This essay examines how subjective identities are discursively constructed in William Blake and P.B. Shelley, making brief references to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Charlotte Smith. It is argued that, although the poets come up with strikingly divergent solutions to the challenge of self-modelling, they face the same fundamental problems of self-grounding, working as they do within the paradox-prone paradigm of a Romantic self that tries to constitute itself out of itself. Comparing these Romantic poets with twentieth-century poetic models of selfhood and identity in Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, this essay provides a tentative answer to the question of whether we continue to operate within the Romantic framework of discursive self-construction or whether in fact we have moved beyond this mode of self-construction.
Corps de l’article
This essay is about how subjective identities are constructed in the Romantic Age. My prime examples will be Blake and Shelley, and I will then show how a certain, very fundamental problem of discursive self-constitution is handed on, as it were, to the twentieth century, and my examples will be Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. In the end, I will briefly discuss what we can make of this apparent continuity in self-modelling.
Since what follows forms part of a larger project, now nearing completion, on discursive constructions of subjective identity in the Romantic Age, it is expedient at the start to sketch out how I generally approach the matter of self-modelling. In this larger project, I work from three basic premises: my first premise is that in the eighteenth century, we witness the formation of what Niklas Luhmann calls a fully-fledged functionally differentiated modern society with a variety of different social sub-systems. This coincides with the advent of new, discursive practices of identity construction that are dynamic, flexible and open-ended. These new discursive practices allow the different social sub-systems to operate with variable and fluid identity designs and thereby to avoid the counterproductive and dysfunctional rigidity of identity concepts that are prematurely fixed by “substantialist” parameters or content-defined entities.
My second premise is that such discursive constructions of identity are always prone to paradox and self-contradiction. For example, discursive self-construction will always have to begin with a beginning—a Setzung, or positing—that cannot be anything but contingent (as Aristotle says in his Poetics: “A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it” ); and it will then have to produce the illusion that what follows from this initial positing has a cogency or a logic of its own that will eventually culminate in the identity of the subject of the discourse with the subject (matter) or the object of that discourse. Ideally, that is, in autobiography, as Wilhelm Dilthey once remarked, the subject of the story coincides with the subject which brings it forth (198). This relationship can easily be reversed: discursive constructions of identity produce what is always already presupposed, but to all intents and purposes never given and never achieved―a subject which fully comprehends itself. The discursive origin of identity is inevitably contingent and self-contradictory. But this fact must be masked or veiled in ordinary communication, because a systematic unmasking or ostentatious exhibition of these paradoxes would be counterproductive in virtually all social sub-systems.
There is, however, and this is my third premise, one arena in which the contingency and the very “impossibility” of discursive self-grounding can be displayed conspicuously and without sanction, and that is exactly the designated field of texts that are freed from fulfilling any specific function: literature. The conspicuous foregrounding and thematization of the immensely varied and paradoxical ways in which identities are discursively constructed becomes the true province of literature—it can indulge in practices that elsewhere would lead to the breaking down of any communication, but which, in this field, are the defining trait, the differentia specifica, of this particular kind of communication, which delights in its own foregrounded auto-referentiality.
Therefore, the defining trait of modern literature, namely that it speaks about itself and directs our attention to the text as text and to those processes of meaning production themselves, structurally coincides with that which, by definition, has no other subject but itself and has, as its own telos and reason for being, the proof of its own meaningful coherence, of its own necessity, which is the discursive production (Hervorbringung) of identity. Like modern art and literature in their most characteristic manifestations, the discursive construction of identity can only ever be self-referential.
Elsewhere my work has traced the ways in which the paradoxicality of discursive self-constitution reveals itself in Romantic poetry, poetics and philosophy. To summarise them very briefly:
In Wordsworth’s The Prelude we encounter the impossibility of ever ending and the complementary necessity to continually re-write one’s own life (even if the period covered remains constant). Such a process finds its only logical ending in the ontological fact of the death of its author.
In Keats we find the dissolution of temporal continuity into a series of discrete moments whose authenticity the text claims to guarantee (as Keats writes to Benjamin Bailey, “what the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.”), but whose coherence is constantly called in question, with the result that the whole project of identity formation collapses—an outcome about which Keats evidently was not unhappy: “[the poet] has no identity” (KL, 387).
For Byron, self-constitution begins with the projection of fictive alter egos and a public persona that is, however, for its development and, indeed, for its continuous confirmation vitally dependent upon a public response, so that the production of this identity deliberately transgresses the text as text. This process of fabrication is from the very beginning one that denies the separation and autonomy of the new sub-system of “literature” (while at the same time it strongly affirms its commodification) and relies indispensably on a dialogical and performative acting-out of the potential of a role in the making; so that, eventually and ideally, role (that epitome of inauthenticity) and identity become one.
Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head depicts a conspicuously fluid construction of identity that does without a stable point of view is traceable only in the trajectory of its dynamic self-positioning. Beachy Head implicitly sees the text in its materiality as but a “fossil” of a subject that can only be talked about discursively, but that itself is always already “elsewhere” and never present.
Finally, there is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s projection of a subjectivity—as exemplified in “Frost at Midnight,” but also in his Logic, the Biographia Literaria, the Opus maximum, and other later writings—that can only be derived from, or grounded in, the postulate of a Divinity, because it acknowledges the inevitable paradoxicality of all attempts to discursively construct the identity of the subject instead of deducing it from a transcendent ground of spiritual being, whose existence can, of course, only be assumed by a leap of faith.
With these preliminaries in mind, the remainder of this essay concentrates on one particular aspect of identity construction, and that is, how the subject positions itself in relation to everything that it is not, to the objective world, to nature, to “reality;” more particularly still, whether the subject is conceived of as something that constitutes reality, or as something that, part of an objective reality, only registers patterns and meanings that are somehow “out there.” In other words: is the subject modelled in such a way that it discovers only, or is the self modelled in such a way that it, in turn, models and generates reality and meaning?
Anticipating an answer to this question, I think there is good reason to believe that both Romantics and Modernists are deeply ambivalent and contradictory in this matter and that they would like to have it both ways. And why this should be so, is the really intriguing question.
II. William Blake
One of the most hilariously paradoxical passages from Blake is from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—it is called “A Memorable Fancy”:
The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answer‘d: ‘I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.’
Then I asked: ‘Does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?’
He replied: ‘All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of anything.’Blake’s Poetry and Designs 92
This is wonderfully ironic: how can he so roundly assert that the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with him? His firm persuasion is, of course, the only basis for his truth claim. This is, it seems, Blake at his most subjectivist, and there are many more passages in his oeuvre that could be cited in support of his apparent conviction that realities are subjectively constructed—and cannot be otherwise: “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” (Blake’s Poetry and Designs 89) or “The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure” (Blake’s Poetry and Designs 89). There is, of course, a transition between the poles of folly and wisdom: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” (Blake’s Poetry and Designs 89) as there is a world-historical trend against the wisdom of the imagination: “What is now proved was once only imagined” (Blake’s Poetry and Designs 76) (all these are “Proverbs of Hell,” and those familiar with Blake will detect a heavy irony in his use of “only”).
It is against this trend that Blake, the visionary artist, sets his art: “The nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients calld the Golden Age. [...] Vision, or Imagination, is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really and Unchangeably. [...] This world of Imagination is the World of Eternity; [...] This World of Imagination is Infinite & Eternal” (409, 407).
That is, in Blake the imagination reveals a reality that is eternal and infinite and unchanging:
Auguries of Innocence, 1-4
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
Or, to quote from There Is No Natural Religion: “He who sees the infinite in all things sees God” (15). This Ulterior Reality is certainly not dependent upon being imagined or perceived—in “visitations” it is revealed to us.
On the other hand, the different visions which different people have are so characteristic of them (as Anselm Feuerbach would later put it, they have formed God in their own image) that it would be hard to argue that simply on account of their being so firmly persuaded of the truth of their visions, these must be true.
The Everlasting Gospel [Plate 7], 1-8
The Vision of Christ that thou doest see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the friend of All Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates.
There is a competition of visions, and each is highly indicative of the visionary’s specific being-in-the-world (it is hard not to be reminded of Karl Marx’s “Das Sein bestimmt das Bewußtsein”):
“The Clod and the Pebble”
‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.’
So sang a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet;
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet:
’Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight;
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in Heaven’s despite.’
The problem is, of course, that of the legitimacy and the authorization of the visionary’s speech act: what entitles or empowers me or anyone to speak an eternal truth, to reveal a higher reality? This is, of course, a general problem of self-legitimizing, self-authorizing foundational discourse, as has been discussed in such an exemplary way by Jacques Derrida in his Force de loi: Sur le fondement mystique de l'autorité. How, then, can one counter the charge that this is a merely subjective projection?
One cannot, of course. The only thing one can do is to indicate that any rendition of the unconditional in some kind of mediality can only point to its own inadequacy—a gesture commonly known as romantische Ironie. We find this right at the beginning of Songs of Innocence:
‘Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read—’
So he vanish’d from my sight.
And I pluck’d a hollow reed…
Mediality is tantamount to loss of im-mediacy (that is a pleonasm), which is why visionary art can never transport the vision itself but only an intersubjective representation of a subjective experience, or of an experience that defies the subject-object dichotomy. By definition, the absolute cannot be represented. And Blake knows this. Blake’s art is highly media-conscious, as it continually signals a sense of its own limitations and systematic inadequacy—systematic, because this inadequacy is a general condition and not due to a personal failing.
The same can be said about Blake’s epic attempts at narrating that which cannot be narrated, like the beginning of everything, in The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, and Europe:
‘Times on times he divided, & measur’d
Space by space in his ninefold darkness
This narration perpetually negates the grounds of its own possibility—and thereby parades the fact that it is, of course, nothing but a fiction, a necessary fiction, though. But then, as Blake writes in his Notebook:
The Complete Poems 857
Do what you will this Lifes a Fiction
And is made up of Contradiction
In William Blake, the imagination is radically subjective, productive, and typical of its agent or bearer and it is at one and the same time revelatory of an ulterior Reality, which is eternal, infinite, unchangeable, not subject to the understanding or reason—a Reality that, for fundamental reasons, cannot be represented in any medium.
III. P.B. Shelley
In the first paragraph of his Defence of Poetry, Shelley opposes reason, and its principle of analysis, to the imagination, with its principle of synthesis, and then goes on to argue that poetry, as the expression of the Imagination, is “connate with the origin of man.” Interestingly enough, Shelley’s definition of the role of poets in society is very close to the formalist aesthetics of Viktor Shklovsky, as formulated in “Art as Technique” (1916). Here is Shelley in A Defence of Poetry:
Their language is vitaly metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganised, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.512, hereafter SPP
A couple of pages later, this “unapprehended” is picked up again, with the same implication, namely that the world exists “out there,” but that our perception of it is, as it were, disastrously blunted through the cliché-ridden and, as Shklovsky would have it, “automatic” use of everyday language:
[Poetry] awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists.SPP, 517
Language has this special power to either blunt or sharpen our experience of the world because, differing from the materials of other arts, it is more closely related to thought, to the “actions and passions of our internal being.” Shelley explains futher:
And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the controul of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagination and has relation to thoughts alone[.]SPP, 513
This idea that “language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagination and has relation to thoughts alone,” and not to objects, is an intriguing one, but it also complicates Shelley’s familiar claim that poetry “strips the veil of familiarity....blunted by reinteration" from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms. [...] it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration” (SPP, 533).
This “purging” is reminiscent of Blake’s cleansing of the doors of perception, after which every thing will appear as it is, infinite. But here the relationship between language, thought, and world is a highly tricky one: language has "relation to thoughts" alone, and yet its use is said to have a direct bearing on the way we see the world. This can only be if language, and poetry in particular, as systems, homologically, “reproduc[e] the common universe of which we are portions and percipients” (SPP, 533). One can call this Shelley’s idealistic or linguistic turn in which “[a]ll things exist as they are perceived” (SPP, 533) and perception is a function of language. This is logically compelling, in a way, but what about those “unapprehended relations”? Do they exist, really, before they are apprehended? If not, how can we speak of a re-discovery of the world? If they do, how can we say that all things exist as they are perceived, and that language has "relation to thoughts" alone?
Similar to Keats, Shelley believes that poetry records moments of unusual intensity—“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” (SPP, 532)—and thus gives permanence to “the visitations of the divinity in man” (SPP, 532). But Shelley wants to ignore, or so it seems, that, once locked in the prison-house of language (Nietzsche’s “Zuchthaus der Sprache”), it becomes difficult for us to say anything about the world outside, the world prior to language, the world “as such” (25, 76).
In what is arguably one of Shelley’s most thought-provoking essays, the essay “On Life,” he draws the most radical conclusions from this linguistic turn:
Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by the names of ideas and of external objects. Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of distinct individual minds similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words, I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind. [...]
The words I, and you and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to them. It is difficult to find terms adequately to express so subtle a conception as that to which the intellectual philosophy has conducted us. We are on that verge where words abandon us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of—how little we know.SPP, 508
There is a contradiction in Shelley’s philosophy, in his poetics and poetry, in that he holds, on the one hand, that we can only experience the world through the grid of our language and of thought—that is not only the way in which it is accessible to us, it is also the only way in which it exists—and that, on the other hand, there is a beyond that is unaffected by our moves. This contradiction between the view that the imagination constructs the world in its own image (so that, since our thinking has a grammatical structure, the world is ultimately a function of grammar), and the opposite view that there is a world out there, which has patterns, and structures, and relations all by itself, which may be apprehended or not, by us, depending on whether the veil is lifted or not, this contradiction, I say, shows itself in most interesting ways in innumerous of Shelley’s poems—three brief examples must suffice:
In his poem “To a Sky-Lark,” Shelley’s lyrical voice states that, “What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?” (SPP, 31-2), and then circles the “blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert—” (SPP, 1-2) in a series of similes: the ultimate reality of the sky-lark, its essence, if you will, cannot be reached. What we get instead is a series of approximations to something which, by definition, can never be brought into the realm of the sayable, into human discourse.
In “Ozymandias,” a prime example of Romantic Irony, one of the messages seems to be is that the meaning of any writing crucially depends on its context, and that these varying contexts, given enough time, can change radically and thereby change the message radically. This insight is presented in writing so that every act of reading the sonnet must pay attention to the precariousness of what we have just identified as the message of that writing.
In this respect reminiscent of Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream, we encounter in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life the narrative impossibility, for any first-person narrator, of making coherent, “objective” sense of what he sees. As the narrative torch is passed on to the shade of Rousseau, we become aware—because of the similarity of what is described—that it is no longer possible to qualitatively and hierarchically tell the different narrative levels apart. When the question of the meaning of it all is asked for the fourth and last time, “Then, what is Life?” (SPP, 544), and is left without an answer, we have finally understood that this is no longer a vision whose meaning is self-evident, though its essence is difficult to report. If it is true that we can only understand what we have made ourselves, then certainly the meaning of life in general terms is something about which we cannot, and therefore should not speak (as Ludwig Wittgenstein postulated at the very close of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus).
More crucially: Shelley’s advanced poetics does not allow him to speak about things beyond language. That seems a reasonable restraint. Sadly, this is exactly what he would love to do most of all and most of the time. So he endeavours to widen the realm of what is sayable and thinkable, he lifts veil after veil, and is forever “purg[ing] from our inward sight the film of familiarity” (SPP, 533), all the time never knowing whether he got it right this time, because there is no right this side of language. To sum up these two Romantic poets: both Blake and Shelley are deeply, irresolvably, contradictory about whether the Romantic subject is or is not constitutive of the patterns and meanings it sees itself surrounded by.
IV. Robert Frost
In “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Robert Frost famously defined the figure a poem makes as “a momentary stay against confusion” (Baym 1200). A poetry informed by such an outlook is not necessarily affirmative about the universe, or less so than most people think. Like his Romantic predecessors, Frost negotiates the question of whether the world presents itself as a meaningful one—or is it “just us” projecting meaning onto a world that is essentially mute, meaningless, chaotic, and indifferent to man?
There is a disconcerting poem which explores this problem of whether there is a “design” out there in creation, and whether, if there is, that is a good thing or not. The poem is entitled “Design,” and all one has to know beforehand is that normally the flower called heal-all is blue, so that the flower in the poem has mutated—it is a chance mutation in a flower that normally is not white:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
Sharing the existentialist scepticism behind so much of Frost’s poetry, “Design” questions the coincidence of the three: is it governed by laws of necessity and nature? Is it governed by mere chance? Is there a coherent and purposeful pattern, as opposed to chaos? Bringing in intentionality, could there be a plan, a scheme, perhaps, even intent, or a plot? Could it be that, going far beyond indifference, this universe is openly hostile and malevolent?
The alternative seems to be that either everything, even “things so small,” is governed by necessity (this would be at odds with our idea of freedom of the will and personal responsibility), or everything is just chance, coincidence, and contingency (this would be at odds with our idea of human dignity and with assumptions about the meaning of life). Either way, the sight is not too pleasing for humanity—it is an insult to human presumptions and pretensions, whichever way you look at it.
The form of this poem is, of course, a sonnet, a perfectly composed one at that. There is a design which sets patterns against the randomness of the universe, or against its dark designs. That is what art is about: to pattern structures which look as if they were meaningful (and most probably are, because they are man-made, as there is an evident intelligence and design behind them).
In Frost, we encounter the possibility that no matter whether there is a design in creation or not, man-made patterns are a necessity, and they are not just a minor, a somewhat deficient, small-scale instance of meaning production, it is the very thing itself—a necessary stay against the confusion that is reality, or a necessary stay against the non-human, indifferent, impersonally hostile design that we can make out. But characteristically, the question of whether or not there is a design in creation is not answered unambiguously—the only objective design or pattern we can definitely discern here is the sonnet.
V. Wallace Stevens
The case of Wallace Stevens is arguably the most complicated in my sequence (if a sequence it is), but since the pattern, with its variants, has already been established, I can restrict myself to a few observations. On the one hand, we find in Wallace Stevens the firm conviction that it is the human imagination which transcends empirical reality, as we perceive it through the senses. Maybe, the best illustration of this is Stevens’s “The Snow Man”:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
The imagination (if one does not “have a mind of winter”) makes one hear the misery in the wind, but makes one also behold the nothingness and realise the fact that reality is more than what we perceive through the senses: “the nothing that is” (there) is the reality of the imagination that transcends empirical reality.
Stevens is the great poet of point of view, of subjective projection and innovative metaphorical proposals, as evidenced in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which can be compared with Hokusai’s series of woodcuts, 100 Views of Mount Fuji, and displays a Koan-like quality in its mini stanzas. Sometimes these “ways of looking at...” are easily decipherable–particularly when an optical phenomenon is alluded to, as in “When the blackbird flew out of sight,/ It marked the edge/ Of one of many circles” (IX) or in “The river is moving./ The blackbird must be flying.” (XII); sometimes, however, they form a bold metaphysical conceit, as in “Among twenty snowy mountains/ The only moving thing/ Was the eye of the blackbird” (I). But the implication is always that whatever the blackbird may be, its meaning depends on the way we look at it.
Meaning is imposed upon the world as we confront it—that seems also to be the central point, if one can be abstracted from the poem, of Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
The maker’s “rage for order” (52) creates the only world she will ever inhabit—a world of her own making, meaningfully opposed to “the grinding water and the gasping wind” (13), which, as part of her discourse only, become part of her world, and thereby meaningful. It is the task of the poet, the artist, the composer, to impose order upon the world, and thereby to change it, to transform it into something different—a view that is reflected in the first and second stanzas of Stevens’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
And they said then, ‘But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
And yet, on the other hand, this view of the relationship between the imagination and reality stands in marked opposition to a view that was also held by Stevens and which is programmatically summed up in his poem, “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” which is placed, strategically, at the very end of his Collected Poetry.
Can one write a poem about a thing that is not at the same time an idea about that thing? Is that not in glaring contradiction to Stevens’s insight that one cannot have the thing “as such,” the thing as not perceived by a human subject, although within that paradigm and discourse, one can, of course, try and be open to the "thing itself," and not impose too much upon it? But against what would this “too much” have to be gauged or measured? It is the same problem that we have already encountered in Shelley.
In an essay from 1942, Stevens argues that poetry has to create order, but that it also must confront reality time and again in order to remain a living force. But how can we know whether we confront reality or whether it is just the mind “turn[ing] to its own creations, examin[ing] them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate, for the support they give” (Dictionary of Literary Biography 3). Reveal—about what? About itself? Consider the following lines from Part VII, “It Must Give Pleasure,” of “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”:
But to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
That is exactly the problem: to try and get to the thing itself, to present it in its concreteness (whether through revelation, epiphany, or the sublime), but in order to be communicated, it has to be put in language. The thing itself cannot be mediated. What remains? “The final belief,” says Wallace Stevens in one of his Adagia, “is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly” (Dictionary of Literary Biography 16).
VI. Coda: Continuities
To sum up: we find in these Romantic and Modernist poets a certain contradiction with regard to their ideas about the relationship between subject and object, between the imagination and reality. On the one hand, they seem to hold that the patterns and structures we discern in reality are imposed upon it by the imagination. In consequence, meaning is man-made, subjective, relative, and subject to change. On the other hand, these poets seem to hold that the imagination can discover or reveal an ultimate reality, an ultimate truth, a purer, richer, at any rate a more “adequate” view of the world. Obviously, these latter claims cannot possibly be supported, if one subscribes to the first set of ideas. The continuity between Romanticism and Modernism is, among other things, the continuity of that contradiction and the continuity of attempts to negotiate it, both in poetry and poetics.
Why do we find this continuity? Generally speaking, with the advent of a fully-fledged functionally-differentiated society in the eighteenth century, literature is formally freed from any obligation to transport a coherent world-view or ideology that would be binding for any sub-system of society, let alone society at large. This liberation is accompanied by the devising of the first absolute poetics (of which P. B. Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry is a very fine example). Both in theory and practice, this sea-change coincides with an increased awareness of the co-extension of language and thinking, of the restraints of mediality, and of the fluidity of verbal signs. The concept of Romantic Irony is a prime indicator of an acute awareness of the whole cluster of conditions under which poetry is composed in modernity.
Nevertheless, the gesture with which much of this poetry and the accompanying poetics is presented remains that of the prophet, seer, or purveyor of a higher truth, as if the poet were still functioning in the hierarchically stratified society of pre-modern times. Even if the poems draw attention to their own necessary limitations, this is ultimately done to point to an absolute which, regrettably, can only be hinted at, but cannot be spoken about. The truth-claim remains an extraordinary one.
The contradiction is striking, but it is inevitable: there is only one attitude that is adequate to reading an absolute, modern poem—as Arthur Rimbaud declared, “Il faut être absolument moderne!”—and that is, to treat it as an absolute structure that contains and produces its own meaning, its own patterns and, more dynamically, its trajectory of meaning. The task for the modern reader is to read the poem as if it were a world (if not the world). The presupposition must be that it has a meaning—why else read it? Barred from making authoritative statements about God, the universe and everything, Romantic and Modernist poets present miniature textual worlds, subjective constructs, to be sure; to be engaged with, to be deciphered as if they spoke of more than just themselves. And of course they do, inevitably. To the same degree that they thematise their ways of meaning production, they allegorically thematise our own ways of making sense of the world and of our lives. Liberated from the task of conveying meanings produced elsewhere, poems become instantiations of their own meanings, which can only be unraveled, if they are scrutinised in their own right.
In other words, it is exactly this contradictory idea of the imagination that defines modern poetry and prepares the way for an adequate aesthetics of reading: the imagination is seen as creative, as productive of the meanings and patterns poetry communicates, and at the same time it is claimed that it is “not just that,” that there is more to it, that these meanings and patterns evoked by this poetry are “really” there and not just a subjective projection. And, of course, they are. They are really there, because the poem is there, as an object, to be studied in its own right (the pattern of Frost’s sonnet is undeniable).
The dichotomy of an imagination that creates reality and of an imagination that discovers reality seems to be irresolvable. Maybe the best way to approach the autonomous structures of poetry which are characteristic of a functionally-differentiated modern society, with an autonomous sub-system of “literature,” is to practice “poetic faith,” which Coleridge defined as a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment” (314), and to act as if this poetry were not “just” a subjective construction—but to take it seriously as something that is objectively there (which it is) and that makes not only these great claims but also these huge demands on us.
Likewise, discursive constructions of subjective identity can be shown to be contingent and inherently paradoxical fictions—but necessary fictions, nevertheless. Romanticism and Modernism share a contradiction, and it is this contradiction that points to the possibility that the two have more in common than is traditionally assumed. The best way is to believe in the fiction, and have it both ways. We have learnt to model the self in such a way that it is both a function of reality and the origin of all reality we can talk about. Invariably, the rest is silence.
Keats’s letter to Bailey, 22 November 1817; see The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821 I, 184, hereafter KL.
For my purposes the order of quotations from A Vision of the Last Judgement is altered.
For a translation of Rimbaud’s well-known dictum, see Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat 89.
Christoph Bode is Chair of Modern English Literature at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Germany. He is President of the German Society for English Romanticism, editor of the series Studien zur englischen Romantik, member of the Advisory Board of European Romantic Review, and Centenary Fellow of the English Association. For many years, he was the European Convener of the Wordsworth Summer Conference in Grasmere; in 2007 he was Christensen Fellow at St Catherine’s, Oxford.
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