Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger

Shahidha Bari commends an expert guide to figures of foreignness from Coleridge to 9/11

January 10, 2013

There is an odd moment early in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s exquisitely mysterious poem Frost at Midnight (1798), when the poet’s moonlit meditation gives way to an underlying uneasiness. What had first been presented as pleasingly dreamy solitude suddenly betrays itself as strange and unearthly stillness. Gazing pensively into a low flickering fire, Coleridge observes that such wintry quiet is impossibly calm, “so calm, that it disturbs/And vexes meditation with its strange/And extreme silentness”. Strangers and strangeness are the subject of David Simpson’s newest work, Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger, itself a slightly skew-whiff take on the literature of the period and its “strange” figurations. In Frost at Midnight, the evening is, for Coleridge, already strange and one that grows stranger still when he espies in the barely quivering flames of the fireside the invocation of an archaic superstition, foretelling the “arrival of some absent friend” whose “stranger’s face” the poet anticipates with equal measures of longing and apprehension. Simpson astutely latches upon this cryptic episode as one of several representations of the Romantic stranger, variously figured as the foreigner, the alien or intruder whose trespassing presence, both troubling and troubled, is freighted with a peculiar significance for those to whom he is strange.

In his latest book, Simpson makes for an expert guide, his deft and dynamic analysis forging unexpected pathways through the familiar terrain of Romantic writing, and his notion of the stranger supplying an illuminating new lens through which to re-perceive the Romantic canon. Where the book excels, though, is in its quietly insistent sense of the pertinence of Romantic writing and the conviction with which it makes its case for the Romantic claim to modernity. The cultural history of the stranger is, of course, one that predates the Romantics, and Simpson circumnavigates this problem by extending his analysis in both directions, conceding ruefully to “a very long Romanticism”, reaching before and after its conventional parameters. The outsider who institutes new laws, the unrecognised but long-awaited guest, the occulted or disguised divinity are all forms of the stranger familiar to the narratives of Greek and Abrahamic tradition, and Christ, Moses, Bacchus and Oedipus are dutifully plotted in this genealogy.

But Simpson’s striking introduction, in which he tethers his Romantic history of the stranger to the “War on Terror” and the post-9/11 politics of suspicion, is as arresting as it is deeply important, and it is his patient charting of this changing figuration that makes the trajectory he maps persuasive. Simpson argues incontrovertibly that the history of how one identifies, imagines and responds to strangers is the history of political life, then as it is now. “Terror”, he reminds us, “was a word that achieved urgent circulation in the 1790s, first as Robespierre’s name for what the new French Republic needed to generate on behalf of the state, and thereafter as Burke’s identification of a foreign enemy that was also embedded as an enemy within. Terror, then as now did double duty as friend and enemy, as that which protects the state and that which the state most fears and must suppress.”

There is a formidable analytical agility at work here, the concept of the stranger providing a broad term of analysis under whose auspices complex ideas of nationhood and identity are exposited and then undermined by a keen sense of the invasions, exclusions, disruptions and disturbances to which they are subject. For Simpson, the concept of the stranger supplies an alternative organising principle by which Romantic writing might be reordered. The opening chapters of the book persuasively detail those various aliens and intruders that litter Romantic writing: Thomas de Quincey’s Malay in Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) and the Jews and Arabs of Sir Walter Scott’s “Crusader” novels offering strong examples. Yet the very existence of this recognisably Romantic canon itself presents to Simpson a challenge to which the book’s closing chapters rise. The neglected female writers of the period - Felicia Hemans, Germaine de Stael and Fanny Burney - Simpson identifies as the ultimate “strangers”, closest to home and least attended to. The celebrated “slave narratives” of Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Ottobah Cugoano are similarly identified as “strange” sites of Romantic self-inspection. The attempt to redress and refurbish a limited canon is in itself not a radical gesture, and the field of Romantic scholarship has so often led the way in the questioning of literary orthodoxy, pointing up marginalisations, interrogating excisions and omissions, with Simpson himself at the helm. Where he provides new insight here is in his sense of the complex identities that constitute the field of Romanticism and its tenacious dislodging of the strict polarities of men and women, home and abroad, the familiar and the strange.

For Simpson, the particularity of Romanticism has always warranted special attention: its rapidly changing notions of statehood and citizenry, its development of a circulating global economy, its burgeoning cultures of travel and an amassed body of different forms of writing, altogether attest to an impossibly strange world that reveals its staggering diversity even as it is inextricably bound together. As Simpson indicates, the various stuffs of this Romantic world represent that very strangeness with a startling efficiency, most obviously in the case of de Quincey’s opium, but also in the sugar, tea and calico that fill Jane Austen’s world, disclosing a domestic familiarity subtly coursed through by figures of foreignness. These objects of empire function as a kind of figuration of the place of the stranger at home, but the act of “figuring” itself becomes a curious object of Simpson’s own inspection. In the middle portion of the book, his analysis extends from the figure of the “stranger” to figure itself as strange. Simpson’s seamless segue into discussions of the oddness of metaphor and the foreignness of footnotes reveals the apparatus of writing as the most strange and disruptive of all intruders. Metaphor, Simpson reasons, is a form of translation whose very existence turns on the making strange of the familiar and the familiar of the strange. More intriguing, though, are his abstractions on footnotes, persuasively discussed through the example of Robert Southey’s generously footnoted Middle Eastern fantasy Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Simpson reads Southey’s explanatory footnotes as an allegory of the ambiguous relationship of the West to the Orient. On the one hand, the footnote familiarises the body text, decoding its strange context, while on the other, it houses that which can never quite belong in a body text, relegating it to a position of bondage in relation to a master. In Simpson’s delightfully anthropomorphic analysis, the footnote then vacillates between the stubborn preservation of its resistant strangeness and the suffering of its irreconcilable difference and exclusion.

This is an unusual book, sometimes odd, always rewarding, illuminating in its analysis and dextrous in its range. If at times it struggles to rein in its spacious discussions, occasionally losing its focus and cogency, it is also the kind of book that encourages the reader’s speculations to stray from home, extending in directions beyond its own Romantic literary remit. As Simpson’s provocative readings illustrate, the question of the stranger might concern not only those mysterious others whom we hold off at the hearth but also that which we refuse to recognise within.


David Simpson, distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Davis, lives in Davis with his wife and colleague, Margaret Ferguson, and daughters Christina and Marianne. Susanna, their elder sister, is a PhD student at Columbia University.

One of “the lucky generation who went through university without costing my family a penny”, Simpson went from undergraduate study at the University of Cambridge to a master’s at the University of Michigan. “America freed me from anxieties I sometimes did not know I had, and some of the anger I did know I had - not because it is without its problems (indeed!) but because they were not the ones I grew up with,” he recalls. “But I still have strong loyalties and close ties to my early friends in England. Friendships formed before one’s thirties seem to count for a lot.”

His life, he says, has been one of “intense pastimes. But my greatest skill is probably in opening bottles (practice makes perfect). I still play chamber music, which always makes me feel better even when I am not feeling bad. I still play football, though it is mostly about admiring the skills of others as they zip past me. I have also been refereeing, which is a surprisingly complex (and never-ending) learning experience.” Asked to name a literary theorist he’d like to socialise with, Simpson says: “I miss the ones I’ve known or met who are now dead but who are still alive for me. But even on paper, theory is always alive - you can’t hold it in the memory. Like literature, it needs reading and rereading all the time. This feels like socialising, although without the lunch.”

Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger

By David Simpson

University of Chicago Press

288pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226922355 and 2362 (e-book)

Published 15 January 2012

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