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Michael O'Neill, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-19-812285- 3. Price: £42.50 ($75).

  • Seamus Perry

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  • Seamus Perry
    University of Glasgow

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This fine, readerly book has been out for some months, and has been warmly noticed in several places (including by the present reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement). But it seems to me an important work, and perhaps significant of a gradual shift in the way the professionals read romantic poetry (a shift of which I thoroughly approve); so I have eagerly taken up the invitation issued by the editor of Romanticism on the Net to discuss the book and its moment a little more expansively.

To say so is to risk looking ridiculous in a few years' time, but it feels as though the heyday of high-tech romanticist 'History' has passed. Recent big books of historicist criticism have either taken firm action self-consciously to sophisticate their notions of history (like James Chandler's mighty England in 1819), or have called for a new critical contract between contextual purchase and readerly tact (like Paul Magnuson's Reading Public Romanticism). I should not spot the trends too inclusively: one of the most distinguished recent pieces of historically-minded criticism, Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (recently reprinted in paperback by Oxford University Press), does not fit this pattern at all; but then perhaps it comes from a quite distinct tradition. Roe's book achieved its great successes by the deceptively simple method of knowing a huge amount about its subject, much of it the new fruit of long researches, and by offering that accumulated sense of the age and the place in a series of elegant (though quite unprecious) narratives: their power to absorb was the perennial power to absorb of any world thoroughly and finely re-imagined. The total effect was not unlike the best kind of historical fiction or drama, in that it made Keats all the more real for locating him so convincingly in a milieu so markedly different from our own. Such kinds of accomplishment seem very alien to the more theoretically-driven historicisms of the last fifteen or twenty years; for the paradoxical effect of many of them has been to bleach out much sense of such particularised pastness. McGann, in his now famous Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (1983), had stressed the importance of realising the differentness of the romantics from us, and this was (I think) extremely salutary, although hardly new, being entirely in keeping with the tradition of contextual 'placing' latterly kept up in distinguished works by Marilyn Butler and others. The dog that McGann put in the manger, or so it seems to me, was the concept of 'ideology': an important part of the argument was that the romantic brand, which became for many critics the ideology, persisted right down to the present day, inflecting our readings with its idealist habits. McGann fought hard to separate romantic 'work' from romantic 'ideology', as though championing the improving virtue of labour, but the distinction collapses in most of his followers' work, and all literary history from Wordsworth down then becomes a long complicity - a non-history (because nothing significantly alters) of sameness. Historicism turned out to be the enemy of that sense of historical givenness cherished by Trilling in his once-famous essay 'The Sense of the Past' (in The Liberal Imagination) - something that McGann, who once expressed his preference for Allott's edition of Keats because it had more bits of information in its footnotes, could hardly have wanted or expected. No wonder that the eminent historical critic, Howard Erskine-Hill, writing recently about poetry and politics (in The Poetry of Opposition and Revolution: Dryden to Wordsworth), took care to define himself as an historicist, rather than a 'New' one. This meant writing about Wordsworth's politics by looking at what he said in The Prelude about, well, politics - rather than finding in Wordsworth's skating across the reflex of a star (I am making this up, by the way, but it would not be inconceivable) an obliteration of imagined alterity which implicated the poet in the cognitive practices of colonialist expansionism. Professor O'Neill is too well-mannered to engage in controversy or polemic, or perhaps he simply finds it uninteresting; but it is clearly against that kind of darkly implicated 'history', the zealous inquisition of false consciousness, that he is setting himself: he is a vindicatory critic.

If modern historicism discovered a problem in the basic sameness of the post-romantic 'history' it had created, it discovered perhaps a yet more serious kind of disabling sameness in the utopian literary text it often seemed to gesture towards, and to measure actually existing romantic texts against. For this notional text (as I argued at some length in Romanticism on the Net some years ago) would, presumably, achieve an act of untroubled and perfect mimesis, replicating, without the distortions of subjectivity, the historical truth of its occasion. If, as is the case in much modern historicist work, the aesthetic status of a poem amounts to much the same as its ideological occlusions, then the differentness of poetry from the material, non-poetic realm from which it derives is only the diversity that false consciousness has next to historical truth. All kinds of objections might be raised, like 'Is this a plausible theory of historical truth?'; but, leaving that to one side, and whatever else you think about the programme, its neo-Puritan severities never promised to make criticism very appreciative of the intricate divergences of poetry, away from a duty to truth and towards a self-delighting resourcefulness in its own verbalism. (Perhaps that does not matter, or should not; but those were the kinds of pleasures that made many of us take up the subject in the first place.) To put the matter in that way is to re-express an opposition experienced with puzzled intensity within the romantic period itself, and by its greatest critic: Coleridge, in Biographia Literaria, ticks Wordsworth off for placing truth before beauty as his poetic end-in-view; but remains evidently haunted by Wordsworth's self-gratifying lyric ingenuity. (Who but a poet, as he asks, would have written 'The thrush is busy in the wood'?)

This is the ground that Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem explores so fruitfully, as though exemplifying possibilities. If the strength and vitality of an older historical tradition continues to invest contextual studies with a redeeming sense of the past's differentness, then the close-up practical criticism re-claimed by O'Neill (and a few other recent critics, pre-eminently Susan Wolfson in Formal Charges) seems set to re-institute the differentness of the aesthetic, and to endow it with the respectability and worth that you naturally attribute to anything pored over so lovingly and explicated at such length. But this differentness and remove is not to be vindicated simply as an end in itself, luxuriated in as a happy alternative to the bracing contextual world of ethical responsibilities without (that's 'the romantic ideology', I suppose): it is experienced more as something like a moral uncertainty; and this is the basis for O'Neill's respectful but firm distancing of himself from the moral severities of ideology-critics like McGann. O'Neill describes the edgy quality to the verbal autonomy of the romantic poets in a language of selfhood: that a poem has 'a mind its own', capable of speaking about itself, perhaps unable to fathom their own depths. Well, such language is, admittedly, metaphorical, and it could tie you in knots if pursued in too tenacious a way; and the precise argument about textual self-consciousness, genuinely suggestive though it be, seems almost a flag of convenience: an attempt to thematise a way of reading, or a source of pleasure, evidence of which runs on implicitly anyway in the very texture of the book, once it advances to its work. One problem encountered by any author of a book of close readings is how to organise insights, by their nature individual, into the marshalled gatherings of a progressive case: the undeclared master of the art is Christopher Ricks, who shapes books about double-minded concepts (like embarrassment or prejudice or dying) that point at once to an extra-literary life as well as, sometimes more metaphorically, to a quality of writing. Ricks's 'embarrassment' and 'prejudice' are at once themes of literary works, and occasions for reading; and O'Neill's 'self-consciousness' is doing the same kind of work here, freeing the criticism into a proliferating place of textual nicety (a separate world, like a self), while simultaneously pegging it to the moral life. As Kathleen Coburn said in one of her books about Coleridge, 'self-consciousness' can connote a self-reflexive autonomy, or, quite as well, an anxiety or scepticism about one's own merits or decency; and it is that range of resonance (between 'self-assertion' and 'self-doubt') that O'Neill dextrously exploits. It is a book about the delightfulness of poetry's special reserves, then, and also a book about the scrupulousness of poetry's reservations.

Chapter by chapter, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem describes the self-contradictory life of poetical confidence in Blake, Wordsworth (readers of Romanticism on the Net will recall an earlier version of the chapter, which first appeared here), Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (two chapters), Keats (two chapters), and then turns to some moderns, who further the tradition without simply replicating it: Yeats and Stevens, Auden, and Amy Clampitt. O'Neill does not stoop to dropping bon mots, but the best examples of his criticism are small-scale, turns of phrase that catch the kinds of reflexive or wittingly non-reflexive effect at which his antennae stir most unfailingly. Some examples: 'those beautifully declarative moments that transform a reading experience of Jerusalem, and enact the release they describe'; The Prelude 'thrives on not knowing what it is talking about'; the reflexiveness of 'This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison' 'is to be found, not in large declarations of intent, but in local particulars of stress and sound which communicate a meaning that coexists with the dictionary meanings of the words employed'; Don Juan is often narrated by a Shandyan self 'driven to assume a rhetorical posture, to announce to an audience that he has no interest in an audience'; and so forth. He is extremely good (and coincides here with a chapter in Susan Wolfson's new book) on line-endings in Blake, and the way that they call 'Bardic authority' into question while allowing Blake a kind of empowering grim wit at the spectacle; and good too on Keats's uncertainties, and how he turns self-consciousness to misgiving advantage (a Bayleyesque theme, turned nicely). The Coleridge chapter, an adroit and sympathetic defence (among other things) of 'Kubla Khan' against the demystifying (but actually just differently-mystifying, in a drabber and less self-aware idiom) attentions of new historicist critics, finds a natural subject in that great and ironic expert on doubleness and half-feeling, who found joy living on in embers.

To delight in the ends of verbalism and yet to fret at its final respectability is to experience the predicament out of which Auden made much of his greatest poetry. O'Neill has written (with Gareth Reeves) an excellent book about the Auden circle, which one might hardly have expected from an advocate of Shelley ('You must drop that Shelley stunt', Auden told the crestfallen young Stephen Spender); but the doubts and self-revisions of O'Neill's Shelley plausibly make him a more Audenesque poet, in this sense at least, than Auden himself might ever have imagined. Only, the predicament is upside down: doubts check Shelley's lyrical indulgence; verbal relish interrupts Auden's wordy Prospero-seriousness. The Auden chapter here is really very fine, brilliantly attuned to the kinds of aesthetic delight that break out of the late sotto-voce monochrome, those 'imaginative consolations that are none the less real for being, in Auden's eyes, illicit', what a good phrase; and the account of Stevens's tone is similarly exemplary: 'a resonant hollowness which half-mocks the very tradition it evokes', exactly the kind of plangent double-bluff you meet in lines like 'The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea'. It seems ungrateful to say so, for the Clampitt chapter is delightful, but I would love to have seen O'Neill discuss Larkin's edged late romanticism, or perhaps (as he is so nuanced a register of tone) the unparaphrasable mis-hits, so exactly rightly wrong, of Betjeman. Still, this is hardly to say more than that the book is the work of a gifted critic, who writes beautifully, who possesses a superb ear, and whom you would like to see write about your own favourites; all of which is merely to say: read it.

Romantic Circles Review