Article body

In an admirably subtle study, Kevis Goodman argues that we should take a new look at the continuity of the georgic mode in British poetry by way of historical media rather than, say, with more generic eyes. Goodman’s thoughtful book is not a study of genre; she is more interested in treating the persistence of the georgic as a “subtle underpresence” in poems. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism would rather have us productively think of “medium consciousness as distinct from an awareness of form” (18). This study’s distinctive contribution to our understanding of how British poetry reads, or is read by, history is directly tied to its wider and subtler range, where Goodman situates her reading within the history of ideas, affect, and broadly speaking, media theory (10). Her approach here is novel and important for our understanding of eighteenth-century poetry and Romantic historicism, and this book goes a long way in explaining the seemingly peculiar post-Augustan persistence and value of the georgic mode – something not quite explained in, and often ignored by, previous studies. Goodman shows us that by way of georgic verses, we are at once pointed to a heightened medium-consciousness, which finally opens the work, and by extension the heart (the receptive consciousness), in complicated and affective ways to the world outside and to the pains of history. The georgic as such remains one of the significant “channels of sensation and perception” through which eighteenth-century readers and writers could begin to know and feel the strangeness of their world (22).

Beginning often from the hurt that history allegedly gives to Romantic consciousness, we have become accustomed to criticisms of georgic nature in terms of how it hides history in favor of the self. Goodman, however, wants to complicate this reading: first, by refusing to see the georgic only as a genre that vanishes after the 1760s; and second, by arguing that despite the productiveness of the negative hermeneutic, it is time to ask whether this sort of poetry does, in fact, “offer a substantial register of history” (3). At the heart of this matter is a critical problem about how history is registered in poems; in the georgic, this concerns a significant failure of recognition and reception, especially when we are presented with what is turned up, though not named specifically, as history.

The main argument throughout this careful book is that, rather than simply burying history by turning it into nature, the georgic also ‘turns up’ historical presentness as “upleasurable feeling” and “sensory discomfort” (3). The material georgic versus (a Virgilian pun on furrows and poetic lines) are shown to be complex sites that open up “sensible paths,” which might communicate, not an “idea” of history, but some affective sense of “the flux of historical process” (3). Following Raymond Williams, Goodman is after this unsettled and unsettling “presentness” of historical process in georgic representation as it is distinct from “presence” in terms of immediacy. The crucial tension in this study for our sense of history is therefore appropriately located in media, between knowing and feeling. Goodman’s persistent question remains: does some sense of historical presentness remain in modes of perception even though it escapes direct articulation and thought? The answer, it seems, is yes, but that what remains is a whole lot of noise.

This book is a welcome complication of more recent provocative readings of the British georgic that would see it primarily bound to the problem of enclosure, where the georgic is shown to be an ideological form implicated in an authoritative and “backward-looking vision” (Crawford 103). Goodman turns away from this focus on ideological closure by taking the more open, dialectical path. The eighteenth-century georgic mode should not simply be read, as it often has been, merely as a formal means of closure; it is also a significant means of disclosing the historical flux of what Goodman names memorably – and perhaps too painfully for our crowded contemporary ears – “the noise of living” (4). The focus is placed on those noisier moments where the poem’s attempt to contain “rival sensory extensions” fails either to turn up the Lockean idea or to work by way of Addison’s pleasure principle. Goodman sees the negative moments as failures in mediation, signification, and the affective pleasure of the text; however, she is not ready to ally such gaps with deconstructive energies because, as she insists throughout, the muteness in these poems still registers with us in some way even as it admits that something remains too difficult to be communicated immediately. This more sensible approach to the georgic as an underpresence, therefore, turns what might have been critical javelins into ploughshares by refusing to settle for the more limited notion of the georgic as an aristocratic, pre-1770 form implicated in expansionist, anti-progressive tendencies. We are not asked nostalgically to read georgic verses, for example, as Goldsmith’s mournful peasant in The Deserted Village (1770) surveys the English landscape looking for labor lost when he recognizes that “The country blooms – a garden and a grave” (l. 302). However, we do come to see through different media that the heuristic and perceptual problems present within the georgic mode are somewhat near to this peasant’s grave historical apprehension.

The book opens with an older apprehension of a garden found to be a grave. Goodman begins with an important tableau from the end of Virgil’s first Georgic where the poet imagines a time when some future farmer, laboring in furrow lines with plough and heavy hoe, will turn up unpleasant emblems of the past: a rusted javelin or the giant bones of upturned graves. The imaginative situation here is telling for how we might read the georgic. Goodman asks us to imagine Virgil’s scene as the predicament of the historicist critic confronting in georgic lines the presentness of the past. In what ways can the past be felt in the present? How closely can, or should, the past be read in between lines? These sort of critical problems are implicit in Virgil’s georgic representation of cultivation turned excavation. In reading such a poetic encounter, we might desire to drive our carts and ploughs over the bones of the dead in order to quicken some sense of history in them. However, this poses significant heuristic problems for the critic hoping to unearth the labor of the past. When reading georgic lines, we are tasked with sifting through and attempting to read the “historical meanings of what does get turned up, not under, by their lines” (3). This is not an easy chore because neither georgic labor, nor the work of the critic, can recover these meanings as immediate lived experience. Historical presentness in these verses, Goodman argues, becomes at once “a mediated problem or a problem within mediation” (3).

Chapter two focuses on these problems of mediation at first through the familiar issue of optics and the “philosophic eye” in Thomson’s Seasons. The focus, though, is not so much on what many have read as the maker’s panoramic rage for order in the poem through the prospect view. Goodman’s reading diverges in that it does not insist so much upon the contemplative subject’s attempt to organize the landscape as she reminds us that The Seasons is a work confused and crowded with minute particulars. The poem’s “vertiginous movement” is more dialectical, and the reader is made aware of the shifting views between distance and proximity – the philosophic and the “microscopic eye” (40). The Seasons confronts us with a self-consciousness about “the operation of physical media of vision as they occur in nature and are wielded by humans” (41). The central dilemma concerns those disturbances in vision generated by the poem’s sense of these rival mediations: what does this poem functioning as a kind of microscopic eye “let in that the actual instrument cannot?” (59). The answer is that it admits the affect of the non-ideational, which is the noise of an ongoing history that lies beyond phenomenological verification. Thomson’s poem works to crowd and intensify our senses, moving between eye and ear, until we are left with “cognitive noise” and uncertain worlds: “[I]f worlds / In Worlds inclosed should on the his Senses Burst, / From Cates Ambrosial and the Nectared Bowl / he would abhorrent turn” (312-15). We are meant to experience these lines as sensory unpleasure as we become aware that there are “nameless nations” and worlds within worlds unavailable to our “sense-verification” (63). Goodman says this is noise of the seventeenth-century science kind as well as that of twentieth-century information theory (63). Such are the painful sounds of history in the poem that the georgic mode, operating in contest with contemporary modes of perception, turns up, but does not exactly name as such. The affective labor of Thomson’s poem is in this way discovered in its involuntary historicism.

Chapter three demonstrates how in Cowper’s The Task the georgic mode makes worlds burst upon the senses through the “globally telescopic” (69). The newspaper is the rival medium in this case, and Cowper provides a “georgic of the news” as he converts bits of news into the poetry of polite conversation. According to some acute readers, Cowper’s task is to turn the georgic into private or spiritual labor as he shows consciousness drifting from its worldly mooring. Though this might be Cowper’s wish, Goodman’s view is that these very moments that display the “indolent vacuity of thought” in the poem actually coincide with its worldly openness to context (90). Though the poet might be sitting in silence, at rest by a cozy fire indoors, he is reading the paper and pointing us to those passages or “loopholes” that provide some way out to the world – some manner of conversing with it. The Task may, in fact, mount a defense of the conversational medium, but Goodman argues that it also admits the limits of such conversability – both in the news and in its verses. We see Cowper apprehensive about these limits when he wants to liberate the print figures from the still speech of the news: “I burn to set th’imprison’d wranglers free, / And given them voice and utt’rance once again” (Task 4.34-35). The poem is burdened therefore by the possibilities of silence and noise, but Cowper offers his own poetic “sound” in response to the threat of silent page and in competition with what he reads in those other disordered sounds.

The sounds coming in and going out of this poem, and the noise that results, have epistemological and affective consequences. The critical paradox in The Task is that the non-ideational is shown to be an affective mode of historical knowledge. The poem’s involuntary historicism captures those flickerings of history, figured by Cowper’s synecdoche of the sooty film, prophesying “some stranger’s near approach” (Task 4.295). An affective consciousness is given, not quite in terms of retreat, but as a receptive medium “through which the world’s strangeness enters” (90). The rest is silence for Cowper, so to speak, but is not complete historical absence. He admits the strange sounds of the world into the Englishman’s living room when he writes of the newspaper correspondent: “He travels and I too. I tread his deck, / Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes / Discover countries, with a kindred heart” (Task 4.114-116). As in The Seasons, where in our condition of heightened perception, we cannot rub the world’s strangeness from our sight, in The Task we cannot help but hear something of history in the strange sounds that Cowper rings out from the prose of the news and into our ears.

Goodman’s final turn in the study is to Wordsworth’s The Excursion, where we are faced with a more terrifying prospect that our senses might become too deadly acute. Goodman stages the georgic problem of heightened sense experience in terms of trauma, sympathy, and historical transmission. The poem, in Goodman’s hands, becomes more difficult to convict of merely strewing flowers on graves and covering over labor and history. She begins with the Solitary’s aversion to a past that might be experienced in immediacy: “If this mute earth / Of what I holds could speak, and every grave / Were as a volume, shut, yet capable / Of yielding its contents to eye and ear, / We should recoil…” (Excursion 5.250-54). There is great apprehension here about how and through what means one can read the muteness of the dead as a volume. The work of Wordsworth’s poem becomes to show us how to avoid the Solitary’s recoil by opening our hearts to an affective responsiveness to painful histories and muteness. Goodman rightfully reminds us that the problem of overexposure is at stake here. The sympathetic openness may, in fact, turn traumatic by closing the heart off to the world. The issue at the heart of the way the georgic handles the problem of sensitivity remains tied to closure and disclosure in this poem. Goodman connects this to Wordsworth’s seeming interest in the very possibility of telling history. The Excursion works through its own role in mediating any recoil from history by using storytelling as a rival form of “georgic husbandry.” The poem works to place death and muted pains in time as histories so that we cannot easily turn from them. Goodman reads The Excursion’s “passages of life” with its georgic “mine of real life” as miniature experiments in historiography. The poem acts as a kind of anecdotal historiography, but not simply to leave one with pleasurable, narrative compensations; it keeps the narrative wounds of history open (111).

Wordsworth’s storytelling is placed against D’Israeli’s anecdotal histories, which are critical of historians who want to keep us distant. Wordsworth draws on and re-shapes the practice of D’Israeli, who publishes too much, by providing a “finer distance” (Excursion 1.17). Benjamin’s aura as “unique phenomenon of distance” is brought in for comparison to Wordsworth’s “landscape indistinctly glared / Though a pale steam” (Excursion 1.2-3). The poem does not allow us to come too close or to read its histories too immediately because something is always left out of the narration, and the poet finally refuses to detail D’Israeli’s novelistic “minute springs” of life or to accept an ideology of complete narrative organization (133). The anecdotal in The Excursion remains true to its etymology as something unpublished, and so remains a way to register the pain of history. The blanks serve as media interference much like the silences and vacuities in Cowper and Thomson. Goodman in each case wishes to confirm the final lesson of the georgic: that history lies neither in the thing unearthed nor in the cover of words, but somewhere in the disturbing between (143).

Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism is an important revision of historicism in that it reminds us how our communications with the past are always in part working through media interference and disturbance. Kevis Goodman has written a compelling book that should cause us to re-think how we go about the work of Romantic historicism as well as how we might begin to conceive of our very sense of history as an object of criticism, knowledge, or feeling. Her book is praiseworthy because its reading of history in poems cannot be reduced to certain ideology critiques, nor does it completely refuse them. The georgic discovery of this convincing study is perhaps closer to the spirit of the young Marx, who in a startling observation in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts declares, “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present…All history is the history of preparing and developing ‘man’ to become the object of sensuous consciousness” (302). The georgic mode has apparently contributed in important ways to eighteenth-century formations of the human senses as well as its labor of history. It has also played a significant role, it seems, in helping history itself become an object of the sensuous consciousness. The labor and sensibility that was required of the critic who turned our attention to such valuable historical apprehensions should certainly be commended.