To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (3): Goethe & Shelley

Over the next half year I will continue to show brief extracts from Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, which Jeffrey Robinson & I have co-edited for the University of California Press. The bulk of these extracts will be from our prose commentaries, but by the end of the run I anticipate showing newly recovered or newly translated works as well. Responses are welcome but not necessary and can be addressed directly to either of the two co-authors. The book itself is scheduled for publication in January 2009 with an expectation of advance copies in November or December. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts appeared on June 11 and June 18.


Schiller preached the gospel of freedom; I wanted to keep intact the rights of nature. (J.W.G.)

(1) It is not as a conserver of classical traditions but as an originator that we would see him here – from the questionable & self-questioned expressionism of his early novel (The Sorrows of Young Werther) & sturm und drang poetry to the defense of the objective, even “objectivist,” side of a romanticism to which he responded both as a forerunner & uncomfortable participant, & as a frequent, sometimes acerbic critic. This objective view, in alignment with a complementary claim to “intuitive perception,” informed both his poetry & his serious & influential empirical studies & scientific writings. The push throughout was toward a unified view of the human & other-than-human within a transformative/transforming physical world – the model too, if we would take him as that, of a poet working at full throttle & a harbinger of ecological practices still to come. Thus a poem like “The Metamorphosis of Plants” (1798) links closely to his scientific writings under the same title – not a conflict between science & art, but a continuity at the heart of a new poetics emerging in his time. Or Goethe himself, writing of his experience both as scientist & poet:
When I closed my eyes and lowered my head, I could imagine a flower in the center of my visual sense. Its original form never stayed for a moment; it unfolded, and from within it new flowers continuously developed with colored petals or green leaves. These were no natural flowers; they were fantasy flowers, but as regular as rosettes carved by a sculptor. … Here the appearance of an after-image, memory, creative imagination, concept, and idea all work simultaneously, revealing themselves through the unique vitality of the visual organ in complete freedom and without intention or direction. (From a review of Johannes Purkinje’s Contributions to the Study of Sight from a Subjective Standpoint, 1824, translated by Douglas Miller)

Beyond Goethe the fusion of poetry with other forms of philosophical & scientific discourse shows up in these pages in works such as Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants, Shelley’s notes to Queen Mab, Coleridge’s Notebooks, Poe’s Eureka, & in the twentieth-century volumes of Poems for the Millennium, through such diverse poets as Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Miyazawa Kenji, Francis Ponge, & Hugh Macdiarmid. To which might be added Friedrich Schlegel’s directive for the Romantic: “all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one,” as well as Wordsworth's linking of poetry & science in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, & Whitman's famous outcry: “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!”

(2) Goethe’s poetic range isn’t bounded of course by his scientific oeuvre (important studies of light & color along with works on botany & plant & animal morphology) but extends into a variety of lyric & narrative modes in multiple genres. To indicate his range more fully, we have employed a mix of translations, including the attempt by one of us to complete the final two stanzas of Coleridge’s poeticized version of “Mignon’s Song” from Goethe’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister, and Shelley’s double translation (as closed & open verse) of a scene from Goethe’s Faust. The translation of “The Marienbad Elegy” into prose echoes Goethe’s comments to Nerval, in praise of Nerval’s prose translation of Faust: “All honor no doubt should be accorded to rhythm and rhyme, for they are the primordial and essential attributes of poetry. But there is in a poetic work something far more crucial and fundamental, something that produces the profoundest of impressions and that works with the greatest effect upon our spirits – namely, that which remains of a poet in prose translation, for only this conveys the true values of the material in all its purity and perfection.”


The language [of poets] is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things. (P.B.S., A Defence of Poetry)

(1) George Oppen’s witty revision of Shelley’s famous claim at the close of the Defence of Poetry (“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World“) actually catches a central feature of the poetic radicalism of this most radical of the British Romantic poets: “Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world.” Attentiveness to the world is transformative, a “lifting of the veil” from the familiar, from the vision of society promoted by repressive Regency power – or repressive power anywhere, everywhere. Thus Shelley, again in the Defense: “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man”. And poet Michael Palmer nearly 200 years later: “Shelley . . . represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness.”

(2) Shelley’s poetry explodes in a multitude of forms, from cosmic dramas about the consequences of “repressive rule”; to urgent inquiries into visionary capacity & possibility; to poems of intensely erotic/lyric communion (Palmer again: “Desire itself will be seen as a signifier of resistance and subversion”); to more popular, rhyming, tetrameter poems of visionary outrage (The Mask of Anarchy and Peter Bell the Third); to poems — like Queen Mab — that juxtapose visionary prophecy with an elaborate set of notes rising at times to a kind of prose poetry of astronomical, naturalistic, & philosophical commentary. His translations – ranging from anonymous Homeric Hymns to fragments from Dante, Calderón, & Goethe’s Faust – propose, along with those of his contemporaries like Leigh Hunt, a consciously transnational agenda for his poetry. This polysemous nature of Shelley’s poetic decisions registers in multiple, mythic, readings of his life & of his death by drowning at age 29. Yet Shelley, & this characterizes his most radical work, enters the field of poetry not as an ego but as an intellectually alive enthusiasm. Matthew Arnold’s infamously seductive formulation of Shelley as “a beautiful & ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain” has been challenged many times, often by political radicals — from the British working class Chartist Movement of the 1840s, to Brecht & the Frankfurt School, & to the the radical student uprising of the Tienanmen Square demonstrations (1989) — who found either Queen Mab & its notes or The Mask of Anarchy productive of the “dangerous enthusiasm” desirable in collective revolutionary efforts. Wrote his contemporary & friend Leigh Hunt: "He was like a spirit that had darted out of its orb, and found itself in another planet. I used to tell him that he had come from the planet Mercury."

The centrality of Shelley for the Beat Generation & Black Mountain poets of the American 1950s & 60s should also be noted – in particular, perhaps, the burial of Gregory Corso, American poet, next to the grave of Shelley in the Cimiterio Acottolico (“English Cemetery”) in Rome.

(3) Among other works presented here is part of Shelley’s parody of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, as an instance of his outraged vision of bigotry & oppression in London, a “Hell” in the manner of Blake, Dickens, & Baudelaire. (A juxtaposition of Shelley’s infernal London with Sousandrade’s “Inferno of Wall Street,” excerpted elsewhere in the book, might also be of interest.) But at one with such a poetry of social critique & futurist possibility lies his hope for the transformed reader: “Poetry turns all things to loveliness.”