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In Romantic Aversions, J. Douglas Kneale argues with an engaging combination of learning and rhetorical pyrotechnics that 'there is a deep strain of classicism in . . . the very origins of Romanticism itself.' For Kneale, 'aftermaths' of the classical tradition are traceable not only in such work as Wordsworth's 'Laodamia' or in the Romantic Hellenism of second-generation poets, but in a pervasive 'textual attitude toward classicism and neoclassicism'—and especially toward the classical rhetorical tradition—that 'at once incorporates repetition and difference, occupation and aversion, in a mutually assured contestation.' Romantic turnings away from classical rhetoric are read here as 'double gestures' in which the essential characteristic of repression (in Freud's terms, a 'turning something away' that also 'keeps' the thing at a distance) is figured rhetorically in an aversio (or apostrophe), a 'turning from' that is also an occupatio, or a dwelling upon.
Classical rhetoric is the 'other' that 'Romanticism at once turns to and away from,' an 'other' that hangs around in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge in what Kneale wittily calls 'haunted figures.' Kneale's method of flushing these haunted figures from their hiding places is deeply indebted to Geoffrey Hartman, as is acknowledged early and late in the book. The preface says that, if the book has a genius loci, it is Hartman. The last chapter is a reprint of Kneale's 1996 homage, 'Gentle Hearts and Hands: Reading Wordsworth after Geoffrey Hartman' (published in Studies in Romanticism). In that essay, an exhilarating reading of Wordsworth's 'Nutting,' Kneale gives an exemplary performance of what he calls his 'quest-romance' style of interpretation. 'Close readers,' he writes, 'know the "lucky words" in a text, the ones that, when the critical imagination double-clicks on them, open an interpretive window or"'magic casement" onto literary history.' Tracking 'intertextual nodes from poem to poem,' along a 'tantalizing but tenuous' pathway through Milton, Spenser, Dante, Virgil, and Ariosto, Kneale's prose crackles with the thrill of the chase, as when he pauses to wonder whether his interpretation threatens to 'make more ado about "Nutting''' than has been made before.
For Kneale, the key questions are not 'what is this text about?' or 'what does this text do?' but 'what else is this poem like? What is that a repetition-with-a-difference of?' In the remaining seven chapters of the book, three of which have previously been published, Kneale's questioning quest leads him into some fascinating places. Two essays reconsider Wordsworth's use of key figures. In Chapter One—'Apostrophe Reconsidered' (published in ELH 1991)—Kneale combines an historically informed corrective to Jonathan Culler's confusion about the nature of apostrophe—it is not simply address, but movement or shift of address that constitutes apostrophe—with a brilliant reading of Wordsworth's 'There Was a Boy.' The essay gives new rhetorical legs to Hartman's well-known statement that 'the life of Wordsworth's lines is often uneasy as if somewhere else.' Kneale shows how—and how frequently—Wordsworth's voice travels by apostrophe, arguing convincingly that 'voice in Wordsworth cannot be . . . halted in one place for long; it is always on the move.' In Chapter 3, a reconsideration of Wordsworth's supposed rejection of prosopopoeia, the focus is Book 2 of the Prelude and Wordsworth's humanizing of nature in compensation for the early loss of his mother. Reading these passages as 'pitched against an eighteenth-century literary fashion,' Kneale sees Wordsworth reclaiming prosopopoeia by giving 'a human shape to a rhetoric, and not just an abstraction, that had become mechanical'.
Three more chapters also focus on Wordsworth. Chapter 5, 'Transport and Persuasion in Longinus and Wordsworth,' like Chapter 1, is valuable for its clarification of an often confused set of terms in the rhetorical tradition as well as for its treatment of Wordsworth's place in that tradition. In it, Kneale makes playful use of the distinction between rhetorical persuasion and sublime 'transport' in reading Wordsworth's sonnet against one kind of 'transport[ation]'—'On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway.' Chapter 6 discusses the place of Wordsworth's largely overlooked 1833 tour poems on the Isle of Man as explorations of the relationship of genre and geography, situating these late poems 'as topoi—that is, both literal places and figural commonplaces' in Wordsworth's 'imaginative itinerary.' In another particularly strong essay, Kneale describes in Chapter 7 the rhetorical operation of the binary trope of 'symptom' and 'scene' developed by Freud in 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' to show how Freud and Wordsworth 'use and put into question the binary oppositions on which their analytic model,' whether therapeutic or autobiographical, depends. In a close reading of the 'slow-moving boat' simile (Prelude 4.256-72) focusing especially on that passage's use of chiasmus, Kneale shows that for Wordsworth, as for Freud, the interpretation of the surface—of symptom or sign—when traced along a figural path toward its psychical ground or scene, 'always keeps reaching what looks like a limit.' Here Paul de Man, the genius loci of Kneale's earlier book, Monumental Writing (1988), comes to the fore: 'You never actually reach a limit, however; the ground or bottom repeatedly falls away so that even the final or primal scene is rendered textually.' The scene, then, like its symptom, 'is always a scene of reading.'
The chapter uses such insights to question Alan Liu's positing of a vertical relation of history, nature, and self, in which history is the 'rock bottom' or 'base,' and the 'nature' and 'self' of Wordsworth's journey of self discovery are the symptoms of history's denial (Wordsworth: The Sense of History ). Kneale asks, what if Wordsworth's hermeneutic were less a journey of discovery, seeking the ground of interpretation, than a tour? What if we were to read Wordsworth not according to the archeologically based, vertically binary assumptions of surface and depth that 'discovery' implies, but according to an 'economy of difference' and a hermeneutic in which all is 'surface and not depth,' a scene of constant crossing and re-crossing of scene and symptom, event and sign? 'If the hermeneutic in Wordsworth's poetry is a voyage of discovery,' Kneale argues, 'it is a discovery that discovers it is really a tour, and Wordsworth forever the tourist, the spectator ab extra.'
Both of the chapters on Coleridge are essays published here for the first time. Chapter 2 explores the generic between-ness of the 'Effusion' in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects (1796), showing how these peculiar works, precursors of the 'conversation poem,' map out a territory between poetry and oratory, between the private and public voice. In 'Coleridge's Emergent Occasion: "To the Autumnal Moon"' (Chapter 4), Kneale explores the 'rhetorical enthusiasm' of Coleridge's early poetry, and especially such moments of exclamatory 'puffing' as are on display in 'Effusion XVIII'—'Mild Splendour of the various-vested Night! / Mother of wildly-working visions! hail!' Under Kneale's analysis, such passages turn out to contain 'something quite original.' They are moments of 'rhetorical invention or heuresis,' in which the reader has a 'sense of poetic genius breaking through the 'swell and glitter' of conventional rhetoric to wonder at itself and itself be wondered at.' In such moments of discovery, or self-discovery, 'invention becomes its own topos.' We watch as Coleridge 'bares the device' and 'shows us a mind in the act of finding what rhetoric will suffice.'
The Coleridge chapters are good enough to make one wish for more. The disproportion in the treatment of the two poets—only two of eight chapters on one of the two poets given equal billing in the sub-title—is the only real disappointment of Kneale's book. It would be especially valuable to have much more consideration of exactly those points on which Wordsworth and Coleridge might be seen as diverging in their relation to rhetorical traditions, or of specific moments of aversion, (pre)occupation, and rhetorical haunting in each poet's intertextual relation with the other. But surely a writer as well-versed in rhetoric as is Kneale knows that there are worse things than leaving readers wanting more.