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Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997. ISBN: 0804736626. Price: $19.95.

  • Laura Mandell

…plus d’informations

  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University of Ohio

Corps de l’article

The publication of Susan Wolfson's relatively recent book Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism is a terribly important event, not only in the history of Romantic Studies, but in the history of the theoretical discourses currently questioning whether the study of literature should become Cultural Studies, and asking to what extent the practice of aesthetic appreciation should be abandoned for political criticism. Wolfson's text is charged to the hilt with information about and readings of the interplay between semantic and formal elements in Romantic poems by Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Her detailed readings of these poems deserve the careful and sustained attention they call for. Wolfson's account of various poetic practices—about the political intentions informing Shelley's Mask of Anarchy for instance, and about the interplay of the verbal and the graphic in Blake's poetry, beginning with his early, unengraved Poetical Sketches—intervenes in ongoing and pressing critical debates within the field of Romantic poetry. Moreover, Wolfson delineates how specific poetic forms generate competing interpretations in major critical textsby Romanticists. In this review, I will focus less on that contribution than on the book's theoretical import, partly because close reading cannot be summarized, and partly because I wish to show why the theoretical import of her work must be quietly stated, for formal reasons: I will show here why Wolfson's litotes in theoretical argument is necessary, as well as what might be missed if we simply take at face value the understatement of her modest theoretical charges.

I. Theoretical Necessity

Wolfson's text eschews grand theoretical claims for instances of complex close reading, confining discussions of its own place in the theoretical scene to the introduction, short conclusion, and only one or two paragraphs in each chapter. The book opens by giving us a theoretical framework that is by now very familiar to Romanticists, and so may seem a bit atavistic insofar as she counters a critical charge against Romanticism that has already in many ways been renounced by those who levied the charge in the first place. As the story goes, Marjorie Levinson and Jerome McGann attacked Romantic poets for being immersed in an aesthetic ideology that protected them (and later readers) from history, for using the theory of organic unity, in other words, to paper over ideological contradictions. Subsequent critics including Wolfson, and perhaps even McGann and Levinson themselves, have realized that the charge against poetic form for being quietist is a charge levied by Romantic poetry against itself.

Part of the understatement of Wolfson's theoretical countercharge, then, comes from not being able to say to McGann, Levinson, and Terry Eagleton (who attacks the aesthetic rather than Romanticism per se), simply, "You are wrong." Rather, her close readings of Romantic poems reveal in the poems themselves the critique of aesthetic ideology in the sense of a false consciousness sustained by a false (or sheerly representational) sense of unity. Wolfson beautifully shows, for instance, that Wordsworth's scene of the drowned man, as it is moved and reworked through successive revisions of The Prelude, serves less to aestheticize death by connecting the dead body's appearance to what Wordsworth has read in books, through "purified aesthetic control," than it does "to enact a revisionary dialectic of confrontation and containment" that repeatedly gestures toward the "decay" it seeks to stave off by attempting to aesthetically displace the terror of it (pp. 124, 121). In Shelley's Mask of Anarchy, Shelley attempts to displace a "poetics of dormancy" (p. 288n.12) by a "political poetics" through deploying the formal technique of a dream vision from which the reveur never awakens in the space of the poem, thus attempting to jettison the reader from a "merely" poetic or aesthetic realm into the world of political oratory.  [1] If Romantic poetry and theorizing occasionally seem to advocate a kind of "formalism," choosing ideal worlds over politically disappointing real ones, it also itself engages in "formalist criticism," critiquing its own desire for a bookish or dreamy passivity through rather than in spite of poetic form.

But there is more to the understatement of Wolfson's claims than the fact that critical charges against poetry for its capacity for political disarmnament form part of Romantic poetry itself. There is an aspect to the theoretical understatement of this text that makes crucial the intervention of Wolfson's critical practices into theorizing about the discipline of English Literature at our moment. I can only understand the difficult charge or responsibility placed upon me by this book through a step-by-step dramatizing of its work, which I will now perform.

Step 1: In the movie Primary Colors, the Bill Clinton figure has experienced a temporary (it turns out) setback in his political campaign, and a new democratic candidate, played by Larry Hagman, comes to the fore. This character later withdraws from the race rather than having his previous drug habit and an extramarital, homosexual affair made public. From the moment of his appearance, however, he is clearly the better candidate, and it is part of the movie's depressing message that such a person could never weather the political process of campaigning and getting elected. When the Hagman character arrives at a pep rally given to launch his candidacy, he confronts the screaming crowd with, "O.K., everybody, now let's just calm down." His message is, in effect, that, because of the complexity of the political issues confronting a President, they cannot be adequately thought through screams of yea or nay on the part of a charged or revved-up crowd.

The charge against formalist criticism, and implicitly against a discipline of English literature that focuses on aesthetics and form, made by cultural critics and New Historicists can sound very much like oratory presented at a pep rally: "Critical research and teaching in the Humanities may be either a merely academic displacement or a genuine academic instantiation of oppositional social and political practice," Montrose intones, and one can hear the crowd roar its applause.  [2] Surely not! one might protest. No one would use language like that at a pep rally—communal roaring would have to wait while people in the crowd intellectually process concepts such as "displacement" and "instantiation." And in fact Peter Brooks articulates resistance to my claim very succinctly in commenting upon Montrose's claim:

One senses that this is material to hide from the eyes of such as Lynne Cheney or Hilton Kramer or Dinesh D'Souza, or other recent critics of the academic humanities, since it so readily confirms their intemperate view that the academy has become a conspiracy of aging Sixties radicals made only slightly less dangerous by the fact that their prose can't shoot straight.

p. 158

But the fact of off-fire prose should not distract us from what the critical charge is doing. "Attention to poetic form [is] a labor of 'reductive operations,' an exercise 'preoccupied simply with analyzing linguistic devices,'" says Terry Eagleton.  [3] These two attacks are pernicious insofar as they misrecognize and misrepresent to a revved-up crowd what slow, responsible academic labor actually is, as much as they conflate politics with pep rally, the work of the presidency with the work of campaigning. What we have here is a bad guy in a black hat, the anal-retentive, rheumy academic critic who uses the alleged necessity of attending to formal, "linguistic devices" just as he uses his nasal spray, as an excuse to stay inside reading ("a merely academic displacement"), and a good guy in a white hat, the professor out there with radical students building shanties on Cornell's campus, occupying them, and getting arrested in order to protest Cornell's investment in apartheid South African companies ("a genuine academic instantiation of oppositional social and political practice").  [4]

The attacks on formalism by New Historicist and Cultural critics have equated any attention to form by a literary critic with the kind of attention previously paid to "the Author," the monolithic unity effectively dismantled in Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author." But this essay, with which Wolfson's book is in steady and productive conversation, has been so grossly misunderstood in its intent, in my opinion, as to have been used as a banner for precisely the kind of criticism it argues against. Barthes argues against those critics who would invoke "the Author" and authorial intent as a way of closing down the work of interpretation, proclaiming it finished rather than always open to revision. Barthes's charge against biographical criticism which has been transferred to formalist criticism bears quoting exactly as a way of showing how inapt its application has been.

For Barthes, the problem with the Author, as with any formalist insistence on organic unity, is that "he" (or the unified "It") becomes an Imaginary instance, very like the combattants (rheumy academicist and not-merely-academic politico) described above:

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is "explained"—victory to the critic.  [5]

When Montrose and Eagleton set up the black-hat academic in contrast to themselves, they have achieved the same kind of victory as New Historicists and Cultural critics do when they read texts to find in or (allegedly) despite those texts one of the "hypostases" that Barthes warns against above: History-capital-H, or the "history of some uncontested hegemony (orientalism, sexism, homophobia, Eurocentrism, and so on)."  [6] Instead of seeing in texts we read the Author or Orientalism,  [7] some "historically uniform expression of culpability" (Simpson p. 11), we need to get to what Barthes hoped we would finally encounter with the death of the author, viz. writing, "that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing" (p. 142).

Step 2: But let's be aware of the imaginary combattants suddenly appearing on the stage of this review, here and now. The question now arises: are we getting a charge out of writing and reading my attack here on Montrose, Eagleton, and abusers of Said, in favor of Wolfson, close-reading, Barthes, and criticism of writing itself (formalist criticism)? Because if so, then the content of my review is contradicted by the form: I am attacking Montrose and Eagleton for staging a pep rally on the stage of a pep rally. That is the charge or burden of form: there are no easy answers, not even the easy answer, "all is complexity," because meaning is never simply stated but also formally enacted in ways that are more or less available to consciousness. I have been trying to argue that it is through this political charge (legal attack) against formalist criticism by cultural critics that a charge, an emotional outburst, overwhelms a charge, the sense of responsibility that can reign in any obscurantist emotional reaction (a charging steed, to Plato). But in doing so I can be charged (indicted) with myself repeating that obscurantist movement.

Step 3: In lieu of staging the theoretical attack sketched here, Wolfson's book makes use of all these meanings of the word "charge," and more: it is an electrical, passionate impulse (pp. 123, 127, 134), galvanized (p. 195) and galvanizing, a legal brief or line of attack (p. 193), a strain in both senses of the word, music and fissure (pp. 204-205), a responsibility or task (p. 205), a burden (p. 32), an indictment (p. 61), and a limit on passionate expression (pp. 166, 223). Unlike the complexity of Montrose's language which veils his division of critics into white and black hats, Wolfson's explorations of the possible uses of the ordinary word "charge" in relation to form takes us not only from one meaning to its opposite (from passion to the impassive), they also and especially complicate the picture of agency in poetry beyond any possible sorting of it into Imaginary combattants. This is a feat. Wolfson shares the capacity and desire to complicate agency in relation to aesthetic form with two Romantic New Historicists, Alan Liu and David Simpson (see note 6), but her focus on form gives us, I believe, crucial insight into the work of the aesthetic and the necessary place of literary studies.  [8]

There are many ways to think about the formal problem that has just occurred in the course of writing and reading this essay (the pep-rallyish attack on pep rallies). Frances Ferguson has recently pointed out that McGann's seminal attack on M. H. Abrams in The Romantic Ideology actually performs the formalist reading of Abrams's work that it accuses Abrams of performing on Romantic poetry.  [9] The question is: why does form do that? why does it betray the critic, no matter whether she loves or hates it? Wordsworth might have said that the counterspirit of language rolls through all things, correcting various forms of pride; or he might have talked about "huge and mighty forms, that do not live / Like living men" "[w]orking with a dim and undetermined sense" to "trouble [his aesthetic] dreams" (The Prelude (1850), Book First, lines 398-399, 392, 400). In either case, his answer would certainly not be to deny the problem of form by a misguided belief in aesthetic unity, as Wolfson deftly argues (p. 10): the Romantic texts she analyzes "shape poetic form into its own critical statement [of the value and limits of form,] by force of experimental agenda or traditions pressed to new extremes" for political reasons (p. 29).

Each chapter of Formal Charges demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Romantic poetry first identifies the question of form—why does it continually betray the heart that loves her?—and so it is most interesting to notice how the answers posed by various poems fit into the scene of answers posed by contemporary theories. The postmodernist answer is that the subject is decentered, never achieving self-mastery. The psychoanalytic answer is that the repressed (or in the case of polemic, whatever has been projected outward) returns, revealing the critic's unconscious desire to be the critic he wishes to supplant. The deconstructive answer from Paul de Man is that the performative (the effect of an utterance's form) always contradicts the cognitive or semantic value of its message, as when Locke says that he will always speak in plain, simple, a-rhetorical language, and then tells us that the mind of a child is white paper not yet printed with characters and that he'll examine how it becomes furnished.  [10] There has been a powerful charge levelled against de Man by both Denis Donoghue and Stanley Cavell, that to see form and semantics as generating contradictory meanings—i.e., only two possible meanings—is reductive.  [11] But there is value in De Man's search for a sense of the materiality of language at the moment when the performative and cognitive fissure, when a sentence such as "What's the difference?" means both that there is no difference and asks to know the difference. The attempt to capture the collapse of sense is one way to insist upon what all these other answers to the question of the problem of form are trying to understand: that language cannot be completely coterminous with anyone's intention, that we are born into a language that precedes and postdates us, a language that is not ours and not us.  [12]

It is not only scientists who attempt to deny this fact of language through mastering meaning in rational discourse. Literary critics also vie for mastery. Psychoanalytic critics do so through fantasizing a terminable analysis. Some New Historicist and Cultural critics achieve mastery by projection, imagining that all that is alienating in language (and history) has deformed past texts or present commodities, while the critic's own language is completely self-possessed: "victory to the critic," as Barthes says.  [13] And de Manian rhetorical criticism achieves mastery by confronting over and over again the trauma of its loss, the critic insisting that he or she will have no truck with any of the delusions of meaning. This is mastery through sustained refusal. The desire for mastery is extremely difficult to defeat, or at least stave off.

Step 4: One way to productively resist the desire for mastery is to resist answering the question of agency by focusing on form. For example, Wolfson shows that Blake captures the predicament of living in language when he makes in two of his illuminated books a recurrent visual pun:

6. Here alone I in books formd of me-
Have written the secrets of wisdom

The First Book of Urizen, Ch. 2

But first the notion that man has a body
distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this
I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by
corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and me-
dicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and
displaying the infinite which was hid.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 14

Hyphenation in both passages bring "me," the ego, out of metals and medicines. Wolfson notices in these plates two "formations of me- from the constraints of a pre-existing material . . . ." But despite having to wrench the "me" out of language, Blake does not, Wolfson argues, resign himself to the fact that there is no outside-text:

Yet the writerly presence of Blake's hyphen, even as it distills its me- in a material script, also resists resigning all authority to the text. The idiosyncratic hyphenation shows how forms of writing can impress the self in writing in ways that paradoxically elude deconstruction by language, medium, or sheer textuality.

p. 35

Wolfson here avoids incarnating any master: Blake is not being celebrated here, but neither has the Text supplanted Barthes's Author as all knowing. A focus on local forms ("idiosyncratic hyphenation") is a way of eluding the grip of the desire to find linguistic mastery, be it in self or Author or one of its hypostases, by making one of these things over into a completely effective linguistic agent.

Wolfson's focus on the question of "formal charges," which includes her ability to simultaneously encompass many meanings of the word "charge," also more importantly includes her ability to focus on the interplay of semantic and formal elements, noticing how they contradict and enhance each other, without marshalling any formal or semantic feature to become the banner of unity: this is not a book that celebrates always and everywhere the triumph of "idiosyncratic hyphenation"; that form is given only one moment of attention in one minor reading. What it does show, over and over again, in readings of specific passages of particular texts, is that "writing in poetic form acquires its own subversive agency, bearing information that eludes rhetorical mastery and thwarts exact imaginative supervision" (109).

II. Formalism and Formalist Criticism

Wolfson bemoans the fact that recent defenders of formalist criticism apologize for some of its "embarrassing" features, such as the claim that "sound echoes sense, form enacts meaning" (p. 228). But Wolfson's formalism is not embarrassing precisely because it does not do what much formalist criticism still does. For instance, in a penetrating essay on the limits of De Manian deconstruction, Denis Donoghue is embarrassing when he insists that alliteration in the last sentence of The Great Gatsby, the bs in "beat," "boat," and "borne," give us a sense of romance and wonder.  [14] Well, maybe, or maybe they communicate a sense of boredom: who is to say? Donoghue rightly argues that deconstructive, "rhetorical" readings participate in a kind of ascesis, in a "metaphysics of doom" (p. 19), the critic only ever finding dissonance between performative and cognitive elements of a text. But it is indeed embarrassing to watch Donoghue revel in the pleasures of mastery by arbitrarily assigning meaning, "romance and wonder," to the sound "b." What enables such revelry is indeed the assumption of aesthetic unity: assuming that critical principle allows the formalist critic to assign an uncalled for meaning to a formal element, and it is the frisson of that tyrannical gesture which gives him and his readers pleasure. But one need not make the assumption that texts or authors are unities even when reading passages in which the form does in fact enhance the meaning of a text. Formalist criticism does not have to be a celebration of the critic's own ego.

Celebrating her own interpretive mastery is not Wolfson's technique: she instead shows us over and over again what various graphically apprehended placements of words, rhymes, puns, and metrical strains offer in the way of complicating any speech act, whether they confirm or contest the sense of a passage being almost the least interesting feature of such formal elements. There is a frisson at those moments when one can clearly see the interplay between semantics and form, but the charge does not come from a display of Wolfson's genius, nor of the Author's, nor from the critic's victory over the ideologically benighted text: the kick comes from seeing the artistry of form at that moment, with a pleasingly confused sense of who is responsible for it. If Wolfson assumes a critical principle, it is that Romantic poets saw form as a problem and as a solution, as a manipulable dictator, and that it kept appearing to them that way in each new experiment in verse.

III. The Politics of Form

But what about politics? Wolfson opens Formal Charges by distinguishing between "formalism" as "an ideologically toned disciplinary commitment that prioritizes and privileges form in relation to other possible locations of value" and her own "historically informed formalist criticism" (pp. 235n.1, 1). It is the former that has been attacked on political grounds by cultural critics over the last few decades. When the features of a text "conflict intolerably with the interests and ideologies of" contemporary readers—when its politics are bad, from our point of view, Barbara Herrnstein Smith says,—"academic critics . . . 'save the text' by transferring the locus of its interest to more formal or structural features . . . ."  [15] And Chinua Achebe and Patrick Brantlinger demonstrate as much in analyzing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, showing that literary critics turn their interest away from how the Congolese fare in Conrad's text, instead celebrating the use of Africa as a metaphor in Marlow and Kurtz's spiritual odyssey.  [16] Brantlinger famously rereads "the horror, the horror" as the voice not of Kurtz but of Conrad's text, horrified at its own capacity to aestheticize imperial violence (pp. 292-296).

There are at least two ways to recuperate the aesthetic in this tale, to show how "formalist [criticism] can set the grain of aesthetics against dominant ideologies and their contradictions, even as . . . they are shaped by them" (Wolfson p. 29). One is to notice the missing predicate: "The horror is that . . . ."—what? The form of Kurtz's last sentence insists that readers and critics complete the sentence, but leaves open to question who has really completed it: is Conrad a racist, and Achebe the demystifier of his text, or is the critique of racism begun by the text itself? Because it is always "the convergence of text and reader that brings a poet's work into existence" (Wolfson p. 195), literature and poetry bring the question of agency to the fore. They "provoke attention to form itself . . . as a motivated and malleable construction, not only in the domain of the aesthetic but also in the habitual formations of self, nation, and history" (Wolfson p. 32). Do we really imagine that questions of causality or agency raised by textual forms are gratified by them?—In fact, when Barthes celebrates "writing" as opposed to the Author, what brings writing into existence and thereby heralds the Author's death, what opens up a complexity inimical to political control, is precisely the formal move, that is, situating a bit of discourse in a fictional story and thereby raising a host of questions: "Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story . . . ? Is it Balzac the individual . . . ? Is it Balzac the author . . . ? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that [formal] writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin" (p. 142)—or if not its destruction, certainly its calling into question. "[F]ormalist practices . . . . are actions that call readers to a critical awareness of the work of form, not only in poetic but also in cognitive, social, and historical processes" (Wolfson p. 32).

Another way to revitalize the aesthetic after its demotion by Cultural critics is to make much of the text's horror at its own aestheticizing practices. That may seem to be a suspicious move, but there is more to such a move than meets the eye.

Right after the Rodney King incident, and before the LA riots, I saw a stand-up comedian ventriloquizing King as he imagined King speaking to the person who videotaped the beating: "Put down the camera, and come help me." Why film an incident rather than participate in it? That video is not a work of art, but, like a work of art, in opening up the question of the political efficacy of representation, it opens up the question of the political efficacy of immediate action as well. That example obviously biases the answer—two beaten-up people who may or may not be able to find redress from the criminal system are a lot less incendiary than was the Rodney-King video. To bias the question the other way: Stanely Cavell points out that, during the time it takes Edgar to tell the story of what had happened to him and Gloucester, Cordelia is murdered: Edmund, listening, delays trying to revoke his order to have Cordelia and Lear murdered. King Lear might here represent a sense of guilt over politically efficacious time lost to telling a tale or penning a play. But though their votes differ, these two representational instances share the fact of voting, and that fact is not insignificant.

Step 5: Shelley's Mask of Anarchy is a poem that clearly pits the dream of Poesy against the reality of politics, and Wolfson's analysis of it makes use of litotes as a way of acknowledging that the temptation of the aesthetic is withdrawal while delineating the political charge of poetic form. "[T]he [politically] bolder aspects of this performance," Wolfson notices, "are exactly what rendered it unpublishable—and [therefore] unable to affect the struggle it addresses" (p. 195). Here, then, "[t]he 'unacknowledged legislator' is a product, or byproduct, of a poetics that had a share in the adjective as well as the noun, and the outcome could not have been unanticipated" (p. 196). Shelley's "not unanticipated" neutralization of the text's political charge is countered by "the activist language" in the poem's final frame which "not only occludes but usurps the initial dream frame" of the poem. And here is the crucial point:

the suppression of the poem's initiating [dreamy, poetic] frame marks an aesthetic ideology that is as delimited as it is motivated by its challenge to political ideology. Shedding the dream frame, Shelley . . . [implies] that a political action has emerged from Poesy . . . . If the dream frame were to return, it would cast oration as an unreal event—a wish, a dream, a fantasy wrought by visions of Poesy—at the very moment that Shelley wants to insist on its political potency.

pp. 203-204

Aesthetic ideology does not arise out of the desire to evade politics but rather out of the desire to insist on political potency, and formalist criticism of that ideology continually worries about how much of potency is fantasmatic. Shelley uses poetic form to enact a fantasy of political effectiveness at the same time that he uses it to limit any effect, and implicitly then to question the relation between potency and dream. There can be no pep rallies without a politically neutralizing aestheticism against which one can charge.

Tzvetan Todorov insisted two decades ago that poetics has only been

called upon to play an eminently transitional role, even a transitory one: it will have served as an "indicator" of discourses, since the least transparent kinds of discourses are to be encountered in poetry; but this discovery having been made, the science of discourses having been instituted, its own role will be reduced to little enough: to the investigation of the reasons that caused us to consider certain texts, at certain periods, as "literature."  [17]

All the volumes of cultural criticism recently titled "The Politics and Poetics of X" seem to fulfill Todorov's prophecy that poetics will "sacrifice itself on the altar of general knowledge" (p. 72). But what critics elucidating the poetics of cultural formations, as opposed to the poetics of literature, cannot do is to thoroughly problematize agency, including their own, by focusing on forms mobilized around the problem of mastery: artistic control is a reasoned, practiced response to the desire and the impossibility of exercising full agency in language which can tell us a lot about pretences to potency—what they look like, what anxieties they stave off.

Elucidating the poetics of poetry, Wolfson's extensive readings show, is one way of keeping mastery and agency in question rather than making them the answer. Recent titles of works that make use of Pierre Bourdieu's work, precisely "investigat[ing] the reasons that caused us to consider certain texts, at certain periods, as 'literature,'" use "making" in their titles, clearly marking the power of the cultural forms they analyze.  [18] Although Wolfson deals with forms consciously deployed by careful poets, the word in her title is not "making" but "shaping": although we can be sure that poets intent upon using form were at least as aware as we are of its pitfalls and potentialities, we can never be sure whether the shape we discern in a poem has been marked for us or remarked by us. But, pace the social-vision critics of Blake's "London," attention to the ambiguity of "marking" does less to disarm protest than to reveal how the arms of political protest detonate or discharge.

Read Susan Wolfson's response to this review

Parties annexes