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Formal Charges. The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism.

Formal Charges. The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. By SUSAN WOLFSON. Stanford U.P., 1997; 30 [pounds sterling].

Like the pensive Soul in Tennyson's `Palace of Art', literary criticism repeatedly challenges itself with a deceptively simple choice -- in or out. In moods of confidence about the respectability of imagination and its artfulness, criticism is content to describe -- and to celebrate -- what it is that makes literary work or experience different from other kinds of work or experience. From time to time, however, growing pale on so refined a diet, or feeling guilty at such removal from the common spaces of the world (the charge-sheet would read `formalism'), criticism braces itself to return to the contextual life outside. Critics may even decide that the Palace needs demolishing altogether: a matter of, let us say, `returning the aesthetic to an unprivileged place among material social practices', or something like that. A periodic wavering between versions of these rival claims -- between the pleasure of the text and the social obligation due its context -- gives the history of the discipline a kind of rhythm.

Controversy naturally fizzles up when one temper meets the other, or when the current zeitgeist gives way to the next. The birth of Essays in Criticism, for instance, was accompanied by an exemplary exchange between F. W. Bateson and F. R. Leavis in the dying pages of Scrutiny: Bateson's polite attempt to introduce a little historical grounding to the ingenuities of Cambridge close-reading was abruptly rejected by Leavis, who maintained that such `background' was not only useless but illusory too. If such spats prove inconclusive about the fundamentals (and that one was a good deal more enlightening than most), this is mostly because both positions have their proper attraction and logic and appear cogent enough; and yet both are ultimately unsustainable in their utmost purity -- and yet again, they prove very hard to reconcile into anything like a coherent theory. It was a favourite point of Auden's that no language, however devoted to the self-removal of the aesthetic life, can entirely avoid its implications in the world of mundanely non-aesthetic practice -- an attachment that Auden purportedly applauded, though the logic of his more famous pronouncements works to dispute it. Even a bird in Mallarme, as de Man once gnomically said, never quite loses the warmth of the nest in which it was born. And that is just as well, you might say: it is difficult to imagine even the most rapt Paterite much stirred by a poem written in mandarin Martian, however superbly cadenced. On the other hand, no return to the richly concrete circumstances of art can disguise the important truth that the circumstances are not the same thing as the art. This may also be a relief: I think it was Rebecca West who objected that one universe was quite enough to be getting on with, and that there was absolutely no need for art to busy itself duplicating it. And even if you take a cheerier view of reality, still, as Charles Tomlinson has it, `A fat woman / by Rubens / is not a fat / woman but a fiction'; and this difference is important, after all, since, as Coleridge asks of tragedy, if the test of success is the audience's conviction that the events are real, then why don't they pop along to the local hospital where the experience is bound to be immeasurably more impressive? But then again, if people didn't suffer in the audience' s world, tragedy would be impossibly alien, a weird curiosity; and without the real-life, extra-aesthetic existence of fat women, Rubens's painting would be denied the kinds of meaning it seems mainly to enjoy. Clive Bell could wring from it all the Significant Form he liked, but if the lady's flesh looked like bags stuffed with sheep's wool you would probably mark Rubens down.

These are the most ringing truisms, I fully agree, but they ring penetratingly, and although they sound dry enough they can prompt great writing: Auden's poetry, for instance, gathers a lot of its strength by reflecting on its divided duties. Tennyson's too: the Soul in `The Palace of Art' suffers, or enjoys, a kind of virtuous indecision. Having nobly abandoned the aesthetic for the world without, she yet entertains the hope that a return might be possible at some future stage. Sterner critics, including Leavis, see this moment as something of a fudge, but really the poem would be nothing very much without it. With it, the poem possesses a subdued comedy of irresolution, catching in a moment of brilliant embarrassment a predicament famously described by Empson: `Extremely often, in dealing with the world, one arrives at two ideas or ways of dealing with things which both work and are needed, but which entirely contradict one another'.

The double-minded character of art-works necessarily has an impact on the practice of criticism, which experiences its own version of the Empsonian predicament -- a permanently divided condition to be lived out rather than theorised, at any rate not to be theorised with the hope of resolving it to single-mindedness. Recent criticism of the English romantics has suffered sometimes spectacularly from a failure to live out Empson's axiom -- something that may be due to a modern propensity to trust anything only insofar as it can be theorised -- and has tended, consequently, to substitute for the profound (but entirely everyday) morality that Empson describes, more strident forms of moralism. Faced with the rival attractions of palace and cottage-in-the-vale, many romanticists have noisily sought the latter, distrustful of the kinds of self-elevation with which the romantic imagination typically seeks to ennoble itself. In a fine piece contributed to the London Review of Books (22 January, 1998), Frank Kermode has noted mordantly how much energy `historicist' Shakespearean criticism currently devotes to asserting how similar Shakespeare is to us -- which usually means that he shares our enlightened attitudes towards gender, has a good eye for a `critique' of imperialism, and so forth. Historical likelihood to one side, the worst you can say of this sort of approach is that it makes Shakespeare sound eminently worthy and right-thinking and perhaps a little dull, in fact not at all unlike Professor. Recent `historicist' accounts of the romantic poets, on the other hand, have laboured strenuously to show how different their subjects are to right-thinking people of today, Professor foremost among them, and how insidiously their poetry works to establish bad attitudes, often gathered together under the title `romantic ideology'. The burden of the romantic crime is precisely the fostering of those organicist, idealist, and aesthetic doctrines that, some years later, were to modulate into the `formalism' now so universally deplored; and more impartial historians of the subject, like Gerald Graft and Frank Lentricchia, have indeed traced very plausibly a line of descent from Coleridge, through Eliot, Frye, and the New Criticism and down to Yale, against all of whom the new historicist sets himself. Of course, Eliot, the New Critics, and staunch formalists like Rene Wellek, spent much time abusing Coleridge and the other romantics for one misdemeanour or another, so the inheritance evidently isn't a simple affair; and we might find the distrust of the aesthetic which underlies all militantly `historicist' work equally well anticipated in the romantics themselves -- in Wordsworth, for instance, whose `revolt against literature' was sketched by Roger Sharrock in a widely noted essay published in these pages in 1953.

One of the most enlightening discussion of these matters that I have read forms the first chapter of Susan Wolfson's outstanding new book, Formal Charges. If Romanticism is held to task at once for its `inimical contextualism' and for being a `progenitor of theoretical formalism', then it is normally seen as losing on both fronts; but (changing the metaphor) we could quite as well see it as having all bases covered -- a capacious sort of legacy which contains the ingredients of criticism's virtuous Empsonian indecision. Wolfson's excellence lies in her evident disinclination to plump for one side or the other, wanting instead `an historically informed formalist criticism': that sounds a choice example of having things both ways, which is why it is so admirable a statement of policy. Attempts to resolve `form' into an aspect of `history' have been a common feature of Marxist criticism from Lukacs and Caudwell to Macherey and Eagleton; but they have been quite without success, because the notion of `form' with which they deal is at such a high level of abstraction. Wolfson's book, by contrast, is long on close reading, and short on polemical or general theorising; and the primary motive for this preference, as we are briefly told early in the introduction and late in the afterword, and as her practice leaves happily implicit along the way, is that rare creature in modern criticism: pleasure. The relationship between the quality of the art-work and its worldly circumstances is almost always mysterious, even when the poem is about an affair of state, and explicating it normally involves the critic in some circular arguing; but for the modern `historicist', the appeal to context characteristically has a more damaging effect: the swamping of textual detail by the weighty invocation of history, amounting often to the disappearance of the poem's specifics altogether. (In the more rarified moments of recent criticism, historical details become a principle, `History' with a capital `H', and that proves even more crushing, despite its phantom-like exiguousness.) Wolfson avoids this danger entirely, by choosing not to turn `history' into an abstract and solving enormity, and by refusing to set poetic artfulness and political context at odds one with the other. She is expert at what she calls `local particularities of events in form', and elsewhere, nicely, labels poetry's `intelligent textures'; and this engagement with the specific example saves her from reading texts as merely exemplary -- of `the romantic ideology' or of anything else. Her approach is not really a method, as I say, and she does not announce it as a new start for the profession: politics and form are not melded together in an encompassing new theory, and overtly political concerns often fade from view for pages at a time. Instead, her approach might best be seen as a kind of attention: an extended demonstration of delight in textual details, and in the ways that the formal attributes of literary language can themselves be significant -- accompanied, from time to time, by a sharp eye for the more political uses to which these semantic possibilities are occasionally put. This makes the alliance between form and politics seem a matter of contingency, a momentary result of poetic interest lying in one direction rather than another: politics crops up in this book not because it is motivated by a politically-minded theory, but because the romantic poets often wrote about politics. The result of this lack of generalising ambition is actually to implicate politics (when they do arise) more deeply and much more persuasively into the texture of some particular poems than the more global assertions of historicism could ever do. Conversely, while the word `aesthetic' crops up quite frequently, it is used throughout (as far as I can tell) in a spirit of cheerful imprecision, meaning something like `artistic' or `linguistically artful' or to do with the pleasures associated with those things (so that a letter by Shelley can be discussed in the same kind of way as a poem by Shelley); and while this might seem to deprive the `aesthetic' of much of its palatial grandeur, the effect is, once again, happily recuperative, allowing the category to survive as a description of kinds of pleasure, while freeing it from the attacks due to any larger metaphysical claim. Similarly, it isn't `formalism' in its philosophical abstraction that Wolfson is addressing, a general doctrine about the nature of art-works and the criticism appropriate to them. It is more an interest in the less mysteriously `formal' devices of poetic language: empirical things that poets sometimes do with line-endings, rhymes, ghost soundings (as in Gordred containing Goredread and gored red), anti-puns, and the like.

The six main chapters treat, in turn, the six canonical romantic figures, though not always represented by the works you might guess. Line endings in Blake's Poetical Sketches are examined, the uses of enjambment and the implications of rhyme placed in the context of Blake's wider enthusiasm for liberty and hatred for constraint: so that, for instance, in `Gwin, King of Norway', the `poetics of form convey a political warning' as much as the ballad's contents do. They are hardly separable, you might say: this could be no more than claiming that the form echoes (or is echoed by) the sense, or rather that the form is part of the sense, which might even seem an engagingly old-fashioned sort of insight. The Wordsworth chapter draws on Onorato's Freudian account of episodes from The Prelude as screen memories, describing the troubling (for Wordsworth) proximity of imagmative success to accounts of death, and the way that the poem's successive revisions seek to aestheticise that connection, while not simply aestheticising it away. The Byron chapter focusses, unusually, on The Corsair, and on the same sort of nexus of constraint and liberty that Blake worked with; but Byron's choice of the heroic couplet as his metre opens quite different sorts of possibility. As elsewhere, Wolfson's case is impressive and keeneared, and she writes in open vindication (though I admit that this reader, at any rate, remans unconvinced of the poem's ultimate success). The discussion of Keats takes for its subject the late poems written to Fanny, normally written off by his critics; and again Wolfson comes to the rescue, seeing in them a deliberate refusal of the consolations of `good' form: instead, the poems embrace `compositional contingencies' and flout the expectations of romantic `organicism'. This is an interesting case, for Wolfson is seeing pretty much what everyone else sees in the poems: the point at issue is really the degree of self-consciousness you attribute to the poet about the formal violations he is committing. Wolfson's readiness to redeem Keats's aesthetic failure as an oblique brand of artistic success is immensely likeable, reminding you of the great essay by John Bayley; both might agree that there's more to art than good aesthetics. Politics are more obviously to the fore in Shelley's Mask of Anarchy, and the shifting and even evasive quality of the poem's actual interest in political activity is adroitly described; as is the even less dignified (to my mind) doublespeak of the several `Jane' poems, ingeniously playing Jane off against her husband in a way which Wolfson gently calls `subtly manipulative'. Finally, the chapter about Coleridge is simply brilliant -- one of the liveliest pieces written about his figurative language. Wolfson traces the interplay of sameness and difference within Coleridgean simile, and the quality of his poetic self-awareness, nuanced in a scrupulous way between `as' and `like' and `as if'. Coleridgean simile, as Wolfson observes, often gathers to itself an `independent pleasure', and the same might be said of the best of her readings: of Wordsworth's Thorn, for instance, which `stands erect, and like a stone / With lichens it is overgrown'. `For his auditor,' Wolfson comments, `lichens, punctuated by like, reverberates extravagantly as likens -- as if in punning condensation of the over-produced "likenings" this obsessive account sets in play'.

Eliot once remarked that there was no method for the literary critic except to be very intelligent, advice which arrives with an encouraging smile but has always struck me as oddly dispiriting in the end. Wolfson passes the test wonderfully; every page offers something well-read, or a view well-phrased. I was on the verge of saying that the book is `important', but that is usually a euphemism for ponderous and unreadable. While this is a very learned work, it is not only a defence of literary pleasure, but itself a pleasure to read.


University of Glasgow
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Author:Perry, Seamus
Publication:Essays in Criticism
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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