Michael O’Neill. The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900. Oxford: OUP, 2007. ISBN: 9780199299287. Price: US$99[Notice]

  • Matthew Scott

…plus d’informations

  • Matthew Scott
    University of Reading

At the very end of his Economic Consequences of the Peace, as he highlights a depressing absence of sympathy in the post-war society, John Maynard Keynes inserts, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, a famous passage from Prometheus Unbound: the rich ‘live among their suffering fellow-men / As if none felt.’ It is a rhetorical flourish but doesn’t add a lot to Keynes’ argument and illuminates the poem only rather crudely. Nevertheless, it is a striking moment, which surely provokes the reader to pause and consider Shelley’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Indeed, a certain type of literary empiricism would no doubt place some real stock on concrete evidence of a connection between the radical poet and the brilliant economist. Literary influence reveals itself, however, in muddier traces than the direct quotation or the evidence of source study and is cast instead as a complex engagement with the past that may be fraught and paradoxical, or just teased out from a mood or cast of mind. The influence of Romanticism upon later writers is doubly slippery because it is most interesting when it betrays ongoing engagement with a set of concerns that is hard to pin down in the first place: Lovejoy’s suggestion that the persistence of the term Romanticism follows directly out of its potential for plurality is compelling. In his dazzling study of the influence of Romanticism upon English poetry since 1900, Michael O’Neill proceeds with the subtle observation that Romantic legacies are worth tracing exactly because they provide evidence of individuality within relationship. Earlier Romanticism functions as an enabler and not as an anxious presence. His model of literary influence has few of the suspicious antagonisms of Harold Bloom and behind O’Neill’s nuanced readings of relationships between Romantic writers and Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, Spender, Heaney, Hill and others, there lie the conclusions of a forceful earlier essay in which he argued that the burden of the past is best revealed in the writing of poetry as criticism. Naturally, poems in the Romantic tradition do not disclose themselves as such immediately and this therefore conceals as much as it reveals the beauty of O’Neill’s method: late-Romantic affinities emerge slowly; post-Romantic individuals even more so. His readings are beyond facile summary, but this is a masterly book from a reader who has an enormous command of twentieth-century poetry alongside a unique and justly renowned insight into the writing of Romanticism. The governing topos throughout – as in the title, drawn from Prometheus Unbound, a work that so excited Yeats – is air, suggestive both of inspiration and also of the sustaining force of Romanticism. The air that we breathe is, of course, the absolute foundation of experience per se and it is in an awareness of air, the attention to essentials, that poets develop the self-consciousness that lies at the heart of so much Romantic poetry: to dwell for a moment on the vital presence of the wind in Wordsworth and Shelley is to be reminded of this connection. The attention to experience as self-awareness is O’Neill’s shortcut to finding an ongoing Romanticism in twentieth-century poetry. But beyond this, the creative air that poets breathe is also that of the awareness of inheritance and of being part of the legacy of an ongoing tradition that continues to foster truly exciting poetry. For O’Neill, aesthetic, epistemological and indeed ethical considerations bind together in the poetic task as experience is turned into artifact. And this is the case in Modernism as often as Romanticism. In this regard, he follows a diverse group of earlier critics: Albert Gelpi, Helen Vendler …