Teaching Romanticism, Poetics, and Lyric Theory

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Cumbersome terminology aside, this essay demonstrates the use and interest of teaching the debated concept of lyric ontology in the Romantic Poetry classroom across undergraduate and graduate levels. It moves from a narrative introduction on Robert Frost's very material practice of "lyric overhearing" on his Derry, New Hampshire party-phone line, to extended consideration of the recent scholarly turn to historical poetics in the study of nineteenth century British and American Poetry. I discuss Virginia Jackson's influential and compelling anti-lyric anti-theory——Jackson's version of the resistance to theory——as it presents a teachable conflict with the Romantic "literary absolute." The essay ends by reconsidering the metonymic linkage between the position of Romanticism and the position of poetry/ literature/ the Humanities in the institution of the contemporary university, and with brief suggestions for lesson plan ideas and student readings. (Post-production note: contemporary American poet Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016] makes for a timely addition to the essay's bibliographic suggestions and also may impart something like a critical mass to the essay's approach to teaching in the rift between poetic ontology and historical poetics.)

Teaching Romanticism, Poetics, and Lyric Theory

Eric Lindstrom
University of Vermont

1.        On a recent car trip to the Boston area for an academic conference, I stopped off at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, a visit I had been meaning to make for a long time, since moving to Frost’s “other” New England home state of Vermont. At one point early in the tour, our small group was standing in the kitchen of the home, in which Frost and his young family had lived from 1900-1911. We saw the striking red wallpaper (which Rob “romantically” thought perfect for Christmas, our tour guide said); the handsome large stove worth a local shoe factory worker’s year’s pay; the soapstone farmhouse sink that had been improbably salvaged from the back pasture after it was converted to the “Frosty Acres” automobile junkyard in the 1950s and ’60s, and only authenticated because Elinor Frost’s knives had been sharpened on the front apron; and then we were directed toward the far wall with a telephone. Though the chronology suggests a time too early for a phone in regular domestic use, our guide informed the group that Frost’s daughter Lesley, as a consultant to the heritage site, had told a story about the poet that dictated there should be one. The phone was part of his vocation. Robert Frost apparently often listened in secretly to the telephone conversations of neighbors on the party line around Derry. When exhorted by his wife or daughter to stop eavesdropping, he is claimed to have replied: “Don’t bother me, I’m working.” [1] 

2.         The joke (if that is what this is) resonates because it captures a lot of Frost’s character and several of the recurrent ingredients of his famous persona. On the private side one might include his position as the ultimate insider-outsider in the New England community and his role as an often-severe patriarchal family head. On the better-known and beloved public side are his georgic conflation of languid ease and hard “work”; his magical “folksy” touch with the quick reply; and not least, his devilish initiative as an artist-tactician. If Frost’s poetry invites the reader in via its surface of familiarity and offerings of countrified wisdom, only to toy with and trap him or her in metaphysical plights, this story (were we those neighbors!) presents a Frost who is unnervingly near and uninvited.

3.        But for my aims in the context of this short essay, the thrust of the anecdote should be directed straight to its analytical purchase on a long Romantic and modern trajectory of lyric poetry’s interpretive creation. Virginia Jackson characterizes this history as one of enabling confusion in her entry on “LYRIC” for the (2012) fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics:

A persistent confusion—among verse genres, between historical genres and natural ‘forms,’ between adjective and noun, between cognitive and affective registers, between grammar and rhet. [rhetoric], between privacy and publicity, and among various ideas about poetry—may be the best way to define our current sense of the lyric. It is a confusion that has proven enormously generative for both poets and critics. (826)
One reason why it remains vitally important to debate and teach the theory of Romanticism, even in these widely proclaimed post-theoretical days in the humanities, is due to the surreptitious depth of a circular corroboration between interpretive “criticism” and poetic making. For Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in The Literary Absolute, the post-Kantian Romantic enterprise of critique/creation reflects an “inauguration of the theoretical project in literature” (2); and “the theoretical Romanticism of Jena characterized itself as the critical question of literature” (5). The interposition of “theory” between the literary object and hermeneutics comprises the inaugural moment of Literature according to Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy—thus scrambling the notions of “literary object” and interpretive “hermeneutics” as stable entities and prior operations in themselves, in the name of the radically mixed project of Romanticism. Especially when we think that creation and explication form a complete pair requiring no subtractive third, theory will be as urgently needed as it is resisted. [2]  Hence it was not only pedagogically approachable, but theoretically telling, for Jonathan Culler to recruit a short lyric by Frost (“Spring Pools”) as the occasion of his 2008 PMLA Roundtable essay on how “it is deadly for poetry to try to compete with narrative” once “narrative has become the norm of literature.” [3]  Frost’s repertoire performs Culler’s definitional sense of lyric extravagance—involving the genre’s signature moves of apostrophe, ghostly deictic gestures, allusions, ritualistic repetitions, etc.—while at the same time his inclusion in such a venture implicitly widens the domain of theory into the territory of perhaps the poet least hospitable to theoretical intonation.

4.        In her 2005 book Dickinson’s Misery, Virginia Jackson in effect shows how closely the “negative” labor of theoretical scrutiny can resemble an anti-theory, à la Stanley Fish or Walter Benn Michaels. [4]  Jackson recasts this construction of the dual, mutually subtending categories of the poem and poet as an obfuscating history of “lyric reading” practices dependent on the rise of institutional print culture. Like pop stars, post-Romantic poets are almost universally seen as figures whose pretension to that identity precedes its real achievement; so it is fascinating and fruitfully problematic to consider examples of major poets such as Dickinson who may never exactly have willed to be thought poets on the given terms, or their writings “poems.” My Frost story would appear to bear Virginia Jackson’s thesis out that “from the mid-nineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century, to be lyric is to be read as lyric” in an arc toward increasing generic abstraction. [5]  In Frost’s case, that abstraction governs the shift from an “actual” material circuit of telephone communications (the “sender” and “receiver” lend their roles to modern linguistic theory as its paradigmatic example of language as a communicational act), to the figural “music” conjured off a printed page. Jackson’s book on Emily Dickinson thus presents a challenging, painstaking brief concerning the widespread disciplinary “lyricization” that over time has reduced the many richly addressed sub-genres of literary and non-literary writing into a single, abstract, and overwhelmingly poetic “literariness”; and her core contention about the discursive framing of “lyric” or “poetic” ontology has basic, if also complex, implications for our teaching the theory of Romanticism. If the Jena Circle’s project of Romanticism carries within it an inaugural and ineradicable theoretical investment, the classificatory model most often bestowed upon British Romantic poets has leveled social, historical and artistic differences to the point of nearly erasing the conceptual issues at stake.

5.        From one point of view, “Romanticism” in such an account has essentially a schematic function. As opposed to the Keatsian nightingale and Shelley’s skylark, Dickinson’s “homely American ‘bobolink’” and her letter-poem enclosure of a whole dead cricket (Jackson 199, 91) manifestly show the difference of her archive from the shared, interpretive-cum-creative, norms of post-Romantic era publication culture. [6]  Insofar as these comprise signature effects of Romantic discourse, the framing conventions of metaphorical lyric reference and the yearning for disembodiment come in for brilliant restructuring at the hands of Dickinson (as opposed to the hands of a series of editors and readers who then render her straight through their conventional praise). Yet the argument of Dickinson’s Misery is held firmly in place by insisting that we deal exclusively with the worn normative stereotypes of Romantic idealization: the pressure is kept squarely on a (very real) disciplinary and popular mainstream, in an effective though repetitive fashion. Jackson’s many allusions to Keats are all equally—and almost as problematically—subject to the miserable ease of pre-interpretation as holds in the case of Emily Dickinson lyrics. [7]  British Romanticism gives the control group and makes for the inert argumentative scarecrow of Jackson’s book in this sense; and neither the concept of Romanticism nor any of the relevant poems themselves are let free to join the rest of the book’s exhilarating lines of flight.

6.        But if the fundamental question of Dickinson’s Misery asks how we have come to receive truly outsider textual productions as canonical poems always to be read by a certain light, given the posthumous conditions of poetic fame and the disciplinary professionalization of literature, then Jackson’s study bears down powerfully on Romantic coordinates. In his 1979 essay “Shelley Disfigured,” Paul de Man began by noting the resistance of the Romantic fragment to such monumentalization, while at the same time he acknowledged up front that “Shelley’s last poem, is, as is well known, a fragment that has been unearthed, edited, reconstructed and much discussed”: i.e., it has served as the occasion of such a monumentalizing impulse nevertheless, and (short of the text’s total loss) could hardly have eventuated in anything else. Romanticism is thus the name for both a bracing contestatory failure and that other kind of failure in which, as Barbara Johnson once remarked with wryness and wisdom of deconstruction, “nothing fails like success”; Romanticism is associated with that inevitable aftermath known as “interpretive labor.” [8]  At moments toward the end, Dickinson’s Misery too emerges in a form of what I judge to be quietist Romanticism, despite the book’s tone of scholarly outrage, with Jackson’s courageously indigestible assertion she does not want to be heard as saying that Dickinson’s posthumous career should have unfolded much differently (204 ff).

7.        The set of linked inquiries to follow from her study might well break down some of our fundamental teaching goals (like seeing meaning as a matter of thematic reference: the song of the bird), while fostering others (like the specificity of material index: the cricket). [9]  What kinds of blinkers do we put on for students simply in running (Romantic) poetry classes—insofar as the object of study is thereby already constructed? What kinds of critical acts do communities of readers perform to condition what counts as possible meaning, before our interpretation (a “reading”) even starts? What individual cases besides Dickinson’s present an unclassifiable archive as the heuristic prompt? Can we sustain the mission of a “poetics” classroom (i.e., an enterprise whose descriptive methodology is not supposed to be configured around a “hermeneutic” relation to meaning) that is not constantly dragged back into interpretation? In other words: can poetics be responsibly taught and pursued as a field all to itself; or is its role essentially to produce a little saving distance in view of the inevitable imperative that we interpret (we are interpreting, “always already”) by some model? And if the latter, which of the stages in the process of interpretive self-recognition as a class or a course unfolds is the appropriately theoretical moment? Finally, are there Romantic poets who don’t aspire, exactly, to be poets or to write poems but who have been made to—in the same way that all contestants definitely aspire to be pop stars on American Idol, just by showing up and opening their mouths? [10]  Few if any of the British Romantic poets incite questions, like Dickinson, on a level as disarmingly basic as whether they in fact composed and published “poems.” But the critical urgency and utility of asking questions about generic rather than artistically personal intent does register powerfully in a variety of teaching contexts for almost any British Romantic Poetry course: Coleridge’s verse published in newspapers; William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s shared manuscript spaces (such as Dove Cottage MS 19); [11]  Byron’s “Fare Thee Well” verses, coded to circulate in at least three ways (as an intimate private confession to Lady Byron; as a privately circulated account that tries to shape an emotional and legal narrative around the “Separation Controversy”; as a published lyric that addressed everyone and no one at once); [12]  John Clare’s “unpublished” and editorially entitled poem, “[The Lament of Swordy Well],” about historical dispossession and voicelessness.

8.        That Frost as the master versifier of colloquial northern American speech—the practitioner of what he termed “sentence sounds” capturing a syntactical form beyond individual words and their semantic, intentional meanings—might have also honed his craft this way offers a telling counterpoint to the presuppositions of “high” Romantic mythmaking on the composition of lyric. Frost writes about “sentence sounds” and “the sound of sense” often in his letters during a stretch of years leading up to his publication of North of Boston in 1914. The theory was in effect his attempt to educate a small group of capable (and, as it turned out, mostly British) readers. As strings of sound whose verbal character he theorized to precede the meaning of the individual words out of which they were comprised, for Frost “sentence sounds” are a kind of sub-musical linguistic intonation contour, apprehended by the poet from his verbal culture as if one were hearing a spoken conversation taking place on the other side of a closed door.

9.        At The University of Vermont I regularly teach a course titled “Theory of the Lyric” in our English M.A. Program, and in the first meeting of the class I begin seminar discussion by pointing out how there is a striking resonance of this intriguing prosodic theory of Frost’s to John Stuart Mill’s enormously influential characterization of something like the “primal scene” of lyric as a modern genre. We all know the gist of Mill’s 1833 “What is Poetry?” essay, of course, where he evokes a stereotypically “Romantic” idea of poetry more as a spirit than as a genre, a spirit found in the “overheard” expression of “utterance of feeling,” against the “heard” address of persuasive eloquence. [13]  If it wasn’t done at first in a self-consciously allusive manner, Frost’s verbal, vocational, and fundamentally retrospective (i.e., interpretive) attitude toward his own eavesdropping surely exists with reference to Mill. Frost, devilishly, would know that it was he who had been actively and secretly overhearing. Reversing Mill’s poles of the (notional) writer and (literalized) audience, Frost was at liberty to listen in, as the poet. His prosaic Derry neighbors were rather the ones “unconscious of a listener,” in Mill’s terms.

10.        And—skylarks and nightingales aside— isn’t this savvier posture, with its more impersonal and (potentially) self-critical construction of the relation of immediacy to reception and analysis, largely the frame of “voice” and listening that Romantic Poets exhibit? [14]  Wordsworth’s solitary reaper inherits his strangely powerful commitment in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads toward a “real substantial freedom and power” in the suffering of those outside the first-person representational agency accorded to lyric poetry. [15]  Julian and Maddalo (though not “lyric”) not only distances the biographical personae of Byron and Shelley himself from their known enthusiasms, but positions another character entirely at the center of the poem, allowing for the ultimate illegibility of such a figure in epistemological and ethical terms, as if in canny advance of Mill and his therapeutic investment. The Romantic and Victorian “Poetess” figure, richly explored and exploited by Felicia Hemans, Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.), and others, does indeed make much of the criterion of sentimental authenticity, but pointedly shows how Mill’s carefully orchestrated placement of poetic expression offers a phantom purity. [16]  In contrasting the “radical authority” of the discursive function of “Lyric Interiority” in Romanticism to what she calls the “elaborated authority” of “Editorial Exteriority”— these two functions of Romanticism in “more or less simultaneous emergence and convergence”—Maureen McLane theorizes Romantic Poetry through media studies and offers a heuristic model with seven “modes of authorization within and around Romantic poems” (184). The first of these is the authority of inspiration; but there is also the authority of anonymity, imitative authorship, authoritative translation, editorial, ethnographic, and experiential authority (McLane 2008, 184-96).

11.        Where, when, and whom are we imagining the poetic “voice” to come from if we claim to find it in the impossible sequestration of lyric consumption away from markets of both publication culture and mass sociality? In creating the dramatic monologue as an intensifying spoof of Mill’s scene of lyric confession, early Tennyson and Browning merely follow to its logical generic extreme the inference that the psyche of the quintessential poetic speaker is unbalanced, sociopathic or just plain crazy. In the classroom, a pairing of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” with “The Raven” can serve as a lively early-semester reading assignment for almost any student level, to test out and instantiate what results from this idea of poetry as self-communion. With an objective precision that does not exclude his own role as a literary hoaxer and puffer, Poe realigns the scene of poetic production with optimal consumption in the “Philosophy of Composition” essay, which constructs after the fact of “The Raven” a double portrait of melodramatic suffering and clearheaded sadomasochistic willfulness.

12.        To put my own Romanticist’s spin on what the Derry tour guide said, Robert Frost, at least the young Frost of these striving apprentice years before North of Boston, both despised and emulated the “language really used by men” that lay behind Wordsworth’s experiment in Lyrical Ballads. The recurrently despondent young Frost was not sure yet if he resembled Wordsworth the mature poet or his marginal subjects, if he was the witness to representation or the person who gazed with suicidal thoughts into small pools of water and mused whether they were deep enough to drown in. If in his poetry Frost sought to produce the effect of an immediate but non-specifiable “oversound,” [17]  the living anthropological archive behind his lyric feat was made of addressed communications, comprised of everyday intimacies that “the poet” had gained access to and seems to have fecklessly violated. But Frost’s approach, as most poetic theories do, has a multiplicity and layering of functionalities that complicate any progressive linear narrative available to analytical demystification. He sublimates the real content of those overheard daily exchanges, to make from these materials a dynamic frictional prosody that “breaks” sentence sound across the units of meter and line. He exploits class privilege not only to record the slowly disintegrating culture of failing New England farmers and itinerant country laborers, but also to reinvigorate the quotidian life force of Anglo-American poetry. Aligned broadly with Yeats and early Poundian Imagism’s disapproval of mere poetic ornament, Frost’s commitment to the “sound of sense” pushes back against the perception of an idealizing, ersatz (i.e., “nonsense”) musicality of many late Victorian poets he grew up admiring. Frost thus (just) saves the classic poetic tropes of “voice” and “music” by exposing them to the contemporary truth of their over-elaboration. [18]  By the same measure through which he assumes the shared risk of bad faith ambitions to wrest common speech into the domain of his own poetic voice, Frost also carries forward the Wordsworthian project of everyday talking and thinking (in) verse.

13.        A scan over my own syllabi serves merely as a personal reminder of the larger realization that Romantic Poetry isn’t obviously at the forefront of current literary theory. The field’s very centrality to twentieth century methodological change—and to the twenty to thirty years of rapid metabolization dating from the first translations of structuralism/ post-structuralism to America, the period known most narrowly as the heady days of “theory”—is in part the cause of Romanticism’s current positioning, on balance more reflective than experimental. The philosophical side of our field especially has a dauntingly large buy-in cost of past learning for aspiring young scholars. Romantic poetic theory played a covertly key role in New Critical formalism; (positively, from these critics’ point of view) it sponsored the organic element of thinking about poetic structure, and (negatively) its sublime, or catachrestic, aspect set off the limits of taste and a regulative sense of decorum. It was hot and cool at once to study Romantic Poetry in the heyday of deconstruction; [19]  and the field continued its high visibility and importance as the target of New Historicist critique—only matched in vigor by Shakespeare Studies.

14.        Where are we now? The “inclusion” of race, class, and gender concerns by this point should be such a perennial feature across the spectra of teaching and research production, that these interests cannot always be captured by theoretical headings. [20]  Ecological literary theory, animal studies, cognitive literary studies, evolutionary approaches to narrative and lyric, theories of trauma and testimony, and the continental philosophical debates around biopower and political theology have all tangled with major Romantic concepts and offered exemplary readings; and the energetic absorption of much of this work is visible in scholarship carried out in the last decade by dozens if not hundreds of Romanticists. Even that old literary-historical chestnut, the French Revolution, has recharged a project of politics and aesthetics on the left—somewhere between vibrant and violent—in the writings of thinkers like Zizek, Badiou, and Rancière. [21]  This secularly transcendent idea of “the people” is not to be equated with the historical event of liberal democracy, and has unspent power. The imbrications of Romantic-era culture and writing with the rise of our modern finance economy comprise a rich and urgent topic.

15.        An entirely different—though not inconsistent—way to talk about the eclectic standing of current Romantic Studies in relation to Theory would stress the reminder that critical “theory” is itself of Romantic invention, not just a creature of 1917 or 1968 that has been unhurriedly dying since 1989. In the coda to his 2011 book Romantic Sobriety, Orrin Wang persuasively maintains that Romanticism’s extravagant way of foregrounding the spectral character of literary values and non-values appears now as the widespread “embarrassment” of the humanities in broader institutional context. Yet, methodologically and imaginatively if not in administrative terms, that very untimeliness continues to give our field its edge: “The discursive operations of [Romanticism] thus provide a tropological resource for understanding literature’s present predicament during the global reorganization of knowledge in and beyond the humanities. [. . .] If Romanticism has always been structured by its own legitimation crisis, so has literature, a predicament whose present form we know today mostly because of the meta-commentary of, and on, Romanticism.” [22] 

16.        Here one can read Wang as offering an important reply to Jackson’s argument about the role of Romanticism in the normalizing and naturalizing project she calls “lyricization.” Romanticism, Wang shows, continues to perform its own “legitimation crisis,” and therefore its study may lend an invaluable perspective to the present reorganization of the humanities in which all literary modes of knowledge are made to appear ghostly and marginalized.

17.        However in this essay I have shared some of my introductory approaches to the practice of teaching “literary” or “poetic” ontology. I think it’s important that we try to teach aspects of such a concept, and its associated theoretical concerns, even though the terminology may sound daunting. Because lyric poems are short and non-narrative, students going back to those trained to do so by The Well-Wrought Urn have had a difficult time not making a microcosm of poetic form (which need not be “closed” rather than open) [23]  and treating a poem as a certain kind of organic or architectural thing: an urn, a tree (and so treating its interpretation implicitly). The New Critical move, in which the poem’s subject matter or metaphorical tactics are handled as a blueprint for reading the poetry, is too neat a student exercise when it works and is deeply corrosive of the shared critical project when it is done unconsciously. [24] We still need Paul de Man’s reminder (worth a few dramatic bangs on the table in class, or what I call a principled “stupid” insistence from my point of view as the teacher) that you can’t grow grapes by the light of the word “day.” [25]  Especially after we’ve gotten through reading the “Among School Children” chapter of The Well-Wrought Urn, which is a prototype of symbolic form and the conflation of the logic of the poetical symbol with that of critical practice, de Man’s remarks on the literal urgency of Yeats’s so-called rhetorical question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?,” ought to have something like the analytical urgency and (near-) despair of Shelley’s “Then what is life?” The categories of nature and history are too poor and too lavish alike to answer such questions.

18.        In class, I end this discussion of poetic ontology with a look at Helen Vendler’s claim that Elizabeth Bishop’s posthumously published lyrics in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox aren’t even “poems” but “repudiated” objects. Vendler’s New Republic review has a clear theoretical application to debates about authorial intent and the Foucauldian author function, but I find it even more resonant as an unwitting rehearsal of how drastically a simple “genre” term can frame the field of available meaning. A class exercise involving the contrast of Elizabeth Bishop’s and Felicia Hemans’s Casabianca poems effectively relates the social and historical categories of lyric and narrative poetry. This generic or even sub-generic divide has become—at its most flat and unproductive extreme—a tacit judging standard of “good” and “bad” poems for many people in higher education on both sides of the classroom; or, in Vendler's case, a test of poetry that accedes to the status of a real “poem,” versus verse (!) which is denied that status in such an exaggerative, indeed theological, way. Having two students energetically read the absolutely sincere and yet morosely funny, two-column poem on the death of Bishop’s toucan, “Uncle Sam” (collected in Edgar Allan Poe), will aid this lesson and lighten the group dynamic of a graduate seminar inclined to seriousness. In future iterations of this Romantically-oriented graduate “Theory of Lyric” course, I am looking forward to incorporating two new lessons on these issue of poetic ontology and lyric address: I want to open up the syllabus more to avant-garde and post-war, post-modernist lyric strategies, by looking at Frank O’Hara’s tongue-in-cheek “Personism” Manifesto in the famous Donald Allen anthology; and to share George Oppen’s “daybooks” and his unusually physical, accretive, method of revising his poetry, where often new “versions” of a poem are marked by superimposed layers of planks and wire and nails—not by an erasure.

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Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800. Ed. James Butler and Karen Green. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992. Print.


[1] In standard accounts, Frost learns colloquial inflection especially from his neighbor Napoleon Guay and the poultryman John Hall; See Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years 284; Sanders, A Divided Poet 3. BACK

[2] “Resistance” of course is a trigger word. It is worth recalling that, for Paul de Man, the important distinction wasn’t one between “theory” and “praxis” (though he feints in this direction when describing his failed PMLA commission at the start of “The Resistance to Theory,”) but rather the extent to which the “literariness” that became the “object of literary theory” (9) after Saussure is conceivably not in itself subject to phenomenalization. In his Foreward, Wlad Godzich evokes this staggering possibility—which de Man was insistently to call “materialism” in his last years—as the radical matter of reading and “the resistance of the material to the ideological overlay” (Resistance to Theory x-xi). De Man himself is typically clearer and yet more mysterious: “Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge ‘reality,’ but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world” (11); “The resistance to theory is a resistance to the use of language about language” (12). The pedagogical upshot, as de Man flatly levels it, is that “it is better to fail in teaching what should not be taught than to succeed in teaching what is not true” (4). Words to gird the soul and buckle the knees of any teacher. BACK

[3] Culler, “Why Lyric?,” 202. This entire 2008 “New Lyric Studies Roundtable” forms part of the backbone of my current syllabus. (It can be assigned either at the very beginning or at the end of the semester, depending on the students’ collective experience and relationship to professionalization. The essential variable here is the professor’s choice whether to foreground a difficult, but table setting, reading or to position the PMLA issue more comfortably as late-semester review asking where we are “now.”) Among the other books I rotate through assigning in this course—whose syllabus is built from the outside in—from “secondary” criticism and theory back to the literary texts that feature in these accounts—are Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn; Hosek and Parker, Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism (I make .pdf copies of chapters from this scarce title); Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life; Bloom, et al., Deconstruction and Criticism; Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery; Derrida, Sovereignties in Question; Johnson, Persons and Things; Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom. I plan in future syllabi to include Boyd, Why Lyrics Last and McLane, My Poets. BACK

[4] In their notorious essay “Against Theory” (1982), Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Knapp exempt from their working definition of “theory” all “literary subjects with no direct bearing on the interpretation of individual works, such as narratology, stylistics, and prosody” (11). Introducing a recent collection on new directions in literary studies published in a 2010 issue of PMLA, Jonathan Culler similarly points out that poetics as a field of inquiry actually includes narratology within it. Thus poetics and narrative theory (or lyric poems and novels) need not be taught in isolation or confrontationally. See Jarvis (2009) and Wang for incisive and (in their own right) ambitiously “theoretical” responses by British Romanticists to the work of Benn Michaels in “Against Theory” and The Shape of the Signifier. Jackson deals with the implicitly enabling poetic terms of “Against Theory”—and deftly exposes Benn Michaels’s “smash and grab” style of argumentation—in Dickinson’s Misery 110-16. Her resonant claim, pace both New Critical/ deconstructive formalism and the neo-pragmatism of Knapp and Benn Michaels, is that generic form is intentional or has come to be treated as the final locus of intentionality. “[I]n order to interpret these lines [of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”] we will immediately ask a double-sided question concerning the intentions of the author and the intentions of the form” (114). Marc Redfield offers a summary to date (fall 2012) of the astoundingly large field of theoretical inquiry around the eight lines of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” BACK

[5] Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery 6. Since he aimed so concertedly at success as a lyric poet, Frost’s oeuvre (to my knowledge) contains no examples as radical as any of the “poems” of Dickinson. But consider a relatively unexceptional poem like “The Pasture”, which was published both as a prologue to North of Boston in 1914, and as the prologue to Frost’s Complete Poems after his death. Famously and rather vapidly ending with the line, “I sha’n’t be long.—You come too,” this lyric offers a paradigm of abstracted non-specific address to the notional reader. Yet its concrete address is exceptionally intense, sexual and even tacitly suicidal. Biographer Lawrance Thompson situates “The Pasture” in a context of passionate address to Elinor, inviting her to remember “moments of lovemaking” (311). Just a few pages earlier in Robert Frost: The Early Years, Thompson had recounted a horrible memory of Lesley’s, in which her father woke her in the night and brought her down to the parlor, then—pointing a gun toward her mother and then toward himself—had asked her to choose: “‘Before morning, one of us will be dead’” (308). BACK

[6] But are bobolinks “homely”? See Bird on the Rebound. BACK

[7] The recent film version of Keats’s life, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009), in effect reverses the scenario of lyric reading by recasting so many famous poetics statements from the letters in a setting of intimate personal communication with Fanny Brawne (see Grant F. Scott’s scrupulously sharp review of the film in Studies in Romanticism). “I’ve come for my poetry class,” Fanny says to Charles Brown and to Keats upon entering the room, at the start of a key scene in the film in which Keats goes on to extemporize conversationally on the ideas of the chameleon poet that we know so well from the letters. As teachers of Romanticism and poetic theory, are we more in danger, then, of overriding and abstracting the intimacy of personal address such as Dickinson’s “letter poems” to Susan Gilbert? Or should we instead (or concomitantly) pay attention to the danger of over-personalizing and only reading biographically the often curiously neutral, written, spaces of literature and its genres? BACK

[8] See de Man (in Bloom, et al., Deconstruction and Criticism) 39; Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success”; Wang 163. BACK

[9] However the matter of deconstruction is by no means done away with in framing the contrast between a symbolic/thematic register of lyric reading and what I here call the poem’s “material index” (i.e., an indexical versus an abstract model of reference). Virginia Jackson thus writes about the freezing and fixing effect that anthropomorphism has upon the lateral movement of the signifying chain—the most famous conclusion of Paul de Man’s “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric” essay:

The ‘this’ that Dickinson offers Susan [Gilbert Dickinson] is not a vehicle for vicarious feeling; it is, and is not, to recall de Man’s definition of lyric anthropomorphism, ‘an identification on the level of substance,’ since it reverses the tropological process de Man described when a figure ‘is no longer a proposition but a proper name, as when the metamorphosis in Ovid’s stories culminates and halts in the singleness of the proper name, Narcissus or Daphne or whatever.’ Dickinson did not write to Susan, ‘This is my cheek,’ or ‘this is my sorrow,’ or ‘this is my death,’ or ‘this is you.’ She did not name the flower; by taking it from the woods, rather than killing it she seems to have rescued it from being metamorphosed into other names—or other poems. (Dickinson’s Misery 231-2).
For the later de Man, there is indeed a material dimension that the paradigmatically “lyric” poem (and poet, and critic) represses. It is precisely the materiality of language, as a non-human (alternately divine or mechanical, but not human) and extra-intentional system. So while, from one perspective, Jackson’s procedure in this passage and throughout her book brilliantly and cagily outstrips de Man by taking further his own methodological insights, on another viewing Jackson’s approach seems to desire to go so far outside the “Romantic” self-reflective theoretical project of literature, that it is essentially pre-critical, or—better said—its source of power is pre-critical. Much as Jackson accuses de Man of doing (108), Dickinson’s Misery conducts a rational endgame according to the internal dynamics of lyric reading, but it also casts its own spell. Jackson retrieves the “open secret” of passion and traces a rich counterpoetics of queer relationship in her commentary on Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s 1860 “Private” message (“I send / you this”) and the earlier “deanthropomorphiz[ing]” lines Dickinson had sent to Susan in 1859—“Whose cheek is this?”—which rescue a real flower from poetic personification (“I found her—‘pleiad’—in the woods / And bore her safe away—” (230-1). But notice how Jackson’s passage lingers over the now missing, carbonized flower—“Although the flower to which ‘this’ pointed is no longer on the page for the word to point to, on the manuscript its imprint is still visible” (228)—whereas de Man’s “materiality” captures an aspect intrinsic to language. The strength of Jackson’s commentary hence repeatedly stems from her recognition of how Dickinson “folded other poetic genres” and signifying codes into her own texts “that often point away” quite radically from modern generic conventions and their interpretive violence (228). Symbolic reference is at once meta-critically and literally folded into, or cited, in a typical Dickinson archive “poem.” But success in anticipating this hegemonic kind of “readability” is not at all the vector of her poetry’s aspiration; if anything, it runs the opposite way. The danger of this reading, however, is that it risks making the pathos of losing Hegelian “sense-certainty” (the this; the flower rather than the conventional poetic sign; and, in Dickinson’s Misery, the “open secret” of lesbianism) a terminus for critical activity rather than its incitement. Hegel and, especially, Derrida are largely omitted to a cost from Jackson’s discussion. BACK

[10] Almost uniquely among contemporary literary scholarship, Anne-Lise François’s work in Open Secrets allows for the possibility of such non-assertive utterance. Also (and not coincidentally) relevant here is Ann Banfield, who in Unspeakable Sentences once postulated of narrative theory that the conditions of print culture and writing are the enabling conditions of the modern subject: i.e., a third person “objective” instantiation of the subject, a “self,” whose form is not that of the morphological speaker (234). For Banfield, if “[t]he ingredients for represented speech and thought are thus given in universal grammar,” they appear historically rather than a priori. The horizon of the modern “self” becomes visible and operative only after the supersession of an exclusive “I”/ “you” (and “here,” “now”) communicative scene. It is the intrinsic writtenness of the modern third-person novel—which was historically unexampled even though poetry of course too had long been an artifact of writing—that supplies the kind of perspective first required to have and see ourselves. I will quickly add, however, that this massive transition in the ideological and formal horizons of material print culture should not be misunderstood in a facile way as the supersession of lyric and its paradigmatic “I.” We are dealing not with a myth and an empirical reality, but with conjuration and cross-conjuration, a situation in which lyric pretenses themselves can become the other of a hegemonic order of narrative. Whereas the lyric poem (especially what W.R. Johnson calls “absolute lyric,” a post-Romantic written discourse now entirely beyond the social environments of a concrete addressee) persists in a spectral formal continuation of the unmediated speech-act scene, this formal ritual is already a displacement of the “constative” norm. What the ascendant “realist” novel and narrative theory do, nevertheless, is to promise the release of literature from the demand for any linkage to ritual. BACK

[11] See Newlyn 139. BACK

[12] Wolfson 211-52. BACK

[13] An accessible teaching source for Mill’s essay is The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8 edition, Vol. E; The Victorian Age 1044-51. For Mill, famously, “[t]he peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude” (1048). BACK

[14] The “listening” figure of Wordsworth's Boy of Winander is a critical/theoretical locus communis on this issue. See Prynne, Fieldwork: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and Others, for a book-length account of that poem full of astute anthropological and formal observations. BACK

[15] Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads and Other Poems, 1797-1800 751. BACK

[16] Labbe, “Poetics”, offers an introduction to the varieties of Romantic-era poetry and poetic theory, including not only an extension of the “Big Six” to account for other male poets such as John Clare and Walter Scott, but also poetry by women. Labbe’s account reinforces the now-canonical teaching status in particular of Anna Letitia Barbauld, Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, Mary Robinson, and Charlotte Smith—though it is the later writers on this list, Hemans and L.E.L., who represent the “Poetess” figure. Jackson discusses the American literary culture of the Poetess in Dickinson’s Misery 209-32. BACK

[17] A word from the poem “Never Again Would Birdsong Be the Same,” a poem which through the figure of Eve implies there are gendered elements to Frost’s conception of the “sentence sound.” BACK

[18] Yopie Prins offers a counterpoint here; her work in a series of linked essays collectively entitled “Voice Inverse,” which I obliquely quote below (while also meaning a reference to Simon Jarvis’s work), invests in the impersonality of musical practice as a scientific or pseudo-scientific method in the poetic theory of Sidney Lanier. For Prins, importantly, the “musicality” or “harmony” of verse is not invoked as a generalizing “voice” metaphor, but as an estranging mechanical techne that points up a mediating system at work beyond expression. BACK

[19] I borrow the characterization of deconstruction as at once “hot and cool” from Paul H. Fry’s general remark on theory at a certain time; see his “Theory of Literature” lectures, available as a Yale Open Course online. BACK

[20] But for a unit at the undergraduate level designed to teach Romanticism in terms of race, class, and gender, I have found teaching Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” lyric together with Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy very rewarding. Partly due to the importance of Milton and (unacknowledged) Romantic “Satanism” to Lucy, Frankenstein also works really well sandwiched in between. BACK

[21] Jacques Rancière’s writing stands out in this group for its engagement with the post-revolutionary political aesthetics of lyric poetry. Rancière discusses Wordsworth in detail in Short Voyages to the Land of the People; Wordsworth, Byron, and Percy Shelley in The Flesh of Words; and Keats in a recent SiR special issue essay, “The Politics of the Spider”: all are assignable texts for graduate level courses on British Romantic Poetry or Romanticism and Critical Theory (especially through selections shared in .pdf format). Mute Speech conceived as a whole study offers a broader European context with lesser-known late eighteenth-century French figures such as La Harpe; but I have found the chapters “From One Literature to Another” and “From Representation to Expression” (29-51) to be productive in setting up a framework for thinking about “literariness” and genre early on in the semester, as an alternative to or alongside “classics” such as Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism or M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. BACK

[22] Wang, Romantic Sobriety 286-7. Comparable in this respect, Sara Guyer’s work in Romanticism after Auschwitz intricately as well as insistently shows how the untimeliness of rhetoric and figure are the theoretical legacy of Romanticism. BACK

[23] In his lecture before the Harvard English Institute meeting on “Form,” Simon Jarvis handled the assigned topic in a compelling way by reality testing its force, and asked “what bad things happen to me if I avoid using this word?” See Jarvis, “How to Do Things with Tunes: Or, Prose Rhythm Today.” Following Boris Eikhenbaum, Jarvis invited those in attendance to embrace the Russian Formalist distinction, “we are not formalists, we are specifiers.” But would the conceptual cave-in that did not occur in Jarvis’s enlivening talk have been the vengeance of form and not the result of the intellectual configurations of those people present? Presumably, if form were a real category of experience and analysis rather than merely a badge to wear or discredit, then Jarvis was inviting its return from repression in the only way possible. BACK

[24] Brooks’s most influentially vapid remark on Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for instance, is that it offers “a parable on the nature of poetry” (153). However Brooks can anticipate Rancière: “the famous ode was, for Keats, just such a poem, ‘palpable and mute,’ a poem in stone” (151). And Brooks’s aesthetics of paradox can be harmonizing and uncomforting: the urn is “deathless because it is lifeless” (157). This motif of mute speech is also present in the Wordsworth and Thomas Gray chapters of The Well-Wrought Urn BACK

[25] De Man, “The Resistance to Theory” 11. BACK

Published @ RC

December 2016