Jonathan Sachs, The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism. Reviewed by Carmen Faye Mathes.
Carmen Faye Mathes
University of Central Florida
A scene in Paul Schrader’s recent film First Reformed (2017) pits the despair of one Reverend, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), against the rationalizing acceptance of another, Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who is also Toller’s boss. In crisis over the irreversible ruin-to-be that humans have made of the earth, Toller asks if God can forgive us for poisoning the world that He made. Jeffers responds, “but how can we know that this isn’t God’s plan?” and reminds Toller that this has happened once before, for forty days and forty nights. It’s no comfort, not even a cold one, and in what follows we come to understand that, while Jeffers promotes living in “the real world” (administrative tasks, finances, hiring and firing), this has nothing to do with Toller’s crisis, or God, or the warming planet. We also see how “it’s happened once before” is meant to pacify by discouraging exigency, undermining the urgency of Toller’s need to respond. Jeffers’s logic preserves the status quo by making action seem unnecessary or overblown, and it is also a kind of fortune telling. While the future may look bleak, argues the administration, at least we’ve known it all before.
First Reformed sets the engine of the foregone conclusion to work against dreams of better worlds in other ways too, raising questions about the relationship between doubt, prophesy and intervention that refract productively onto another work about which I have lately been thinking, Jonathan Sachs’s elegant The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism. Sachs’s argument—that for late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thinkers, “decline is a way of anticipating the future negatively” that is nevertheless “not necessarily oppositional to progress and might be understood as complementary to it in a number of ways”—also sees the future in the past (10). “Past time gathers as water in a reservoir,” Sachs writes memorably of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “to be reused and recycled as part of later present moments” (154). Rather than encouraging us to give way to despair, this is a book intent on discovering the “new cultural practices” that “emerge from the encounter with decline . . . and collectively enable new ways to imagine the future” (10). For Sachs, foreseeing decline is not hopelessness but a kind of winnowing down, a way of narrowing future possibilities towards a known terminus—architectural ruin, the Roman Empire, British literary mediocrity, species extinction—in order to prophesize more precisely about it.
When knowing the future means predicting its adherence to the contours of the past, mapping those contours becomes a visionary exercise. Sachs’s opening two chapters, “From Morals to Measurement: Scaling Time, Anticipating the Future and Quantifying Decline in Gibbon, Smith and Playfair” and “The Decline of Literature: Acceleration, Print Saturation, and Media Time,” outline new methodologies for capturing decline, from The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) to statistics, timelines, graphs, and charts. Here are representations of decline that position themselves in terms of the long sweeps of history and commerce and “emphasiz[e] the need to calibrate one’s temporal perspective for the longer term” (176). Sachs observes that many thinkers of the Romantic period felt decline to be occurring more swiftly than ever before; he links the rise of print culture to a sense of time pressure, a paradoxical feeling that there is never enough time to read everything and that most everything there is to read is not worth the time. By situating these observations in terms of the (by now well established) association of modernity with acceleration, Sachs shows how new methods for tracking decline gave a semblance of control to some, while for others the speed at which things seemed to be going downhill motivated particular kinds of literary curation: “shorter, morally enriching works like the essay” were at a “premium,” and “certain poetry, because it was for all time, was worth the investment of one’s time” (103, 104). Thus two new cultural practices emerge: speculation and canon-formation.
Sachs’s next two chapters examine poetry’s particular timelessness in sustained close-readings of Anna Letitia Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812) and William Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” (1814). The types of decline that Sachs unearths in these poems are, simply put, wartime leads to commercial decline which in turn leads to cultural ruin (Barbauld), and commercial changes lead to new time pressures which lead to rural decline (Wordsworth). In both cases, however, the poems, as poems, offer more complex alternatives. In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, “multiple futures—one explicit, of ruin, and the other, implicit, of ruin avoided . . . all exist simultaneously [as] . . . an affective history of [Barbauld’s] present moment” (107). Similarly, the “slow time” both represented in “The Ruined Cottage” and enacted by its form decelerates the experience of rapid modernity for readers. Both poems’ affective registers thereby modify even if they do not halt or reverse decline; they capture a “state of feeling” that, as Sachs writes of Barbauld, “comes from weighing the balance between the known and the unknown, the ruins of the classical past and our open, insecure future” (118). By foregrounding such ambivalences, these examples suggest that while the poetics of decline lessens anxiety by increasing certainty, it need not promote unselfconscious acquiescence to negative outcomes. Form allows poets to emphasize too what is contingent or unstable about prophesies of decline.
Sachs’s final pair of chapters theorize the influence of the poetics of decline on two important early nineteenth-century thought experiments, one political and the other ecological. “Coleridge’s Slow Time” describes how a series of essays that the poet wrote for the Morning Post in 1802, which compare France’s possible future under Napoleon Bonaparte to the Roman Empire under the Caesars, transforms the French fantasy of becoming a new Roman Republic into a much more disruptive and critical prophesy. France will become instead a version of the doomed Roman Empire, Coleridge argues, one that is fated to last not four hundred years but “a duration as brief as its rise has been rapid” (qtd. in Sachs 150). For Sachs, this mapping of modern acceleration onto the logic of productive decline offers British readers “comfort and potential future security” (since Napoleon’s despotism won’t last long), while giving British writers a way to participate in hastening Napoleon’s end (150). It is the printing press, after all, that Coleridge describes “as ‘the only “infernal machine”’ that is truly formidable to the modern despot” (qtd. in Sachs 152).
In “Fast Time, Slow Time, Deep Time: Decline, Extinction, and the Pace of Romanticism,” by contrast, the young Charles Darwin’s ideas about species extinction require not hastening but retreat. In this book’s most significant meeting of its two main bodies of evidence, the quantitative chart and the poem, Sachs argues that the social evolution that Wordsworth’s slow poems capture may have contributed to Darwin’s theorizing of slow change on a much vaster scale. “Darwin inherits formal and representational problems related to slowness from Wordsworth,” writes Sachs, which Darwin then “adapts” to those “slow, drawn-out processes in the natural economy that he describes in his theory of evolution and extinction” (172, 175). At the same time, slowing down for Darwin also means backing up, standing far enough away from individual evolutionary shifts that an overall arc becomes clear. Therefore, and like his forebears in Sachs’s opening chapters, Darwin draws a chart which represents evolution as a systematic, progressive series of declines (or extinctions) in lines of a thousand generations each.
These aren’t supposed to be hopeless visions because they know where they are going: a ruin is a testament to cultural achievement; a crowd of famous authors makes a canon; fossils are relics of biodiversity gone by; the end of British literary preeminence gives America’s college syllabi a place to start. Yet by recurring always to the sweep of a longue durée, this is a book in which the situatedness of poetic arguments and affects are continually in danger from what Donna Haraway has called “the view from nowhere.” Zooming out to the point where decline looks like progress necessitates confronting that view’s “perverse capacity . . . to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power” (Haraway 582). As Sachs’s account of Coleridge’s reinterpretation of France’s “claim to be a ‘new Roman Republic’” reveals, one powerful tendency unleashed by prophesying decline is that of projecting the future in whatever shape one assumes the (often idealized) past to have been (Coleridge qtd. in Sachs 149). Any shape, in other words, that fits the assumptions upon which one’s thinking already depends. Another is that by making the future less uncertain, prophesies about decline can discourage intervention, radical or otherwise. Both tendencies are powerful because they leave little room for doubt and, as Sachs’s opening two chapters make clear, modern time pressures work to conceal any doubts that linger by urging the compression of evidence and arguments into graphs and charts, which allow readers to accept the prophesy’s authority at a glance. For this reason, the ambivalences that Sachs discovers in Barbauld and Wordsworth raise important questions about the normative force of a poetics of decline. What might Romanticism—with its radicalism, revolutionary spirit, and even despair—have to teach us about our responsibility to challenge the logic of productive decline, where that logic has the power to encourage confident inaction?
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575-599.
Schrader, Paul, director. First Reformed. A24, 2017.