Passion and Romantic Poetics
Jeffrey C. Robinson, University of Colorado at Boulder
The recovery of women writers of the Romantic Period has inevitably brought attention to the representation of passion in literature. Passion, a word belonging in the same domain as Sensibility, emerges as its own subject in the 18th-century novel and, as criticism is presently demonstrating, in 18th- and early-nineteenth-century poetry. It appears to be a form of expression of the tensions and linkages of hope and its partial denial in a world that has difficulty tolerating excessive attentiveness to needs and desire. As such it assumes a thematic importance in the study of literature. Less concern has been delivered upon passion as a principle of vitality in poetics, as part of the very structures and dynamisms of poems. (Jerome McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility is an important exception.) The history of the criticism of Romantic poetry in the twentieth century has, I believe, privileged a poetics of the transcendence, suppression, or simple avoidance of passion; thus to expect anything in addition to a thematic focus on passion would be unworldly indeed.
The subject of this essay, however, is precisely that relationship between the resistance to and discovery of the poetics of passion in Romanticism (defined broadly and with reference to the poetry of women as well as to the canon). This relationship exists in my own career over time; I have therefore chosen, in the midst of this essay, to write that little history in the hopes that it will illuminate some of the problems of the subject of passion in literature and some of the ramifications of taking it on.
As the subject has evolved in my own thinking during the past ten years, it has coalesced at three points: first is the thematics of Romantic passion; second is the warping of critical style from and in reference to the operative affect of the critic; and third is the poetics of Romantic passion; this last is heavily influenced by twentieth-century experimental Western poetics. Passion--dispersive, excessive, chaotic--breaks or at least threatens boundaries of all sorts: as in "The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom." Where does one draw the line? To discuss passion may require enacting it in one's own writing, and it certainly involves discussion of its medium, its poetics.
Passion may also necessitate a different kind of contract with the reader, whose engagement with the critical text may be analogous to that with a poem. The reader may have to suspend or redefine radically the expectations about the immediate use-value of the critical text. Swimming in a lake of highly affective language written in the presence of literature, he or she may feel or think the text in disorientating ways designed to free the mind from traditional or predictable perspectives about, let us say, the poem-at-hand but may not put anything "concrete" in its place. Michael Ready's discussion of "the conduit metaphor," a metaphor that blankets English-language thought about the communication of an idea, may be relevant here: if you say, "where did you find that idea?" or "I'm getting a lot out of this essay," you are using the conduit metaphor, in which communication means the transfer of an idea, whole and intact, from point a to point b. Ready proposes an alternative model that is, or should be, a truism in the good reading of a poem: the idea isn't communicated by transferral but by being produced actively at the moment of one's encounter with a situation and a need. Here you cannot bank on what you will get. And in that sense you may not be able to "use" ideas in a simple and direct way (footnotes, incorporation into an argument or conversation, etc.). On the other hand, flowers may bloom unexpectedly in the mental field. In this sense the critical text will, with the aid of one's "gardener Fancy," have called up a presence. The sense of the authenticating frame of this new work may shift as well: instead of citing contemporary critics and scholars, one might establish ponts of view, indeed a whole system of relations, between Romantic poetry and twentieth-century poets in their manifestoes and poems (as in Rothenberg's and Joris's brilliant new anthology-with-commentaries of modern experimental world poetry, Poems for the Millennium, with its nineteenth-century "forerunners").
These conclusions (probably "this landing-place" would express it more precisely) I have derived over more than a decade of thinking and writing on this subject, which has met with much inner resistance on my part. In retrospect the resistance with which I have burdened myself is part of the subject because passion and its representation, as I have just described it, has historically caused in society at large denial and displacement and rationalizations. Partly, I suspect, this is because of its inherent excessiveness, its threat to established boundaries, and probably because the boundarilessness inevitably means the passions of women, making them subjects and agents. As a member of this society and one for whom the dominant view of passion has at some level held sway, I have put up my share of resistances in my efforts to consider the subject. But, as one who can't avert the gaze from the dangerous snake in the path, I keep looking!
Let me summarize four of the five major essays into Romantic passion that I have made since the mid-1980s, the purpose of this summary being to suggest one range of approaches to the problem. Radical Literary Education (1987) considered the problem of passion in terms of Wordsworth's revisions of his "Immortality Ode." One chapter is sub-titled: "From 'Untam'd Pleasure' to 'Heaven-born Freedom," phrases respectively from the 1807 and the 1815 publications of the Ode that recount the drama of the sublation of passion from a more-or-less central position in a description of the human subject to at best a peripheral one. This trajectory is noticed by Hazlitt in his critique of the Ode (in his lecture on Romeo and Juliet) as a failure on Wordsworth's part to acknowledge the centrality of passion in human life and growth. Hazlitt seems uncannily aware of the earlier, now suppressed, version of the Ode upon which the version that privileges the "doctrine of pre-existence" rests. Radical Literary Education builds upon this thematic problem: the suppression of passion in the Ode and Hazlitt's consequent perception. This drama is embedded in the larger framework of the suppression of passion throughout Romanticism, a topic I explore later in The Current of Romantic Passion.
But the structure of the book anticipates a recurrent preoccupation: how do I frame and from what point of view do I write my criticism? At that point I did not explicitly associate this issue with passion itself; rather, by situating my discussion of Romanticism and of the poetry of passion in a pedagogical narrative (the history of a course in which I taught and heavily contextualized one poem--Wordsworth's Ode--for an entire semester), embracing the discourse of Romanticism with that about and from the college classroom, I suggested that literary criticism is not disinterested but emerges from particular settings and convictions and that the genre (in this case a narrative of educational practice) can influence, indeed determine, the questions that are asked and the answers that are given.
In my next book, The Walk: Notes on a Romantic Image (1989), an essayistic journey through the literature and art of walking centering on Romantic walks but travelling far from that source, I offer the walk as a metaphor for critical activity as I imagine it best practiced: the experience of walking fosters the loosening of boundaries of responsiveness:
The walk is an occasion of limited vulnerability. I offer myself to unpredictable occurences and impingements. The world flows past my body, which may block, pleasurably or uncomfortably, some sudden cometary intrusion and create a situation. But mostly I can modulate the immediacy of random intrusions for the sake of encouraging, unimpeded, the "inner life." Raising the stakes, the walk implies a mixture or an alternation of committed responses and disinterested reflection, or the world on a walk engenders the mental polarity of critical thinking all the way to wonderment. . . . Furthermore, my thoughts and immediate pleasures belong to me in my solitude but also to me as part of an historical community. (The Walk, pp. 4-5)
In The Current of Romantic Passion (1991) I paint a canvas of passion in Romanticism in broad strokes. Once again, as in Radical Literary Education, I thematize the subject, focusing at the beginning on Rousseau in his Confessions and Reveries and on Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther, as crucial substrata for writing in the (traditionally designated) British Romantic period. I look at instances of erotic passion, fantasy, the interplay between personal and politically resonant expressions of passion, and at the younger Romantics (Byron, Shelley, and Keats) as sensitive to the early Romantic suppressions of the theme (as in the Immortality Ode described previously). Included in these discussions are, perhaps surprisingly, works such as Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, Charles Lamb's early novella, Rosamund Gray, and Hazlitt's brilliant journalistic essay "The Fight." And as with the previous two works, I accentuate the connection between criticism and the style in which it becomes manifest. This 200-page book is written in 57 micro-chapters, moving rapidly as a set of correspondences, from perception to perception, INSTANTER, as Charles Olson says about Projective Verse, and from work to work, passage to passage, from the canonical to the unfamiliar.
Passion, in poetry and in criticism, becomes energy as excess: the representation of the mind in rapid movement, in a state of perpetual and, one hopes, fruitful longing ranging in bliss over the infinity of materials, like Keats's gardener Fancy who breeding flowers will never breed the same. Imagine (I say in the Introduction) a history or a profile of the characteristic Romantic poem that, instead of resembling Wordsworth's "Tintery Abbey," with its celebration of the contemplative mind at ease in the countryside, is modeled on Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, at least on the following passage from it, as Oothoon, full of sexual desire, plucks the flower/nymph Marygold:
I pluck thee from thy bedThe expression of Oothoon's innocent sexual desire produces its suppression in Bromion's reign of terror. For Blake, particularly during the years of the French Revolution, the primary moral issue is the fate of desire--its flowering or its containment(p. 5). Thus early in the book I begin to associate desire or passion with poetics, in the simple sense of anticipating a certain type of poetic writing with the preference for or interest in a certain thematics, that of passion. Not so parenthetically, the poetics and thematics of passion contains a strong feminist element, in that passion, always excessive, implies the other, the presence of passion in the other who is often in Romanticism figured as the woman.
Sweet flower and put thee here to glow between my breasts
And thus I turn my face to where my whole soul seeks.
Over the waves she went in wing'd exulting swift delight;
And over Theotormons reign, took her impetuous course.
Bromion rent her with his thunders on his stormy bed
Lay the faint maid, and soon her woes appalld his
The history of experimental poetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is based upon the principle of the poetry as the production of energy and its transfer into the world: this is a visionary poetics, in which poetry as consolation (for a bad world and a world defined by death) is exchanged for a poetry of transformation. Death, in this system, and the body as a limit initiate rather than conclude the occasion of poetry inquiry. Similarly, the lyric subject, or speaker, is less the object of interest than the referent, or world, represented in the poem. But it is as if the transfer of focus from the lyric subject to the world cannot occur without an outflow of poetic energies. According to the manifestoes of such a poetics, from Blake to Hopkins and Whitman, to Olson and Levertov, the imagination of the modern person in ordinary (social) consciousness is "fettered"; to break the fetters requires the excessive force of imagination and breath, in the breaking of conventional line length, in the overthrow of the monumental subject of poems for the listing of subjects in the world, from the abandonment of the speaker's self-representation for that of the world (i.e. Negative Capability, a slogan for many experimental poets), to the relinquishing of the traditional figures, such as metaphor and simile, for the correspondences. Instead of accruing interest around a single subject, hierarchical in relation to other possible subjects, experimental poetry looks to a "field" or "constellation" (Mallarme, Rilke) of subjects in mutual relation. In this spirit Romantic Presences (Station Hill Press, 1995), like The Current of Romantic Passion, works in many small essayistic sections, inspired erotically by a number of famous and not-so-famous Romantic images. Moreover, in this recent book, some of the "essays" are in fact poems, like the following called "Skylark":
"trill, trill, trill, trill"--The skylark: in Blake, Shelley, and Clare an image of a visionary, open-form poetry, shooting up from its ground-level nest hidden away past all sight into the sky and back again; the human subject listening on hears it come from and go to places beyond where the social self can go, the condition of the Romantic and modern visionary lyric: the aubade.
The lark of Blake sings with its
tongue: the song of
exquisite touch, phallic delight
the treble thrill and tremble, the
Divine and spirit of the
"His little throat labours
with inspiration; every feather on
Throat & breast & wings
with the effluence Divine"
Tongue and throat, the gutteral divine depth
Morning: he awakens the other winged singers
The sun of morning witnesses with its heat the
Voices of Thou and Thee
Spirit and Nature: the vertical coordinate
which we insist goes
upward for our benefit--a Choir of Day!
But the tongue to the throat to the sex
and the green covert of the
origin of song
Generation and the psychology of desire
Fantasy of love in the air
But air has a body and a voice,
Or Voices of Avian Variety
"trill, trill, trill, trill,"--a repetition of
Sounds before our words--
No metaphor, no turnings, no
Journeys, but the
Ritual of sounds we needed to hear
And with the lark it is now, for poetry and the
Morning. . . .
What follows are some brief pieces from a work in progress currently entitled: "A Little Book of Romantic Poetics," in which passion, poetics, and criticism all speak to the choice of excess in literary activity. The features, referred to in what follows, of the Romantic poetry of excess include its vernal nature--the springing up of life out of the blank or oblivious winter of death, convention, familiarity, the negative in any of its forms; its impulse less for consolation and more for transformation of vision; its release of attention to the lyric subject or speaker into attention to the referent, or world, which appears in multiple versions (an exchange of the singular for the manifold); and the expression fo multiplicity in poetry as correspondences or as a constellation, an image that defines poetry as the visionary representation of subject and world as a set of cosmic relations. Behind such a poetics lies the principle of the release of "energy" (a word travelling from Blake to Charles Olson and beyond that is a component of "passion").
Let us suppose that Romantic poems (as, perhaps, the "Romantic" in many lyrics) open with a gesture towards immobility, towards the condition of frozen or lapsed consciousness: think of those poems of the dawn, like Mary Robinson's "London Summer Morning," which refers to prior immobility by displacement into a class of those who do not listen and note the sounds of the city accumulating, once again, at an early hour. The same displacement occurs in Wordsworth: "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty." In both cases the awakening is a touching of the soul towards something beyond the person's own scale of reference, a conversion to outsized realities which, before the dawn of the poem, remained numbed in familiarity, in repression, in security. When the numbing becomes pain, the poem opens:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense. . . .Those first three words of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" quote the nightingale itself, coming from afar, frozen in the myth, yet warming to the poem that proceeds from it.
Whitman's "The Compost" opens:
Something startles me when I thought I was safest,The defiance of a series of activities associated with absorption in natural collective experience and of the long lines in particular announcing that past pleasure in an immobilizing but pleasurable unselfconsciousness, calls the poem forward; the poem's beginning startles just like the speaker is startled. Perhaps it is the "Romantic" poem (of any historical period) that opens by startling and inscribes that effect in the poem's opening, just as it inscribes the condition of immobility, the trajectory of oblivion and the end of the world.
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip my clothes from my body to meet my
lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh
to renew me.
The purpose of these acknowledgments of past immobilities and present awakenings is to announce the visionary intention of the poem. Two short sections later in "The Compost," at the end of its introductory movement, the speaker--writing about the decomposing bodies of Civil War battles--declares a first visionary act: "I am sure I shall expose some foul meat."
As the speaker's prior immobility recedes and as his/her own consciousness sharpens and differentiates itself from its grounding comforts, attentiveness towards the world increases: the world newly comes into view.
This is visionary Romanticism.
John Clare's "Emmonsails Heath in Winter" takes the final stanza of Keats's "To Autumn" a step further into the poem of nature becoming a poem of mind, the poem of winter becoming a poem of spring, the closed becoming an open poem:
I love to see the old heaths withered brakeThis barren-winter sonnet begins in love and observation: "I love to see"--what a simple but powerful framing directive! How can we all not read this and become poets! identifying with this "I" who loves and sees.
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholly wing. . . .
Immediately, and unpredictably, however, he begins to turn his singleness into a vision of mingled sights--just as the heron (receiving the projected loneliness of the solitary viewer) dwells in melancholy gives way to a multitude of flying, bouncing, quaking, and flitting creatures:
And oddling crow in idle motion swingAmidst the movement of fauna a gipsey prepares to sleep. Interestingly, the only named human accepts his homelessness. He becomes, as Nelly Sachs in a very different setting observes, one who cannot hold a homeland but can hold metamorphoses. The speaker discovers in the dead of winter what Wordsworth called "the life of things," a principle focus of visionary poetry.
On the half rotten ash trees topmost twig
Beside whose trunk the gipsey makes his bed
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The field fare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and clesen rove. . . .
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a droveThe sonnet, better than any other Romantic form, bespeaks the preference for closure. But here the principal subjects of the final couplet, twenty coy bumbarrels, refuse closure of form by a) hanging, living in suspendedness and b) starting again. And by the end, I've forgotten that "I" who gave himself so ingenuously at the beginning.
Flit down the hedge rows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
Perhaps the lyric subject disappears as the referent proliferates, in a constellation of living energies. The "singular" is shipwrecked (George Oppen) as the world becomes "numerous," and the sonnet disdains its tradition as a monumental form by dissolving in its anticipated new beginnings.
The shipwreck of the singular (Mallarmé to Oppen), focusing primarily on the lyric history of the speaker, does not define the condition of Romantic poetry. (The traditional way of reading it does, however, consider the poem as a monument coalescing around the privileged lyric speaker.) Lament ("Klage," Rilke) does not either (although elegy predominates in many readings of Romantic poems). Lament, like a youngest among sisters, while "maidenhanded counts for nights the old curse" (Sonnets to Orpheus), suddenly, in spite of her awkwardness, lifts up the CONSTELLATION ("Sternbild") of our voice into the heavens. Out of the languagetrap of loss or death, the singular shipwreck, springs its opposite, a Sternbild in the sky, composed of many nameless stars. The Klage becomes the Ruhmung (praise). Praise, expressed amidst the visionary changes, makes the constellation. Praise locates the thing amidst its cosmic relations.
Praise also is expressed by "un coup des dés," a throw of the dice," that freedom to play with the terms, not to be enslaved by them. Mallarmé's constellation offers itself as a throw of the dice, a freeing device that shifts the emphasis away from the singular but also eschews nature as determining. The throw of the dice represents instead a mental state, potentially a poetic one.
The constellation appears obliquely in Keats's "Ode to Psyche": buds and bells and stars without a name.
On sitting down to read Beachy Head again, I confront a large (b)land mass of verse, without edge and--expecting a more characteristic work of Romantic blank verse--without the guiding and sympathetic beam of the first-person singular. The "I" in early Romanaticism is light, flexible, sensitive to sight and sound, a darting image of reflected and projected lights, a precious conductor, a bridge-maker and healer, a friend to woman and man.
With Beachy Head I have forgotten how the self drains its alienating and coalescing energies into the tail or predicate--eccentrically, with a synaptic switch onto the track of the referent: the characteristic sentence of this poem forgets the "I" that perceives with a heaving of energies into the objects of perception. For example,
I loved to trace the brooks whose humid banksThus far I recapitulate the general binary of poetics that criticism accords this poem: its focus on natural elements, its shifts of subject-position is anti-Wordsworthian, anti-egotistical sublime. Smith's excess and boundariless nature-passsion in her verbs--I love to trace. . .and stroll among--already register the thinning of ego-texture by the texture of nature. Yet that "I" still, technically, orchestrates the whole sentence, so that to speak simply of an emphasis-shift from subject to object is a reductive truth. The "I" conserves itself as a vibration in the wood sorrel's "root Creeping like beaded coral." Strolling through the woods is not quite like Baudelaire's wanderer through the forest of symbols that observe him with friendly glances. These flowers and trees reveal their own living presences. In a poem, however, what does that actually mean? With heightened attentiveness I note that the speaker does not yield to nature but to a mind lacing the world in its perfume (more like Baudelaire than I think?). The attenuation of the speaking self follows a vortex through its death into a non-human form of self, the midway point the "wispering shade" with its unstable referent hovering between death in the natural poet and the collective image of representation--just as Smith's blank verse hovers between the closed, finite image of the ten-syllable line and the infinite openness of its vertical coordinate of the stream of many lines. In terms of "the self," in other words, the speaker's dissolution into the referent is really her expansion from an ego to a collective (lore-ridden, nature-ridden) self.
Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;
And stroll among o'ershadowing woods of beech,
Lending in Summer, from the heats of noon
A whispering shade; while haply there reclines
Some pensive lover of uncultur'd flowers,
Who, from the tumps with bright green mosses clad,
Plucks the wood sorrel, with its light thin leaves,
Heart-shaped, and triply folded; and its root
Creeping like beaded coral; or who there
Gathers, the copse's pride, anemones,
With rays like golden studs on ivory laid
Most delicate: but touch'd with purple clouds,
Fit crown for April's fair but changeful brow.
Negative Capability and the (woman) poet of Beachy Head: In his otherwise buoyant account of the "camelion poet" who has no identity but who becomes whatever his imagination lites upon, Keats registers a slight quantum of discomfort in his experience of a gathering of friends when--having entered into their beings--no longer has a self to "come home" to. It is the downside of Negative Capability; it is not only the loss of the ego but, in the language of Rousseau, the loss of amour de soi and, in Wordsworth, the "sentiment of being."
Perhaps this accounts for the somewhat depressed affect in Beachy Head (forgetting momentarily the depressing life of its author), a poem seemingly buoyant with the Negatively Capable lyric subject moving from topic to topic in a way that minimizes reference to the speaker's ego, a poem of massive correspondences in which, nearly Whitman-like, the speaker merges with the ground of the poem's being, the landscape--geographical, historical, autobiographical, and biographical--of Beachy Head. Yet the fecundity of topics (e.g. the teeming life of plants) and the incessant motion of perception to perception, which ought to produce a primavera atmosphere instead exudes a perfume of sterility, of missed connections and corruptions: it is a poem that cannot heal the world brokenness signaled at the beginning (the sea's rift of Britain from the European landmass). The poet-figures at the poem's conclusion compromise effectiveness with their own deaths. Clearly, the fate of the poet is a trouble.
Yet the poem resolutely commits itself to that most un-camelion-like of lines and verse forms in early Romanticism, the ten-syllable line of blank verse. Coleridge's conversation poems (as well as Thelwall's and Lamb's) and Wordsworth's Ruined Cottage, Pedlar, "Tintern Abbey," and The Prelude, carry on the Romantic project of defining the speaker in relation to other human presences, usually written into the very line: the scale primarily human and social, at times, intimate. But the implicit image of a free-standing agent in a bourgeois republican state never diminishes, indeed only solidifies, in the journey towards poem's close. Given the nature of Romantic blank verse, it is odd to find it in Beachy Head.
Might a woman poet of this era feel the cost of Negative Capability keenly? As she allows herself to be drawn into the referent, does it remind her of her social and economic powerlessness and invisibility? Smith's choice, to represent the speaking voice, nonetheless, in the poetic (10-syllable) line of community may represent exactly the conflict between the preference for a poetry of the referent and the longing for a visible, coherent presence of the speaking, social self.
Nonetheless, Smith's trace-and-stroll poetics becomes an image of a praising thread of elements, a Sternbild or constellation that includes the death of shepherds and natural poets. Amidst her somber plenitudes the lark sings.