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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reconfiguring Romanticism (49): Bob Perelman, On Jeffrey Robinson & the Retrieval of the Fancy

[The following is from a longer piece recently published in the European Romantic Review (Volume 22, Issue 1, February 2011), tracing Jeffrey Robinson’s pivotal work in questioning the Coleridgean opposition of Imagination & Fancy, not so much favoring one over the other as allowing the Fancy its due as the cutting edge of an emerging but always present avant-garde.  I would note further the close resemblance of Fancy as here defined to Goya’s Caprichos (a word for “fancy” in Spanish) and Lorca’s Duende, concepts & powers that have long been close to me & many others.  The rest, like they say, is semantics.  (J.R.)]

From The Times, a small story of the reopening of what was once the Museo Romantico, now the Museo del Romanticismo: 

"'They can call it whatever they like,' said Norberto Mateos, as he stood in a line of about 50 people patiently waiting to enter a Madrid museum earlier this month, but 'it'll always be the Museo Romantico to us.' . . . . For many Madrileños like Mr. Mateos, the name change ― from Romantic Museum to Museum of Romanticism ― had gone unnoticed. It was as if a dear friend who went away without a proper goodbye has returned . . . . With nearly 1,400 objects ranging from grand pianos and wall-size oil paintings to diamond-studded stickpins and toy soldiers tucked into 26 rooms of an elegant neo-Classical palace, [the Museum] is often summed up in Spanish with the word bombonera ― a box of sweets." ["In Madrid, Isn't It Romantic?"]

A charming anecdote, perhaps, from the perspective of The Times, striking another of its genteel blows on behalf of upscale common sense against the dour isms of the academy. From the perspective of the academy, however, I imagine the view would be more complex. On the one hand, who cares? Whatever connections exist between the rigors of an academic discipline and the vagaries of commodified culture are vague ones. This is merely another garden variety evocation of the romantic. Note the similarity between the Madrileños' taste for bomboneras and Yeats' view of Keats as the "schoolboy . . . / With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window"; note the symptomatic vagueness of a Romantic/Romanticism Museum housed in a neo-Classical palace. But on the other hand, if the anecdote is granted significance, then Romanticists could take heart in a quasi-dialectical way: even if the consumers, locked in their nostalgic habits, prefer the Romantic Museum, what they are actually visiting represents the historical advance of the discipline, the Museum of Romanticism. A third perspective might find a troubling omen for Romanticists in the inability of the intellectual noun to dislodge the disreputable but persistent adjective. This persistence can be read as signaling that the passel of associations accompanying "romantic" are not mere adjectival detritus but represent a more telling registration of the phenomena that Romanticists attempt to adjudicate. This would turn the hard-won coherences put forward by Romanticists into defensive reductions of the perennial romantic overflow, the tin soldiers of Urizen, so to speak. The promiscuous signification of "romantic" (sweet, insurrectionary, sentimental, erotic, adolescent, narcissistic, satanic, kitschy), not to mention its ahistoric adhesiveness (aren't the Pyramids especially romantic at sunset? and the Empire State Building at the end of Sleepless in Seattle?) – these, then, change aspects, from embarrassments or annoyances to reliable sources of information. In other words, Romanticism is romantic. (Does this mean that the end of Bright Star -- where we are informed that after Keats's death Fanny Brawne habitually strayed deep into the woods as she thought of him -- should be taken as showing us a deeper truth than the mere historical fact that she married in 1833 and had three children?)

It seems to me that the project that Jeffrey C. Robinson has been engaged in over the past three decades is a signally romantic one. But at this point, I need to abandon the melodramatic starkness of my initial binary: it is not a question of a battle that pits the accuracy of literary scholarship against the inveigling of the New York Times Travel section or the big-screen melancholy of Bright Star. Although I am not a Romanticist, it doesn't strike me that there need be the slightest doubt as to the scope, solidity, and nuance of Robinson's scholarly knowledge. He is clearly a Romanticist in the most professional, authoritative, accredited sense of the word. But throughout the range of his work, a consistent goal seems to have been troubling the professional boundaries of Romanticism. He does this in a number of ways: by mixing genres (scholarly chapters, feuilletons combining autobiographical and critical reflection, experimental poetry), splicing historical periods together (in his critical analyses as often as in his poetry), and by transgressing emotional/intellectual protocol.

In a way, this last category of gesture is the most scandalous -- although my vocabulary doesn't do justice to what Robinson is doing. "Scandal" and "transgression" do not lead one to expect Robinson's genial, elegant but straightforward prose style, nor the thorough scholarship he displays. What I'm gesturing towards is better described as a transhistoric poetics built from careful historical research. Robinson is a visionary scholar and a scholarly visionary.

His recent Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism is unambiguously scholarly, and, from my non-specialist perspective, seems quite successful on that level. With its widespread and detailed readings of poetry, criticism, and editorial and anthology practice; its copious notes and sources; its highly specific but far reaching argument about British Romantic poetry as a whole, Unfettering provides a detailed history of fancy and its status vis-à-vis imagination. The opening chapter gives an historical overview of the promotion and maintenance of what Robinson terms "fanciphobia": "Philosophers, theorists, reviewers, and literary critics from the French Revolution to the present have sought to devise strategies to displace or disarm the power of the Fancy." Considered in isolation, Robinson's critical gesture could seem rather fashionable: backing the less-applauded side of a binary, fancy instead of imagination, can be a trendy move in academia – consider Zizek's efforts to promote melancholy and demote mourning. But Robinson's claim for fancy is far more earnest than fashionable. For him, fear of the fancy (or disdain for it, condescension toward it, slightly less interest in it – there are varying degrees of devaluation) is more or less synonymous with fear of poetry. The underlying supposition of the book is that fanciphobia has been a central, constricting force in British and American poetry for over two centuries: "Coleridge's now famous dichotomy of Imagination/Fancy, along with the explicit hierarchical relationship conferred upon them, constitute the poetics and the critical apparatus that have characterized Anglo-American literary culture for the past 250 years."  Imagination (or rather the principle of poetry it represents) has become associated with conservation, stability, and consolidation. . . . whereas poor Fancy has been relegated by these same institutions into triviality, a childish impulse: immature, escapist . . ."  Robinson's view inverts these values: "This powerful form of poetry, confrontative in its experimentalism, what in the Romantic Period we are calling the poetry of the Fancy, belongs to a tradition of poetry that extends past Romanticism into the experimental modernism and postmodernism of the twentieth century and of our own."  This sense of de-periodization shows up most clearly in the recent anthology, Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 3, that Robinson edited with Jerome Rothenberg.

Despite this trans-Romantic perspective, Unfettering is quite focused historically; the bulk of the investigation is closely tied to specific Romantic figures and moments. For instance, in the penultimate chapter Robinson provides an informative comparison of the 1824 and 1825 editions of William Hazlitt's anthology Select British Poets. At first glance, this might seem the narrowest of scholarly investigations. But what was at stake was both topical and, in respect to subsequent development of poetry in English, prophetic. The 1824 version included a substantial selection of living poets, was quickly withdrawn due to copyright problems, and was given little notice at the time. It is now quite a rare book and has not been the subject of much subsequent critical debate. But Robinson nevertheless sees it as "a momentous event in the history of the reception, dissemination, and canonization of British Romantic Poetry." It was, he writes, "the first judicious selection of the poetry of the early nineteenth century (the section called 'Living Poets'), made by one intimately familiar with the poetry and the poets of the day and the period's most acute, boldest, and most wide-ranging reader of and commentator upon British Literature past and present." It was, in Robinson's view, an "expressive anthology," i.e., one with "an agenda shaped openly by the editor"; and what it expressed was a Cockney poetics, a poetics of the fancy. Robinson ties this tightly to its own moment via nuanced evidence: he collates scarce references to the 1824 edition from Mary Shelley's letters and similar sources; he deduces from typographic evidence that the majority of the few extant copies were printed in America in order to preempt the impending copyright battles. In other words, it is the most careful scholarship; but at the same time, in its prophetic dimension, it is an example of what fuels Robinson's project, which in toto – scholarship, feuilleton, experimental collaged poetry – is best seen as being written under the sign of "Living Poets." (Or, as Blake would have it, "The authors are in eternity.") At one point, Robinson quotes Hazlitt as implying that "poetry . . . at its essence is both very 'new' and very 'old,' at the periphery of the social voice, what Keats called a 'new old song." This sense of poetry, both historically embedded and transhistorical, seems one that Robinson holds as well. One could say that the moment of the 1824 edition extends throughout Robinson's writings and into Poems for the Millennium.

Subsequent chapters in Unfettering cover related but distinct moments of British Romantic Poetry. The width of critical aperture varies: there are chapters on the lyric subject as manifested in the poems of Barbauld, Clare, Blake, Wordsworth et al.; on the poetry of "cheerfulness," which Robinson associates broadly as "a poetry of the Fancy", and, more narrowly, as often manifesting itself in rhyming tetrameter couplets; on the Della Cruscans and Mary Robinson's relation to them; on boxing (known then as The Fancy, thus creating a pun that united fisticuffs and poetry, a cultural stretch whose two sides Hazlitt inhabited). The coverage of British Romantic poets is both capacious and, in an up to date sense, canonical – e.g., Robert Merry, Anna Barbauld, Leigh Hunt, Felicia Hemans, Mary Robinson, John Clare are given detailed treatment, while long-canonical poets are re-presented perspicaciously. Wordsworth and Coleridge are read, quite plausibly, not simply as key figures in the promulgation of imagination at the expense of fancy, but as themselves poets of the fancy, at least in some of their work. Detail is in sync with overview: the way Unfettering opens and concludes with "Ode to a Nightingale" is quite neatly done. In the opening chapter, Robinson presents the historical coalescence and continuing influence of M. H. Adams's "greater romantic lyric" with its subsequent instantiations in Harold Bloom and, mutatis mutandis, Helen Vendler. "Nightingale" is a key example of value throughout this process. Unfettering ends by focusing on the lines that form Exhibit A in the case of Imagination v. Fancy: "Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving Elf!" Critical consensus has it that Keats is here dismissing fancy and accepting the soberer truth of imagination. These lines are usually taken as, in Robinson's description, "a 'q.e.d.' of [Keats's] achieved maturity, an acknowledgement of life's tragic core." Robinson reverses this. His conclusions are the result both of close reading of "Nightingale" and of examination of its immediate context (the poems Keats was writing at the same time, and the placement of "Nightingale" in Select British Poets). Robinson sees the poem as expressing Keats's celebration of the fancy and his affinity with Cockney poetics. Like the critics he opposes, Robinson sees "Nightingale" as exemplary, but he draws the contrary conclusion: "the simple question that must be asked about the "Ode to a Nightingale" can stand for the same question directed toward the entire line of Fanci-phobic apologists for poetry: why would a poet – particularly one with Keats's energies, his sensuousness, his affinities with the politically and culturally dissident Cockney poets – choose to write a poem skeptical of poetry's visionary capacity?"  "The Fancy," Robinson writes in one summary, "is the faculty and, one might add, the visionary technique of mixed realities – subjective and object, old and new, mental and physical, public and private."

My compressed summary of the book flattens Robinson's arguments, but my initial point is simply to show that, in normative senses, Unfettering is a well-argued, shapely work of scholarship. My larger point, however, is that this scholarship is an integral part of a project which reaches quite a bit beyond normative scholarly practices. Again, it is a matter of "Living Poets." Robinson's subject is not Romantic poetry, but simply poetry. And poetry not as a series of historical examples, but as a transhistorical force. Near the end of Unfettering, Robinson writes that "the Fancy defines the vision of Romantic poetry and, finally, the purpose of visionary poetry in general: to expand, to defamiliarize perception, to challenge convention, to express mind-in-its-freedom by establishing a playful relationship to language.  Once again, 'Poetry fetter'd, fetters the human race.' I believe that, allowing for variation in time and place, this definition has a fairly constant application in the history of poetry."  When he writes of the efforts of "Fanci-phobes" to "disarm the power of the Fancy," it is as if, by using the definite article and capital F, he is speaking of a divinity of sorts, one with actual powers.


Ed Baker said...

you take (this-all) via Robinson to an higher high:

"(...) writes "the Fancy defines the vision of Romantic poetry and, finally, the purpose of visionary visionary poetry in general: to expand, to defamiliarize perception, to challenge convention, to express mind-in-its-freedom by establishing a playful relationship to language. Once again, 'Poetry fetter'd, fetters the human race.' I believe that, allowing for variation in time and place, this definition has a fairly constant application in the history of poetry." (etc)

& I am suddenly struck:

by his use of punctuation and capitalization and (especially that compound-complex (use of the dashes between) "mind-in-its-freedom" !

well I am telling you the truth when I say/think this way but have to write-it-down a different way that shows
rather than tells/defines that most probably and actually

less IS more, more or less AND a Sacred Trust ?

heck NO: "disarm the power of Fancy," ?

... or the Erotic


William A. Sigler said...

Relying on Coleridge for qualitative philosophical distinctions is a little like looking to Plato to explain the Old Testament. Generations of discerning Anglos may not have known whether Fancy was "id," "ego" or "superego" but they knew in their bones the empire depending on it being condemned (oh, but leave the lady with the Abyssinian dulcimer behind - it might be of use someday).

The Spanish want no part of that line of thinking. It's too French. They'd rather gabber utter nonsense with such bravura that eventually you not only know exactly what they mean, but you are convinced that it is of the highest order of genius.

And that is the point where they can begin fucking with your mind.