David Fairer’s learned and contextually rich study provides a critique of the concept of organic form as (once again) totalized and teleological. Because that version of organic form with which we are familiar derives from Coleridge—theorist and practitioner of organicism in its many formal varieties—this book, perhaps not surprisingly, takes him for its protagonist. Coleridge in the 1790s provides a matrix of concerns, from collaborative publication ventures to circles of friendship under strain through the anxieties and historical pressures of the period, which allows Fairer to practice his own form of organization. The book, that is, as a critical study mimics the same version of organicism that it works to define. We see this in its multiplicity of chapters (twelve, plus a postscript and introduction) and diversity of subject matter (engravings by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the patriotism speech in the House of Commons by Richard Brinsley Sheridan on 20 April 1798, the pamphlet printed by Coleridge as Sonnets from Various Authors). The point that Fairer wishes to make is that insofar as organicism is defined through the relations between parts, connectivity involves productive tensions: rather than relations operating in such a way that they harmonize toward a certain necessary end (such an end being, in Fairer’s view and that of others, absolutist and conducive to certain reified hierarchies), parts just as often push back against each other, causing different shapes to emerge or (at the least) not allowing differences to be elided.
In theory, this is all very well, but I will add from the perspective of the reader that Fairer’s book demands the same kind of active reading that he brings to the many texts and cultural objects and events at hand. There is no easy way to swallow this book whole, so to speak, and that no doubt is part of the point. Formally enacted, Fairer’s own version of organic form might be called, Organising Facts.
If not from Coleridge’s statements about organic form post-1801, where then does Fairer derive his version of non-holistic organicism? He argues that it is a mode philosophically and aesthetically enacted in the eighteenth century and one that Coleridge puts in play in his own literary, editorial and sociopolitical activity in the 1790s. This is true, he suggests, of Coleridge’s scattered publication projects as it is of his conversation poems (with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” thrown into the mix), which are often taken to be the test case for Coleridge’s own (teleological) brand of organicism. In this respect, Fairer’s chapter on Coleridge’s ongoing, lifetime revisions to his “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” in the context of the changes in that figure’s symbolic significance over time is particularly apt. It demonstrates how cultural events or objects with a range of (possibly contradictory) significance can become simplified in such a way as to seem obvious: Chatterton, the “marvelous boy,” was a tragic genius, at odds with a society that discounts eccentricity and does not allow a voice to poverty. Such a reading (“the Romantic myth of Chatterton”) obscures earlier attitudes toward the Rowley poet and involves “a narrowing down and weakening of a figure who had earlier offered writers much more” (142). The earlier figure of Chatterton, rather than society’s victim, presented a threat: a challenge to any transparent transcription of history, in this case the literary remains of a fifteenth-century priest. Fairer argues that any effort to read Coleridge’s revisions and augmentations to his poem (from a total of 90 lines in 1790 to 165 in 1834) should not be read as building organically to a certain necessary end but rather as challenging, here and there, this way and that, a portrait of a poet that represents Coleridge’s own changing, confused, and creative relationship to an always illusory past.
The shifts and discontinuities are celebrated (and exploited) by Fairer as evidence of a kind of organicism—the growth or development of a body of work, in this case the changing shape of one poem—that does not require the presence of an internal organizing principle, or power that unifies. There are pieces that fall out of Coleridge’s extended poetic rumination on “the ambivalent double phenomenon of Chatterton-Rowley” (158), which serve as points of origin for new critical configurations. Here as elsewhere, the work is continued interpretation, which the traditional idea of Romantic organicism (as something to be taken on its own terms) was supposed to allay or put to rest. The ideological threat of Coleridge’s definition of organic form still looms large, menacing the obliteration of women and minorities, disenfranchised voices and angry cries of affliction. All these odds and ends, pieces that don’t fit, demand their own kind of organization. However, whether the one proposed here by Fairer provides such a thing, quiet as it is in its tentative connectivity, is another question. Although emphasizing the pragmatic aspects of living and making (poiesis), the mode seems to be what Fairer calls “radical whimsicality” (119). The latter concept recurs in various guises throughout the study, and, for my money, whimsy, as an operational mode (although I am partial to it), seems itself rather privileged.
In my opinion, the best chapter of the book is the one that, following ten chapters of bibliographical and biographical criticism, returns finally to nature. “Returning to the Ruined Cottage” is the title of the chapter, which relies on a distinction—brilliant in its exposition—between the pastoral and the georgic. Whereas the former is allied with ideals of unity and innocence, the latter is adapted to the world as we know it, a place of tortured growth and change, new shoots springing from loss and decay. The georgic is the mode of experience, suited to human endurance over time, the trials and joys, the insecurities and surprises of life. It challenges the human to its best––ingenuity and invention, energy in the face of the seemingly impossible––but it also reveals human existence at its worst: pain is real, and suffering a necessary constituent of living.
Because Fairer opens the chapter with a concise recapitulation of his motivating critical principle, I quote it here: “Unifying Ideas that privilege notions of transcendence, completion/perfection, or the eternal/timeless gain no meaning from a spatiotemporal context in which all boundaries tend to be permeable. Things encroach and overlap; situations alter; directions may be diverted; and categories may be blurred or extended. This means that the core issue here is an organizational one, of finding coherence and continuity in human experience, within the constraints of time and space—and of course, human mortality” (260). In addition to “The Ruined Cottage,” Fairer applies this view to Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar” and Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, “Monastery Ruins at Eldena” (1824-25), which he considers a revisiting of the “organic history” of Piranesi. At the end of the day, assuming that “organic poetic meaning is not inherent in a unifying Idea” but rather “is a form of intricate interconnection, of reading across and between” (310) can be a productive way to look at a historically nuanced field of culture in which real people lived and suffered, producing (autobiographical) art from the substance of experience.
In its ultimate refusal to be at peace with the concept of organic form as transcendent symbol, the book forms an interesting addition to the Oxford University Press series that includes most recently (as announced at the top of the list on the dust jacket) Nicholas Halmi’s The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol. In the spirit of Fairer’s study, I would propose that we as critics recall the ways in which we ourselves continue to complicate and build on the body of Romantic organicism.
Denise Gigante, Professor of English at Stanford University, is the author, most recently, of Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (Yale University Press, 2009).