Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

Michael O'Neill, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem.

Monday, November 15, 1999 - 03:43
Michael O'Neill, Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.  xliv + 308 pp. $75.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-812285-3).

Reviewed by
Jeffrey Robinson
University of Colorado at Boulder

In the first eight chapters of Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem, Michael O'Neill reads many of the most familiar poems of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats in order to show the pervasiveness during the British Romantic Period of "a text that knows it is a text" and of speakers, to varying degrees identifying with "the poet," struggling with but often surmounting anxieties about writing, about poems, and about the imagination. Behind the readings, which often celebrate and praise the dexterity and honesty with which self-consciousness is identified, described, and surpassed in the exercise of other-relatedness, lies the polemical insistence to save poems from the ravenous and reductive clutches of theorists and historicist critics (particularly the latter) so that he might recover the full aesthetic power of the poems. In a long "Coda," O'Neill discusses poems by Yeats, Stevens, and Auden and Amy Clampitt's suite of poems Voyages: A Homage to John Keats. This section acts to authenticate the Romantic self-conscious poem in the work of the High Moderns and in a more contemporary work that interprets the life and poetry of the perennially most beloved of Romantic poets; it asserts, moreover, a fundamental lineage of poetry from the French Revolution to our own time and, by implication, confirms in principle Harold Bloom's version of the line of "strong" poets in Britain and the United States.

This is an elegant book. Every chapter has, in an earlier version, been published elsewhere, adding to the polish of the sentence and the monumental strength of the paragraph. Writing in a very confident spirit, O'Neill demonstrates again and again how sensitive a reader he is, how he works his listening regard for the poetic line. For me the most valuable feature of his criticism is the way he follows attentively the psychological (or self-conscious) "presents" of a poem, helping the reader to register the shift of a speaker's thought as an event of the poem.

Rather than detail the contents of the chapters, I would like to take up the challenge of the book's polemic—against historicist criticism and for "the aesthetic."  The book's elegance partially encourages a sense of its impermeability to questions about O'Neill's assumptions. Admirers of this book, indeed, will probably find equally compelling the critical writings of W.J. Bate, Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler and their followers. O'Neill works directly and openly in their footsteps, with their emphasis on the aesthetic and the importance of irony and skepticism about poetry (Bate and Vendler) as the form of self-consciousness (cf., Bloom's interest in the covering cherub or spectre in Blake). In these critics as well, it is assumed that we know and all agree about what "the aesthetic" is, what moral and psychological qualities accompany and express it, what as readers we should derive from poems exhibiting it, and what kind of future poetry it ought best to spawn.

While admiring the care, unusual for academic critics of poetry today, with which O'Neill attends to the elements of poems, I find the interpretation of the poems, of "Romantic poetry," and of poetry in general pinched and unoriginal. The skepticism about historicism is partly the point but is also a red herring. I, like O'Neill, believe that, with notable exceptions, historicism has given us more context than text and that ultimately poems always need a kind of primary attention; however, the findings of historicists have at the same time given superbly useful information about the Romantic Period and about poets and poetry and have helped to reshape our sense of the predispositions and biases held by poets. But a book like O'Neill's doesn't "redress the balance" because it doesn't reconsider what the great awareness we have about the period might mean for the poems and for Romantic poetics: it simply rejects or, to use one of O'Neill's favorite terms of Romantic poetic success, "resists" history and ideology. (The poems on which he focuses "do" what he as a critic does: resist history.) The serious inadequacy of O'Neill's book is not solely its resistance to historicism but is also due to his praise of the heroic speaker's resisting, side-stepping and ignoring what Allen Grossman calls "the referent": the world, physical and historical and social, beyond the self or lyric subject. The assumption that good Romantic poetry does not reach out, inclusively, to the world, that Wordsworth is wrong about the poet as "a man speaking to men" and Shelley wrong about the poet as "unacknowledged legislator," and that the poet does not, as Mary Robinson says, "wake up" along with other London citizens seems to miss an essential point about Romantic poetry.

Most poets of the Romantic age express the belief in poetry's intersubjective, visionary, and reformist possibilities. But poetry doesn't always declare these goals up front; the relationship between a poem and the world is mediated by its poetics, its own oblique language—and the absence of awareness of the effect of poetics on the reading of a poem is a major problem in O'Neill's discussions. (Indeed, since historicist readings also don't question poetics—Marjorie Levinson on Keats being an exception—O'Neill's book oddly fits quite comfortably into the larger domain of historicism; until poetics enters the picture, the Historicist and the Aesthetic readings will simply reinforce prejudices in an endless round or ratio of self-satisfaction.)

O'Neill, for example, presents Blake's rejection of the "Monotonous Cadence" of blank verse for the more open and varied line in his later prophetic works in the context not of a major break-through in visionary poetics (see by contrast the Introduction to the great anthology of modern and post-modern poetries Poets of the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris [University of California Press, 1995]) but as a sign of his concern with the "limitation," placed on poets by outer realities and inner inhibitions, that poets must try to overcome. In other words, an issue for poetics gets transformed into an issue of poetic psychology, essentially the drama of every poet, every lyric subject, played out in the book. And the issue of poetics for Blake refers less to the poet and more to the capacity of cleansing the doors of perception of his readers by leading them towards a radical reinterpretation of the world in which they live and which forces them into oppressive compulsions.

What are the aesthetics, or poetics, driving O'Neill's book? It seems to be a poetics of resistance: ". . . like Vendler, I explore the capacity of the aesthetic to resist ideological appropriation" (p. xxv); O'Neill argues that New Historicist "readings, however stimulating, refuse to see a poem as itself an occurrence of a particular kind, one which has an existence which may be resistant to causal explanation" (214).  And it's a poetics of limitation: "A valuable feature shared by many self-conscious poems is the way they explore the limits of poetry" (xix).  It is consequently an aesthetics of elegy and tragedy. (O'Neill's predisposition for elegy emerges in his recent TLS poetry reviews.) The tragic acknowledges the limits of poetry before the greater fact of the "reality" of death; it is tragic that the poet's visionary imagination (e.g., "the Fancy") cannot be realized. Yet the compensation for this loss is a self-consciousness which, in the "heroism" of the great poet, allows for his (and in this book it is "his") transcendence of such pain in the poetic representation of the self as a kind of engine of vision-followed-by-acceptance-of-tragic-reality—in other words, in the image of maturity as heroic-acceptance-of-human-limitation.  (Since the visionary side of Romantic poetry is typically associated with human and social change, according to the aesthetics of this book, Romantic poetry achieves aesthetic success when social change has been rejected as an ideal and a possibility for poetry.)

O'Neill also privileges the ironic and the skeptical for his Romantic poets. And when he speaks of the modernist descendents of the reality-rich Romantics, he values them for their "finesse" and their "honesty"—that is, for their capacity to outwit the depressive implications of the world as tragic while acknowledging that it always already has the upper hand. Again, visionary poetry is seen as an illusion but unfortunately an occupational hazard for poets that the good ones transcend.

Who is the speaking subject of a lyric poem? O'Neill assumes, by and large, the identification of the speaking subject with the poet. Thus the (historical, biographical) poet's concern about vocation becomes that of the poem's speaker. But can we make this assumption except in highly specialized cases? There is a contradiction here: the identification of speaker and poet (e.g., Wordsworth, Shelley) makes the speaker an historical person; yet an anti-historicist like O'Neill would seem to wish to eschew the historical in his speaker. O'Neill's study would be more valuable if he could account for the apparent historical interest of Romantic speakers in the crisis of poetry. (Has he or anyone tested Romanticism for a particular density of preoccupation with the representation of poetry in relation to, say, the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period, or the Eighteenth Century? How "Romantic" is it?)

And if we were to assume that the representation of self-consciousness ranks high in the poet's preoccupation, how do we define self-consciousness? O'Neill, following in the path of his predecessors Bate, Vendler, et. al., finds in one way or another that the poets question whether or not their poem can stand up to "reality." But there's another kind of self-consciousness in Romanticism, found in the poems of Blake, Mary Robinson, Anna Barbauld, Byron, and, I assume, others as well, that questions the position of the poet in the social scheme of things: is the poet a citizen speaking in the difficult position of "prophet" trying to envision the social reality in which he/she is an element (cf., the Los of The Book of Urizen who makes matters worse before they can get better, or the "poet" in Robinson's "A London Summer Morning" who wakes up to paint the morning along with all the other citizens doing their jobs)? What can poetry do? seems an important question posed by the Romantic poets, and the answers offered are far more interesting and relevant to their tumultuous and revolutionary times than O'Neill's versions of skepticism about poetry and tragic exuberance. That is a highly reductive formula for Romantic poetics, just as reductive as the notion that a poem equals its historical context.

O'Neill, for example, quotes Byron on "poesy":

You know or don't know, that great Bacon saith,

     'Fling up a straw, 'twill show the way the wind blows;'

And such a straw, borne on by human breath,

     Is Poesy, according as the mind glows;

A paper kite, which flies 'twixt life and death,

     A shadow which the onward Soul behind throws:

And mine's a bubble not blown up for praise,

But just to play with, as an infant plays.  (Don Juan, XIV, 8)

This is an instance of one of Byron's "virtuoso exhibitions of disdain for poetry" (93). O'Neill reads Byron saying that "Bacon's sceptical empiricism validates a despairing, exhilarating process of imaginative 'play'" (93). Locking Byron into his formula, O'Neill doesn't consider the possibility that Byron may be taking issue with a poetics of egotistical concern for praise—what would that be? a poetry advertising itself as monumental? praising the King? Perhaps Byron is proposing a poetics based upon play, a poetry of signifiers as a way of calling attention to the mind-forg'd manacles of what Barthes calls mythologies. Perhaps the reference to infant play gestures towards a critique of "maturity" in poetry that in fact closes off from view the multiple realities of the world. Perhaps Byron's poetry-as-bubble ought to recall Barbauld's at the end of "Washing Day" where the soap bubble brings into uneasy conjunction the labor of washing clothes, the sport of children, and the making of poems. Poetry: is it labor or play? Or is there a labor of play?

O'Neill's argument and my response to it, in this regard, restage the eighteenth-century and Romantic debate about the Imagination and the Fancy (particularly as it has come down to us through Coleridge and canonical poetics). From O'Neill's point of view Imagination is the magisterial, synthetic faculty capable of representing tragic acceptance and poetic self-consciousness, and the Fancy flits in immaturity from object to object escaping reality into brilliant Arcadias. A great poet outgrows the Fancy. The history of Romantic criticism in England and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century on reveals a pre-occupation with "maturity" in this sense as a virtue. But Fancy has an inclination to explore other domains, it can be seen as the faculty of visionary poetics—from let us say Blake to Mallarme, the surrealists, the Black Mountain and Beat poets, and the language poets. Other poets besides Blake writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution also exhibit elements of visionary poetics.

What is important in the allusions to the poet or to poetry (e.g., "a poet could not but be gay . . ." or "scatter my words . . . among mankind") is not that the speaker writes poetry with anxiety but that the speaker embodies the sensibilities and drives of a poet (a term continually under scrutiny by poets) in his/her well-formed, civic response to the world. Similarly the Urizenic component of Blake's poetry addresses personal and social resistances to the capacity to envision and empower an ideal democratic citizenry. To write about Romantic poetry as instances of heroic self-consciousness about writing poetry is to shift attention from the poet's primary unsettling—visionary and transformative—concerns with democracy and the "life in things" back into the private, idiosyncratic, neurotic grumblings that everyone ambitious about vocation has. The identification of speaker with poet and the insistance that poems be about poetry and its limitations and capacities leads to strained readings. The Ancient Mariner is "like a poet" (83). Many figures in literature exhibit, in this or that respect, similarities to the artist, but that does not mean that the work rotates around the artist as sun or that the poem is primarily to be read in terms of the anxieties or even the catagories of art. Of the following lines from Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode,"

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

Turn wheresoe'er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

O'Neill says: "The lines suggest a writer engaged in concentrated struggle, the stressed 'now' referring to an emotional state and to the verbal apprehension of it occurring in the poem" (46). Again, the "suggestion" of a writer does not mean that the poem is about writing and the poet; nor does "poet" automatically mean one concerned with "awareness of the self" and "elegiac lament." Moreover, O'Neill assumes that the "fineness" of the "Ode" is a sign of its being about poetry as is its "cunning," a notion praised in O'Neill's modern Romantic poems as a sign of courageous and creative adjudication of imagination and reality. The best evidence that the "Ode" is about poetry comes in the lines: "Not for these I raise / The song of thanks and praise." But even here O'Neill claims that these lines "give way to a reliving of 'obstinate questionings'"
(46) (i.e., skepticism) since the latter come next in the poem so that the song of thanks and praise must be qualified and diminished. The 1807 epigraph, paulo majora canamus suggests otherwise: not a diminishment but an extension, further into a visionary poetry (from pastoral to epic). But then in his 1815 epitaph ("The Child is father of the Man . . .") Wordsworth drops the reference to poetry altogether. The problem with O'Neill's reading is two-fold: 1) if the poem is about poetry, it may not be the poetry that O'Neill sees, and 2) it is not clear that Wordsworth means for us to think primarily of poetry at all.

The poet whose life story most precisely recapitulates the growth of O'Neill's poet's mind, who lived a life of allegory, is of course Keats. O'Neill puts it succinctly when he registers Keats's "growth" from the early "To Charles Cowden Clarke" to the preludic lines in The Fall of Hyperion ("When the dream now purposed to rehearse / Be poet's or fanatic's . . .") as from the writing of a "gamesome tyro" to "the work of an anguished master" (182). Maturation follows the trajectory of trivial play to serious tragically-informed self-concern. As has been the case for decades, "To Autumn" expresses the new maturity as acceptance of life in the perfection of a lyric poem. It improves over the odes of spring in that their passion and ego and abstraction are spent or rather absorbed and transcended. Yet, writing in the age of historicism and during the flurry of historicist readings of this apparently ahistorical poem, O'Neill imports the language of resistance: "To Autumn" "refuses to gloss its creator's mood" (201), "has an existence which may be resistant to causal explanation," and, in the third stanza, "refus[es] to take sides, except the side of its own art . . ."
(214); "Caught between the disagreeables of political agitation and personal crisis, the poet reaffirms the 'music' he is able to win from self-transcendence and contemplation" (215). This account narrates a tale for which the poem simply gives no evidence, but it inscribes into the poem itself a motive and a capacity for resisting history and passion—as if "To Autumn" willed a denial of the world around it just as O'Neill wills this poem, in spite of everything we have learned in the past 15 years about Keats's interest in progressive culture and politics, to deny the social world. This, of course, does not mean that one crudely translates the language of the poem into the events of the day; a poem has its own rhythms, its own vocabulary, finally its own domain. But everything in Keats's engagement with the Hunt circle, with Hunt's publications (in particular the Calendar of Nature and its revision The Months) would suggest his openness to his world. One would want to speak less of the poetics of resistances and refusals and more of the poetics of accumulations and inclusions, from the poem's swellings to its final gatherings.

I have tried to sketch Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem in enough detail to give clearly my view of its concerns and shortcomings and therefore will not discuss the "Coda" of modernism in detail because its purpose is to reinforce the paradigm in major canonical twentieth-century poets. This section ends with Amy Clampitt's Voyages: A Homage to John Keats, dedicated to Helen Vendler and begotten, as O'Neill observes, by W.J. Bate's biography of Keats. It brings up to date (1985) the version of Keats as quintessential Romantic poet of tragic self-awareness, with its "edgy intimacy between imagination and reality" (272) and its "sadness that the imaginative achievement is in itself powerless to avert tragedy from the author's own life . . ." (274), "maintaining a satisfying balance between affirmation and pathos" (282). And finally, "Clampitt's treatment . . . brings the familiar tragedy alive for her readers" (288). The suite, in its place in O'Neill's book, brings the Romantic self-conscious poem, like a vivid apparition, before us; all that is left is to make this poetic type stand for the "achievement of Romantic poetry" (289). (A more recent book of poems on Keats, Tom Clark's Junkets on a Sad Planet [Black Sparrow Press, 1994], shifts the tragic life story from the center to the periphery so that Keats's poetry reflects less his tragedy and more the visionary explorations and mysteries that absorb but go beyond it.)

What, then, is "Romantic poetry"? It is the six canonical male poets represented by their most canonical poems and discussed in a canonical way. Romantic poetry is closed-form, more-or-less elegiac verse fighting against loss and death with tragic heroism, concerned primarily with the anxieties of the self-as-poet, resisting history and social and erotic passion or at least transcending them, and inspiring modern poets who do the same thing. This, as a generalization, simply is not true; at the very least it leaves out so much of the poetry of the Romantic Period—particularly its visionary intention, its flirtation with open forms, its heterogeneity—that, to paraphrase Rothenberg and Joris on the canon in Modern Poetry, it is like talking about Modern Art without mentioning Cubism and Surrealism, and therefore it excludes or denies the drives behind those movements. Exclusion is what Hunt and Hazlitt accused Wordsworth of doing; Hunt, in The Feast of the Poets (1815), beckons Wordsworth to join him in the city; I would recommend to O'Neill that he read more Blake, and join up with the women poets and John Clare.