Romantic Literary Criticism

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M. H. Abrams (essay date 1953)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11969

SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “Romantic Analogues of Art and Mind.” In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, pp. 47-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

[In the following excerpt, Abrams provides an overview of Romantic aesthetic theory, explaining how it differs from earlier criticism.]

‘Didn't I tell you so?’ said Flask; ‘yes, you'll soon see this right whale's head hoisted opposite that parmacetti's.’

In good time, Flask's saying proved true. As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight.

Melville, Moby-Dick

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.' Wordsworth's metaphor, ‘overflow,’ suggests the underlying physical analogy of a container—a fountain or natural spring, perhaps—from which water brims over. This container is unmistakably the poet; the materials of a poem come from within, and they consist expressly neither of objects nor actions, but of the fluid feelings of the poet himself. A coherent theory of poetry which takes its departure from this type of analogy, instead of from imitation, will clearly favor very different emphases and criteria. The orientation is now toward the artist, the focus of attention is upon the relation of the elements of the work to his state of mind, and the suggestion, underlined by the word ‘spontaneous,’ is that the dynamics of the overflow are inherent in the poet and, perhaps, not within his deliberate control. Wordsworth himself anchored his theory to the external world by maintaining that ‘I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject,’ and declared that the emotion was recollected in tranquillity and that the spontaneity of its overflow was merely the reward of a prior process of deliberate thought. He reasoned also that since this thought has found and rendered instinctive the connection of the poet's feelings to matters really important to men, the final overflow cannot but accomplish a ‘worthy purpose’ with respect to the poet's audience. The extreme consequences latent in the central analogue to which Wordsworth gave impetus in England—the elimination, for all practical purposes, of the conditions of the given world, the requirements of the audience, and the control by conscious purpose and art as important determinants of a poem—did not appear in that country until three decades later, in such critics as Keble, Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill.


Repeatedly romantic predications about poetry, or about art in general, turn on a metaphor which, like ‘overflow,’ signifies the internal made external. The most frequent of these terms was ‘expression,’ used in contexts indicating a revival of the root meaning ex-pressus, from ex-premere, ‘to press out.’ As A. W. Schlegel wrote in 1801, referring to the vocal signs of feeling, ‘The word expression (Ausdruck) is very strikingly chosen for this; the inner is pressed out as though by a force alien to us.’1 ‘Poetry,’ said John Stuart Mill, is ‘the expression or uttering forth of feeling’;2 and ‘utter’ in its turn derives from the Old English word for ‘out,’ and is cognate with the German ‘aüssern.’ ‘Behold now the whole character of poetry,’ wrote as anonymous contemporary in Blackwood's Magazine; ‘it is essentially the expression of emotion.’3 In his version of the doctrine, the Reverend John Keble focusses upon the pressure in ‘expression,’ and develops a definition of poetry as personal catharsis which he opposes to Aristotle's mimesis, as this had been traditionally interpreted.

Poetry is the indirect expression in words, most appropriately in metrical words, of some overpowering emotion, or ruling taste, or feeling, the direct indulgence whereof is somehow repressed …

Aristotle, as is well known, considered the essence of poetry to be Imitation … Expression we say, rather than imitation; for the latter word clearly conveys a cold and inadequate notion, of the writer's meaning …4

These definitions of the 1830s agree that poetry expresses emotions, but earlier in the century there had been variety of opinion as to just what mental elements are externalized in a poem. The common definition of the fine arts, Coleridge wrote in ‘Poesy or Art’ (1818), is that they all, ‘like poetry, are to express intellectual purposes, thoughts, conceptions, sentiments that have their origin in the human mind …’5 ‘Poetry is the music of language,’ Hazlitt had written the year before, ‘expressing the music of the mind.’6 Shelley declared that ‘poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the imagination”’;7 and that same year (1821) Byron complained to Tom Moore, ‘I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion …’8 Finally, Leigh Hunt reconciled these differences by the simple device of a definition which, as David Masson has remarked, is ‘constructed on the principle of omitting nothing that any one would like to see included.’9 Poetry (to quote Hunt's definition only in part) is ‘the utterance of a passion for truth, beauty and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity.’10

Wordsworth's contemporaries were fertile inventors of other terms parallel to ‘overflow’ and ‘expression,’ and frequently the same author presents us with a variety of these alternatives. To Mill, for example (and each of these terms could be duplicated in various other critics), poetry is not only an ‘expression,’ and an ‘uttering forth,’ but ‘the exhibition of a state or states of human sensibility,’ and also, ‘the thoughts and words in which emotion spontaneously embodies itself.’11 Sir Walter Scott includes this last metaphor in a description which is rare among the major critics of the time because, by characterizing art as communication, it brings the audience to a parity with the stress of the artist's own feelings as a cause of artistic production. The painter, orator, and poet each has the motive

of exciting in the reader, hearer, or spectator, a tone of feeling similar to that which existed in his own bosom, ere it was bodied forth by his pencil, tongue, or pen. It is the artist's object, in short … to communicate, as well as colours and words can do, the same sublime sensations which had dictated his own composition.12

Byron characteristically prefers metaphors of greater daring, dash, and grandiosity.

Thus to their extreme verge the passions brought
Dash into poetry, which is but passion …(13)

At a more titanic level still, Byron introduces a volcano as analogy; poetry ‘is the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake.’14 And it is also Byron who offers the interesting parallel between poetic creation and childbirth, resulting in a poetic offspring at once separable from and blended with the spirit and feelings of the father-poet (or is it the mother-poet?).

'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
What am I? Nothing: but not so art thou,
Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mix'd with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crush'd feelings' dearth.(15)

Allusions to poetry as a representation or image, as well as the implied analogy of art with a mirror, survive in the criticism of the early nineteenth century, but usually with a difference. The modern poet, wrote W. J. Fox in 1833, ‘delineates the whole external world from its reflected imagery in the mirror of human thought and feeling.’16 Often the reflector is reversed and images a state of mind rather than of external nature. So Hazlitt wrote that ‘it is the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feelings we have … that gives an instant “satisfaction to the thought.”17 This reoriented version of poetic representation was equally current in the criticism of the German romantic writers. ‘Poetry,’ Novalis said, ‘is representation of the spirit, of the inner world in its totality.’18 And Tieck: ‘Not these plants, not these mountains, do I wish to copy, but my spirit, my mood which governs me just at this moment …’19

The use of painting to illuminate the essential character of poetry—pictura poesis—so widespread in the eighteenth century, almost disappears in the major criticism of the romantic period; the comparisons between poetry and painting that survive are casual, or, as in the instance of the mirror show the canvas reversed in order to image the inner substance of the poet.20 In place of painting, music becomes the art frequently pointed to as having a profound affinity with poetry. For if a picture seems the nearest thing to a mirror-image of the external world, music, of all the arts, is the most remote: except in the trivial echoism of programmatic passages, it does not duplicate aspects of sensible nature, nor can it be said, in any obvious sense to refer to any state of affairs outside itself. As a result music was the first of the arts to be generally regarded as non-mimetic in nature; and in the theory of German writers of the 1790's, music came to be the art most immediately expressive of spirit and emotion, constituting the very pulse and quiddity of passion made public. Music, wrote Wackenroder, ‘shows us all the movements of our spirit, disembodied.’21 Hence the utility of music to define and illustrate the nature of poetry, particularly of the lyric, but also of poetry in general when this came to be conceived as a mode of expression. Friedrich Schlegel was of the opinion that when Simonides, in a famous phrase, characterized poetry as a speaking picture, it was only because contemporary poetry was always accompanied by music that it appeared superfluous to him to remind us ‘that poetry was also a spiritual music.’22

Correspondingly, in England, Hazlitt said of poetry: ‘It is the music of language, answering to the music of the mind … There is a near connection between music and deep-rooted passion. Mad people sing.’23 John Keble plainly indicates the extent to which music has replaced painting as poetry's nearest relation, and the accompanying reversal of orientation from universe to artist. Music and poetry ‘it is universally allowed … are twin sisters,’ for music, of all arts, most closely approaches poetry ‘on that side of its effect which is concerned in piercing into, and drawing out to the light, the secrets of the soul …’24

The passages quoted so far suggest that to poetize is a unilateral activity, involving only materials inherent in the poet. No less characteristic of romantic theory is a set of alternative analogies implying that poetry is an interaction, the joint effect of inner and outer, mind and object, passion and the perceptions of sense. Thus Shelley illustrates his initial definition of poetry as ‘the expression of the imagination’ by reference to that favorite romantic toy, the Aeolian lyre. Athanasius Kircher laid claim to having invented this instrument in 1650. In the course of the next hundred years it became a popular piece of household furniture, and its pensive moods, its insubstantial and fairy sounds, and, above all, the fact that its music could literally be attributed to nature rather than art, made it a favorite subject for poets after the mid-eighteenth century.25 It is noteworthy, however, that not until the nineteenth century did the wind-harp become an analogy for the poetic mind as well as a subject for poetic description.

Man [Shelley says] is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.26

The Aeolian lyre is the poet, and the poem is the chord of music which results from the reciprocation of external and internal elements, of both the changing wind and the constitution and tension of the strings. As Shelley at once goes on to explain, when a savage ‘expresses the emotions produced in him by surrounding objects … language and gesture, together with plastic or pictorial imitation, become the image of the combined effect of those objects, and of his apprehension of them.’27

Other critics used other analogies of similar properties. Hazlitt opens his most important aesthetic essay, ‘On Poetry in General’ (1818), with a definition which closely parallels Shelley's Aeolian lyre, including its implications of automatism and of a pre-established harmony between objective stimulus and poetic response.

The best general notion which I can give of poetry is, that it is the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.28

Amid the wealth of sometimes confused imagery with which Hazlitt expands and plays upon one or another part of this theme, we find the mimetic mirror familiar in older aesthetic theory. But since a mirror, whether turned to face the poet or the world without, can only reflect what is presented from a single direction, Hazlitt complicates the analogy by combining the mirror with a lamp, in order to demonstrate that a poet reflects a world already bathed in an emotional light he has himself projected.

Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry … The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that while it shews us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it …29

Coleridge's lecture ‘On Poesy or Art’ (1818) is grounded on Schelling's metaphysics of a psycho-natural parallelism, according to which the essences within nature have a kind of duplicate subsistence as ideas in the mind. This world-view provides a new set of metaphors in which to convey the romantic theme that art is a joint product of the objective and the projected Art is ‘the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man. It is, therefore, the power of humanizing nature, of infusing the thoughts and passions of man into everything which is the object of his contemplation …’ ‘Poetry also is purely human; for all its materials are from the mind, and all its products are for the mind.’ Yet ‘it avails itself of the forms of nature to recall, to express, and to modify the thoughts and feelings of the mind.’ And, in what may stand as a summary for this leitmotif of romantic thought about art:

Now so to place these images [of nature] totalized, and fitted to the limits of the human mind, as to elicit from, and to superinduce upon, the forms themselves the moral reflections to which they approximate, to make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought, and thought nature,—this is the mystery of genius in the Fine Arts.30

In these central predications about the nature of poetry, taken out of their theoretical contexts, the principal difference from earlier criticism is a difference in metaphor. But whether poets or speakers in prose, we cannot discuss the activities of mind without metaphor. In the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the transformation of the key images by which critics pictured the process and product of art is a convenient index to a comprehensive revolution in the theory of poetry, and of all the arts.


The habitual reference to the emotions and processes of the poet's mind for the source of poetry altered drastically the established solutions to that basic problem of aesthetics, the discrepancy between the subject matter in poetry and the objects found in experience. According to the central tradition hitherto, poetry departs from fact principally because it reflects a nature which has been reassembled to make a composite beauty, or filtered to reveal a central form or the common denominator of a type, or in some fashion culled and ornamented for the greater delight of the reader. To the romantic critic, on the other hand, though poetry may be ideal, what marks it off from fact is, primarily, that it incorporates objects of sense which have already been acted on and transformed by the feelings of the poet.

Wordsworth said that ‘I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject.’ This statement is often taken to be no more than a recommendation for objective accuracy and particularity. Wordsworth's ‘subject,’ however, is not merely the particularized object of sense, any more than it is the neo-classic ideal.

The ability to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves, and with fidelity to describe them, unmodified by any passion or feeling existing in the mind of the describer … though indispensable to a Poet, is one which he employs only in submission to necessity, and never for a continuance of time: as its exercise supposes all the higher qualities of the mind to be passive, and in a state of subjection to external objects.31

This thesis Wordsworth insisted on again and again; for example, in 1816: ‘Throughout, objects … derive their influence not from what they are actually in themselves, but from such as are bestowed upon them by the minds of those who are conversant with or affected by those objects.’32 In the same vein, Thomas De Quincey wrote, refuting Erasmus Darwin's opinion that nothing is poetic that does not present a visual image: ‘The fact is that no mere description, however visual or picturesque, is in any instance poetic per se, or except in and through the passion which presides.’33 ‘Descriptive poetry,’ according to J. S. Mill, as opposed to the descriptions of a naturalist, ‘consists, no doubt, in description, but in description of things as they appear, not as they are.34

In eighteenth-century theory, the minor topic of the way feelings may enter into and alter objects of sense had been discussed under the heading of ‘style,’ as one of various justifying causes of certain figures of speech. In the nineteenth century, this problem moves into a position at the very center of poetic theory. Often the matter is left in terms of analogy. Feelings project a light—especially a colored light—on objects of sense, so that things, as Mill said, are ‘arranged in the colours and seen through the medium of the imagination set in action by the feelings.’35 Or the metaphor is biological rather than optical; while ‘it recalls the sights and sounds that had accompanied the occasions of the original passions,’ said Coleridge, ‘poetry impregnates them with an interest not their own by means of the passions …’36 At other times the descriptions are more explicit, and give examples of the way objects of sense are fused and remolded in the crucible of emotion and the passionate imagination. Hazlitt's ‘On Poetry in General’ reads as though it were itself a spontaneous overflow of feeling without logical sequence, but it incorporates in very short scope a surprising number of current aesthetic ideas. The poetic imagination, he says, represents objects ‘as they are moulded by other thoughts and feelings, into an infinite variety of shapes and combinations of power.’ Agitation, fear, love, all distort or magnify the object, and ‘things are equal to the imagination, which have the power of affecting the mind with an equal degree of terror, admiration, delight, or love.’ As an example:

When Iachimo says of Imogen,

‘—The flame o' th' taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights’—

this passionate interpretation of the motion of the flame to accord with the speaker's own feelings, is true poetry.37

Of all his contemporaries, Coleridge was the most concerned with the problem of how the poetic mind acts to modify or transform the materials of sense without violating truth to nature. Toward its solution, as we shall see farther on, he formulated the keystone of his critical system, his theory of imagination. In this characteristic passage he considers the role of emotion in the process of such transformation:

Images, however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterize the poet. They become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion; or by associated thoughts or images awakened by that passion … or lastly, when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet's own spirit,

‘Which shoots its being through earth, sea, and air.’(38)

Coleridge's last example of the modifying action of passion, that of animating the inanimate—the transference of the life of the observer to the things he observes—was eminently the preoccupation of romantic poets and theorists. ‘Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe,’ as Hazlitt put it.39 ‘What is a Poet?’ Wordsworth asks, and answers that he is a man ‘who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them.’40 To the recording and discussion of such occasions, when the impressed characters of danger and desire

                                                            did make
The surface of the universal earth
With triumph, and delight, and hope, and fear,
Work like a sea,

Wordsworth devoted a number of his best poems and the climactic passages of the Prelude. The habitual reading of passion, life, and physiognomy into the landscape is one of the few salient attributes common to most of the major romantic poets. Correspondingly, in literary criticism the valid animation of natural objects, traditionally treated as one form of the rhetorical device of prosopopoeia, or personification, now came to be a major index to the sovereign faculty of imagination, and almost in itself a sufficient criterion of the highest poetry.

In the main, therefore, romantic critics substituted the presentation of a world that is instinct with the poet's feelings for the depiction of the universal and typical as the property which distinguishes poetry from descriptive discourse. But even though the question of the ideal in poetry thus lost the special position it had held in earlier theory, romantic critics by no means ceased, in relevant contexts, and in terms adapted to their new principles, to argue the topic they had inherited from their predecessors. On this their opinions ranged from Shelley's Platonistic formulation that poetry ‘lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty’ of the world ‘which is the spirit of its forms,’41 through Blake's violent marginalia on Reynolds' Discourses that ‘to Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit,’42 to Hazlitt's interpretation of the ideal (resembling the German theory of the ‘characteristic’) as the quintessence of a single object. The ideal, says Hazlitt, who was especially concerned with the objective correlate of artistic subject matter, is not ‘an abstraction of general nature’ nor ‘a mean or average proportion,’ for this would be to reduce all productions of art ‘to one vague and undefined abstraction, answering to the word man.’ The true ideal is achieved ‘by singling out some one thing or leading quality of an object, and making it the pervading and regulating principle of all the rest’; for ‘a thing is not more perfect by becoming something else, but by being more itself.’43 With the exceptions of Blake and Hazlitt, however, there is little tendency in the major English critics to follow the extremists of the later eighteenth century and substitute an unqualified particularity, originality, and uniqueness for the older virtues of generality and universality. Wordsworth, for example, agrees with what he has been told is Aristotle's opinion, that the object of poetry ‘is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative.’44 Coleridge also confirms ‘the principle of Aristotle, that poetry as poetry is essentially ideal,’ and that its persons must possess ‘generic attributes.’ He repeats as well the common eighteenth-century formula that poetry represents a just mean between the extremes of the general and familiar and the individual and novel, but restates it according to his own characteristic logic of the fusion and reconciliation of opposites. What is required is ‘an involution of the universal in the individual’; the imagination acts by reconciling the opposites of ‘the general, with the concrete … the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects’; and, he says, ‘that just proportion, that union and interpenetration of the universal and the particular … must ever pervade all works of decided genius and true science.’45


The change from imitation to expression, and from the mirror to the fountain, the lamp, and related analogues, was not an isolated phenomenon. It was an integral part of a corresponding change in popular epistemology—that is, in the concept of the role played by the mind in perception which was current among romantic poets and critics. And the movement from eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century schemes of the mind and its place in nature is indicated by a mutation of metaphors almost exactly parallel to that in contemporary discussions of the nature of art.

The various physical analogues which make up the ground plans or conceptual schemes for those ‘modes of inmost being,’ as Coleridge called them, which ‘can not be conveyed save in symbols of time and space,’46 are sometimes explicitly formulated. At other times they merely intimate their existence by the structure of the metaphors with which men refer to the mental processes. To elucidate the nature of sense-perception, memory, and thought, Plato, for example, appealed to the reflection of images in a mirror, as well as to paintings, the writing of characters in the pages of a book, and the stamping of impressions into a wax plate.47 Aristotle also said that the receptions of sense ‘must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold.’48 Thus John Locke—who more than any philosopher established the stereotype for the popular view of the mind in the eighteenth century—was able to levy upon a long tradition of ready-made parallels in giving definition to his view of the mind in perception as a passive receiver for images presented ready-formed from without. The mind in Locke's Essay is said to resemble a mirror which fixes the objects it reflects.49 Or (suggesting the ut pictura poesis of the aesthetics of that period) it is a tabula rasa on which sensations write or paint themselves.50 Or (employing the analogy of the camera obscura, in which the light, entering through a small aperture, throws an image of the external scene on the wall) external and internal senses are said to be ‘the windows by which light is let into this dark room.’

For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.51

Alternatively, the mind is a ‘waxed tablet’ into which sensations, like seals, impress themselves.52

The analogies for the mind in the writings of both Wordsworth and Coleridge show a radical transformation. Varied as these are, they usually agree in picturing the mind in perception as active rather than inertly receptive, and as contributing to the world in the very process of perceiving the world. Wordsworth's Prelude, as completed in 1805, provides us with an anthology of mental schema whose properties are in accord with the initial plan of that poem, which, as Coleridge said more than three decades later, was, ‘I believe, partly suggested by me … He was to treat man as man—a subject of eye, ear, touch, and taste, in contact with external nature, and informing the senses from the mind, and not compounding a mind out of the senses.’53 The thirteenth book of that poem ends, in fact, with the manifestation of ‘a new world,’ ruled by laws

Which do both give it being and maintain
A balance, an ennobling interchange
Of action from without and from within;
The excellence, pure function, and best power
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees.

The Copernican revolution in epistemology—if we do not restrict this to Kant's specific doctrine that the mind imposes the forms of time, space, and the categories on the ‘sensuous manifold,’ but apply it to the general concept that the perceiving mind discovers what it has itself partly made—was effected in England by poets and critics before it manifested itself in academic philosophy. Thus generally defined, the revolution was a revolution by reaction. In their early poetic expositions of the mind fashioning its own experience, for example, Coleridge and Wordsworth do not employ Kant's abstract formulae. They revert, instead, to metaphors of mind which had largely fallen into disuse in the eighteenth century, but had earlier been current in seventeenth-century philosophers outside of, or specifically opposed to, the sensational tradition of Hobbes and Locke. Behind these philosophers was Plotinus' basic figure of creation as emanation, in which the One and the Good are habitually analogized to such objects as an overflowing fountain, or a radiating sun, or (in a combination of the two images) to an overflowing fountain of light. ‘Were one writing a book on the philosophic significance and use of similes,’ B. A. G. Fuller has said, ‘I am not sure but that one would have to count this first, both in point of its aptness, and of its central place and controlling function in thought.’54 If Plato was the main source of the philosophical archetype of the reflector, Plotinus was the chief begetter of the archetype of the projector; and both the romantic theory of knowledge and the romantic theory of poetry can be accounted the remote descendants of this root-image of Plotinian philosophy.

In discussing the human perception of the divine overflow, Plotinus explicitly rejected the concept of sensations as ‘imprints’ or ‘seal-impressions’ made on a passive mind, and substituted the view of the mind as an act and a power which ‘gives a radiance out of its own store’ to the objects of sense.55 Similar metaphors of mind were particularly prevalent in the philosophy of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’ (more Plotinists, actually, than Platonists), whom Wordsworth had read, and Coleridge had studied intensively. In these writers, the familiar figure of the spirit of man as a candle of the Lord easily lent itself to envisioning the act of perception as that little candle throwing its beams into the external world. I shall cite excerpts from one chapter of Nathanael Culverwel's An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature, because it serves as a convenient inventory of analogies for the mind as receptor or projector—as mirror or lamp. The Discourse was written before general knowledge of the full implications of Hobbes's major works had sharpened the point at issue, and Culverwel sets out to represent ‘unto you, as indifferently as I can, the state of this great Controversie.’ In this dispute he takes Plato and Aristotle to have been the chief protagonists.

‘Now the Spirit of man is the Candle of the Lord,’ he says, for the Creator, himself ‘the fountain of Light,’ furnished and beautified this ‘lower part of the World with Intellectual Lamps, that should shine forth to the praise and honour of his Name …’

This makes the Platonists look upon the Spirit of Man as the Candle of the Lord for illuminating and irradiating of objects, and darting more light upon them, than it receives from them … And, truely, he might as well phansie such implanted Ideas, such seeds of Light in his external Eye, as such seminal Principles in the Eye of the mind … (Aristotle) did not antedate his own Knowledge … but plainly profess'd, that his Understanding came naked into the World. He shews you … an abrasa tabula … This makes him set open the windows of sense, to welcome and entertain the first dawnings, the early glimmerings of morning light … As he could perceive no connate Colours, no Pictures, or Portraictures in his external Eye: so neither could he find any signatures in his Mind, till some outward Objects had made some impression upon … his soft and pliable Understanding, impartially prepared for every Seal.

Culverwel's own hesitant conclusion (for he has some inclination to the opinion that this is ‘a Question which cannot be determined in this Life’) is that we may look upon the understanding as a glass ‘nakedly receiving, and faithfully returning all such colours, as fall upon it. Yet the Platonists in this were commendable, that look'd upon the Spirit of a Man as the Candle of the Lord; though they were deceiv'd in the time when 'twas lighted.’56 For an unqualified commitment to an absolute idealism, expressed in the image of the spirit of man as an outflowing fountain, we may turn to this passage from an essay by the Platonizing Puritan, Peter Sterry:

Thus is the Soule, or Spirit of every man all the World to Him. The world with all Varietie of things in it, his owne body with all it's parts, & changes are himselfe, his owne Soule, or Spirit springing up from it's own ffountaine within itselfe into all those fformes, & Images of things, which it seeth, heareth, smelleth, tasts, feeles, imagineth, or understandeth … The Soule often looking upon this, like Narcissus upon his owne fface in the ffountaine, forgets it to be itselfe, forgets that itselfe is the fface, the shadow, & the ffountaine, so it falls into a fond Love of itselfe in it's owne shadowie ffigure of itselfe.57

As in the English Platonists, so in the romantic writers, the favorite analogy for the activity of the perceiving mind is that of a lamp projecting light. Wordsworth, describing in the Prelude his boyish communings with nature, affirms in a sequence of metaphors, ‘I still retain'd My first creative sensibility.’ ‘A plastic power Abode with me, a forming hand,’ and then:

                                        An auxiliar light
Came from my mind which on the setting sun
Bestow'd new splendor …(58)

Coleridge, on first hearing the Prelude read aloud, adopted Wordsworth's favorite image of radiance to describe its theme—although he combined the figure of the lamp of the mind with the figure of external nature as mirror: ‘Theme hard as high!’

                              … of moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received
The light reflected, as a light bestowed …(59)

Nor is the formulation confined to these two friends; the effusive Christopher North, for example, employs the lamp to support the proposition that ‘we create nine-tenths at least of what appears to exist externally …’ They who ponder on the pages of ‘the living Book of Nature … behold in full the beauty and the sublimity, which their own immortal spirits create, reflected back on them who are its authors.’60

The familiar Neoplatonic figure of the soul as a fountain, or an outflowing stream, is also frequent in romantic poetry, although this too is usually reformed to imply a bilateral transaction, a give-and-take, between mind and external object. Wordsworth, who spoke of poetry as an ‘overflow of feeling,’ also spoke of whatever he ‘saw, or heard, or felt’ on his visit to the Alps as

                                        but a stream
That flowed into a kindred stream; a gale
Confederate with the current of the soul …(61)

This image of confluent streams, like that of the lamp, Coleridge reiterated in the poem he wrote in response to the Prelude.62 We must also take special note of the image of the wind-harp, which both Wordsworth and Shelley used as a construct for the mind in perception as well as for the poetic mind in composition.63 (It is a curious twist of intellectual history that Athanasius Kircher, who claimed the invention of the Aeolian lyre, also perfected the camera obscura which had been employed as a mind-scheme by John Locke,64 so that the same man was in part responsible for the artifacts used to give structure to antipodal views of the human mind.) As early as 1795 Coleridge had suggested the harp as an analogue for the thinking mind:

And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely fram'd,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each and God of all?

—a proposal no sooner made than recanted, for the sake both of his fiancée and ‘The Incomprehensible,’ as mere bubbles ‘on vain Philosophy's aye-babbling spring.’65 Even at that stage in his thinking, Coleridge was apparently troubled by the necessitarian implications which emerged clearly in Shelley's later use of the same image. ‘There is a Power by which we are surrounded,’ Shelley says, ‘like the atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords at will.’ Even the ‘most imperial and stupendous qualities,’ though active ‘relatively to inferior portions of its mechanism,’ are nevertheless ‘the passive slaves of some higher and more omnipotent Power. This Power is God’; and those who have ‘been harmonized by their own will … give forth divinest melody, when the breath of universal being sweeps over their frame.’66

A number of romantic writers then, whether in verse or prose, habitually pictured the mind in perception, as well as the mind in composition, by sometimes identical analogies of projection into, or of reciprocity with, elements from without. Usually, in these metaphors of the perceiving mind, the boundary between what is given and what bestowed is a sliding one, to be established as best one can from the individual context. Sometimes, as in Coleridge's formulation of the ‘coalescence of subject and object’ in the act of knowing, there is not, nor can there be, any attempt to differentiate the mental addition from that which is given, for as in the philosophy of Schelling from which Coleridge borrowed these terms, we are confined to a knowledge of the product, as against the raw materials, of the perceptual amalgam. In other instances—as in Wordsworth's expression of his state of mind at Cambridge,

I had a world about me; 'twas my own,
I made it; for it only liv'd to me,
And to the God who look'd into my mind—(67)

the suggestion is of a kind of Fichtean absoluteness, in which all objects resolve into a product of the Ego. But in most passages the implication is that the content of perception is the joint product of external data and of mind; and we are sometimes enabled, very roughly, to make out various positions of the line between inner and outer as, in different poetic contexts, it advances and retreats:

(1) In Wordsworth's early passage from ‘Tintern Abbey,’

                              All the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive,

the elements created in the act of perception may well be nothing more than Locke's secondary sense-qualities. Wordsworth himself draws attention in a note to the source of this passage in Young's Night Thoughts. Our senses, Young had said,

Give taste to fruits; and harmony to groves;
Their radiant beams to gold, and gold's bright fire …
Our senses, as our reason, are divine
And half create the wondrous world they see.
But for the magic organ's powerful charm
Earth were a rude, uncolour'd chaos still.
Objects are th' occasion; ours th' exploit …
Man makes the matchless image, man admires. …(68)

The reference to the secondary qualities as constituting the mind's addition to perception is here unmistakable, and brings to the fore an interesting aspect of the Lockean tradition. For though Locke had said that in acquiring the simple ideas of sense the mind, like a mirror, is passively receptive, he had gone on to make a further distinction. Some simple ideas are ‘resemblances’ of primary qualities which ‘are in the things themselves’; but the simple ideas of secondary qualities, such as colors, sounds, smells, tastes, have no counterpart in any external body. In Locke's dualism, then, we have the view that our perception of the sensible world consists partly of elements reflecting things as they are, and partly of elements which are merely ‘ideas in the mind’ without ‘likeness of something existing without.’69 Locke, therefore, implicitly gave the mind a partnership in sense-perception; what Young did was to convert this into an active partnership of ‘giving,’ ‘making,’ and ‘creation.’ In this simple metaphoric substitution, we find Locke's sensationalism in the process of converting itself into what is often considered its epistemological opposite.

(2) A number of passages imply that objects, possessed of their full complement of primary and secondary sense-qualities, are given from without, and that the observer contributes to perception feeling-tones and aesthetic qualities—or at any rate, any especially rich, intense, or profound sense of beauty or significance in the visible scene. ‘The auxiliar light’ which came from Wordsworth's mind ‘on the setting sun Bestow'd new splendor,’ and heightened the song of birds and the murmur of fountains.70 In the familiar text on the ‘spots of time,’ when Wordsworth revisited a scene ‘in the blessed time of early love,’ there fell upon it

The spirit of pleasure and youth's golden gleam;
And think ye not with radiance more divine
From these remembrances, and from the power
They left behind?
                                        … this I feel,
That from thyself it is that thou must give
Else never canst receive.(71)

The image of the mind as projective of aesthetic or other emotional quality had been anticipated by certain English writers of the eighteenth century, and was another part of the indigenous tendency toward the concept of creative perception which developed within the confines of the English empirical tradition. Thus Hume compared vice and virtue ‘to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind …’72 So also with beauty, which is not (in the example of a geometrical figure) ‘a quality of the circle … It is only the effect, which that figure produces upon the mind.’ And then Hume slips over into the alternative figures of a projective lamp, of production, and even of creation:

Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained … The one discovers objects, as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.73

Formulations of the mind as projective of aesthetic qualities are particularly common among those eighteenth-century theorists who infused their Locke with a tincture of Neoplatonism. Thus Akenside cried, echoing Plotinus' favorite metaphor,

Mind, mind, alone, (bear witness, earth and heaven!)
The living fountains in itself contains
Of beauteous and sublime—

though, in a later edition of the Pleasures of the Imagination, he prudently substituted ‘He, God most high’ for ‘Mind, mind, alone’ as the well-spring of the aesthetic fountains.74

(3) Most frequently, however, the mind is imaged by romantic poets as projecting life, physiognomy, and passion into the universe. The mere postulation of an animate universe was no novelty; Isaac Newton's ubiquitous God, constituting duration and space and sustaining by his presence the laws of motion and gravitation, and the World-Soul of the ancient Stoics and Platonists, are often to be found dwelling amicably together in the nature poetry of the eighteenth century. What is distinctive in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge is not the attribution of a life and soul to nature, but the repeated formulation of this outer life as a contribution of, or else as in constant reciprocation with, the life and soul of man the observer. This same topic was also central in the literary theory of these writers, where it turns up repeatedly in their discussions of the subject matter of poetry, their analyses of the imaginative process, and their debates on poetic diction and the legitimacy of personification and allied figures of speech.

The reason for this common concern of the early nineteenth-century philosophy of nature and of art is not hard to find. It was an essential part of the attempt to revitalize the material and mechanical universe which had emerged from the philosophy of Descartes and Hobbes, and which had been recently dramatized by the theories of Hartley and the French mechanists of the latter eighteenth century. It was at the same time an attempt to overcome the sense of man's alienation from the world by healing the cleavage between subject and object, between the vital, purposeful, value-full world of private experience and the dead postulated world of extension, quantity, and motion. To establish that man shares his own life with nature was to reanimate the dead universe of the materialists, and at the same time most effectively to tie man back into his milieu.

The persistent objective of Coleridge's formal philosophy was to substitute ‘life and intelligence … for the philosophy of mechanism, which, in everything that is most worthy of the human intellect, strikes Death.’ And the life transfused into the mechanical motion of the universe is one with the life in man: in nature, he wrote in 1802, ‘everything has a life of its own, and … we are all One Life.’75 A similar idea constitutes the leitmotif of Wordsworth's Prelude. In a crucial passage, for example, Wordsworth describes how the infant in his mother's arms, seeing a world ‘irradiated’ by a sense of her love, comes to feel at home in the universe.

No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.

But more is achieved than the mere linkage of feeling; the child becomes integral with the external world by the strongest of all bonds, through participating in its very creation and so sharing with it attributes of his own being. Through the faculties of sense, the mind creates—

Creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds.(76)

The culmination of this process of domiciliation came in his seventeenth year when, by a process he opposes to ‘analytic industry,’ he found not only his senses and feelings but his life allied to an all-pervasive life in nature, and with bliss ineffable,

… felt the sentiment of Being spread
O'er all that moves and all that seemeth still.

This experience of the one life within us and abroad cancels the division between animate and inanimate, between subject and object—ultimately, even between object and object, in that climactic All is one of the mystical trance-state,

                    then, when the fleshly ear,
O'ercome by humblest prelude of that strain,
Forgot her functions, and slept undisturbed.(77)

Wordsworth here refers to his relation with nature in terms of ‘filial bonds’; we must add the remarkable passage from the conclusion to the first book of The Recluse in which he replaces the familial by conjugal metaphors. That great undertaking, the intended crown of his poetic career, he announces in unmistakable terms, is to be a ‘spousal verse’—a prodigious prothalamion celebrating the marriage of mind and nature, the consummation of the marriage, and the consequent creation (or procreation?) of a living perceptual world. ‘Paradise, groves Elysian, Fortunate Fields—’

                    the discerning intellect of Man,
When wedded to this goodly universe
In love and holy passion, shall find these
A simple produce of the common day.
—I, long before the blissful hour arrives,
Would chant, in lonely peace, the spousal verse
Of this great consummation:—, and, by words
Which speak of nothing more than what we are,
Would I arouse the sensual from their sleep
Of Death, and win the vacant and the vain
To noble raptures; while my voice proclaims
How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too—
Theme this but little heard of among men—
The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And the creation (by no lower name
Can it be called) which they with blended might
Accomplish:—this is our high argument.(78)

Two of the greatest and most representative poems of the early nineteenth century, Wordsworth's ‘Intimations of Immortality’ and Coleridge's ‘Dejection,’ turn on the distinction between data and addenda in sense experience. In both poems, the theme concerns an apparent change in the objects of sense, and is developed in terms of mental schemes which analogize the mind to something which is at once projective and capable of receiving back the fused product of what it gives and what is given to it. Wordsworth's ‘Ode’ employs, with dazzling success, the familiar optical metaphors of light and of radiant objects—lamps and stars. His problem is one of a loss of ‘celestial light’ and ‘glory’ from meadow, grove, and stream. The solution inheres in the figure (not uncommon, as we know, in Neo-platonic theologians) of the soul as ‘our life's star,’ ‘trailing clouds of glory’ at its rising, but gradually, in the westward course of life, fading ‘into the light of common day,’ though leaving behind recollections which ‘Are yet the fountain-light of all our day.’79 But if maturity has its loss of ‘splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,’ it has its compensating gains, and the mind, though altered, retains its power of radiant give-and-take with the external world:

The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober coloring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality.

Coleridge's ‘Dejection,’ on the other hand, memorializes not merely an alteration but the utter loss of the reciprocating power of the mind, leaving it a death-in-life as a passive receptor of the inanimate visible scene. In the short third and fourth stanzas, in which Coleridge five times iterates the dependence of nature's life on the inner life of man, he strikes the full diapason of metaphors for the active and contributive mind, some familiar, others seemingly of his own invention. The mind is a fountain, a source of light, the generator of a cloud that conveys life-giving rain, a musical voice like that of a wind-harp whose echo mingles with the sounds of outer origin; there is even the suggestion of a Wordsworthian marriage with nature. And the fifth stanza, proposing ‘joy’ as the indispensable inner condition for the ‘effluence’ and return of life, most subtly recapitulates all these figures, optical, acoustical, meteorological, and marital:

Joy, Lady! is the spirit and the power,
Which, wedding Nature to us, gives in dower
          A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud—
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud—
          We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
          All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.

But it is not until the resolution in the closing stanza, when Coleridge prays that the Lady to whom the poem is addressed may retain the power he has lost, that we come upon the crowning metaphor of an eddy. The figure implies a ceaseless and circular interchange of life between soul and nature in which it is impossible to distinguish what is given from what received:

To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul!

This version of the perceptual mind as projecting life and passion into the world it apprehends is the one which most approximates the concurrent formulations of the mind active in the highest poetic composition—as Coleridge implies when he says, in ‘Dejection,’ that the failure of his power to project ‘the passion and the life’ marks the failure also of his ‘genial spirits’ and his ‘shaping spirit of imagination.’ We may say, then, by way of summary, that in the theory of Coleridge (partly though not consistently paralleled by that of Wordsworth) the primary and already creative act of perception yields the ‘inanimate cold world’ of the ever-anxious crowd. This coincides roughly with the inert world of both empirical philosophy and of common sense, which is perceived only in so far as it serves our practical interests and aims. This world includes Peter Bell's yellow primrose, but nothing more; daffodils set moving by the breeze, but neither gleeful nor dancing; the moon radiant in a bare sky—with the proviso that it is not the moon but the poet who ‘doth with delight look round him when the heavens are bare.’ The subsequent and higher act of re-creation, among its other functions, by projecting its own passion and life, transforms the cold inanimate world into a warm world united with the life of man, and by that same act, converts matter-of-fact into matter-of-poetry—and according to Coleridge's conception, into the highest poetry, because it is the product of the ‘secondary imagination.’

We must not leave the subject of the romantic analogues of mind without citing one that was Coleridge's favorite, and destined to alter more drastically the conceptions of mind, art, and the universe than all the apparatus of lamps, fountains, and wind-harps we have come upon thus far. This was the archetype (potentially present in the Platonist's figure of the ‘seeds of light’ in the mind) representing the mind not as a physical object or artifact, but as a living plant, growing out into its perception. To mental mechanism, Coleridge often and explicitly opposes the concept of life and growth. In a central passage of The Statesman's Manual, Coleridge discovers ‘correspondences and symbols’ of the highest faculty of man in the growth of a plant and its power to assimilate outer elements to which its respiration has already made contribution. Looking at a plant in a flowery meadow, he says, ‘I feel an awe, as if there were before my eyes the same power as that of the reason—the same power in a lower dignity, and therefore a symbol established in the truth of things.’

Lo!—with the rising sun it commences its outward life and enters into open communion with all the elements, at once assimilating them to itself and to each other. At the same moment it strikes its roots and unfolds its leaves, absorbs and respires, steams forth its cooling vapour and finer fragrance, and breathes a repairing spirit, at once the food and tone of the atmosphere, into the atmosphere that feeds it. Lo!—at the touch of light how it returns an air akin to light, and yet with the same pulse effectuates its own secret growth, still contracting to fix what expanding it had refined.80

In any period, the theory of mind and the theory of art tend to be integrally related and to turn upon similar analogues, explicit or submerged. To put the matter schematically: for the representative eighteenth-century critic, the perceiving mind was a reflector of the external world; the inventive process consisted in a reassembly of ‘ideas’ which were literally images, or replicas of sensations; and the resulting art work was itself comparable to a mirror presenting a selected and ordered image of life. By substituting a projective and creative mind and, consonantly, an expressive and creative theory of art, various romantic critics reversed the basic orientation of all aesthetic philosophy. Consider now the further innovative possibilities in Coleridge's archetypal plant. Through this perspective, Coleridge saw the mind as growing into its percepts, conceived of the activity of the poetic imagination as differing from this vital, self-determining, assimilative process in degree rather than kind, and thus was able to envision the product of artistic genius as exhibiting the mode of development and the internal relations of an organic whole. But that is a subject for a later chapter.


  1. A. W. Schlegel, Vorlesungen über schöne Literatur und Kunst (1801-4), Deutsche Litteraturdenkmale des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart, 1883), xvii, 91. In classical Latin, when expremere was used with reference to speech, the metaphor had already faded and taken the sense of ‘signify’ or ‘stand for.’ See J. C. La Drière, ‘Expression,’ Dictionary of World Literature, ed. J. T. Shipley (New York, 1943), pp. 225-7.

  2. ‘What Is Poetry?’ (1833), Early Essays [by John Stuart Milled. J. W. M. Gibbs (London, 1897).], p. 208.

  3. ‘The Philosophy of Poetry,’ Blackwood's Magazine, xxxviii (1835), p. 833. For the identity of the author, see p. 149.

  4. Review of Lockhart's Life of Scott (1838), in Occasional Papers and Reviews (Oxford and London, 1877), pp. 6, 8.

  5. Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (Cambridge, Mass., 1936), p. 207.

  6. Review of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, in Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, xvi, 136.

  7. Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, ed. John Shawcross (Oxford, 1909), p. 121.

  8. Works of Lord Byron, ed. E. H. Coleridge and R. E. Prothero (London and New York, 1898-1904); Letters and Journals, v, 318.

  9. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Other Essays (London, 1874), p. 202.

  10. ‘An Answer to the Question What is Poetry?’ Imagination and Fancy (New York, 1848), p. 1.

  11. ‘What is Poetry?’ Early Essays, pp. 208, 203, 223 (my italics).

  12. ‘Essay on the Drama’ (1819), The Prose Works (Edinburgh and London, 1834-36), vi, 310.

  13. Don Juan, iv, cvi.

  14. Letter to Miss Milbanke, 10 Nov. 1813, Works, Letters and Journals, iii, 405. Similar analogies were used by more sedate critics also. The Rev. W. J. Fox, reviewing the verse of Ebenezer Elliott, the ‘Corn Law Rhymer,’ spoke of ‘humanity in poverty, pouring forth its own emotions,’ and called Elliott's verse ‘intense flashes of liquid lava from that central fire, which must have vent …’ As quoted by F. E. Mineka, The Dissidence of Dissent (Chapel Hill, 1944), pp. 301, 303.

  15. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, iii, vi.

  16. Monthly Repository, 2d series, vii (1833), p. 33; quoted by Mineka, op. cit. p. 307.

  17. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 7.

  18. Romantische Welt: Die Fragmente, ed. Otto Mann (Leipzig, 1939), p. 313.

  19. Sternbald, in Deutsche National-Litteratur, cxlv, p. 300.

  20. E.g., Hazlitt declares that in his Excursion Wordsworth ‘paints the outgoings of his own heart, the shapings of his own fancy’ (Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, London and Toronto, 1930-34, xix, 10). And see Coleridge, Miscellaneous Criticism, p. 207.

  21. Phantasien über die Kunst (1799), in Deutsche National-Litteratur, cxlv, p. 58.

  22. Prosaische Jugendschriften, ed. J. Minor (Wien, 1882), ii, 257-8.

  23. ‘On Poetry in General’ (1818), Complete Works, v, 12. Cf. ibid. xvi, 136.

  24. Lectures on Poetry (1832-41), trans. E. K. Francis (Oxford, 1912), i, 47-8.

  25. For the history of the wind-harp and of allusions to it by poets, see Erika von Erhardt-Siebold, ‘Some Inventions of the Pre-Romantic Period and their Influence upon Literature,’ Englische Studien, lxvi (1931-2), 347-63. Robert Bloomfield, the farmer-poet, published an anthology of literature concerning the wind-harp in 1808; see Nature's Music, in The Remains of Robert Bloomfield (London, 1824), i, 93-143.

  26. ‘Defence of Poetry,’ Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, ed. John Shawcross (Oxford, 1909), p. 121. In the opening passages of The Prelude, Wordsworth had spoken in like terms of his attempt to poetize (1805 version, i, 101ff.); ‘It was a splendid evening; and my soul Did once again make trial of the strength Restored to her afresh; nor did she want Eolian visitations; but the harp Was soon defrauded.’

  27. ‘Defence of Poetry,’ ibid. p. 121.

  28. Complete Works, v, 1.

  29. Ibid. p. 3. Compare Goethe, in Eckermann's Gespräche, 29 Jan. 1826: ‘Just so with the poet. So long as he only speaks out his few subjective feelings, he deserves not the name; but as soon as he knows how to appropriate to himself and express the world, he is a poet.’

  30. As reprinted from Coleridge's Literary Remains, in Biographia Literaria, ed. Shawcross ii, 253-4, 258. Another and shorter version from one of Coleridge's note-books is published in Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, pp. 205-13.

  31. Preface to Poems (1815), in Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, [ed. N. C. Smith (London, 1905).] p. 150. See also pp. 18, 165, 185.

  32. Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, ed. E. de Selincourt (Oxford, 1937), ii, 705; 18 Jan. 1816.

  33. Notes to a partial translation of Lessing's Laocoön, in Collected Writings, ed. David Masson (Edinburgh, 1889-90), xi, 206.

  34. ‘What is Poetry?’ Early Essays, p. 207. For an anticipation of such statements, see J. U. [James Usher], Clio: or, a Discourse on Taste (2d ed.; London, 1769), p. 140: ‘You imagine [the man of sensibility] paints objects and actions, while he in reality paints passion, and affects us by the image of his own imagination.’ See also J. Moir, Gleanings, [(London, 1785).] i, 97-8.

  35. Early Essays, p. 207. Keble: Poetry ‘paints all things in the hues which the mind itself desires …’ (Lectures on Poetry, [(1832-41) trans. E. K. Franeis (Oxford, 1912).] i, 22). W. J. Fox: ‘The changing moods of mind diversify a landscape with far more variety than cloud or sunshine in all their combinations; and those moods are in themselves subjects of description …’ (Monthly Repository, lxiii, 1833, p. 33).

  36. ‘On Poesy or Art,’ Biographia Literaria, ii, 254. See also Hazlitt: Poetry, ‘the high-wrought enthusiasm of fancy and feeling,’ in ‘describing natural objects … impregnates sensible impressions with the forms of fancy …’ (‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 4-5).

  37. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 4. See also his analysis of Shakespeare's: ‘Violets dim / But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes / Or Cytherea's breath,’ as ‘the intenseness of passion … moulding the impressions of natural objects according to the impulses of imagination …’ (Preface to Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, ibid. iv, 176-7. Cf. Wordsworth, Excursion, i, 475ff.).

  38. Biographia, ii, 16. Cf. ibid. i, 59.

  39. ‘On Poetry in General,’ Complete Works, v, 3.

  40. Preface to Lyrical Ballads (added in 1802), in Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, p. 23.

  41. ‘Defence of Poetry,’ Shelley's Literary Criticism, p. 155.

  42. Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London and New York, 1939), p. 777. For an extreme view on the need for descriptive circumstantiality in a poem, couched still in the idiom of eighteenth-century criticism, see the review of Scott's Lady of the Lake, in Quarterly Review, iii (1810), 512-13: Scott most strikingly exemplifies ‘the analogy between poetry and painting … Whatever he represents has a character of individuality, and is drawn with an accuracy and minuteness of discrimination …’ Much of this is the result of his genius, a natural ‘intensity and keenness of observation’ by which he is able ‘to discover characteristic differences where the eye of dullness sees nothing but uniformity …’ Cf. the passages from Moir's Gleanings in the preceding chapter.

  43. ‘The Ideal,’ Complete Works, xx, 303-4. See also his essays ‘Originality’ and ‘On Certain Inconsistencies in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses.’ On the related discussion of ‘concreteness’ in poetry, see Chap. xi, sect. iii.

  44. Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, p. 25.

  45. Biographia, ii, 33n, 12; The Friend, in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Shedd (New York, 1858), ii, 416.

  46. Biographia, ii, 120.

  47. E.g. Thaeatetus 191-5, 206; Philebus 38-40; Timaeus 71-2.

  48. De anima ii. ii. 424a.

  49. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. A. C. Fraser (Oxford, 1894), i, 142-3 (ii, i, 25): ‘In this part the understanding is merely passive … These simple ideas, when offered to the mind, the understanding can no more refuse to have, nor alter when they are imprinted, nor blot them out and make new ones itself, than a mirror can refuse, alter, or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects set before it do therein produce.’ The comparison of the mind, or at least the ‘phantasy,’ to a mirror had been common in the Renaissance; see, e.g., George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. G. Smith (Oxford, 1904), ii, 20; and Bacon's discussion of this analogue in his passage on the Idols of the mind, De Augmentis, v, iv.

  50. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, i, 121 (ii, i, 2): ‘Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas.’ See Locke's earlier draft, An Essay Concerning the Understanding, ed. Benjamin Rand (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), p. 61: The soul ‘at first is perfectly rasa tabula, quite void …’

  51. Ibid. pp. 211-12 (ii, xi, 17).

  52. Ibid. i, 48n, and 49. Cf. D. F. Bond, ‘Neo-Classic Theory of the Imagination,’ ELH, iv (1937), p. 248.

  53. Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford, 1917), p. 188; 21 July 1832. Cf. ibid. p. 361 (1812): ‘The mind makes the sense, far more than the senses make the mind.’

  54. B. A. G. Fuller, The Problem of Evil in Plotinus (Cambridge, 1912), p. 70.

  55. Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (London, 1924), iv. vi. 1-3.

  56. The Cambridge Platonists, ed. E. T. Campagnac (Oxford, 1901), pp. 283-4, 286-7, 292-3.

  57. ‘Of the Nature of a Spirit,’ in V. de Sola Pinto, Peter Sterry, Platonist and Puritan (Cambridge, 1934), pp. 161-2. Similar analogies are to be found in many writers in the Neoplatonic tradition. For example, see Boehme, in Newton P. Stallknecht, Strange Seas of Thought (Durham, N. C., 1945), p. 52. A. O. Lovejoy, in an early essay on ‘Kant and the English Platonists,’ cited many parallels between Kant's ‘transcendental idealism’ and the writings—more abstract and less riotously metaphorical than Culverwel's or Sterry's—of such English Platonists as Cudworth, More, Burthogge, and Arthur Collier (Essays Philosophical and Psychological in Honor of William James, New York, 1908, pp. 265-302). This essay, by the way, lends greater credibility than many students have granted to Coleridge's reiterated claim that through his early reading in Platonists and mystics, he had acquired the essentials of his idealism prior to his first knowledge of German philosophy.

  58. The Prelude (1805), ii, 378ff. See also ibid. xiii, 40ff., for the lovely passage is which Wordsworth finds in the naked moon shedding its glory over Snowdon, ‘The perfect image of a mighty Mind.’

  59. ‘To a Gentleman,’ ll. 12ff.

  60. ‘Tennyson's Poems’ (May 1832), Works of Professor Wilson, ed. Ferrier (Edinburgh and London, 1856), vi, 109-10. We may add, as representative images out of the stream of post-Kantian German philosophy, these passages from Schleiermacher's Monologen (1800), ed. F. M. Schiele and Hermann Mulert (2d ed.; Leipzig, 1914), p. 9: ‘Auch die äussere Welt … strahlt in tausend zarten und erhabenen Allegorien, wie ein magischer Spiegel, das Höchste und Innerste unsers Wesens auf uns zurük.’ And pp. 15-16: ‘Mir ist der Geist das erste und das einzige: denn was ich als Welt erkenne, ist sein schönstes Werk, sein selbstgeschaffener Spiegel.’

  61. The Prelude (1850 ed.), vi, 743-5.

  62. The theme is ‘Of tides obedient to external force, And currents self-determined, as might seem, Or by some inner Power’ (‘To a Gentleman,’ ll. 15ff.). Cf. the initial stanza of ‘Mont Blanc,’ in which Shelley likens the being-given and the given forth to the interchange and indistinguishable union of water with water; set also ll. 34-40.

  63. To Wordsworth's ‘Aeolian visitations’ of poetry (Prelude, 1805, i, 104), cf. his description of his perceptual commerce with the moods of nature (ibid. iii, 136ff.): ‘In a kindred sense Of passion [I] was obedient as a lute That waits upon the touches of the wind,’ as a result of which ‘I had a world about me; 'twas my own, I made it …’

  64. On the history of the camera obscura, see Erika von Erhardt-Siebold, ‘Some Inventions of the Pre-Romantic Period,’ Englische Studien, lxvi (1931-2), pp. 347ff.

  65. ‘The Eolian Harp,’ ll. 44ff. On Coleridge's intention to render Berkeley's subjective idealism in this passage, see his Philosophical Lectures, ed. Kathleen Coburn (New York, 1949), p. 371; also Letters, ed. E. H. Coleridge, i, 211.

  66. ‘Essay on Christianity’ (1815), Shelley's Literary and Philosophical Criticism, pp. 90-91. Later, in his marginalia on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Coleridge was to declare, ‘The mind does not resemble an Aeolian harp … but rather as far as objects are concerned a violin or other instrument of few strings yet vast compass, played on by a musician of Genius’ (Henri Nideker, ‘Notes Marginales de S. T. Coleridge,’ Revue de litterature comparée, vii, 1927, 529). See also Biographia, i, 81.

  67. The Prelude (1805), iii, 142ff. The extremity of subjectivism, offered as a philosophical doctrine, is common enough among German followers of Fichte. Thus Tieck writes, in William Lovell (1795): ‘Freilich kann alles, was ich ausser mir wahrzunehmen glaube, nur in mir selbst existieren.’ ‘Die Wesen sind, weil wir sie dachten.’ ‘Das Licht aus mir fällt in die finstre Nacht, Die Tugend ist nur, weil ich sie gedacht.’ See Jenisch, Entfaltung des Subjektivismus, pp. 119-21.

  68. ‘Night VI’ (1744), ll. 423ff.

  69. Essay Concerning Human Understanding, i, 168-79 (ii, viii, 7, 15, 23). See Addison's Spectator No. 413 (a kind of half-way house between the formulation of Locke and of Young); Akenside, Pleasures of Imagination (1744 ed.), ii, 458-61, 489-514; and the quotations in Marjorie Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse (Princeton, 1946), 144-64.

  70. The Prelude (1805), ii, 362ff.

  71. Ibid. xi, 323-34.

  72. Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford, 1896), p. 469 (iii, i, i).

  73. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ii, 263-5. Cf. David Hartley, Observations on Man (6th ed.; London, 1834), pp. 231-2 (iii, iii, Prop. lxxxix).

  74. (1744 ed.), i, 481ff.; (1757 ed.), i, 563ff. William Duff, Essay on Original Genius, p. 67, describes ‘the transforming power of Imagination, whose rays illuminate the objects we contemplate … The Imagination, enraptured with the contemplation of them, becomes enamoured of its own creation.’ Archibald Alison, in a work written in 1790 to demonstrate that ‘the qualities of matter are in themselves incapable of producing emotion,’ but are perceived as beautiful or sublime through a process of association, thinks that his doctrine nevertheless coincides with ‘a doctrine that appears very early to have distinguished the platonic school … that matter is not beautiful in itself, but derives its beauty from the expression of mind’ (Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, Boston, 1812, pp. 106, 417-18).

  75. To Wordsworth, 30 May 1815, Letters, ii, 648-9; to W. Sotheby, 10 Sept. 1802, ibid. i, 403-4.

  76. The Prelude (1850 ed.), ii, 232-60.

  77. Ibid. ll. 382-418. Cf. ibid. (1805 ed.), viii, 623-30; and see Stallknecht, Strange Seas of Thought, Chap. iii. It is relevant to consider here the extraordinary weight that other romantic poets, as well as Coleridge and Wordsworth, placed on the experience of Einfühlung, or loss of distinction between self and external scene. E.g., Shelley, ‘On Life,’ Literary and Philosophical Criticism, [ed. John Shawcross (London, 1909)] p. 56: ‘Those who are subject to the state called reverie, feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction.’ And Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, iii, lxxii: ‘I live not in myself, but I become Portion of that around me’; ‘the soul can flee, And with the sky, the peak, and the heaving plain Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.’ And ibid. iv, clxxviii: ‘I steal From all I may be, or have been before, To mingle with the Universe.’ Keats was exceptional, in that he felt an identification rather with individual things, such as sparrows and people, than with the total landscape; see the familiar passages in his Letters, ed. M. B. Forman (3d ed.; Oxford, 1948), pp. 69, 227-8, 241.

  78. Included in the Preface to The Excursion (1814), ll. 47-71. The barely submerged analogy in this passage, by the way, presents an interesting parallel to cabalistic and other esoteric theories of the sexual generation of the world.

  79. Culverwel, e.g., joins the familiar concept of the first-order stars as angelic existences with the figure of the fountain of light: The Creator ‘fill'd the highest part of the World with those Stars of the first Magnitude, I mean those Orient and Angelic Beings, that dwell so near the fountain of Light, and continually drink in the Beams of Glory …’ (The Cambridge Platonists, ed. Campagnac, p. 283).

  80. Lay Sermons, ed. Derwent Coleridge (3d ed.; London, 1852), pp. 75-7. Coleridge added in a note that this passage ‘might properly form the conclusion of a disquisition on the spirit … without reference to any theological dogma …’

Terry Eagleton (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “II.” In The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Structuralism, pp. 29-43. London: Verso, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Eagleton describes the economic conditions of literary production in the late eighteenth century leading up to the emergence of the professional critic in England and the politically-based criticism of the nineteenth century.]

The bourgeois public sphere of early eighteenth-century England is perhaps best seen not as a single homogenous formation, but as an interlaced set of discursive centres. The collaborative literary relations established by the Tatler and Spectator find a resonance elsewhere, though with a markedly different ideological tone, in the writings of Samuel Richardson. I have described elsewhere how Richardson's perpetual circulation of texts among friends and correspondents, with its attendant wranglings, pleadings, revisions, interpretations of interpretations, comes to constitute an entire discursive community of its own, a kind of public sphere in miniaturized or domesticated form within which, amidst all the petty frictions and anxieties of hermeneutical intercourse, a powerfully cohesive body of moral thought, a collective sensibility, comes to crystallize.1 But it is also relevant in this respect to think of the subscription publishing of Pope and others, which converted readers into collective patrons and transformed their otherwise passive, ‘nuclear’ relation to the text into membership of a community of benevolent participants in the writing project. Such a writer, like Richardson, actively constructed his own audience: Pope's campaign for subscribers, Pat Rogers has argued, led him to define, to woo, ultimately to create his own readership.2 Susan Staves has pointed out how ‘the new class of the polite is visible in Pope's subscription lists—lords, private gentlemen, doctors, lawyers, bankers, publishers, actors, ladies—mingled together in lists partly alphabetical, partly by rank, all subscribers being grouped by the initial letter of their last names and then, roughly, by rank within each letter.’3 Distinctions of rank are here preserved, in contrast to the ideal of the public sphere proper, but preserved within the levelling community of the surname initial. Pope, Staves claims, was thus ‘participating in the formation of that new, mixed class whose names are displayed in his printed subscription lists’; as the eighteenth century wears on, the vital social distinction ‘was not between aristocrats and commoners but between ladies and gentlemen, on the one hand, and the vulgar on the other.’ Pope's subscription technique, according to Leslie Stephen, meant that he ‘received a kind of commission from the upper class’ to execute his work; the traditional individual patron was superseded by a ‘kind of joint-stock body of collective patronage’.4

As the eighteenth century drew on, the rapid expansion of the forces of literary production began to outstrip and overturn the social relations of production within which such projects as the early periodicals had flourished. By the 1730s, literary patronage was already on the wane, with a concomitant increase in bookseller power; with the expansion of wealth, population and education, technological developments in printing and publishing and the growth of a middle class eager for literature, the small reading public of Addison's day, largely confined to fashionable London, was spawning to support a whole caste of professional writers. By about mid-century, then, the profession of letters had become established and literary patronage was in its death throes; this period witnesses a marked quickening of literary production, a widespread diffusion of science and letters and, in the 1750s and '60s, a veritable explosion of literary periodicals. Samuel Johnson estimated Edmund Cave's Gentleman's Magazine to have a circulation of some 10,000; Ian Watt regards such hybrid, non-traditional forms as helping to nurture the public which will devour the novel.5 Writing, Daniel Defoe noted in 1725, ‘… is becoming a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-Writers and all other operators with Pen and Ink are the workmen employed by the said Master-Manufacturers.’6 The name Grub Street should warn us against any too deteriorationist a reading of eighteenth-century literary production, as though the golden age of the public sphere was succeeded by a catastrophic fall into commerce; the Grub Street hacks are the contemporaries of Addison and Steele, not their inheritors. Even so, it is possible to trace an intensifying penetration of capital into literary production as the century unfolds; and the celebrated prose style of the epoch's major critic, Samuel Johnson, can be seen as obliquely related to this material development.

Johnson's style, which William Hazlitt described as a ‘species of rhyming in prose’ (‘each sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained with itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza’),7 can be seen on the one hand as a sort of trademark or brandname, a stubbornly idiosyncratic attempt to preserve ‘personality’ in an era of increasingly anonymous, commodified literary production. On the other hand, however, that style can be read as a turning inward and away, on the part of the literary intellectual, from the pressing business of material life, which throughout Johnson's gloomy oeuvre figures as irritant and distraction rather than as vitalizing bustle. The eccentricity of Johnson's writing is that of a resoundingly public discourse which is nevertheless profoundly self-involved; it marks a thickening of language in which words, as Hazlitt sees, become objects in their own right, and so suggest a certain social dislocation in contrast to the lucid transparency of the earlier periodicalists. Johnson is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack; and it is the dialectical relation between these incongruous aspects of his work which is most striking. The social alienations of the latter can be found in displaced form in the involuted meditations of the former; and not only in displaced form, for one of Johnson's recurrent motifs is precisely the hazards and frustrations of authorship in a literary mode of production ruled by the commodity. Stripped of material security, the hack critic compensates for and avenges such ignominy in the sententious authority of his flamboyantly individualist style. Moralistic, melancholic and metaphysical, Johnson's writing addresses itself to the social world (he had, Boswell reports, ‘a great deference for the general opinion’) in the very moment of spurning it; he is, as Leslie Stephen notes, the moralist who ‘looks indeed at actual life, but stands well apart and knows many hours of melancholy.’8 The sage has not yet been driven to renounce social reality altogether; but there are in Johnson ominous symptoms, for all his personal sociability, of a growing dissociation between the literary intellectual and the material mode of production he occupies. He is not in this sense as socially acceptable to later critics as are Addison and Steele, precisely because in his ‘rough vigour’ and ‘obstinate realism’ he smacks a little too much of that leaden didacticism which such cavalier-loving critics need at all costs to distance. The English love a character, but they love a lord even more, Johnson is ‘more of the bear, and Addison more of the gentleman’, comments the charmingly cavalier G. S. Marr;9 and indeed Boswell himself noted that if Addison was more of a ‘Companion’, his friend was more of a teacher. One can trace in this shift towards moral dogmatism a looseninng and disturbing of that easy amicability set up between the early periodicalist and his readers, as the genial amateurism of an Addison sours into the grousing of the exploited professional. Leslie Stephen, with Smollett's Critical Review particularly in mind, writes of the emergence in eighteenth-century England of the professional critic, the rise of a ‘new tribunal or literary Star Chamber’ in which the interpersonal discourse of coffee-house literati gradually yields ground to the professional critic whose unenviable task is to render an account of all new books.10 Johnson, described by a modern biographer as a ‘superlatively good hack’,11 wrote only for money and considered a man would be a fool to do otherwise. The Rambler, with its considerably glummer tone than the earlier periodicals, its loss of a certain effect of spontaneous sociability, was not designed to be widely popular and sold perhaps 400 copies an issue—about the circulation of T. S. Eliot's Criterion. On the other hand, The Rambler devoted more space to criticism than any previous journal; and one of Johnson's most signal achievements, with the widely selling Lives of the Poets, was to popularize for a general reading public a literary criticism previously associated with pedantry and personal abuse. What made such a general appeal possible was in part Johnson's renowned ‘common sense’: for him, as for Addison and Steele, the act of literary criticism inhabits no autonomous aesthetic sphere but belongs organically with ‘general ideology’, indissociable from common styles of judgement and experience, bound up with a Lebenswelt which precedes and encompasses all specialist disciplinary distinctions. We are still not at a point where we can speak of ‘literary criticism’ as an isolable technology, though with Johnson we are evolving towards just that rift between literary intellectual and social formation out of which a fully specialist criticism will finally emerge. In the trek from the cultural politics of Addison to the ‘words on the page’, the philosophical moment of Samuel Johnson—a mind still laying ‘amateur’ claim to evaluate all social experience, but now isolated and abstracted in contrast to the busily empirical Addison—is a significant milestone.

Among the factors responsible for the gradual disintegration of the classical public sphere, two are of particular relevance to the history of English criticism. The first is economic: as capitalist society develops and market forces come increasingly to determine the destiny of literary products, it is no longer possible to assume that ‘taste’ or ‘cultivation’ are the fruits of civilized dialogue and reasonable debate. Cultural determinations are now clearly being set from elsewhere—from beyond the frontiers of the public sphere itself, in the laws of commodity production of civil society. The bounded space of the public sphere is aggressively invaded by visibly ‘private’ commercial and economic interests, fracturing its confident consensualism. The mutation from literary patronage to the laws of the market marks a shift from conditions in which a writer might plausibly view his work as the product of collaborative intercourse with spiritual equals, to a situation in which the ‘public’ now looms as an anonymous yet implacable force, the object rather than co-subject of the writer's art. The second reason for the decline of the public sphere is a political one. Like all ideological formations, the bourgeois public sphere thrives on a necessary blindness to its own perimeters. Its space is potentially infinite, able to incorporate the whole of the ‘polite’; no significant interest lies beyond its reach, for the very criteria of what is to count as a significant interest lie in its monopolistic possession. The nation—society as a whole—is effectively identical with the ruling class; only those wielding a title to speak rationally, and thus only the propertied, are in a true sense members of society. ‘The gentleman,’ as John Barrell has argued, ‘was believed to be the only member of society who spoke a language universally intelligible; his usage was ‘common’, in the sense of being neither a local dialect nor infected by the terms of any particular art.’12 The language of the common people, by contrast, cannot truly be said to belong to the ‘common language’: ‘Of the laborious and mercantile Part of the People,’ Johnson writes in the Preface to his Dictionary, ‘the Diction is in a great Measure casual and mutable … this fugitive Cant, which is always in a State of Increase or Decay, cannot be regarded as any Part of the durable Materials of a Language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of Preservation.’ Just as the common people are therefore, as Barrell points out, ‘no part of the true language community’, so they form no true part of the political community either. The interests of the propertied classes are in a real sense all that politically exists; the boundaries of the public sphere are not boundaries at all, for beyond them, as beyond the curvature of cosmic space, there is nothing.

What such a realm will then be unable to withstand is the inruption into it of social and political interests in palpable conflict with its own ‘universal’ rational norms. Such interests cannot in one sense be recognised as such, since they fall outside the public sphere's own definitive discourse; but they cannot merely be dismissed either, since they pose a real material threat to that sphere's continuing existence. Habermas dates such a moment in England from the rise of Chartism, as he identifies it in France with the February revolution of 1848; but in the case of England at least, this pinpointing is surely somewhat belated. For what is emerging in the England of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, in that whole epoch of intensive class struggle charted in E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, is already nothing less than a ‘counter-public sphere’. In the Corresponding Societies, the radical press, Owenism, Cobbett's Political Register and Paine's Rights of Man, feminism and the dissenting churches, a whole oppositional network of journals, clubs, pamphlets, debates and institutions invades the dominant consensus, threatening to fragment it from within. A commentator of 1793 observed gloomily that the ‘lowest of the people can read; and books adapted to the capacity of the lowest of the people, on political and all other subjects, are industriously obtruded on their notice.’ The newspapers, he added, ‘communicate the debates of opposing parties in the senate; and public measures (even confined to a conclave) are now canvassed in the cottage, the manufactory, and the lowest resorts of plebeian carousal. Great changes in the public mind are produced by this diffusion; and such changes must produce public innovation.’13

It is interesting in this respect to contrast the tone of the early eighteenth-century periodicals with that of their early nineteenth-century counterparts. What distinguishes, indeed well-nigh immortalizes, the bourgeois periodical press of the latter period is what one commentator has summarized as its ‘partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality’ with which it conducts its critical business.14 It is the scurrility and sectarian virulence of the Edinburgh and the Quarterly which have lingered in the historical memory, in dramatic contrast to the ecumenism of an Addison or Steele. In these vastly influential journals, the space of the public sphere is now much less one of bland consensus than of ferocious contention. Under the pressures of mounting class struggle in society as a whole, the bourgeois public sphere is fissured and warped, wracked with a fury which threatens to strip it of ideological credibility. It is not, of course, that the class struggle in society at large is directly reflected in the internecine antagonisms between the various literary organs; these unseemly wranglings are rather a refraction of those broader conflicts into ruling-class culture, divided as it is over how much political repression of the working class is tolerable without the risk of insurrection. Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Whig Edinburgh Review, ‘had not the slightest desire to end the predominance of landed property or to institute democracy. He was simply frightened of what would happen if the governmental structure did not yield to popular pressure in order to preserve a society otherwise (he thought) threatened with complete subversion.’15 Fiercely partisan, the Edinburgh soon provoked into countervailing existence the Tory Quarterly Review; the London Magazine set out to break with the political immoderacy of its competitors, rebuked the adolescent polemics of Blackwood's Magazine and found itself embroiled in a quarrel which was to result in its editor, John Scott, being killed in a duel. John and Leigh Hunt, editors of the radical Examiner, were imprisoned for an alleged libel of the Prince Regent;16Fraser's Magazine was an insulting rag crammed with doggerel and brutal burlesque. Sir Roger de Coverley and Sir Andrew Freeport were no longer drinking companions in the same club, but deadly rivals. What distinguishes these polemics from the bellicose exchanges of earlier Whigs and Tories is their class-function: they are at root reactions to a threat to the public sphere itself from organized social interests beyond it.

If criticism had to some degree slipped the economic yoke of its earlier years, when it was often no more than a thinly concealed puff for booksellers' wares, it had done so only to exchange such enthralment for a political one. Criticism was now explicitly, unabashedly political: the journals tended to select for review only those works on which they could loosely peg lengthy ideological pieces, and their literary judgements, buttressed by the authority of anonymity, were rigorously subordinated to their politics. Criticism was still in no full sense the product of literary ‘experts’: most of the Edinburgh's lawyers, political theorists and economists wrote from time to time on literary topics.17 The Quarterly savaged Keats, Hazlitt, Lamb, Shelley, Charlotte Brontë; Blackwood's ran a vicious campaign against the ‘Cockney school’ clustered around the London Magazine; Jeffrey of the Edinburgh, self-appointed guardian of public taste, denounced the Lake poets as regressive and ridiculous, a threat to traditional social rank and the high seriousness of bourgeois morality. Dismayed by such strife, Leigh Hunt looked back nostalgically to the more sedate years of the early century, proclaiming his desire to criticize others ‘in as uncritical a spirit of the old fashion as we can’. ‘The truth is,’ Hunt lamented, ‘that criticism itself, for the most part, is a nuisance and an impertinence: and no good-natured, reflecting men would be critics, if it were not that there are worse.’18 The periodical essayist, in Hunt's view, is ‘a writer who claims a peculiar intimacy with the public’; but the ‘age of periodical philosophy’ is on the wane, driven out by press advertising and the ‘mercantile spirit’. ‘Our former periodical politicians … wrote to establish their own opinions and to acquire reputation; our present, simply to get money …’19 An edition of the Spectator of 1831 entered a plea for the classical public sphere: ‘Journalism is nothing but the expression of public opinion. A newspaper that should attempt to dictate, must soon perish.’20 Such highmindedness had in fact long been overtaken by the fissiparousness of public opinion, the commercialization of literary production and the political imperative to process public consciousness in an age of violent class conflict. Even Leigh Hunt, committed though he believed himself to be to the disinterested pursuit of philosophic truth, uneasily acknowledged the need to write with something less than complete candour: ‘the growth of public opinion implies the fostering of it’,21 and such fostering of what is now by implication a partially benighted readership demanded a certain diplomatic delicacy. The critic is ideally the mirror but in fact the lamp: his role is becoming the ultimately untenable one of ‘expressing’ a public opinion he covertly or flagrantly manipulates.

Criticism, then, has become a locus of political contention rather than a terrain of cultural consensus; and it is in this context that we can perhaps best evaluate the birth of the nineteenth-century ‘sage’. What the sage represents, one might claim, is an attempt to rescue criticism and literature from the squalid political infighting which alarmed Leigh Hunt, constituting them instead as transcendental forms of knowledge. The growth of idealist aesthetics in Europe, imported into England by Coleridge and Carlyle, is concomitant with this strategy. From the writings of the later Coleridge, through to Carlyle, Kingsley, Ruskin, Arnold and others, literature is extricated from the arena of Realpolitik and elevated to a realm where, in the words of one Victorian commentator, ‘all might meet and expatiate in common’.22 Literature will fulfil its ideological functions most effectively only if it sheds all political instrumentality to become the repository of a common human wisdom beyond the sordidly historical. If the sage is driven by history into transcendental isolation, spurred into prophetic print by his vision of cultural degradation yet stripped of a fit audience for his musings by just the same circumstances, he can nevertheless turn this isolation to ideological advantage, making a moral virtue out of historical necessity. If he can no longer validate his critical judgements by sound public standards, he can always interpret the consequent mysteriousness of such judgements as divine inspiration. Carlyle, sagest of the sages, contributed to Fraser's Magazine but considered it ‘a chaotic, fermenting dung-hill heap of compost’,23 and dreamt of the day when he would be free to write ‘independently’. ‘I will not degenerate,’ he wrote to his future wife, ‘into the wretched thing which calls itself an Author in our Capitals and scribbles for the sake of filthy lucre in the periodicals of the day.’24 Thackeray, praising Carlyle for his supposed refusal to subordinate critical judgement to political prejudice, ‘Pray(ed) God we shall begin ere long to love art for art's sake. It is Carlyle who has worked more than any other to give (art) its independence.’25 The sage is no longer the co-discoursing equal of his readership, his perceptions tempered by a quick sense of their common opinion; the critic's stance in relation to his audience is now transcendental, his pronouncements dogmatic and self-validating, his posture towards social life chillingly negative. Sundered on the rocks of class struggle, criticism bifurcates into Jeffrey and Carlyle, political lackey and specious prophet. The only available alternative to rampant ‘interest’, it would seem, is a bogus ‘disinterestedness’.

Yet disinterestedness in the Romantic period is not merely bogus. In the hands of a Hazlitt, the ‘natural disinterestedness of the human mind’ becomes the basis of a radical politics, a critique of egocentric psychology and social practice. The ‘sympathetic imagination’ of the Romantics is disinterestedness as a revolutionary force, the production of a powerful yet decentred human subject which cannot be formalized within the protocols of rational exchange. In the Romantic era, the depth and span of critique which would be equal to a society wracked by political turmoil is altogether beyond the powers of criticism in its traditional sense. The function of criticism passes accordingly to poetry itself—poetry as, in Arnold's later phrase, a ‘criticism of life’, art as the most absolute, deep-seated response conceivable to the given social reality. No critique which does not establish such an implacable distance between itself and the social order, which does not launch its utterances from some altogether different place, is likely to escape incorporation; but that powerfully enabling distance is also Romanticism's tragedy, as the imagination joyfully transcends the actual only to consume itself and the world in its own guilt-stricken self-isolation. Criticism in the conventional sense can no longer be a matter of delivering verifiable judgements according to shared public norms, for the act of judgement itself is now tainted with a deeply suspect rationality, and normative assumptions are precisely what the negating force of art seeks to subvert. Criticism must therefore either become the enemy of art, as Jeffrey is of Wordsworth, corner for itself some of the creative energy of poetry itself, or shift to a quasi-philosophical meditation on the nature and consequences of the creative act. The Romantic critic is in effect the poet ontologically justifying his own practice, elaborating its deeper implications, reflecting upon the grounds and consequences of his art. Once literary production itself becomes problematical, criticism can no longer be the mere act of judgement of an assured phenomenon; on the contrary, it is now an active principle in the defending, unfolding and deepening of this uneasy practice of the imagination, the very explicit self-knowledge of art itself. Such quasi-philosophical self-reflection will always be ironic, for if truth is nothing less than poetry, how can any non-poetic discourse hope to capture the reality of which it speaks, ensnared as it is in a rationality—that of social discourse itself—which reaches out for truth but can never be equal to it? The critic, then, is no longer in the first place judge, administrator of collective norms or locus of enlightened rationality; nor is he in the first place cultural strategist or political catalyst, for these functions are also passing over to the side of the artist. He is not primarily a mediator between work and audience, for if the work achieves its effects it does so by an intuitive immediacy which flashes between itself and reader and could only be dissipated by passing through the relay of critical discourse. And if the work does not succeed, then it is because there is in truth no fit audience to receive it, because the poet is a nightingale singing in the dark, and thus once again no place for a mediator. If such an audience must be actively constructed, then according to Wordsworth's Supplementary Essay of 1815 it is the poet himself who must be foremost in this task, a task of which the critic is indeed the deadly enemy. The question now confronting criticism is simply this: how is it possible to be a critic at all if art is its own self-grounded, self-validating truth, if social discourse is irremediably alienated, and if there is no audience to address in the first place? With the decline of literary patronage and the classical public sphere, the abandonment of literature to the market and the anonymous urbanization of society, the poet or sage is deprived of a known audience, a community of familiar co-subjects; and this severance from any permanent particular readership, which the sway of commodity production has forced upon him, can then be converted to the illusion of a transcendental autonomy which speaks not idiomatically but universally, not in class accents but in human tones, which turns scornfully from an actual ‘mass’ public and addresses itself instead to the People, to the future, to some potential mass political movement, to the Poetic Genius buried in every breast, to a community of transcendental subjects spectrally inscribed within the given social order. ‘Rational’ criticism can find no hold here, for it evolved, as we have seen, in response to one form of (political) absolutism, and finds itself equally at a loss when confronted with another form of self-grounded absolutism in the realm of transcendental spirit.


  1. See Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa, Oxford 1982, Introduction.

  2. Pat Rogers, ‘Pope and his Subscribers’, Publishing History 3 (1978), pp. 7-36.

  3. Susan Staves, ‘Refinement’, unpublished paper.

  4. Leslie Stephen, English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century, London 1963, p. 51.

  5. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, Harmondsworth 1966, p. 53.

  6. Quoted by Watt, p. 55.

  7. William Hazlitt, Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, London 1931, vol. 6, p. 102.

  8. Stephen, p. 93.

  9. G. S. Marr, The Periodical Essayists of the Eighteenth Century, London 1923, p. 131.

  10. Stephen, p. 88.

  11. Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson, London 1948, p. 88.

  12. John Barrell, English Literature in History 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey, London 1983, p. 34.

  13. Vicesimus Knox, quoted by Foley [Timothy P. ‘Taste and Social Class.’ Unpublished M. S.], op.cit.

  14. Marr, p. 226.

  15. John Clive, Scotch Reviewers: The Edinburgh Review 1802-1815, London 1957, p. 122.

  16. See Edmund Blunden, Leigh Hunt's ‘Examiner’ Examined, London 1928.

  17. See R. G. Cox, ‘The Reviews and Magazines’ in Pelican Guide to English Literature vol. 6: From Dickens to Hardy, Harmondsworth 1958, pp. 188-204.

  18. Leigh Hunt's Literary Criticism, ed. L. H. and C. W. Houtchens, New York 1976, p. 387.

  19. Ibid., p. 88.

  20. Ibid., p. 88.

  21. Ibid., p. 381.

  22. H. G. Robinson, ‘On the use of English Classical Literature in the Work of Education’, Macmillan's Magazine 11 (1860).

  23. Quoted in John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, London 1969, p. 16.

  24. Quoted in Louis Dudek, Literature and the Press: A History of Printing, Printed Media and their Relation to Literature, Toronto 1960, p. 212.

  25. Quoted in Gross, p. 28.

Paul A. Cantor (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5970

SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Stoning the Romance: The Ideological Critique of Nineteenth-Century Literature.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 3 (summer 1989): 705-20.

[In the following essay, Cantor summarizes current critiques of Romanticism and the aesthetic theories associated with it, maintaining that such attacks are misguided and biased.]

And the poets lie too much.


I regret that limitations of space prevent me from discussing the essays on which I have been asked to comment in any detail, thus forcing me to deal with them at a level of generality which cannot do justice to the wealth of specific observations they contain. I will be forced to concentrate on what I see as the distinctive trend behind these essays, and even here I will be reduced to oversimplifying the positions they richly and diversely articulate. I am sure that the authors do not think of themselves as forming a single school or approach, and they would legitimately complain about being lumped together in any way. Nevertheless, whether these essays represent new historicist, cultural materialist, neo-Marxist, or other forms of contemporary criticism, I detect certain family resemblances in them, a tonality or attitude which at least unites them against the modes which used to dominate literary criticism. In order to give more focus to my discussion, I will concentrate on the four essays which deal with a common theme, namely the Romantic poets. Bearing all these important qualifications in mind, then, I ask: What do these essays show about the way Romantic literature is being studied today?

As my title suggests, Romanticism is under attack. What these essays share is a certain iconoclasm, an attempt to get out from under the shadow of the Romantic poets, to take them down a notch or two, to expose them for what they really were, to take the wind out of their Romantic sails. In short, in one way or another these essays are examples of what is called ideological critique. Their aim is to show that what have long been taken to be the universal truths of Romantic poetry are in fact a form of special pleading. Romantic poets may appear to have made statements like “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” ready to be engraved on Grecian urns for all time. But actually, according to much contemporary criticism, they were writing from a limited perspective, perhaps even defending their narrow class and/or gender interests, and whatever insight they may have achieved was purchased at the price of a corresponding blindness.

It may at first seem surprising that the Romantics should be subjected to this kind of analysis. Authors such as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton do seem to be the bulwarks of the Western cultural tradition which today's academy has dedicated itself to calling into question. But the Romantics were revolutionaries, indeed the first literary radicals. Many of them at least initially supported the French Revolution. They spoke out against social injustice, political oppression, and the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, while arguing in favor of economic equality, democratic government, and the liberation of human potential. In their reworking of one of the poetic forms they inherited, the epic, they tried to redirect it from its traditional celebration of martial heroism and toward a championing of the artist as they only true hero. It was after all Blake who wrote: “The Classics, it is the Classics! … that Devastate Europe with Wars.” Above all, Romantic poetry shows a new sympathy for the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, and the outcast. From Songs of Innocence and Experience and Lyrical Ballads on, the Romantics inaugurated the movement to give voice to the voiceless, the very movement which animates much of literary criticism today.

So where did the Romantics go wrong? To quote Blake again: “less than All cannot satisfy Man,” and it certainly cannot satisfy contemporary criticism. It is a sign of the increasing demand for ideological purity in today's academy that these critics, who have demonstrated their genuine admiration for the Romantics by devoting their careers to them, are now convinced that as progressive as the Romantics may have been, they did not go far enough. In some ways, the Romantics come in for more pointed criticism because they are close enough to contemporary critics to be treated as fellow travelers who ultimately lacked the will to go all the way in their break with traditional culture. Thus these critics now feel it necessary to discuss, not what the Romantics succeeded in doing in their poetry, but what they failed to do. Perhaps the best example of this approach is Marjorie Levinson's by-now classic essay on Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey,” published in her Wordsworth's Great Period Poems. Levinson brilliantly argues that “Tintern Abbey” constitutes a kind of ideological smokescreen, a swerve away from genuine political engagement and into the Romantic myth of nature. Foregrounding his relationship to what appears to be a natural landscape, Wordsworth hides the economic, social, and political facts which his topic could have led him to deal with: the homeless beggars associated with Tintern Abbey, the industrial pollution in the Wye Valley, the fate of the French Revolution (suggested by the dating of the poem on the eve of Bastille Day). According to Levinson, “Tintern Abbey” conceals as much as it reveals. Wordsworth claims to be speaking for all mankind: he talks of hearing “the still, sad music of humanity.” But this act of giving voice to some abstract conception of humanity turns out to depend on the silencing of concrete human voices. The beggars haunting Tintern Abbey do not speak in the poem, and, perhaps more to the point, Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, who by his own account is standing right by his side, cannot even get in a word edgewise. Instead, Wordsworth tells us how Dorothy is reacting to the scene; indeed he claims that she is reacting to it exactly as he did the first time he saw it, a clear instance of Wordsworth acting as ventriloquist for another human being.

What, then, are some of the characteristic blindnesses of Romantic poetry which are currently under investigation, if not quite indictment? While claiming to speak for humanity, the Romantic poets were in fact Europeans, and, more specifically, British. Thus they are being accused of viewing the world from a narrowly European perspective, and helping to perpetuate and in some cases establish certain myths about non-European cultures. In particular, critics are beginning to investigate the ways in which the Romantics, for all their talk of human liberation, were implicated in the British imperialist enterprise. World conquest is after all a kind of Romantic notion, and as the flirtation of individual poets with Napoleon as a heroic figure suggests, the Romantic ideology of self-assertion could be adapted to more conventionally political forms of power seeking. Byron's oriental tales, for example, in depicting a cruel and barbaric Ottoman world, helped flatter the British audience's sense of its superiority and in that way helped supply the ideology behind Great Britain's adventures in the Near and Far East. (The fact that a figure like Lawrence of Arabia seems to have stepped right out of the pages of a Byronic romance lends some credence to this line of speculation.) As Jerome Christensen's essay suggests, the oriental tales can be read as examples of that pervasive Orientalism Edward Said has identified, the fabrication in Western eyes of an image of Eastern cultures which served Western colonial interests. The unprecedented success of Byron's oriental tales as marketable poetry can be traced to the way in which they drew upon British stereotypes of non-British races, prejudices which they fed and perhaps increased by embodying them in the legitimating form of high poetry.

The other limitation of the Romantic poets currently under scrutiny stems from the fact that the canonical Big Six—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—were all males. And, accordingly, several of these essays suggest that Romantic poetry displays a masculine bias. One can see this tendency most clearly in Wordsworth, who almost always imposes his consciousness on any female figure he portrays, which explains the curiously remote presence of women in his poetry. Indeed Wordsworth tends to wax most eloquent about women precisely when they have withdrawn into the silence of death or at least a death-like state (consider above all the Lucy poems). One can see this tendency again in the silent or silenced heroines of Byron's oriental tales, who tend to be reduced to trophies in the masculine competitions of his heroes and villains. Critics have thus begun to search for ways to break the male monopoly the Romantic poets seem to hold on the study of literature in the first part of the nineteenth century. This project, which is only now gathering momentum, involves attempts to promote the reputations of female contemporaries of the Romantics, such as Mary Shelley. Lest I seem out of sympathy with this enterprise, I should point out that in the one book I have written on Romanticism, Creature and Creator, I included a chapter on Mary Shelley and treat Frankenstein as a thoroughgoing critique of Romantic ideology, in particular a protest in the name of domesticity against the destructive effects of Romantic titanism.

Thus I do see what critics have in mind when they speak of the masculine bias of Romantic poetry, though I must also say that I can understand why someone might find this position odd. Measured by current academic standards, the Romantic poets may look aggressively masculine, but viewed in the long-term context of literary history, they contributed significantly to what might be called the feminization of poetry. Put The Prelude next to The Iliad and the idea of William Wordsworth as an excessively masculine figure begins to fade rapidly. As I suggested earlier, the Romantics tried to rework the epic form so that it ceased to deal with the traditional grand public spectacle of warfare and became capable of representing the intimate details of domestic life and personal development. On one level, the motto of Byron's Don Juan might well be “Make Love, not War.” And the Shelley who wrote “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” is hardly an Achillean figure. In short, with the possible exception of Byron, the Romantic poets have not exactly passed into the Western repertoire of models of masculinity. In many years of television viewing, for example, I have yet to see a beer commercial in which a group of dungareed men get together to share a few cold ones after a long hard day of wandering lonely as clouds, dancing with the daffodils, and writing odes to unseen birds.

In a way, this issue reveals most clearly the difficult position the Romantic poets in effect find themselves in today: judged by the standards of contemporary feminism, they appear “masculinist,” but judged by any more traditional standards, they seem, if not feminist, at least closer to feminism than most earlier poets. Those who are disposed to defend the Romantics might thus ask that they be given credit for the advances they achieved, and not blamed for failing to live up completely to contemporary ideological standards. But the current critique of the Romantics runs deeper than charging them with mere sins of omission, of simply failing to extend their vision of human liberation to the cause of women and subject colonials. The most serious and profound aspect of contemporary criticism of the Romantics is the challenge to their very conception of the artist, which is viewed as their fundamental ideological feint. Sparked by Jerome McGann's path-breaking The Romantic Ideology, critics have begun to question the way we have been reading the Romantics exclusively through lenses they themselves supply. In our conception of art, we are very much the heirs of the Romantics, and thus we have difficulty gaining a critical perspective on their achievement. An ideology works precisely by making us mistake something which is local and historically delimited for something universal and natural. The ideological critics of the Romantics thus ask us to consider in what ways they may have imposed upon us a false consciousness of art itself.

The ultimate charge against the Romantics is that they bequeathed to us a myth: the myth of the Romantic artist, the myth of artistic genius. Consider the image the Romantics promulgated of themselves as poets: the artist is inspired; he possesses a special wisdom, not available to ordinary human beings through nonaesthetic modes of knowledge; he works alone, unaided by anyone in his quest for artistic perfection, scorning the ordinary constraints endured by the majority of human beings, as well as their acquisitiveness and creature comforts. The artist stands above society as a prophetic visionary, leading it into the future, while free of its past and not engaged in its present activities (in the sense of being essentially unaffected and above all uncorrupted by them). For a concise statement of this Romantic conception of the artist, one can read Shelley's Defence of Poetry. This vision of the artist as autonomous genius, in Shelley's formulation “the unacknowledged legislator of the world,” is a noble and inspiring one, and has fueled the writing of some of our greatest poetry. It is in many ways an attractive image of the artist, one we would like to be true. We have difficulty thinking of the artist as anything but an inspired creator. What would one want the artist to be: an uninspired imitator? The fact that the idea of the Romantic genius has achieved ideological status in our society is indicated by the way it even informs Hollywood film biographies of artists, from Lust for Life to Amadeus.

It is an irony of history that the Romantic image of the artist as raised above common sense has become the commonsense view of the artist in the modern world. But according to ideological critique, whenever we seem to be in the presence of a natural conception—“naturally the artist is an inspired genius”—we must ask ourselves if we are in fact dealing with an assumption simply buried too deep to be examined. And here is where history can come to our aid. For there was a time when the Romantic conception of the artist was not “obvious”—indeed, as soon as we label it the Romantic conception, we are conceding that it is a historically delimited phenomenon. If the Romantics “invented” this conception of the artist, it cannot be “natural.” For centuries, roughly from Aristotle to Lessing, the conception of art which prevailed in the Western tradition was a mimetic one, in which the artist is understood precisely as someone whose goal is to represent the external world, including in part the society in which he lives. Even a cursory survey of the history of aesthetic theory will show that the Romantic conception of the artist is only one possible view among several.

But the ideological critics of Romanticism cannot view this issue merely as a theoretical dispute, a quarrel over the objective question: what is the nature of art? For the Romantic conception of the artist as autonomous genius to be an ideological maneuver, it must in some way serve the interests of the Romantics. What critics have seized upon in the idea of the Romantic artist is its individualism, the fact that if art is taken to be the product of autonomous genius, it is no longer viewed as a social product. And here is where the historicism, and specifically the Marxism, of this approach comes into play. Critics are interested in correlating Romanticism with nineteenth-century capitalism, and argue that the cult of the Romantic genius is the aesthetic equivalent of that ideology of possessive individualism which C. B. MacPherson identified as the basis of modern capitalism. This line of reasoning may sound strange to traditional students of Romanticism, who are used to thinking of the Romantic poets as speaking out against industrialism and capitalism, as in Wordsworth's attack on “getting and spending” in the sonnet Levinson discusses. But the trick of this line of argument is to view Romanticism as a move within the capitalist system, rather than against it as appearances would suggest. As Christensen puts it, “Byronic opposition is no break with the literary culture that invented and profited from it.”

To pursue this line of argument, critics have tried to correlate such phenomena as the new Romantic premium on originality with the new emphasis in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace on copyright protection and the property rights of authors. In general, critics are trying to reveal to what extent the Romantics became involved in the new business of poetry as it was emerging in the early nineteenth century (as the most successful of the Romantic poets financially, Byron usually serves as their best example). With the gradual disappearance of literary patronage in the course of the eighteenth century, early nineteenth-century authors were among the first to face a situation in which poetry had become a full-fledged commodity in capitalist terms, something which had to be marketed. These new circumstances generated a great deal of anxiety, as poets found themselves newly and crucially dependent on pleasing a large, generally middle-class audience. This development led to the paradox which strikes contemporary critics: just when poetry began to be absorbed into capitalist modes of production and consumption, indeed when it first became a mass-market phenomenon, the Romantic poets appear to withdraw into the solitary purity of their conception of the artist as autonomous genius. Never had the poet been so dependent on his public, and never had he tried to appear so independent of it. Thus the Romantic image of the poet as isolated genius can be viewed as a defense mechanism against the increasing absorption of poetry into nineteenth-century economic life. This helps to explain the curious medievalism of much Romantic poetry. As Marlon Ross has argued in a penetrating article on “Scott's Chivalric Pose,” published in Genre in 1986, just when the poet is being forced to adopt the ways of a modern capitalist, he retreats into the disguise of a feudal bard. But what may seem like a mere defensive move can in fact be viewed as a clever marketing strategy. The poet wins his large audience precisely by seeming to scorn it, acting out a fantasy of individual autonomy which is attractive to a mass of readers threatened with the loss of their identity in modern society.

To show how fully implicated the Romantic poets were in the literary marketplace of their day requires the kind of painstaking analysis of textual and reception history which McGann persuasively advocates, an example of which he offers in his discussion of Byron's “Fare Thee Well!” By examining contemporary reviews and reactions to Romantic poetry, McGann is able to document the kinds of prejudices the Romantics both appealed to and worked to counteract. By tracing the different versions poems went through, he can show concretely how individual Romantics reacted to the poetic marketplace. Their correspondence with their publishers has proven to be a gold mine of information. Poets who in their public posture claim to be unconcerned about pleasing any audience turn out to have had a sharp eye for sales figures and a canny sense of how to increase them. (Even Blake, who seems like an artisanal throwback among the Romantics with his private mode of publication in illuminated books, sometimes fills his letters with price lists of his poems.) By means of archival research, McGann is able to rescue the Romantic poets from the abstract universality into which the New Critics, Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, and others threatened to lift them, and resituate them in their historical moment, showing how deeply involved they were in contemporary issues and controversies.

Drawing upon the work of Raymond Williams, McGann is particularly concerned to counter the individualistic ideology of Romanticism, and to stress how much even Romantic poetry resulted from a social mode of production. For McGann, there are not just six poetic titans standing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, single-handedly responsible for all literary achievement, but rather a host of authors, publishers, editors, critics, reviewers, and readers, interacting in complex ways and together shaping the course of literature. This is the most effective way in which contemporary criticism is cutting the Romantic poets down to size. For a long time, they have served as our prototypes of High Artists, scorning the mediocrity of popular culture and standing above their age in solitary grandeur. But critics are now trying to show how much the Romantics drew upon the popular modes of their day, such as the Gothic novel, and more generally how much their work benefited from their interaction with their cultural environment. This argument is similar to what one observes in film criticism. On one side, we have the auteur theory, the idea that a film should be the product of the shaping artistic genius of a single consciousness, the autonomous director. On the other side, we have what might be called the studio theory, the idea that a film is the result of a corporate, not an individual effort, and the final product embodies several different artistic wills, including the director's, the screenplay writer's, the producer's, not to mention the financial backer's. Conventional aesthetic wisdom would suggest that the auteur theory would lead to better films, but the historical evidence suggests a more complicated situation. Some of the greatest directors, including Chaplin and Coppola, did their best work when they were in effect operating within the studio system and responding to commercial pressures. Once they became successful enough to have complete autonomy over their films, they began to lose touch with their audience and gradually became artistically self-indulgent, riding personal hobbyhorses and projecting private fantasies. (One need only compare The Cotton Club with The Godfather to see what I mean in Coppola's case.) McGann sees analogous phenomena in Romantic literature; one might express his thesis in cinematic terms by saying that the Romantic poets did not always have the right of final cut in their productions, and their poetry was often improved as a result.

At first sight, this may seem like a strange argument for a Marxist to be making, for it appears to suggest the beneficial effects of the commercial pressures of a capitalist economy on art. And yet one must not forget that Marx himself often had some very positive things to say about capitalism, and in particular always regarded it as an advance beyond feudalism. The corresponding point in literary history would be that the commercial market for literature which developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked an advance beyond the patronage system, which was after all bound up with the aristocratic old regime. The development of a relatively open literary marketplace facilitated the democratization of literature, the extension of the literary franchise to a wider range of writers. Thus in analyzing Romantic ideology, critics are examining the kind of phenomenon that often occurs at the turning points in literary history. The Romantic conception of the artist may be viewed as a residual survival of aristocratic ideology, helping to cushion the shock of the emergence of the democratic era in literature. The poet has learned to speak on behalf of the masses, but he is not yet ready to be counted among their number. There is a curiously noblesse oblige character to much Romantic poetry. The poet espouses democratic ideals, but he does so from an aristocratic stance as a lofty being, seemingly raised above the petty partisan politics of the age (once again, Lord Byron is the best example of this phenomenon). In effect what the ideological critics are asking of the Romantic poets is to bring their conception of poetry into line with its democratic content.

We are now in a position to appreciate the full force of the contemporary critique of the Romantics: it is an assault on what might be called the Great Man theory of literature. Contemporary critics no longer want to view literature as the product of individual and isolated geniuses; they want to see it as a more social and communal enterprise. This reconception of literature goes hand in hand with the project of opening up the canon, which is so much at the center of critical endeavor today. Once the Romantic idea of artistic genius is discredited, we are free to reevaluate all the so-called lesser figures of the early nineteenth century, especially long-neglected female authors, often stigmatized as mere popular authors rather than authentic geniuses, and thus forced to live in the shadow of the so-called High Romantics. Some critics have even charged the Romantics with perpetuating the idea of artistic genius as a defense against their literary competitors in the marketplace. Contemporary critics hope to undo the baleful efforts of this ideological move by effacing the sharp distinction long maintained between high art and popular culture. In that sense, one can say that the current attack on Romantic ideology is itself ideologically motivated by the democratic ideology which pervades American universities. The very notion of High Culture is being called into question as the last survival of aristocratic ideology in the modern world.

As we begin to realize that the critique of Romantic ideology is really a case of one ideology versus another, my topic begins to open out onto vistas too broad to be surveyed in such a brief essay. I must, then, confine myself to a few final observations on the current trend in the criticism of Romantic literature. Though I do not share the premises and larger framework of these critics, I believe that what they are attempting is long overdue. McGann is right to identify the ways in which literary critics developed a kind of vested interest in their subject, so that they became in effect advocates of the writers they studied and lost all sense of critical perspective on them. The situation is somewhat analogous to what happens in federal regulatory agencies, where the regulators become the captives of the special interests they are supposed to regulate. We were reaching a point where the last thing a Romantic critic was supposed to do was to criticize Romanticism. Largely under the influence of the New Criticism, critics were conceiving their mission to be to justify the ways of godlike authors to men, taking works which had been thought to be in some ways artistic failures and revealing the hidden providence of aesthetic design behind them, proving them to be artfully created wholes in ways hitherto unperceived. One positive effect of the various forms of the hermeneutics of suspicion which have come to prevail in literary criticism is that, in breaking with the idea of artistic wholeness or integrity, they have opened up a critical perspective on artists. It is good to see critics interrogating poets, asking fundamental questions about the way they conceive the world and their art.

Nevertheless, I want to conclude with some words of caution. Having arrived upon a scene in which Romantic scholars were becoming dangerously uncritical of their subject, the ideological critics of Romanticism are now in danger of coming to believe that they are the only people who have ever been critical of Romanticism. When one reads their accounts of literary and critical history, one sometimes gets the impression that, once created, the Romantic ideology has remained firmly in place, unchallenged, exerting hegemonic force over all who came after. But in fact, as shown by the reception studies of these critics themselves, Romanticism has remained a controversial subject, and, more specifically, the reputations of the individual Romantics have fluctuated wildly in the intervening century and a half. Some of the best analyses of Romanticism have been done by critics who were deeply skeptical of its premises and effects. I have in mind, for example, Irving Babbitt's Rousseau and Romanticism, a book which is no longer featured in discussions of the Romantics and which, in its academic humanism, would no doubt be regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned by the fashionable critics of today. And yet Rousseau and Romanticism, for all its faults, is as acute in defining the limitations of the Romantic perspective as much of the work of contemporary ideological critics, although obviously Babbitt has a very different program in mind in his attack on Romanticism.

To carry my point further into the past, and show how hopelessly out-of-date I am, I will reveal that as I read the ideological critics of Romanticism, I cannot help being reminded of Plato's critique of the poets. Let us review the current charges against the Romantics: they create myths, they present themselves as inspired geniuses, they lay claim to a special wisdom, and they pretend to be raised above the ordinary limitations of humanity, while in fact they are deeply implicated in the prejudices of their day. These are exactly the charges which Plato has Socrates make against poets in general in the Republic. This point is even clearer in the Ion, a brief dialogue in which Socrates interrogates a rhapsode, a public performer of Homer's poetry. Under Socrates' merciless questioning, Ion ends up exposing all his limitations, as well as those of the poets whose representative he is. He claims to have comprehensive knowledge of the human good, but in fact he sees everything from the limited perspective of his chosen poet, Homer, whose authority Ion uncritically accepts. He cannot even give an articulate account of his own art of rhapsody, and yet he claims to understand all the arts by virtue of his knowledge of Homer's poetry. By the end of the dialogue, Socrates has provoked Ion into claiming to be the best general in Greece solely on the basis of his familiarity with Homer's accounts of warfare. A celebrated and successful rhapsode, Ion prides himself on being raised above his audience as a wise man and a teacher. But what Socrates brings out is the way Ion is crucially dependent on his audience, flattering their prejudices and giving them what they want to hear in order to win their applause. At one point, Socrates tricks Ion into accidentally revealing the commercial basis of the divine art of rhapsody; the noble artist never takes his eyes off the paying customers:

I look down on them each time from the platform above as they are crying, casting terrible looks and following with astonishment the things said. I must pay the very closest attention to them, since, if I set them to crying, I shall laugh myself because I am making money, but if they laugh, then I shall cry because of the money I am losing.

Here is cultural materialism Athenian-style: the supposed idealist Plato is as aware of the economic basis of art as Raymond Williams. Above all, Plato understands the way in which poets lend support to a community's traditions and prejudices by bringing about a confusion of the natural and the conventional in what would today be called an ideology. His analysis of comedy and tragedy shows how crucially dependent poets are on conventional ideas of the ridiculous, the laughable, the pitiable, and the awesome.

I recommend a rereading of the Ion to my colleagues: they might be surprised at what they could learn from the High Priest of Logocentrism. But in calling attention to Plato's critique of the poets, I am not making the typical scholarly move of “someone else got there first.” I am not questioning the newness of the new historicism, but rather its historicism. For if the historicist premises of contemporary criticism were correct, Plato, living when he did, should not have been capable of achieving such insight into the ideological character of poetry. Lacking our supposedly privileged historical vantage point (see the first paragraph of Levinson's essay), Plato should not have been in a position to demystify poetry in terms curiously similar to those invoked today. And the fact that Plato developed a critique of poetry which is so applicable to Romanticism over two millennia before the Romantics wrote suggests that the Romantic ideology may not be quite the historically delimited phenomenon its critics claim. The way the ideological critics are attacking Romanticism is in fact a reenactment of the quarrel between philosophy and poetry, which according to Plato was already “old” in his day. Once again, limitations of space prevent me from exploring fully the implications of this line of reasoning, which would lead me into the kinds of issues usefully raised at the end of David Simpson's essay, involving the fundamental question of whether nature in some form provides a standpoint from which, as Plato would claim, all ideology can be criticized.

I must restrict myself, then, to one concluding point. As my bringing up of Plato suggests, to me the most encouraging sign in this set of essays is the fact that McGann has chosen to revive the ancient form of dialogue in his contribution (and his essay on Plato in his Social Values and Poetic Acts proves that he has grasped the nature of the Platonic dialogue in a way that few literary critics ever have). Like Simpson in his raising of the issue of nature, McGann shows that he is willing to call into question the fundamental premises of his critical enterprise. Levinson also raises doubts about the new historicist enterprise toward the end of her essay, especially when she admits: “I don't think even we are interested in our collections of literary saints and sinners.” In general, I detect certain signs of theoretical unease in these essays; these critics, who set out to be adversarial and iconoclastic, now seem concerned at finding themselves on the verge of establishing a new critical orthodoxy. This is a healthy concern: this kind of critical self-reflection is what is most necessary for the ideological critics of Romanticism, for only by that means can they cease to be ideological in the bad sense of the term: that is, dogmatic.

In my view, the most liberating step for these critics would be to realize that they do not have a monopoly on a critical perspective on the literary tradition. As my example of Plato and the poets was designed to suggest, what is so often today monolithically presented as The Tradition turns out on closer inspection to be deeply conflicted, consisting not of a single block of consistent authorities, but of traditions and critical attacks on those traditions. One can find genuine divisions even within smaller units of the supposedly unified tradition, such as the so-called Romantic ideology. For example, much of the current critique of Romanticism is contained or implied in what Keats says about the “egotistical sublime” in Wordsworth in his letter to Richard Woodhouse of 27 October 1818. In general, when critics need ammunition against canonical writers, they can generally find it in other canonical writers. We are in danger today of underrating the richness and diversity within the Western cultural tradition when we forget that from the very beginning it has been a critical tradition, a tradition divided against itself in the kind of dialogue we find in Plato. I realize that for today's critics Plato may seem to offer only a spurious form of dialogue, because the spectrum of opinion he represents is artificially restricted in their view. But if I am reading David Simpson correctly, and if in his critical universe the spectrum of opinion does indeed run from “essentialist feminism” on the right to orthodox Marxism on the left, with Marxist feminism “somewhere in the middle,” I wonder where we can observe a wider range of human possibilities: in contemporary criticism or in Plato's dialogues. If our aim is to develop a genuinely critical perspective, we might consider turning to the past to expose not so much its biases as our own.

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Representative Works


Criticism: Literary Reviews