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The Return to Poetics - A Review-EssayTimothy Clark, The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a crisis of subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic writing. Manchester University Press, 1997. ISBN: 071-9050642. Price: £45/$69.95.Theresa Kelley, Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0521-432073. Price: £37.50/$54.95.

  • Matthew Scott

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  • Matthew Scott
    Somerville College, Oxford

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Timothy Clark's The Theory of Inspiration and Theresa Kelley's Reinventing Allegory return us to an exciting critical landscape that has been sadly neglected lately in studies on the Romantic period. Each has as its basis the wish to reinstate the critical history of poetics as the most interesting way of allowing literary history to intersect with the intellectual concerns of post-modernity. This essay will begin by discussing Clark's work and will then suggest some ways in which his project intersects with Kelley's, an assessment of which will follow. I will end with some thoughts on contemporary Romantic criticism which are, in part, 'inspired' by the heartening reading of these texts.

Inspiration has been a neglected term in poetics whose connotations conjure up some of the worst excesses of subjective indulgence. The term suggests many things, the oldest of which, present to Plato, was dictation by an unnamed other. When the discussion turns to the actual practice of writing, however, inspiration can be used to relate notions of inexplicable creative agency to theories of the technique of composition. Embedded within this, certainly, are such 'self-liberating' notions as imagination or poetic madness. Yet theories of inspiration go further than this, and are often the groundwork for an investigation into the theory and practice of composition. Moreover, it is hard to conceive of any poetics that does not embody a theory of composition. One example is particularly illustrative coming, as it does, at a point mid-way between the Romantic period and our own. In an appeal to the late nineteenth-century German world of letters for a new poetics based upon psychology, Wilhelm Dilthey [1] returned to these words in praise of Goethe from his friend, Friedrich Schiller:

Your own way of alternating between reflection and production is really enviable and admirable. These operations are completely separate in you, and that is the reason that they can both be executed so purely as operations. As long as you produce or work you are really in the dark; the light is in you alone; when you begin to reflect, the inner light begins to emerge from you and illuminates the objects, yourself and others. [2]

For Dilthey, Goethe's example presents the critic with an holistic poetic praxis which sails between the Scylla and Charybdis of a rationalist classicism based upon the imposition of figures calculated for effect (these are, for Dilthey, the vestiges of Aristotlianism), and a type of automatic writing like that favoured by Brentano which aims to spurn all that is learned, approaching instead the act of unconscious creation.

Schiller's formula fits Dilthey's project rather well. He describes two separate psychological processes which present aspects of a creative and rational mind on an quasi-metaphorical journey inward towards the point of absolute interiority from whence the act of writing proceeds. Furthermore, it is apparent to both Schiller and Dilthey that something of the unique character of Goethe's work derives from the manner of its composition. If Schiller's words can be reduced, with the help of Dilthey's psychology, to the dialectical poetic dictate, "Be rational! Be creative!", then this is a vindication of Goethe's poetic praxis. In order to project the unchanging norms of literary production with a view to explaining literary phenomena as a combination of historical technique and individual creativity, Dilthey returns to an examination of the psychology of the writer at the moment of production, concluding that poetry is more than simply a product of either inspiration or learning.

To describe Schiller's formulation as a figure is to point out that it is neither immediately apparent how the act of reflection relates to the moment of creativity, nor is it clear which of these two moments has priority over the other. We may well ask whether his analysis is a critical fiction which replaces, by generalisation, the specific act of historical reconstruction necessary for an investigation of the moment of composition. In what, though, would such an historical reconstruction consist? It is significant that both he and Dilthey see the manner of composition as central to an understanding of the product, even though it is the most historically irretrievable of critical objects, as has been argued by, amongst others, Hans-Georg Gadamer (himself an acute reader of Dilthey). Although, there is a naiveté to the notion that the process of inspiration provides a key to the production and explanation of the work of art, it is a critical fiction that many of us return to almost unconsciously; indeed, so strong is this urge that far from having dismissed the idea of inspiration, historicist arguments seem often to place embarrassing emphasis upon the scene of composition in order to show that it is anything but private and ahistorical. From Schiller's letter, however, we may suppose that the poet reaches a creative state which presupposes a supra-subjectivity: no addressee or responsive reader is required. Dilthey's incorporation of an Aristotelian formalism inherent in the creative act projects a critical response and literary effect which is understood to be universal despite the mediated nature of the text. The ahistoricism inheres in this, and it has been the work of later critics to undertake its deconstruction.

The vexed issue of the existence of a 'space of composition' is the subject of Timothy Clark's extraordinary work, The Theory of Inspiration. He shows that inspiration, while a troubled and slippery term, has nevertheless enjoyed a serious and lengthy critical history both as a rhetorical figure, related to enthusiasm, from Plato to the Enlightenment, and then as a synonym for creativity in the post-Romantic era. It is part of the legacy of Romanticism that we take inspiration to be a special form of human power and it is only with a thinker like Blanchot, that inspiration is theorised as something which relates closely to the existential condition of unfortunate solitude present in the writer. Building upon Heidegger's point in "Die Ürsprung des Kunstwerkes" that the essence of the artwork creates the artist, Blanchot suggests that each literary text searches, in a sense, for its own origin. Clark writes, "[t]he work is always a space of risk and misrecognition. For Blanchot there is always an unbridgeable divide between what the work does and what the writer can know or say. By situating inspiration in this gap between act and knowledge [...] Blanchot can be said to be answering the post-Romantic idealization of the act of writing by returning 'inspiration' to an aspect of its ancient formulation in Plato's Ion." [3] There the problem with inspiration is that the rhapsode cannot adequately describe the techne that enables his discourse, and this is precisely the problem with a quasi-Romantic theory of composition like that of Schiller's. We are not provided with an adequate understanding of the way in which the actions of reflection and composition are technically related. Inspiration merely describes a space as a link.

In describing this space, however, theories of inspiration provoke writers to acute self-consciousness in the act of writing. With a poet like Wordsworth, for example, Clark can conclude that inspiration, as a close relation of imagination, is a valuable construct for the poet because it acts as a trope of self-legitimation. By emphasising the degree to which the work is inspired by an unknown power, he is able to endow that work with a canonical significance:

The experience of self-transcendence, Wordsworth claims, is its own reward, without thought of trophies or recognition, yet this is already an image of self-legitimation so intense as to transgress itself and suggest itself as really a gesture of denial. Wordsworth's notion of inspiration as a virile self-possession of powers nurtured in uncorrupted solitude reads partly as a defensive denial of the insecurities of the act of writing - as if questions of value, reception and rhetorical power could all be decided at the time of inscription.

Clark 109

If a Romantic theory of inspiration valorised the writer and solidified meaning in the text as something pre-determined, then it did not attend sufficiently to the need for that meaning to be extrinsically validated.

Such analyses provide mere weigh-stations on the longer critical road which leads to the assertion that there is a crisis in the very constitution of the writing subject hidden beneath the discourse of inspiration. As the author of several articles on Heidegger, as well as the outstanding Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot which explores the notion of the literary in Derrida, it is unsurprising that Clark's sub-title implies a post-structuralist deconstruction of the author. Indeed, he cites Derrida quoting Merleau-Ponty in "Force and Signification", "My own words take me by surprise and teach me what I think," as evidence of the implication in writing of "the agency of others in the scene of composition" (Clark 18). In writers as far removed from these as Woolf or E. M. Forster, who states gnomically "How do I know what I think until I see what I say," we find similar sentiments however, and Clark's purpose is hardly a restatement of 1980s deconstruction. Instead, as in his earlier book, he has the remarkable ability, absent in many others, of being interestingly theoretical without losing his argumentative focus. The kind of writing that seems to fascinate Clark is that which produces a journey of self-discovery in the writer, one in which we as critics may later recover that writer as both an agent and as a passive object acted upon in the space that becomes critically constructed as the 'scene of composition'. At the centre of Clark's study are the great Romantic statements on creativity by Wordsworth, Shelley and Hölderlin, but his argument is historical in the sense that he sees extreme self-consciousness in the act of composition as the Romantic legacy of writers in the post-Enlightenment. One of the objectives of Clark's project seems to be to rescue a discourse of authority proceeding from a belief, held potentially in bad faith, in the unified authorial subject, even as one allows for a critical nexus in which that subject becomes deconstructed as our act of critical analysis overlaps with the prior act of compositional self-consciousness.

Perhaps the key to this problem, which returns with force in his analysis of Celan in the last chapter, lies in Clark's thoughts on Hölderlin. In a sense, these amount to the study's central chapter. Hölderlin's theory of inspiration is exceedingly recondite and without an understanding of the contemporary history of idealism, it is more or less incomprehensible. It is, nevertheless, both extraordinarily subtle and allows for poetic authority within the context of a complicated hermeneutics in which textual meaning is allied both with the acts of creation and interpretation. For Hölderlin, the poet is a medium by which the language that is the groundwork of being is transmitted to the reader. Subject to a state in which the Kantian unity of consciousness cannot be taken for granted, however, the poetic self comes into being aware of a co-existent otherness within, which is the condition of being. Thus, the act of poetic composition is authoritative but rejects mere self-expression as may be expected in the subjective lyric. Clark writes:

The space of composition is one in which the writer's subjectivity, textual form, subject matter and a possible reader emerge and interact in a movement of mutual determination, one that ideally bears a privileged relation to the project of realising the human Geist in a revolutionary and newly-fulfilling form.

Clark 122

In order to investigate Hölderlin's ideas about poetic composition itself, Clark turns to the fragmentary 'Reflection' which dwells upon Longinus's Peri Hypsous. The poetic self is fallen for Hölderlin: we live in a time that does not value poets, and should remember the lines in 'Brot und Wein' which Heidegger makes much of, "wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?" Glossing this line, Clark writes,

In the act of poetic composition the poet must work to render his psyche the site of a reversal, changeover or revolution that mediates the present night of wandering with the day of a coming god.

Clark 123

Hölderlin's answer to the problem of composition within modernity is very much bound up with a continuing conversation between the discourses of inspiration and enthusiasm which we meet first in the early enlightenment. Then, as an earlier chapter makes clear, inspiration turns upon the key issue of the separation of the individualism of the personal voice from "the spectre of contagious irrational feeling" (Clark 64). For Hölderlin, the poet must calculate the level of enthusiasm necessary for the poetic voice to achieve its weighty task. The act of solitary composition becomes henceforth a battle within the poetic self to produce within the restrictions of the material at hand. Forming the material to its right end then becomes a matter of maintaining emotional equilibrium while working to give "determinate form to as yet undetermined material" (Clark 131). This juxtaposition of self-consciousness in formal composition with enthusiasm makes a considerable advance upon the statements with which I began, and yet forms the groundwork of the discussion that Romantic theories of creativity continue to have with modernity.

As we have become used to thinking about the construction of self-consciousness in the writing of the Romantic period as one of the products of a critical ideology, it has become easier to neglect the subtle analyses by writers of the period of their writing-selves. Although Coleridge is not at the centre of either of these studies, he remains a major presence, and recourse to one of his letters is illustrative of their interconnection. In a remarkable letter of 1825, Coleridge wrote to James Gilman of the conflict between 'Mind' and 'Nature' as being one between "two rival Artists [...] each having for it's [sic] object to turn the other into Canvas to paint on, Clay to mould, or Cabinet to contain." [4] Although, on Coleridge's account, the creative mind in youth is an almost divine transforming power over nature capable of producing from its elements "Christabels & Ancient Mariners set to music by Beethoven," his subject soon becomes its opposite, the "wary, wily long-breathed old Witch" who

mocks the mind with it's [sic] own metaphors, metamorphosing the Memory into a lignum vitae Escrutoire to keep unpaid Bills & Dun's Letter's in, with Outlines that had never been filled up, MSS that never went farther than the Title-pages, and Proof-Sheets & Foul Copies of Watchmen, Friends, Aids to Reflection & other Stationary Wares that have kissed the Publisher's Shelf with gluey Lips with all the tender intimacy of inosculation!

It is difficult not to see 'nature' as a complex signifier for such human embarrassments as old age and weakness of the will given a chiastic transposition which ends up taking the figure of the cabinet to be a mere crowded ruin of the mind, when its place was once as an empiricist model of our mental receptivity to nature. Coleridge's point is, however, more than this, and stresses the important connection between the conscious mental act of perception and the act of artistic production, which, although clearly present in his account of the creative process, remains troubled. Concerned, as he is, to deny that the process of composition is wholly internal and autonomous, or ungoverned by the capacity and desire to represent and re-order extrinsic nature, Coleridge presents the victory of nature over the mind as one in which the mind becomes cut off from any referent beyond itself. Perhaps somewhat crudely, we may say that while representations of nature are inherently figurative, in some all that remains of nature is a figure in the mind.

The letter describes the scene of the death of inspiration but it is already easy to see that inspiration is here not merely a lax synonym for 'poetic madness'; that instead to write of its loss is to open up the whole question of the space out of which creative rather than rational thought emerges. Clark is interested in a definition of the 'space of composition' which is bounded by the moment of inspiration figured in turn as

a series of seeming disjunctions in logic and causality - between the self that tries to write and the agency or seeming subject of writing, between what seems to be written and what is there to be read, between reading a text and seeming to be read by it and, finally, a disjunction between conscious effort and resulting value.

Clark 5

For Coleridge, the mind in youth is conceived as a rational subject in relation to nature via an empiricist metaphor which proceeds from the space in which mind is both rational and creative. As such, three useful points emerge from an analysis of his letter. The first and most obvious is that artistic representation is an inherently figurative act, and literary figures seem to demand an inquiry into their creative origin, even a they resist any reduction to an historical or biographical moment. This inquiry, by either critic or author, lends itself secondly to thoughts about composition which expose divisions in the authorial self (Coleridge's mind and nature), presenting precisely the critical basis for a deconstruction of authorial unity as a necessary progression from the Romantic claim for creative authority. Such divisions may however, as a third consideration, be best represented figuratively or allegorically. The strength and apparent security that we find by thinking allegorically, as demonstrated in Coleridge's articulation of the complicated demise of the creative faculty, ensures that our figurative nature can return as a critical consciousness even as we attempt to explain the figurative act of creative composition.

This third point is one of the driving forces behind Theresa Kelley's study of allegory. Reinventing Allegory is a splendid work displaying prodigious learning in its coverage of a broad literary canvas from the Renaissance to the present. The essential thesis here is that, in spite of repeated attempts since the Renaissance to discredit it as a mode of representation because of an obvious factitiousness, allegory has returned conspicuously even at points when it seemed furthest from the critical spirit of the age. Behind Kelley's study stand various looming figures whose arguments with allegory have been troubled such as Milton, Coleridge, Hegel and Walter Benjamin. At the centre of the work are chapters which deal with the Romantic project to discredit allegory, but perhaps its guiding impulse is the interesting observation that in the critical theory of Benjamin as much as in recent magical realist fiction, allegory has returned as a ruined but very modern figure which, while accepting the vicissitudes imposed upon its very historicity, works against the dominant realist trend of modern thought. At the study's end, she writes,

Precisely because it acts as a foil to its other self - the cultural authority of figures that move in lockstep to fixed meanings - allegory remains a capable figure, not because it asserts that referentiality or reality are washed up, which it does not, but because its figural interventions can clear paths and help human reason make its way. [...] Even now working through allegorical images and figures is one way to work things out, reasoning as best we can without having secure, prior knowledge but with an absolute conviction that 'roadying on' is the task at hand. [5]

The scope of both of these projects will, I hope, ensure that they are examined by a wide body of readers. In approaching a conceptual topic from the broad basis of a literary history of ideas, both Kelley and Clark seem to hark back to the work of critics like M. H. Abrams, even as they remain theoretically astute. Clark's study moves its focus with ease from Plato to the Enlightenment before centring upon the Romantic period, but then expands into a truly international post-Romantic group of writers including Nietzsche, H. D., Paz, Breton and Celan. For Kelley, meanwhile, the fact of modernity's ambivalent attitude toward the nature and use of allegory requires her to focus upon the Romantic period in her central three chapters, but in order to contextualise the terms of the debate, she presents the reader with three chapters that discuss Spenser, Milton and the eighteenth century, ending with an exciting reading of Diderot's examination of Fragonard's Le Grand-Prêtre Corésus s'immole pour sauver Callirhoe in the "Salon" of 1765, which as a dream-text presents the critical response as an allegorical attempt at aesthetic understanding. In her final chapters, she first compares Browning and George Eliot in an attempt to show that Victorian preoccupations with realism nevertheless contain an attraction to "figured abstractions" which can be seen as a continuation of the Romantic ambivalence towards allegory, and then turns to the post-modern interest in magical realism. It is, I believe, wholly to the credit of the editors of the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism that they have included Kelley's work in the series, for it seems somewhat out of step with their general plan, and yet is brave enough to present the reader with a view of the Romantic period as a peculiarly fertile point in the history of ideas which, nevertheless, relates closely, in terms of its debates, with both preceding and forth-coming thought.

In each of her chapters, Kelley moves back and forth from an analysis of the literary text and an exposition of useful contemporary thought. In part at least, her intention is to provide a history of the development of literary and aesthetic criticism as it relates to the preoccupation with the figure of allegory. As such, she, like Clark, focuses upon the rhetorical value of the figure in question, rightly seeing the history of rhetoric as a valuable precursor to the discipline of literary criticism. Allegory is historically related to the tropes of illusio and phantasia, and the arguments against allegory develop in large part out of a Renaissance question, raised by Puttenham, about the value of pictorial and phantasmal images which provide only a "false semblance" of real qualities. By the Romantic period, phantasia has become associated, in Whately's Elements of Rhetoric, with "false vision, 'phantoms', fantasy, and fancy" (Kelley 109). It is this aspect of allegory that is palpably in opposition to many of the concerns of the period, but, on Kelley's account, it is a critical quarrel that often runs counter to the desire to use pictorial imagery as narrative, and to make absent things or ideas appear as though they were present as images. She reminds us that allegorical images were used in Revolutionary France precisely because they could persuade (through a return to their rhetorical ancestry) the lower orders of society to believe in the authority of their reading of society and history.

The distance that allegory creates between figure and idea is precisely that which, in Romantic theory, necessitates its reduction to a lower form of representation. Kelley provides a deft reading of Coleridge's argument with the figure of allegory which should perhaps have been extended into several chapters even though she is admits a debt to former scholarship which presumes that critical brevity is allowed. Behind his mistrust of allegory is, she suggests, an hermeneutical argument about the historical reality of scripture as a truth of revelation. Her argument depends considerably upon an understanding of Coleridge's interpretation of the Idea and its relation to the rhetorical trope of phantasia, but she suggests that, in reading Coleridge and Wordsworth, one should be aware that, just as allegory offers a sense of "roadying on" to the post-modernist, so to the Romantic reader allegorical figures are consciously provisional and bound into history, rather than atemporal:

To the presumption that allegorical meaning is elsewhere, visionary, or hidden, Romantic allegory offers in opposition its hunger for spectacular images and figures. This oppositionality is creative and double-jointed: it ratifies the prominence of visual images to reorient (and disorient) that tradition.

Kelley 133

To the second generation, allegory already seems less of a difficult trope to assimilate into a poetic praxis. Kelley begins a chapter which examines the work of both Shelley and Keats by turning to Hegel's lectures on aesthetics. In so doing, she shows that while his thoughts upon allegory are specifically cursory and dismissive, he is nevertheless fascinated by the figure of phantasia. While this may be better categorised in his thought as a relative of Schein or illusion, her argument holds in that Hegel returns continually to the beguiling quality of the fantastic image which comes loaded with historical meaning. Kelley's argument rests upon Hegel's interest in the classical trope of ekphrasis as an important trope in the description of works of art as objects in general. She writes:

As a term which means in Greek 'image' or the power of creating images, Phantasia is precisely what ekphrasis must do. It is also, he notes elsewhere in the Aesthetics, a free-wheeling play of the mind. Against the grain of this polemic, Derrida unites these features when he calls Hegel's theory of imagination 'a phantasiology or a fantastics,' a science whose logic of images is fantastic, hence dream-like and exaggerated. This advantage in the end draws Hegel back to other kinds of oriental art, despite the 'restless ferment' they share with Indian art. To illustrate the 'imaginative' wit of the Greek epigram, he turns to Persian and Arabic art, praising 'the eastern splendour of their images, the free bliss of their imagination which deals with its objects entirely contemplatively.' This rehabilitation of Phantasie under the aegis of romantic contemplation registers the complicated appeal of allegory in Hegel's Aesthetics, where it exists in part as an unacknowledged sponsor of the restless, unfettered ferment of sensuous shapes and images to which Hegel warily but frequently returns.

Kelley 143

It is just such a pull which heralds the late Romantic return to allegory under the auspices of a return to classicism. For Shelley as for Keats, allegory remains a figure of generalised authority which, while threatening to erase history, returns continually because of its power to engage poetically with the reader. Allegory produces an enthusiasm in the reader by virtue of the imagistic and historical authority that it commands but works against itself as it moves over into generalisation and ahistoricity.

In the interesting chapter that follows, Kelley relates the paintings of Turner to the fore-going discussion of allegory in the Romantic period. In so doing, she transforms the generally accepted view that a Romantic poetics moves inexorably towards the canonical realism of the Victorian period. Her argument relies upon a detailed historicism which nevertheless refuses to leave the aesthetic focus behind. This is important. One comes away from a reading of both of these studies conscious of the value of an historical understanding of the development of ideas, and, most importantly, of the way in which the history of ideas must be read diachronically. Both Clark and Kelley seem to want to suggest that literary theory has the essential value that its original exponents relied upon, namely that it can inform upon our own thinking whenever literature remains a part of cultural and intellectual activity. Both address large issues that are ultimately irreducible to the present analysis. It seems to me, however, that these are two works which should be illustrative of the ground that literary criticism needs to reclaim. In short, they are works which aim to be historically informative while addressing the larger concern of the interaction of literary theory with the history of ideas.

The Yale school aimed to do something similar but ended up taking literary criticism away from the analysis of the practice of writing by focusing upon an ever-smaller body of work. The new historicist movement away from De Manian criticism has ensured that the canon of study has been opened to a broad canvas. Nevertheless, it has also ensured that the study of the history of ideas has been neglected. In Resistance to Theory, De Man attacks W. J. Bate's claim that criticism has moved away from its essential task which was based upon an understanding of the relationship between the history of ideas and the history of literature. De Man's suggestion that Bate's point is merely anachronism; that criticism should embody a new philology hides a peculiarly nasty attack which has been shown to be wrong-headed by recent developments in Romantic criticism. It is a paradoxically small step from De Man's position to that of those who have dedicated themselves to a deconstruction of the very notion of Romanticism because of its ideological import. Both Clark and Kelley seem to me to go some way towards redressing the balance. These are works which attempt to relate the pre-history of criticism both to its flowering in the Romantic period and to the literary practice that has come afterward without recourse to bizarre theories of influence or the like. This kind of study, favoured for example by James Engell and Frederick Burwick, seems vital if we are going to maintain a sense of a continuing literary history in late modernity, rather than falling apart into disparate groups with minority interests, unaware of our common ground.

Romantic Circles Review of Theresa Kelley's book

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