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Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon:
An Online Discussion (Part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Extracted, and slightly edited for the Web, from postings to the NASSR-L discussion list, 16-29 July 1997.


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?

Paula Feldman


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.

Alan Richardson


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 "poesy" argument.

D. Latane'


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?

Laura Mandell


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 Lukas.
  • 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 Weldon.
  • 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: 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.

Nan Sweet


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 Romantic literature.'"

(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.

Nan Sweet


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.

Ted Underwood


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 *honest*?

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 this period.

best wishes
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.

Avery Gaskins


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.

Ted Underwood


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 her.

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 "for" feeling.

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 era?

Alan Liu


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?

Nan Sweet


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".

jerome mcgann


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 her."

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" notwithstanding?

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" the kids:

"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 "for" feeling."

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"?

Alan Richardson


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 "incoherent."

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 alternative.

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 illuminating beam.

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 incoherence.

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.

Ted Underwood


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.

jerome mcgann

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