In Flesh-Coloured Silk

Seamus Perry

  • Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory by Paul Hamilton
    Chicago, 316 pp, £17.50, August 2003, ISBN 0 226 31480 4

There is a beguiling poem by Raymond Carver which, like many modern poems, though more cheerfully than some, spends most of its short life mulling over the conditions of its own possibility. ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window’: the ingenuous opening line at once establishes Carver in a realm of the purest contingency, where things just happen to happen. The rest of the poem is about trying to stay there, to keep within the occasional and mundane and, above all, not to get all literary:

It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow.
Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow.
Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore,
after the battle. This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning.

Just a crow: not, that is to say, a poetic crow, the sort worth writing about; and, after a few exemplarily unexceptional moments in the garden, the bird flies off ‘beautifully/ out of my life’. In doing so, you might think, the crow has secured an unobtrusive yet decisive victory on behalf of the unpoetic and ordinary; but setting out to imagine happenstance can hardly yield such simple results. For all Carver’s patient insistence to the contrary, nothing could be more literary, or possess a more purely symbolic interest, than this intently ordinary bird, and by the time it leaves the poem it has become unmistakably Carver’s crow – something he knows perfectly well, and wryly insinuates in his title, ‘My Crow’ (other Carver poems are called ‘My Boat’ and ‘My Work’). As Wallace Stevens put it in ‘The Plain Sense of Things’, ‘the absence of the imagination had/Itself to be imagined.’

Carver’s deft, paradoxical allegory joins a distinguished tradition of Romantic birds, at once their author’s property yet elusive and free, too. Keats’s nightingale is a thing of art and myth, an immortal whose song found out ‘the sad heart of Ruth’; but it is also a transient visitor to a Hampstead garden, which heedlessly slips out of earshot (‘Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side’) and so brings Keats’s poem to an unpremeditated close. Carver’s poem sets about capturing the quotidian and resists the charms of art, but ends up as art anyhow. Keats is no less self-conscious, but his poem works in almost the opposite way: he is wholly smitten with the charms of art (‘the viewless wings of Poesy’) and ordinariness surprises his poem like the breaking of a spell (‘the fancy cannot cheat so well/As she is famed to do’). The poems face in different directions, but share a creative preoccupation with the moment when art runs out and something else – the ordinary, or Truth, or the plain sense of things, or what you will – asserts itself.

Critics and historians of ideas have often told us that the ‘aesthetic’ is an invention of Romanticism, and it is certainly true that the Romantics often speak ringingly of art or poetry as ends in themselves, with a magical authority which trumps any other claim that human intelligence or experience might make: ‘I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespere or a Milton,’ Coleridge once announced. The Coleridgean poet possesses the ‘self-sufficing power of absolute genius’, and the pre-eminent example of such power is Milton, who, as we are told in Biographia Literaria, ‘attracts all forms and things to himself, into the unity of his own ideal’. A large part of Coleridge warmly approved of such sublime egotism, and he saw it in Wordsworth, a poet superbly ensconced in ‘the dread watch-tower of man’s absolute self’. As Frank Kermode argued in Romantic Image (1957), it is really not so large a step from the solitary tower of the Wordsworthian ego to the lonely tower of high aestheticism; and while it would never have crossed Coleridge’s mind to say with Mallarmé that the world existed to be put in a book, yet some such Symbolist dream is not far away from his portrait of Milton, who conjures ‘all forms and things’ into the ideal and improved universe of his poetry. Poets are ‘Gods of Love who tame the Chaos’, Coleridge writes in his Notebooks, anticipating by more than a century the aphorisms of Stevens, in which the imagination is a new saviour at the heart of an aesthetic theology: ‘Poetry is a means of redemption’ or ‘Poetry is a renovation of experience’ or ‘The mind is the most powerful thing in the world.’

The Romantics may have invented this all-powerful sense of the aesthetic, but they invented the distrust of it as well. Keats could sound as rapt as anyone about the autonomy and power of the poetic mind (‘The great beauty of Poetry is, that it makes every thing every place interesting’); but quite as characteristic is the throwaway ‘I have no trust whatever on Poetry . . . the marvel is to me how people read so much of it.’ Such unflustered scepticism was a crucial ingredient in the mixed life of the verse, and one which Keats’s devoutly aesthetic admirers in the later 19th century quite missed. (When Keats finally abandoned Hyperion for good, it was with the sad realisation that what he was writing was too often merely poetic, marked by ‘the false beauty, proceeding from art’.) The most influentially mistrustful Romantic, though, must be Wordsworth, who is really two Wordsworths incongruously joined together. One is the poet whom Coleridge especially admired, an exponent of the egotistical sublime, to whom the daffodils beside Ullswater were as nothing compared with the ideal daffodils that continued dancing in the renovating space of his mind. But there is also the other one, with whom Coleridge felt rather less easy: ‘There is, I should say,’ he writes of that Wordsworth in Biographia, ‘not seldom a matter-of-factness in certain poems’: an ‘accidentality’ in the poems’ representation of the world – not, that is to say, ‘the music of what happens’ (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase) but, well, just what happens. Wordsworth frequently writes with soaring grandeur about the status and function of the poet; but in his most telling account, the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads, the poet’s importance rests on his mastery of the paradox that there is more to his art than mere poetry. ‘I have wished to keep the Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him,’ he says there, continuing with magnificent obduracy: ‘Others who pursue a different track will interest him likewise; I do not interfere with their claim, but wish to prefer a claim of my own.’ The others write literature: Wordsworth is intent on a nobler end, ‘the very language of men’.

The feeling that the aesthetic has its proper limits and its improper excesses persists to influence much modern criticism as well as earnestly disabused poetry such as Carver’s. But, of course, it is harder to evade art in practice than to renounce it in principle, as Carver’s symbolical crow illustrates. Coleridge argued out the point at rather greater length in Biographia Literaria, having first discovered the embarrassments of wilful artlessness in his own writing: ‘I find I cannot attain this innocent nakedness, except by assumption,’ he reported to Wordsworth in a letter. ‘I resemble the Duchess of Kingston, who masqueraded in the character of “Eve before the Fall” in flesh-coloured silk.’

Coleridge’s own invention in genre, the ‘conversation poem’, is one response to such imponderables: these poems continually hint at the possibility of a high Miltonic grandiloquence, but their studied easiness of voice (‘Well, they are gone, and here must I remain’) declines any loftiness, as though the poems exist in a space between the idioms of art and of life in which the poet can address us, mindful of both. Coleridge announces, rather abruptly, in Biographia, that ‘a poem of any length neither can be, or ought to be, all poetry,’ a tag which recasts in general and approving terms the uneasiness he had felt before the strangeness of Wordsworth’s poetical yet unpoetical poetry. ‘Resolution and Independence’, Wordsworth’s poem about meeting the leech-gatherer, was, Coleridge thought, ‘especially characteristic of the author’, and what made it so was its incongruity. For, in parts, it could hardly better demonstrate the drawing of outward things into the re-created world of the poet’s mind:

The old Man’s shape, and speech – all troubled me:
In my mind’s eye I seemed to see him pace
About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently.

My leech-gatherer, in other words. And yet, elsewhere, the prosaic recalcitrance of the old man couldn’t feel more awkwardly obvious:

He with a smile did then his tale repeat;
And said, that, gathering leeches, far and wide
He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
The waters of the pools where they abide.
‘Once I could meet with them on every side,
But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.’

Business is not what it was, but I mustn’t grumble: the language of men with a vengeance, as Coleridge was not the only reader to feel. But, as Coleridge also understood very well, the discomfort of such transitions was closely connected to what made Wordsworth the greatest modern poet. Indeed, you could say that the way in which Wordsworth entertained so elevated a sense of the aesthetic, while at the same time mistrusting it, is precisely what made him definitively modern, anticipating generations of later writers, even those to whom he appeared (as Auden once succinctly put it) ‘a most bleak old bore’.

The distinction of Paul Hamilton’s formidable new book, Metaromanticism, is the success with which it translates these Romantic predicaments into contemporary terms, so as to make them feel wholly up-to-date. The subject is properly convoluted and Hamilton’s prose is not shy of assuming, from time to time, a responsive difficulty of its own; but his argument is robust while inviting you to argue with it. Shifting things onto the meta-level is often not much more than academic one-upmanship (anything you can do I can do meta); but the self-consciousness that Hamilton has in mind is not his own but his poets’, and it is less a sense of knowing superiority than the critical awareness of a plight. He is mostly concerned with those Romantic writers who (as he sees it) struggle to escape the prison of art, to ‘exceed an aesthetic to which, propositionally, he or she seems committed’. But, as Carver’s useful crow demonstrates, any attempt simply to take flight from literariness may only land you back in it all over again – or, as Hamilton variously puts it, the attempt may turn out to involve ‘further aesthetic production’, or ‘more Romanticism or aestheticism’. Or, to put it yet another way: ‘An imaginative falling short of effective realisation is still imagined, and so still constitutive of the creative category valorised by Romantic discourse.’ Wallace Stevens would hardly have put it that way, but he would have recognised what was being said and warmly approved. Hamilton warmly disapproves; and his reasons are political.

As a matter of nomenclature, I suppose it is a nice question whether a poet is mistrusting Romanticism exactly when he seeks to resist the lure of the aesthetic: it depends entirely on whether we nominate as really (‘propositionally’) ‘Romantic’ the disposition to the aesthetic or the disposition to resist it. Hamilton obliquely chooses the former by appealing to Germany, and particularly to Schiller, whom he adopts as the spokesman for ‘a Romantic ideology common to English practitioners and German theorists’. At the same time, Hamilton objects to this Romantic ideology because it works to maintain the status quo (which is no good): for Schiller, the world of art is a sort of paradigm for a ‘better life’, a life in which we would no longer require art to imagine something better for us; but no such happy time can ever come into being so long as the aesthetic self-perpetuatingly clings on, endlessly deferring its effective translation into the real world. So Romanticism is a kind of evasion, an ‘aesthetics of distraction’: it operates as a brake on historical progress, and is all the more deplorable because it simultaneously tantalises us with figurative glimpses of the happier world that we might otherwise be progressing towards.

Some authors, however, try to recognise, and not to defuse, the aesthetic’s ‘utopian potential’: they prosecute their ‘critiques’ of the aesthetic from within it, as though to reveal its bounds by running up against the invisible bars of the Romantic cage. Hamilton’s most sophisticated method of demonstrating this depends on catching texts in moments of implicit self-awareness. That sounds like the mandarin post-structuralism of Paul de Man, and Hamilton does occasionally remind you of his well-wrought turns, but here the crises in figurative language which de Man pinned down are being redeployed to political ends, ‘a new progressiveness’. So Rousseau, for instance, attempts to slip the chains by devising a genre – the reverie – in which his authorial presence dissipates into a proliferation of ‘philosophical hypotheses’: Hamilton commends this as a ‘collapse of aesthetic privilege’. Or take Keats. His poems, which are often about aesthetic pleasure, are written in a way that can only draw attention to their gaudily literary quality (‘poeticity’), so that they become at once art and an ‘allegory of art’: by this saving self-knowingness, Keats is no longer complicit with Romantic ideology but, rather, wittingly ‘reinscribes’ it. Or, a last example, Scott’s Waverley, which similarly eases itself a fraction from the Romantic clutch thanks to the way ‘it might be said to “know” its weaknesses.’ This instance of textual self-awareness wins high praise indeed: ‘Rhetorically, if not sexually, Scott is as sophisticated as Sade.’

These writers are still within the ‘prison of self-consciousness’, but at least they are self-conscious about it. Others remain uncritically within the bad Schillerian ‘logic of entrapment’: Wordsworth, for example, to whom, in Hamilton’s reading, everything, even poetic incapacity and failure, are just more grist to the Romantic mill. This is in contrast with his sister Dorothy, who makes a late and rather surprising appearance as the book’s undisputed star: ‘one of the principal Romantic dealers in quotidian reality’, Hamilton says. If her brother and Coleridge are in hock to the aesthetic, and Keats and the others only slippily evade it by knowing they are trapped, then Dorothy Wordsworth’s achievement is to do what had seemed impossible and avoid it altogether. A ‘relish for the particular’ inspires in her prose an ‘anti-symbolic particularity’ devoted to ‘ordinary, unsymbolic existence’: she is the laureate, as you might say, of accidentality and the matter-of-fact. ‘Dorothy’s prose threatens the aesthetic hegemony of Romantic poetry,’ Hamilton writes, which sets the stakes high, to be sure; and when we learn that William once tried to write up a poem from one of her journal entries and found himself stuck, Hamilton is not slow to draw the anti-aesthetic moral: ‘Clearly there is an integrity or propriety to Dorothy’s literalism that resists poetic translation.’ Her role in the book has a plain logic: we could do with an example of uncomplicatedly good practice. Still, I’m not sure about that ‘clearly’. ‘Literalism’ cuts a strange figure after the self-conscious mirroring that has constituted authorship so far. Dorothy’s journal is not writing degree zero, and she certainly wasn’t unused to conjuring the world into literary tropes; compare her account of the daffodils by Ullswater with that of her brother: ‘Some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind.’

For all that, Dorothy is said to practise a ‘kind of Georgic materialism’ which sets on its head the ‘idealist aesthetic usually associated with Romanticism’. Hamilton regularly offers materialism as the virtuous alternative. It is held to be politically enabling: the materialist is ‘empowered to participate in the natural excitation and productivity’ of the external world, which is magnificent and mysterious – think of Shelley assuming Mont Blanc to be on his side against Castlereagh (or of T.S. Eliot’s remark that no man would join himself to the universe if he had anything better to join himself to). But, after all, materialism has no monopoly on particularity: few have been more fervent in their idealism than Blake (‘Mental Things are alone Real’) though few have urged the claims of the particular more vigorously (‘To Particularise is the Alone Distinction of Merit’). What really counts about materialism for Hamilton is more emotive than conceptual: it is the knack it has of ‘troubling Romanticism’s subjective excess’, as though cutting the ego down to size. (Hamilton’s distrust of subjectivity is palpable, captured in a ubiquitous Hegelian grammar by which abstract nouns, not people, do things.)

Materialism promises to draw the self from its private life and involve it with something concrete in the world, outside the ideal spaces of the mind, just as, analogously, Hamilton admires art that somehow abandons its autonomy and reaches towards what lies outside its circle of Romantic enchantment. He wants, as well, a criticism that’s up to such extra-aesthetic aspirations: in fact, the book’s vigour seems to spring from a principled frustration with the textualist criticism at which Hamilton himself is so adept. For textualist high theory, the subject of criticism can never be literature or poetry, only ‘literariness’ and ‘poeticity’, an approach which might bring order to the normal chaos of critical approaches but does so only at an immense cost: the subject matter of art, its worldliness, dissolves into airy nothing. ‘There are no bullfights in Hemingway, there is no violence in Faulkner,’ as Kenneth Burke once told Denis Donoghue: it’s all text; and against such a claim there can be no appeal. (The idealist can always sweetly point out to Dr Johnson, nursing his foot, that he never disputed that the idea of a stone involved the ideas of solidity and impenetrability.) Keen to free criticism from a pure textualism, Hamilton wants to get some substance, some matter, back into the great game; he wants to establish a ‘new Romanticism’, one that wouldn’t pander to textualist habits.

But the book’s timeliness shouldn’t obscure the way it retraces quite old Romantic footprints: that is what makes it as interesting as it is. Hamilton’s admiration for Dorothy Wordsworth’s prose, for example, is infectious, and we should certainly agree that her journal needn’t be understood ‘merely as a source’ for William’s poetry. But still, the kind of praise that Dorothy earns here is wholly familiar, even traditional: Lord David Cecil might have appreciated Dorothy’s ‘relish for the particular’; it is, for want of a better word, a very Romantic sort of admiration. ‘She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,’ Wordsworth said, very tenderly; and Coleridge’s praise was of the same sort: ‘her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature . . . a perfect electrometer’. An electrometer, like that other Romantic favourite the aeolian harp, is happily free of any subjectivity: like most women, in fact, it has no character at all. It enjoys the imaginative selflessness that we know as ‘negative capability’, the quality which Keats and others attributed pre-eminently to Shakespeare, the super-realist, dialogic genius, ‘the one Proteus of the fire and the flood’, whose self-effacing spirit sympathetically elicited, from within, the particular realities of other people and other things. (‘He became Othello and spoke therefore as Othello would have spoken,’ Coleridge told his lecture audience.) Keats, like Coleridge, was often absorbed by the thought of the poet’s godlike identity; but, like Coleridge, he was often absorbed, too, by the thought that the poet might have no identity at all, except for those identities which he imagined: from that perspective, as Keats said in a sprightly paradox, a poet ‘has no self . . . is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence’. Hamilton’s Schiller-inspired identification of ‘Romantic’ with ‘ideal’ (and ‘aesthetic’) seems less than helpful here. Definitions of English Romanticism have always proved forlorn because they are bound to try to resolve incompatibles; say, the ‘invention of the aesthetic’ and the ‘return to nature’ – the whole point of nature being that it is not art. As Eliot put it, with the laconic distaste of someone who’s seen through something, Romanticism ‘splits up into two directions: escape from the world of fact, and devotion to brute fact’.

Anyway, once Dorothy Wordsworth has been allowed her unliterary sort of success, it is difficult to see why her achievement should be withheld quite so categorically from the others – including her brother, whose instincts were to encompass the unaesthetic and ordinary, and who loudly deplored the influence of ‘the adversary of nature (call that adversary Art or by what name you will)’. Hamilton argues that such gestures are merely futile attempts to conceal ‘a very specific egotistical sublime’ which ‘sets about consolidating a definite aesthetic’. But how do you know the aesthetic when you see it? Is it a matter of authorial intention? Presumably not, since Wordsworth resolutely set out to avoid ‘literariness’ and yet somehow seems to have failed. In any case the suggestion is too dizzying: did Dorothy mean to write in an ‘explicitly anti-symbolic’ manner? Did she just not mean to write in a symbolic one? At several points, Hamilton distinguishes between Romantic sheep and metaromantic goats by claiming ‘authenticity’ for the latter. Whatever: in truth, the problem is insoluble in theoretical terms because nothing is either aesthetic or not but thinking makes it so. Take your pick: William’s leech-gatherer (‘Once I could meet with them on every side;/But they have dwindled long by slow decay’) or Dorothy’s, as recorded in the journal (‘He said leeches were very scarce partly owing to this dry season, but many years they have been scarce’). Does one more self-evidently exhibit ‘literariness’ than the other? Hamilton admires Dorothy’s journals for evading ‘aesthetic control’; Coleridge warily appreciated William’s poetry for doing just the same. The moral to draw might be that the ‘aesthetic’ is much more interesting as an element in a chapter of the history of English poetry than it is useful as an instrument of analysis: it is an idea or an attitude or a myth (like its opponents, ‘negative capability’ or ‘ordinariness’) which exerts a planetary influence on the manner and matter of the works that get written within its ambit, but it can hardly be said to define them.

Hamilton’s book is onto something important about the way many Romantics resisted the new idea of the aesthetic which otherwise compelled the imagination of the age so powerfully, and all future studies of the phenomenon will be in its debt. Oddly, one of its effects is to endorse the prestige with which Romantic polemic invested the aesthetic, though Hamilton regards the power charily as one might a brilliant man who spends his gifts on something shady. Art requires organisation, so it is always available as an analogy for politics, whether as a positive role model, as it was for Ruskin, or a disastrous one, as for Auden. Hamilton is squarely with Ruskin on this: his aesthetic, once freed from its self-absorption, provides nothing less than the blueprint for a ‘desirable political order’. ‘The world is what you make of it,’ Stevens said; and the ambition of this book, you could say, is to take such ‘Romantic’ confidence and set it to work in the world at large. But what if a reader had never taken so utopian a view of what it is that poems do? What if, with William Empson, a reader had regarded poetry as much more closely connected with normal human communication? Such a person might object that poems have no business with utopian existence: their job is to help us with this one.

‘Poetry is exemplary in its toleration of a mixture of genres or radically opposed views of life,’ Hamilton says, and this ‘imaginative generosity’ amounts to a kind of primer in ‘skills in negotiating cultural difference’. This may sound slightly chilling, like a phrase from the Teaching and Learning industry; but the notion that good art has a kinship with good morals is, I suppose, still widely held even now; and the sort of moral in question here, the necessity of rubbing along together, has an unsensational, practical sort of wisdom that is far from utopian. The paradigm for such a view of a poem is not really the idealist aesthetic, which scarcely respects difference, but, more mundanely, dialogue or conversation; and if you were looking for precursors of such a position, you could do worse than choose the Romantics, whom an earlier generation of intellectual historians characterised not by their invention of a coercive egotistic aesthetic, but by their advocacy of diversity and individuality and rival points of view. Coleridge could theorise all day about the godlike egotism of the imagination; but he was also the man who, in a different spirit, saw poetry as a place where incompatibles mingled, and who conceived the imagination’s work as the ‘balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities’ – which might not be so bad a description of what societies need to try to do.