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Peter Kitson, ed., Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. New Casebooks. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996. ISBN: 0 333 60890 9 (paperback). Price: £10.99 (pb)

  • Robert M. Corbett

…plus d’informations

  • Robert M. Corbett
    University of Washington

Corps de l’article

Casebook, as opposed to textbook, suggests substance. While "textbook" suggests a tissue of received ideas, susceptible to the intemperate breezes of critical discourse, the "case" in "casebook" resonates with case study, associating the term with postmortems and law schools. Casebooks do not necessarily create new knowledge as much create the opportunity to understand how we produce that knowledge in the first place. They can be powerful pedagogical tools, placing before the reader examples of the critical art. However, they can also be a trial for even the most generous minded reader, generating responses of pleasure and dismay because of the choices for inclusion and exclusion. Placing "new" at the front of "casebook" further amplifies the potential of the genre for annoyance. Does the "new" mean that previous "cases" are now inadequate, fated to be remaindered or pulped? At the same time, the suggestion that a critical method is new also renders the work vulnerable to all the familiar criticisms of novelty. Indeed, if these "new" approaches can now be put forward in a casebook, surely a signal of academic respectability, in what sense are they new?

There are pedagogical reasons, however, for traipsing over old ground, and more especially, there are reasons for collections of "new" approaches to romanticism. The Coleridge, Keats and Shelley volume in the Macmillan New Casebooks series, edited by Peter J. Kitson, fills a felt need, in providing some examples of new approaches to the eponymous poets. Perhaps the most useful parts of the book, in pedagogical terms, are the introduction and the annotated bibliography. The introduction usefully contextualizes the new approaches to romanticism, dividing the flood of work that appeared after M. H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism into three streams of "challenges": poststructuralist, historicist, and feminist.  [1] Poststructuralism here should really be glossed as the so-called Yale School with a nod towards Lacan. The lumping of Lacan with deconstructive readings of romanticism, while entirely understandable, is symptomatic of what the editor really takes to be new in romantic studies. All the figures discussed in the section concerning poststructuralism did their major work in the seventies, and the editor doesn't use one of the essays selected as an example of the approach. Kitson therefore gives the impression that deconstruction is an affable uncle of the fraternal twins of historicism and feminism; an influential presence, but one which has been generationally superseded. Understandably, this positioning of the challenges to the idealist reading of romanticism reflects the recent excitement over feminist and historicist readings of romanticism, but whether it reflects the genuine interrelatedness of the movements (Margaret Homans' Bearing the Word, for instance, is psychoanalytic as well as feminist, while the (new) historicism is most certainly indebted to the theoretical groundwork of deconstruction) is another question.

The purpose of such introductions, however, is to situate, not exhaust possible avenues of discussion; annotated bibliographies, on the other hand, show how that discussion might be continued. Kitson's inclusion of a thorough and readable bibliography turns what could have been a collection into a casebook. Helpfully, it covers general works on romanticism as well as discussing various recent tendencies in the study of Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley, along with classic starting points for each writer. Kitson's inclusion of a section in bibliography for female romantic poetry is indicative of contemporary concerns, and is a necessary complement for the male centered feminist essays he has selected. Finally, at the end of each essay, Kitson provides an abstract of the writer's argument, a gesture which suggests the provisionality of those arguments. In a sense, they are the first marginal notes in the book.

The most important parts of the collection, however, are the essays themselves. An attentive reading of them will clear away any notion that literary theory comes in nice, neat packages marked "poststructuralist," "feminist," and "historicist," as Kitson's cogent summaries help make clear. Ordered by the author under scrutiny rather than the theory employed, the essays nevertheless construct a narrative of romantic theory. The collection begins with an essay almost new critical in its vocabulary, only to unravel that vocabulary in favor of deconstructive and (literary) political analysis. This move turns out to be a way station for essays as nearly as formalist as the first, but which are hermeneutic (and one might almost say hermetic) in vocabulary. I submit that one of the reasons for this pattern is that essays are ordered according to degree of difficulty (both for the reader and the writer). Kathleen M. Wheeler's claim for the holistic nature of the Coleridgean imagination seems worlds away from William Ulmer's argument that "Adonais never fully accepts the transferential interinvolvement of creation and destabilization, never fully disclaims its metaphysical nostalgia and desire for permanent truths and values."  [2] The claims themselves aren't as far apart as they seem ( in some ways they describe the same concept seen from opposite perspectives), but Ulmer's depends on a vocabulary and a range of concepts not even dreamed by the latter. The sheer difficulty of the more formalist essays here registers the challenge that the historical (political?) study of literature poses for the aesthetic study.

At first it is hard to see what Kathleen M. Wheeler's "'Kubla Khan' and Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theories" is doing in this collection, claiming as it does that "[n]ot only is . . . the barren dualism overcome" by the Coleridgean imagination, but in his "distinction between the primary and secondary imagination we see this reconciliation radically pursued and effected" (41). This claim for imaginative wholeness has about it the whiff of Abrams' lamp, but, as Kitson points out, Wheeler's originality is in her reading of "the disruptions and sudden transitions in the poem" as figures for the poet's awareness of the limits of figuration (43). This allows her to ally Coleridge with Blake and Shelley as a believer in the radical imagination. It is an ingenious reading, but I find myself more drawn to the less happily divided Coleridge of Susan Eilenberg's "Voice and Ventriloquy in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ." More explicitly indebted to the Yale School, Eilenberg is prepared to recognize that a commitment to ironic procedures entails a commitment to failure, again and again: "The Rime , like the Mariner, is obsessed with its need to talk about itself and its relation to speech but never quite manages to name its subject" (67). The result is less New Age holism, and more poetry as possession. The ventriloquism refers to the poem's repetitions and self-quotation; just who is subject to "the strange power of speech"—Mariner or narrator, reader or Wedding guest—becomes abundantly unclear by the end of the poem. One can be forgiven for feeling a bit dizzy when Eilenberg announces the Rime is protodeconstructive giving "us imitations, repetitions, representations - but no originals" (68).

Still, both of these essays feel a bit cloistered. Indeed, Eilenberg's concern for originality arises out of her own response of Harold Bloom's hyberbolic assertion that there is but one poem is English literary history. The next three essays, on Coleridge, Keats, and feminism/effeminacy implicitly critique this assumption, by demonstrating how critical history affects interpretation. In "The Debate on the Character of Christabel ," Karen Swann examines the treatment of Christabel as exemplary of how "feminization" is a "strategy habitually adopted by high culture when defending its privileges" (76). Put off by the sexually charged relationship of Geraldine and Christabel, early reviewers "cast [the poem's] impropriety as generic impurity" (76). Thus, Swann suggests that the criticism of the poem waged a gender war by aesthetic means. Such a claim dovetails nicely with the next essay, "Feminising Keats," by Susan J. Wolfson, whose concerns are "with how the language of gender operates in the literary and social culture in which [Keats] wrote and was reviewed" (93). In this case, the figure of the poet himself cannot be extricated from the poem, as the effeminacy of his writing led to a reading of Keats himself as unmanly. Yet Wolfson does not leave the argument there, noting that this very feminization has allowed for more positive readings - "even to the point of androgyny" (93).  [3] Rather Wolfson wishes to historicise the debate itself suggesting that, whatever the value judgment, the debate simply "repeats the problem of reconciling general values with a complex and elusive instance" (109). The reading of Keats' poetry should be an occasion for the examination of those values themselves.

Each of these readings is more about the discourse produced by readers, than the poems themselves, and to a degree, so is Nicholas Roe's "Keats's Lisping Sedition." Yet this essay seeks to examine the critical history in order to set it aside for another interpretation. For this reason, as well as its wit, Roe's essay stands out as the gem of the collection. The wit is best evidenced by the claim to produce, from perhaps the most purely aestheticized romantic, a political poet whose claims for "genius, negative capability, and ideal beauty . . . can be seen as developments of a democratic sensibility" (129). These claims might seem facile, if they weren't backed up with very patient work at decoding why Keats could be written off as Cockney. Roe's research reveals a semantic field that underlies the war of words waged by Lockhart and others. I would suggest that this essay, then, places Keats firmly in the romantic literature of subversion, most prominently practiced by Shelley and Godwin.  [4] But his method wasn't quite subversive enough. Rather having an afterlife as a radical icon as Shelley did (with Queen Mab ), the critical reaction was such that Roe suggests Byron was more right than he could have known when he said Keats "had been 'snuffed out by an article'" (129). Instead, Keats's reputation recovered only through his aesthetic deification.

The final two essays on Keats' also take up the relation of aesthetics and history, but they offer a different perspective on the "new" approaches, concerning themselves with recent political readings of the poet that the authors see as overcompensating for that very aesthetic deification (by Bate, Brooks, and others). Like Roe, A. W. Phinney and Andrew Bennett view the poet as more knowing about his relation to history, but their concern is not to replace formal concerns with historical ones, but rather show their implication. Of the two, Phinney's "Keats in the Museum" is more theoretical, using Gadamer to refute excesses of both aesthetics and history. The occasion for this is the well worn "Ode on A Grecian Urn." In contrast to those who celebrate the poem's perfection, Phinney insists that its persistence is due to its hesitations: "the ode's repeated question, overinsistent repetition, riddling puns and oxymorons, and ambiguous syntax" (148). While Phinney is attentive to these aspects of the poem, his conclusion is at best vague: the poem somehow takes the best of aestheticism and historicism together. What this means, besides another version of the idealization of the poem, is unclear to me. Bennett's "To Autumn" not only surveys history, but specifies it as economic history: "To Autumn": "Figures of reading become, literally, economic figures" as the poem "is an articulation of the politics and economics both of agriculture and of writing" (155). From this summary, it would seem that Bennett has more in common with Roe. Nevertheless, Bennett adds a twist to his argument that make much more theoretical. For not only is "To Autumn" molested by political and economic overtones, but the very fact that they are so obvious silences a political reading as an egregious "solecism," to use Bennett's term. Surely, the history of readings of "To Autumn" bears out Bennett's point that the political has been repressed by its readers, but it seems overingenuous to suggest that this is a function of the poem's "strategic silencing" of such concerns. Of course, criticism should be nothing if not ingenious; one wouldn't read it, unless one found in it interesting insights. But perhaps the very precariousness of making formal claims about poetry in these days of New Casebooks provokes ingenuity on the part of the critic.

By contrast, the work of Shelley, demands ingenuity, and not merely in the deliberately obscure Prometheus Unbound . Ironically, Kitson includes neither a feminist nor a New Historicist reading of his work (though one is defiantly old historicist), as though to suggest only deconstruction, with its complex consideration of troping, passes muster as a new approach.  [5] Though I took up Ulmer as representative of the new difficulty in critical style, both his and Frances Ferguson's essays are exemplary instances of poststructuralist readings of romantic poems. Sandwiched between them is Kelvin Everest's "'Mechanism of a kind yet unattempted': The Dramatic Action of Prometheus Unbound ." Everest's essay is badly placed for my thesis about the book as a whole; hardly at all theoretical, the essay addresses whether an audience could possibly get some of the more recondite imagery "without the assistance of detailed academic commentary" (198). The essay itself is an example of just that, explicating the image of an earth-emitted vapour that plays a large role (according to Everest) in the poem's action. His claim is well-taken, but it seems odd to make such a claim about a poem rhetorically aimed at the "fit though few." More refreshing is his refutation of those who would make the poem a sort of visionary well-wrought urn instead of a composition which is more fragmentary and palimpsestic.

However, Everest's worries about obscurity, as though it necessarily prevents revolutionary impact, are unwarranted, especially in the case of Shelley. In fact, Shelley's obscurity is at times a means of flying under ideological radar - though the case of Leavis' reading demonstrates that this is not a foolproof strategy. What is more curious is this most political of romantic poets attracts the least engagé critical school: deconstruction. Are political readings of Shelley a case of bringing coals to Newcastle? At the same time, Frances Ferguson's "Shelley's Mont Blanc : What the Mountain Said" and William Ulmer's "Adonais and the Death of Poetry" admirably demonstrate how apt deconstruction is to the reading of Shelley. Indeed, such an affinity shouldn't seem surprising when we remember Shelley's radical conception of language and his concern with the relation of poetry and history. Of the two essays, I prefer Ferguson's, which gets at poststructuralist concerns with a less ornate vocabulary and probably needs no introduction here. In many ways, Ulmer considers the same issues as Phinney and Bennett. If anything, though, his conclusions about poetry and history are less sanguine. Ulmer offers a more pessimistic reading (in contrast to Jerrold Hogle) of Shelley's use of metalepsis in Adonais. Rather than offering the power to transform history through the lens of the present,

[b]y obligating the past to the present, metalepsis renders the past an endlessly reconstructible pawn of contemporary ideologies, with their power to distort the historical record, to forget what deserves remembering. Shelley's reflexive figurations leave cultural continuity unanchored in certain truth.


The reassertion of the sheer contingency of cultural history is a truth that this volume bears witness to, and so it is an appropriate sentiment to end with. Nevertheless, contingency casts a rather awkward light on the project of criticism itself; encountering such thoughts, a student might well think that, on the whole, it's better left undone.

And yet . . . Though these are certainly new approaches to the reading of these three poets, Kitson in his introduction and bibliography alludes to other trends that threaten his work with obsolescence. As I mentioned, he includes a separate bibliographic entry for women poets and, in his introduction, he alludes to recent (post)colonialist readings of romantic poetry. He could have added an entry on studies of the romantic novel as well. Though the eighties saw a variety of new approaches, the nineties threaten a reconceptionalization of what is romanticism, in terms of genre and gender. Such contingency is frightening, but also liberating, in that we readily admit there are more things to be read, but that admission suggests that, while there will be new casebooks, the place of Keats, Coleridge, and Shelley (and for that matter, Byron, Blake, and Wordsworth) is not assured. Notably absent from this volume are pieces more explicitly critical of the poets. As I said, the more formalist essays, in the very elaborateness and qualified nature of their claims, certainly bear the marks of this recent turn in criticism. In a way, this makes pedagogical sense, since demonstrating failure (either poetically or politically) is not a very attractive mode of criticism, but one wonders if this absence makes the collection less representative than it might be. Finally, however, the absence seems to reflect the revved up evolutionary cycle of romantic studies, making it perilous to claim something as new. This New Casebooks volume is an admirable and useful attempt, but upon finishing it, I am reminded all too well that romanticism is "ever more about to be."

Parties annexes