Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon: An Online Discussion (Part 2)

Reading Hemans, Aesthetics, and the Canon:
An Online Discussion (Part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Extracted, and slightly edited for the Web, from postings to the NASSR-L discussion list, 16-29 July 1997.


I, for one, would welcome a use of the term aesthetic that is not linked to the term "elitist." It seems to me that many of the posts on this list have made that link, and I understand the theoretical base on which it is built. But, I just think it might be fruitful to open things up in discussions of literature. Thanks to McGann's post, things are opening up for me. As for Longfellow and Fitzgerald, it may be that the very popularity and ease of memorization of their works turned much of that work into cliche and made it an easy target for those attempting to establish a different sensibility. I can think of another for whom this same thing happened. That is Samuel Rogers. He was immensely popular as a poet, mainly because he did not shy away from sentiment, and because he was careful to structure his early poems in the "accepted poetic diction" of the time. Now, he is barely anthologized, or not at all. The "Big Six" came along and in later years, "blew him away."

Avery Gaskins

I've been following this thread with great interest, and I wanted to add a couple of comments. Ted Underwood [asks:]

[. . .] whether this project requires us to bracket our contemporary habits of reading altogether. Do we stop reading as moderns and re-enter a past world, or does 'reading as' become a subset of the larger set of interpretive practices and tools we bring to bear on any given text? [. . . .]

It seems to me, and it's certainly a strong part of the hermeneutic tradition that runs from Coleridge's Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit right up to Gadamer's Truth and Method and beyond, that the necessity of "reading as" (in the dual sense that we must "read as" 20th-century folks and we must "read" past texts "as" conversational partners with different horizons from ours) is in fact part of what the Romantics have taught us.

Look at Coleridge's discussion of the need to bracket our opinions about Elizabethan mores in reading Shakespeare (which of course Shelley picked up), and his objections in "Satyrane's Letters" to drama that reflects the preconceptions of the audience rather than demanding an active "sacrifice" from the spectator. This is all part of a move, from Schleiermacher to Dilthey to Gadamer, to give the "human sciences" some sort of foundation different from natural science, from Coleridge's objections to the "mechanico-corpuscular philosophy" to Gadamer's objections to the representational bias of modern natural science. This tradition has been under attack in the last couple of decades because it smacks of--in fact it is-- the "aesthetic ideology"--the attempt, as Eagleton and Altieri have put it, to find a realm that will mediate between the conceptual and sensory realms that Kant is thought to have "divided." Altieri wants to get rid of the category (see "aesthetics after the aesthetic ideology" in Eldridge, ed., Beyond Representation) and Eagleton, much more gently, sees it as both enabling and disabling (in The Ideology of the Aesthetic). (Interestingly, the "conservative" Gadamer, whom Eagleton doesn't mention, is much harsher on Schiller's subjectivization of the "aesthetic" than Eagleton is).

Sorry to run on so, but the interesting thing about this thread is that it sounds as if people are willing to start thinking in these "hermeneutic" terms again, but without acknowledging (at least explicitly--maybe it's just obvious) the tradition that has been struggling with exactly the questions Ted Underwood is asking, work that is a direct legacy of "high" romanticism. As Avery pointed out, "aesthetic" tends to smack of "elitest" in many current discussions, but it's the post-Kantian attempt to give the "aesthetic" more of a mediating role between the conceptual and the sensory, the synchronic and the diachronic, the historically contingent and the trans-historical, etc., etc., (specifically in the hermeneutic tradition) that enables us to talk about interpretation without being stuck in the binaries of sympathy versus judgment, historical objectivity versus subjective response, etc. That's why it may not be quite right to talk of "solutions" to problems of "incoherence." Most poetic "solutions" (for example, Wordsworth's Excursion as a "solution" to the problem of how to write a philosophical poem) raise as many problems as they do "solve" old ones. The language of problem and solution, while it is obviously essential to poetic techne, ignores the side of interpretation that can't be discussed in terms of instrumental reason (which is why Gadamer connects hermeneutics to Aristotle's phronesis, as opposed to techne). If culture is thought of only in terms of production, of course, then only techne counts, but that cuts off exactly the kind of historically flexible hermeneutic that Ted and others seem to be looking for. I'm certainly not saying that the hermeneutic tradition is the answer--it certainly has its own blindnesses--but I'd at least like to put in a plea for the (neglected) tradition that has addressed these issues most specifically.

Dave Haney

I have nothing very profound to say about Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat in the wake of Jerome McGann's paragraph except to agree with it. Through the experience of listening many times to the old Caedmon recording of Alfred Drake reading a substantial portion of the sequence (which prompted me to make one of my earliest independent book purchases, a copy of the old Peter Pauper Press edition of the poem, very inexpensive when I was in 8th grade), I had most of that poem "by heart" when I was in high school (and was fascinated by the "problem" faced by the young hero of O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness because his surrounding adults found the poem at least slightly suspect if not downright immoral--but then William Gass reminds us in On Being Blue that it was a blue book at that time) (How pleasant to have been able to contemplate the possibility of being corrupted.) There was no one in my family who would ever have imagined that reading poems to children would be a worthwhile thing, but they at least guessed I would enjoy the sound of others reading--along with the Drake Rubaiyat and the inevitable Dylan Thomas, I also had Tyrone Power reading bits of Byron and so, along with the Fitzgerald, I had Power's sardonic cadences in my head as he read about Juan and Donna Julia (and I was saved the embarrassment of mispronouncing Juan's name later on)--but for whatever reason (I won't explore it here) "Sohrab and Rustum" never caught me.

In the context of the discussion of shifting aesthetic responses, I might say that I have never lost or outgrown my love of the Rubaiyat in spite of many other changes of taste (and of course my sense of Byron has changed radically, but that's a different story). Since I am more properly located in the 18th century, however, I can say that those of us who have never believed that our century was an age of prose, and who have worked to convey the joys of Shenstone and the Wartons as well as of Johnson and Gray, have perhaps a different perspective on the major/minor issues so brilliantly discussed here. (The gender and class issues certainly apply to anthologies of the long 18th as well.) But this is a posting lite, so I will leave it here.

Tom Dillingham

On the other hand, or possibly it's the same hand, Ezra Pound repeatedly praises Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat in ABC of Reading for reasons that may fit in here--"Try to find out why the Fitzgerald Rubaiyat has gone into so many editions after having lain unnoticed until Rossetti found a pile of remaindered copies on a secondhand bookstall" (79-80).

(I am trying to decide if it is suicidal to respond to Nan by admitting that my first exposure to Dante was in Longfellow's translation. pace Pinsky.)

Tom Dillingham

I find that the reaction against recitation dates from much later than the early Modern -- the beat poets recited, and so did most of their opponents. It is easy to find people in along the Eastern seaboard of the US who recited when younger. I can remember conversation peppered with whole Shakespeare speeches, and sonnets from Petrarch.

On the other hand at a certain point it stopped. I know poets who were surprised when I asked them to recite their work. Certainly not the 1920's. Consider that the early modern in fact produced several serious surveys of recited poetry, both in Western and canonical areas-- and in folk and non-western sources.

I am not sure what made this particular pendulum swing the way it did -- I know that by my schooling years recitation of poetry was never asked for -- I was not asked until second year of Latin to recite anything, anywhere.

This particular pendulum is also swinging back -- attend a poetry slam -- or listen to the radio. . . .

But enough anecdote and to the point. Many Romantic poets where intensely oral poets, or drew from material that was intensely oral. Even if they did not know it at the time: I am thinking specifically of Homer, the depth of whose non-written nature has only become clear in this century. The entire Romantic movement had as one of its principles getting back to the folk culture-- that is an oral culture. Not only the poetry of Burns, but also the settings of folk melodies by Beethoven, and the collecting of the tales first learned form nurses and then reconstituted into middle class versions and set down by the Brother's Grimm. This oral structure is essential to understanding of works.

[. . . . portion of post omitted here]

I would say with all due respect for Mr. Underwood's very astute observations about the period that Robinson executed something that was highly valued in her period --a transition between two contrasting regions, which are not only metaphoric --but underlined by a variety of technical devices. The technique clarifies what the pure expression might seem lacking. This sort of section -- transition-section is found not only in poetry, but in the style of music practiced by Mozart and Haydn and in neo-classical architecture. The musicality of the lines make what seems to be a binary form into a trianary one --with a transitional section which pivots the metaphor from concrete person with abstract qualities to those qualities also become concrete.

Stirling S. Newberry

Jerome McGann's "pedagogical necessity" of classes in "recitation" (even the word itself smacks of a schoolmarm aesthetic distasteful to anyone who "learned" poetry in a university) is a necessity I feel as well, but also raises for me the question of what kind of recitation. If we've lost or at least become remote from the aural appreciation of poems depreciated in the university for most of the twentieth century, haven't we also lost the kind of recitation once presumably common? Yeats's well-known comment, on his BBC recordings, that he will read his poems as "poems" before he proceeds to chant (or whatever he was doing, with that hum that accompanies his reading) seems to allude to some school tradition of what most twentieth-century readers and teachers have always denigrated as "mechanical." Pound himself, interested in "rhetoric" at Wabash, always read his own poetry like someone who was echoing a highly formalised method of recitation he might have inherited from his schoolteachers (although Yeats's own reading also probably affected him). Over and over as a child and a student I was told to ignore the insistence of meter and line breaks. But I suspect that most pre-twentieth-century poets heard their own poems with a beat close to this vilified "mechanical" sound. I can hear it even in Tennyson's extremely scratchy recordings. Yes, let's redeem Longfellow and Kilmer and even "O Captain! My Captain!"

Mark Baker

Well, I should have mentioned this sooner--over the past two years there have been many accounts, on Milton-L, of marathon readings of Paradise Lost sponsored by Milton courses--somewhat parallel, I suppose, to the reading aloud of Joyce's Ulysses on Bloomsday. Every account of these has emphasized the enthusiasm and the "revelations" that accompanied these reading, and though I have never sponsored a fullscale version of it, my own experience teaching Milton (and Blake, maybe especially Blake) is that reading the poems aloud in a group is absolutely essential. For that matter, I would say the same of Wordsworth and on and on. I wonder if this thread is prompting admission of something that many of us practice but do not discuss at conferences or in essays. The most I have heard of this is the expression of horror that results almost invariably from the first time a teacher asks students to read aloud; the teacher runs in pain from the halting, uncomprehending and awkward reading styles of today's students--such listening tells us, I suspect, things we don't want to know about how our students respond (or do not respond) the their reading assignments. But the message of that experience should be precisely what Jerome McGann and several others have now described--we must prompt our students to read aloud (not only poetry, by the way, I also insist on it in my essay course and would in fiction) and we must not retreat in sickened defeat after the first debacle. (Only my theater students read smoothly and coherently, but that is the opposite end of the spectrum--they have learned in acting class to sight-read to perfection, and they pay absolutely no attention to what they are reading; I don't mean to put down my theater students--they are bright and interested, but you can't trust their recitation skills to carry over to comprehension or retention of the text.) Of course today's students have no notion of how to read aloud, much less recite. More reason for us to move ahead. Blake tells us Urizen shut the ears and the mouth (too often people assume the eyes are the only door of perception Blake alluded to); we can open them.

Tom Dillingham


A last note on our discussion of Hemans, Robinson, Longfellow, et al.--of poetry and history, overall--as I go off still pondering contributors' stunning explications of musical and semantic techne and hermeneutic and performative reading.

Alan Liu caught me out, as I sensed someone would and should, referring to "early" and "later" romanticism without enough performative cues of my own. In truth, I'm not one to be invested in primogenitural "generations" or or other such (psycho)biographical constructs. On the other hand, Ted Underwood has shown (in his generous response to my questions) that literary study can and must benefit from focusing on "differences" within such large historical moments as the "romantic" and the "modern." His words on the (d)evolution of the ode circa 1800 intrigue me, as one who's (recklessly) asked students (in "Early Romantic Poetry and Prose") to read Coleridge's set of odes in a similar spirit (in Perkins: "Departed Year," "France," in Solitude"--this last too an ode, as I construe it).

Ted offers much on the aesthetic shift here from omniscience to first person --though I suspect my interest in these terms is (yes, Alan) keyed to contemporary discourse, specifically, my students' fiction-reader default drive. Stirling Newberry does much too with this period-specific techne in his Mozart analogy. Since for me Mozart signals a class-shift in musical production (from church & prince patronage to the bourgeoisie), I've only just begun to rethink the aesthetic turns we're noting in the 1790s. I'll probably go on describing the odal shift as from-Pindaric-to-Horatian--but a description is not an explanation.

Craig Hamilton of U. Mass.. Boston's doctoral program was doing some interesting work on Hemans's Mozart "Requiem" poem and Mozart's musicianship. It was on the web at one point...

Inspired by the fruits of this work within (roughly) the 1790s time-frame, I'll continue to want to register key working differences within the "larger" ("longer"; what you will) Romantic period. My eye here, again, is on historical (in something of a conventional use of the term) differences rather than those within the agon of influence we usually think of as "early" vs. "later" Romantic generations. I have in mind (and actually, in a place or two, in print) following through in literary study on the historical project declared in 1923 by Elie Halevy in his The Liberal Awakening (1815- 1830) (I would back-date his watershed to the Peninsular War). Enough on that for now.--

A program of equal attention to differences within and between historical moments requires more agility than perhaps anyone ought to have. Our discussion has, perhaps more than anything, called attention to the ways that that footwork is 'always already' choreographed for the performative and hermeneutic protocols that we find ourselves using. David Haney spoke well about the latter relational schema, following our discussion of "sympathy" in "reading as," etc. Besides picking up all the books he mentioned, I have in mind here (as we discuss sentiment both naive and knowing) that I should "pick up my" Schiller, too. In making this list, I'll remember to add, and recommend to David and others in case they haven't seen it, Julie Ellison's 1990 Delicate Subjects: Romanticism, Gender, and the Ethics of Reading, a tripartite book divided into sections on Schleiermacher, Coleridge, and Fuller. Julie should return those discussants who favor "feeling" as well as performances of feeling (Alan Richardson, did I gather that you may be one of those?) to a lively enjoyment of emotion and is and, yes, in a discussion provoked at least in part by the "difference" that 'gender' makes in our reading of Romantic writing, in referring us to Ellison's work I return my thoughts to gender as a recurrent dimension, whether in the hermeneutics or performances; or (to posit a zero-degree bedrock of material life as a sine qua non) as the material interests that were Hemans's donnee, I'll argue (the disposition of women). These interests are my own (not cynically, I hope) as a feminist and materialist critic who inserts women and (as of now) middle-class writers and their "attitudes" into the conversation.

Our conversation about the difference that women writers and middle-class aesthetics make to the other protocol "performance" is one that's somehow just beginning. "The Organization Man" meets Anne Sexton, perhaps--whose poetry gave Conrad Susa a marvelous libretto for Transformations, performed at Opera Thea. of St. Louis in a postmodern style that (pace Avery) seemed an achieved rather than embryonic idiom after all. For now, I'm going to hold tight to what's come of Alan & Alan & Jerry's readings for "personas of feeling," a construct that well represents the "difference" within Hemans's profoundly skeptical yet oceanically emotional work and is add Mark Baker's questions about modernist reading performance.

One arena that in our conversation has combined the hermeneutic and performative is the parent-child "scene." Hemans's mother & daughter in "The Memorial Pillar," Alan Liu's son & mother, Alan R's. "dads & kids". Tom Dillingham might be happy to count me as another one who'd go to Longfellow's Dante over Pinsky's (the Atlantic Monthly posted a selection of L's. 1864 work on its [Atlantic Unbound] site, for those who want to see what we mean) and also to know that children's television is slated to present "The Courtship of Myles Standish" on Wishbone, for whom I've been doing some consulting. With any luck, Evangeline can't be far behind.

I'm doubting that even the narrative Hemans will bid for children's TV, however, just as her "bitter happenings" (in my student's phrase) edited her out of hymnals.

With Hemans and Longfellow foregrounded, would anyone like to talk about the false (a strong word; I'll use it) distinction between British and American poetry of the nineteenth century? A distinction that has hampered the study of women poets on both sides of the Atlantic. The discipline that Emerson seemed to want to impose on prose-writers and poets alike--write American-- doesn't appear to me to have worked very well. For another day...

Nan Sweet


A surprising number of us have been contributing to the thread on Hemans and sentiment together with its various spin-offs. The richness of the thread, I think, has to do with the fact that it simultaneously (though perhaps not identically) challenges "non-canonical" and "canonical" Romanticisms. The question about how it is possible to read Hemans today may be expressed in two general forms: why do we now read an allegedly sentimental non-canonical Romantic author? why have we ever read any Romanticism with its tears for the meanest flower that blows? The thread is a live one, in other words, because it has the potential to stitch the newer and older approaches to Romanticism into a single inquiry. The inquiry may be put as follows: how can the challenge of the non-canonical to the canonical be constructively posed so as to ward off (as if by homeopathy) a larger challenge: the tendency of modernity to marginalize past epochs of "feeling" both non-canonical and canonical. "Feeling," ultimately, is just the tip of the iceberg whose underlying nine-tenths (in the vocabulary of various methods) is mentality, episteme, lifeworld, habitus, structure of feeling, and (of older vintage, but I am thinking of Norbert Elias) civilization and is all of that is at stake in an age of "global competition" when caring for any sort of sensibility, let alone past ones that worried about "caring," is not our business. (Read a single one of the millennial business bestsellers of recent years, for example, to get a feel for how "Workplace 2000" and everything-else-2000 is imagined to delete the relevance of all past ways of life.)

So: the various threads that have spun off from the Hemans and sentiment discussion have been chasing around in my head. In particular, the hermeneutics of sympathy issue (with its implicit skepticism of any sort of historical understanding) has been troubling me; and I also kept having the feeling that this was all tied in somehow to the oral-recitation issue that sprang into existence in the space between Jerome McGann's first message titled "Longfellow" (where the pivotal concept was how to read in "sympathy") and his second message on "Longfellow" (where "how to read" became how to "recite"). Meanwhile, Alan Richardson's excellent questions regarding my earlier posting were chasing me around as well.

Enter: the mouse. I had dinner over the weekend at a colleague's house in Montecito. Their cat, which had a reputation for bringing bloody gifts to table during social events, lived up to its fame that night and chased a mouse onto the patio where we were seated. Despite how cliched such chases are made out to be in cartoons, those of you who have seen this kind of thing up close (I myself was accustomed for many years to living with a cat in the countryside) will know that the event has a terrible, unbelievably quick, "inhuman" rhythm of violence about it. We were all appalled--though to different degrees and at different intervals (timed to how close the chase got to our table). It was said explicitly by someone: "don't you feel for that mouse?" Eventually, just before the catastrophe, somebody grabbed the cat by the tail and let the mouse escape--at which point, with the cat looking incredulously and frantically about for its lost prey, the sentiment became: "poor cat."

The mouse, Alan Richardson's mention of Home for a Bunny, the lesson about cruelty to animals in Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life, and the well-known but (in the U.S., anyway) rarely-recited Burns poem, "To a Mouse," combined to incite the following fugue. This is yet another provisional answer--among others I have attempted--to the question, "how do we have a 'sense,' a feeling for the historical other?"

Alan Richardson asked: "Could Alan 'read' a Hollywood film like a friend of his mother's he never actually met but frequently heard about (from his mother, of course)? But surely no one alive today can 'read for' a Romantic-era child, my wishful reconstructions and E.D. Hirsch's 'objective interpretation' notwithstanding?"

This question shows forcefully that the Hemans and sentiment discussion--as subsequently pointed out by several contributors to this list (esp. David Haney)--eventually opens into the broadest sorts of questions about hermeneutics. I will not try to address this issue with anything like philosophical rigor because I am not competent in the literature and thus (for that reason, and not necessarily for any reason having to do with the Continental as opposed to Anglo-American provenance of such philosophy) would only be able to move in directions that "get unreal" pretty quickly.

Let me just say, then, that my feeling about the paradoxes and circularities of the hermeneutical question is always that there are more, and less, helpful ways to pose them. I would not be brave enough to risk the essentialism required to disagree with the following conclusion implied, I take it, in Alan R.'s question: "no one alive today can read for [i.e., reconstruct] a Romantic-era child." But I would point out that it makes a great deal of difference where one places the emphasis in such a conclusion. The temptation is to place the emphasis solely on the "today," thus defining the hermeneutical problem as an impasse of understanding/feeling between past and present. But this is to miss the fact that we always do reconstruct the romantic child (excuse my falling momentarily into this neo-pragmatist mode of argument, which usually gives me the shudders) and that the crucial questions thus have to do with how the reconstruction occurs and who is doing the reconstructing. (Recent controversies regarding family values and the protection of children on the Internet are apropos.) So rather than let scholarly scrupulousness paralyze us from considered attempts at historical reconstruction, I would interpret the conclusion differently by placing the emphasis instead on the article "a" ("a Romantic-era child"). "A" is not "the."

What I mean by this can be elucidated by means of my cat-and-mouse fable. (For a more scholarly example, one could cite the mysteriously deep "feeling" George Stubbs expressed for the zebras, monkeys, and other animals in his paintings--a feeling to which I once devoted a lecture in the biography section of my Age of Johnson course.) This is about as stark a test-case as could be invented for the sentiment problem (how one feels for someone else) as it spills over into the hermeneutical problem (how we now feel for a past poet's expressed feelings for someone else). On the one hand, it is hard to say that there is any meaningful or verifiable way in which we actually "feel" for that mouse in the clutches of the cat. But on the other hand, it is just as clear that there is a meaningful sense in which we feel not for that mouse ("the" mouse) but for the species mouse (more accurately: for the-individual-mouse-representing-mice-representing-mammals). Laws, environmental and otherwise, are built on such class distinctions, generalizations, and affiliations.

Now consider that "Romantic-era child." By and large (unless the surviving biographical documentation is very dense, and probably not even then) there is no meaningful or verifiable way in which we can think/feel ourselves back to the mentality of any particular child ca. 1800. We have trouble enough doing so with our own children or, for that matter, anyone--even without the complications raised by psychoanalysis or those who question whether there is "a" subjectivity to be found there at all. (I was present at a wild encounter with Marvin Minsky recently, he of artificial-intelligence fame and The Society of the Mind. His take on why there is no subject but only a "society" of mental apparatuses makes all the various poststructuralisms look tame.) But depending on the full range of evidence both biographical and what might be called "trans-biographical"--economic, demographic, artifactual, architectural, etc.--there is a meaningful way in which we can think/feel ourselves back to the mentality of "a" historical child (species: child). This is because the standard of verification is different (general probability rather than specific certainty) and the kind of conclusions (legal, political, aesthetic, etc.) we hope to influence are different, too.

The construction of past sensibility, I would thus hope, is not an all-or-nothing affair. Rather, it is a set of graduated scales along such axes as specificity/generality, individual/species, certainty/probability, etc. Moreover, I would not want the parameters of the question to be restricted to empirical or descriptive measures. The fully hermeneutical scope of the issue only arises because the how-one-feels-for-someone-else issue necessarily spills over into the how- we-now-feel-for-a-past-poet's-expressed-feelings-for-someone-else issue. That is, the empirical question of how well our construction of a past sensibility matches that actual sensibility overlaps with the question of how well our construction matches past constructions of that sensibility.

In the Hemans poem I cited, therefore, the issue is not just how true the poet's feeling is to the sentiment of the Countess of Pembroke (who created the memorial for her mother); it is also how the feeling of the poet intervenes (whether in sympathy, with additional coloring, irony, or whatever) in the whole telescoped series of past or contemporaneous constructions of that feeling (the Countess's "memory" of her feeling, Samuel Roger's poem mentioning the memorial in question, Wordsworth's Intimations ode, and so on). This, by the way, is also an indirect answer to Alan Richardson's other questions--in particular, "Does that mean we can best (only?) appreciate sentimental writing that enacts our own knowingness, mirrors our split reading 'for' feeling position?" It has been argued with what seems to me total persuasiveness that there is no "original" emotion at all that is not itself always a "split reading" of this sort participating in a series of social constructions of emotion. (This is why the theory of emotion in our time is different from the emotion recollected in tranquillity theory: because there is no original feeling that is different in kind from the subtle self-splitting and representational intricacy ["an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation"] required for the Wordsworthian poet's reduplication of feeling.) I am referring here to one of the most brilliant and wise books on the topic I know: Arlie Russell Hochschild's The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1983). Hochschild's book is based on her research into how contemporary businesses no longer simply suppress emotion on the job; increasingly they appropriate what she calls "emotional labor." Her grand example, which she researched first-hand, is the airline industry's systematic appropriation of the emotions of stewardesses (she is also interested in bill-collectors, who are in the same situation even though it is their unfriendly emotions that are commercialized). The reason this book has had such an influence in the social sciences as well as in the general reading audience is that it builds around its topic a powerful, theoretically-informed, and meditative understanding of what "emotion" is. One of Hochschild's deepest theses is that there is no emotion as such that is not caught up in a perpetual dynamic of "feeling rules"--i.e., of negotiations between "what I think I feel" and "what I think (from others) I should feel." All the important life-events, in her view, are fraught with such splittings when emotionality becomes social construction, never simply individual or essential experience.

So I am arguing that "feeling" for "past feeling" as well as for "past feeling for feeling"--and, most broadly, for "mentality"--is pragmatically possible as long as we keep in mind what such sympathy means. It means that the hermeneutical issue in its past-vs.-present (or other-vs.-self) aspect is insoluble unless it is it is integrated with the part-vs.-whole aspect of the same issue. Past and present, in other words, cannot be bridged unless we in the present are willing to "go out of ourselves"; and what this means is that we must go out of our individual selves to think ourselves part of a collective mentality (or mentalities) that engages with past mentalities at the collective level. We have to be willing to socialize in the first place, in short, in order to think how the past and the present are social and not alien relations to each other. This is another way of saying, as I suggested in my previous posting, that I think the proper scale of sociality on which to relate "our present" sensibility to "their [Hemans' and her audience's] past" sensibility is class (though certainly, if not clearly commensurable with class, sex is also an important genus-level category).

After all, the attempt to negotiate a common "feeling" between Hemans as individual and the individual modern anti-sentimentalist would be doomed to failure not just on empirical grounds or general hermeneutical grounds but for the following reason. Resting the case on how one individual relates to another in the past buys into views of individualism that were constitutive of both past sentimentality and our modern hostility to sentimentality. (In the past, one was fully an individual subject only if one "felt" intersubjectively; in present popular culture, one is fully individual only if one is "cool," as unreadable as Clint Eastwood, or wears sunglasses at one's own wedding.) In short, precisely because many of us entered this field in the first place because we "felt for feeling" the way the Romantics did, we would do well to battle the sense that we as individuals felt the way they did. That is the only way to know the relation--of sameness and difference--between what they and we (in the collective) felt.

So Alan Richardson shows me wrong on the following score in my previous posting: "reading for" one's own child is not necessarily the same as "reading for" a person of Hemans' time. We can only truly stand "for" the feeling of the latter as a collective "we" facing the "we" in which they too stood.

One crucial implication of this line of thought: what our recent interest in the non-canonical authors should teach us is that the Big Six canonical romantics were never the individuals we have made them out to be. It is no embarrassment to say that one is reading Hemans "as a woman," I suggest, if one is also aware that one was never reading Wordsworth as an individual. The canonical poets got to be canonical, of course, because they came to stand for class, sex, nation, and other collective constructs. This is why there is no canonical poet who is not embedded through a carefully regulated scale of socialities ("circle," "intellectuals," "rentier class," "English," etc.) in the collectivity that is the foundation of our own identity. The question becomes: how, if at all, is the perceived relation between individuality and sociality in the non-canonical authors different from that in the canonical authors?

And one other loose end that I won't be able to tie up here: it strikes me, in the wake of Levinas, that besides the problem of the hermeneutics of historical sympathy there is also the problem of the ethics of such sympathy. When I originally supposed a mode in which we read "for" or "for the sake of" someone (one's child, one's mother, etc.), I was of course implying--as Alan Richardson points out--that we must "reconstruct" an image or imago of that someone. But it is not the case that the necessity of such a reconstruction (which has to do with our mental inability to function intersubjectively without having at least some loose sense of the "other") is the same as a necessary relation between our reconstruction and that other. This is a crucial distinction. Consider, for example, the logical analogy between feeling "for" a mouse, reading "for" an infant, reading "for" someone who has died, or reading "for" one's God. Considered ethically, the "going out of oneself" I mentioned earlier involves a sacrificial act, an offering up. One may indeed have an idea of the other or (thinking of Levinas) Other to whom one is offering up a reading or feeling, but the quality of such an offering as an ethical act inheres precisely in the fact that there is no necessary relation between one's idea of the other and that offering. The offering is obliged on the basis of an otherness that is as if blank, unknowable.

Here are two passages from the Romantic era that bring together many of the themes above.

The first I will have to describe from memory, because I no longer have the text available. I hope my memory is not faulty. It's the episode from Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life (one of her books for children) where Mrs. Mason, the governess of two orphan girls (orphaned of their mother) teaches them why they should not be cruel to insects and other animals. (Such lessons about animals, I remember, were a consistent strand in civilizing works of the 18th century.) This lesson occurs in the middle of an extraordinary number of lessons on how the middle class should be kind to the poor (and, not accidentally, how the poor are often unkind both to themselves and others). Such lessons are the exempla for the central lesson of the work, which as I understand it is the association between being "proper" citizens of the middle class and "feeling." (The emphasis on feeling comes to a head in Mrs. Mason's flashback to the death of her child--a remarkably effective chapter that is as full of the "pathetic fallacy" as one could wish [quoting from my mention of it in my book]: "I lost a darling child . . . in the depth of winter . . . I was unhappy, and the sight of dead nature accorded with my feelings.") We are in the presence, again, of that "mouse" and that "Romantic-era child."

The second passage is the Burns poem--the first two stanzas:

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
      Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
      Wi' murd'ring pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
      Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
      An' fellow mortal!

These passages, one might imagine, would both make the modern anti-sentimentalist choke on their combination of unverifiable sentiment (how really does that insect or mouse feel?) and didacticism, i.e., "construction" of feeling. But actually they don't both have this effect (at least in my experience). What is different, most obviously, is that Wollstonecraft in her work sounds very much like middle-class "schmaltz" (I am speaking here just of her language, which is only in minor ways different from what someone in a schmaltzy movie of the 40s or 50s era would say), whereas Burns definitely sounds different (if not homogenously so). Somehow (if my admittedly limited experience teaching this poem is accurate) the experience and difficulty of reciting the Burns poem innoculates it from the critique of anti-sentimentality.

So I have a friendly question for those (like myself) who believe in reciting/performing poetry in class. (You should hear my comical attempts at reciting this poem, only somewhat more comical than my non-specialist's attempts at Beowulf; and, of course, I know some Britishers think any American attempt of this sort, let alone one of hybrid ancestry such as mine, is comical.) On the one hand, the attempt in our present vernacular to recite Burns' vernacular is analogous to the supposedly failed attempt of cool modernity to sympathize with past sentimentality. But on the other hand, our failure to recite Burns' poem properly produces delightful frisson rather than skepticism or condescension. The entire experience (I have obviously not described it adequately) is different. (Apologies to Jerome McGann if he has already covered this kind of topic; I haven't yet gotten hold of his new book.)

My question is: what actually is it that reciting poetry (as recommended in the sub-thread on this issue) is meant to do? My hypothesis--governed, of course, by the need for consistency with my present orbit of issues--is that the return to recitation is only secondarily about forging a link of understanding/feeling between present individual readers and past poets in their specific conjunctures. Rather, the overriding experience in the act of recitation is the encounter with the institution of schooling (as witnessed in the sub-thread's concern over the fact that recitation fell out of favor because of past pedagogical technique). We are not so much staging an encounter with the past, that is, as with our own institutions. Or put more accurately, and in line with my thoughts above about collective hermeneutics: we are staging an encounter with past sensibility through the medium of the larger-than-individual agencies that shape our present class and other collective identities: viz., institutions, among which the humanistic school prior to the age of "performative knowledge" (Lyotard) or technically "excellent knowledge" (Bill Readings) became the great "civilizing" and "socializing" agency designed to teach us to go out of ourselves and feel for others.

Alan Liu

" . . . delete the relevance of all past ways of life."

I think that Alan over-reaches here -- the Modern does not dismiss all emotion -- it dismisses certain kinds of emotion and elevates other kinds. It dismisses certain kinds of sensibilities -- and elevates others. "Cool" is a sensibility, nothing else. The sense of being "logical" is in itself an emotional experience. Much modern criticism really boils down to a quote-emote-gloat pattern: an aspect of a work to be praised is show, the writer rhapsodizes over some feature of that quote -- and then puts down competing value systems for no understanding such glories.

Secondly Romanticism does not always "cry for the meanest flower that blows"-- but very often is making a larger point in a very small instance. The Robinson poem is a very simple example -- she draws a comparison between a person's glance and the sun pouring fourth between the clouds to support a conviction that genius does not come from the soul -- but instead inhabits it . The story of the cat and the mouse he recounts later is in fact a good example of the mechanism at work: people often cannot grasp the larger implication, but when focused on a specific example they can feel -- and then associate that feeling with the large whole. The modern again does this -- but does so in different ways and for generally different ends. But it is not that the basic mechanism is different -- merely that it is invoked by different means and by different images.

It is this confusion that is important to straighten out -- because invariably in a discussion of the value of the pre-Modern there will be a direct attack on the pre-Modern, in very emotional terms, that equates any backsliding with "weakness" and all of the evils of the pre-Modern. The archetype for this attack will be Nietzche's "The Case of Richard Wagner" -- especially the prolog and the last epilog. One can see from reading this attacks that they are in fact quite emotional, as based on sensibility as anything in the 1780-1850 period, and more so than most.

There are reasons for this-- reasons which derive their vehemence from necessity, but one of the reasons that a reevaluation of the past is in progress is simply because many of those necessities are no longer fully in force. Dogma created to deal with the emerging modern is not always the best dogma to deal with the modern ascendant.

Thus I feel much of his discussion about reconstruction of the past can be answered thusly --the basic sinews of human reaction are the same --but they are connected differently in different eras, and different eras condone and condemn them in different ways. But the very means of connection and the very means of condoning and condemning are in themselves still basic reactions. The search for the essential mechanism in the artifact from an era -- whether it is symbolic, emotional or social -- goes a long way to bringing one to the point of being able to understand why something was done the way it was done. This understanding may not bring sympathy -- indeed actions which seem innocuous to the present can become pregnant with very dark overtones -- but it does act as solution to the Gordian knot of hidden knowledge -- because the knowledge wasn't hidden -- it was assumed.

Stirling S Newberry

Both Alan Liu and Jerry McGann refer to recitation as a way to engage students in being better able to "feel" literature. McGann stresses both his own and that of his students. Liu refers to his own recitations. I have never tried having the students recite, but have used my own recitation for some time (out of ego, I don't know). A number of times, in the ends of semester evaluations, students have written something to this effect. "He doesn't go beyond the book. He reads back what I have already read." A rather damning statement if taken too literally, but so far it hasn't deterred me. Perhaps it should. Of course I should add that I do go beyond the book to establish the proper biographical historical backgrounds. But, I attempt to use these recitations to find a way to communicate the universality of certain human feelings regardless of who feels them and when.

Avery Gaskins

I have appreciated the recent discussion of recitation in the classroom. Here, we have what might be termed an "introduction to the profession" course at the sophomore level. We begin the course with a study of poetry, and our goal is to teach the students not only the skills necessary to formulate critiques of all aspects of poetry but also the skills needed to present effectively poetry to others. We require that students memorize twenty lines of poetry and that they present this memorization to the class in dramatic form. This process continues throughout the semester, and the professor in each class begins with his or her own presentation and is after the presentation, the student takes a few minutes to discuss the various decisions the student had to make in the course of preparing the presentation. Such a discussion (which is also submitted as an essay) cajoles the students into thinking about all aspects of the poem. These presentations, of course, commence after the unit on poetry has been completed. We have found that this practice sculpts the students' critical skills; in the process, most students, through such close acquaintance with poetry, begin to understand why they like to read and others come to that awareness and is as goofy as it may sound to some, our intent was to get students "up close and personal" to literature so that they could understand why they love it and communicate that love to others. Like Jerry McGann, I learned to love poetry from my parents who, though for the most part unschooled, loved literature, recited it, and thereby transmitted their love to me. The premise here is that we can do the same in the classroom. By the way, quite a few of the professors here have looked to the Theatre Dept. to improve their own presentational skills, something that others might want to try. The sessions can be quite revealing personally and professionally.

Kerry McKeever


In the context of Alan Liu's latest provocative musings, I would like to second the value of this discussion in combining "old" and "new" approaches. And in the same spirit I second Nan Sweet's recommendation of Julie Ellison's Delicate Subjects, which, serendipitously, I have been trying to come to terms with in the last few weeks. Also, as Alan Liu implies, we need to look closely at the supposed opposition between "sympathy" and "history," which is itself a huge issue in 19th-c. hermeneutics, moving from Schleiermacher's notion of sympathy-with-the-author (shared by Coleridge) to Dilthey's and others' attempts to historicize that psychological approach more "objectively," to Gadamer's attempt, after Heidegger, to subordinate the individual subject to the "play" of the historical "conversation" that is always more comprehensive than the individual "horizons" of either the past author/text or the present interpreter. Sympathy does not drop out here, but it becomes very much integrated with historical difference.

The ethical implications are, as Alan suggests, complexly intertwined with all this, since the hermeneutic "conversation" puts us in the position of treating the past author as an "other" in Levinas's sense of the "infinity" of the other, to whom we have an ethical obligation not to reduce him/her to a conceptual scheme, even one of reciprocity. This is a hot issue in modern hermeneutics, with especially the later Gadamer discussing the "other" of the conversational partner in terms that echo Levinas, and even more recently with Paul Ricoeur's study of ethics and hermeneutics in Oneself as Another (which engages Levinas directly. It is also an issue for the romantics; as Laurence Lockridge has shown in Coleridge the Moralist and The Ethics of Romanticism, Coleridge's "self-consciousness," with all the dialectical hermeneutics wrapped up in that concept, is grounded on "conscience," which he defines explicitly as relations to the other.

This is all very exciting for me, since I'm just finishing up a book manuscript on ethics and hermeneutics in Coleridge (using a lot of Gadamer, Levinas, and Ricoeur), in which I make some effort (given the limitations of my knowledge of the "new" side of things) to do the kind of new-old connection that this thread is effecting.

I also make my students memorize and recite poems. But for me this has several purposes. One is, as others have said, that it gets them into the foreign experience of reading, rather than skimming (for the sophomores) or jumping immediately to theory (for the upper-division and graduate students). (I'm sure I'm not alone in having had to explain that the "sounding cataracts" haunting Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" were not eye problems). But I think one effect of this exercise is to emphasize the foreignness of the experience--that it is worth reading this old "sentimental" stuff precisely because it engages you in a conversation with an "other" who is not like you--it's not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, or even sympathizing or not sympathizing, but of getting into a historical conversation that is bigger than you are. This does not need to lead to slavish respect for canonical authors--as Levinas (especially as read by Simon Critchley, in The Ethics of Deconstruction) points out, the asymmetry of the ethical connection prevents this, and (in Gadamer's terms) the conversation always goes both ways. This experience of the foreignness of memorizing and recitation can lead to interesting discussions of "difference" in prosody itself (see Brennan O'Donnel's book on Wordsworth's prosody, The Passion of Meter on this).

Dave Haney

Just writing to recommend "Burns's Art Speech," Seamus Heaney's essay on "To a Mouse" in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority ed. Robert Crawford (U of Edinburgh Press, 1997). I think Iowa is distributing this book in the US. Heaney talks about encountering Burns's poem in a schoolbook, and has quite a lot to say about "och!" in the final stanza, as well as about the language of the first line. He assumes recitation would be part of studying Burns, as that is how as a schoolboy he studied Burns in Northern Ireland.

Burns's poems, so many of which present themselves as speech-acts ("Address to the Deil," "The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer," etc.), truly cannot be appreciated if mutely read; they must, like his songs, be "heard." (Or, in the case of "Holy Willie's Prayer," overheard.) Alan Liu asks: "What actually is it that reciting poetry (as recommended in the sub-thread on this issue) is meant to do?" I would answer, "bring it to life." There is no way for critical interpretation to speak to an audience (of students or of critics) if the poet's voice has not registered (does not register) as a significant one. Poetry is alive when people speak it, hear it, and (especially) remember it.

Carol McGuirk

(My answer begs several large questions, I realize. But how criticism assigns status has in Burns's case very little relationship to how current his poetry is "where breath most breathes, ev'n in the mouths of men.")

Carol McGuirk's post raises the matter of poetry as performance--a point worth emphasizing. Nearly all contemporary poets "perform" poetry readings--I would say--as a way of extending their written poems and is at least since Dylan Thomas, the characteristics of a performance have counted significantly in a poet's successes (or humiliations). In the San Francisco Bay Area, the phenomenon of "street poets" has flourished in Barbary Coast days, Thirties Labor-Union days, especially during the Beat Fifties, and on into the present. Street poets may be unpublished or privately published but gain poetic reputations from their readings. Most people know the famous story of Ginsberg first reading Howlin San Francisco. The video archives of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University (founded by Ruth Witt-Diamant as a direct response to a Dylan Thomas reading) contain years of performances--hundreds of poets performing their work. This is another way recitation can be made part of the teaching of poetry in the classroom: bringing in poets to read, playing tapes of readings, or showing videos. Such "professional" performances, together with student recitations can go a long way toward solving the problem of "cataracts."

Sorry to stray from the subject that provoked this--Burns' poems as performative speech acts. I thought of Burns himself singing or reciting, and I thought of Wordsworth pacing the garden path, reciting and composing.

David Rollison


Having been away at a family funeral (my grandmother's, aged 97), I've been playing catch-up with the Hemans/Longfellow/sentiment/recitation thread and trying to cope with a wayward modem and is at the risk of placing my head firmly in the stocks, I'd like to ask a question heretofore unraised, simply, Is Hemans a very good poet? Or rather, is she good, considered strictly as a poet? Does she write good poems? If so, is she as good a poet as, say, William Wordsworth, STC, or any of the rest of the The Six (or Seven, if we include Clare, or eight, if we put in Burns)? If not, just how much space in the syllabus of the typical survey of Romantic literature, or undergraduate Brit. Lit. survey, for that matter, does she deserve?

Now I know that this question will appear to many on this List as hopelessly naive (or arrogant, or both!), that it presumes some transhistorical standard (presumably contaminated by mandarin New Critical criteria) for the evaluation of poetry, that it ignores some of the most pressing issues raised by contributors to this thread like Alan Liu, Nan Sweet, Alan Richardson, and Jerry McGann, concerning the difficulty--if not impossibility--of determining and inhabiting the horizons of reception for a particular poet in a particular social and cultural and historical moment, of reading "for" and "as," and of our obligation to make the effort to do so, that it privileges only one of several possible criteria for determining whether or not a poet or a writer is worthy of study or of inclusion in the canon or the syllabus, criteria ably described and defended by Nan Sweet and Ted Underwood--BUT (forgive me Barbara Herrnstein Smith!), let me offer a definition of what I mean by a "good poet," to wit, "a poet who exploits whatever formal resources are appropriate--e.g., pitch, accent, rhythmic and metrical variation, figure (of speech or of thought), image, stanza, form, genre, tradition, persona, allusion, to name a few, besides those shared with other genres, e.g., invention, characterization, plot, dialogue--in order to enhance reader's emotional and intellectual appreciation of the sense of the poem." Of course, I'm speaking of matters of degree, not kind, and of the apt conformation of means to chosen ends. I'm also leaving aside important questions like, "Is this poet's mind interesting, subtle, and complex?" (assuming there's an author with a "mind" in there, and not just an "author-function") for the sake of focussing on what I consider (I confess) to be transhistoric, generic essentials. Traditionally, since the days of Homer and Sappho, poets have used the resources I describe to reinforce, and ideally, to transmute into immediate emotional experience, the sense--narrative, intellectual, conceptual, moral--of the poem or the poetic moment. Poetry, more than any other genre, is privileged in this respect, that its deployment of such resources on so many levels has not only been tolerated, but welcomed as a source of intense pleasure.

Based on my knowledge of her work--and it is not anywhere near as extensive as that of many on this List, but drawn from anthologies that, I assume, represent the best of her work--Hemans doesn't exploit her poetic resources with anything like the same consistency or to the same extent as the major male poets of the Romantic period. The same goes, in my estimation, for Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and a host of other poets from the 19th century, male AND female, upper class and lower, despite their laudable intentions to move (I am indeed moved by Bryant's "Thanatopisis"), to edify, to reform, and to inform, or (as with Longfellow) to demonstrate the English potential of Native American or Icelandic meters. To take but one or two of the resources I've mentioned and evaluate Hemans's use of them: her rhythms are, for the most part, pedestrian, and her occasional deviations from established meter largely unmotivated by attempts to reinforce (rather than just acommodate) the sense of what she's saying. Her figures and imagery are, with some exceptions, shopworn. She writes in verse because, apparently, it has a certain class or gender cache, but she's not (in my estimation, and I invite her defenders to come forward, because I'm willing to be set straight) in the same poetic league as the Six. Nor is she in the same class as female poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Christina Rossetti, who lie outside the (currently shifting) boundaries of the Romantic period. (Perhaps this is unfair, and someone can provide a better basis for comparison, but as for literary virtues not specific to poetry, consider the difference in depth of characterization and its relation to context of Hemans's oft-anthologized "Casabianca"--"The boy stood on the burning deck," etc.--and Wordsworth's "Anecdote for Fathers" or "We are Seven." Alan Richardson has taught us to recognize the social and cultural constraints on Wordsworth's portraits of children, but within those constraints few can match his poetic imagination and skill.)

This is not to say that there are not perfectly legitimate reasons for including Hemans in the syllabus, or in Romantic or Victorian anthologies. I admire and teach Hemans--and Barbauld and Smith and Tighe, among others--in my Romantic survey. (Properzia Rossi compares pretty well in its representation of the conflicting claims of art and love with R. Browning's Andrea del Sarto, for instance.) There's much to be said for considering Hemans's representative value as a professional 19th-century woman poet, or her sturdy individuality of outlook, or her moral courage, or her ideological acuity, or her emotional clarity--but students (Harriet Jump has attested that this is not just my problem) inevitably get that glazed look in their eyes if I devote more than a couple of class hours in the semester to her work. The same is true of many of the lucid and direct and simple (but not simplistic) shorter lyrics of Scott, Moore, Campbell, and Byron. They are beautiful and moving, of course, but their beauty is achieved with less risk, less sophistication in the use of poetic resources, and by taking less of the wide realm of experience and sensation as their subject. Put simply, they make fewer demands on the reader and is again, perhaps it's me--I'm willing to kiss the rod if someone would like to awaken me to those poetic felicities of Hemans that have up to now escaped my notice. But when I have learned to recognize these poetic virtues, will they prove to be of such magnitude as to warrant stinting even more on the class time I would otherwise devote to WW, Keats, Shelley, or Byron?

I would like to add that I don't think my opinion of Hemans has anything to do with "cool" (male? Modernist?) academic resistance to the (female? 18th-century and Victorian?) "excesses" of emotion or of "sentiment." (I weep at AT&T commercials!) It has everything to do with the kind of "sentiment" that is particularly well-conveyed by good poetry. Since Jerry McGann has mentioned it, let's take Kilmer's "Trees" (which I remember discussing with Jerry right after his plenary talk at the 1995 NASSR conference in Baltimore County): I detest "Trees," not because it's too "emotional" or too "excessive" or because I'm afraid of or incapable of responding to "sentiment," but because Kilmer shows practically no awareness of the resources available to him--as a poet, a "maker" of verbal artifacts--for enhancing, reinforcing, or otherwise impressing upon the reader the emotional SENSE of what he is trying to say about trees and his response to them. The poem is bathetic and manipulative, not moving, because (among other reasons) kilmer's choice of form is motivated (as far as I can see) by nothing more than that form's arbitrary, enculturated class-associations with lyric sincerity and emotional intensity. The lines throughout adhere almost robotically to the assumed "rules" of tetrameter rhyme because Kilmer has fetishized rather than sought to understand the potentialities of that poetic form, and, more specifically, has failed to realize that these potentialities reside in deliberate variation, what happens when a poet "deviates into sense" (Dryden). (I'll leave the rest of the critique to Brooks and Warren.)

As for recitation aloud in class: I practice it, I recommend it: nothing brings out more clearly the differences in poetic skill between one poet and another.

Colleagues familiar with my work know that I'm as interested in current developments in literary theory, cultural critique, and the socio-economic contexts of literary production and consumption as anyone--I have even been reviled, in print, as a running dog of the mad McGann and his gang of New Historicists--and I have never hesitated to bring my interests in such matters to bear on my classroom teaching. I would be remiss in omitting them. Helping students to understand the historical contexts for the rise of "sentiment" and "sensibility," for the reception of Della Cruscan or Keepsake poetry, et al, is important, not only for our reading of such work, but for our understanding of the cultural forces shaping the production and reception of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Blake, and Byron. But I feel it's my professional duty, first and foremost, to help my undergraduate students (and some graduate students!) to understand the differences between poetry and other literary genres and, just as important, what good poetry is (in both senses, "good" and "good for"). Before I can make them care about the cultural and ideological and historical contexts of Romantic poetry, I have to give them the tools and techniques necessary to enhance the pleasure they can derive from the sheer beauty of the poem as a verbal construct that seeks, by every means available to it, to unite sound to sense in the service of feeling. Otherwise, they won't know why they should care about poetry, particularly, or why anyone else ever did. That's what got me interested in poetry in the first place--the excitement--emotional and intellectual--of encountering a text that was perfectly hitting on all cylinders, saying as much as could be said within the scope of its chosen means and ends, or in jazz parlance, "swingin'." The rest, however interesting and important to me for other reasons, comes next.

Most undergraduates nowadays have no idea how to read poetry, no idea that it has a history, no idea that it differs from prose (or MTV) except that, for some perverse reason or other, it's so "hard to get." Avery voiced some concern as to whether adherence to an aesthetic standard of selection could possibly escape being labeled "elitist." Elites resist infiltration by the masses, and one of their prime tools of resistance is the mystification and hoarding of esoteric knowledge. I have always believed that the teacher in a democratic society is supposed to disseminate her or his knowledge and skills as widely as possible, and that a teacher's worth is measured by the ability to do so and is among our acquired knowledge and skills, I hope, is the ability to tell good poetry from bad. These "elitism" charges are simply baffling to me: would other teaching professionals--in business, in computer science, in biology or astronomy or engineering--accept without protest accusations of "elitism" for perfecting and perpetuating and disseminating the knowledge and skills that they have spent a lifetime acquiring? Do we hear master carpenters criticized for "elitism" because, having been trained how to hammer a nail straight, they insist that their apprentices do likewise?

I fear it's not "sentiment" that we in the academy suspect and resist nowadays, but beauty and pleasure.

Chuck Rzepka

P.S.: Alan Richardson's and Alan Liu's speculations on reading "for" or "as" one's child or mother, and Jerry's account of how he came to a greater understanding of his mother's taste in poetry, prompt me to add that at my grandmother's funeral the mourners sang her favorite Polish Catholic hymn, "Sweetest Mother," as "schmaltzy" a song as you'll find anywhere. There was not a dry eye in the house, including mine, and not a shred of embarrassment or "resistance" to the "sentiment" it expressed. I feel profoundly grateful to my grandmother for her having included me in that particular "horizon of reception" since infancy, and for having enabled me to feel its power. However, if I were a teacher of Polish literature, I would never consider including "Sweetest Mother" on a course syllabus of Polish poetry with the likes of Mickiewicz, Herder, or Szymborska, unless it helped my students better understand their work. There's a time and place for everything, and I resent being told that my inability to sympathize with a poem like "Trees" indicates "a great weakness" in my organs of sympathy, personal or critical. Joyce Kilmer is no relative of mine.


first, let me say that what chuck writes about in the second part of his posting seems to me well said, and important to say. Important to see and realize, etc.

But I have to respond against the grain of his first set of comments. Of course. What I need to say here is that I wrote poetics of sensibility (PS) exactly to address the issues he raises there and is and what I want to ask here is: how successful was that attempt? All of the criteria chuck lays out were consciously in my mind, and it was a deliberate (and somewhat perverse) choice to cast so much of the argument in "new critical" terms. Perverse because those criteria often run counter to the conventions and premises of the poetry of sensibility and sentiment. PS was also written to encourage further work along these neglected lines of critical thinking. (I urge readers of this list to check out derek furr's recent thesis on hemans and her early critical reception, which is a splendid attempt to deal with issues of valuation -- he comes to conclusions rather like chuck's, by the way.) And it was written in the orbit of some dialogues (see below, where I talk a bit about 2 of them) that take up the critical issues at a slightly more general level than does PS. The latter's evaluative arguments invoke the discourses of (a) historicism, and (b) new criticism. Largely: the exception is the dialogue.

To the degree that the poetries of sensibility and sentiment explore a kind of "antiwriting", they share something in common with mystical poetry, which also tries to find means for putting into language what cannot be comprehended in such a form. when johnson said that religious experience is not amenable to poetry he was getting at an important issue that seems to me quite relevant to this discussion. i don't think he's right, but it's certainly the case that special forms of awareness and experience, specially intense forms, strain the resources of language even in its poetical mode. poetry of sensibility and sentiment produces such strains, and the conventions of discourse that tradition developed need to be explored and understood -- just as metaphysical and stil novisti/petrarchan conventions have to be. chuck's responses to this kind of writing have been replicated by others when they talk about petrarch and petrarchan writing, or even about stil novisti writing. We should remember that readers for a long time regarded shakespeare's sonnets as rather poor stuff. -- anyway, it's possible, it seems to me, and in any case necessary (whether or NOT it's possible), to recover an awareness of those conventions, and through that to regain the ability to read the work in the same spirit that the author writ. Whether or not it is complex and rich, as chuck asks it to be, depends to a great extend on whether or not we're prepared to find out in what ways it sought to achieve such things. Or do we think hemans and landon etc were just not as smart or sensitive as we are? For how long have people MISread william morris when he labeled himself "an idle singer of an empty day"? What IS "hellenistic" art? (Shelley's few remarks on it in the "defense" are worth pondering deeply.)

one other important matter. subjective readings, so called. this whole issue needs to be revisited. let me say something here that i left to implication in the ironies of a couple of dialogues i wrote (the one on hemans' "the homes of england" and "the alice fallacy", which centers in brooks and warren's debunking of "trees" and in that poem itself. Both of those dialogues are experiments in critical thinking, and their models were consciously wilde and poe (the latter's so-called hoaxes, and the serio-comical-critical things like "the philosophy of composition"). The dialogues ultimately pose the question: who owns our cultural heritage and who says how it can be repossessed and enjoyed and USED. (The same question is implicitly raised in PS in the discussion of the stensons's marginalia in their copy of LEL's collected works.) In the dialogues one character offers what (to another point of view) surely appears to be a deliberate travesty-reading of the two poems in question. The travesty is all but farce in "the alice fallacy". But I insist that the reading produced there is every bit as legitimate as blake's perverse reading of milton -- which we now regard so highly, though one of my greatest pleasure, reading blake, is responding to his outrageous comedies, not least those in the first third of _milton_ and of course throughout the marriage. The reading of "trees" in "the alice fallacy" is comical, it is also serious. I maintain it is every bit as serious as brooks and warren's stuffy debunking -- and better in this respect at least: it brings back a poem for our "pleasure and instruction". Brooks and warren just place an anathema upon it. (The character who produces the reading was pleased and instructed in the acts of critical reconstruction, including in the parody of brooks and warren.)

There are 2 great and irreconcilable imperatives in "reading" and criticism: to read in the same spirit that the author writ (what we now call historicism), and to seize for ourselves (personally, collectively) what has been left to us as kings' treasuries and queens' gardens and is as "teachers" we have to encourage both -- to encourage both simultaneously, to encourage both "to the limit". New critical methods saw the dangers of the second and tried to prevent them and is and the dangers are real on both sides. But "would to god that all the lord's people were prophets". The stensons' way of reading LEL is right. How we (as "teachers") help to develop that kind of passion and involvement even as we try to develop a catholic awareness of the range of possible passions, including passions that come from alien worlds and are scarcely recoverable to us, is hard and is as that grotesque sentence suggests -- let's call it an example of the"imitative fallacy".

nor is it just the "passion" for poetry that is at stake, as everyone commenting on recitation knows and is a character i know laid down a "commandment forbidding students (and anybody else) to talk about ideas in literature until they show they can sight-read fifty lines of verse without sending everyone howling from the room". its a view that has something to be said for it.

jerome mcgann

I hope this last exchange won't get us back into the infamous "culture wars". One of the exciting things (for me) about the Hemans thread was that those who posted were working their way back to finding an acommodation between the "old" theory and the "new". I should say up front that I know the "old" better than the new because "New Criticism" was the reigning theory when I was going through graduate school. But I never bought into the "intentional fallacy" or the "biographical fallacy" completely. What Romanticist could? I am still learning the "new" and on shaky grounds when I attempt to analyze it. Therefore, let me add something from the "old" scholarship that I intend to be merely helpful and not confronting. It seems to me that some of our posters are using the term "sympathy" in a way that is closer to the concept of "sympathetic imagination" well known to most of the Romantics. Its influence on the Romantics was well documented in the "New Critical" years. As I interpret the term, it is close to the way we use the term "empathy" i.e. a total identification with an "other". These attempts to "read as" seem to me to be much the same thing. In my under- graduate days, I was quite taken with Professor John Draper who was a maverick among scholars, and perhaps ahead of his time, in writing books with titles like The "Othello" of Shakespeare's Audience. But, graduate school changed all that.

Avery Gaskins

I'd like to pose a question in response to McGann's recent response to Rzepka, but I'd like to do it with some quotations. (I should read Poetics of Sensibility first, but I'm afraid the thread will have disappeared by then.)

"There are 2 great and irreconcilable imperatives in "reading" and criticism: to read in the same spirit that the author writ (what we now call historicism), and to seize for ourselves (personally, collectively) what has been left to us as kings' treasuries and queens' gardens." --McGann, NASSR post 7/25/97

"The word was not to convey merely what a certain thing is, but the very passion & all the circumstances which were conceived as constituting the perception of the thing by the person who used the word." --Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819 on Literature 1: 273.

"The Oresteia today means both more and less than it meant in 458 because its meaning--which is always localized in the present--carries along the many histories of meanings that were only initiated in the trilogy's first appearance." --McGann, "The Third World of Criticism" in Rethinking Historicism 93- 94.

"Schleiermacher . . . is wholly concerned to reconstruct the work, in the understanding, as originally constituted. . . . Ultimately, this view of hermeneutics is as nonsensical as all restitution and restoration of past life. Reconstructing the original circumstances, like all restoration, is a futile undertaking in view of the historicity of our being. What is reconstructed, a life brought back from the past, is not the original. In its continuance in an estranged state it acquires only a derivative, cultural existence. The recent tendency to take works out of museums and put them back in the place for which they were originally intended, or to restore architectural monuments to their original form, merely confirms this judgment. Even a painting taken from the museum and and replaced in a church or building restored to its original condition are not what they once were--they become simply tourist attractions. Similarly, a hermeneutics that regarded understanding as reconstructing the original would be no more than handing on a dead meaning. . . . The essential nature of the historical spirit consists not in the restoration of the past but in thoughtful mediation with contemporary life. . . . Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text belongs to the whole tradition whose CONTENT interests the age and in which it seeks to understand itself." --Hans Gadamer, Truth and Method 166-67, 168-69, 296.

Comments and question:

1. McGann's post suggests he agrees with Schleiermacher and Coleridge on the task of criticism as a reconstruction of both historical circumstance and passion.

2. McGann, like Gadamer, also sees the "meaning" of a past text as constituted by the history of its reception, as the quote from "The Third World of Criticism" suggests.

3. McGann sees the to tasks of reconstruction and "seizing for ourselves" as irreconcileable, but it's necessary to do both.

4. Gadamer agrees about the irreconcileability, but also sees the two tasks as incompatible, because he sees the romantic notion of reconstruction as essentially ahistorical, part of the--dare I say it--romantic ideology that needs to be historicized: "a life brought back from the past" is not the original life, but an "estranged" and "derivative" product. On this view, to try to seize the past while doing "objective" reconstruction is to kid ourselves about what we are seizing, even if the two tasks are put into a kind of Bakhtinian dialogue, as McGann has done.

Question: What is to prevent the reconstruction of sentiment from becoming, in Gadamer's terms, a "tourist attraction"? That is to say, how does McGann answer Gadamer's argument that the task of reconstructing the "original" is exactly what prevents us from understanding the past text as McGann would have us understand the Oresteia?

Dave Haney

i suppose i have an obligation to say something (anyhow) here.

dave haney reminds us of the presence of the hermeneutic circle. its presence affects (afflicts?) as we know any engagement of these kinds -- there is never any "presence" in the sense posed by this paradox. part of the paradox is to pose "presence" as a conceptual form. so an historical "reconstruction" is no more or less problematic than any other -- reading aeschylus is just as impossible (in the sense posed by the paradox) as reading charles bernstein.

all that seems to me well known by now.

for myself, i don't feel the force of the paradox except as a curiosity of the human mind and its passion for logic. it has the same charming irrelevance as zeno's various paradoxes. i say that by no means to denigrate "irrelevance". things of charm and irrelevance, like decorative moments in art, are human fundamentals. (i mention decorative art because relevance-focussed criticism and aesthetics tend not to appreciate or even account for "the decorative" and is and yet it might well be argued that every art work begins, and ends, as decoration: what shelley calls the root and blossom of things.)

Q: "what is to prevent the reconstruction of sentiment from becoming...a "tourist attraction"?

A: nothing but ourselves.

jerome mcgann

I want to thank Jerome McGann for his prompt response to my importunate question. I had often suspected the answer would be something like that. I guess we have to choose which paradoxes to be affected by. I'll retreat to the charming irrelevance of the hermeneutic circle, though my passion for logic prevents me from seeing how irrelevance can be a human fundamental (doesn't that make it relevant?), unless we're talking about perceived irrelevance, but then we need talk about "relevance for x," versus "relevance in itself" which of course changes in time . . . uh oh, here comes that charming, decorative old hermeneutic circle . . .

Dave Haney

I'm just back in town, and would like to congratulate the list on the rich discussion--no lemons in the Hemans thread. In a hasty reading, am I wrong to see a consensus building that we should be reading with rather than against the grain? That is, if some subtle critics employ the theoretical array to produce strong irony in, for instance, "The Homes of England," thereby bringing Hemans into the field by which those raised on the bitter olives of modernism may accommodate, most of us feel that it is better to approach and teach her on "her own terms" (which doesn't mean slurring over the sour notes as perhaps Victorian readers did with Keats). This would align the reading of the poetry of sensibility with, for instance, the strategy towards sentiment in the Victorian novel found in Kaplan's Sacred Tears.

David Latane

"I love it, I love it; and who shall dare
To chide me for loving that old arm-chair"

For perhaps the second time in these twenty-four hours this thread has come to feel a bit more like a fight than a conversation. Most contributors nonetheless have been working from a common ground that broadly we share, one that does privilege art, the aesthetic, the literary, over other interests, labels, domains, as variously we may call them. Like one or two others today, I'm writing what must be a quick one, with more to follow soon. I want to second what a number of others have said, that this thread can be most interesting for how it speaks to our reading and teaching both the late-canonized "big six" romantic poets and the recently- re-anthologized others; and both these and poetry in general; and how it speaks to our practices and performances of criticism "New" and "new."

Before I can go forward, though (isn't it dinner time? let's all have some), I'd mention that some of what I'll want to say is already in print. My argument for Hemans as a poet of temporal occasion and figuration is available in At the Limits of Romanticism as "History, Imperialism, and the Aesthetics of the Beautiful: Hemans and the Post-Napoleonic Moment" (yes, a "title by committee"). I'll want to spend a moment going back & forth with Chuck on his list of good poetry markers, but I hope its words about figure and genre embrace fig's. & genres like the triumph and the progress poem; its words about allusion count those to Germaine de Staël as bing as telling as those, say, to Alexander Pope; and I hope his list's words can count among themselves, somewhere, the sort of rhetorical, or dramatic, structure that Alan Liu was describing some days ago in "The Memorial Pillar" by Hemans: my first few hopes, though, applying to what I hope (!) will be a sympathetic (ok, or maybe just politely patient) reading of my essay.

I refer readers to it here for a second purpose, keyed to David Haney's posts about art in the context of our hermeneutics-historicism debate: specifically, how it is/is it? possible to "restore art" to its original setting. Uncannily, Hemans has arrived at the question before us in a poem I discuss in my "History" essay: her first adult work, the 1816 The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (two editions that year: the second, a longer and more ideologically Christian version, her first book [really a chapbook] published by Murray). I'll be back to recap my reading of her provocative "progress" among David's question/s. But perhaps someone will read poem or essay ahead or instead.--

Nan Sweet

. . and is as as long as I am here (I've already eaten), let me thank Nan Sweet for another great reference--and it makes sense for Hemans to be concerned with these issues, since the problem of historical reconstruction was such a hot topic of debate at the time. And I apologize if I seem to be fighting--despite the flippance of my last post, I do take McGann's work very seriously. But I also think that the very important critical movement he helped to found has sometimes (certainly not always) failed to engage the hermeneutic tradition of the problems of "historicity"--a tradition grounded in romanticism itself--by assuming that it's territory that's already been covered. As Nan Sweet points out, there are extremely important institutional and pedagogical issues at stake here--at least in this part of Alabama, where education is in short supply, the "profession" as we know it is about to disappear, and it's very important for us to be clear about why what we are doing is important (if it is).

Dave Haney

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