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Mark Storey, The Problem of Poetry in the Romantic Period

Monday, April 1, 2002 - 08:58
Mark Storey, The Problem of Poetry in the Romantic Period. New York: St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000. xi + 197pp.  $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-23044-3).

Reviewed by
J. Morgan
University of Kentucky

In the preface to The Problem of Poetry in the Romantic Period, Mark Storey positions his work within a school of Romantic criticism that takes the self-conscious role of questioning or doubt on the part of the Romantic poet to be the central factor in the development of Romantic poetry.   However, whereas earlier studies, such as Charles Rzepkas's Self as Mind and Andrea Henderson's Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity, treat the development of this self-conscious attitude in relationship to a more "psychological and phenomenological point of view," Storey prefers to concentrate, as he says, "much more centrally on the nature of the poet, on how each poet struggles with a definition of poetry that involves a definition of the self as poet, and on how this struggle manifests itself in the poetry" (ix).  In essence, Storey takes the position that we will be able to better grasp the how Romantic writers struggled with the concept of poetic identity if we avoid reading their poetry in light of more "abstruse" models of subjectivity (viii).  I should note though that Storey seems to takes this position not so much from a desire to shout his defiance at "theory" than from a quiet belief in the interpretability of poetry, the lives of poets, and the intersections between the two.  As such, Storey's book is not wholly a polemic, but more a practical demonstration of what one can do with texts without a structured theoretical framework.

As a direct result, Storey's chosen methodology leads him to write an engaging, often insightful book that illuminates many local details within particular texts and brings to light connections between writers not often associated with one another, specifically John Clare and Byron.  What holds this collection of chapters on different writers together is a central line of argument which asserts that the Romantic poets all struggle with the questions "What is a Poet?" and "What is the function or nature of poetry?" and that despite the seeming confidence of such works as "The Preface to Lyrical Ballads" or "A Defence of Poetry," these writers remain "conscious of poetry's tendency to undermine and vitiate, to desert them" (186).

The first chapter takes as its theme Wordsworth's attempts in "The Preface to Lyrical Ballads" to work out what Storey sees as the most vexing question of Wordsworth's literary career: "What is a Poet?'  Though Wordsworth believes he has provided an answer in his preface, Storey draws our attention to the conflict, "the contradictions in the argument, the frequent clashes between what is postulated in the preface and what happens in the poems themselves" (2).   In Storey's view, behind the grandiose and contradictory figure of the poet in the preface "stalks that less comforting idea of the poet as supreme solitary figure" (13), which is found in the poems.  Storey hones in on the contradictions inherent in the fact that the poet by virtue of being removed from the world of "real men" is taken out of contact with the well-springs of poetry.   Thus, he concludes that while Wordsworth remains conscious of these "difficulties," he leaves them largely unresolved.  The most satisfying part of the analysis in this chapter comes as Storey links the generic figure of the Solitary to his concrete manifestations in the Lucy Poems, "Michael," and, most importantly, "Tintern Abbey."  The Solitary figure's nature is a product of death, as Storey demonstrates in his reading of these poems about which he concludes: "The major absence anticipated here is the poet's own: at the end he, like his own past, will have gone.  He becomes his own Lucy figure, in that he too will require memorialising" (26).

Though there are two chapters devoted to Wordsworth in the book, we turn, in the second chapter from Wordsworth, who appears willing at least early in his career to live with these contradictions, to Coleridge whose desire for consistency very often is his own undoing.  Storey develops his reading of Coleridge's career by reminding us of Coleridge's lifelong struggle to find a style: "his problems with style should not be underestimated: far from being a mere matter of escaping an unsuitable, high flown style, it is from him . . . a reflection of his questioning nature, and in particular his constant agonising about his sense of himself" (30).  Just as Coleridge fails to overcome this early "florid style," he likewise remains caught between his revolutionary youth and conservative principles, between his belief in the power of the imagination and imagination's failure to "make sense of the aftermath of the French Revolution" (36), and between his belief in the divine creative power of the poet and his belief in the monotheistic God of Christianity.   For Storey, Coleridge's problem really seems to come down to the fact that he fails whenever he tries to be prophetic, tries to force the prophet's mantle on to his own shoulders.  Only in rare poems, most especially "Frost at Midnight," does he succeed, and here his success is proportionate to the humble nature of his subject.

The Prelude is the central text of Storey's third chapter in which he argues it is the document through which we know Wordsworth and the document through which Wordsworth came to know himself.  As such, we should not be surprised that Wordsworth continued to tinker with the poem as this is a reflection of his changing conception of himself.  The poem's text comes to be the very embodiment of the problem of identity for Romantic poets: the poem is intended to represent the mind of the poet, but it keeps changing as the poet rethinks his understanding of his "self."  In Storey's estimation, Wordsworth's problem has its origins in "the gap between past and present . . . the self as it was then, and the remembering self" (67).  It is a conflict between his youthful belief that his spirit was "singled out, as it might seem, for holy services" and his mature sense that he had to "Take refuge and beguile myself with trust / That mellower years will bring a riper mind and clearer insight" (I.228-34).  Storey finds this conflict reflected in Wordsworth's recurrent use of images of balance and hanging in the earlier versions of the poem.  Such images are, in Storey's view, the most apt for representing the nature of the poet.  Unfortunately, the older Wordsworth, driven by the desire to present a coherent, unified vision of himself, systematically removes or alters the images of balance in the 1850 edition of the poem, which results in the poet's "caus[ing] his own sense of himself to disappear" (80).

In what is the least satisfying section of the book, the fourth chapter carries forward the idea that the search for closure or stability works against the success of the poetry by examining this tendency in the works of Percy Shelley and John Keats.  To put a phrase, but not a sentiment in Storey's mouth, Shelley is an "optimistic prophet" who believes that poets should use their works to help reform the world.  As Storey reminds us, Keats did not share this view; he preferred to emphasize the poet's responsibility to make his works as beautiful as possible by "load[ing] every rift with ore" (88).  Though this appears to set up a vision of poetry and dialogue between these two poets, such vision and dialogue fail to emerge in the rest of the chapter.  Instead, we first turn to Shelley, who, we are told, even in his best poems, like Prometheus Unbound, is "on a quest in which the search for political, moral, and aesthetic truth is really inexplicable" (102).   Storey connects this with a tendency for characters, especially characters who are figures for the poet, e.g., Alastor, to merge with other characters and become "united in their harmonies, but united in solitude" (98).  Though Storey believes Shelley intends this strategy to allow characters to know themselves without falling victim to the "dark idolatry of self," he concludes, however, that Shelley's desire for a "sense of unity and oneness is self-defeating"; "[t]o be one is, in these terms, to be nothing" (105).  At this point, we return to Keats, who is presented as the Romantic poet who has the greatest success in balancing the demands of poetic identity and personal identity.  The degree of his success in this area may, Storey thinks, come as somewhat of a surprise to some as Keats's best known statements about the connection between poetry and identity seem to run counter to this idea.  Of course, the most famous statement Keats makes regarding the poet's identity is that the poet has no character at all.  As such, the poet is always vulnerable to having his identity overwritten.  Thus, Keats explains his inability to complete Hyperion by claiming that it was too Miltonic, that the influence of Milton overrode his own poetic endeavor.  Rather than seeing this as the loss of poetic identity, Storey makes this vulnerability the very essence of poetic identity.  Keats's poetry is the means by which he attempts to divest himself of identity, to "get outside the prison of his body" (116).  His greatest successes in this endeavor come in the Odes, especially "Ode to a Nightingale," where "on the very point of ecstasy, the bird leaves him" (116).  As a result, the "poet is left with his own heavy burden of self, the very thing he had wanted to avoid . . . and that is its paradoxical success: its questions are honest, and the refusal to answer them is the guarantee of the poem's aesthetic honesty" (116).

While Keats appears to have been threatened by what Bloom calls strong poets, John Clare, according to Storey, faced a similar threat, though from a different source.  Instead of having his poetic voice impinged upon by the voices of dead poets, Clare was beset by the expectations the reading public had for a Peasant Poet.   Throughout his career, he is conscious of the "so evidently self-contradictory" nature of his existence, of how such a "'plain unpolished fellow' should be presented to the public" (121).  In his earliest poetry, Clare seeks for an identity through the "the obvious path of imitation" (124), combining as he does so elements from peasant poets, like Robert Bloomfield," along with "mythopoeic" elements from the eighteenth-century Spensarian" (124).   However, by the time Clare begins work on The Shepherd's Calendar, he has discovered "a distinctive voice for himself, a clear, clean-limbed, sure-footed gait that rarely leaves him" (130).  The essential element of Clare's distinctive style is his ability to identify with nature without imposing on it: "he can enter the bird's song, into its very existence . . . . He, the poet, has heard a truer poet, and he is happy to withdraw" (136).  Unfortunately, this poetry failed to find an audience, which left Clare to face the most vexing problem of all: "if no one knows him, then he is in effect nothing" (145).  Storey closes the chapter with a reading of Clare's "I AM" as a final assertion of the self that is "essentially self-defeating" (152).

In the final chapter of the book--not counting the short postscript on George Darley--Storey thoughtfully explores the connections between the works of Lord Byron and Clare.  Though Storey addresses the obvious connections between the two, most notably Clare's identification with Byron and his attempts to rewrite some of Byron's most famous works, the real substance of his argument develops out of the two poets' recognition that "freedom to some extent depends upon imprisonment" (157).  In both cases, Storey examines the influence this had on the poets' personal lives and how this, in turn, affected their literary productions.   In Byron's case, this has been described as "a shift from 'Romantic' to 'Augustan', a move back away from current trends toward the old established deities" (161).  Storey claims that much the same opposition can be found in Clare's oeuvre: while "he is working on . . . The Shepherd's Calendar, he is also writing, in The Parish, an extensive satiric attack on the countryside as he knows it: celebration is matched by cynicism" (161).  Storey argues that the conflicts created by shifting between perspectives lead both men to write poems "about the way in which nothing has any value any more, as all the customary meanings have been lost" (175).   As a result, "the value of poetic experience is questioned, as the protracted dream becomes an apocalyptic nightmare, and words themselves become . . . instruments of torture" (177).

Throughout the book, Storey remains true to the convictions expressed in his preface, relying on the weight of poetic evidence to pull the arguments aloft.  Indeed the greatest virtue of this book is the degree to which it brings readers into contact with poetic texts, leaving them, at times, pleasantly immersed in the rich variety of quotations.  However, while we expect any scholarly study to be rigorous in its interpretation of the text, the expectations must be that much higher for a study that rests its claims to veracity and utility on the openness of the text to interpretation and on the direct connection between poetry and poet.  For this reason, the least satisfactory aspect of Storey's book is the tendency to leave the grounds for his arguments under developed.  Most often, this tendency is found in the form of truth claims that he leaves unsubstantiated.  Take, for example, the following: "Like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, Clare often reverts to the religious concept of 'joy' in order to explain poetry's significance" (136).  In support of his assertion, Storey quotes the following lines: "It wast an early joy to me / That joy was love and poesy."  Yet, there is no explanation for why Clare's concept of joy here is religious and not secular, or even of what it would mean were the religious sense of joy the operative one.  What is likely of greater concern is that in certain crucial instances his overall line of argument rests on having the reader accept a more complicated reading of a text when a simple one is readily available.   Two instances of this tendency seem particularly troubling.  First, in discussing Coleridge's "On Receiving a Letter Informing Me of the Birth of a Son," Storey exclaims that "nothing . . . quite prepares us for the turn of the sestet:

And now once more o Lord! to thee I bend,
   Lover of souls! and groan for future grace,
That ere my babe youth's perilous maze have trod,
   Thy overshadowing Spirit may descend,
   And he be born again, a child of God.

This is so strange that it becomes weird" (39).  Well, perhaps so, but not, I think, so transparently weird as Storey appears to believe.  Since he goes on to connect this passage with a correlation between "creativity and death [as] a recurrent theme of much Romantic poetry" (39), it looks as if Storey sees in the passage an implicit death wish for the child.  Yet, a much simpler, and hence less weird, reading of the passage is readily available: Coleridge hopes his son will choose to be baptized before he faces the perils of youth.   At the very least, one would like to see some pains taken to justify setting such a reading of the passage aside.

A second instance of this problem comes in his discussion of the dedication to The Revolt of Islam which he claims reveals a Shelley who "is curiously in the poem, and yet not; he is the poet, but stands back from the poem wondering what it is" (94).  While Storey is correct in thinking that Shelley is speculating about identity at this point, he appears to have confused what--or, more precisely, who--is in fact the object of speculation.  When the speaker asks, "And what art thou?", his query is directed at Mary (to whom the dedication is addressed) not at the poem, as the stanza following the one Storey cites makes plain enough:

They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,
   Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not--for One then left this earth
   Whose life was like a setting planet mild. (ll. 100-04)

The One in this passage is surely Mary Wollstonecraft who, as we all know, died while giving birth to Mary Shelley.

While these flaws mar Storey's book, they certainly do not compromise its overall success.  The line of argument he pursues is clear, the evidence for his position refreshingly abundant, and the implications of his conclusions for understanding the larger field of Romantic studies thoughtfully outlined, if not pursued in detail.  The book, finally, is tantalizing, in both positive and negative ways.  It delivers just enough of what it promises to leave the reader in pleasant anticipation of the next turn of the page; yet it holds back just frequently enough to leave the reader aching for things just out of reach.  Storey has written a significant book on the problem of identity, but he has come very close to having written a much better book.