Romanticism as Method

Anahid Nersessian (University of California)

1. Introducing Method

In the fall of 2012 I taught a graduate seminar called “Romanticism as Method.” Why method? Etymologically speaking, method (meta-, after, beyond, alongside; hodos-, way) can mean either a travelling-past or else a travelling-alongside. The latter definition nicely approximates the various modes of unsuspicious reading lately proposed in lieu of ideology critique, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reparative reading to Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s surface reading to Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s reading for the Stimmung.

See Sedgwick, 123-51; Best and Marcus, 1-21; and Gumbrecht, “Reading,” 213-21.

The former gestures at the kind of criticism that adopts a “future-oriented vigilance” with respect to the inevitable “bad surprise” of an artifact’s complicity in multiple forms of historical injustice; such criticism has already “travelled past” the artifact and knows what conditions it displaces or conceals (Sedgwick 130). The “method” of my title thus aims to connote two widely available paths for contemporary literary criticism. We might call those paths “Keatsian” and “Coleridgean,” in a nod to Keats’s oft-invoked description of Negative Capability: a competence to “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” defined against Coleridge’s habit of “let[ting] go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge” (Keats I:193). Romanticism, too, is caught between championing uncertainty as an intellectual position and a skepticism concerning the mere appearance of reality, especially when it threatens to obscure metaphysical or historical insight; if Coleridge is more interested in metaphysics than history, the distrust of verisimilitude of which Keats accuses him jibes with Best and Marcus’s controversial disapproval of criticism concerned only with “meaning [that is] hidden, repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter.”

Another question to ask regarding the foundations of the course might be: why method instead of theory? In 1986, Morris Eaves and Michael Fischer introduced their Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism with “the simple observation that English Romanticism is important to contemporary literary theory.” The contributors to this volume—Northrop Frye, W.J.T. Mitchell, J. Hillis Miller, M.H. Abrams, and Stanley Cavell—are described as “not only defin[ing] Romanticism in different ways but also” using “it to underwrite strikingly different theories of literature” (Eaves and Fischer 1). In 1986, Eaves and Fischer were on solid ground. Today, the literature of the Romantic period has at best an anecdotal relationship to the development of recently dominant theories of literature, and by “dominant” I mean those that have had the most institutional and public traction. The transhistorical character of cognitive literary studies demands little care for distinctions of period or genre, although it has taken a special interest in the neophyte representations of consciousness in the eighteenth-century novel; the novel, too, continues to be a productive site for distant reading, data mining, and statistical analysis. Pioneering work by Jerome McGann and Alan Liu notwithstanding, digital humanities and new media theory, not to mention history of the book, find fruitful research programs in the archives of the later nineteenth century more often than in Keats’s Great Odes or Hazlitt’s essays. To presume that literary scholars in general, regardless of field or specialization, would believe Romanticism to be constitutive of theory, or theory to be indebted to Romanticism, seems old-fashioned, a relic of better times for Romanticism, theory, and the humanities in general.

“Romanticism as Method” begins, then, from the disheartening premise that the obsolescence of theory—motored, at least in part, by high-profile spasms of apostasy like Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam?”—presents an especially acute problem for students and scholars of Romanticism (Gumbrecht, “Response” 212-6). No longer does it seem wise to justify one’s teaching or research on the assumption that “Romanticism,” whether English, European, or Transatlantic, is integral to theory, because theory itself no longer seems generally integral. If theory is evermore seen as a residual mode of critical and pedagogical practice, how might Romanticism contribute to an important public conversation on the “why” of research and teaching on its own terms? This course is my own tentative exploration of that question. The turn away from theory is motivated by interests that are variously reasonable and reactionary, and too numerous to take on here. “Romanticism as Method” acknowledges that such a turn has taken place, attends to the many social and disciplinary histories involved in such a turn, but ultimately concentrates on developing alternative conceptions of Romanticism and of scholarship that might be of some good to students seeking doctoral degrees. Replacing theory with method means looking to Romanticism for its utility, not simply its power. More crucially, it means reclaiming the language of utility from those metrics of instrumental value—test scores, learning outcomes, impact factors, etc.—with which teachers at all levels are increasingly familiar.

The course I describe here is designed for first- and second-year graduate students, though in this case I allowed more advanced auditors to participate. As a graduate class, it focuses less on introducing students to a particular body of historical literature than on acquainting them with ways that literature has been read, and on finding new ways for us to read it together. Every week includes both required assignments and suggestions for further reading, intended to help those students who do not arrive already familiar with Romantic literature become conversant with its canonical and semi-canonical authors. That said, although it emphasizes texts and topics I would probably deem to difficult or too specialized for an undergraduate class, the principle of utility is one which, I think, may be helpfully drawn into all manner of classroom activities; so too is the ideal of experimentation and group improvisation a class on “method” demands. Every classroom may become a laboratory, and while the professor directs the experiment results are valued insofar as they are produced collaboratively.

2. Romanticism, or Knowing How

When someone says that an activity x is “like riding a bike,” she means that x is an unnatural behavior it is possible to do, figuratively speaking, naturally; she also implies that the doing of x is successful only if the person doing it forgets exactly how it is done. This is a problem for pedagogy. If you have ever tried to teach someone how to ride a bike, tie a knot, or write an essay, you have experienced just how hard it is to teach something you are able to do because, to some extent, you have forgotten how to do it. It is from such a forgetting that instincts are trained, through the eviction from conscious thought of the astonishing alchemy of training and habit, sinews and synapses, conventionality and improvisation that all together keep us going, aloft on the bike. Incidentally, this process also describes Wordsworth’s method for falling in love with your child: you just do it over and over again until, “with patient mind enforced/To acts of tenderness” you no longer have to think twice (Wordsworth 166-7).

The philosopher Jason Stanley defines “know-how” as the knowledge that something is true—a proposition based, in turn, on the claim that all knowledge is founded in our capacity to imagine acting on such knowledge in a practical way (Stanley). Heidegger suggests that “the less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment” (Heidegger 98). Certainly when it comes to research, writing, and teaching, such activities benefit from a certain disinhibition, akin to the paradoxical acquisition of a “primordial” muscle memory. That said, when it comes to teaching graduate students, it seems necessary both to teach the know-how of scholarship and to keep students productively alienated from what they are doing when they are doing it. In the context of graduate coursework, this means creating opportunities not only to think about thinking but, more explicitly, to read about reading and write about writing. “Romanticism as Method” is designed to meet these ends. All assignments had to reflect actual demands made upon actual academics: students would write weekly response papers, give brief in-class presentations on primary-source material no one else in the room (besides the professor) had read, analyze the structure and style of a published article in their field and, at the end of term, give a talk on preliminary research for their seminar paper, which would be an article-length piece of work.

This is all very standard. The less orthodox dimensions of the course are evident in the reading list, which places four works of criticism at its center: two classic texts that position themselves explicitly with reference to theory, specifically to post-structuralism and new historicism, and two more recent books which take up the legacies of that earlier moment but do something very new with them. I chose books that had been important to me, so important their names came immediately to mind when I began planning the course: Paul De Man’s The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984), James Chandler’s England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (1998), Anne-Lise François’s Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (2007), and Mary Favret’s War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (2009). I also asked students to purchase Paul Fry’s Theory of Literature (2012), a transcription of his undergraduate lecture course, or to access individual lectures for free online through Open Yale Courses.

Open Yale Courses may be found at Last accessed October 11, 2012. The website directs visitors to YouTube, where they may watch Fry’s lectures, or to iTunes, where they may download the talks as audio files.

Graduate students come into the classroom with disparate levels of familiarity and facility with the building blocks of advanced literary study. Asking everyone to keep Theory of Literature on hand was intended as a democratizing gesture, and it also served a practical purpose: students who needed to take an ad-hoc crash-course in, say, Saussurian linguistics, or to remind themselves what exactly Foucault means by “discourse,” could turn to Fry as a reliable and, helpfully, not completely neutral source of information. After seven weeks of reading through these four critical texts alongside primary materials (discussed below), we turned to articles or book excerpts by Celeste Langan, Colin Jager, Rei Terada, Kevis Goodman, and Marjorie Levinson; on the first day of class students also read Maureen McLane’s “Romanticism, or Now.” The principle of selection in this instance was determined by what I take to be emerging trends within the field, as well as by a special interest in tactical uses of critical voice and style.

As for the primary texts, it seemed to me that an emphasis on the “Big Six” version of the Romantic canon—the one which limits itself to Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—would provide a solid, albeit conservative, counterpoint to the improvisatory aegis of the course. Each week featured a chapter from two of the books mentioned above or one scholarly article, and a selection of Romantic poetry or, occasionally, prose. In contrast to an undergraduate course, where I like to assign secondary materials that explicate or contextualize the historical ones, the principle of pairing and selection here is less strict. We read Keats with Chandler and Lyrical Ballads with François, but we also welcome unexpected or surprising dialogues between De Man’s “Symbolic Landscape in Wordsworth and Yeats” and Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age. Stumbling into an unforeseen confluence between texts, whether critical or literary, is not only something we ought to value in our research process, it also just happens. One of my goals here is to push students toward a non-instrumental relationship to criticism, to persuade them that reading a good book in any field, on any subject, will open up new pathways of thought that will be helpful to them at one time or another. I believe we are all fatigued by studies promising to give an interpretation of some poem or novel through one “angle” at a time, Morris Zapp-style.

I refer here to one of the protagonists of David Lodge’s Changing Places, a literature professor determined to corner the market on Jane Austen by publishing “a series of commentaries” on her work, each of which will “examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it” (Lodge 34).

This sort of pedantic relationship to theory, or to the more constrained genre of criticism, is one current students should consider it their historical privilege to reject. At the same time, limits must obtain for even the most expansive, ecumenical model of criticism, if indeed it wants to say something genuinely interesting. Finding oneself forced to read Hazlitt with de Man is an exercise in testing the limits of what constitutes a good match of text with critic. It may be that Hazlitt and de Man have nothing to say to each other, and in this awkward silence some new intelligence about both writers emerges. Staging such labored, even impossible conversations is, the syllabus suggests, vital to both the precision and the creativity of our research practices.

To use Romanticism as a method is to assemble a toolkit out of phrases like “Negative Capability,” “gusto,” “they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonym of the cause,” or “Labour well the Minute Particulars,” as Goodman has done with William Cowper’s “loopholes of retreat” and Levinson with Wordsworth’s numerical tropes (Goodman, especially 67-105; Levinson, “Of Being Numerous,” especially 652; and Levinson, “Notes and Queries”). But the kit must be filled with phrases of our own making, too, and this is where the weekly reading responses, posted on our online discussion board, come in. Students are encouraged to consider these as low-stakes venues for being propositional and adventurous. They may write, if they choose, in the style of one of the Romantic or contemporary authors we are reading. The goal is not parody but posture, walking in someone else’s shoes. It is, moreover, an attempt to realize that style, including phrasemaking, is constitutive of method. Writing like Hazlitt alters how you read a poem (or a person) and determines what kinds of claims you may advance about them. A criticism that “smokes,” in the Keatsian sense, might approach the condition of poetry by always being one step ahead of its reader or might treat the readerly impulse to understand as the very condition of its own opacity (Keats, Letters II, 174). Are there times when it is productive to smoke the readers of our work? And what about owning up to those moments when the poem smokes us (“That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), and we feel unable to understand it in any robustly satisfying way? What goes into the vocabulary of confusion, blockage, dismay, or, as both Terada and McLane put it, “impasse,” and how might we apply it creatively (McLane 143; Terada 275-309)? After a reader confesses she has no idea what is going on in a particular line or passage, can that blindness borrow the form of an insight, however limited or diffident? The language of confusion, and sometimes of irritation or resentment, enters our class’s semi-private lexicon, which grows from week to week and preserves both our frustrations and our attempts to relinquish them.

Class discussion is also directed toward the collective elaboration of a variety of interpretive procedures and points of view, specifically as they might be drawn from, and not merely applied to, the text at hand. To present one example, our seventh class is spent reading one of the less obviously interesting books of the 1805 Prelude, namely Book XII. We choose a passage to look at closely based on the evidence the group gives for being bored—perhaps smoked—by this part of the text. In this instance, the class swiftly converges on Wordsworth’s critique of pastoral in lines 184-215. The professor throws out a phrase: dead time, as in “there are moments of dead time in The Prelude, moments that seem unnecessary to the elaboration of the poem or the book.” A student offers a comparison between “dead time” and “spots of time”; perhaps both are indispensable to “the growth of a poet’s mind.” Since we have been reading Open Secrets, the group begins to wonder about the relationship between dead time and the temporality of “nonemphatic revelation.” A consensus emerges that they are not the same thing, but that François offers a way to make sense of Wordsworth’s rejection of fussy, pictographic pastoral. A cluster of early modernists address the significance of the Shakespeare plays to which Wordsworth alludes here, while another student, a committed dramaturge, proffers information on how pastoral elements figure in the theatrical productions of the late eighteenth century. Another student, this one preparing for her comprehensive exams and interested in the history of science and medicine, speculates on the cognitive implications of “dead time,” while another aligns Wordsworth’s literary-critical digression with Hazlitt’s essays in The Spirit of the Age.

The professor takes to the board, and gradually a piece of crowd-sourced scholarship emerges, a group effort that would be impossible without a serious engagement with multiple forms of knowledge. If this phantom piece of writing ever becomes a manuscript, some elements will be amplified, others edited out. The point of the exercise is to show that: having many ways into a text is not the same thing as being without method; scholarship is by definition collaborative, even if it is just you, Wordsworth, and a pencil; exegesis means false starts and wrong turns; it’s good not to bring too much ego into the room; be patient and curious, good poems can be tedious for good reasons; learning means learning how to teach, how to tell your reader, your students, your colleagues what you know in such a way that they may be said to know it now, too. For graduate students who are going on to careers as teachers, either in the academy or elsewhere, the classroom should always be a primarily pedagogical space with lines of instruction and reception running in several directions, some predictable and others less so.

It may seem overly tidy to assert that these are the lessons I myself learned from Romanticism, and from Romanticism’s best critics, although that is what I believe. Likewise, too, the principle that it is all right for work to be difficult and understanding slow—things one may plausibly tell graduate students, if not our increasingly harried undergraduates, at the very beginning of their academic careers. For those who have the luxury of encouraging digressive learning in the classroom, the model of learning-by-doing brings together more aleatory and indirect modes of instruction with a pragmatic ability to make something, knock it down, and start again, using the highly modular and sustainable resources of one’s own brain. “My head,” as Thoreau bafflingly says, “is an organ for burrowing,” and how many wider and deeper trails might be dug by the collaborative work that allows us to read, think, teach, and travel along—or rather, alongside—multiple pathways (Thoreau 82)? “Romanticism as Method” really means Romanticism as implement, tool, gizmo, hammer-thing, equipment. With it we work to make, among other things, more Romanticism.

Works Cited

Eaves, Morris and Michael Fischer, editors. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986. Print.
Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. “Reading for the Stimmung?” boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture 35.3 (2008), 213-21. Print.
---. “Response: The End of Theory.” The Journal of Literary Theory 1.1 (2007), 212-16. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962. Print.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958. Print.
Levinson, Marjorie. “Of Being Numerous: Counting and Matching in Wordsworth's Poetry.” Studies in Romanticism 49.4 (2010), 633–57. Print.
---. “Notes and Queries on Names and Numbers,” Romantic Circles Praxis, last retrieved November 21, 2014. Web.
Lodge, David.Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975. Print.
Marcus, Sharon and Stephen Best. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108.1 (2009): 1-21. Print.
McLane, Maureen. “Romanticism or Now: Learning to Read in Postmodern.” Modern Philology 105.1 (2007): 118-56. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.
Stanley, Jason. Know How. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Terada, Rei. “Looking At The Stars Forever.” Studies in Romanticism 50.2 (2011): 275-309. Print.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, in Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Michael.” The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.


1. See Sedgwick, 123-51; Best and Marcus, 1-21; and Gumbrecht, “Reading,” 213-21. [back]
2. Open Yale Courses may be found at Last accessed October 11, 2012. The website directs visitors to YouTube, where they may watch Fry’s lectures, or to iTunes, where they may download the talks as audio files. [back]
3. I refer here to one of the protagonists of David Lodge’s Changing Places, a literature professor determined to corner the market on Jane Austen by publishing “a series of commentaries” on her work, each of which will “examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it” (Lodge 34). [back]