Repetitions of the Romantic: Working Backward Towards a Structure of Feeling with William Wordsworth, Todd Haynes, Wallace Stevens, Gayatri Spivak, and Aesop Rock

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In this essay, I relate my experience of teaching an upper-division class on romantic poetry—my struggles, assumptions and discoveries, and my ultimate decision to revise the way I teach, and to some extend think about, romanticism. The problem—the contemporary/romantic opposition (the topic of this volume of essays)—turned out to be a pedagogical and critical opportunity. It also became a way for my students and me to think and talk about an even deeper split, the schism between the values of our contemporary culture (including the culture of an increasingly professionalized and professionalizing academia) and those of an “aesthetic education.” In what follows, I give firsthand reports about what worked and what didn’t in a class that came to be called “Repetitions of the Romantic,” an engagement with romantic and post-romantic art. Along the way, I address some methodological problems, and offer some reflections on the fragility of teaching the humanities in the contemporary classroom and more specifically on what I see to be the challenges and benefits of teaching the romantic within specific contexts, in my case within the economic and social micro-culture of central Ohio.

Repetitions of the Romantic: Working Backward Towards a Structure of Feeling with William Wordsworth, Todd Haynes, Wallace Stevens, Gayatri Spivak, and Aesop Rock

D.B. Ruderman
The Ohio State University, Newark

“The humanities version of sustainability, in the early days, was to maximize imaginative training and minimize the mind-numbing uniformization of globalization. (Clues can be found for this in the British Romantic Movement.)” — Gayatri Spivak [1] 

“And I must think, do all I can / That there was pleasure there . . .” — Wordsworth [2] 

1.        I teach at a small regional campus of a large state institution in the Midwest. Many of my students are first generation college students. As the resident romanticist [3] , part of my job is to teach the upper-division romantic poetry seminar. I initially looked forward to this with tremendous relish—what could be better, I thought, than reading and teaching Byron, Hemans, Coleridge, and Keats?

2.        The first time I taught the course I discovered to my dismay a look of blankness on the faces of many of my students. With our books open to “Mont Blanc” or “Ruined Cottage,” there seemed to be a disconnect between what I knew to be the pleasures of this poetry and the bewilderment and disaffection my students seemed to be experiencing. Having taught some of these same students in my “intro to poetry,” twentieth-century poetry, or Brit-lit survey classes I knew many of them to be bright, inquisitive, and able to associate and analogize across different discursive realms and between periods and media. So I was puzzled. I did what I often do when a class is not going well (it never works but I do it anyway)—I tried harder. I gave them bits of historical and cultural background, for which they seemed grateful, but a handout or even a half-hour lecture about the Corn Laws or Burke’s theory of the sublime could not do the work of enlivening these texts for these particular readers. In any case, we muddled through.

3.        It wasn’t that my students couldn’t “read” the texts. It was, in part, that they couldn’t recognize themselves, much less their own social, cultural, and political situations, in the material. On a theoretical level, I knew this inability to identify could have certain advantages: what would it be like to read against the grain of “identity” and the “self?” But this was all too philosophical and general. I had—perhaps we have—a real problem. It wasn’t so much that my students felt alienated from Coleridge and Keats. Rather it was that they found Coleridge and Keats, and especially Wordsworth, irrelevant. On some level I had to entertain the possibility that, at least for these students, these thinkers were in fact irrelevant. It seemed to me that only through keeping open the possibility of the irrelevance of these texts could we possibly hope to discover, recover, or reactivate in them something meaningful for us in the moment. Hegel calls this commitment to doubt and despair “the education of consciousness” (50). The pertinence of these questions seem immediate and clear, not only as someone who teaches the long nineteenth century, but also for all of us who teach in the humanities.

Interlude on method #1

4.        Because, I imagine like you, I am committed (through experience, disposition, as well as through employment) to the continual possibilities of an aesthetic education, I did not want to believe that the powers of these Romantic-era texts were exhausted. But neither could I believe that my students were entirely at fault in their ambivalence. Having trained as a romanticist, and therefore having a part of my professional and personal identity invested in these texts, I could not help but be defensive. But I did my best to be open and curious about my students’ reactions. Keats and Blake could defend themselves. Besides, I thought, maybe it’s time to stop defending our poets. Perhaps the backlash against the “hermeneutics of suspicion” has left us (yet again) too identified with writers that we write on and teach.

5.        In any case, the experience of teaching at my campus has convinced me of the rightness of Gayatri Spivak’s claim that as teachers we “‘learn to learn’ . . . how to teach from the historic-cultural text within which a certain group of students might be placed” (9). In other words, the students themselves provide an essential intertext (their lives, their experiences, their varied frames of reference), without which the primary texts in the classroom cannot live; they cannot complete the (always incomplete) circuit from reader to text and back again. We need to create opportunities in the classroom (and perhaps in the curricula) to allow for these connections—not so that students can better “relate,” although that might be the initial experience of the student, but rather so that they can become “critical” and experience the strangeness of their own textuality, not as given selves, but as contingent, multi-determined, and continuously created assemblages of images, ideas, values, and beliefs. Spivak, writing of teaching in subaltern situations, quotes Prabhat Patnaik who writes that we must “go beyond the mere imitation of research agendas set by the established centers of learning . . .” (21). My own intuition is that an aesthetic education in central Ohio today (ditto rural Virginia, Southern Florida, or any number of city and state schools that serve vastly diverse populations) cannot continue to replicate, more or less, received models of liberal arts education. This process cannot, however, be a mattering of “watering down,” but rather of inclusion and listening, not just of and to diverse student populations (although that is an essential element) but of and to the cultural, societal, and economic surround.

6.        Reflecting on my dilemma over the summer I came across this quotation from Wallace Stevens, writing in the late 1930s:

. . . the romantic . . . looks like something completely contemptible in the light of literary intellectualism and cynicism. The romantic, however, has a way of renewing itself. It can be said of the romantic, just as it can be said of the imagination, that it can never effectively touch the same thing twice in the same way. It is partly because the romantic will not be what has been romantic in the past that it is preposterous to think of confining poetry hereafter to the revelation of reality. The whole effort of the imagination is toward the production of the romantic. [4]  (266)
This definition allowed me to conceive of the “romantic” (not “romanticism”—that, for now, I would bracket) more broadly, not just as trans-historical but also as a “self-renewing” repetition, neither repressed nor disavowed but rather as perceptible but not-quite-thought, an aspect of our everyday lives. I decided then to teach the class as a “special topics class”: Repetitions of the Romantic.

7.        The course would attempt to locate resonances in romantic and post-romantic art—feelings, forms, thoughts, attitudes, perspectives, and aesthetic practices—that we could, with some justification, call romantic. Having often used other media (MP3 files, movies, essays, image files, etc.) and contemporary materials in the past as a way to elucidate aspects of romantic poetry, I decided to “flip the script.” Rather than treat the contemporary texts as supplemental, ways of connecting students to some deeper understanding of Romantic-era texts, I chose instead to treat all the texts as “primary.” I organized the class around certain structures of feeling that to me seemed likely candidates for the romantic: “affect and emotion”; “ecology and interconnectedness”; “melancholy vs. negative capability”; “ecology and alienation”; “uncanny intimacy”; “the domestic imagination”; “the subject of history”; “immortality and the death drive”; “forms of intoxication”; and so on.

8.        The class was small—twelve students—and met once a week in the evening for three hours. Each week we read from a course-pack as well as from a textbook—Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 3: Romantic and Post-Romantic Poetry from the University of California Press. Most weeks there was also a movie or experimental film, seen out of class via the university media server, but with certain scenes reviewed in class.

9.         For my part I purposely eschewed, or, at the very least downplayed, the received narratives of romanticism (our “family romance” if you will) such as romanticism’s resistance to enlightenment reason, its ambivalent relation to the French Revolution, its complicity in the partial erasure of its history, etc. Instead, I emphasized the notion of a reciprocal critique, a sense in which contemporary texts could be read not as fuller realizations of Romantic-era texts, but rather as specific instances or expressions within a shared symptomology. I intuited that this reciprocity might reveal strange temporalities and determinations in which Romantic-era texts might be read as “later” and contemporary texts as “earlier,” a topic I explore below. I began each three-hour class having us address the Romantic-era texts assigned for that day. So for example, for the module entitled “uncanny intimacy” we read “Anecdote for Fathers” and “Old Man Traveling” by Wordsworth, and, of course, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge. After working for ninety minutes or so, we took a short break. When we came back from break we read the post-romantic texts, in this case, two sonnets by Gerard Manley Hopkins from the 1870s, “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens, ca. 1918, and the film entitled “Northwest Passage,” the pilot episode of the Twin Peaks television series, directed by David Lynch in 1990. When I taught the class again, I alternated the order of readings between Romantic-era and contemporary texts, so that one week we read the romantic texts first and the next week the contemporary, and so on. That way no period is necessarily privileged in terms of its importance.

10.         Students were asked to post responses to an online discussion board before each week’s class, a day or two before the class meeting time. Often students struggled to fit their reading of a particular text into the specific topic designation I had given to the class. I hoped at the time that their struggle would be generative, and I now believe that it was. The students for the most part did marvelous associative work. For example, in the module on “Ecology and Interconnectedness” students were making links from the movie Magnolia, to poems by A. R. Ammons and S. T. Coleridge, to the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” and finally to a song by rapper Aesop Rock. In some instances, students seem to grasp intuitively the connections, as in the following fragment from a post:

Highly charged with emotion, Magnolia shows interconnectedness amongst humans in a dramatic way, including (mostly) subtle natural events. And while I don’t necessarily agree with all that Wordsworth said of poets in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” I do accept that we are connected with nature, [and that] some of us finding more meaning and understanding in a poet’s work than a scientist’s . . .yet all of the other pieces that look at human connection with nature provide quite a different view . . .in fact, our relationship with nature . . .now seems increasingly vulgar. A.R. Ammons gives a wonderful description of the forced and unnatural contributions man has made to our beautiful surroundings and in his work our well-intended endeavors pale in comparison. This also seems to be one of the messages of “Gopher Guts” [the song by Aesop Rock]: we’ve steadily replaced that which was naturally occurring and good with something we thought to be better, screwing things up as we go . . . (Aaron J. Ensman)
What I especially appreciate in this student’s response is its unconscious recapitulation of the message of Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” a text that was also assigned for the module. In other words, the student discovered for himself—through the engagement with an assortment of romantic and post-romantic texts—an aspect of the romantic. Thus, he articulates in his own language, “what man has made of man.”

11.        What is more—and I too must have intuited this rather than conceived this connection since I was only dimly aware of a link when I assigned Wordsworth and Aesop Rock together—Wordsworth’s juxtaposition in “Lines Written in Early Spring” of the movements of birds, leaves, and wind on the one hand and man-made disorder on the other is itself recapitulated (Geoffrey Hartman’s word would be rephrased) in Aesop Rock’s song “Gopher Guts.” In Aesop Rock’s lyric, the intense disconnection and alienation described in the verses is juxtaposed to strangely beautiful scenes of encounters with the natural world in the choruses:

Today I pulled three green frogs out of leaf and bark
Where the grape vines climb a convenient barn
I told them, “You will grow to be something tenacious and exalted;
You are mighty, you are gracious, you are lauded”
Then I let them go
Oh . . . (“Gopher Guts”)
Again, for me what matters is not so much that Aesop Rock, like Wordsworth, “must think, do all [he] can” in order to abide if not reconcile the gap between so-called nature and so-called culture, but rather that my student grasps through his own research, his own thinking and feeling, this vital feature of our “increasingly vulgar” relation to our environments.

12.        Another student wrote about Aesop Rock’s song as well. She said that she felt compelled to write about it (I allowed students to write about all or one of the texts, so long as they made connections to the larger themes of the module) because she had a “love/hate” relationship to it and wanted to find out why. She found the verses—intensely condensed lyrical raps about human failure—disconcerting and wrote that she had the:

. . . feeling of being disconnected and unable to break through the membrane of meaning at times. Strangely what did translate clearly for me were the hooks [by “hooks” she means the choruses]. The hooks were so weirdly intriguing. Snakes, frogs and crabs being told they are “electric, present, exalted, gallant.” What the hell? This seriously melted my heart. It melted my heart because these beautiful words are coming from the man—the man who is the representation of everything that is disgustedly human, our sweating stinking blood-filled bodies in the garbage heap of a world we have created versus the natural world which is still pure and virtuous. The natural world seems like our only hope to cleanse ourselves/redeem ourselves, although we have to "let them go" to do that because we are the despoiled ones. (Elizabeth Byers Gaubert)
This student, like the previous student, articulates an important aspect of the romantic. While she doesn’t comment on this connection in her response (did she know it?), she seems to recognize Aesop Rock’s perhaps unconscious allusion to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” specifically the scene where the Mariner blesses the water snakes “unawares.” This seems especially uncanny since we hadn’t read “Ancient Mariner” in class yet. These types of resonant reversals happened constantly in the class. They seemed to validate T. S. Eliot’s concept of the historical sense (from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a text we read in class), in which changes in the aesthetic tradition produce temporal rearrangements in such a way as to allow for the feeling that somehow “Gopher Guts” (ca. 2012) is the progenitor to Coleridge’s 1790’s poem. I take is as more than coincidental that this temporal reversal has deep affinities with the psychoanalytic theory of nachtraglikeit or re-transcription. If the study of literature requires that we take a position toward the text (that is, toward history), it provides us at once with an understanding that we are ourselves embodied with a past as well as with the imaginative means to take up one or more positions on our history. This seems to me one of the most important aspects of the romantic, namely that our senses (and I would place the unconscious within that sensorial circle) both “half-create” and perceive the “mighty world.”

Interlude on Method #2

13.        Let me reiterate: I do not believe that our students need to be “confirmed” in their positions or tastes (although I believe that all of our students’ positions need to be considered and listened carefully to; they all “make sense” in some way, even if we do not understand them), nor do we need to protect our students from ideas that threaten their beliefs. Spivak’s definition, the “displacement of belief onto the terrain of the imagination,” is as apt a definition of the goal of an aesthetic education as any that I know of (10). Having adopted this as our code, it becomes our responsibility to expose students — and also to be exposed. Mutual contamination is the goal. In this sense, Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can serve as a model. In the pedagogical poetics I have in mind teacher and student take turns being alternately mariner and wedding guest, infector and infected, traumatized and wiser.

14.        Meeting the students where they are is only the first step. My sense is that many if not most of my students arrive in my classroom “pre-critical.” [5] They think that reading and writing at the university level is primarily an issue of solving a puzzle, getting pieces (themes, forms, ideas, emotions) into the proper arrangement. As teachers in the humanities we know that no text ever stays put for long and that the work of reading and writing is not always to offer interpretations at all, but rather to ask questions. It is my belief that we cannot ask students to do this kind of critical work all at once. The work of criticism requires an openness (about the text and the so-called self) that is not easy for anyone. Furthermore, it requires a sense of security and support (emotional, psychic, and yes, economic) that our current anxiety-riddled academic culture is less and less inclined or able to provide. Absent a wholesale resurgence of support for and revaluation of the humanities, it seems to me that moving students from pre-critical reading to critical engagement is easier when they are offered seemingly more “familiar” texts, genres, and media. It short-circuits at least some of the natural defensiveness.

15.        If Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth are correct and the goal of the poet is to help people to live more fuller and richer lives, then, in an increasingly global and glutted world, an aesthetic education will have to offer new definitions and conceptions of the romantic. [6] These cannot be top-down or absolute definitions. Students must have an active role in these reformations. Yet this is not a cry for a digital humanities or an alternative (more “democratic”) pedagogy, although both are no doubt necessary; rather it is an argument for awareness and acceptance of how much of our aesthetic experience is already digital and how impossible knowledge production is without the willing co-creation of our students.

16.        So why teach romanticism at all? In part, we need the romantic because of our need for self-estrangement and cross-contamination. According to Spivak, one of the greatest disservices done to the subaltern community by European educators is the attempt to keep them culturally pure, robbing them of an awareness of global politics and culture, new cultural and political histories of which they might form a part. [7]  In a related way, I worry that if we withhold from some student populations certain texts—Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” or David Hume’s “Treatise on Human Nature” for example—on the grounds that they are too “difficult,” we rob them of a deeper understanding of a shared, if constantly shifting heritage of aesthetic and political resistance and change. This class has taught me that reading Shelley’s resonant politico-poetics (the “unacknowledged legislators”) in combination with Charles Olson’s re-appropriation of the polis (“polis is this”) and P.O.S.’s re-appropriation of political rap and rock (“I be the new generation of slaves”) gives students a greater (more critical) purchase on the material—helps them, that is, to continue to question—as well as revealing at a deeper level the ways in which the romantic is constantly in motion, in history, in flux.

17.        Looking back, some of the material that I assigned was difficult—“Beyond the Pleasure Principle” for example—and I had to spell out quite precisely what I took to be the connections between the death drive and Wordsworth’s concept of immortality. This does not seem to be a problem for the reasons just mentioned above. Other inter-texts were more favorably and immediately received, and, interestingly, judged to be as or more “romantic” than many of the romantic-era texts we read for the class. Two of the most popular readings for example were Annie Dillard’s essay “A Field of Silence” and Todd Haynes’s movie Safe. Although uniformly pleased with the class, when students were asked at the end of the class what worked and didn’t, many wished that I had provided more of a “road map” of where the class would lead. Perhaps this is a pedagogical problem for all of us—precisely to the degree that I believe I know the shape and arc of a class’s narrative when I begin, to that degree will the ultimate findings of the class seem rehearsed and unremarkable. I intend to offer a bit more scaffolding next time, but I want all of us to feel free to lose our way from time to time with these texts.

18.        As “old school” as it may sound, it seems to me that an aesthetic education should be integrative, reaching into all aspects of a students’ lives, not just those areas that can potentially be monetized, although that is an essential component of what we do. Reading and writing romantically might mean engaging the romantic in all of its permutations in such a way that we pay conscious attention to the production and reproduction of all of our experience—surely this is one of the most lasting legacies of the romantic. That is, while I get that an education in the humanities can be, in certain circumstances, ideologically normalizing, I do not see that as an inevitable outcome, especially if students and teachers can co-create environments in which critical engagement with the romantic can happen. Perhaps the shrinking proportion of these classroom environments in the academy, and their seeming erasure in the larger culture, is what drives some students’ ambivalent responses to the romantic. By breaking down the barriers between high and low cultures, periods, media, and forms, classes like “Repetitions of the Romantic” and the others described in this collection of essays might recover for us a different legacy, more recursive and responsive, an opportunity to move from the pre-critical to more properly critical, unstable yet pleasurable practices that the romantic has traditionally promised. This last mention of pleasure brings us, of course, back to Wordsworth as well as to Stevens, who agreed absolutely in the necessity of pleasure as the means as well as the end of aesthetic experience.

19.        Finally, I confess (I know, how romantic, right?) to a feeling of ambivalence about not teaching more texts from Romantic period in this class. But I feel I must live with this ambivalence, at least for now. My students are engaged, asking meaningful questions, making connections, creating interesting work. Perhaps learning the romantic today involves learning to tolerate our ambivalences, to hear the “thousand blended notes,” learning that is, to listen for patterns in dissonance, in our work, our curricula, and in our students’ lives, in Aesop Rock as well as in Wordsworth, in the lake district as well as in central Ohio.

Works Cited

Aesop Rock. “Gopher Guts.” Skelethon, Rhymesayers, 2012.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford UP, 1977.

Shuren, Irving. “A Contribution to the Metapsychology of the Preanalytic Patient.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, no. 22, 1967, pp. 103–36.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard UP, 2012.

Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Knopf, 1966.


[1] Spivak, Gayatri (2012) 2. BACK

[2] “Lines Written in Early Spring.” BACK

[3] In this essay, I have consciously decided (with the support of the editors of RCPC) to break with convention and de-captitalize the “romantic” and “romanticism.” My reason for doing so is in order to foreground the everydayness and demotic character of the romantic as I see it, as well as to suggest its dialectical and iterative (but not trans-historical) nature. It recurs at/as different moments, assuming a different character but bringing with it an immanent challenge to existing orders and structures. BACK

[4] See also Stevens’ preface to William Carlos Williams’ Collected Poems, 1921–1931 in which he calls Williams a “romantic poet.” In a deconstructive turn, Stevens claims that it is precisely Williams’ “anti-poetic” tenacity, his refusal of the “accepted sense of things,” that makes him a romantic, in Opus, 255. Stevens would go on to make a similar claim for “nobility,” that it is a “force,” not its “manifestations.” Thus although the word and the concept seem belated, it continues nonetheless to have an effect in the world of the imagination (“The Noble Rider” 35). BACK

[5] I am borrowing here a concept from psychoanalytic theory, namely that certain people show up for treatment pre-analytical, not yet ready to be analyzed. More and more, post-classical psychoanalysis strives to include these people, working with them with mixed modalities until they are ready for analysis proper. See Shuren. BACK

[6] Noble Rider, Preface to LB. BACK

[7] Spivak, 30. BACK