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An historicist calling, to gloss romantic poetry with the specifics of history or to find in poetry a conduit for or location of events or ideas from history, all of which has preoccupied our field for about three decades, gives way in this new collection to a far more sophisticated, or should I say fundamental, understanding and query of the poetry/history interrelationship and indeed of poetry itself. Nine of the thirteen chapters in The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry follow in their titles a “poetry and x” formulation which could result in a criticism of accretion, in the model of the old-style feminist criticism sometimes described as “Add women and stir.” Add history or ideas and stir. In this crude joining of a poem to something beyond its precinct, the poem doesn’t substantially change. But all the essays in the work before us insist that to add is to transform. Romantic poetry presented again and again as “destabilizing” and “unsettling” notions of itself means that in this generative and engrossing volume we are asked to rethink our subject from the ground up.
Without ever saying as much, these essays imply that the focus of criticism ought to turn, in the manner of the great romantic manifestos themselves, to the poem as a site of intellectual, affective, and spiritual writerly choices, all of which suggest the basic intertwining of the aesthetic task at hand with the social, biological, and spiritual facts of the poet’s existence. Gone is the notion of the romantic poem as a container of certain contents, and gone is the corollary that verse, language, and form are classical abstractions that stand waiting to serve a new content. Instead, the prevailing poetics is Coleridge’s “form as proceeding,” which throughout my reading of this book has brought to my mind the following lines from David Antin’s “what it means to be avant-garde”:
and I did the best I could under
the circumstances of being there then which is
my image of what an artist does and is somebody who does
the best he can under the circumstances without
worrying about making it new or shocking because the best
you can do depends upon what you have to do and where
and if you have to invent something new to do the work at
hand you will
Gone too is the preoccupation with romantic poetry and “the drama of the lyric subject,” with its often elegiac cast, as if romantic poetry could be described primarily as a Schillerian “sentimental” poetry of (in Arthur Hallam’s word) “reflection” on an experience long gone or only wished for. Instead, almost all the essays indicate a preoccupation with “the circumstances,” even or even primarily at the level of prosody, language, and form. Form here is “living form.” In Allen Grossman’s terms, romantic poetry is more a poetry of “aperture” than of “closure.” This, it seems to me, reflects the spirit of romantic politics and romantic manifestos.
These essays take seriously the premise most readers go by that romantic poetry (to generalize about a phenomenon with, of course, many variants) seeks, in the imagery of the French Revolution, to break chains imposed through social institutions of power. Describing convincingly the eighteenth-century drive for standardizing the English language, Andrew Elfenbein shows how poetry becomes an act that refuses such standardizations, at first with pseudo-archaisms (Chatterton) and later with a more subtle playfulness among the standard, the prosaic, and the highly poetic. Within individual poems language can shift sources and registers unexpectedly, meaningfully, and, once one is aware of it, disconcertingly, flaunting any sense of stable or stony correctness by putting words on wing. Something similar is at work in Susan Stewart’s masterful study of meter, rehearsing neoclassic metrics and their rigidification by Urizenic prosodists in order to lay out the varieties of metrical and formal irregularity practiced by the romantics. She introduces Coleridge’s phrase mentioned above, “form as proceeding,” to indicate that behind the metrical chain-breaking lies the poetic intimacy of formal choices with “circumstances.” The romantic poets “created a domain where theory and practice are one as they insisted upon yoking conceptual and sensual life with the production of form” (72).
Taking up, in effect, where Stewart leaves off, Simon Jarvis argues that romantic poets struck a blow at the insistence that prosody be associated with a “craft” separate and separable from the “thought” of the poet. Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth, he demonstrates convincingly, experimented with “thinking in verse,” which is to say, envisioning “verse” as the site and expression of thought rather than as simply a vehicle for it. Acts of mind and their expression are one. Given, moreover, that acts of mind are laced with high-energy, often utopian, motivation, verse pitches thought forward into the consciousness of its reader with great force of passion. (British romantic poets may be anticipating Emerson’s magnificent essay “The Poet” the bedrock of which is his “metre-making argument, that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”) Words, too, “are not pure tokens, but also have sounding bodies. . . .It is as though verse opens up, not just meter and rhythms, but the materiality of language itself as a possible domain of experience” (113). When, furthermore, novelists decide to nest poems in their work, blurring the prose-poetry divide, they offer poetry up as an emotional intensification in narrative, a “disruption,” says Ann Wierda Rowland in her essay, “of ordinary life.” Meter (i.e. poetry) carries emotion in pure form. Though mentioned, perhaps more could have been said about Schlegel’s famous Athenaeum Fragment #116 as a romantic theory of prose poetry, but the awakening of our awareness to the phenomenon of poetry-in-prose and a survey of the range of instances, particularly in the sentimental novel by women, is enormously valuable.
“Form as proceeding” and the “materiality of language” and meter come together to make poetry not so much an object for contemplation as an event to be reckoned with. Poetry in this sense comes off the page in order to disturb and stimulate the mind of its reader. In this sense romantic poetry, its materiality, as characterized in this collection, refuses to be domesticated.
Put differently, the aesthetic thing refuses to be solely aesthetic. In order to describe that refusal, the critic must demand that “form” be addressed as vitally and centrally as “content.” This comes across in three of the most content-oriented pieces in the volume. Nick Groom observes that the formal irregularity of Gothic-infused poetry is one indicator of the romantics’ use of Gothic antiquity to evoke the “awesome violence of [Britain’s] past” in making “the state of the nation comprehensible” (p. 39), as if that violence erupted in the very line breaks of the poems. And although not explicitly addressing form, Tim Fulford argues that, after an early romantic poetry that was strictly anti-imperialist, the later poets (e.g. Coleridge and Shelley) embedded orientalism into the quest-romance, thus revising Bloom’s formulation with the substantiality of a cultural, foreign reality. He also makes the startling observation that the orientalist epic poetry of Robert Southey actually contained a greater honoring of the colonized subject than the poet himself was willing to acknowledge: the poem has a political independence from the views of its producer.
The materiality of poetry emerges again in Adriana Craciun’s superb discussion of sexuality and gender in romanticism. As with the challenges to poets of the proscribed rigidities of language standardization and metrical correctness, the increasing narrowing of approved sexual and gender prototypes from the eighteenth- to the early-nineteenth century occasions the representation of far more labile versions of sexuality and eroticism by the poets, both male and female. Or rather, by some of the poets: Wordsworth and Hemans support a patriarchal and domesticated sexuality respectively. But in Coleridge’s Christabel and the poetry of Ann Batten Cristall, Byron and Shelley, poetic eroticism overwhelms social and formal proprieties, Cristall writing a “first-person rhapsody” and Shelley, in Epipsychidion, a poem of “utopian eroticism.” Indeed, when eroticism takes over in poetry, since it is a figure of excess, it can act as another version of chain-breaking—witness the seemingly endless paratactic and figurative streams in Epipsychidion. Craciun also charts the increasing attention in the period to the reclaiming of the gaze by women.
Eroticism in poetry, of course, means pointed attention to the body. Kevis Goodman reveals the somatic basis of “nostalgia”: a wasting disease prevalent in people who have been wrenched from their homes, for example, to fight in wars. She argues that in romanticism the disease of the body gets displaced onto poetry, so that the poem in effect em-bodies nostalgia. Along with the imputation of biological materiality to nostalgia, she undermines one of the most entrenched assumptions linked to romantic poetry, that it inevitably reverts to an aura of the elegiac and to the subject registering loss, sometimes definable and locatable, but ultimately almost a metonym for romantic lyric itself.
Similarly entwined with traditional definitions of romantic lyric stands the assumption of “unmediated vision,” which Celeste Langan and Maureen McLane recast as the “double logic of remediation”: “a simultaneous drive towards immediacy on the one hand, hypermediacy on the other.” From the forgeries of Chatterton, MacPherson, and the Welsh Iolo Morganwg on, questions of the medium of presentation preoccupy the poets. The medium clogs the unmediated vision, for example, with purposeful confusions of oral and aural, oral and written, transmissions. Mediation becomes a kind of opacity, again a materiality, at the heart of romantic verse, unsettling relations not only of form and content, but also of form and medium.
“Unsettling”; “destabilizing”: the terms which characterize the intention of many of these essays can be said to apply most openly to the lead essay by Jeffrey Cox which lays out in fascinatingly exhaustive detail the range of poetries published in 1820. The essay in one way updates Marilyn Butler’s crucial revision of “Romanticism” of 1982, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries with, let us hope, much the same effect. Cox reminds us that many more poets than Byron-Shelley-Keats were being read in 1820 and that consequently the contemporary sense of what “poetry” was differed dramatically from ours. Much work needs to be done (and what could be more compelling?) to revise our sense of romantic poetry by means of this essay. The haunting question is: why, since Marilyn Butler wrote her book nearly thirty years ago, did Cox’s essay have to be written at all? Clearly, people have continued to write about and teach the Big Six, with nods to the women poets and other newly revived figures like John Clare. In terms of actual literary history, nothing much has changed over the years. Even in this collection, as brilliant as it is, the points of reference are by and large the familiar poets. (Pace Craciun, the women poets still deserve more pointed attention “as” poets.) I could imagine a “new romanticism” that combined the discoveries presented in this collection about, in Emerson’s phrase, “the secret mysteries of Form” with a genuinely revised focus on the truer range of poetries written during the romantic era, which would result inevitably in an altogether revised sense of how to think about romantic poems. (A recent book that reinforces this more democratic perspective on romantic poetry is William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation.)
One of the summary statements in Cox’s essay proposes that, as the romantic decades move on into the 1820s and 1830s, poets seemed to develop allegiances, either to a Wordsworthian poetics or to a Byronic one, such that the possibilities for poetry appeared as a “battlefield.” This strikes me as an extremely important observation: poetics at least from Blake on, and probably before, becomes a set of critical choices, usually with a political motivation, that are non-negotiable and which the academy has consistently tried to deny. Reading between the lines of Andrew Bennett’s essay on the influence of romantic poets on modern ones, one can discern that battlefield—those poets who pick up on romanticism as a poetry of the drama of the lyric subject and those who find in romanticism a transformative, visionary poetry. The former group, as he says, may incorporate the language of romantic poems into their own work, but they leave the closed-form poetry of, say, a Keats ode intact. The other group would include Ashbery’s interest in the “surfaces” of John Clare’s poems. In my view these groups need to be defined more clearly in their rightful opposition to one another. James Chandler puts this opposition in different terms when he defines the place of the “progress of poetry” in romanticism, usefully outlining the traditions of those writers who believed in it (e.g. Shelley) and those who didn’t (e.g. Hazlitt). What could be more fundamental for romanticism, and less open to compromise or synthesis, than the belief that poetry could or could not effect social change beyond the boundaries of the poem itself?
In a slightly different register my question brings us back to a theoretical one about poetry in general and romantic poetry in particular: does the apparently apolitical lyric, with its world indicated in characteristically short lines cushioned from the social world by the relative vastness of the white space on the page, and with its stress upon melody and rhythm, indeed address the world beyond itself? William Keach presents, with wonderfully confirming readings of poems, a basically Adornian argument about the fundamentally social nature of the apparently apolitical lyric; he sees Adorno’s essay “Lyric Poetry and Society” as a step forward into considering lyric autonomy as a form of resistance to market capitalism. A lyric’s “resistance” to market forces is complemented or reinforced by its paradoxical opposite, its “seduction” by those forces. As a particularly striking instance of a genre that accommodates lyric resistance, Keach points to the phenomenon of lyric embedded in romantic epic or drama, in which the larger narrative or dramatic dynamic cushions lyric from its potential commodification. This essay could be said to theorize usefully the overall tendency of the Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry in the following way: traditionally prosody and form stand apart from content and surely political content as their own autonomous subject; here “verse” (poetry) refuses to be separate, formally and metrically, from the acts of the social, emotional, and biological person. That poetics, in this sense, has a politics has been confirmed many times over, nowhere more memorably in romanticism than in Keats’s “Cockney Couplets” (loose couplets, loose politics) outlined by Keach himself years ago. It follows that the traditional notion of romantic lyric as a poetry about the lyric subject simply won’t hold (one is rarely aware of this notion reading these essays); the trajectory is outward, not only to “the world” but, anticipating the experimental poetry of the 20th-century, to the “mediating” components of poetry: language, rhythm and metrics, and form.
A “companion” in the best sense, this book, then, not only provides a great deal of information about its various subjects, but acts as an invigorating guide towards future, innovative learning and writing.
Jeffrey C. Robinson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of sixteen books including Romantic Presences, Wordsworth Day by Day, and Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism, as well as four books of poetry. He is also one of the co-editors of Poems for the Millennium (3): The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (2009).
Quoted in Artifice and Indeterminacy, ed. Christopher Beach (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998) p. 115.