Literary history written in broad strokes is, granted, an easy target. It is always more difficult to write such a history than to pick one apart. To account for major evolutionary shifts takes the assimilation of huge amounts of literature and thus constitutes a daunting undertaking, so much so that models of the vast tend to echo one another in some imaginary chamber of consensus. Especially as historical narratives fuel contemporary debate, the more sweeping assumptions beg reexamination in order to make more supple our literary affections and attentions, our sense of what the past has to say, or rather our changing views of what it just might say, as we read it once again. One historical simplification, now common in generalized diction of polemic, involves the Romantic turn in literature and its relationship to the often politicized issue of selfhood.
The mainstream view of the Romantics suggests that they continued a lyric tradition wherein a relatively unproblematic view of the self as defined and authoritative lays the ground for a heightened individualism, both poetic and political. In her introduction to the anthology American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, Cole Swenson is not alone when she sees twentieth-century American poetry as informed by two dominant sensibilities, one thread of which “inherited a pastoral sensibility from British Romanticism, emphasizing the notion of man as a natural being in a natural world, informed by intense introspection and a belief in the stability and sovereignty of the individual” (xvii). While much of this statement is true, what Romantic introspection yielded remains highly subversive with regard to the “stability and sovereignty of the individual.” Moreover, the very sense of “transcendence” or “metaphysics” that Swenson associates with the Romantic tradition figured largely in conceiving the individual as deeply haunted and unstable, bound at its roots to the depths of the sublime.
If we accept Swenson’s sketch of history, the alternative tradition derived from a spirit of French symbolist innovation is “marked” by a different concept of meaning as immanent as opposed to transcendent (xviii). She argues that, whereas the Romantic tradition “recognizes language as an accurate roadmap for or a system of referring to situations and things in the real world,” the French tradition offers “ a model of the poem as an event on the page, in which language, while inevitably participating in a referential economy, is emphasized as a site of meaning in its own right” (xviii). Clearly the latter sounds more nuanced, and one would be hard pressed to find a statement of poetics naïve enough to describe language as “an accurate roadmap” to the real, so we are left to wonder at the reduction-ad-absurdum.
In addition, there is something both dodgy and trendy in the phrase “participating in a referential economy” with the word “economy” as jargon that conjures contemporary theoretical discourse about meaning as a production of power. To say language “participates in an economy” deftly avoids commitment with regard to the veracity, however partial, of language as referential. Roadmaps are models of the real with clear one-to-one relationships that avoid equivocation, but referentiality is a larger more complex phenomenon that allows for imperfection, suggestion, and intimation with regard to the pressure of reality. Without such pressure, no claim, including Swenson’s, can be true. So we might ask, is language referential in relation the real, or do we simply participate in an economy that operates as if it were? According to Swenson, the French tradition will assert no more than the fact that language has a referential currency minted by social transaction. While this is obviously true, Swenson’s rhetorical strategy brackets off the messiness of a real world beyond the pale of the language and focuses instead on a social context credited without qualification with the production of a sense of reality.
Equally shaky is Swenson’s notion that a non-Romantic tradition would by contrast emphasize language as “a site of meaning in its own right.” The phrase “in its own right” is blurry and untenable with regard to the phenomenon of meaning in language. Yes, poetry true to its vocation binds meaning inextricably to form and thus resists paraphrase, but in so far as there is such a thing as language and meaning, these things gesture beyond their own “site.” They are inherently relational and, more specifically, referential, imperfectly so, in ways that affirm more than simply some social consensus and self-referring economy. Language must have an outside, which, granted, makes it problematic. If we accept referential meaning as merely a production of social exchange with no so-called “real” other than the one we provisionally create, then language would have to cease to function as a language. Moreover our descriptions of language must be equally relativized and therefore neither true nor false. The banished ghost of the signified outside of language drains poetry of its consequence and necessity, and meaning gets conceived rather simplistically as identical with form, which it cannot be. The non-Romantic tradition, as conceived by Swenson, espouses an anti-metaphysical skepticism, while remaining unable to avoid language that is in some way metaphysical—words such as “self” that are neither cleansed of faith nor “an accurate roadmap” of the real.
Doubtless the urge to be modern would tempt any artist to remake not only the present but also the past. It is with some irony therefore that Swenson quotes Rimbaud’s famous statement “I is an other,” as some alternative to Romantic individualism when in fact the statement resonates strongly with the Romantic sense of the inner other. While Romantic individualism continues to influence popular culture, what Romantic writers make of the individual and subjectivity is less widely understood: namely, how the self appears bound up in an otherness that poetry is especially suited to explore. In spite of signs of individual pride on the part of Romantic writers, introspection leads less to a simple and stable reification of individual boundaries than a gaze at the sublime alterity of inner spaces. With regard to the sovereignty and stability of the individual self, Romantic writers embody an animating sense of contradiction, an affirmation of personal authority and defiance mixed with tremendous anxiety and excitement at the otherness so inseparable from identity and consciousness itself. The Romantics open for investigation the paradox that will continue to haunt post-war critical culture¬¬—that is, the self can never occupy the space of the other, nor can it extricate otherness from its nature.
Take Coleridge’s famous example in his poem “The Eolian Harp,” where the vast “intellectual breeze,” the transpersonal source and substance of thought, maintains a spiritual alterity without annihilating the nomenclature of personal self:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all? (l. 44-48)
Unsettled by ecstasy and the oceanic surge of the inner divine, Coleridge feels the need to immediately qualify the dramatic sweep of his claim. Although the above metaphor embraces the connective principle that animates thought and thereby challenges the sense of self as reified, bounded, and exclusive, Coleridge’s next lines suggest that in his excitement lies ambition. He immediately registers a perceived need for humility in response, as if the ecstatic speculation were symptomatic of some manic flight of grandiosity, not a humbling or dissolving of the individual self, but an inflation of it:
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O beloved Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow’d dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God. (l. 49-52)
The poem’s argument suggests the divine, transpersonal quality of inner life poses a threat to the more traditional model where a theistic God walks in proximity to the intellect rather than illuminating its inner space. Aside from registering a violation of social convention, Coleridge’s resulting self-consciousness signals a danger to the necessary humility in one’s relation to the divine.
Humility is predicated on boundaries, but then so too is the ego’s sense of its autonomy and significance. What Coleridge dramatizes is the danger implicit in the idea of the inner divine. In the metaphysical language of depth psychology, the notion of the inner spiritual force tempts the ego to identify with the Self, the totality of the psyche, and fall victim to hubris. The dramatic arc of the poem illustrates the difficulty of maintaining a sense of the transpersonal within the personal—“the Soul of each, and God of all”—without suffering an inflation of the personal self as a defense against the threat of dissolution into the oceanic sublime. Somewhat paradoxically, one needs ego strength in order to avoid the anxiety that leads to ego-inflation. The fact that Coleridge does not call his vision an illusion is key. Even Coleridge’s fiancé, Sara, the woman of the poem, does not dismiss the contents of the vision, not explicitly. She offers only a look, not a language. One can only speculate that it is not the vision so much as the ego’s inflation in light of it that inspires repentance. The fact remains that a mysterious alterity does occupy the inner space of thought, and that mystery brings with it the anxieties of a self in recognition of its transpersonal inner life.
Language provides a primary means for poets to calm their anxieties, and yet the Romantics, as metaphysicians, remind us repeatedly of the limits of language as a defense against mystery, particularly in matters regarding just what consciousness is and how it works. That said, these very limits give birth to poems. What the Romantics bring to the cultural conversation is less a new way of writing a poem than a new way of conceiving the process endemic to imaginations of all eras. All poetry is metaphysical, all language for that matter, since words spring from wells of an otherness, both cultural and natural, beyond any individual’s witness or understanding. To speak we must see past the near at hand. We must transcend the materiality of form to give birth to meaning as, mysteriously, inextricably, embedded in that form. Meaning, however formal, is not form. Nor can such facts be relativized by a “referential economy.” The metaphysical hunger in language is fundamental to those who view poetry as a category larger than mere formal play, those who see in poetry’s imaginative means an ongoing commerce between self and other. Such is poetry’s great humanizing gift: to provoke us, lure us, to venture out by going in, to venture in by going out. The fruits of this are “romance” in the largest, oldest sense—wonder as not a form of escape but a means of transformation, not an assertion of our stability or sovereignty but an unsettling of the familiar, not a statement of self-importance but a watering of the known ground to glorify the roots that we can never see.
Coleridge, William. “The Eolian Harp.” English Romantic Writers. David Perkins, Editor. NY: Harcourt,
Brace, & World, Inc., 1967.
Swenson, Cole. “Introduction.” American Hybrid. Cole Swenson and David St. John, Editors. NY: Norton,
Bruce Bond is the author of eight published books of poetry, most recently The Visible (LSU, 2012), Peal (Etruscan, 2009), and Blind Rain (Finalist, The Poet’s Prize, LSU, 2008). His tetralogy entitled Choir of the Wells will be released from Etruscan Press in 2013. His tenth book, The Other Sky (poems in collaboration with the painter Aron Wiesenfled, intro by Stephen Dunn), is also forthcoming from Etruscan. Presently he is a Regents Professor of English at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American Literary Review.