preterite sons place in Creation is the inner experience of absence, or emptiness, called ennui. Etymologically derived from the Latin odium, as in "esse in odio," "ennui" literally means "object of hate." In an age of reason that has supplanted a loving, judging, but nevertheless living God with the abstract Law of the Father, to be hated by God is to be hated by the tyrannical, implacable, and irrational superego, a ghostly paternal presence that thrives on the hatred of the death drive but cannot love. Ennui, according to the single major study of the subject, is a state that is the opposite of grace. The victim of ennui does not hear the call of a loving Father; rather, he possesses an uncomfortable, illogical certainty that such a Father both does not exist and that He has excluded this son from the family (the elect) whom he does continue to love, a family of sons who manifest their "election" (in circular logic) through their faith in His existence, and their freedom from ennui. A poetry such as Byron's that recoils from the rejected self earns strength, delight, and self-distinction—"laurels"—in opposing, "with blood or ink," whatever appears to spring from grace, metaphysical health, and a smug certainty of salvation: "'Tis sweet to win, no matter how, one's laurels / By blood or ink. "'Tis sweet to put an end / To strife; 'tis sometimes sweet to have our quarrels" (1.126). To be certain of damnation—to bear openly God's mark into exile—is better than to be the in-between "nothing" called "preterite." It is to do something, rather than to be the nothing evoked by ennui.

Byron, like his self-styled Cain, digressively and obsessively returned as a poet to the scene of his parents' fall into mortality, to ruined estates and squandered legacies for whose loss Byron and Cain blame their antecedents, but especially their Father. A poet who haunted forbidden and forbidding spaces, Byron is himself haunted throughout his career by the ghost of a first Being, both parental and divine, who, in abandoning him, convinced the grieving son that salvation—Paradise—could never be his, for reasons he would never be old enough to understand. Orphaned by his father at the age of three, by God even as he learned that He existed, by the Earl of Carlisle in seeking to establish his legitimacy before Parliament, and by his mother just after he had returned home to claim the fruits of his majority, Byron would find failed recognition, abandonment, and death not only painful, recurring realities throughout his short life but also a fecund source for a poetry that refused to recognize the boundaries of genre, gender, class, and decorum. Eschewing or incapable of the response to death through the aesthetic work that Peter Sacks has defined as "elegiac," the healthy work of mourning, Byron is spurred to his unfalteringly prolific production of poetry by the death instinct of melancholia. Byron's term for the "rage" to write that came over him—often in his bedroom and contiguous to more conventional expressions of emotional release—was, simply, "estrus." A word that crosses the border of gender, it also challenges the opposition of activity to idleness and aggressiveness to passiveness, evoking the frenzied receptivity of that first step toward the creation of new life. Byron anticipated Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle in understanding intuitively that the drive to produce poems, no less than the drive to reproduce, owes as much to the aggressive and destructive force of death (Thanatos) as to the binding and healing energies of Eros. Both death and love inhabit the idleness of seduction, writing, and ennui.


Excerpted from The Orphaned Imagination by Guinn Batten. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Guinn Batten is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.

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