Michael O’Neill. The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900. Oxford: OUP, 2007. ISBN: 9780199299287. Price: US$99
University of Reading
At the very end of his Economic Consequences of the Peace, as he highlights a depressing absence of sympathy in the post-war society, John Maynard Keynes inserts, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, a famous passage from Prometheus Unbound: the rich ‘live among their suffering fellow-men / As if none felt.’ It is a rhetorical flourish but doesn’t add a lot to Keynes’ argument and illuminates the poem only rather crudely. Nevertheless, it is a striking moment, which surely provokes the reader to pause and consider Shelley’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Indeed, a certain type of literary empiricism would no doubt place some real stock on concrete evidence of a connection between the radical poet and the brilliant economist. Literary influence reveals itself, however, in muddier traces than the direct quotation or the evidence of source study and is cast instead as a complex engagement with the past that may be fraught and paradoxical, or just teased out from a mood or cast of mind. The influence of Romanticism upon later writers is doubly slippery because it is most interesting when it betrays ongoing engagement with a set of concerns that is hard to pin down in the first place: Lovejoy’s suggestion that the persistence of the term Romanticism follows directly out of its potential for plurality is compelling.
In his dazzling study of the influence of Romanticism upon English poetry since 1900, Michael O’Neill proceeds with the subtle observation that Romantic legacies are worth tracing exactly because they provide evidence of individuality within relationship. Earlier Romanticism functions as an enabler and not as an anxious presence. His model of literary influence has few of the suspicious antagonisms of Harold Bloom and behind O’Neill’s nuanced readings of relationships between Romantic writers and Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Spender, Heaney, Hill and others, there lie the conclusions of a forceful earlier essay in which he argued that the burden of the past is best revealed in the writing of poetry as criticism. Naturally, poems in the Romantic tradition do not disclose themselves as such immediately and this therefore conceals as much as it reveals the beauty of O’Neill’s method: late-Romantic affinities emerge slowly; post-Romantic individuals even more so. His readings are beyond facile summary, but this is a masterly book from a reader who has an enormous command of twentieth-century poetry alongside a unique and justly renowned insight into the writing of Romanticism.
The governing topos throughout – as in the title, drawn from Prometheus Unbound, a work that so excited Yeats – is air, suggestive both of inspiration and also of the sustaining force of Romanticism. The air that we breathe is, of course, the absolute foundation of experience per se and it is in an awareness of air, the attention to essentials, that poets develop the self-consciousness that lies at the heart of so much Romantic poetry: to dwell for a moment on the vital presence of the wind in Wordsworth and Shelley is to be reminded of this connection. The attention to experience as self-awareness is O’Neill’s shortcut to finding an ongoing Romanticism in twentieth-century poetry. But beyond this, the creative air that poets breathe is also that of the awareness of inheritance and of being part of the legacy of an ongoing tradition that continues to foster truly exciting poetry. For O’Neill, aesthetic, epistemological and indeed ethical considerations bind together in the poetic task as experience is turned into artifact. And this is the case in Modernism as often as Romanticism. In this regard, he follows a diverse group of earlier critics: Albert Gelpi, Helen Vendler and the late Jonathan Wordsworth (to whom the book is dedicated) among others. Many other debts are acknowledged early on but really O’Neill is up to something in this extraordinary book that hasn’t been done before and, I suspect, that just couldn’t be done by anyone else. The breadth of reference in the lovely opening chapter, itself poetic, which (leaving out the references to Romantic poets) follows the trope of air through Crane, Yeats, Stevens, Empson, Mahon (as translator), Mallarmé, Bishop, Plath, Moore and Pound, is, quite simply, remarkable.
O’Neill is too subtle a reader to hold that the best of modern poetry must either reiterate the claims of High Romanticism (as in Abrams’ case for the Greater Romantic Lyric) or rubbish them anxiously (as in Bloom). Yeats and Eliot are unsurprising presences in much of the book and, however much his own readings in two very fine chapters on them complicate the account, they can be cast with reasonable ease in terms that accommodate this dyad. Stevens and Auden – justifiably held by many readers now to be the two most weighty poets of the last century – are by contrast more difficult to pin down in terms of their intellectual debt to a tradition that they appear at certain times to transcend almost completely while nevertheless remaining among our best guides to its on-going concerns. The latter’s late masterpiece “In Praise of Limestone,” for example, with its “antimythological myth,” is so self-consciously determined to do without the High Romantic description of a gradually disembodied aesthetic state moving inexorably inward that it can almost be read as a parody of “Tintern Abbey,” but its own high seriousness betrays this at just the right moments so that it feels more like a completion than an abandonment of earlier ideas. O’Neill points to the Wordsworthian echoes in that poem, capturing Auden’s complicated relationship with the earlier literary tradition in a striking phrase – Auden “invests post-Romantic disenchantment with mesmeric appeal” (83) – and he evokes thereby the compelling fascination with Romantic ideas that remains despite Auden’s superficial, even rather callow rejection of Keats and Shelley in a comment to Spender.
Naturally enough the very Romantic idea of poetic self-consciousness and indeed of the unity of the on-going poetic tradition – Shelley’s great poem perpetually in progress, as Bloom has it – underpins much of the book. Auden’s fascination with Byron, for example, is most useful because it allows him “to describe his witty but complex views on the role of art and the artist since Romanticism” (96). Indeed, a concern with the matter of poetic process is held justifiably to be the most substantial of Romanticism’s legacies, even when the individual appears to reject other aspects of the tradition. O’Neill follows Anthony Hecht in finding Auden’s assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen” to be a rejection of the most extravagant of Romantic claims for poetry but points out that in the statement Auden also aligns himself with Shelley’s own “opposition to propagandist poetry” (91). One of the very greatest poems on poetry, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” lies rather deeply at the heart of this book. “The modification of a dead man’s words ‘in the guts of the living’ (rather than simply in their minds or memories) implies the very kind of absorption and takeover which this book has been describing” (90), O’Neill writes, and, in so doing, he both describes his own concerns rather brilliantly and also suggests something of the division between Romanticism and the later tradition. For much twentieth-century poetry does look like a gutted Romanticism, one no longer entirely confident about the power of the poetic to undo or overcome human weaknesses and certainly one no longer confident that the mind rather than the guts leads man.
These ideas emerge most clearly in the wonderful chapter on Wallace Stevens – especially welcome as he is the only squarely American poet on extended show and yet the one who feels most obviously in debt to the ideas of Romanticism. Many of Stevens’ poems seem to have been written expressly for the kind of exercise that ties later Modernism back to Romanticism: Jonathan Wordsworth, for example, wrote about the ways in which “An Idea of Order at Key West” replays some of the aesthetic concerns of “The Solitary Reaper.” O’Neill, however, chooses cleverly to focus attention on a poem, Stevens’ “Esthétique du Mal,” that appears on the face of things to be a rather idiosyncratic choice, and yet he succeeds not only in making the case for that poem itself, often overlooked beside the other, late works, but also finds in it a revisiting of a number of Romanticism’s central but not immediately obvious concerns. Most important is the idea that lies at the core of that stunning poem – the interconnection of darkness and the artistic imagination. Stevens, writing out of the blackness of war and yet finding a strange sense of aesthetic power in it, confronts the idea fundamental to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, Byron and Keats that evil has a force as a generator of poetic power. Indeed, the aesthetics of terror seems superficially to be fundamental to Romanticism with its love for the sublime and gothic transgression. But this is to ignore the fundamental optimism of so much of the really successful poetry, which claws back from the brink rather than wallows in self-indulgent misery. Stevens’ own version of this redemption in that poem lies in part in the intricate pleasure of the language but, of course, this is also the very problem that he squares up to: how can beauty emerge from pain? In the end, an awful lot of Romantic poetry finds redemption in the familiar and this, in a funny way, is also where we find Stevens’ late Romanticism, rather than in the hymns to imaginative excess. O’Neill very perceptively points to the fundamental importance of the ordinary: “strangely, given its arabesques and its precocities, its pleasure in making the visible more than a little hard to see, Stevens’ poetry hungers after what he calls ‘the normal’” (106).
Similar concerns re-surface in O’Neill’s final chapter on Hill and Fisher, which follows on from two persuasive essays on Northern Irish poetry and in particular a highly developed reading of Muldoon’s post-Romantic long poem Madoc. Tracing the Romantic in so allusive (and elusive) a poet as Geoffrey Hill is complicated by the fact that, although they abound with references to Romanticism (as O’Neill shows), his prose writings are not infrequently rather rude about some of its claims. Nevertheless, O’Neill points to the ways in which Hill worries the very term “Romantic” and finds his commitment to some of the aspects of the Romantic aesthetic ideology in the very seriousness of his own commitment to poetry and language. Particularly important to O’Neill’s reading of Hill are the tough Tanner lectures that were delivered at Oxford in 2000, with their reflections on value and the poetic act. O’Neill finds echoes of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Blake in Hill but also draws attention to his use of Coleridge’s prose writings in his own reflections on artistic creativity. Roy Fisher, meanwhile, with whom this deeply impressive book ends, has, O’Neill decides, a less anguished and quieter relationship with Romanticism but is nevertheless post-Romantic rather than post-Modernist, and a humorous comment of Fisher on himself takes us back to Auden’s Yeats: “‘I think he’s a Romantic, gutted and kippered by two centuries’ hard knocks’” (183).
|Title Reviewed:||Michael O’Neill. The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900. Oxford: OUP, 2007. ISBN: 9780199299287. Price: US$99|
|Journal:||Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 56, November 2009|
Copyright © The authors, 2011