David Duff. Romanticsm and the Uses of Genre.
The question of genre is still one of the thorniest in literary criticism, and its complexities persist beyond all theoretical paradigms brought to bear on it. Romantic genre, arguably the very ground of our cultural conundrums about reference, historicity, and class, has found a worthy scholar in David Duff, who gathers the dense materials of his subject with an unblinking rigor. Romanticism and the Uses of Genre thus joins Stuart Curran's magisterial Poetic Form and British Romanticism (1986) to lay bare the nuanced foundations of Romantic poetics.
Duff sets out "to understand the distinctive genre-consciousness of the Romantic period" (vii), no easy task given that critical opinion about the Romantics' position on the subject is still deeply fractious. Though it has long been recognized that, far from disregarding the strictures of genre and form, Romantic authors were keenly interested in their meaning, our understanding of the architecture of Romantic genre is still troubled by the varying claims made by poets and critics alike about its significance: now claiming to transcend genre, now chiming to have rescued it anew, the tendency of the Romantics themselves is to stage contradictory positions on the subject. In so doing, asserts Duff, the authors were modeling real self-divisions, for the awareness of genre in Romanticism is tantamount to a particular kind of self-consciousness, with genre serving as one resource for the expressive mind, which of necessity contains self-divisions and self-contradictions. Romantic self-consciousness and Romantic genre-consciousness are inextricably joined, even when its authors are calling for the dissolution of the putative strangleholds posed by genre.
Duff is more interested in genre as a concept than he is in calibrating any particular generic expression; however, this book is still packed with very detailed information about the particulars. Those particulars have their basis in the period's own obvious efforts to work out the brave new world of revolutionary form. As the author points out at various points throughout his study, it is not our own modern theorists who first noticed the political inflections of generic innovation. William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, indeed even Francis Jeffrey linked political transformation with aesthetic change, and they were as sensitive to the connections between the revolutionary 1790s and generic change, as they were to the literary inheritance that they sought to refract through their contemporaneity. No longer a set of inherited codes with prescriptive rules, which is how genre functioned for the Neoclassicals, it became with Romanticism an opportunity to appropriate the past and recast it for the present and future.
Subverting generic decorum, though, is not tantamount to disregarding it. Rather, the Romantics enlarged the possibilities of genre, expanded its spectrum, and harnessed it as a forum for originality. While they did revive such genres as romance, sonnet, epic, ballad, and pastoral, Duff points out that "[w]hat is important is that in each case an effort of imaginative retrieval is involved. Unlike earlier revivalist movements such as neoclassicism, however, Romanticism had to reckon with the temporality of the genres it sought to retrieve and adopt.... They were defined not by their 'rules,' but by their origins, their history, their ethnic associations, their genealogy" (145). If genre is no longer a set of transcendent rules, then retrieving and reworking its history becomes also a nationalist enterprise. British poetry exults in the long tradition of British appropriations of genre, and negotiating a generic history is an opportunity to assert one's authority with respect to it. The sonnet may be Italian in its provenance, but it came to England at the moment of Elizabethan cultural ascendancy, and it was revived by the Romantics in part as an instance of specifically British expressive ingeniousness. In adapting the sonnet to their present circumstances, that is, the Romantics made good use of it: they implicitly asserted their authority to engage the meaning of its formal history and to engage the meaning of the liberties they took with respect to that history.
What Duff terms "genealogical consciousness," (145) is aptly exemplified in Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci, A Ballad" (1820), whose layers of ballad and romance extend through a vast array of writers, from thirteenth-century Thomas the Rymer to Scott to Spenser to Southey to Wordsworth, to name just a few. "The result is a balladic palimpsest whose meaning is constituted by its deep historical layering: in his portrait of pathological eroticism, Keats uncovers the archetype of the femme fatale which underlies so many ballads and romances, tracing the motif to its medieval origins but also making it resonate across time, as if the accumulation of literary allusions were confirmation of the archetype's enduring power" (146). Poetic meaning cannot be extricated from the generic historical consciousness it demonstrates.
Didactic poetry, often condemned explicitly by many Romantics, provides another good case in point. Every undergraduate knows to quote Shelley's "didactic poetry is my abhorrence," but as Duff observes, Romanticism displays a healthy component of didacticism. The author points to the final act of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, where Demogorgon offers a comprehensive review of the lessons, abstractly political and moral, of the drama. The generic codes by which this didacticism is accomplished certainly represent an innovation of conventional expectations: the poets, having internalized the norms of inherited genre, subverted them in an effort not simply to dismiss them, but to redefine them, to shape them to their own needs. Poets are "legislators of the world," as Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" puts it, but for the Romantics it is not because poetry has a palpable design upon its reader. Rather, "poetic thought" now shares a close intimacy with ideology, a condition that can in fact change--in the sense of reform--minds. As Duff expounds the critical controversy that has led to some of our confusion over the place of didacticism in Romanticism, he also betrays his own frustration over our current critical moment, a strain that creeps to the surface from time to time throughout this book and that might have been best left out. Discussing political didacticism, he notes that "modern critics are liable to excuse or even commend in a politically motivated text a level of didacticism they might condemn in a morally didactic work--especially if the political views happen to coincide with their own. Indeed, evidence of ideological engagement, overt or covert, in a Romantic text has become for many scholars a virtual precondition of critical approval, and Romanticism (the British variety at least) is now studied less for its intermittent aspirations to aesthetic autonomy than for its self-conscious politicization of literature" (98). There are no footnotes here, and no direct engagement with any critic in particular. Duff--and his important study--ought to be well beyond such angry gestures, for the strength of his text and his research rise far above the straw-figure smugness and self-congratulating benightedness that so exasperates him. The anger that bubbles to the surface in the midst of his patient explanations is a distraction not only because it battles phantoms, but because the primary point of his text is to find a clear path through the multiple confusions prepared by the Romantics themselves. The domain of current Romantic critics is more complex than Duff seems to grant. If there are some among us who would remake the world in the image of their own self-complacency, let them be and get on with it.
This is a minor complaint about an otherwise judicious and impressive book. Duff lays bare the various tangles in which Romanticism meets genre. It is well worth dallying in these engaging knots, for they expose the strength as well as the novelty of Romantic literature.
University of Toronto