Geoffrey H. Hartman Essay - Critical Essays

Hartman, Geoffrey H.


Geoffrey H. Hartman 1929–

German-born American literary critic.

Hartman, a renowned critical theorist, is noted especially for his early critical analyses of Romantic poetry. His Unmediated Vision (1954) and Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787–1814 (1964) are both judged by many critics to be classics in that field.

In his later work, particularly Beyond Formalism (1970) and The Fate of Reading (1975), Hartman reevaluates traditional methods of literary criticism. In these books, he critiques the "close reading" method of criticism advocated by the New Critics, describing it as limited. Hartman calls for more creative methods of literary criticism and for literary critics to broaden their aims. In Criticism in the Wilderness (1980) Hartman urges the modern critic to "view criticism … as within literature, not outside of it looking in."

Christopher Ricks

Among the things which Coleridge "lamented" about Wordsworth's poetry was that "his genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprang out of the ground like a flower." Geoffrey Hartman might have taken this remark as an epigraph for his fine book [Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787–1814]. His argument is that it is just exactly here that Wordsworth's true genius lay: in his ability to respect the earth and the air, to hold nature and imagination in balance, indeed in magnanimous reciprocity. If Wordsworth's poetry reaches great heights, it is as an arch does, by stresses that meet and support each other in loving opposition…. In his important, various, and stimulating book, Mr. Hartman shows conclusively that Wordsworth's progress was towards a true understanding and expressing of [the true relationship between nature and imagination, each respecting the other, each inexorable yet gentle in its power], and that his decline (notably in The Excursion) must be connected with his inability to maintain any longer this fatiguing and precarious balance. The Excursion sells the visible world grievously short—and in doing so, makes imagination not more but less effective….

Mr. Hartman offers some extremely revealing comparisons, for example with Milton and Virgil; but the real battle, as he shows, is between Wordsworth and Blake. If Wordsworth were to be thought to triumph, that would be because in the...

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The Times Literary Supplement

To call Professor Hartman's new book Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787–1814 is about as relevant as squeezing the late C. S. Lewis between the covers of an Oxford History. Those who come to it expecting the survey its title implies will find instead a series of insights, stimulating, personal, not to be relied on. Apart from moments of chronological vagueness Professor Hartman's scholarship is exact, but his approach sometimes seems strangely beside the point as one returns to the poetry itself….

The correct title for the book would undoubtedly be Wordsworth's Apocalyptic Imagination. In The Unmediated Vision of 1954 Professor Hartman "glimpsed" "a paradox inherent in the human and poetic imagination: it cannot be at the same time true to nature and true to itself". Now he goes much farther. We are presented with "the drama of consciousness and maturation", shown a Wordsworth "plagued" by the fear "that nature is not enough, that his imagination is essentially apocalyptic and must violate the middle world of common things and loves". "The poet's later strength", it is asserted, "has its origin in experiences that intimate (negatively) a death of nature and (positively) a faculty whose power is independent of nature". Despite the occasional reassuring summary, it is not easy to isolate the stages of Wordsworth's alleged development. Professor Hartman treats The Prelude as if it recorded historical fact, and often...

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Laurence Lerner

[Geoffrey Hartman] doesn't believe that mere brute life can be art. "Forms are a betrayal of life": hence they are necessary. (Mr Hartman calls his collection Beyond Formalism, but "beyond" doesn't imply rejection; the truer your allegiance to it, the better you will transcend the apparent limits of formalism). Only the writer who is restrained by form, held at a distance from sheer experience, can perform the significant act of breaking out of it. Mr Hartman is not worrying here about the classical realists …: they had social and rational norms that kept them at a necessary distance from the flux of experience. He is concerned with the impersonal modern novelist who, by not allowing us to perceive his judgment on his characters, could be accused of not being able to handle his world—if it were not that his mode of distancing himself is not that of judgment but that of creating heroes. Modern realistic fiction, threatened by the all-engulfing democratic embrace that Whitman used to boast of, stands back and becomes art by means of its attachment to romance and myth.

Such at any rate is my account of Mr Hartman's suggestive but maddeningly elusive argument. If I have understood him right, then I rejoice to concur. If Stendhal was in danger of turning art into mere life, how much more is beat poetry or the fiction of the inarticulate. To attack form and insist on plain reality can, at a given moment of literary history, be...

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Joseph N. Riddel

Though there is evidence here and there that [Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958–1970] is a kind of housecleaning before a new start, Professor Hartman has indeed rendered a "book"—a statement from mid-career, Janus-faced, a summary and a prospect. It is also a major critical statement, made with an indirectness and a sense of the problematic of all such statements that seem to be Hartman's especial contribution to the critical project: that open, tentative, endless, self-contradictory violation by the mind of the very object of its love. Beyond Formalism is a confession of American roots and European efflorescence, the statement of one critic's education in the necessity and perverseness of the word and therefore his embodiment of the paradox of man, the myth-maker condemned to unravel (demystify) his own enchantments in order to begin again.

At first glance, Beyond Formalism is a classic example of the arbitrary, an accident of some twelve years, a multiple of interests, and not a few commissions. At the second, it has all the coherence of a single consciousness exploring the problematic of consciousness, questioning itself, seeking, and holding final answers at a distance. To be sure, the twenty-one essays and reviews, divided for the purposes of the book into four untitled and somewhat arbitrary subdivisions, ranging from practical exegesis to the criticism of criticism and from masters like Milton to moderns of questionable repute, present a very tentative order. The order it has is more like a tapestry than a narrative. In fact, the weaving of the tapestry is the metaphor to which Professor Hartman finally turns as the "figure" of literary language, "The Voice of the Shuttle." But the book also has a "theme," a "subject." For Professor Hartman, the scholar of comparative Romanticism, that "theme" is Romance—Romance as the story of story-telling, the "myth," if only because life depends on the reciprocal and continuing activity which allows the telling to begin again and throws man into his historicity. (p. 178)

For Hartman, literature, like human culture, is inexplicable without some understanding of Romance (the world of man's imagining, myth-making). If, therefore, the historical period of the great Romantic poets brings that activity to a focal point, the history of literature itself is the...

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Richard Poirier

[In "The Fate of Reading and Other Essays"], there emerges a consensus view of a possibly coherent theory of poetics. This is … validated by some extraordinarily deft analyses of Wordsworth, Keats, Collins, Valéry, Goethe and Christopher Smart, and much briefer but equally brilliant illuminations of a number of other writers….

"The Fate of Reading" is much more intensely speculative than ["Beyond Formalism"] and so much more anxious for patterns that every analysis of a writer or a work is made continuous with literary theory, every poem is shown to be an act of criticism, every act of criticism a poetic one.

Extremely difficult, extremely burdened by "anxieties" about critical...

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Denis Donoghue

The Fate of Reading is a new selection of Geoffrey Hartman's writings, from work published during the past five years. Many essays resume the themes of an earlier selection, Beyond Formalism …, extending their implications or exacerbating them as the mood of Hartman's mind requires. A reader who does not already know Professor Hartman's work should repair that deficiency before tackling the new book. Otherwise, The Fate of Reading would appear a random miscellany of fugitive pieces caught and held for trail merely because Professor Hartman had an interest in their capture. In fact, the book is most compelling as evidence of the range and quality of Professor Hartman's mind and of the point it...

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Jonathan Culler

[Geoffrey Hartman] repeatedly proves himself a subtle analyst of genres, though he usually prefers to invent or discover his own. Several essays in The Fate of Reading illustrate the kind of criticism he now does best: the grouping together, as a subgenre, of a series of thematically linked poems which, when arranged in this way, come to manifest different degrees of consciousness and self-consciousness (consciousness of the group in which they find themselves) and thus tell a tale of the adventures of Poesy or of the trials of the Poetical Character. The best of these, "Evening Star and Evening Land," invokes poems addressed to the evening star and explores the way in which the investigation of poetic...

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Donald Marshall

Formalism—called "New Criticism" when it was still young, aggressive, and ambitious—seems to have died from its own success. Any ordinary modern critic can read with unprecedented sensitivity to nuances of meaning and to the delicate formal economy of part and whole. More important, the critic's language can report the subtlest reading in terms of precise textual details. This habit of rigorous reading is evidently indispensable for modern poetry. But earlier texts—from Shakespeare and the metaphysicals to the romantics—also profited from formalist analyses. These replaced an older style of literary study, personified in the "gentleman scholar" who combined sensitivity with broad learning and good taste with...

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Gerald Graff

Insofar as I could discern a thesis in this diffuse book [Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today], I took it to go something like this: Anglo-American literary studies have come to be dominated by a dull and demeaning ideal of "practical" criticism. For a number of reasons, critics have narrowed their aims…. [The] dry, utilitarian spirit of Locke has triumphed over the more daring, speculative spirit of Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. A prime expression of this practical bias of literary studies is the tendency to regard criticism as an austere science, holding itself pure of any imputation of literary character lest it compromise its objective authority. This bias has made Anglo-American...

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Terrence Des Pres

Criticism in the Wilderness may be the best, most brilliant, most broadly useful book yet written by an American about the sudden swerve from the safety of established decorum toward bravely theoretical, mainly European forms of literary criticism. There are, however, immediate reasons why this book, when you first take it up, will disturb and put you off. Professor Hartman's style, for example, is always elegant but relies deliberately on puns, allusions, jumbled language levels, wild quoting, moments of self-parody and splashes of arcane terminology. Hartman also moves back and forth at lightning speed from thinker to thinker, leaping prodigiously from one incisive insight to the next. And the book's basic...

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Denis Donoghue

"Criticism in the Wilderness" is concerned with many of the same questions that troubled its predecessors, but it differs from them in one respect: to a well-defined problem it suggests a bizarre solution.

The problem is: What good is literary criticism in a time of mass education? The normal answer is that a critic can show what it means to read well; to read a poem or a novel, for instance, in such a spirit as to make the reading a valid experience, valid in intellectual, emotional and moral terms. When we read a work of art, we study the human imagination as a form of freedom: We think of the imagination as the mind in the aspect of its freedom. If the literary critic is employed to teach in a...

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Frederick Crews

There can be no mistaking the fact that the study of meaning has now been vigorously contested. Some theorists hold that such study is always marred by a simplistic equation of meaning with the mental states of authors before or during the act of composition. A preoccupation with meaning, they say, leads to an undervaluing of conventional elements that are crucial to the way literature is perceived. But that cogent point is in itself no menace to academic business as usual. The real challenge comes from theorists—let me call them indeterminists—who argue that meaning is conferred not by authors but by readers, and that a work's meaning is therefore constantly subject to change. If that position is accepted,...

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Bernard Bergonzi

Hartman's Saving the Text shows him at one and the same time engaging with Derrida, succumbing to him, imitating him and resisting him. His writing is determinedly playful, recalling Helen Gardner's sharp comment about playfulness being a synonym for critical activity; witness his extreme verbal self-consciousness, his frequent puns and his jokey chapter headings: "Monsieur Texte", "Epiphony in Echoland", "How to Reap a Page", "Psychoanalysis: The French Connection", "Words and Wounds."…

Hartman's book presents a multiple perspective of texts: there is extended comment on Derrida's book Glas (= "knell", and also, punningly, glace = "ice or mirror") which is itself a parallel...

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