Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon:
An Online Discussion (Part 1)
1 | Part
2 | Part 3
Extracted, and slightly edited for the Web,
from postings to the NASSR-L discussion list, 16-29 July
This question is especially directed to those of you who read
or teach or write about the work of Felicia Hemans and some of
her female contemporaries.
A colleague remarked after reading Hemans's *Records
of Woman* that "so many of the poems . . . are really, from
a twentieth-century perspective, `bad'-- sentimental, cliched,
and/or melodramatic--verse . . . `poesy' rather than `poetry'."
This observation got me thinking. What is the best way to respond
to this sort of dismissal as we try to include writers such as
Hemans, whose style and subject matter many in the profession
have been taught to find unappealing?
McGann's recent (1996) book Poetics of Sensibility strikes
me as the ideal place to start; it constitutes an extended, provocative,
and thoughtful response to this very question.
Why confine the issue to female poets? Hemans was reprinted on
a number of occasions in an omnibus volume with the Rev. Pollok
and Bishop Heber, both poets of some reputation and popularity.
At least one can read her; the new Mellor/Matlak has 60+ pages,
as opposed to zero for the others, as well as goose-eggs for Landor,
Moore, Rogers, Campbell (Why O me, no "Gertrude?") Peacock, J.
Montgomery and Crabbe. We've certainly been trained to find Hemans
verse unappealing: "She took the pulse of her time, and helped
to prevent it from quickening" (Jack, _English Literature 1815-1832_),
but puir ole Pollok don't even get a quip.
So a serious question, what are the criteria besides gender by
which we distinguish Hemans from Moore and Campbell (both popular
and skilled enough in their ways)? If we have a grasp of that,
I think we'll be better able to make an argument against the colleague's
Can't we begin by saying--and this is already implied in your
question--that Hemans is unappealing to a twentieth-century perspective
because the twentieth-century perspective was itself created by
not reading Hemans?
Continuing the conversation about how we, and our colleagues
and and students, might learn to enjoy and admire Hemans's poetry--and
as much, about what many of us already know about reading and
appreciating such work--
Here is a brainstorm of these (at times overlapping) ways of
reading-- ways that I've suggested to others and they to me--
- Read her poetry as a vehicle for a popular culture that's
doing after all the serious work of culture (on us)--a way many
of us read/view and I think enjoy artists from Dickens to George
- Read her through a postmodern tolerance for writing that finds
the canons of realism and modernism irrelevant to the cultural
work it wants to do-- this is the way I at least am able to
read and appreciate postmodernists from Salmon Rushdie to Fay
- Read with relish for the popular modes she uses, adventure,
the gothic, horror (an example of the latter, her "The Tale
of the Secret Tribunal"). Read *other* books/works by her than
*Records of Woman*. I would always recommend *Tales, and Historic
Scenes*, which contains several tales of adventure and tableaux
of horror. Recommend also her plays and Greek and Spanish song
cycles for blood-curdling and thought-provoking fare.
- Read as opera (as some view Lukas?), thinking of Verdi's adaptations
of plots from the same repertoire that she, Byron, Scott, Mitford,
and so forth put to word music.
- Read (if you happen to be of my pre-Boomer generation) from
a background in Longfellow, purportedly a learner at her own
feet or (for those who, like my students, are considerably younger)
from an interest in Tennyson (Dungeons & Dragons dressed up
to *Idylls of the King*, a perennial favorite with certain kinds
of young male students). Poetry again as narrative vehicle.
- Read her (if you share this too with me) from a taste for
Byron all the way round--whether professionally for the conversation
between them or less intellectually for (but is this, too, hopeless
pre-Boomer) a love of such bravura performances as "The Destruction
of Sennacherib" ("The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the
fold")--try indeed the *Records of Woman*'s own "The Indian
City" ("And the sword of the Moslem, let loose to lay, / Like
the panther leapt on its flying prey"). Read indeed *as* performance,
rhetoric, costumery, the loud music that Morse Peckham once
said was Verdi's chief gift to Risorgimento, revolt via noise.
Read as a feminist-Orientalist performance, Hemans intensifying
like flamenco the "veil" of her florid diction until (again
"The Indian City"), like her tormented heroine who "rose / Like
a prophetess. . ./ . . . flung from her face the veil" to call
down the powers of immolation, she reveals the face of woman's
quite frightening power in culture. Read as a strip-tease, then,
an exercise in political porn.
- Read as a feminist, too, but one with the comparatist tastes
of an Ellen Moers rather than purely those of an Anglo-American
or realist or modernist feminism: Moers's term for performances
like Hemans's of course was "heroinism." Read, feminist or not,
as someone who's simply been raised on super-heroes. Tomorrow,
unless someone cries, "Hold, enough," I'm going to post the
testimony of a (non-feminist) male in this vein. Can we
claim to have outgrown melodrama as a culture? Why not instead
compare Hemans Wm. Wallace with Mel Gibson's Wm. Wallace?
- Or we could read her work interrogatively and more academically,
for its enactment of the liberalization and feminization of
Anglo-American world culture. But I could go on. . . .
And as Alan says, critics like McGann (and I'll add Isobel Armstrong
and cite my web site's Hemans bibliog. for more: http://www.umsl.edu/~sweet/swetbib.htm)
have much to teach us about reading Hemans (who may be standing
in here for a range of "romantic" writers, of course, from Byron
to Longfellow, who call for different ways of reading than Wordsworth
might, to mention one).
I'm hoping for more conversing and brainstorming on this topic.
Thanks to Paula, Alan, David, and others for pursuing it.
Addendum to mine on reading Hemans: excerpts from the guy grad
student who divided his interests between the classics and pop
lit. N.B.: Ryan's writing about another of the offending *Records
of Woman.* He gave me permission to quote him to colleagues and
in promotion of Hemans as a subject. I'll try to proofread this
better than I did my first posting.
"I began reading Hemans' 'The Bride of the Greek Isle' in the
same mildly indifferent manner I approach most 'flowery' Romantic
poetry. . .. My eyes, already tranquilized by the flowers, maids,
songs, and sweetness pervading the poem's opening lines, threatened
to shut. . . I marched on. . .to l. 110. . .here I decided to
practice my literary long-jumping skills. . . into Part II--when
I was stopped mid-flight by the end-rhyming phrases of ll. 151-52:
'a dark-red vein'/'a pile of the slain.' My curiosity was kindled.
I jogged back to the page, and was soon astounded to discover
something wonderfully appealing. Suddenly, pirates, sword-fights,
blood, and death had entered upon the scene; . . .my interest
was resurrected. I reread all that I had skipped and was captivated;
then came the first tragedy of the tale, and I hailed the work
a prospective masterpiece. I realized that all the festering flowers
of Part I had a very logical 'raison d'etre.'. . .
"I raced through the lines of Part II, not in indifferent boredom
coupled with a desire to finish the work, put away the book, and
move onto more interesting occupations, but in eager anticipation.
I had to know the outcome of such bitter happenings.
"I must admit that I was very satisfied by the grave turn of the
work, and found a particular pleasure in the lives taken as retribution
for the death of the beloved. Justice, now here's a concept I
can grab onto. Then came tragedy once again, potent, pointed,
and harsh. I was struck dumb. I am still struck dumb.
"Upon surveying my final assessment of the work scribbled in pencil
quickly and quite passionately at its end--'not bad!!!!!!!!' .
. . . Of course, this work isn't the best, most flawless I've
encountered, but it is quite captivating. . .'a good piece of
(Ryan M. Nowack, Nov. 5, 1996)
Enthusiastic, candid, tempered, surprised. If he's pulling my
leg into the bargain, he's been inspired into an inspired job
of it. The point finally is the sort of enjoyment registered here,
a "grave" sort if you will, to boot.
I think David Latane's question of 7/16
is central to current developments in our period and needs to
be addressed candidly.
One way to respond is to say that we use several different kinds
of criteria to evaluate texts, criteria which don't necessarily
line up together and is an unsystematic sample:
- We make judgments about the pleasure of reading.
- We sometimes make aesthetic judgments according to criteria
that we think (for one reason or another) ought to trump initial
enjoyment. There are poems I like to read, but that on reflection
I admit are flawed by schmaltziness. Some by Keats, some by
Hemans, some by Wordsworth. One could say that this distaste
for schmaltziness has been inculcated in me by history -- which
is no doubt true, but it's a distaste I'm not eager to unlearn.
- We decide which texts are likely to make an interesting subject
for research. The opinions of colleagues weigh into this, because
they're usually the audience.
- And we make pedagogical decisions about the texts and topics
we find it worthwhile for undergraduate students to think about.
I don't think it's necessarily a scandal that these four issues
get separated from each other. But I do feel it's important for
us, as critics, to be frank about which considerations are driving
which choices. We don't have to half-consciously tailor our aesthetic
criteria so that they fit a list of texts that we've already decided
make good pedagogical tools or likely candidates for research.
(I don't claim to have any evidence that other people are doing
this, but it's a temptation I feel myself.)
Because there's a lot of interest in gender now, there may be
a particular temptation for critics to be disingenuous in assessing
works that make useful springboards for discussions of gender.
But the temptation isn't new, or specific to that topic. I've
been working on Macpherson's Ossian poems, which I think interesting,
and historically very important. I also think they're incoherent,
but it's tempting to muffle that judgment in order to facilitate
other points I want to make. I suspect other people who write
on Ossian have done the same thing.
If I can briefly plug a related topic: Catherine Gallagher's
article in the Winter issue of _Daedalus_ is a candid history
of the way the pedagogical and research missions of our profession
have come to interfere with each other. It might shed some light
on our discussion of anthologies.
I have two or three questions for regarding the "Hemans" thread
at this point.
1. Has this thread shifted from Hemans to those male contemporaries
of hers who have long been neglected and now undergoing more neglect
than ever (David's list of Moore, etc.)?
As someone with tattered C19. editions of Moore and Campbell on
my shelf, I'm willing to go with that, while waiting for a (more
direct?) response to my postings on Hemans. St. Louis for a 100
years has celebrated the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan" as the
mysterious leader of its yearly festival. I would dearly love
to have at least part of *Lalla Rookh* better known and more easily
available to my students. How shall we "read" this larger civic
text? which is mediated, I'm sure, by the C19. opera by Felicien
and/or oratoria by Schumann; and which includes later C20. racial
struggle in St. Louis. Has Moore's great tale received adequate
attention under the heading of Orientalism? As one, too, who is
fond of anacreontics as a way of teaching lyric poetry, I would
like to see more, of Moore . . . . Has anyone had success in teaching
Moore, as a Romantic or otherwise? Mightn't he best be paired
with Letitia Landon, who is being anthologized now, she of the
love poetry and the Orientalist frame poem herself?
Campbell is perhaps a bit harder to crack. I've never tried to
teach him though have worked with his career as editor of the
*New Monthly*. What pleasures, aesthetics, scholarship, or pedagogies
(to tick off Ted Underwood's list) in anyone else, comparable
with those I've expressed regarding Hemans and Moore?
Crabbe is a sorry loss for me, aesthetically, if only because
Benjamin Britten librettos based in his work are a mainstay at
our regional (and here's the 'O' word again) opera. I taught his
Peter Grimes episode more than once, from Perkins's anthology,
with some success. David, do you teach him?
Let's see, who else was mentioned. Has anyone seen the essay
by Peter Murphy on Samuel Rogers in *At the Limits of Romanticism*
(it may have formed part of his subsequent book: I'm not certain)?
There Murphy makes the study of Rogers a study in considering
such a writer only to throw in the towel: "In the end, his lesson
is simply that we *have* forgotten him, and that we have forgotten
him because we want to, even now." Murphy concludes that Rogers
is doubly eclipsed for us by Wordsworth--he isn't readable by
the "high" Wordsworthian criticism that we practice and he's even
more boring than the "low" Wordsworth himself that we don't read
(I'd put these *we's* in " ").
Murphy's commentary reminds us of how much our field, both critically
and pedagogically, has been defined by Wordsworth studies. Crabbe
aside (who presents other issues of aesthetic difference), the
writers we've been talking about are associated with later Romanticism
or even with the years past the death of Byron. Have we as a field
succeeded in foregrounding a distinctively "later Romantic" aesthetic
to compete with the one mounted on Wordsworth studies? Another
way of asking this (which recurs to the critic that Alan Richardson
cited) is, has McGann succeeded in establishing a Byronic aesthetic
that's really at work in the field, not just talked about? His
Poetics of Sensibility must be considered a renewal of
that (larger- than-Byron) enterprise, I think.
Some of us working on Hemans and her associates male and female
are contributing to this project, I'll add.
In the meantime, neglect Crabbe, Moore, and Campbell though they
may, I thought Mellor and Matlak did a fine job of editing John
Clare among many others (I have only small bones to pick with
them over the Hemans section).
2. Ted, does the term "gender" in literary
study refer only to work on the distaff side? Shouldn't that be
"feminist" criticism or "women's" studies? How might Hemans's
gender be more important to contemporary criticism than Wordsworth's?
or Byron's? Or to, say, the more traditional criticism of, say,
a Hartman or Bloom? I confess I found your comments a little murky
in that area; perhaps you found mine so too, I don't know. In
your lines about critical disingenuousness, were you saying that
current study and teaching of Hemans borders on intellectual dishonesty?
If you're suggesting something like this about my and my students's
and colleagues's work, I wonder what we're doing with our time,
chasing down the provenance and impact of her work and re-reading
her contemporaries in a new light--if not being kept intellectually
Are concerns about neglected male writers disingenuous? Is speaking
in the interests of either gender an intellectually respectable
form of criticism?
And for a last question, more dialogic and less rhetorical, I'm
still wondering if I've flushed out any Longfellow lovers out
there? Hello, who is out there, these dog days . . . ?
YITB, Nan Sweet
Interesting question from Paula Feldman --
I have had similar problems -- despite being very committed to
teaching women writers on Romanticism courses, I have found it
difficult to infuse students with my own enthusiasm for Hemans.
Many thanks therefore to Nan Sweet for her
extremely lively and enjoyable list of suggestions! N.B. -- regarding
anthologies -- those of you in the US (most of you, I imagine)
could maybe look out for my just published: _Women Writers of
the Romantic Period, 1789-1832: An Anthology_ (Edinburgh University
Press in the UK, but said to be going to appear in the US too).
It's a lot shorter than I would have liked it to be but hopefully
will be helpful to those attempting to teach women's writing of
Harriet Devine Jump
The [Hemans] thread seems to have conflated a bit into my inquiry
about what choices need to be made in certain anthologies to do
justice to the women Romantics who are beginning to be re-recognized.
The kind of anthology I had in mind was not an exclusively Romantic
one where there is at a little more largesse. I was thinking of
those broader anthologies (1800-Present types) where the choices
are harder. The posts I have been able to read seem to address
that somewhat. On the Hemans reactions, when I read the sniffing
assessment of Hemans quoted in the first post, I couldn't help
thinking,"This could have been written 50 or 60 years ago." There
was a clear disgust with high emotion interpreted as sentimentality.
So, my question is: are some of us, even now, still more influenced
in some areas by the "moderns" than we realize? Specifically,
I am thinking of the modern's distrust of what it saw as Victorian
sentimentalism (Hulme's "there is beauty in hard, dry things,"
and Babbitt's principle of "the inner check"). Not to mention
the backformation of that distrust on to the Romantics. The moderns
were able to establish a general "taste" that I'm not sure the
post-moderns have been able to overcome completely.
What I was actually trying to do in that admittedly
murky post was to link David's question
to the broader challenge posed by McGann's Poetics of Sensibility.
I think I didn't do so very clearly; here's a second try.
David asked, What are the poetic criteria by which we distinguish
between Hemans and Moore in compiling anthologies? My reply is
that poetic criteria aren't in fact determining that choice. Other
concerns -- pedagogical goals, research interests -- are the determining
factors, and we might as well say so. This isn't necessarily a
problem, nor is it something at all limited to women writers;
it seems quite right to say, as Nan Sweet implies,
that the revival of Byron's fortunes is linked to a renewed interest
in masculine gender-formation.
But I do think it's important to be willing to distinguish between
different reasons for being interested in texts; my concern has
to do with the recuperative strategy one sees in, say, The
Poetics of Sensibility. I've been working on the kind of late
eighteenth-century text that McGann and other writers have been
restoring to the critical light. I think McGann is quite right
that there's an internally consistent, luminously materialistic
tradition in the late eighteenth century that has been suppressed
(partly) for ideological reasons: high Romanticism was more useful
for the disciplinary purposes of literary study.
But I'm suspicious of the flexibility of my own judgment, and
I project that suspicion, perhaps, onto McGann's book. There are
a number of late-eighteenth- century texts (by Mary Robinson,
by Humphry Davy, by the young Coleridge) that I find at once intellectually
complex and technically lacking -- often actually incoherent.
I suspect that there are historical reasons for that lag between
conception and execution; forms were having to stretch to accommodate
new ideas. But we'll never see that lag if we decide that all
texts that are newly interesting to us deserve to be appreciated
on their own terms, and therefore need a custom-built poetics.
This raises the problem of which other criteria to use, which
isn't a problem I propose to solve. But I think it's important
that we create some kind of space where we can look at texts while
deliberately bracketing questions such as "Will this make a good
article topic?" or even "Was this influential in its period?"
I don't expect that one could ever wholly separate research interests
from readerly judgment, but I'm made uneasy by the thought that
we might give up trying.
This has nothing necessarily to do with Hemans, whose work I
enjoy and don't find at all incoherent! It was brought to mind
more by the reference to The Poetics of Sensibility; my
apology for the confusion.
These postings suggest rightly, I think, that the issue of aesthetic
sensibility always involves the periodicity of aesthetic sensibility,
and that therefore our present discussion of Hemans is ultimately
continuous with earlier discussions on this list about the relation
of the romantic period to stronger, or at least "longer," periods.
I'm writing outside my usual period right now on the aesthetics
of "cool" from the jazz age through the Web age (part of a larger
project on literature in the age of information). This has involved
research into the social history of emotional "cool" as it reflected
the suppression of affect in the modern workplace after the rise
of Taylorist "scientific management" and Leffingwell's complementary
principles of _Office Management_ . (C. Wright Mills on _White
Collar_ is the classic text on this period from roughly the 1920s
through 50s; and Peter N. Stearns on _American Cool: Constructing
a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style_ is helpful specifically in
the line of recent emotions research.) I am therefore particularly
attuned at present to the fact that how we receive Hemans and
similar authors (or aspects of authors) of the Romantic era is
only secondarily an issue about that era itself. The differentiation
of "early" from "late" Romantic sensibility goes in the direction
I am suggesting, but insofar as the early/late Romantic distinction
has often been taken to mean a generational distinction (1st vs.
2nd) it is potentially misleading. The differentiation of Romantic
from "modern" (involving, as Avery notes, the
ideological construction of a mediating Victorianism) may thus
be a better one to think about because I suspect that the social
formation that determines aesthetic reflex to the "Hemans-like"
is set on a scale larger than generation. The real issue, which
does not appear except over the longue duree, is _class_.
In the present discussion, this means that we can't honestly
deal with "our" generational response to "schmaltziness" (borrowing
Ted Underwood's term) unless we face up to
the fact that this response is more about "us" as a class than
the romantics as an era. We do not like schmaltz because "we"
in our successive recent generations are "cool" a la jazz, beat,
rock, punk, etc. Or more accurately, we intellectuals (going back
at least as far as the Hulme, Pound, Eliot, Ransom era that Avery
cites) _wish_ to be cool in the manner of the various subcultures
and vanguards that have staked their identity on aesthetic sensibilities
antithetical to middle-class "lifestyle" or "leisure." Such leisure
as it arose in the 20s through 50s was "hot" (as Stearns puts
it) for schmaltz and other forms of easy affect (commodities,
casual sex, anything else that could serve as the object of desire--all
expressed together, for example, in lounge music) because it had
its own campaign of antithesis to wage. It was antithetical to
the systematic _suppression_ of affect in the workplace that created
the white-collar middle class as by definition the class of those
who are not allowed to have "productive" emotions, who must be
cool "professionals." (C. Wright Mills on the "Big Split" between
work and leisure is worth reading here; as is the documentation
on work rules imposed in the era of Taylor and Leffingwell to
ban all the affective behavior of traditional craft or agrarian
labor, including shouting, laughing, spitting, cursing, etc.)
The bottom line of this direction of thought is that "we" the
contemporary intellectuals, or at least scholars of romanticism,
cannot so easily phrase our present discussion about Hemans as
a matter of "us" versus the philistine "them." (I thus consider
the unnamed philistine in the message that started this thread
to be another "man from Porlock.") Mills' highly unflattering
portrait of the professoriat as "very likely to have a strong
plebeian strain . . . and a generally philistine style of life"
is apropos here. To confess the plebeian in my own background,
I have to say that schmaltz has the capacity to move me to tears,
_as well as_ to its opposite: cool cynicism. This is because while
as an intellectual I "wish" (as I termed it above) to be as cool
as the subcultural or the vanguardist, as a professional, salaried
white-collar worker I am also firmly rooted in the class sensibility
that is my critical antithesis.
So the logical conclusion of this kind of analysis is as follows.
The answer to those who are cool to schmaltz in the romantic period
is the historical one: we should be aware that in the era before
leisure was fully differentiated from work (see my article on
Dorothy Wordsworth's "Autobiographical Present" on the "round"
of activities during a typical day at Grasmere) schmaltz is not
schmaltz. The trick is to see past the
blinders of our modern experience to what such affectivity was
for in a social context where, as evidenced in the remarkable
absenteeism, tardiness, and unruliness faced by 19th-century factory
owners, it was still possible to take off in the middle of the
work week according to agrarian customs to celebrate something
happy or sad (a birthday, a wedding, etc.).
(2) I much admire Nan Sweet's imaginative posting
suggesting ways of reading Hemans. Essentially, as I understand
it, she is suggesting that we "read as" ("read as opera,"
"read . . . from a taste for Byron," etc.). I would like to add
as well that reading as an intentional act also allows us to read
"for" as well as "as."
A simple example first: among the books I
read to my four-year-old there is a generous supply of gushy sentiment
recruited for the purpose of what sometimes seems naked ideology
(whether for or against the "traditional" domesticity of the white
middle-class nuclear family). Yet I enjoy these books when I am
reading them because, while I am not exactly reading "as" a child,
I am reading "for" my child. I am dedicating the reading to her,
and am thus willing to inhabit the form and its gush along with
Another example: there are whole genres of works that it is possible
to read with enjoyment (at least at times) not because one likes
them oneself but because they have been dear to someone one cares
for. Schmaltzy old films from the 40s and 50s can work like that,
for example. When I read or watch in this mode, I am conscious
of an enjoyment that comes not from reading as my mother
but, as it were, for her, for her sake, for what I think she would
have liked me to like, etc. It is as if I am at a memorial, and
out of voluntary will have ceded my right to an independent taste
for the moment for the sake of inhabiting the form of an experience
that is someone else's.
So to come back to Hemans, I'd like to suggest that the best
schmaltzy poems of the past themselves work like this. What makes
a poem "good" as opposed to just an easy indulgence in soft romanticism?
The distinguishing trait (in this, I think, the Ransom crowd had
it right) is awareness of form--of the fact that the poem does
not necessarily share all the assumptions of schmaltz but is inhabiting
the form in a dedicatory mode "for" someone. The Hemans poem I'd
like to put up for consideration in this light is "The
Memorial Pillar" (1822). (In the Mellor/Matlack, it's on p.
1240.) The poem is an elaborately nested series of dedicatory
remembrances of emotion (There is a pillar in the Lakes dedicated
by Ann, Countess Dowager of Pembroke, for her mother; which is
remembered by Samuel Rogers in a passage of Pleasures of Memory;
which itself serves as the epigraph for Hemans' poem.) Here are
two stanzas from the poem:
Yet, while thy place of weeping still
Its lone memorial keeps,
While on thy name, midst wood and hill,
The quiet sunshine sleeps,
And touches, in each graven line,
Of reverential thought a sign;
Can I, while yet these tokens wear
The impress of the dead,
Think of the love embodied there,
As of a vision fled?
A perish'd thing, the joy and flower
And glory of one earthly hour?
The intimation of Wordsworth here is a clue. The Intimations
ode achieves its effect in great part because feeling is tendered
in an uncommon form (the high Pindaric ode) that requires that
statements be fitted to an elaborate, changing formal scheme—producing,
for example, the inversion of "To me did seem" in the third line.
We have the sense of a sensibility that _almost_, but not quite,
fits its form and is and the result is that the formality of the
experience is kept in view. This is Wordsworth inhabiting a form
of feeling "for" the collective "we" (in the penultimate stanza:
"We will grieve not . . ."). The fact that the adult poet is not
wholly of the mind of the child who embodies this "we" is part
of the point. The poet has created a form of feeling for that
child. Hemans' poem works according to the same dynamic, though
the form she inhabits is not the uncommon but instead the common:
variations on ballad and hymnal common measure. We are in the
presence here of the communal measures of the folk and the congregation.
But not quite: there is also the insistent sense that Hemans does
not fully fit into the form, as indicated by the continual wrestle
of her syntax in this poem with the verse form. I am not speaking
only of inversions ("Its lone memorial keeps"). Compare W's "Two
April Mornings," whose similar stanzaic form is full of inversions
of phrase--e.g., "Uprose the morning sun." What is difficult in
the Hemans' poem is the extent to which she insists on subordinating
and parenthetical constructions in a form whose antiphonal statement/response
pattern in normal social usage (statement in the "a" lines," response
or elaboration or personal application in the shorter "b" lines)
is resistant to such constructions. (Contrast Cowper's hymns.)
"While . . . while," Hemans asserts in the middle of her statements,
creating a delay or lag between the feeling of the poem and the
feeling of the form it inhabits and is and it is this lag that
sustains an awareness of the formality of the feeling--of the
fact that the poem is constructed not so much out of feeling as
In their battle against the affective fallacy and soft emotions
in general, the critics of Ransom's and Brooks' age had a name
for the kind of subjectivity poems create: "personae." The poem
creates a persona of feeling.
Criticism that could talk about personae of feeling, of course,
was for the first time professional criticism and is and at this
point the historicist and formalist strands of this posting come
together. "Cold pastoral" and everything else cool--passion halted
in form--was what our first professional critics enjoyed. Can
we now create a form for feeling that allows us to inhabit in
common both such coolness and a different kind of affective formality
(emotion not halted but recollected in tranquillity) in the romantic
A little soul-searching is a good thing, as
Ted seems to be suggesting here, and I'll add, all the better
for being "mine" in the first instance, and "ours" as a logical
next step. I do continue to note your word "incoherent," Ted,
which seems to be the crucial moment in the pondering you report.
Could you say a bit more about what you mean by that? I can imagine
that one might mean "rhetorically incoherent," or "technically
inconsistent," for a couple of starts on the point. Does "incoherent"
signal a sort of neoclassical canon of taste and techne at work
(first applied to "Ossian" by Samuel Johnson, as I recall)?
Thinking of the writing you mention, it's been a while since
I've read "Ossian" but from what I remember I can imagine that
re-reading him would be an exercise in defining the term incoherence.
Much fresher from reading a bit of Robinson, I don't find the
term springing to mind at all. She seems a clear and effective
writer all round, while managing what Ted so well captured from
McGann as "luminously materialistic" poetics.
And this last note brings me, intentionally, to what seems the
core interest within this thread, which is poetics and aesthetics,
as Ted and Avery more recently have reiterated and as I have explored
in my brainstorm(s) of still-living and emerging aesthetics in
which we as readers of Hemans are participating--that is, the
operatic (if "incoherent" is Ted's buzz-word, operatic is mine)
and the post-modern. But before I move across into this "space
in which we can consider texts" (to echo Ted again) on such longer-term
or even enduring bases, I want to tweak one or two points that
we are moving past on the way.
One: I'll register two small notes re: Byron. I'm not certain
his critical or pedagogical fortunes have risen all that much
(tell me I'm wrong) and is and I personally wasn't attributing
what foregrounding he's received (virtual or real) so much to
recent interest in "masculine gender formation" (not to deny there's
been interesting work there) as to the 60s/70s moment when McGann
elected him as key to an antithetical *aesthetic* formation as
against the then-being-codified "high" Romanticism of Abrams et
al. Now, in that era also *of* Bloom's Oedipal theorizing, I have
no hesitation in positing that a characteristically masculinist
(and characteristically middle-class: here's your careerism, again,
Ted) rivalry might have been at work then among *critics*. Thus
it is that careerism and gender (or, class, or race, or etc.)
interests still have a way of defining the "space" for aesthetic
consideration that Ted would seek. Such is life in this fallen
world, perhaps, in which I hope we can live and work in an unblinkered
manner that is not at the same time cynical. That is passionate
and living, in short, rather than cold and calculating. Another
point to register, to be sure we're not misreading (!) each other.
Your paraphrase of McGann's *P of S* seems to be that he's locating
an aesthetic that's a late-18c. epiphenomenon, a historical moment
in the perhaps Foucauldian manner of an episteme: something synchronic,
that is. I would read him instead (here and throughout his work,
quite insistently, in fact) to be engaging both the synchronic
and the diachronic. To be engaging (to use more old-fashioned
language) both "fashion" and "tradition" (again, Ted's phrase
"luminously materialistic *tradition*," my emphasis). The "fashion"
is "sensibility," the "tradition" in part at least is Sapphic.
This I would offer is an abiding (if rather demi- mondaine) tradition
in Western (and near-Asiatic) literature. We can mention Sappho,
Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Petrarch, Donne (skipping here: fill in
the blanks for me, someone?), Racine, Staël, Robinson, Hemans,
Landon, Tennyson, . . ., H.D., . . ., Hacker...., As I recall,
McGann also invokes Dantean as living "tradition" entailed in
his readings. On the Sapphic, I've seen considerable good work
of late, if focused on its reception rather than production --
Larry Lipking, Joan de Jean, Page du Bois. Linda Peterson wrote
a nice piece on this mode in Sappho--I'll retrieve the cite if
anyone calls for it.
And without completely losing sight of the interested framework
(gender, class, etc.; the West, the East, ...) that defines our
critical enterprise, perhaps we have now with McGann's help moved
with 1 1/2 feet into that aesthetic "space" that Ted would like
for us. In that space we can build a greater cluster of working
poetics, adding other Greek lyric poets to Sappho, for instance:
for instance, Anacreon, for Moore. You know I skipped the Sapphic
that's in Byron and Keats, too. We could say more about how "gender"
and also "sexuality" are integral to these aesthetics *themselves*
and others of note (the Petrarchan springs to mind). Much work
to do there of interest to Romanticists and to their sometime
allies the creative writers.
Other "aesthetics" for which we've opened space here include
my operatic, which I'm guessing is a less well-explored mode for
new romantic studies. I've tossed out but the most preliminary
points there, opera as an analogy for the Byronic, the Hemansian,
etc.; poetry as opera libretto; opera as spectacle--unwilling
to codify anything here yet, I'll let the word "spectacle" propel
me to Avery's point about Romantic studies and how we as a group
haven't yet "stretched" to embrace the connections that beckon
us between "Romantic" writing and post-modernism in culture. McGann
has in fact chosen Hemans as a vehicle for pushing us toward that
horizon (in his thrice-appearing "Literary History. . ., *MLQ
'93, *Re*Visioning Rom.*, *P of S*). Perhaps he's onto something.
My sense is that Avery's right and also that
the 60s/70s recuperation of Romantic writers in the face of their
(sometime) denigration by modernist New Critics was often just
that, their recuperation in New Critical rather than (in any sense)
New Romantic terms (with Bloom even, somehow, stuffing his intertextual
genie back into Pantheonic niches).
We have no lack of rich resources for working in a post-modern
mode in even the most limited going sense of the term.-- The some-months-back
thread on contemporary and pop culture spinoffs of "canonical"
Romantics is a rich resource, now on the Romantic
Circles Web site. But I know as a card-carrying lover of transparent
realism and high modernist poetry, etc., etc., that what now passes
for high art often seems but flash and caricature, not to mention
what succeeds on the market as "low."
But hadn't we ought to lighten up and catch a new wave now and
then? As the old swimming master said in PBS's poem, "If you can't
swim, beware of Providence."
No Hemans or Longfellow lovers yet?
i partly wrote poetics of sensibility because I learned
to love poetry from my mother, who recited poetry to me when i
was small from hemans, landon, bryant, etc., and especially longfellow.
i mention this in such a professional context as the present only
because it points to an important historical fact that various
people have been remarking upon: that standards of taste and judgment
are framed differently at different times. it's banal to point
out these differences, but they remain with us -- and especially
remaining is the implicit view that the 19th century readers of
these people simply were less astute and rigorous etc. it is quite
impossible for me to think that our 20th c masters of taste in
art and poetry are or were more dependable that norton or jamison
etc. (or my mother than i!) we have different preferences, of
course, but that's what they are. so the book was in part an attempt
to think and feel _in sympathy_ with ways of thinking and feeling
that have not been our ways, and to use our discourses to try
to recover a sympathy with those other ways, now so lost to us
(to our cost). nan sweet's protocols seem
to me similar "attempts".
it is to me essential that a poem like kilmer's "trees" be made
recoverable. we may finally prefer other poems, but if we have
no ability to sympathize with that work and works like it, we
have confessed not a strength but a great weakness. read brooks
and warren on the poem again -- that reading that sent the poem
to oblivion. they thought it was not a very good poem, but they
also thought it was a poem. myself, i don't agree with the way
they read it -- or at any rate, i have other ways. or read charles
bernstein's travesty/reading of the song "shenadoah". there's
sympathy for you. do we actually think we have a better sense
of ossian than did goethe or byron, or any number of people of
that period who found ossian an exhaustless source? as they say
these days, "be real".
I'm still reeling a bit from the initial sense of richness of
Alan Liu's posting, which it will take some
time to digest. But I wanted, perhaps unwisely, to fire off a
question about one part of it.
[Alan Liu wrote:]"among the books I read
to my four-year-old there is a generous supply of gushy sentiment
recruited for the purpose of what sometimes seems naked ideology
(whether for or against the 'traditional' domesticity of the white
middle-class nuclear family). Yet I enjoy these books when I am
reading them because, while I am not exactly reading 'as' a child,
I am reading 'for' my child. I am dedicating the reading to her,
and am thus willing to inhabit the form and its gush along with
I get, and like, this point; I enjoy reading _Home for a Bunny_
to my kids so much b/c I'm reading "for and as" my kids. [aside:
However, I don't think the example is really all the "simple":
a large amount of my pleasure isn't in the book, or even in my
kids' reaction *to the book*, but in their reaction to me, to
my *performance* of the book. And that performance is being shaped
moment-to-moment by their ongoing reaction! So it's as much a
matter of enjoyable Dad/kids interaction being mediated, in this
case, by _Home for a Bunny_, as it is my reading of _Home for
a Bunny_ being mediated by the kids' enjoyment, and I wouldn't
be able to disentangle all this very readily. [end aside]
Here's the question, though: Alan then projects this sort of
reading back from reading "for" his daughter to reading (films)
"for" his mother, presumably an imago of his mother reconstructed
from memory. And I'm wondering if we could somehow project this
reading "for" all the way back to the Romantic era (Isn't this
what E.D. Hirsch once urged us to do?). That is, when I was reading
a lot of later C18 early C19 writing for children (in addition
to reading a good deal about children of that time) I sometimes
felt I was starting to "get" these works in something like the
way their initial readers were supposed to. I was enjoying them
not as an academic reader but "for" the contemporary child reader
I was gradually reconstructing (in significant part out of the
texts I knew said reader was supposed to like). Of course, I'm
continually getting feedback from my own kids, correcting my imagined
reconstructions of them (finding they don't like texts
I think they should, they do like texts I think they'll not, etc),
not to mention all that performative interaction in the aside,
so it's quite different. But less different from Alan's imagined
reconstruction of his mother? Could Alan "read"
a Hollywood film like a friend of his mother's he never actually
met but frequently heard about (from his mother, of course)? But
surely no one alive today can read "for" a Romantic-era child,
my wishful reconstructions and E.D. Hirsch's "objective interpretation"
What Alan goes on to do, of course, is *not* to read Hemans'
text "for" one of her contemporary readers, but to read Hemans'
text as an enactment of or comment on the act of "reading for."
That is, intriguingly to me, Heman's sentimental (?) poem doesn't
take the position of the schmaltzy children's book in the initial
example (as an unsuspecting reader of Alan's posting might expect),
but rather the position of the father reading that book "for"
"So to come back to Hemans, I'd like to suggest that the best
schmaltzy poems of the past themselves work like this. . . .
"'While . . . while,' Hemans asserts in the middle of her statements,
creating a delay or lag between the feeling of the poem and the
feeling of the form it inhabits and is and it is this lag that
sustains an awareness of the formality of the feeling--of the
fact that the poem is constructed not so much out of feeling as
Does that mean we can best (only?) appreciate sentimental writing
that enacts our own knowingness, mirrors our split reading "for"
feeling position? Can we take pleasure in poems that *are* "constructed
. . . out of feeling"?
This discussion is developing in a number of interesting directions.
I'd especially like to thank Nan and Jerome
for their thoughtful and temperate replies.
Having accused Ossian, Robinson, and Coleridge of incoherence,
it's perhaps time for me to call it a day. I find it strange that
I've worked myself into the position of criticizing precisely
the texts I write on, when my real desire is to convince other
Romanticists of their historical importance and philosophical
sophistication. Having rashly begun to play devil's advocate,
though, I suppose I owe the list some explanation of that word
I agree with Alan Liu that historical criticism ought to begin
by attempting to "see past the blinders of
our modern experience," and to create a way of reading that
recovers what contemporary readers found in the texts they enjoyed.
The Poetics of Sensibility seems to me the best recent
example of that project of sympathetic historical re-creation.
The question I have is whether this project requires us to bracket
our contemporary habits of reading altogether. Do we stop reading
as moderns and re-enter a past world, or does "reading as" become
a subset of the larger set of interpretive practices and tools
we bring to bear on any given text? I'm voting for the latter
Perhaps the implications will be clearer with an example. I'll
take a stanza from Mary Robinson's "Ode to Genius," with the provision
that much of what I say about it could also be said about Coleridge's
"Religious Musings," and about other philosophical poems from
the 1790s. The poet addresses "Genius":
I've seen thee, through the soul diffuse
Th' electric fire that fills the Muse!
When o'er the Poet's breast
Thou fling'st thy sunny vest;
And stoop'st his throbbing brow to bind,
With wings to waft the soaring mind
Beyond the mists of mortal day!
While from thy piercing eye
Resplendent as its Parent Sky,
A stream of light shot forth, to mark his glorious Way!
[Robinson, Poems 1791-3, 3 vols. 2:126.]
There's a complex intellectual world within this stanza. The
power of Genius is represented both as "electric fire" and as
a "sunny vest." This isn't an arbitrary shift; it draws on Robinson's
familiarity with the period's natural philosophy, which did indeed
describe electricity as a condensed form of sunlight. Nor is the
solar imagery for Genius merely ornamental; it embodies a developing
theory that made the sun the chief emblem of the connection between
human creative power and agencies diffused throughout the inanimate
world. The same theory is worked out, somewhat later, in Humphry
Davy's chemical essays, in Peacock, and in Shelley. One might
also point out, following McGann, that enlightenment and sensibility
are fused through Robinson's deployment of light imagery. The
electric fire that fills the Muse is also, on another level, an
All this requires reading in sympathy with the period. Rhetorical
shifts that seem strange to a 20th-century reader can be explained,
not just intellectually, but as part of a poetic whose formal
project is to blur distinctions between subject and object.
But do we have to stop there? Can't we also say that the convergence
of the first-person speaker, the allegorical Muse, and the attempt
at detailed visual representation, leads to some awkward moments?
What relation does the "Muse" have to the soul, to Genius, or
to the inspiring electric fire? Is genius stooping with wings
or binding with wings? If the poet is lifted above the mists of
mortal day, why is that stream of light necessary? It's unclear
what is happening, and the poem seems to call for radically different
kinds of reading at different moments; this is what I mean by
This tangle happens not because Robinson slips and commits a
mixed metaphor; it's a function of the way the period as a whole
was trying to solve certain formal and intellectual problems.
In this case, Robinson is trying to combine the inherited conventions
of the greater ode with a new attempt to embody, in concrete detail,
naturalistic theories of human agency -- naturalistic theories
of poetic power in particular. Similarly awkward passages appear,
for similar reasons, in Coleridge's "Religious Musings." The omniscient
perspective sits oddly with the weight placed on concrete details.
This problem was resolved toward the turn of the century, in
a variety of different ways. Some poets decide to stick with the
first-person speaker, and let omniscient perspectives and poetic
powers remain offstage. (Meyer Abrams and Paul Magnusson have
both written about this.) Other poets playfully embody the power
of poetry and let it speak for itself. Both solutions make things
easier on the reader than the strange combination of abstraction
and specificity that characterizes philosophical odes of the 1790s.
I'm not sure that I'd say I absolutely "prefer" later poems;
for one thing, they conceal a kind of intellectual work that is
revealed in Robinson's rhetoric. But I think it's fair to say
that later writers solve certain problems more successfully. In
order to say that, it's true, we have to adopt a perspective that
looks back on the period as a whole, making judgments that contemporaries
would have been unable to make while they were in the midst of
it all. That might seem like a Whiggish or presentist approach.
But if we decline to adopt that perspective, I don't see how we
can fully appreciate the work Robinson and other poets of the
1790s had to do.
In writing this, I'm still limiting myself (as
Nan rightly points out) to the diachronic level, except insofar
as the discussion assumes that it's sometimes possible to make
transhistorical judgments about which passages are especially
hard for readers to understand. If I were feeling ambitious, I
might try to propose a transhistorical definition of "schmaltz"
that would encompass some early Keats along with a lot of early
T. S. Eliot. But perhaps that's not such a good idea.
this is an addendum to my last posting.
i meant to say something about longfellow, a poet i respond to
strongly. it has been important for me in reading him to recite
his work. he is distinctly an oral poet who deploys his work in
enscripted forms. start with evangeline, perhaps -- a work
that seems to me irresistible.
(an aside that seems relevant: think about
fitzgerald's rubaiyat, a work once widely treated as one
of the greatest things done in the 19th c. i cannot think that
earlier judgment very far from an important truth. it is a poem
that wants to fill your flesh, and will, if you let it. of course
NOBODY hardly ever talks about the poem any more. the issues we're
talking about here might well be advanced by working toward some
general thoughts/ideas about poetry through a critical recovery
of f's rubaiyat.)
now i mention that because an aural/oral encounter with most
poetry is a great current pedagogical necessity, it seems to me.
my classes now, at all levels, do recitation and discussion of
recitation (not of "meaning" as such, but of the physique of the
sonic forms). many classes i run now will spend the entire hour
or more on this kind of work. we don't get into thematics because
the students are so eager to learn simply how to read and
connect with the poems at the level of what blake called "the
doors of perception". and i can report honestly that the students
do begin to learn about poetry this way. more conceptual approaches,
when people cannot properly negotiate their way through the rhetorical,
metrical, and grammatical forms, are not merely (often) a waste
of time; they can be positively disfunctional.
the evolution of advanced conceptual engagement with literature,
and especially with poetry, over the past 50 or more years, came
in reaction against the rhetorical engagement of the 19thc, (and
earlier), when oral recitation was a standard of "reading". there
was much that was lost when we gave up recitation (and memorization).
this discussion everyone has been having here clearly touches
on the losses, and i think also suggests how we might begin to
try to reconnect our conceptual imperatives with the need to "think"
poetry in aesthetic terms. literatures of sensibility and sentiment
were, it seems to me, precisely involved with developing "aesthetic"
(in baumgarten's sense of the term) conventions for texts.
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