Emily Rohrbach - Modernity's Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation. Reviewed by Lauren Neefe
Georgia Institute of Technology
“We are in a mist,” Keats writes in the letter of 1818 to J. H. Reynolds, giving Emily Rohrbach the primary point of reference for the title of her first monograph, Modernity’s Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation (2015). Keats claims that “We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery’” (qtd. in Rohrbach 1). This encumbered state is, Rohrbach observes, precisely not the condition of imaginative insight Wordsworth describes in Book XIII of The Prelude (1805) when, during the ascent of Mount Snowden, he finds himself suddenly above the mist, “which meek and silent, rested at my feet” (qtd. in Rohrbach 4). The mist, in which Keats finds himself and Reynolds, resonates in the uncertainty of mystery, the condition of negative capability. It resounds as well in a play on “missed.” The elusive, Rohrbach reminds us, predicates the modern experience of the historical present. Her study of second-generation Romanticism, therefore, examines works by John Keats, Jane Austen, and Lord Byron for their anticipations not of the future per se, but of futurity. She argues that lyric, novel, and epic neither transcend history nor merely “include history” but, as evidenced by their “historiographical poetics,” are, in fact, history.
By Rohrbach’s account, the epistemological problem of modernity’s break with the past becomes in the Romantic period a crisis of certainty about the future in its relation to the past. In contrast to the linear temporality of the stadial model adopted by most Enlightenment historiographies which predicts the future according to historical precedent, historiography in the 1790s confronts the urgency of immediate events by turning toward the “radical unpredictability of what was to come and of how the present would look from that inaccessible future vantage” (1). By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the uncertainty of the historical present, indeed the very presence of uncertainty, had established itself as a disturbance less of irrecoverable discontinuity than of “future anteriority” (1). With this invocation of unalloyed psychoanalysis, Rohrbach makes a welcome return to the repressed, citing Jacques Lacan’s definition of the subject in “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”: “the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming’” (qtd. in Rohrbach 5). Put another way, then, Rohrbach’s claim is that the absence that structures the modern subject is the absence that structures the historical present of post-Waterloo Romanticism.
The first of five chapters traces an arc of historiographical shift from Enlightenment projects of the mid-eighteenth century to, remarkably, William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age; Or, Contemporary Portraits (1825). That shift moves from linear chronologies of progress, represented by the histories of William Robertson (1769), Hugh Blair (1783), and David Hume (1754–61) among others, through a turn toward the historical present in the 1790s, represented by the historiographical engagements of William Godwin and Helen Maria Williams. In the expansive present tense of Hazlitt’s subsequent portraits, Rohrbach detects a narrative that proceeds according to a “proliferation of simultaneities . . . reflecting the spirit of the age in accumulating, heterogeneous ways” (55). Though it postdates the works analyzed in the rest of her study, this strategy of “lateral” contemporaneity or “dilating multiplicity” presents the “closest nonfiction analogue to the historiographical poetics of Keats, Austen, and Byron” (54, 24). Specifically, the following chapters read the sonnets and odes (1818), Persuasion (1817), and Don Juan (1819–24) through the lens of Hazlitt’s model. A testament to the interpretive power of selection, the assemblage in itself re-conceives the literary moment. In each individual case, Rohrbach achieves her interpretive originality through reading that is as attentive to the text as it is to the critical heritage. Exemplary of her most compelling insights is the unlikely claim for Persuasion as a “historical novel,” not on the model of but on a historiographical spectrum with Walter Scott’s nearly contemporaneous Waverly (124–33).
One of Rohrbach’s most important contributions here involves her method. She negotiates Romantic form and history without giving in to the “apocalyptic fallacy” Kevis Goodman exposes in “Making Time for History.” In response to Alan Liu’s claim that “The true apocalypse for Wordsworth is reference,” Goodman asks, “But why should reference necessarily be apocalyptic?” It is possible, she asserts, that history is “neither sharply represented nor denied” (Goodman 566). Rorhbach’s reader will have waited roughly sixty pages for her to make her most cogent articulation of her method. When it arrives, however, the full import of her debt to Goodman is rendered. Refuting the tendency, evident “even in more recent historicist criticism,” to attribute “to poetry a referential status relative to its perceived ‘context’”—Paul Magnuson’s Reading Public Romanticism (1998) comes to mind— Rorhbach insists that poetry is historical because “we can see in the poetry an original thinking through of the historiographical challenges of the early nineteenth-century moment, challenges that may still be with us today” (60–61). Amid studies of affect, book and media history, ecocriticism, new materialism, and digital humanities, Modernity’s Mist marks out an allied yet distinctive critical terrain wherein the future anteriority of that “thinking through” is best captured by the conjunction of mood and tense in the proffered phrase might will have been. Rohrbach’s account of Romanticism’s “poetics of anticipation” is provocative for its Lacanian, rather than Virgilian roots, and for unearthing a Keatsian, rather than Wordsworthian figuration of the historical present.
Goodman, Kevis. “Making Time for History: Wordsworth, the New Historicism, and the Apocalyptic Fallacy.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 35, no.4, 1996, pp. 563–77.
Magnuson, Paul. Reading Public Romanticism. Princeton UP, 1998.
Rohrbach, Emily. Modernity’s Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation. Fordham UP, 2015.