Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford University Press 1997. xiv + 344pp. illus: 10 b&w. $39.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-2657-4).  $19.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8047-3662-6).

Reviewed by
Robert Kaufman
Stanford University

Maybe the best thing that ever could have happened to those contemporary literary criticisms passionately committed to history, material culture, and the sociopolitical in general—not to mention theory—was the challenge of a reinvigorated formalist criticism. Such a challenge is more than a speculative possibility or even a late development: there is a long if discontinuous narrative of the historical (or social, political, cultural), theoretical, and formal camps sharpening one another's critical instruments through amicable, cordial, or hostile joinings of debate. Just within the past few decades' Romanticism-focussed studies, contributions made through and across these categories have helped clarify and reconceptualize literature's relationships to its traditional Others. Yet questions have been raised about whether the players in these contests have already, against their own intentions, been caught in an antiquarian fiction. For this moment in criticism is often enough said to be the Jetztzeit of a fateful disciplinary drama, in which cultural studies ruthlessly analyzes new-just-yesterday versions of historically and theoretically oriented literary study, finding them effectively to have become the latest (last? parasitic? reliquary? finally transitional?) incarnations of a superannuated formalism whose few remaining drops have dripped into our exponentially postformalist era. Still, some contrary evidence suggests that reports of the demise of historically and theoretically inclined literary scholarship may be premature. And it would prove no small measure of poetic justice and post-Romantic irony if concerns for history and theory should in turn find themselves inextricably bound to the survival of form and formalism within literary studies. At any rate, questions about the formal's status vis-à-vis the material, sociopolitical, and historical may not be so moot after all.

Against this backdrop, Susan J. Wolfson's Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (winner of the American Conference on Romanticism's 1997 Book Prize) has quickly made an important difference. Indeed, the belated assignment of the present review (through no fault of the journal itself) provides an opportunity to assess not only the book's merits, but also something of its incipient reception history in Romantic, Victorian, and twentieth-century studies. Here we should emphasize the particular character of Wolfson's interest in poetic form and critical formalism, and what that character adds to emerging reconfigurations of scholarly investigation of formal matters in Romanticism (and in those descendants of Romanticism known as Modernism and Postmodernism). Because between an extensive, historically and theoretically grounded first chapter and a short afterword (which provide extremely intelligent, much needed reassessments of high Romantic poetry's crucial relationships to modern formalist and historicist criticism—relationships linked in turn to Romanticism's significance for Modernism and its aftermaths), Wolfson dedicates herself to a close-reading praxis whose intensity may be unmatched in contemporary Romantic studies. In fact, among today's critics identified primarily with Romanticism, perhaps only the work of William Keach and a few others rivals Wolfson's sustained commitment to dense, dilated, extraordinarily worked-up readings of poetry's formal events, starting from units as minimal as the phoneme.

Wolfson's readings display what to many readers may appear as an attempt, not least at the level of style, to resurrect a presumably retrograde New Critical universe of virtuosic attention to complicated, contradictory registers of poetic form. Indeed, Wolfson's relentlessly close, frequently tours de force readings are so willing to attend to the microscopic that a quatrain can come to seem a formal unit of near-epic size. Yet Wolfson directs her matching or outdoing of New Critical formalist virtuosity against the political conservativism so regularly associated with New Criticism and also—with necessarily greater charge, for obvious historical reasons—against revisionist, Left critical tendencies that see formalism as inherently quietest, conservative, or reactionary. She seeks to counter the political, historical, and social charges that have been filed against high Romanticism's (and modern formalism's) emphasis on poetic form and aesthetic experience; her case proceeds by recourse to an alternative notion of charge. Wolfson highlights the ways that acts of making and responding to literary form are at least protocritically imbued with sociopolitical significance, so that poetry's internal charges may themselves help charge the frontlines for, or recharge the batteries of, a critical human agency.

Wolfson ingeniously casts the book in the form of chapters on each of the traditional "Big Six" English Romantic poets (these chapters are framed by the book's introduction and afterword). Even before the consistently impressive textual exegeses, then, she macrologically enacts her project's doubly-charged duty. Canonical form itself is foregrounded—most palpably in the very form of attention to the Big Six, with all their influence on modern notions of poetic form's privileged status—while, in an opposite movement, the more celebrated texts and passages of those poets generally give way to noncanonical writings. To convey how lesser known texts relate (if at all) to long-honored works, Wolfson inevitably takes up a large number of genres in their interactions with sociohistorical context and as they exist within and across particular poetic oeuvres. Her study, with its ongoing reflections on form and genre, thus bookends usefully with Stuart Curran's Poetic Form and British Romanticism (1986). Seeking to correct what he had perceived as criticism's erasure of Romantic investments in and reimaginings of traditional forms and genres, Curran had surveyed and synthesized a tremendous amount of poetry, and had himself offered, in the process, no small number of illuminating close readings. Wolfson in certain ways begins from the opposite impulse—to consider, in a limited number of famous poets' texts, the immediate, often minutely-focussed experience of poetic form—but ultimately presents a complementary investigation of how poetic form and genre inform Romantic writers' and audiences' attempts to understand their historically unprecedented modernity. To grasp how the dynamics of poetic form help enable such conceptual-emotional engagement, Wolfson effectively argues, is to comprehend poetry's protocritical or protopolitical vocation.

The book's sections allow this argument to take powerful shape. The chapters investigate the methods by which the poets experimentally engage, extend, and mobilize the elements of poetic form—including meter, syntax, sound pattern, diction, rhetorical figures (and the problem of figuration itself), sound and visual punning, allusion, and so forth—to underwrite their respective visions of poetry and aesthetic experience as protocritique. Real treatment of the fabric woven from Wolfson's remarkable sensitivity to the how of poetry's formal acts (and the pleasure that her communication of it provides) is beyond the scope of a review, such as this one, that stresses her book's contributions to overarching debates about the critical value of poetic form and aesthetic experience. Suffice it to say that such large claims are worthless without on-the-pulses proof culled from the poems themselves, and that Wolfson's frequently pyrotechnical readings—which alone would be worth the price of admission—deftly marshal poetic data for interpretations that are compelling at the levels of line, stanza, poem, social context, and theoreticohistorical framework. In nimble coordinations of personal, sociopolitical, and textual materials, Wolfson gracefully articulates, for instance, the complexities of Byron's existential and aesthetic performance of the heroic role, so that the life and the heroic-couplet form are seen continually (if contradictorily) to construct one another. In an equally acute discussion, she shows how Wordsworth's long history of revising The Prelude's "drowned man" episode leads to an understanding of how poetry's formal agencies can actually subvert their ostensible telos of formal closure, concomitantly troubling the demarcations conventionally made among a work's author, readers, and referents.

In these and other cases, Wolfson emphasizes the ways that formal dynamics instigate critique, not only of a work's sociopolitical données but of the ideological functions to which poetic form itself may fall prey. In a superb chapter on Poetical Sketches, Wolfson demonstrates in great detail how Blake's prosody (well before the Songs (1789) of Innocence and Experience would brilliantly thread anxiety about poetic "beguilement" right into the sonic, semantic, and visual elements of poems whose beguilements were patently meant to ease or resist the pressures of the ideologically given) projects a concept of poetic form virtually synonymous with a critique of poetic form's own, if unintended, ideological effects. Meanwhile, a chapter on Keats's late lyrics overturns some old tables, or rediscovers what was always underneath them. These late Keats poems have long been deemed—by an overwhelming consensus in Keats-interpretation as well as New Criticism and, indeed, most twentieth-century, Anglo-American formalisms—a collective embarrassment, texts too emotionally wrought and lacking in serious, impersonal aesthetic discipline: examples, in a phrase, of too obviously unachieved form, fallings off from the masterful shapings of tension enshrined in Keats' Great Odes. Wolfson shows, however, that late-Keats-looseness may be nothing less than the development of "a problematic of form already at play, and quite deliberately so, in the Odes themselves" (192).

If that sounds like an important rethinking-from-within of modern, Keats-and-Romanticism-derived axioms about the relationships between monumental, impersonal constructionism and feelingful expressivity, Wolfson's stunning chapter on Coleridge—perhaps the book's best and most unexpected—has prepared the way for it (though, sneakily enough, with suggestions of an opposite trajectory for construction-and-expression from the one Wolfson will trace in the Keats chapter). Burrowing her way deep into Coleridge's play (in prose and verse) with simile, Wolfson locates the terrific stress at the heart of what, perhaps above all else, makes Coleridge such an enormous influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetics: the aesthetic theory and poetic practice of organic form. In a well-known analysis shared in certain measure by deconstruction, Marxism, and adjacent methodologies, organic form is today seen as the alpha and omega of ideology or, better, of the modern aesthetic ideology inaugurated in Romanticism and still powerfully operative. In the standard critique-of-aesthetic-ideology narrative, organic form papers over artistic and social artifice, papers over, that is, construction; effacing what Coleridge and others stigmatize as mechanic form, organic form thereby encourages the ideological illusion that art and society are vegetative and natural, rather than artificial human constructions subject to change, to reconstruction.

Wolfson rehearses the successive levels at which Coleridge works out his preference for organic over mechanic(al) form, most notably, imagination over fancy, symbol over allegory. But as is her wont, she begins by patiently honing in on the most minimal of linguistic or conceptual units, which here are literature's building blocks of comparison and are, not coincidentally, the building blocks of figuration itself: Coleridge's mechanic-identified simile and his more organically integrative, imaginative metaphor. With precedent in critical history but with a relentlessness and acuity all her own, Wolfson reveals how riven—in ways obvious to Coleridge—are the poet-theorist's attempts, across his writing life, to keep simile and metaphor separate. I can't begin to do justice in this review to what is simply an astonishing intuitive and intellectual sense, on Wolfson's part, for how Coleridge works this field of force and how it works on him. Yet it bears remarking that, in fascinating contrast to many of the valuable deconstructive and historicist accounts of this question, Wolfson at least implies that Coleridge's problems in simile-metaphor management may not readily map onto all his other great oppositions, and that his oppositional structure as a whole does not necessarily map onto critique-of-aesthetic-ideology political grids. It may be true that constructivist simile, with its advertised method of like/as comparison, often secrets itself inside the apparent naturalness of metaphor; Wolfson mines Coleridge's own work for abundant evidence on this count. It may also be the case, as Wolfson reminds us, that allegorical modalities, starting with those in Coleridge himself, often recapitulate "previous" simile/metaphor sleights-of-hand when allegorical Jacks come bounding out of presumably symbolic boxes.

But reading Wolfson we are struck—or struck anew—by the fact that these dynamics just might not extend to the final (initial?) level of mechanical form itself (a realization that ought to send us running to reread with new eyes the whole tradition on this topic, from the Baroque to Goethe, Rousseau, and Hegel, from Hölderlin, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé to Benjamin, de Man, Fletcher, et al.). To put this, again, in a framework and rubric somewhat distinct from Wolfson's: while mechanic still may be organic form's other, it may be other to organicism in a manner that differs in degree and kind from the ways that the opposed elements within simile-metaphor, allegory-symbol, and fancy-imagination other one another. Why, and why should it matter? These questions around organic form generate additional queries (which will in turn drag behind themselves those kindred Danger: High Voltage! signs that Wolfson tags in her introduction, afterword, and throughout her chapters: aesthetic autonomy, lyric aura, unity, harmony, and transcendence): What if the preference for organic form is not an inherently ideological choice, and what if the insistence on seeing it as ideological is what actually constitutes "aesthetic ideology"; what if the doctrine-practice of mechanical form ultimately has little, if anything, to do with what later generations call construction or constructivism? As these interrogatives already indicate, the stakes involve not only Romantic studies, contemporary criticism, theory, and aesthetics; they are crucial too for artistic practice in Modernism and beyond.

Coleridge can seem to assimilate processes within some of his oppositional structures to all his other, parallel binary structures. But Wolfson allows us freshly to see how especially aware Coleridge is of the dynamic aporias that result from his mappings of the simile-metaphor, allegory-symbol and, at times, fancy-imagination distinctions; his awareness leaves him alternately vexed, fascinated, even weirdly delighted. That simply does not obtain for the larger mechanic-organic distinction, for one good reason: Coleridge there describes a phenomenon in which, generally speaking, the pair's stigmatized member is not surprisingly or intriguingly turning up inside its "good" opposite number. Mechanic does not unexpectedly appear inside organic form because mechanic is by definition and practice externally imposed; its sheer externality is exactly what's wrong with it: it lives and breathes the thin air of already-codified, calcified, convention. It may be imported into, and salutarily acted upon by, organic poetic form (as when important conventions of poetic tradition are made part of a poem, salutarily acted upon by "the poetry of a poem"); but rich as that may prove, it tends for Coleridge not to be particularly surprising, confusing, or interestingly vexing—as opposed to the parallel cases in simile and allegory, which, as Wolfson shows, can leave Coleridge semi-happily shaking or scratching his head. In other words, the human subjectivity connected to acts of making (i.e., to constructivism), when acting with/upon simile or allegory, tends holistically to inoculate these latter, so that acts of shaping with similic or allegorical tools and materials—even when their rudiments can still be identified as, or as having originally been, allegorical—leave their final character teasingly uncertain.

What Wolfson allows us to see, by so ably charting it from figuration to figuration, stanza to stanza, and theoretical text to theoretical text, is that for Coleridge, construction is organic, and organic form is constructionist; Wolfson's readings thereby permit us with emphasis to add that mechanism, despite its initial appearances to the contrary, is the other of both organic form and constructionism. (Mechanism also stands, of course, as the negative, abstract category-definition of that which is not organic or, better, not organic-constructionist). Organic form, far from trying to hide its artifice, bases itself on what Coleridge and other Romantics believe can be accomplished only by auratically-invested artifice, by artistic construction. This entails the making of forms whose fictionality the audience is simultaneously inclined to notice and suspend notice of, forms the audience is specially inclined to treat—in the language of similitude—as if those forms were not artificed or made for and as fictions (but all the while knowing that they are). As someone once said (trying to capture the intensely paradoxical character of this phenomenological structure), what we've got here is self-consciously unself-conscious recognition of the territory called "purposiveness without purpose."

Wolfson's work with Coleridgean simile can help us sort out, among other things, long-standing misconceptions about mechanical form's necessary identity with reconstructions of nineteenth-century radicalism and radically-intended Modernist art and politics, as well as with Russian formalist, structuralist, and related notions of "baring the device." In the latter cases, for instance, one need only notice how often that "baring" involves emotional-intellectual recognition of something far removed from mechanism, namely, the subject's Coleridgean (actually, Kantian) recognition of the pleasure involved in knowing-feeling that the subject has been induced to suspend his or her "objective" or purposeful relationship to the phenomenon at issue. Meanwhile, today's politically-oriented criticism has been alternately impressed and repelled by the fact that precisely this Coleridgean position—on the ways that both organic form and constructionism, despite their particularly tortured divagations and interanimations in the modern period, ultimately oppose mechanism—has been voiced most forcefully in Theodor Adorno's Marxian aesthetics.

If the frequent association of Adorno with retreat from political engagement is thought to taint his analysis, the point could just as easily (and to Adorno's benefit) be made by turning to Marx. It would take time but not much difficulty to show that the Coleridgean elevation of organic and constructivist—over against mechanic—form obtains equally in Marx (in Engels as well). It is to Romantic notions of organic form, aesthetic autonomy, unity, and aura that Marx consciously turns, at every crucial stage of his career, to convey the "critical" nature of his thinking about theory and practice (always animated, Marx takes pains to signal, by his internalization of high aesthetic theory). This alone should indicate that major mistranslations have underwritten recent Marxian-derived criticism's tendency to identify Romantic-Coleridgean constellations with ideology per se, or to theorize and condemn an "aesthetic ideology" modelled on Marx and Engels's dissection of a "German ideology" of explicitly Left political philosophy.

Indeed, careful historical reading of The German Ideology reveals that what Marx and Engels there condemn as ahistorical idealism actually involves their former comrades' misguided  attempts to "uncover and critique" a reactionary politics that Marx and Engels's erstwhile Young Hegelian associates imagined necessarily to inhere in certain forms or theoretical formulations; and this is not even to mention The German Ideology's biting, ceaseless attack on Left intellectuals who imagine that radically-intended theory and criticism can count as praxis. By the time Coleridge was drafting his most important poetry and (especially) theory concerning construction and organicism, he did not think of himself—to put it mildly—as a Left revolutionary explicitly advocating (as were Marx and Engels's Young Hegelian, German Ideologist former comrades) doctrines called socialism and communism: which is to say that The German Ideology's analysis is stunningly inapplicable to Coleridge, and, frankly, to a very high percentage of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures to whom critique-of-aesthetic-ideology criticism has applied its readings of The German Ideology. Coleridge's high opinions of his own efforts notwithstanding, there is no need to believe that organic form, constructivism, and their aesthetic kin—once they've been decoupled from necessary, causal relationship to reaction—should instead be deemed inherently progressive. At all events, the key move for recent Marxian-inflected ideology-critique—the revelation and denunciation of organic form's attempts to hide its mechanically constructed artifice—stands canceled in advance by our realization that, for conservative Coleridge and radical Marx, neither organic form nor artistic construction has any necessary connection to ideological subterfuge. The starker, more puzzling truth is that organic and constructivist form formally oppose that other formal phenomenon that Marx, for one, does not hesitate to align with a bourgeois status quo: mechanism.

Wolfson's scrupulous attention (amid her reflections on poetic and literary form's truck with ideology and history) to Coleridge's difficult negotiations with constructivist simile, allegory, and himself—having been focused onto our intensified questioning of mechanic form, and then brought into dialogue with Adorno or Marx—yields the sense that Marxian misreadings of Marx's valuation of organic form, aesthetic autonomy, and aura are part of one last, crucial issue. This is an issue that Formal Charges flags early and repeatedly, and that I'll try in this final movement further to elaborate (once more in a somewhat different vocabulary and framework than Wolfson's). I'd like to begin by suggesting that the constellation of questions broached in the immediately preceding paragraphs resolves provisionally into the problem of the relay—if any—between aesthetic agency (or aesthetic experience) and sociopolitical agency.

One of the strengths of Formal Charges is the way its readings court conversation, dialogue, even disagreement. Readers undoubtedly will differ with individual exegeses, but Wolfson's efforts to bind her interpretations to the most concrete and material poetic acts, and to a continuous meditation on form's criticality, make the anticipation of such questioning one of her book's subjects; her criticism aims to stimulate a second-order version of the very investigative responsiveness that, she contends, constitutes one of poetic form's greatest charges. For this reviewer, one of Formal Charges's most stimulating provocations involves its discussion of Percy Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy and related political texts. Attending to Shelley's prosody and his play with genre, text, and context, Wolfson joins and extends the analysis of critics who have stressed the Mask's self-divisions and impasses: Intended as a public, political protest poem, the Mask's author nonetheless knew that censorship laws, along with other modes of political repression and danger would—and did—prevent its publication; internally, the poem's calls to action frequently undercut themselves, or result in seemingly static pageantry and hortatory directives; the initial dream-vision frame is never broken through or unmasked; the plan and mode of address are scored by an overweening elitism and inwardness that arrest and imprison the poems' interventionist, populist ambitions; and so forth.

There is certainly ample evidence for these claims to merit serious consideration, and perhaps to win some or all of the day. But regardless of how they're assessed, what is curious is that the glaring paradoxes, contradictions, and impasses that Wolfson identifies as the debilitating or embarrassing elements of Shelley's political poetry (with the Mask as exemplary case) are, almost everywhere else in Formal Charges, exactly the sort of dynamics whose self-divisions, tensions, and threatened implosions are accorded pride of artistic-critical place. It may be that, whether off-base or spot-on accurate, Wolfson's assessment of Shelley is overdetermined; her Shelley chapter suggests numerous factors that contribute to her overall judgment, including the poet's apparent self-absorption, insensitive, boorish, and cruel behavior to Mary Shelley and others, and the glaring discrepancies between his political ideals and on-the-ground actions. In terms of poetics, however, what looms particularly large—triggering strict scrutiny, and not only by Wolfson—is Shelley's pretence to writing political poetry. What is generally objected to is the idea, as Wolfson succinctly puts it, of "proffering poetry as the thing to be 'done' in [time of] political crisis" (198). Indeed, this very stance of Shelley's leads Wolfson to one of her rare straightforward uses of the term and doctrine that most of Formal Charges is written to contest; for it turns out to be Shelley's "suppression of [the Mask's] initiating dream frame" that "marks an aesthetic ideology" (203).

Tempting as the opportunity might be, this is not the place for a full-blown counterview of the Mask, much less of Shelley's other political poetry and oeuvre generally. My abiding present interest involves stealing Wolfson's terrific insights about Coleridgean construction in order to gesture toward some alternate—and here, brutally compressed—suggestions about how the Mask critically works its impasses and self-divisions. As Wolfson's plottings of simile indicate, Coleridgean construction foregrounds the ways that figuration goes about constructing (starting with the construction of figures themselves). Yet we can approach this process not just from the direction of artistic making, but also from that of the phenomenology of aesthetic experience. (Kant, no poet, famously highlights this phenomenology; Coleridge, theorist and poet, works both ends, sometimes simultaneously. In a decidedly different tonality, syntax and rhetoric, the Coleridgean combinations are reimagined in Shelley's Defence, which Wolfson quotes approvingly in her afterword [231].) The key point is that aesthetic figurative construction, as it enacts the smaller units and larger structures of artistic works, makes possible the present-tense construction of new concepts—or at least provides and begins experimentally shaping the protoconceptual materials for new concepts; it is part of formal aesthetic experience to begin to feel and understand this, to be charged by it. The basically Kantian schema of constructionism, which knows celebrated modern variants in figures from Arendt to Adorno, Habermas, Lyotard, and Rawls, can be rehearsed in a slightly different set of formulations.

The aesthetic, while looking like conceptual-objective, useful, content-determined thought or activity, only "looks like" them. Aesthetic thought-experience in some way precedes conceptual-objective, content-and-use-oriented thought; in that sense, the aesthetic is formal because, rather than being determined by, it provides the form for conceptual, "objective" thought or cognition. Aesthetic thought-experience remains "free" (at least, relative to more properly conceptual thought) from pre-existent concepts or cognitive rules. In the Kantian lexicon, this makes the aesthetic a site of "reflective" rather than "determinate" judgment. The aesthetic, then, serves as mold or frame for the construction of "cognition in general," as Kant puts it.

The aesthetic serves also as formal and imaginative engine for new, experimental (because previously nonexistent) concepts. With its quasiconceptual and quasisocial character, the aesthetic can provide a prerequisite of critical thought by offering formal means for developing new (not even necessarily utopian) concepts. Such concepts may bring to light presently-obscured aspects of substantive social reality (aspects of society not already determined by society's own conceptual view of itself). The operative notion is that thought determined by society—by society's own concepts of itself: status-quo, reigning concepts of society—can never give a satisfactory picture of that society. Experimental aesthetic experience helps construct the intellectual-emotional apparatus for accessing, and to that extent helps make available the social material of, "the new." Such constructivist theory and practice sees that aesthetic experiment helps make new areas of the modern fitfully available to perception in the first place. Constructivism by itself guarantees neither progressive subjectivity nor sociopolitical agency, but is prerequisite to such subjectivity, critical thought, agency, and commitment.

This Kantian view of the constructionist shuttle between (formal) aesthetic and (concrete) sociopolitical agency is also Marx's and Shelley's; and, with very different political intent and content, Coleridge's. But what this means—at least for Shelley and Marx, and maybe for anyone—is that the sheerly formal qualities of aesthetic experience will almost inevitably be articulated in political voice, that is, as if they clearly had substantive content. This becomes all the more confusing—and potentially all the more interesting—when the writer in question is, like Marx or Shelley, identified with the Left and/or interventionism and (as in Marx and Shelley) with a general commitment to aesthetic autonomy that tends to yield a preference for "high" art. And as just indicated, the militant insistence, by someone on the Left, that aesthetic formalism is vital for critical thought seems destined to slide problematically into the claim that the aesthetic or aesthetic experience is already filled with, or is itself already, political, is itself already filled with political content. Such vexed sliding gives structure, for example, to a celebrated tension in Shelley's Defence, a tension between poetry's stubbornly formal and social-revolutionary faces. The same tension could be traced throughout the extensive aesthetic commentary in Marx and Engels (hardly surprising since, after Heine, the poet they most significantly champion and channel on this issue is probably Shelley).

This would go some way towards explaining the impasses and divisions that score the Mask. The poem's explicitly political, interventionist materials, and the genuine ethicopolitical outrage that animates their literary expression, exist within a work by a poet deeply convinced that aesthetic acts construct the thought-possibilities that help bring new concepts—and the sociopolitical praxis that can spring from them—into being. Yet actually and finally to regard this as equivalent to extra-aesthetic, real-world empirical action would be to cancel the critical role of aesthetic illusion. Bypassing or suspending suspension-of-disbelief itself would mean that aesthetic/literary claims or experiences (of being like real-world agency) would no longer feature, as part of their own internal constitution, the critical interruption worked by the aporia or impasse inherent in the very concepts of aesthetic semblance, aesthetic illusion, and/or suspension of disbelief. The removal of aporetic elements in artworks with political impulses may push those works away from the criticality enacted by aesthetic illusion and so, against their own intentions, toward something that could cause genuine political damage: something like pre, post, or extraesthetic illusion. For a progressively-intended artwork effectively or intentionally to do this, Marx often (and Adorno always) polemically intones, is for it truly to produce aesthetic ideology. That is, real aesthetic ideology involves the attempt fully and nonaporetically to live sociopolitically the fantasy that art's formality can be put aside for a formally unmediated, fully socialized art. Such lived fantasy is aesthetic ideology because, renouncing the aesthetic's formally constitutive aporia of semblance, it produces a sheerly ideological, unchallenged-by-dynamic-impasse sociopolitical illusion: that artistic action and aesthetic experience can themselves count as empirical sociopolitical action.

The Mask's internal dance with and away from the political (marked by exactly the problems of form Wolfson underlines in her treatment of the poem), and then its long and quite unique reception history, tell in various registers just this formal-theoretical story, over and over. It is there in the well-known case of Chartist and socialist veneration of the Mask and affiliated Shelley texts; that veneration, it could be shown, never ignored—in fact, it often remarked—the poems' dynamic formal impasses. But the story is also present in the too little noticed, twentieth-century African-American reception of Shelley, particularly on the Left; the tale involves public, overtly political performance of Shelley's poetry by figures ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to quite recent cases involving veteran Popular Fronters like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Still another example may properly complete this review of Formal Charges, for across a broad swath of twentieth-century history it uncannily, and with rather singular authority, anticipates and powerfully supports key elements of Wolfson's large claims for the criticality of poetic form. Though Brecht's 1930s debates with Lukács have been much studied, it is surprising how rarely the commentary has remarked that Brecht's interventionist stance trickily depends on, indeed craftily champions, the critical value of formal aesthetic experience and experiment (with a particular Brechtian emphasis over against Lukács, of course, on formal experimentalism). I'll leave readers to marvel, after their renewed perusal of the Expressionism-Debate anthologies, at how effectively charged with Wolfson's precise line of argument Brecht's contentions really are.

And it does right by Wolfson's thought-provoking, generative book to note a special last charge. The major essays in Brecht's dispute with Lukácsian orthodox realism were intended for Das Wort, the Popular Front, Moscow-based journal on whose editorial collective Brecht served. Brecht knew—and indicated in his journals and letters that he knew, and that he periodically had to hide the knowledge from himself—that the essays would not, could not, be published. To Anglo-American audiences, the least known of these late 1930s pieces, written with Walter Benjamin literally at his side, involved Brecht's fateful rediscovery of Shelley, and the Brecht essay in question seized on the Mask as Exhibit A for the way that a complicated, seemingly obscure formal poetics could be found at the heart of the greatest (most "revolutionary," in Brecht's wording) interventionist poetry

In the most hideous sort of irony imaginable, the sociocontextual histories attending the original occasion for, and posthumous reception of, Shelley's text were repeated in a grimmer tone when Brecht's translation of, and essay on, Shelley's Mask could not be published—and when one of Brecht's fellow contributors to Das Wort, who had recently published an essay in its pages simply titled "Percy Bysshe Shelley," was accused in Moscow of "Social Fascist/Trotskyite" subversion, declared a "people's enemy," and summarily executed. Quietly, both Brecht and Benjamin kept rereading, translating, and writing about the Mask and adjacent Shelley texts; those texts' formal charges led to nothing less than Benjamin's brilliant complication of his earlier aesthetic-political views on allegory in and after that watershed named Baudelaire. And the same profoundly formal charges led finally to Brecht's rededication to a critical, auratic lyric practice—shot through everywhere with Shelley—throughout the 1940s and early 50s. This Brecht poetry, in its original German and then in translation, had no small influence after 1945 on the experimental poetry of at least three continents. Quite a series of historical acknowledgements, and further reconstructions, of formal charges. A review essay on Wolfson is the right place to have noted them, for she has written quite a book, one that contributes importantly to the recovery of such formal charges for literary and artistic history, aesthetics, and theory.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: 

Reviews

Tags: 

Person: