Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford University Press 1997. xiv + 344pp. illus: 10 b&w. $39.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-2657-4). $19.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8047-3662-6).
Maybe the best thing that ever could have happened to those contemporary literary criticisms passionately committed to history, material culture, and the sociopolitical in generalnot to mention theorywas the challenge of a reinvigorated formalist criticism. Such a challenge is more than a speculative possibility or even a late development: there is a long if discontinuous narrative of the historical (or social, political, cultural), theoretical, and formal camps sharpening one another's critical instruments through amicable, cordial, or hostile joinings of debate. Just within the past few decades' Romanticism-focussed studies, contributions made through and across these categories have helped clarify and reconceptualize literature's relationships to its traditional Others. Yet questions have been raised about whether the players in these contests have already, against their own intentions, been caught in an antiquarian fiction. For this moment in criticism is often enough said to be the Jetztzeit of a fateful disciplinary drama, in which cultural studies ruthlessly analyzes new-just-yesterday versions of historically and theoretically oriented literary study, finding them effectively to have become the latest (last? parasitic? reliquary? finally transitional?) incarnations of a superannuated formalism whose few remaining drops have dripped into our exponentially postformalist era. Still, some contrary evidence suggests that reports of the demise of historically and theoretically inclined literary scholarship may be premature. And it would prove no small measure of poetic justice and post-Romantic irony if concerns for history and theory should in turn find themselves inextricably bound to the survival of form and formalism within literary studies. At any rate, questions about the formal's status vis-à-vis the material, sociopolitical, and historical may not be so moot after all.