“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”
These opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are perhaps the best-known example of the microcosm in Romantic literature. The poem comes from one of Blake’s notebooks, The Pickering Manuscript, where it appears without line breaks (however, these lines are often published as a separate quatrain). It expresses the idea that the beauty, mystery, and totality of the miniature is characteristic of the whole.
The Romantic poets had a special interest in the ordinary for its microcosmic and representational roles in poetry. In his Biographia Literaria, S.T. Coleridge describes poetry as a special kind of composition set apart from works of science by its metric and phonetic structures and designed for the purpose of pleasure. On the whole, poetry produces delight compatible with the gratification produced by each component part, which harmonizes with the other essentials.
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“‘[I]f mine had been the Painter’s hand’: Reflecting on the Holidays in a Time of Mourning"
William Wordsworth opens “Elegiac Stanzas” (1807) by looking at George Beaumont’s Peele Castle in a Storm (1805) and admitting that he naïvely idealized nature and life prior to his brother John’s death—that “deep distress [which] hath humaniz’d [his] Soul” (36). Wordsworth states that he deceived himself about the reality of “thou rugged Pile” (1) so much that, if his “had been the Painter’s hand” as a younger man, he would have “add[ed] the gleam, / The light that never was” (14-15), and placed the castle “beside a sea that could not cease to smile” (19). Beaumont’s painting thus becomes an occasion for Wordsworth to reflect on his younger self and on his approach to art; through metaphor and ekphrasis, Wordsworth casts his former pastoral visions of a Golden Age as delusions and projects himself as a weather-beaten castle riding out the storm of his brother’s death.
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Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things”
Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Wordsworth lately. As all who’ve read the “The Prelude” know, “nature” is really important to the developmental trajectory that Wordsworth traces in recursive manner throughout the various versions of the poem. It’s hard to say, however, what exactly Wordsworth’s concept of nature is. The relation between the speaker’s mind and “nature” is configured in different ways, and “nature” is continually being lost, subordinated to the poet’s creative impulse, and recovered. Continue reading “Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things””
The Inescapable Wordsworth
My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).
There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.
Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.
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Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks
Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter!
During the 18th century, the epitaph was a malleable genre that performed several functions: it appeared on actual gravestones, but was also used in satirical verses by writers such as Alexander Pope. The epitaph was so popular, and so free-form, that writers began to compose guidebooks on how to compose the perfect epitaph (these guides resemble the epistolary guidebooks that inspired Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). One such guide is Samuel Johnson’s essay on “Pope’s Epitaphs,” reprinted in his Life of Pope. A more compendious volume, capturing the free-form nature of the epitaph, is John Bowden’s guidebook on the form, The Epitaph-Writer (1791). In this text, Bowden uses didactic epitaphs as models: Continue reading “Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks”
Affect Theory Reading Log
This winter, I’ve been working to familiarize myself with the affective turn in Romantic studies. But the reading experience has been generally defamiliarizing; ideas about affects, emotions, feelings and passions are consistent, it seems, only in their inconsistency. In their introduction to Romanticism and the Emotions, Faflak and Sha usefully suggest that the difficulties that Romantic scholars encounter trying to theorize affect stem from the nature of the project, which is “to categorize what by definition at once sustains and eludes both thought and language.” The common ground that unites those that I’ve read on the topic is not so much a shared theory as a a shared belief that we can learn something about our contemporary interest in affect as a scientific object (neuroscience) and as a subject for the humanities by looking back to emotion’s (uneven and multilayered) emergence as a category of experience in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.
In the place of a single book review, I’ll provide here a brief and by no means comprehensive survey of a few books on the topic that I’ve been spending some time with lately. The readings here ask unresolvable, but pressing, questions about the relation between feeling and knowing, bodies and texts, affect and agency, aesthetics and socio-political forces. The list is completely idiosyncratic: Thomas Pfau’s Romantic Moods is influential, but I haven’t read it and Romanticism and the Emotions from Cambridge UP is fresh and excellent but, as a collection of essays, is too daunting to summarize. I’d love to know what other people are reading on the topic—please feel free to add your recs in the comments section!
- Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Strange Fits of Passion asks what writings by Hume, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen can teach us about the relationship between knowing and feeling. Recurring questions include: Where do emotions come from and how do they travel? Can we judge whether feelings are fit to their occasions? Are feelings our own (personal) or are they transpersonal (conventional)? The last question is the most central to the study; Pinch everywhere challenges the notion that emotions come from some irreducible core of the self. She does this by emphasizing the “vagrancy,” (10) or trans-individual status of emotions in Romantic literature. What interests me most about Pinch’s book is her idea that that language, and especially imaginative language and utterance, plays a key role in bridging the gap between affect (materiality, physiology) and emotion (psychology). In poems by Wordsworth and Smith, poetic figures are simultaneously produced by passion and productive of emotions that circulate as conventions.
Reading Hume, who did not theorize language, Pinch seeks to recover the role that representation plays in shaping sympathy. In Hume, “force” designates the mysterious motion of the mind that translates ideas into impressions (and vise-versa) and is thus crucial to “sympathy.” “Force” is an unsatisfying concept in Hume if only because it fails to explain how and why some ideas impress us more forcibly than others. Contrasting Hume’s representation of imaginary men of misfortune with his famous representation of his own despair at the end of Book I of the Treatise, Pinch suggests that sympathy may be most forceful where we attribute imaginary feelings onto indifferent objects. Readers have long found it difficult to sympathize with Hume’s melancholic outpourings and this may be because he represents them as his own, rather than as ours to imagine.
In attending to the conventional and virtual aspects of feeling, Pinch sidelines the common charge against the Romantics (especially central to eco-critical conversations) of egoism and anthropocentrism. Pinch’s open displacement of this issue sets her apart from the other books listed here, which are more explicitly concerned with the ethical and political stakes of formulations of ‘sympathy’ that emerged in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods. Strange Fits of Passion positively stands out, however, in its analysis of the ways that gender differences get entangled in writers’ rendering of emotion. I especially enjoyed reading Pinch’s on Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill.” For Pinch, the poem identifies the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” with an old woman’s passionate utterance. More surprisingly, it likens Harry’s violence towards Goody to the male poet’s desire to empathize with an experience of feminine suffering that will authenticate his verse. There’s a great anecdote here in which Joseph Cottle reads the Lyrical Ballads aloud to Hannah Moore. On the second reading of “Goody Blake,” Hannah Moore lifts up her hands, “in smiling horror” on hearing the curse “O, may he never more be warm!” Pinch writes, “Moore perhaps recognizes through her own playacting the power of a woman’s curse to engender poetic pleasure” (97).
Yousef, Nancy. Romantic Intimacy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Romantic Intimacy asks how the epistemic problem of other minds informs accounts of intimacy in writings that range from eighteenth century moral philosophy to contemporary recommendations for psychoanalytic practice. Yousef moves lucidly between moral philosophy, poetry, novels and contemporary theory as she carefully draws out the ethical implications of relational experience in Romantic texts. A central thesis is that writers like Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge are skeptical of sentimental philosophy’s confident appeals to the authority of shared feelings yet untethered to notions of (re)cognition (in Kant and Levinas) that emphasize equality and reciprocity between persons. Yousef’s book encourages us to see in Romantic literature diverse accounts of relational experience that expand beyond the paradigms of Humean sympathy and Kantian respect.
Yousef shares with Adela Pinch an unprepossessing interest in the formal and aesthetic qualities of the texts she explores. But where Pinch tends to reify a dichotomy between private and shared emotion, Yousef is drawn to poems like “Frost at Midnight” that challenge that divide. In Coleridge’s poem, little Hartley’s breath—his passive and unimposing presence—provides the relational background that sustains Coleridge’s intimate lyrical outpouring of memories, fantasies and hopes. Yousef provides startling analogies between the “generative silence” Coleridge’s infant son provides in “Frost at Midnight” and contemporary experiments with silence in psychoanalytic practice and performance art.
An interest in affective asymmetries coheres the excellent chapters in Romantic Intimacy on Wordsworth, Austen and Coleridge. If “Frost at Midnight” configures a relational situation where one person is completely silent so that another can speak, Pride and Prejudice represents the erotic possibilities of a relation where one person is endowed with gift giving power so that another can learn to receive. Yousef points out that Elizabeth Bennet’s engagement with Darcy is read at turns as a capitulation to power and as an aspirational (Kantian) assertion of equality between rational beings. Attention to the role of gratitude in Elizabeth’s bilding offers a way out of this impasse. For Yousef, Elizabeth’s entanglement with Darcy demonstrates the transformative force of a self-abasing moral feeling that constitutes the subject “as an implication of appreciation for an other” (112). Pride and Prejudice thus represents the subject as the effect of gratitude, rather than the other way around.
3. Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Anonymity and Dispossession theorizes Romantic subjectivity in the wake of the Enlightenment call for transparency and self-revelation. Jacques Khalip argues that second-generation romantics (Keats, Hazlitt, Shelley, Austen) saw Enlightenment models of personhood as deeply inauthentic and sought to re-conceive of the self as anonymous. To think about subjectivity as anonymous is to value experiences of trauma and privation over experiences of self-possession and confessional plentitude. As critical praxis, understanding subjectivity as dispossessed, or as being-without, involves attending to the virtuality of figuration (de Man and Derrida are important theoretical influences in the book) and to literary representations of anachronisms that evoke “an existence whose untapped power” is “always temporally unfinished and suspended, not knowing what it is, and what it will be” (7). Khalip wants us to see that Romantics thought of identity as “always an unmade and undone “thing”” (14) and, in so doing, shattered the relational channels of sympathetic exchange and mutual recognition. (see Yousef!)
Anonymity and Dispossession intersects with the concerns addressed in Pinch’s and Yousef’s book and Romantic affect theory more broadly in its treatment of “sympathy.” Khalip carefully draws out sympathy’s political dimensions, or its entanglement with the logic of financial speculation and accumulation. Khalip points out that the category of property underwrites formulations of sympathetic selfhood in Hume, Burke and Smith. All three of these philosophers acknowledge the virtual and potentially destabilizing aspects of sympathy (see Pinch!) only to keep the self as imaginary possession intact. Shelley then amplifies the destabilizing features of sympathy present in Hume, Burke and Smith in order to re-conceive of sympathy as a “dissimulating” process that tears apart the “apparently fluid causality of consciousness” (117) and thus allows for a challenging ethical experience: “Sympathy…is an obligation to otherness that cannot be properly defined, but to which the subject remains critically open” (132). This is sympathy in the wake of any illusions about the linkage between affect and cognition, impressions and ideas, meanings and texts. It is a sympathy that refuses to understand the relationship between the self and the other in terms of mimesis.
Chapter four asks what the book’s broad themes of a skeptical and uncertain selfhood look like in the hands of women writers. The unifying mood is not of sympathy but of melancholy. Khalip argues that for Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Austen, melancholy entails a withdrawal from the public sphere that is sometimes strategic, sometimes compulsory. One surprising suggestion is that by refusing the demands of self-presentation, female writers display a “powerfully anonymous mobility in the world.” Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and Austen’s Persuasion are well chosen and illustrative of the point. If the delicate being taught only to please of the Vindication is cognitively and emotionally stunted by a discourse of femininity that “spuriously regulate[s] the visibility of the female self,” then the Wollstonecraft fashioned in the letters is more like Austen’s melancholy heroine who cultivates a skepticism that “disarticulates personal fulfillment from self-presentation and self-assertion” (135). Khalip’s book leaves us with challenging questions about agency—if we can’t define ourselves, then how do we know how to act in the world? Romanticism and Dispossession encourages us stop thinking of ourselves as willful actors and to take up an obligation to perpetually reorient ourselves in relation to a fundamentally unknowable world.
The Romantic Reply to the that Terrible Question: Valuing the Humanities
One option out of a wide array of graduate seminars to choose for this current Spring semester ranging from the theory heavy to the literature heavy, and usual contenders (i.e. my much beloved courses on Modernism and the 18th c. novel) stood out among the rest in sheer ambiguity: the public humanities. The seminar is an interdisciplinary course that includes graduate students from various departments. Continue reading “The Romantic Reply to the that Terrible Question: Valuing the Humanities”
"We are here!" Interstellar Messages and Why the Humanities Matter
By Caroline Winter
Why study the humanities? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to go away no matter how many times it’s answered or in how many different ways. Here, I’d like to propose yet another answer, one that also answers a related question: why study Romanticism? This answer was inspired by two videos about science, of all things: an episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s series Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey, and a YouTube video in the Vsauce series that describes our efforts to send messages into space, in the hope that we’re not alone in the universe.
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Romantics as Rappers, Superheros, Real Estate Tycoons, and Immortal Allusions of Power
There’s a scene in an episode of the animated series Samurai Jack where the Scotsman encounters an old man in the port who wishes him to tell him a tale. When the Scotsman asks what it is there’s a long pause before the old man cackles out, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!”
The Scotsman then bellows, “Heard it!” and shoves him out of the way. Continue reading “Romantics as Rappers, Superheros, Real Estate Tycoons, and Immortal Allusions of Power”
Teaching Close Reading: Nietzsche, Metaphor and Romantic Poetry
This fall, I’ve been assigned to instruct a class called ‘Introduction to Writing about Literature.’ While the course is designed to transmit a specialized skill-set (textual analysis), it’s not organized around a historical period, event, or philosophical discourse. As an instructor, I’m required to jump around—across periods, genres and continents—in an effort to give students the most comprehensive possible familiarity with literature in English. The only thing that holds the course together is a persistent focus on form and figuration. This is both liberating—it’s great to get close to some of my favorite texts in the classroom–and a little terrifying—unmoored from thematic, historical and philosophical contexts, I’ve found myself wondering if I know anything about how literary language works. In this post, I’ll outline some of the theoretical and pedagogical dilemmas I’ve bumped up against teaching close reading and then explain how I’ve decided to talk about metaphor and figuration in my requirement-level lit course. Though the post turns on my own experiences, I’m hoping that the problems and solutions that I address here may be relevant to readers working out their own ideas about how to teach and test close reading skills.
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