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 sound memory. Early formalists trusted that the Oxford English Dictionary contained enough history to let an explicator get on with his real task: reading. And instead of basing critical judgments on personal taste or on unquestioned community standards, explication itself, shrewdly conducted, was expected to lead from neutral description toward the exhibition of complexity and internal coherence, these two constituting a double and virtually self-evident criterion for excellence. But despite the multiplication of subtle readers, the problems of literary history and evaluation have proved intractable. And these problems are the core of … [Geoffrey Hartman's effort] to get beyond formalism. (p. 131)
[In The Fate of Reading] Hartman's ambition, I think, is to recover the possibility of writing literary history after the devastating gain of consciousness and self-consciousness brought about by formalism. The days are gone when a poem reduced itself to a few brisk commonplaces that could be catalogued in a score of texts, ancient and modern. After formalism, any decent poem seems an abyss of complication. Equally, literary history can no longer content itself with external narrative patterns unthinkingly borrowed from Darwin or Hegel. Hartman's solution to the difficulty is to transfer historical consciousness from the literary historian to the poets themselves.
Hartman may have the most acute consciousness of form in modern criticism. But the form he studies is itself a rise or intensification of the poet's consciousness as it confronts literary tradition, including the state or spirit of the language. Form is a delicate balance between individuated self-consciousness and a medium preserved by the saving acknowledgement of its objectivity. The readings of Keats in this volume trace with moving subtlety his search for something "to set a bottom for inwardness, to limit an endless and corrosive self-concern." The ode "To Autumn" is Keats's triumphant discovery of the answer. Hartman's uncanny talent is to make literary history rise out of the poet's own effort to focus the revel of inherited forms and conventional topics. Literary history does not go on behind the poet's back, but precisely through the thoughtful labor of his creation. Form is not fixed beyond history; nor is it the organic economy of the unique poem. Form is history—or at least it is so in literary history. The tension between literary historian and critic dissolves; for the critic reading the poem's form has to see that form as the shadow cast by the poet's own historical consciousness….
Despite the differences, Hartman in a sense complements Bloom. While Bloom strides across the bridge of tradition from strong poem to strong poem, Hartman is willing to work more patiently through the smaller fry, the Grays and Collinses. His reward is a more varied and less anxious sense of the poem's relation to tradition. Our reward as readers is to find in Beyond Formalism and The Fate of Reading a few anticipatory sketches for that history of the "spirit of romance" from Milton through the English romantics that Geoffrey Hartman—and, I believe, only he of all living scholars—has it in him to write. That history could triumphantly disclose in poetry and testify by its own existence to the power of a rememorative word. Such a word would augment us all. (p. 134)
Donald Marshall, "Beyond Formalism," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1977 by Partisan Review), Vol. XLIV, No. 1, 1977, pp. 131-34.∗