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Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon:
An Online Discussion (Part 3)

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.

7/26/97

perhaps this remark by j. h. van den berg might be apt for this discussion in general. i often think of it in relation to the subjects we've been talking about:

"we are continually living a solution to problems that reflection cannot hope to solve".

jerome mcgann


An apt quotation; I like this one: "In history, for instance, what is the basic unit, the individual, the period, the nation? No one is sure, but what difference does it make? Historical investigations may be pursued without a final decision on this point." --Saussure

Avery Gaskins


I'd like to put a couple of questions in the wake of Alan Liu's posting which I have found tantalizingly suggestive and thought-provoking. I realize it might be a bit unfair to ask for any further elaboration of an argument which is obviously going to be developed more fully elsewhere, so I beg Alan to ignore these if any proper answer would require a fully-fledged essay. I should also warn readers that much of this posting is only tangentially related to Romanticism.

First, then, I'm wondering exactly how the paths of causation are envisioned as operating in the argument you have sketched out. Just what degree of economic determinism is operating here? There seems to be at first a base/superstructure argument being made that the economic mode of production of high capitalism and its attendant workplace disciplines generate a kind of pop-cultural ideological inversion in the production of affect-rich "schmaltz", sentimentality, lounge-music etc. But then comes another reaction to this reaction, in which certain members of the "middle class" react against their own ideological coping-mechanisms and (rebelliously?) adopt the very affect-low values of the disciplined workplace. Several things are unclear to me at this point. What, if any, political significance is this adoption of affect-low values supposed to have? I would have thought that most of the "cool" cats of the Jazz age and the Beat generation and beyond thought of themselves as adopting at the very least an anti-authoritarian, quasi-subversive stance. It seems ironic if the terms of that stance are derived from the disciplines of the capitalist workplace - although that irony is not in itself evidence against the argument.

This question prompts another, which is perhaps more of a quibble. Surely the class on which the workplace disciplines of high capitalism impacted most heavily was not the middle class, white collar workers you write about. The subjects of Taylor's disciplines were mostly blue-collar factory workers and low-status clerical workers weren't they? (I speak very much under correction on this subject-- but even if they weren't in theory, in practice those were the workers most vulnerable to bosses bitten by the time-and-motion bug). And this in turn raises the question of why so much of what is "cool" is in fact middle-class appropriations of working-class -- or otherwise marginalized -- forms of expression or styles (particularly true of the musical styles -- from Jazz through R&B, Rock, Punk etc. to Rap, Hip-Hop etc.). Why does working-class culture, if it is particularly heavily imposed upon by the affect-low disciplines of the capitalist mode of production be such a rich source of affect-low cultural forms - or are these formed in the same process of "reaction to the reaction" as middle-class "cool"? Do the affect-high forms of working-class culture (of which, of course, there are many) generate the affect-low ones in response? Or are these simply different aspects of a "first degree" reaction to economic conditions?

The significance of the affect-high/affect-low distinction itself can also be called into question by this line of inquiry. There are affect-high elements of working-class/marginalized culture which are definitely "cool" but which are clearly fundamentally opposed to the disciplines of the workplace. One thinks of the whole drug-culture with its screamingly sentimental poses of decadence and nihilism as one obvious example.

My second question, or line of inquiry, has to do with the concept of "cool" itself. For what period does your argument hold good? When did this affect-low "cool" emerge, and is this still how "cool" works in the 1990's? Clearly the word "cool" and the way it is used has changed radically from the 50's to the present. The "cool jazz" cool is almost diametrically opposed to the Beavis and Butthead "cool" which might have more in common with a 50's "hot" or an eighties "like, totally awesome!" This seems to me to be closer to the "cool" of the "What's Cool" button on the Netscape browser than the 50's one. Obviously the cultural form might persist under a different label, but what does the changing meaning of the word suggest about cultural responses to the changing economic realities of the last few decades?

Lastly, and most relevant to the concerns of the list (sorry if I've wandered too far from these) -- I wonder about your positioning of academics in class terms, and their consequent responses to the aesthetics of sentimentality. Is it really correct to define us as "middle class, white collar" workers? I'm very attracted to John Frow's concept of a "knowledge class" whose functional position is defined by their control of cultural capital. This, of course, includes a great number of people who are not academics as well, but if we apply such an analysis to academics - who are surely the most significant people in determining the fate of obscure eighteenth and nineteenth-century authors -- I'm not sure how it would fit with your argument of workplace discipline and affect. Even in the terms of your argument, however, I'm unsure about the economic context of academia. Surely of all salaried workers, academics must be among the least affected by Taylorite disciplines. We might not always be able to "take off in the middle of the work week . . . to celebrate something happy or sad (a birthday, a wedding, etc.)." but we have a much better shot at it than your average factory worker, or indeed than someone with a McJob. Why then are we not as open to the affect-high sentimental as the early nineteenth-century factory-workers? And if we are now becoming so, can this change be explained by -- or otherwise related to -- any corresponding changes in our relations of production?

I could go on (and on), but that will probably do for now. I hope it is obvious that I only put these apparently carping questions because I find your argument important and richly suggestive.

Cheers,
Hugh Roberts


I was thinking about Nan Sweet's interesting debate with Alan Liu about "reading as" and "reading for" over the weekend and it seemed to me that both these strategies are related to but significantly different from what was very much an expected audience response for the poets of sensibility. If "reading as" means creating projected versions of the work to which the reader already "knows" how to respond, and "reading for" means reading the work in the adopted personae of readers whose responses, or types of responses, we already "know" (child/mother/historically imagined "contemporary audience"), then I suppose what I am thinking of could be called "reading as if". It seems to me that the literature of sensibility demands an extremely sophisticated -- and at its best genuinely creative -- response from the reader who must create a quasi-fictional reader-persona, a reader who reads, when necessary, "as if" they are not aware of the flagrant artifice of sensibility, "as if" they haven't -- only moments before -- been enjoying the author's knowing wink that tells them that s/he too is aware of the work as something "performed" (I am in part thinking of the discussion of recitation here), but performed by both the author and the reader(s) simultaneously.

This seems to me to be an essential part of what Schiller is describing in his essay on naive and sentimental literature when he describes the self-consciousness of the sentimental -- and it seems to me the only way one can understand the sentimental cults that grew up around such slyly ironic works as Sterne's Sentimental Journey, or such flagrantly artificial ones as, say, Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling. We tend to read these today and think "how could anybody have ever taken this "straight"?", but of course nobody -- or very few -- did. To weep buckets over The Man of Feeling is read "as if", it is to participate in a creative collaboration in which you construct yourself as a certain type of reader. This is particularly evident in the various tourist trades that sprang up around the novel of sensibility, the visits to Werther's grave, or to the "bosquet de Julie" etc. One read the works "as if" they were genuine documents of a "real" love-affair, even when one "knew" they were not (much as a professional wrestling fan watches the fight "as if" it were a real fight, while in some wrestling fan watches the fight "as if" it were a real fight, while in some sense "knowing" that it is contrived).

I think if one wants to find an analogy in contemporary culture which students would find accessible, one can turn to the horror movie, which has the same mix of conscious artifice and self-debunking irony which one finds in the sentimental. The true horror afficionado never, in one sense, "takes horror films seriously" -- which is why the "concerned parent" response to the horror film -- "How can you enjoy watching all that gore?" -- always seems to miss the point. The fan watches "as if" the gore were real, "as if" s/he was not fully aware of the formulaic nature of the genre ("don't go in there!"). That is one of the reasons horror movies are almost always so close to parodying themselves, and parodying the genre generally -- horror movies rely on the audience's semi-suppressed awareness of the genre conventions in order to generate humour out of bathetically disappointing audience expectations. Of course, the horror movie is a direct descendent of the Gothic novel, which is itself closely related to the novel of sensibility, so it is not surprising that this kind of "reading as if" remains essential to the genre.

I think part of what made this kind of reading seem disreputable in "high art", and consequently lead to the suspicion of sensibility/sentimentality which we have been debating here was Wordsworth's strong claim that a poet should be "a man talking to men". Suddenly the reader is not supposed to be reinventing him or herself in a kind of cooperative performance with the work, the reader is supposed to be addressed directly by the work, it speaks to him/her in their own essential being. Of course, this "essential being" is an invention too -- "reading as if I am just myself"-- and one which demanded an extraordinary creativity to piece together (which in part accounts for the initial resistance to Romantic writing), but once in place, it can easily come to seem simply "natural", simply "who we are". And so literature which demands a more bravura "reading as if" soon appears to be demanding a dangerous self-alienation, a denial of "reality", or "authenticity", an artifice which undermines the solid "self" we have discovered through High Romantic Seriousness.

Does this make sense?

Cheers,
Hugh Roberts


a footnote to hugh roberts excellent posting on reading "as if". it seems to me that mode of reading applies primarily to certain kinds of sensibility-styles -- specifically, styles that deal in horror, terror, or the fantastic. sadean texts like those of lewis and dacre, mackenzie's and sterne's fantastics. much less to (say) clarissa or a simple story or evelina etc.

the distinction could well be mapped along the traditional wordsworth/byron polarity.

or, to take our current specific focus: think of the difference between hemans and landon. the latter is clearly to be read "as if", but if we were to say the same of hemans, i think we'd have to say we mean the term in a very different sense.

i'd like to have hugh roberts extrapolate his idea further here. (and i wonder if adriana craciun is out there to contribute something to this.)

jerome mcgann


Doesn't Hemans work in both modes? For instance, when we read of a woman shooting the rapids in a canoe standing up holding a baby, don't we want to say, "As if?"

Or, some of the material which Hemans derives from her library (in this she is the female Southey) can be opposed to poems which derive more from experience.

David Latane


7/28/97

I've been following all the threads of this discussion with interest. It's become abundantly clear that Hemans offers rich material for a range of interesting questions about literary interpretation and evaluation. (I'm looking forward to Nan Sweet's promised posting on The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy -- a tantalizing reference in the context of last Friday's discussion!)

I'd like to throw in an additional question; it actually reverts to the original question that started this thread off, which was, as I remember it, "How do we go about working Hemans into our courses?"

The discussions of the last two weeks -- especially Nan Sweet's suggestions -- effectively answer that question where graduate students are concerned. But I remain curious how list members would teach Hemans in a survey of the Romantic period for undergraduates -- the kind of course that is usually numbered 300-something and offered to sophomores and juniors. Some of the students will not be English majors; most of them will not go on to take anything else about the Romantic period. Which Hemans texts would you choose to teach? More importantly, what sort of paper topics on Hemans would you either design or suggest to the students?

I'm interested in this question partly for the obvious practical reason: to pick up suggestions about teaching Hemans. But it also interests me because I'm curious whether the literature of sensibility in general requires a different pedagogy than, say, Keats or Wollstonecraft would.

This part of the question is especially prompted by the postings on recitation and Longfellow, which shocked me into a consciousness of my own presuppositions. I suppose I have somewhere in my head a model of an ideally "teachable" text. This text reveals something important about its historical moment. But it also poses or illustrates a dilemma that remains contemporary, and that is likely to be relevant even to nineteen-year-olds who are not English majors. The dilemma can be intellectual, emotional, social, or embodied on the level of form -- but it has to be something that a student can plausibly care about. It can't be too easy to resolve, because it has to generate an arguable thesis that mediates dialectically between competing claims and is and it can't require too much out-of-class research into reception history, etc.

I don't think these pedagogical criteria are specifically New Critical. Keats' Nightingale Ode fits them extremely well, but so does Wollstonecraft's Vindication, and for that matter, so does the whole debate over sensibility in which the Vindication intervenes.

But the "longfellow" postings made me realize that this kind of pedagogy (focused on dialectical paper topics rather than recitation or evaluation) may indeed be specific to the last fifty years, and may indeed privilege certain kinds of literature over others. Supposing that's true, what if anything should we do about it?

But the "longfellow" postings made me realize that this kind of pedagogy (focused on dialectical paper topics rather than recitation or evaluation) may indeed be specific to the last fifty years, and may indeed privilege certain kinds of literature over others. Supposing that's true, what if anything should we do about it?

So, for instance: Do we teach Hemans in the context of late-twentieth-century debates about reception and canon-formation? Or do we try to teach her in a spirit hypothetically more akin to her own? In the latter case, do we still ask students to write dialectical papers, or do we ask them to write a critical appreciation in the mode of, say, the Edinburgh Review?

Ted Underwood


The last time I taught our Romantic period survey, I assigned the students the task of selecting (most of) the syllabus, from McGann's anthology. (I chose the Vindication and The Prelude for the first term, and Frankenstein and Don Juan for the second, so the floodgates weren't entirely opened.) They chose "Casabianca," and they seemed to have no difficulty in finding it very powerful. In fact, they seemed to find easier to respond to than I did, which is not always the case with Romantic-period poetry. They had less unlearning to do, I guess.

Lorne Macdonald


I am interested to hear of Lorne's success with "Casabianca." I also teach that poem in a sophomore survey course (working from the Norton). I add a selection of other Hemans works in a photocopy course packet: "Indian Woman's Death-Song," "The Coronation of Inez de Castro," "Bring Flowers," and "A Monarch's Deathbed."

I ask my students to write several "response papers" throughout the term--informal discussions/evaluations/analyses of works due before class discussion. The idea is to give the students a forum for their individual views before I pollute their minds with my own reading. For the last two years, I've asked for a response to Hemans's work. The responses to "Casabianca" have been intriguing. Many students read it as a straightforward endorsement of the boy's blind devotion to duty, but a surprising number immediately recognize irony in the poem's language and credit Hemans with the intent of subverting the "surface meaning." I've also found that the students get emotionally committed to their interpretation of this poem, and it has sparked some great class discussions.

Dan Albergotti


I like others have been following the Hemans thread with interest but have been too busy to respond, and perhaps I still don't have the time now to write the kind of thoughtful response I should like, but I do want to make some comment. The issue I should like to bring up is the one I think Chuck Rzepka was stressing and that others (to me) don't seem to be responding to adequately, and that is the craft of poetry. What is important is not the emotions or ideas a poem expresses but HOW those are expressed and is any emotion or idea can be handled either well or badly in a poem. It is the craftsmanship that counts--as Chuck says, the skillful use of all the resources of poetry, so that everything in the work counts, everything is there for a reason and contributes to the total effect. Great poems are rich; they are inexhaustible; they lend themselves to many different readings, whether new critical, new historicist, psychological, marxist, feminist, you-name-it. They are not limited to one approach or special lens for viewing and understanding them.

An important question related to these issues which I don't believe has been asked, is what makes one poem better than another? What criteria are we to use in evaluating poetry? I am well aware that such criteria can be shaped by cultural influences and need to be examined, but that admission should not mean that we abandon the effort to assess literature. Surely everyone would admit that not all poems are created equal. Some poems are better than others, and I think it is an important aspect of our responsibilities as English professors to be able to judge and explain what makes some poems better than others. Moreover, I have the utmost respect for the highest poetic achievements; they are astonishing, they are among the most impressive of human accomplishments. Canons do change, and it is important to be open to works that may have been neglected for unjust reasons in the past, but that should not mean that all works that previously have been neglected should be adopted wholesale into the canon. Some works surely have been JUSTLY neglected. Some balance between clinging to tradition for its own sake and embracing new writers merely for the sake of change is surely desirable, and I guess I do fear some excess in the latter direction.

My main position, to sum up, is that poems should be included in the canon of Romantic lit. if they are worthy poems, if they fulfill the criteria of superior works, and those criteria for me are richness, skilled technique and craftsmanship, the capacity to be interpreted from a variety of points of view, in addition to profound feeling and appeal to a broad range of readers from more than one time period or culture. If others believe poetry should be judged according to different criteria, then I should like to see those criteria stated.

Beth Lau


this in response to dan's albergotti's remarks, and the discussion generally.

i don't think one has to argue that hemans "intentionally" built in an ironical subtext. one extremely useful insight that comes from a bakhtinian take on reading is that when language is used with ANY kind of intention, it perforce calls up a polyvalent discourse -- most especially, perhaps, when a work takes a determinately moral attitude, or has located its passion in a directed way. the antitheses of those "directions" will be written all over the text, as very "present" absences.

for myself, i have little doubt that hemans' take on "casabianca" was jingoist. the poem's excellence is a direct function of that set of attitudes -- an excellence, needless to say, that transcends the poem's all-but-declared morality.

jerome mcgann


First of all, I must ask forgiveness for my inattention to the Hemans thread -- although I have read sporadically yet with interest, I have been quite busy on my MA thesis lately, and have not been able to follow as closely as I would like. I find what Beth [Lau] has written interesting, yet I am still unresolved regarding the tension involved in deciding the criteria that Beth mentions.

I will take an example that has stuck in my head for a couple of years now; A professor once remarked that he would does not include Byron in his Romanticism course because A) his primary interest was Wordsworth, and B) he thought that there was nothing really intriguing in Byron. I, for one, heartily and emphatically disagree; yet I think this is more connected to my own construction of "richness," "superior workmanship," etc. I am convinced (although I probably could not explain my opinions very well right now) that Byron was far ahead of his time stylistically; and I think there are moments in Childe Harold and Don Juan that rival, in their own ways, Wordsworth's best moments. I find myself comparing Don Juan's structural expertise to Spenser's Faerie Queene on more than one occasion.

Beth's reference to a poem/poet's appeal to other cultures also raises the crucial question of the valencies we ascribe to "contemporary culture." Doing my own thesis work in Romanticism and punk subculture, my "colleagues" (which include grad students as well as non-grads who are into punk) often tell me they like Byron more than any other Romantic poet they know because of his "contemporary" (the word has been used on occasion) satirical bent and writing style. Perhaps this is due to the generational/Revolutionary schism often noted between the "Older" and "Younger" Romantics; but either way I think it begs the question of how these relations are constructed and by whom.

On a somewhat unrelated note, some of my cohorts and I entered into a less-than-serious discussion on one occasion: make up a punk band with the major Romantic poets; who would play what instrument and why? Who would sing vocals? It was all done in fun, but the results, to me, said some interesting things about how a marginal group (i.e. formally educated punks) sees and appropriates the Romantics in contemporary culture.

Gord Barentsen


Responding to Jerome McGann's response re: irony, I would agree wholeheartedly that one doesn't have to argue for authorial intent, and in fact, I downplay the need for that position to my students. I brought up the fact that the students see such ironic intent in the author merely to show that several of my sophomores immediately see a multivalent complexity in Hemans's work--a complexity that many deny.

From my own point of view, I do see a struggle between the orthodox and the subversive in "Casabianca." I especially think the author is aware (though that's rather beside the point) of the ambivalence of the word "thing" in the penultimate line. When the figurative "heart" (the abstraction which upholds "duty") can also be seen as the literal "thing" which "strew[s] the sea" with the other "fragments" (mast, helm, & pennon fair), I think it becomes much more difficult to read the child's death as heroic and honorable.

Dan Albergotti


but dan, the word "thing" will carry its force in either case -- a "patriotic" reading would be equally overborne by the translation of the boy's heroic "heart" into a "thing", don't you think?

jerome mcgann


We have another Romantic poem which attempts to honor blind familial loyalty, and that is WW's "The Idiot Boy". In the latter case, there is a blind trust by Betty Foy that her boy would come through. In the former, a son has trust that his father will come through with the proper instructions. We know WW's intent- ions in writing about Betty Foy, but so far as I know we do not know Hemans's intentions. Is this relevant?

Avery Gaskins


no we don't know her intentions. but we do know that she would be unlikely to say or argue anything that brought "english military honor" into disrepute. she was a very good girl. reading her, we do well to begin with The Sceptic, just to make sure we keep her philosophical views in clear perspective.

jerome mcgann


What I've always puzzled over is why Hemans would choose to write a "jingoistic" poem about a French boy, presumably after reading an account on Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile. This was, I think, the first time a fleet had been annihilated in such a complete manner, thanks to the stupidity, among other things, of Admiral Casabianca. Why not write about Nelson? Furthermore (what was she reading?) some French sources say the boy fought the flames heroically, then jumped into the water, where he died alongside his father (n.b., it's been some time since I did a wee bit of research on this). It's been one of my pet silly theories that the poem had such a currency because it showed dumb frenchies blowing up real good. So the more one looks at it, the curiouser it gets. The students of Dan's who perceive irony are akin to the children who compulsively parodied the poem in the 19th-century; it's a weirdly memorable, weirdly theatrical poem. I agree that to presume a conscious strategy of "savage irony" (Isobel Armstrong's phrase about this poem) doesn't fit with picture we have of Hemans' poetic practice.

Now "England's Dead" is a jingoistic poem.

David Latane'


Jerome McGann wrote: ". . . no we don't know her intentions. but we do know that she would be unlikely to say or argue anything that brought 'english military honor' into disrepute. she was a very good girl."

While I would agree that Hemans would be very careful not to question English military honor in any outward manner, I have to suspect that her melancholy experiences with a certain dishonorable English captain must have given her reason to doubt the infallibility of such orthodox opinions. [Insert biographical fallacy outrage here.] Hemans certainly wanted to be seen as a very good girl; she played her role as the exemplar of domestic fidelity to great literary success. She insisted on being "Mrs. Hemans" on title pages; she knew what her audience expected from her. But I don't think this precludes our seeing any moral ambivalence in her work.

As regards her use of the word "thing" in "Casabianca," I merely argue that the ambiguity of this word allows one to see the potential for irony, not that it provides conclusive evidence. Certainly it could be harmless enough, but it just might not be.

Cheers,
Dan Albergotti


Must the irony be directed at the morality of the boy's self-sacrifice? I see plenty of irony in the waste of the boy's "heroic blood": instead of "ruling the storm," he gets blown to fragments. In the place of his father's voice, he hears "booming shots" and feels not his father's breath, but the "breath" of the flames. In short, the boy partakes of the innocence of Blake's chimney sweeper and the charity children in "Holy Thursday," holding fast to a transcendent and glorious vision while being exploited at the same time.

But I don't know what it means to say that "the poem's excellence is a direct function of that set of [jingoist] attitudes."

Jennifer Michael

go to reply


Beth Lau's criteria for great poems strike me as mostly a set of criteria for poems great to teach or to write about: "Great poems are rich; they are inexhaustible; they lend themselves to many different readings, whether new critical, new historicist, psychological, marxist, feminist, you-name-it. They are not limited to one approach or special lens for viewing and understanding them."

I agree only about the richness of great poems, a richness of voice not definable by the criteria we need to make literature suitably intellectually interesting to a college classroom. Virtually anything (insert here your favorite example of "culture studies" attention to something you always considered dreck itself) lends itself to all these different readings; as a foundation for pedagogy, the criterion of susceptibility to "different readings" mainly fosters the ingenuity of the reader/student, not necessarily the faculty of aesthetic pleasure (which I assume those who believe in the category of great poems also believe in). "How many ways can I read this, and how many different critical methods I could apply to it! Oh, then, I must like it, it's great poetry."

Will this ever do? Is this your response to poems, especially contemporary poems not entombed in the canon? Why do poems, even great poems, have to satisfy the classroom (and perhaps scholarly) need for the "inexhaustible?" The college "canon" (or syllabus, a less pompous but I think more accurate term for what people are writing about here) seems to have as one its main determinants the fact that teachers have to talk "about" literature, that they need this criterion of "inexhaustibility" (or "complexity") to further their talk, that they have to have topics for students to write papers or do "research" about. But we should be able to imagine reading and liking poetry-- and fostering that liking--exclusive of classroom needs.

The consequence of not doing so has frequently been the subjection of the aesthetic pleasure many readers have always felt for simple (but great!) poems to these unacknowledged classroom needs for the supposed richness of complexity, irony, and other "Understanding Poetry" terms. Brooks' and Warren's pedagogy was one of disabusing students of what they (and the culture they grew up in) had always liked in poems and is and so B and W chose for attack and belittlement poems they thought everyone had heard as children: "So you used to recite "Indian Serenade" or "Ulalume" and you liked it!," they say, professorily. "Well, those are not complex poems, however good you may think they sound in your childish voice, and once we analyze their confusions, you too you will reject all the so-called poems your dumb high school teachers and parents liked to recite to you."

A major difference today, however, is that college students have not heard these "dreadful" poems; they don't need to move beyond the host coming down like a wolf, because they have never encountered any of the discredited verse that most readers (and great poets) grew up with. You don't have to disabuse them of any poetry, or unintellectual notions about poetry, because they've rarely heard any or had any.

I know I haven't answered Beth Lau's query for alternative criteria. Obviously I don't like hers and is anyway, we all know what we like, don't we?

Mark Baker


i guess i don't understand what you found objectionable in what i wrote, jennifer. for i certainly agree with your comments about the boy and blake and so forth. bakhtin's ideas about texts are interesting to me because they help to explain how silenced figures and voices (like the boy's in "casabianca") can't fail to gain a hearing, if we want to listen for them.

jerome mcgann


I haven't had time to digest all the postings since my last, but here's something provisional focusing on Jerry's and Nan's first responses to my arguments about "good" poetry. I'll try to address other postings later--if I can find the time from grading summer compositions.

First, to expand a bit on my last, brief message: I not only didn't say or imply that "Hemans et al" were not as "smart or sensitive" as we are--I'd go even farther and say, I believe Hemans (let's leave "et al" aside for now, since I'm not sure who'd be included) was probably smarter than I am, and let's even grant that she was more sensitive (though I'm not sure how we'd determine that). I'm absolutely sure she was a better poet (this has never discouraged critics who can't write poetry from judging poets who can), and I think she was not as good a poet as the six or seven or eight I mentioned, in the terms I've set forth. Those terms are more important than any others I can think of--I'd even call them foundational--as criteria of evaluation in our profession, because they distinguish (and have distinguished, in the West, for millennia) the genre of poetry among literary genres, and because a good many of them also help us distinguish literature (which we all, in some way, profess) from other forms of discourse, though we will find many areas of overlap between literature and other discursive forms.

Since both Jerry (implicitly) and Nan (explicitly) have offered their own work on Hemans and other poets of "sensibility" and "sentiment" as exemplary defenses of these authors' poetic virtues, I hope they won't mind if I speak directly to each. (I'm composing this on campus, where the modems are dependable and copies of the Poetry of Sensibility and Nan's article are at hand.)

In your posting, Jerry, you say that you take issue only with my "first set of comments." Since you don't indicate where the dividing line in our consensus occurs, I assume that you're talking about my restricted and classically Modernist, formalist criteria of evaluating poetry (formal criteria, by the way, weren't invented by new critical formalists, although they were often abused by them to condemn poetry they didn't like: these criteria are as old as Aristotle Theophrastus, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus). In particular, you're taking issue with my application of formal criteria to Hemans and finding her wanting and is apparently, I'm something of a disappointment: The Poetry of Sensibility was written, you say, "exactly to address the issues [chuck] raises . . and is and what I want to ask here is: how successful was that attempt? All of the criteria chuck lays out were consciously in my mind, and it was a deliberate (and somewhat perverse) choice to cast so much of the argument in "new critical" terms. Perverse because those criteria often run counter to the conventions and premises of the poetry of sensibility and sentiment."

Granted. That's why, in my case, those arguments failed. But let me add that they failed in an oddly restricted sense: after reading and understanding and even agreeing with most of them, I still didn't experience much pleasure--and what is especially strange, emotional pleasure--when I went back and read some of the poems they were meant to defend. PS gave me a new understanding and appreciation of the historical, philosophical, and cultural antecedants of sensibility and sentiment. I saw that I had misunderstood the particular rhetorical "conventions" that helped to shape the poetic practice of writers like Macpherson, Frances Greville, Anne Yearsley, Mary Robinson, and the Della Cruscans. I was dazzled and humbled, Jerry--and I am not being facetious--by your allusive wit and grace, your informed authority, and your exquisite sensitivity to the nuances of text and context and is at times, I was even moved--but rarely by the poetry you cited, considered simply as poetry and is after reading your analysis of "Casabianca," for instance, and becoming aware of Hemans's "complex iconography of the violence society exacts of itself as payment for its pursuit of power and glory," of how "the poem ends by doubting itself and its own power to rise above its subject," and learning that "in worlds where power measures value, linguistic truth discovers itself through its apparent powerlessness," I went back to the poem itself. But I found (with one exception I'll mention below) that your analysis was much more persuasive and affecting than Hemans's poem--considered as a poem in the terms I've set forth. In short, I thought, not felt, how beautiful it was.

And "Casabianca" is not a bad poem--it is, to judge from the attention given it by today's Romantics anthologists and critics of your stature, one of Hemans's very best. But is it as good--anywhere near as good--a poetic indictment of "the violence society exacts of itself as payment for its pursuit of power" as Blake's "Chimney Sweeper" (SI version)? Let us grant that Hemans meant "Casabianca" to be received in the sense you've described, Jerry: let me ask--and I mean no disrespect--do you think that these are the things that moved your mother to learn the poem by heart? Was it Hemans's speaking to power in the wisdom of "apparent powerlessness" that, when you were a boy, prompted her to recite it to you? Or was it the heart-breaking plight of this poor child (a boy not unlike you, her son) who was burned to death because his love for his father (one of the "noblest" sentiments of any "faithful heart") led him to a point of self-sacrificial perfection that only children in their innocence (like the Chimney Sweeper) can reach? If your mother and my grandmother (or my mother, for that matter) bear any resemblance to each other (and, to judge from your description of her recitations in your preface, they appear to), I feel pretty sure of the answer.

In general, most of the "sentimental" poets you write about in PS presume that a community of experience--and specifically, of emotional experience--is enough, or almost enough, to justify the effort of writing and reading a poem. This is not an assumption made by great poets, whatever they may say about chameleon empathy or spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling. There is nothing inherently wrong with exploiting this assumption of communal affect in poetry, as seems to have been done in the period when the poetry of sensibility and sentiment was most popular.

But culturally, this was something of an aberration. Such communities of feeling are especially intimate--and thus, especially unneedful of the enhancing and reinforcing powers of poetic form--not at the level of the nation, but in the tribe or family. Worlds of meaning and feeling are conveyed in every family's life, as we know, that remain inaccessible to those who have not "experienced" that family's most important crises of grief or joy, or even milder trials and triumphs. Sometimes meaning and feeling come to reside in poems or songs: the McGann's had "Casabianca," the Rzepkas, "Sweetest Mother" (and, from my Dad, "Sixteen Tons!") This does not make them good poetry.

We have come to recognize that during the historical period informed by the poetics of sensibility and sentiment a domestic ideology arose and came to dominate British and American public culture: the private and public spheres began to coalesce and interpenetrate, as Habermas has amply demonstrated. Within this culture of shared sympathy, this "familial" ethos of public spiritedness, good poets--like good poets before them--continued to take delight in giving delight to their readers by using, to the best of their abilities, the resources of poetic form to reinforce and enhance, to impress with greater immediacy through the very act of reading, powerful emotional experiences. Lesser poets, tending to take the cultural currency of these experiences for granted, tried to excite them by less formal--but perhaps more efficient, in a "familial" sense--means, that is, by an emotional shorthand.

I think Hemans is a lesser poet than the greatest of her contemporaries in these terms. I don't think she's a bad poet--certainly not as bad as the Della Cruscans.

As for Nan's posting, let me begin by saying that I'm not looking for a fight, but I'm not willing to settle for a conversation. how about something in between, like an argument? Two parties disagree, and then, unlike the parties to a fight, who resort to unreasoning violence, or the parties to a conversation, who express their points of views without much mutual criticism and then move on to other topics with their points of views left largely intact, they argue: they present reasons for their views, rebut each other's logic and evidence, and try to arrive at some agreement. They can't always do so, but the process will have forced them to re-think their opinions with more clarity than before. "Opposition is true friendship." But there has to be true opposition.

In your posting you refer to my list of poetic resources as "markers" and try to defend Hemans's stature as a poet by pointing out that her work contains several of these "markers": "the triumph and progress poem," "allusion," "rhetorical, or dramatic structure."

Your response was salutary, in that it made me realize how much I have invested in certain "markers" over others, how I've ordered their importance, placing what Welleck and Warren call the "intrinsic" features of rhythm, melody, and figure, for instance, (whether on a small or a large scale, e.g., extended figure, or larger, trans-lineal rhythms in stanzas) higher in importance than "extrinsic" factors like "tradition" or "allusion." The reasons for my preferences are somewhat obscure, even to me, but have to do, again, with what I consider time-honored, natural human responses--ultimately, physiological, somatic and muscular responses--to these "intrinsic" poetic features. Still, it's not the mere presence of such resources or "markers"--intrinsic or extrinsic--that counts, but how well they are used and to what effect. Shadwell and Dryden both wrote in the tradition of "the triumph and progress poem," but who was a better poet? Thousands of poets use biblical allusions, and some use nothing but--should we make no evaluative distinctions among them? Southey has lots of "rhetorical, or dramatic structure," but can we stay awake long enough to appreciate it?

Hemans is a much better poet than Southey, by the way, if that needs saying and is and what does need saying about Hemans? Let's take an example from your article for "At the Limits of Romanticism": Hemans's use of "flowers" as an image drawn from literary tradition and applied to the ruins of empire to advance "her internationalist critique of imperialism" by means of "a woman's aesthetics" of the beautiful, rather than of the sublime, which she considers a false, masculinist "aesthetics of history." I'm not familiar with Hemans's Restoration or her Modern Greece, but from your description it sounds as though she uses the figure of the flower--"since Sappho . . . associated with the feminine"--as a kind of imagistic talisman to comment ironically on "what man has made of man" throughout his violent and imperialistic history. But my question is, Does she use flowers anywhere in these poems with the same emotional--not to mention conceptual--range and power as Shelley uses a barren desert to make much the same point (if not a feminist point) at the end of "Ozymandias"? "Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/ The lone and level sands stretch far away." I know I am already taxing List members' patience, so I won't bother to go into the causes of shelley's powerful formal effects, effects conveyed not just at the most elementary musical level--rhythm, lineation, consonance and assonance--but through the accumulating figural impact of the lines leading up to these. Or if we may speak of flower imagery in general, how about "to me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears," or Blake's "Sunflower"? I'm willing to defend the superiority of these lines--as poetry--to anything comparable in Hemans, though again, I don't know how many comparable moments there are in Hemans. If there are some (and I've found one--see below), do they appear in the same profusion, and just as important, with the same degree of variety and invention as they do in these poets?

By posing the question of Hemans's poetic virtues, I did not mean to imply she had none: clarity of diction, appropriateness of figure, an awareness of the unifying effect of alliteration, are among them. Those who know her work may want to add more. In general, she follows the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath of poetry--"Do no harm." And that is no small accomplishment. One advantage of engaging in arguments like this one is that the participants are forced to re-test their positions. In the process, they might learn something. In re-reading "Casabianca" in the light of Jerry's analysis, I unexpectly came across something not dreamt of in his anti-formalist philosophy or in my previous settled opinion of Hemans: a passage that did indeed move me, as poetry, that I had missed on previous readings--no doubt due to my own prejudices: "And fast the flames rolled on.// Upon his brow he felt their breath,/ And in his waving hair"--here the flames that threaten to engulf Casabianca take on the personified attributes of his dead father, below decks, for whose immediate and reassuring presence the boy is desperate. Specifically, they conjure up an image of the father's fingers in the boy's hair, and his breath speaking in intimate proximity, as if in response to the boy's earlier cries: "Say, father say,/ If yet my task is done?" and "speak, father! once again he cried,/ If I may yet be gone!" This is a fine, and moving, effect, and it is achieved through the formal resources of Hemans's poem.

I'd like to remind the List that I originally asked whether Hemans was a good poet in the context of decisions that have to be made for an undergraduate syllabus either in romantic literature or in the undergrad Brit Lit survey: how much space does Hemans deserve on that syllabus, once we have evaluated her as a poet relative to the major male poets of her generation? To go back even further in this thread, I seem to recall that it started when someone asked how to make Hemans more intersting in the classroom. There were many suggestions, but not one respondent spoke about Hemans's specific virtues as a poet in the terms I mentioned above, or offered a specimen illustration, as I have just now. I wondered why, and that prompted my post.

I think the reason no one did either is that we tend to take the formal beauty of poetry so much for granted that we rarely stop to wonder whether the poetry we teach and write about for other reasons has any. We assume it does, but we're usually too busy pursuing our own research interests to really look into it, and as subjects of research, traditional prosody and poetics are not of much interest to most literary scholars these days. Hemans is a worthy object of literary study, but she's not as good a poet as the canonical Six, nor as several other poets of the same period. I write a lot on De Quincey--he has his virtues as a writer, but just because I find him an interesting object of critical study doesn't mean I think he's as good a writer as Burke or Lamb, let alone towering figures like Austen or Dickens. Given the vagaries of coterie self-interest and literary fashion that Jerry mentions (thinking Shakespeare's sonnets "poor stuff" says more about the judges than the judged, however) and the sheer perversity of human history (the burning of the Library of Alexandria comes to mind), the fact remains that some things do last, and in literature the things that last longest tend to be those that use the specific resources I have mentioned to transcend local--familial, tribal, or nationalist, geographical, historical, gender- or class-based--communities of feeling and sentiment, of intellect and outlook, in order to speak to later times as well as to contemporaries. Those who fashion these astonishing objects are giants. We are pigmies. Somewhere in between, at various levels of accomplishment, are "Hemans et al."

Chuck Rzepka


Chuck Rzepka addressed his last posting (in part) specifically to me, so I hope you all will forgive me if I cast my response in the following form. I'm fond of the dialogue genre, and definitely prefer dialogues that are written by more than one person.

Jerome mcgann

Chuck,
you're so right about "argument" and "conversation", it seems to me. I don't know how we can hope to develop our sympathies and understandings without these kinds of exchanges.

For instance, your remark that hemans is a better poet than southey. You say it as if it were such an obvious fact that no one would object. But let me say here that I object is the strongest terms. I object on principle (as it were) to this kind of ex cathedra pronouncement. But I would also raise an objection in more empirical terms. The corpus of southey's work is large and rich, that's a FACT; and it is certainly open to argument whether "the curse of kehama" (to take just an obvious instance) is or is not a "major" poem. There are more people than myself, more distinguished people (like marilyn butler) who think so and is and it is a poem I read with great pleasure -- every bit as much as many other, and some much more celebrated, poems of the period. Pleasure and instruction, let me add.

I say this, chuck, not to debunk your views, but merely to say that others have other views, and that reasons can be advanced for them -- and that the reasons might even be judged good ones (as you judged some arguments in PS), but still leave others' views more or less intact. I deeply respect your views, partly because I respect the humane passion on which they are founded. But I assure you (in case you think what i've said or written about hemans or landon etc was just posturing) that I do see and read differently -- at least I think I must, when I read what you have argued here. Mostly I want to say that I see, in the inability to appreciate macpherson or jones or darwin (to introduce some other significant and neglected writers, in this case male writers) an atrophy of aesthetic sensibility (in this case I use the word "sensibility" in ts eliot's understanding) and is and I wrote PS in the belief that discussion of these matters can make recoveries -- the way the metaphysicals were recovered in the early part of this century.

I don't want to spend time talking about a book I wrote almost four years ago, but I have to bring it up in relation to your argument about what is needed if we're to think about poets like hemans who have been out of our attention for a long time. You quote a passage in which I set out my intentions in the book and then say: "That's why, in my case, those arguments failed." But I don't understand. For in trying to decipher the meaning of "That" (in "That's why"), I thought I saw in your commentary a demand for "close readings". Isn't poetics of sensibility filled with the sort of "new critical" readings that you offered (and very well offered) in your comments on the boy's hair etc. I'm not sure why we should regard your reading in this instance, chuck, as a sign of a virtue in the poem and not the readings I and others offer elsewhere. I do accept the fact that the book didn't persuade you, but given what you asked for -- "close" readings of specific poems with attention to "internal" matters -- I simply have to say that they were there, they were developed, but they left you unpersuaded. It was my skill etc that were moving, not hemans' verse. You have to explain. I don't have any problem if you think your readings of poems are stronger than mine or someone else's -- truly. We all enter these realms on our own terms, many of which we find we share in one way or another (many of which we find we don't). On the matter of final judgments -- who's good and who's not, who's better and who's worse -- well, of course we have our different views. For myself, I am moved by "casabianca", and I'm happy to say that I can't see any good reason (other than the tradition of commentary it has acquired since rossetti and swinburne "discovered" blake for culture at large -- which is certainly a "good" reason, but not one to exhaust us) to cry up "the chimney sweeper", excellent as it is, over hemans's poem. Both seem to me open to wide and interesting readings -- as we have even glimpsed in these brief postings. BUT, the main point I want to make is not about differences in taste but about methods of exegesis. Simply to say that hemans (or whoever) doesn't have what byron or blake has is simply to say that you haven't seen or said that they do and is and if someone --myself, nan, whoever -- comes along saying they have seen something, and showing and telling what they've seen, that's all that can be expected -- FOR STARTERS and is at that point the conversation and the argument and the dialogue commences and is as here.

You argue as if too many matters were SETTLED. I can't let that view prevail as if IT were settled. Sometimes I look back over this past week or two and feel I've written too much, I've just insisted on talking and talking some more. But when I read your arguments I see that I can't in conscience refrain. These matters can't be allowed to be settled.

Jerry


After more than one dinner but also a set of heat-wave brown-outs, I'm find numerous new posts here in "the thread." Two opening points, about what's at stake and what's at hand.

I sense that, for many of those responding directly to Jerry's book and posts, what's at stake is paradigm, or rather paradigm shift. "He's done it before (The Romantic Ideology), he means to do it again"--am I reading this right?--"and this time I could really lose something I treasure. It was one thing to read the period through Byron rather than Wordsworth; it would be another, through Robert Merry, Ann Batten Cristall, Ann Yearsley, Mary Robinson, Hemans, Landon (et al.)."

With these the stakes, argument will pit paradigm against paradigm. I'll comment that I'm not ready to see the clash of paradigms (configured a bit differently from moment to moment, I'll add) here as straightforward enough yet to support this clash. Jerry's book and also his posts are intriguingly a performance, as he has amply said. Perhaps an experiment in reading as a a late 20c. person to whom sensibility does speak: he is hardly alone here, as witness recent good work by Ellison, Libby Fay, Adela Pinch and others who have ears to hear this literary writing in our own new moment. Perhaps an experiment in reading for the context as well as the text of influential writing by figures from Rousseau on through the list. (But I have slid now into the slippery prepositions that have been such helps to this discussion but that insist on playing turnabout from post to post.) For this help in reading a range of provocative and influential writing, I'd say we should be and probably are grateful.

And while the clash of paradigms is not straightforward, neither are the paradigms symmetrical in a way that makes for a quite satisfying clash. Jerry's reframing of the "romantic period" here as from-sensibility-to- sentiment has more the character of a (yes, Derridean) supplement than of a fair & square-type opponent ("now in this corner," in the voice of Howard Cosell...). He is invoking (as with his earlier post on the religious) in some sense the dark side of the moon. Or as he put it, "the exception is the dialogue" in some sense.

I disagree with what I think was Chuck's earlier post, that the Sapphos and even the Byrons have had their day among us equally with Homer and Wordsworth. They in fact remain provocative supplements. I would not concede that Sappho has been credited with the sort of "intellectual. . . [and] moral" poetics that we attach (perhaps) to a Homer (or a Sophocles) or to a Wordsworth (certainly). I argue (and enjoy conversing that way...) that the argument for Sappho and sensibility and sentiment and Hemans and H.D. and ... is still to be made and is and I don't mind proposing that it be made symmetrically vis a vis other strands of poetic achievement: that's called "for the sake of the argument." For one thing, I think "dark side of the moon" poetry is more available and textualized, somehow, than Jerry seems to think (pace all his own evidence in PS to the contrary anyway and his concrete editorial investments).

I've mentioned H.D.: her evocative and erotic lyrics, her epics pieced of Hellenistic alternatives, her provocative criticism esp. in "The Wise Sappho," a lesson book for those many on our list asking how they might hear the irony in a Hemans or a Landon, so on. I'll add the intriguing set of women poets from the Renaissance (Heather Dubrow's recent book) on to the 20c. for whom Petrarch is not a joke (as Wylie, Bogan, Millay). It's not interesting to me to promote one list to the exclusion or radical diminution of another, but to read better an array of things that interest my students and me and to read them better for reading them together.

What is at stake, then, in parts of our debate is not paradigm vs. paradigm but something a good bit more modest like having a place at the table. Chuck, if a Hemans or a Robinson earns two days on your syllabus or mine, in my view that's what's been at stake for many of us. In a one-semester course in E. Lit. or Rom. period, that's doing pretty well. Some of us are fortunate enough to teach further topics classes at the freshman or graduate or in- between level, in women's poetry, or sensibility, or rom'sm. and popular culture. These courses are as integral a part of English offerings these days, I think, as straight period offerings. They do merit being supported by research--by criticism and by edns--and what we're about here can aid that.

Which takes me from "at stake" to "at hand." Do participants in this - discussion have editions, say, of Hemans available? I've seen useful 19c. editions of H. in most univ./coll. libraries I've visited--by useful I mean sets like Don Reiman's Garland of her work to 1830; or the 7-vol. 1839 copyright ed. from Blackwood; or the 1-vol. ed. of same; or the frequently rptd. Philadelphia (/Boston) ed. that begins with The Forest Sanctuary and runs (in the ed. I use) 559 pages to The Domestic Affections. Any ed. that has H's. thick notes to her earlier work (esp. 1816-1823; 25) and her dramas. We await the Broadview Selected.

And while we await the strenuous editorial work that must go into that, we might note that Hemans has been hard to refuse, to ignore, to gainsay, in part because of the 20 volumes she published 1808-1835. Because of the substantial genres in which she wrote, progress, polemic, series, drama, tale, sonnet cycle...plus her innovated "dramatic and historic scenes." Note: our list takes her as a lyric poet, which like Shelley she was (should we have decided what lyric is; but I take the short reflective poem by a single speaker, etc., as what describes our usage to us) and is and lyricism handily invokes "dialogic" context in ways that suit parts of this argument. But like Shelley (as a number of better Shelleyans than I have pointed out), she was more interested in larger units: the progress, the sequence, the drama, etc., etc. Yes, on some level, the (Dantean) epic, as Jerry rightly implies in PS (looking for the page...).

And here cashes the reference Jerry made to PBS on the 'erotic and bucolic' (quoting from memory here) Hellenistic poets (in Defence) and their role in (helping us to continue writing) the one great cyclic (aka epic) poem that in the Levantine-Western tradition we're engaged in writing.

Chuck Rzepka, I again submit to you that unless we at least read in and among at least some of Hemans's substantial volumes (I mentioned Tales, and Historic Scenes long ago, for but one), we can't much have explored or tested her artistry and is and fortunately, now, more criticism as well as editing of Hemans (and others at issue, such as Robinson) is coming into print. No one has mentioned (I can't think why not) the MLA Approaches volume on teaching these women poets of the R. period. I believe three essays there work with Hemans. Julie Melnyk and I are working on a collec. just on Hemans. Much new work concerns (pardon clumsy way of wording the questions of this thread) pedagogical and critical methodology. Julie for instance talks well about Hemans as a constructor of sequences and vols. --Chuck, be they "extrinsic" or "intrinsic," seq. and vol. construction are rather traditional points of craft, well established in the study of a Petrarch or a Yeats and so on. Likewise, in my essay in Approaches, I describe helping students use Hemans's elaborate "paratext" (principally footnoted texts) to "The Widow of Crescentius" where I (yes) further develop the floral and its resurgence (also a part of "History"; amply an account in each case of the floral's "accumulating figurative impact" in Hemans. Her adroit juxtapositions of Plutarch, Staël, and Sismondi, for instance, are readable by much the methodology that I, at least, recall from New Critical treatments of The Waste Land and that I enjoy continuing in TWL's great predecessor in another key, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

Paratext; progress; epic: and Gord Barentsen points us in the direction of a "structural" expertise re: Byron.

David Latane, master of the loaded tone himself, implies (he and I go way back on this topic and neither of us had budged an inch) that to read Hemans on her own terms (as? for? I can't tell which any more) is to read her without irony. But I support Dan Albergotti that it's hard to read her without hearing irony...things the opposite of the way they seem; things the opposite of the way they ought to be ("things...") and is and I read her progress Modern Greece as ironic (thematically; and tonally) that Athens is now a "fairy vision" and to be compared (with the help of a note) to an optical illusion, the fata Morgana and is and to hear in another note that "the ruins of Sparta. . .are very inconsiderable," "The scenery around them. . .very striking." Skipping ahead--

The surely extrinsic question of jingoism has come up as the ideological context for "Casabianca." But isn't some form of paternal compact part of the agony here? Isn't it ironic that patriotic duty here is to a corpse? that we've entrusted children to a faith that's dead and that kills? David, do you assume that Hemans does not know these things? Does not have control of her ideas and materials enough to do so and then with effrontery to write this anyway? All the worse, perhaps, that this is in support of Boney with his imperial designs and not (our republican) Britain. But then of course Hemans will level the same critique (of male on male, father on son, nihilism) in her The Vespers of Palermo a five-act play and is as interesting for its con- geries of tones and themes on the feminine side is "Evening Prayer, at a Girl's School"--to recommend one more poem to those seeking items to teach-- here in Mellor & Matlak.

Pleasantly enough, I had found myself freshly engaged with "Casa." in the same passage as Chuck--the flames become, metonymically, horrorificly his father. I'd thought too that, in their "wreathing" in his hair and as the ship's fire-storm, they were an ironic laureling. (Jerry, what is "a good girl"?)

Someone supposed my reading (as a 20c. pop culture kid, etc.) suggestions were for graduate students? I'm closer to Lorne Macdonald here, whose students have ways or responding to Hemans as undergraduates. Some engage pop-heroically (Ryan Nowack), or as everyday feminists, or as enthusiastic (pro or con) canonizers. They match her with Byron and Keats. I work a little harder to engage them with her revisions of a Sismondian donnee in "The Widow of Crescentius," etc., etc.

But that's what you do, you teach a bit of reading but also learn a bit too. Hemans's The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy carries enough opening paratext (Filicaja; Eustace) about Napoleonic rapine/Italian victimage to establish a parallel between the disposition of woman and art work under imperial conquest. It goes on to depict that plunder as a "deep fall" and its return as never quite re-secured but suspended in "a veil of radiance." This veil or difference is both the experience of feminization and the knowledge- edge of historical process under empire: one and the same. This art work will never be returned, because of this "fall" but also because its origin is always somewhere else, in some previous empire (as Byzantium), and before that. . .? As in some childhood home from which a girl (or boy) has been taken with promises of a new, newly (in)secure home.

This knowledge of history may be called living with feminization, surely a more comfortable intellectual (if not material) resolution for some of us (feminists?) than others. It is not, however, the same as accepting a knowledge- edge of the past and its plunders as "touristic," as David Haney feared. The most fully blown exposition of this effect is in the end of her Modern Greece with its invocation of a British Angelo securing for Br. an artistic knowledge- edge of history triumphant yet already enslaved to a future. In the Roman triumph, the emperor bore a slave in his chariot to anticipate this very point of imperial reversal. Not symmetrical, the slave and the emperor, but perhaps more than the supplement to a world.

Quittin time. Nan Sweet


7/29/97

jerome mcgann writes:

a footnote to hugh roberts excellent posting on reading 'as if'. it seems to me that mode of reading applies primarily to certain kinds of sensibility-styles -- specifically, styles that deal in horror, terror, or the fantastic. sadean texts like those of lewis and dacre, mackenzie's and sterne's fantastics. much less to (say) clarissa or a simple story or evelina etc.

the distinction could well be mapped along the traditional wordsworth/byron polarity.

or, to take our current specific focus: think of the difference between hemans and landon. the latter is clearly to be read "as if", but if we were to say the same of hemans, i think we'd have to say we mean the term in a very different sense.

I'm not so sure. Certainly when I proposed the notion of "reading as if" I had in mind primarily the literature of sensibility, and only secondarily the mode of the Gothic, fantastic, etc. I was in part thinking of the tendency to "consume" such literature as a group activity - either by reading out loud, or by sharing with friends one's emotional responses to key moments in the story ("oh, but what about when . . . "). This remains a key moment in the consumption of contemporary sentimental fiction (including TV soaps, and film romances). The sentimental response is always to some extent "acted out" (which was what I had in mind in gesturing towards the "cults" that sprang up around the novels of sensibility), and it was this "acting out" that I see as a crucial component of "reading as if". The sentimental begs an audience not just for itself, but for the reader/viewer -- the audience that weeps openly as Bogie tells Bacall she must leave him at the end of Casablanca (no-- not "Casabianca") is in part responding to the film, in part sharing a group display of enacted grief. And even when one responds to the sentimental privately, I think there is still an element of this "enactment", one performs a certain type of response, while another part of one's mind watches, and enjoys, that performance. One reads "as if".

This is why the sentimental, if one tries to read it as "a man talking to men", as a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" etc. etc., always seems excessive, over-insistent, artificial. That very excess is what opens up the enjoyable distance between the invented "reader-figure" and the other "self" who watches this figure respond.

That's a pretty crude sketch of a not-very-fully-formulated argument, but to make the point properly would require more thinking than I'm prepared to engage in at the moment. I hope it makes my point a little more clear, however.

Cheers,
Hugh Roberts


I think one reason Chuck had to re-iterate his initial post was that we, as a list, have been rather chary about answering questions like "how many days should Hemans get in an undergraduate survey?" I include myself in that "we"; it's a controversial question that I've preferred not to address directly. But given the list's silence on the question, I'm grateful that Chuck Rzepka and Beth Lau were willing to press the point, and insist that we clarify our criteria of judgement.

The claim being made for Hemans (by many people, both in print, and on the list) was that she represented an altogether different tradition of poetry -- and that critics might have to re-educate their ears to appreciate her. That's rather different from, in Nan's words, "a place at the table." It did sound like a claim for a new paradigm -- and since the paradigm fits well with the overall direction of literary studies at the moment, people who care about the beauty of "Ozymandias" had good reason to worry.

It seems to me now that the real difference of opinion may not be that great, when it comes down to brass tacks -- which is to say, to syllabi. I'm not sure what the basis of consensus is, since we all seem to start from different principles. But even at the period-survey level, it may be the difference between part of a day or two days for Hemans. I could be wrong about that; if so, I hope someone will correct me.

Ted Underwood


I suppose I was only objecting to the Bakhtinian terms you used, which in this case struck me as unnecessarily complex. But I agree with you about the silenced voices (so prominent in Blake's Songs as well) and is as in the older model of dramatic irony, those voices belong in part to the audience or the reader: "if we want to listen for them." Now that I've managed to get The Poetics of Sensibility from interlibrary loan, I look forward to a better understanding of your reading of that poem and others.

Incidentally, I thank all who have participated in this thread for prompting me to take a new look at a poem I hadn't read since childhood, as well as giving me new ideas for teaching Hemans.

Jennifer Michael


Jerry (Nan, I'll have to postpone my response to your post)--

I apologize for the "ex cathedra" tone of my remarks on Southey--it was, indeed, uncalled for--but I don't retract my judgment of his poetry, including "the curse of kehama," in the evaluative terms I've tried, painstakingly, to set forth, and according the principles I've tried to articulate for their importance, above others, to our profession. If I had added "in the terms I've set forth above," or "in my opinion, as herein articulated at length," to my evaluation of Southey, would I have escaped the charge of unreasoning authority implied by your phrase, "ex cathedra"? I thought such qualifications would, by that point, be unnecessary. But the tone--you're right, it's not appropriate.

In any case, you say you object "on principle (as it were)"--well, is it or isn't it "on principle"? And if it is "on principle," what is that principle? If it's the principle that it is offensive and intolerable to make pronouncements without backing them up by reasoned argument, I think I've just answered that objection. What principle, then, do you mean? Is it a principle of evaluation? If so, what is that principle of evalutation? You're the one who states, as "FACT," that Southey's work is "large and rich." "Large" I'll grant. "Rich"? In what terms? I know that, as you state, you and others have "other views" regarding the meaning of such words as "rich," and that you have advanced your reasons for those views, very good reasons, as I know from having read many of them, and I am perfectly willing to leave those views "more or less intact," in the specifically understood meanings of the terms in which, and the reasons for which, they are advanced. But are those terms--including your understanding of "rich"--specifically POETIC terms (and here I'll say it) "in the essential, generic, and historically re-affirmed understanding of poetry as a distinct and privileged form of discourse, which I have set forth?" I believe those terms are fundamentally more important than any others, as I've been arguing from the outset, and I've set forth my reasons for saying so. If you want to argue that they are of equal importance with others that you and Nan find valuable and productive of "pleasure and instruction" (I don't think you want to argue that they are of less importance), then would you please explain which among these other sets of terms and criteria should replace mine as foundational to our profession and definitive of our object of study?

I guess what I'm saying is, We are obliged to evaluate our criteria of evaluation, because one set in particular is essential to our understanding of who we are. Speak to my reasons, please. Refute them, if you must--say it doesn't matter on what principles we base our criteria of selection as long as the result offers us a wider variety of ways of reading, including "close reading," that are coherent, informed, and enlightening. Is this what you mean by "rich"? If it is, then I agree that Southey is "rich" in these terms. But "rich" in Beth's terms, or in mine? No and is and I think that's a serious problem.

I don't know why I have to keep repeating this, but I'll try to put it another way: my criteria of evaluation are of no more importance than any others--say, those based on a poet's political or historical awareness or orientation, or on a text's hermeneutical potential and productivity--except that they ARE criteria of evaluation specifically directed at judging whether or not poems are doing well what poems, as a sub-group of the literary use of language, have historically, and in a sense peculiar to poetry as a particular form of discourse, been assumed to be doing and admired and loved for doing and is and THAT function of poetry, more than any other in my opinion, defines what poetry is.

I must speak to one other point. I was at fault for not being clearer in my last posting when I used the indefinite pronoun "that" in "That's why, in my case, those arguments failed." I'm sorry not to have been more precise. "That" refers to the "perversity" you said you've come to discern in applying formal, "new critical" terms to "the conventions and premises of the poetry of sensibility and sentiment." You took my staement to mean that I was demanding more "close readings." Quite the contrary. Precisely because traditional, new critical formalist "close readings" are a perverse form of interpreting these poems, they won't respond very well to such readings, and I think that your book, by and large, shows that.

For example, in your analysis of a passage from Anne Yearsley's "'clogg'd' and frequently turgid poetic style," her "self-conscious drama of a failed poetic effort," you ask, "What sort of logic makes these lines follow the passage just quoted?" and answer, "It is very difficult to say or--in the immediacy of one's reading experience--to know what they are about." I think, for any poet, that could be an insuperable problem. But getting the reader to understand that "logic" is only half the battle. I don't know many good poets who would agree that a style which "repeatedly thwarts a conceptual transaction of the poetic field" is worth putting out the coneptual effort for--unless the result, "in the immediacy of one's reading experience," is greater pleasure--greater delight, more affective response and more imaginative and intellectual insight--derived from the deployment of her/his poetic resources. "Writing poetry is Yearsley's spiritual agon," you write, "which her readers must re-experience to understand." In The Three Sisters, Chekhov conveys the desperate boredom of life among the decaying gentry and nouveau riche of Tsarist Russia with exquisite (and paradoxically wrenching) power. Would we admire or be moved by his skill as a dramatist if he bored us while doing so? Instead, he rescues his play from the tedium that might otherwise interfere with our receptivity to his representation of boredom by employing formal punctuations at a strictly sonic, non-representational level--bells, chimes, and, especially, pauses, all of which not only have the effect of arresting our attention and calling us back to our our "sole selves," but also work thematically in various important ways.

Radical deviations from form require radically new formal remedies--indeed, their only "worthy purpose" (to quote Wordsworth) lies in their ability to reveal and make us feel the power of such remedies. I can neither hear nor see these remedies at work in Yearsley verse, though I agree with everything you tell me she's trying to do.

Let's take one more example from your chapter on the Della Cruscans--an essay that I admired even in MS form. On pages 76 and 77 you contrast two passages, one from WW's "Lines written in early spring" and the other from Robert Merry's "Monody Addressed to Mr. Tickell." WW's lines run thus:

To her fair works did nature link
The soul that through me ran'
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man had made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trali'd its wreathes;
And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopp'd and play'd:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion that they made,
It seem'd a thrill of pleasure. (5-16)

On the facing page these lines appear:

O TICKELL! in the murm'ring gale
Oft have I found thy plaintive voice prevail;
When the wet fingers of the morn
shook the cold pearl-drops from the bending thorn;
Or when, at close of day,
To the lone vale I took my way,
The sad vibration of faint ECHO's breath,
Brought to my heart the dirge of Death. (I. 70-1)

You write: "The natural figures conjured in Merry's poem are . . . paradoxically, signs of their opposite, signs of an anti-nature. Merry's poem doesn't simply construct an artificial order of nature, it puts its own act of construction on display, makes that act one of its primary concerns" (78).

OK. Point taken. But meanwhile, I find it difficult to get past the formal awfulness (I'm sorry, but that's not only what I see, but what I feel, like fingernails on a chalkboard) of the "construction" that Merry puts on "display." "Wet fingers"--why? Because the "pearl-drops" on the "bending" thorn have wet them, and the thorn, being bent, must be imagined to have been bent by something? But aren't the fingers imagined to be "wet" precisely in order to provide some metaphorical explanation for the "pearl-drops" of dew in the first place? If the dew is not the source of their wetness, what is? Why introduce fingers to wet the thorn anyway, except that Merry has already started down the path of personfication with "murm'ring gale" and can't look back now? And what's a "dirge of Death"? Are there others kinds? (If there are, I think one or another of them might make a better figure in the poem than this redundant, line-filling phrase.) I could go on.

Granted, Wordsworth's point is different, starkly contrasting. He's not trying to put his own artifice, or lack of it, on display. "As everyone knows, the text illustrates how one might 'see into the life of things' in the broad (religious and philosophical sense . . ." (77). But look at how he makes that point! The "human soul" that runs through the poet and links him to nature is mirrored, as if empathically, by the periwinkle that "trail'd it's wreathes" of blossoms "through primrose tufts," the rhyme, "wreathes"/"breathes" linking these blossoms to the joys of simple human respiration and, thereby, underwriting the poet's faith that flowers breathe, and enjoy breathing, too. This is a faith not based on scientific "measure," on objective, quantifiable certainty, but on nothing more than sympathy: "a thrill of pleasure." (again, those conceptually contrasting rhymes). Finally, the lines make a dramatic point of the incommensuability of subjective experiences, considered from a scientific or philosophical point of view: another's experience cannot be known--"measured"--with objective certainty, but only by a faith based on inward feeling. Now, I would contend that this represents about the pinnacle of "sentimental" poetry--considered strictly as poetry--and that's the reason it responds so well to formal "new critical" close reading.

It may well be that we must agree to disagree, but I would like you to at least understand why I've taken the position I have on the question of poetic evaluation, and why, given that position, I find a poem like WW's superior to a poem like Merry's. It's not some pig-headed inability to see and respect other people's points of view. If you have other standards of evaluation than mine, I'd appreciate an explanation of how these standards are particularly appropriate to evaluating the genre of poetry as opposed to any number of other forms of discourse, imaginative or otherwise.

Chuck Rzepka


Hugh Roberts, whose nuanced postings to this list (past and present) I have much enjoyed, has asked some excellent questions regarding a portion of this Hemans and sentiment thread that came up a while ago. Because his questions were not only delayed in their transmission but also addressed just to the "cool" modern half of one of my earlier postings, I will weave his concerns into the current state of our discussion in the following fashion (I hope Hugh will forgive the indirectness this necessitates):

First I wish to answer his general question about "economic determinism" as if it referred not to the successively subcultural, countercultural, and mass-cultural "cools" that emerged after the 1920s but to the exactly coeval phenomenon in academic literary criticism that has been the sticking point in our recent discussion: "formalism." "Cool" and "formal," of course, are not the same because they are antithetically related to the institution of the school. (However much "cool" and "formal" are alike in their relation to so-called primary institutions such as the business, that is, they are opposed in terms of the great secondary institution that now prepares students for primary institutions: the school. "Cool" since the 40s or 50s starts nowhere but in school culture, but it is exactly that part of school culture that is aggressively _not_ academic. By contrast, as John Guillory's chapter on the topic in his _Cultural Capital_ and Mark Baker's recent posting on our list observe, New Criticism was thoroughly and profoundly academic.) Their differences aside, however, "cool" and "formal" _are_ fundamentally related in the way they bear upon the emergent issue in this thread: how it is possible to stake out a "critical" position that appears to be so far from being determined by historical context both past and present that it declares its values to be either counter-historical (_not_ what most students now value) or "timeless" ("good" poetry "lasts longest" and "transcends local--familial, tribal, or nationalist, geographical, historical, gender- or class-based--communities").

Briefer answers to Hugh's specific questions about cool will then follow.

(1) Formal or Historical?

Those who know my Wordsworth book or "The Power of Formalism" (ELH 56 [1989]: 721-71) will know that my own criticism is consistently positioned so as to question the proposition that formal and historical values (and their attendant analytical machinery) are exclusive of each other.

Writing from this position, and in a tone that I hope is mimetically both "conversational" and "argumentative" (this choice is not thematically neutral: the New Critics were exactly transitional between the older mode of rhetorical disputation dominating turn-of-the-century literary classrooms [e.g., at Yale, according to interviews I once did with emeritus faculty] and the newer mode of "seminar" discussion that attended the arrival in the post-WWII academy of a more diverse crowd of veterans, non-prep school boys, and young women), I would like to start by asking the following about Charles Rzepka's and Beth Lau's postings:

--What does it mean that "good" poetry is a matter of "exploiting" the "resources" of form, and that enabling students to grasp those resources entails giving them "the tools and techniques necessary"? Why is the discourse of critical value posed in these terms?

--What does it mean that "good" poetry is a matter of "craft" making everything in a work "count," making the work "rich"? Why is the discourse of critical value posed in these terms?

The point of my questions is to indicate just how thick the "formal" criticism of value is with historical conditions (economic, scientific-industrial, and otherwise)--even while (as in the case of the New Critics' deeply antithetical relation to "science") it is repudiating those conditions. In our present discussion, there is not a particle of the discourse of rich, accountable, and complex techne/craft enabling the exploitation of resources that is not recognizable from the "professional" or "technical" criticism that the New Criticism prided itself on introducing counter to "Northern scientific-industrialism" but _in the language and mentality_ of that industrialism. (See my Wordsworth book, p. 324 and p. 610 n21, for example, for an account of the word "rich" in New Criticism.) Or more fully, the point of my questions is not to imply that there is anything "determined" in the relation between advocates of formal value and the historical conditions they inhabit. This is because we are not talking about mechanistic determination--a schema that makes the emergence of any critical vanguard, avant-garde, elite, underground, etc., within any dominant historical condition paradoxical. We are talking about determination by culture--specifically, by the kind of culture that much of this century's academic and journalistic critique of "consumer culture" obscures: what may be called "producer culture." The emphasis in this phrase is not on "producer" so much as "culture." Such culture is not mechanistically "economic" (more generally, historical). Rather, it operates on human beings through a thick, complex, myriad, and heterogeneous culture of its own constituted by different levels and sectors of individual, social, institutional, and other agency. In the middle parts of this century, the dominant producer culture was one in which the virtues of science, engineering, professionalism, automatism (as in the new organization of clerical workers in the office), etc. were not only ascendant in mainstream institutions but (especially in the era of WW II) recognizably ascendant in universities. But the complexity of inter-institutional, -disciplinary, -class, -individual, and many other relations within the new culture of work meant that the possibility of difference--of criticism or antithesis- -was never foreclosed. (Which, for example, is just a member of the industrial-technologial complex, and which the genuine critic: the engineer, the scientist, or the literary critic? The answer depends very much on the institutional, class, social, and political matrix of the country or era we are talking about. In some parts of the world, as Alvin Gouldner has pointed out, the real social critics or progressives are the engineers--the ones who alone can tell a political boss, "no, this is not how you build a dam.") In our time, the dominant producer culture is so-called "knowledge work," according to which both work-life and home-life are regimented in a single continuum of "lifetime learning," "pay-for-knowledge," "home office," "edutainment," "sports training," etc. White collars and blue collars alike, supposedly, now work all the time for "learning organizations," among which academic institutions are not the highest or best. Yet the hegemony of the new Knowledge, of course, also does not foreclose the kind of critique that has been theorized according to a number of schema (e.g., theory of vanguardism, theory of the avant-garde, theory of subcultures, Raymond Williams on "residual" and "emergent," New Historicism on "subversion," etc.). This is why I am interested in contemporary "informatic cool," which I see as a distortion of the new Knowledge or Information that has (as yet largely unrealized) critical potential and is after all, people who stare for long, dumb minutes as a cool graphic downloads on a Web page are inhabiting information culture in a way that is precisely non- or counter-informational. Just so, as in the Birmingham School's view, youth subculture can inhabit (literally, wear) nothing but the commodities provided for it by mainstream society, but yet inhabit those vestments in a distorted way called "style" that is critique-in-sheep's- clothing.

To bring this explanation of the possibility of critical vantage to bear on the New Critics: I would argue that these critics were deeply, powerfully, passionately involved with "form" _because_ they were deeply, powerfully, passionately involved with the historical conditions of their time-- and "involved" not just because they were incipient professionals punching the clock of the new industrial world order but because they were working out the possibility of being "critics" within such a world order and is after all, the "good" poem (ambiguous, paradoxical, complex, ironic, but also unified, harmonious, etc.) was for them exactly the same as the "good life" on the yeoman farm imagined in _I'll Take My Stand_, 1930 (that seminal work of American letters by Ransom and "Twelve Southerners" in the era just before the official theorization of the New Criticism--a work from which I have often drawn the example of Andrew Nelson Lytle's piece on farming ["The Hind Tit"] to ask students, "what is the relation between milking a cow and reading a poem?" or "between the 'form' of a Southern meal and the form of poetry?") and is and the point of thus imagining a romanticized yeoman farm (whose resemblance to the yeoman life romanticized by Wordsworth should not be discounted) was to create a conceptual staging ground where they could shape their self-declared Southern sensibility into a permanent critical presence within the "Northern" hegemony of "industrial science and technology." Working the good "farm," like working the good "form" of a poem (if you will excuse the near-miss pun), meant committing to a "timeless" style of "leisure" that was critical of the Taylorist time-and-motion rhythm of industrial modernity and is as Ransom describes it in his contribution to _I'll Take My Stand_: "[The non-industrialized agrarian farmer] identifies himself with a spot of ground . . . He would till it not too hurriedly and not too mechanically to observe in it the contingency and the infinitude of nature; and so his life acquires its philosophical and even its cosmic consciousness. . . . [such is] an established order of human existence, and of that leisure which conditions the life of intelligence and the arts." Later, of course, the true staging ground of such criticism--at once a formal criticism and a cultural criticism--proved to be the classroom.

So, the bottom line of this direction of thought is that there is no universal formal value that is not contingent upon _historical_ determinants of the very value of "universal" or "timeless" form. Just so, reciprocally, there are no historical determinants that are not so culturally complex and ambiguous that we can know them "direct" without the intervention of such ambivalent discourses as the critique of form. I reject utterly, therefore, the artificial line-drawn-in-the-sand of a debate between good poetry that is well crafted and other poetry that is less well formed but valued for historical, political, gender, and other reasons.

As to the matter of "intention" (applied in this case to ourselves as critics rather than to the poets): this becomes undecidable precisely at those points where the relation of "determination" between history and criticism is deepest and is as a writer, I myself make my largest discoveries in the act of composition when--working toward a rephrasing, sifting through alternative word choices, consulting the dictionary or thesaurus for ideas, etymologies, usages, etc. (not unlike the poet motivated by meter and rhyme to inflect "meaning" in the Ransomian analysis)--I suddenly fall into a bottomless hole in the English language and is a hole, in any case, that is deeper than my "intention" because (an eerie sensation I have often have while perusing a dictionary) _the language knows more than I do_ and is and what it knows, what makes it deep and thick at particular points, is the history of usage. Thus there is no decidable intention or control at moments when either a critic or a poet touches one of these power-places where linguistic form opens into historicity (and vice versa). It is not just Charles or Beth but all of us who, when we want to talk about form and value, immediately encounter a wealth of semantic resources invested with the entire history of changing relations between economics and rich, unaccountable, poetic craft on its way to techne in a modern mode. In the case of this specific loaded rift of vocabulary, after all, we have not only the New Critics as precedents but also the Romantics themselves. So: at moments when the very form of our criticism or our poetry falls into one of these holes of historical usage, who is in control? Are we "exploiting the resources" of the language, or are those resources exploiting or determining us?

(2) Brief Answers to Hugh on "Cool"

Because this bears on work-in-progress, and because this message is already too long, I will limit myself here to provisional, fragmentary, short answers that do not do justice to all of Hugh Robert's thought: "First, then, I'm wondering exactly how the paths of causation are envisioned as operating in the argument you have sketched out. Just what degree of economic determinism is operating here? [...]"

I have tried to answer this set of questions in my comments about the nature of historical determination and the complexity of "producer culture." The particular problematic I will be dealing with in my work is the differential relation between subcultures, countercultures, and mass cultures. The relation of intellectuals to all of that is another problem that now has its own history of theorization. "This question prompts another, which is perhaps more of a quibble. Surely the class on which the workplace disciplines of high capitalism impacted most heavily was not the middle class, white collar workers you write about. The subjects of Taylor's disciplines were mostly blue-collar factory workers and low-status clerical workers weren't they?"

Shoshanna Zuboff's _In the Age of the Smart Machine_ (especially the chapter on "The White- Collar Body in History") is quite good on the degree to which "scientific management" was applied to the office from the clerical to middle management layers. We see this pattern recurring today: the new paradigms of "teamworking" and "lifetime learning" were first deployed in the U.S. on the factory floor before being moved to the corporate office environment, where it is now dominant. The issue is complicated, however, by the very identity of the "white-collar middle class" and its supposed successor, the New Class. In the terms of the classic sociological works on these classes, the middle classes are precisely those that have a "contradictory" identity. That is, their internally thick set of hierarchies (clerical/semi-professional or semi-managerial/ professional/managerial) exists in a dialectic between the status of wage-labor, on the one hand, and ownership control, on the other.

"And this in turn raises the question of why so much of what is "cool" is in fact middle-class appropriations of working-class - or otherwise marginalized - forms of expression or styles [...]"

I have also seen this thesis about cool recently in _The New Yorker_ and in _Newsweek_. I don't myself believe in the "life-cycle" hypothesis of cool by which the coolest styles or movements originate in subculture, are appropriated by counterculture, and are then further appropriated by mass culture (there are also geographical and generational variants of this thesis: original cool in cities, appropriated cool in suburban malls; original cool among twenty- somethings, appropriated cool among thirty-somethings). First, this kind of thesis leaves out half the picture: the degree to which subcultures and fringe cultures import the material for cool _from_ the mainstream , mass-culture, or commodity worlds. We are dealing with a kind of cargo cult here, but the cargo runs in both directions. Secondly, I suspect that the fact that mainstream cool appropriates the objects or styles of subcultural cool is less important than the fact that, despite the similarity of any object or style, cool is a matter of different social positionings. That is, subcultural, countercultural, and mass-cultural cools (let alone intellectual movements) are fundamentally different positionings relative to what I have called producer culture. The same people, of course, can occupy more than one position and use the same fetish- objects for that purpose. But then, they may not. (Cigars, I see, are now cool. If it had been pipes and tweeds, I suppose intellectuals would be let in on the fun.)

"Why does working-class culture, if it is particularly heavily imposed upon by the affect-low disciplines of the capitalist mode of production be such a rich source of affect-low cultural forms - or are these formed in the same process of "reaction to the reaction" as middle-class "cool"?[...]

As I understand it, working-class culture was at once the most severely regimented according to the new work rules and the most unruly. It was the middle classes that internalized the rules and (the Foucauldian thesis about sanity) became their own monitors. So, rebellion in an office these days takes the extreme form of tacking a Dilbert cartoon to the cubicle wall. The other main exception to white-collar low-affect, by the way, is the upper-managerial and executive branch. Just read an interesting little book titled "Managing Generation X" with much to say on unruly, mad, stubborn, unreasonable, take-no-prisoners executives.

"The significance of the affect-high/affect-low distinction itself can also be called into question by this line of inquiry. There are affect-high elements of working-class/marginalized culture which are definitely "cool" but which are clearly fundamentally opposed to the disciplines of the workplace. One thinks of the whole drug-culture with its screamingly sentimental poses of decadence and nihilism as one obvious example."

"My second question, or line of inquiry, has to do with the concept of 'cool' itself. For what period does your argument hold good? When did this affect-low 'cool' emerge, and is this still how 'cool' works in the 1990's?"

Peter Stearns, in the _American Cool_ book I mentioned, argues that cool as an emotional style arrived between 1920 and 1950 (he takes many pages to explain the difference between such cool and Victorian sensibility). This is not the whole story, though, because while emotion style is elemental to cool, it is not the whole of it.

"Clearly the word "cool" and the way it is used has changed radically from the 50s to the present." [...]

The following are two quotes that will be the epigraphs to my chapter on cool:

"At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching amongst the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver coloured section wishing I were Negro, feeling that the best the white world has offered me was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night."

--Jack Kerouac (1958), quoted in Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979)

"Someday, we'll all agree on what's cool on the Net. In the meantime, the Netscape cool team will continue to bring you a list of select sites that catch our eye, make us laugh, help us work, quench our thirst . . . you get the idea."

--Netscape Corporation, "What's Cool?" Page (June 2, 1997)

A lot of my answer to this set of questions from Hugh is compacted in these two quotes. I'll leave my in-progress thoughts unexpressed here, except to point out one difference between Kerouac and Netscape. Kerouac situates the release of the emotion he craves in subculture (as he constructs it). Netscape, by contrast, refers the emotionality it seeks (Web surfing as Chaucerian pilgrimage toward sites "that catch our eye, make us laugh, help us work, quench our thirst") to its "cool team." I will be developing in my chapter the notion of something that is not exactly subculture, counterculture, or mass culture: "intraculture" (a word formed by analogy, for example, with "intranet").

"Lastly, and most relevant to the concerns of the list (sorry if I've wandered too far from these) - I wonder about your positioning of academics in class terms, and their consequent responses to the aesthetics of sentimentality. Is it really correct to define us as 'middle class, white collar' workers? I'm very attracted to John Frow's concept of a 'knowledge class' whose functional position is defined by their control of cultural capital." [...]

The largest ambition of my project, titled _The Future Literary: Literary History and Postindustrial Culture_, is indeed to understand what the new Knowledge Work is and how the academic humanities fit in it. The academy is not just a "learning organization" as touted in all the rave business theories of the postindustrial age; but it is increasingly subject to the dictates and assumptions of those theories. Bill Reading's _The University in Ruins_ makes this point at length. "Management," as I say at one point, is the dominant theory of "civilization" in our time and is as the long-term rise in the influence of administrative and managerial workers in universities attests, management of knowledge is now fundamental to the academic mission, which means that it comes increasingly under the sway of the great founts of management theory: the corporations. Political correctness, as it were, is nothing compared to "corporate correctness" (which now also holds under its sway such other major institutions as government, the military, the health industry, etc.).

Alan Liu


Aware of the dangers of entering late into any conversation (I must confess not having read the "thread" in its entirety), I would like to take issue with something Prof. McGann wrote in a recent posting (a portion of which I've retained below). While I can appreciate his (and others') argument for the need to continually guard against the "atrophy of aesthetic sensibility" (which I actually thought I was doing while teaching WW), it seems to me to be going too far, given the professional setting of a debate such as this, to assert that "to say that Hemans (or whoever) doesn't have what Byron or Blake has is *simply to say that you haven't seen or said that they do." What I mean is that what is at stake in this argument/dialogue/ conversation is not *simply the seeing and saying of poetry in different ways, but a working out--an evaluation--of what and how we will teach in our classrooms. Certainly it is important, even vital, to interrogate the professionally dominant methodologies of reading we have learned--and employing our (highly various) personal experiences of culture as one way to accomplish that makes sense. (prof. McGann's work has been a wonderful example for me in this). But as we expand (accordingly) what it is we read and what it is we teach, do we really WANT to revise the culture we have (collectively) inherited so radically that all methods of reading poetry are passed on with equal emphasis to the next generation? As a grad student trying to work through the issue as it relates to my own teaching, the question troubles me.

Hemans was incredibly popular in her day, and she wrote some fine poetry; students need to know about it. But even if we could imagine a world in which the methods of exegisis that value Wordsworth over Hemans and those that value Hemans over Wordsworth had equal power, would we really want to live there? I honestly am not sure.

Jonathan Mulrooney


This could of course be the thread that ate the world; or perhaps these are the threads that the dragons eat in those "Pern" sci-fi novels? In any case, since I'm in the midst of teaching an end of the summer short course in Romantic lit, it's tremendously stimulating. I'll try to make a couple of brief points in relation to some made by Nan Sweet and Jerome McGann.

I was part of a local reading group (and the only Romanticist) who discussed the _Poetics of Sensibility_ last Spring. Chuck's observation about reading the book and then going to the poetry only to find it somewhat lacking in comparison could be said to be the group response. In part this may be because the weaving back and forth, often sub rosa through allusion, between famous poems and the recovered poets leads one to expect something more. For instance, in the comparison below between "Casabianca" and "The Chimney Sweeper" one might be let to expect a more biting critique of militarism or whatever and is a major difference between the two for me is that when one leaves "Casabianca" (an extraordinary, memorable poem for Hemans) and dives into the collected poems, one finds "To the Memory of Heber," or, more a propos, "The Voice of God," which takes up the same biblical passage that Blake uses in the "Introduction" to the _Songs of Experience_. Hemans' poem is a good orthodox, sunday school poem. (Find savage irony here and you'll find it in "My Old Dog Tray.") Blake didn't write such, and it makes us more sure of the irony in "The Chimney Sweeper," whereas many of Hemans' poems force us, should we accept some readings of some poems, to posit two Hemanses. Of course the two Wordsworths, bleat bleat, have been with us for a while.

With Hemans, we would have to posit not a young and old, but a poet who ironically critiques militarism, etc. in the morning, and supports it in a straightforward way in the afternoon. Nan writes, in relation to the crucial issue, "David, do you assume that Hemans does not know these things? Does not have control of her ideas and materials enough to do so and then with effrontery to write this anyway?"

So when one hears things in Hemans "the opposite of the way they ought to be," it's not that they're not there, but, in the words of the last great poet of sensibility (vide McGann) there's no there there. One isn't able to point to someplace outside the poem or the poetry, and say, see--there.

David Latane


{sigh}. I'm an interloper here, but one who is about to teach (for the upteenth time) a non-major survey of Major British Authors from 1800 to the present. It's my chance to show my stuff about some pre-Victorian poems I love (think about the parallels between "Tintern Abbey" and "Frost at Midnight"; yes, "solution sweet" might be an anatomical detail--Keats trained as a doctor) and is all very palatable to my very bright "minority" students, who, incidentally, WORSHIP Wordsworth at his most environmentally correct.

Which is why I guess I find this debate ludicrous. Let me ask a few questions:

Whom are you teaching? (the small minority that take your college level literature classes)

What are you trying to teach them?

With what expectations?

It seems to me an indication of the desperation of this profession (led, alas, by a few glib overpaid professionals) that conversations about literature end up in elaborate debates about theory.

Music is what we need. (A bad translation from Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player.")

Jack Kolb


i'd like to say something on the matter of "teaching" and then step back and try just listening to the talk that's going on. jack kolb hasn't found any of it very useful or interesting, I see, but let's imagine that's because he's really a victorianist. i've found much of this long thread quite stimulating -- as is too apparent, I guess, from my too frequent postings.

i've been using an expanded corpus of romantic period writing with my undergraduates for quite a few years now. probably half the term, sometimes more, is devoted to nonstandard (as it were) figures -- though there are some of us who think of crabbe and burns as writers of such clear eminence that they ought to be thought of as "standard".

the course is "romantic period" writing. so it takes in nonromantic writers as well as prose writers.

then there is another course,"romanticism", which moves along a different track. in this case the "big six", who are indeed "romantic" writers, get about half the time of the course, with the emphasis falling differently in different years in relation to them.

let me add that in all these courses the focus is always on writing as such, though this of course involves getting the students to see that reading and writing are culturally organized activities -- now, and in the "past" that we read through and in.

so we do (as i mentioned at the beginning of these postings) a great deal of recitation. the students i teach, most of them, have very weak understandings (theoretical as well as performative) of language, let alone poetical language. most of them can't read well (ie, articulate the physique of the texts) and so they don't find it easy to enter into a sympathetic relation with people like blake or shelley or byron, let alone hemans or landon or crystall. they also have little facility with critical and theoretical texts. so I require them to write summaries of de man on shelley, or abrams on the "greater romantic lyric", etc. they do this so that they can learn how to enter the kinds of conversation we've been having here.

perhaps all this is too general to be of any use to those people who keep asking us to deal with the pedagogical issues. but I see my role as fairly simple -- to try to facilitate a sympathetic engagement with language, and especially with the imaginative use of language. i find it useful to ask them to do this in an "historical" context (ie, in relation to romanticism or the romantic period) because that forces them to confront issues of style. but I also teach victorian and modern and postmodern literature as "periodic" events and those historicalities are just as useful in relation to the courses that I "teach" in those areas. so i'm trying to get the students to "learn something about" romanticism and the romantic period, but I confess that that part of the pedagogy, while not neglected (I hope), is a secondary concern to the more general focus on reading and writing and language.

for myself, I can't stress too strongly the importance of recitation and discussion of recitation. it's crucial, for me, to try to get the students to pay attention to "the word as such" -- first at the phonemic and morphemic level, then at higher levels of syntax and semantics, then at rhetorical levels (with all the corresponding social and cultural reflections that operate through these levels). jennifer chided me for bringing in bakhtin, but few people clarify these matters for my students better than he does. alan liu's last posting, which focussed for awhile on the inherent polyvalence of language, is very much to the point. (a bakhtinian approach to hemans is an extremely useful line of investigation, as it is for the wildly different language scene of burns's texts ; etc.)

jerome mcgann


My friend Jerry chooses to misread what I wrote. Not atypically {grin}. By all means let us encourage our students to READ poetry--"Music is what we need." I thought (and this post encourages me to continue to think) that's what the distinguished sponsor of the Rossetti archive was advocating and is at the same time, I do think more than a few of my colleagues might consider the three questions I posed (hardly original with me: they go back to Plato and Aristotle). I find them far more "useful and interesting" than the awful amount of theory that's been promulgated here.

Jack Kolb

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