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"Romanticism" in Crisis

Position Paper

Charles Rzepka

Tonight I would like simply to reaffirm the importance to our professional survival of maintaining the skills of aesthetic and formal analysis, appreciation, and evaluation, and especially of cultivating these skills in our undergraduate classrooms. I believe they are threatened mostly by neglect, due to the otherwise quite welcome broadening of our research interests to include marginalized writers and literary forms, and ever more historical detail. In our enthusiastic pursuit of these new and increasingly specialized research interests, I fear we are in danger of letting a powerful, long-standing rationale for our professional existence slip from our grasp.

My alarm stems partly from the apparent indifference to close reading and explication evinced in many graduate student essays that I've been asked to referee in the last several years. It also stems from my reading of dissertation excerpts submitted along with applications for positions in the field. My impression is that we could be doing a much better job of teaching our graduate students how to read closely and how to think about the literary work of art as a form in which all features count, and modify each other, at every level. Absent such old-fashioned attention to organic, intra-formal relationships, young scholars may never acquire the ears to hear irony, pathos, or whimsey, or the eyes to see their own self-contradictions.

The teaching of such skills should begin at the undergraduate level, where, not to put it too cynically, we are particularly vulnerable to losing our authority as conservators of the cultural capital traditionally invested in the notion of aesthetic pleasure. Insofar as we (and I include myself here) continue to borrow from other disciplines in our graduate teaching and research without taking steps in our undergraduate teaching to preserve the main thing that has distinguished us from those other disciplines since the rise of the modern academy--namely, the pleasure we take in literature as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end--then we are indeed "in crisis."

Now I am not advancing a claim for universality, or for "good taste," nor do I believe that aesthetic values can be applied "ontologically," in a social or historical or discursive vacuum. Poetry, fiction, and drama have for millennia served interests political and nationalistic, intellectual and cultural. Unlike other "literatures," however, the genres of writing we have come to call "literary" have fulfilled such tasks by enlisting the power and beauty of form to a supererogatory degree. In the relatively short history of modern literary studies, an ability to appreciate--and to teach others the skills to appreciate--this kind of power and beauty has become foundational for our profession, not only as one among other academic disciplines, but in the eyes of society at large. As a result, we leave those skills to fend for themselves at our professional peril.

If this prediction sounds dire, it's because I believe that the deflationary effect of current research trends on the cultural value of aesthetic and formal pleasure will leave the wider society, and particularly its monied elites, with few alternative sites for literary capital accumulation. The most powerful alternative looming on the horizon, in fact, has practically nothing to do with literature at all. As John Guillory observes in Cultural Capital, the real threat to the survival of literary studies in the academy is coming from the proponents of writing pragmatics, public relations rhetorics, machine languages, and technical writing, that is, from the rapidly rising white-collar technocrats of the brave new information society, and their children, for whom cultural and financial capitalization are rapidly becoming, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable.

That said, I will only add that the best way I know to defend ourselves against this new, information-age Utilitarianism (short of enlisting another Percy Shelley to do it for us) is to uphold the value of aesthetic pleasure. And the best way to uphold that value is to defend the legitimacy of an undergraduate canon based on discussions of aesthetic merit (however much the specific works included in that canon may vary with time, and however much our ideas of aesthetic merit may differ) and, second, as Romanticists, to insist particularly on the vital canonical importance of poets and poetry.

Perhaps it is hopeless to argue for the importance of poetry in an age when, as Carrie Noland observes, poetry, of all the literary genres, appears to be "most seriously threatened" by the current shift of attention to "the contextualized study of more popular forms" (PMLA 112(1): 40). Whatever hope there may be, however, it cannot reside simply in the claim that the poets we teach are "representative" of their era. The reason I teach Byron is not because he was a popular writer, any more than the reason I teach Blake is because he was not. I am stirred by the politics of "Ozymandias," the teasing aporiae of Keats's odes, and the metaphysical dynamics of exchange in many of Wordsworth's visionary encounters, but that is not, principally, why I teach Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth. I teach such poets because, whatever their degree of popularity or political or ideological enlightenment, whatever their engagement with (or evasion of) history, they pursue their aims by creating supremely well-integrated moments of musical, emotional, intellectual, and imaginative satisfaction--in short, they offer a great deal of aesthetic pleasure. It is their astonishingly manifold, various, and original integrations of passion, idea, image, and sound in one poetic form, with all the sedimentations of literary tradition that the word encompasses, that I am most anxious to convey to my undergraduate students, however important I may consider the historical or cultura lcontext of any particular achievement.

Conventionally, poetry offers more layers of verbal material to integrate in this manner, and thus, more possibilities for integration, than any other genre, and the Romantic period gave us six of the best poets in the history of the language. We have spent close to 200 years learning how to expand our appreciation of what they accomplished. The case for many of their contemporaries has only begun to be made in aesthetic terms, and its outcome remains to be seen. But meanwhile, whatever that outcome may be, we demote or ignore the claims of the aesthetic at the risk of our own professional marginalization or extinction.

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