Thursday, December 16, 2010

my romanticism problem

I am not, alas, a romantic, in any sense of the word. I have some friends who are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool romantics (like Eric) in the "passionate love" manner; and I have some who are deeply versed in Romantic poetry; I even have some (like Norman) who are both. But I've always been a rather tight-assed product of my Protestant upbringing, shrinking away from the loss of self-control involved in passion, & wincing a bit at its expression in poetry. While I deeply admire the music of their verse, I've always found something a bit, well, embarrassing about Keats & Shelley.

At any rate, the semester's over; I don't leave town for holiday travels until Monday, so rather than tackling the beginnings of the next big essay that's due in oh, 6 weeks' time, for some reason I've been thinking about Romanticism – & how little I know about the whole period, the whole movement. I posted a squib to that effect on my Facebook page, & lo & behold a number of friends have chimed in with a whole year's worth of weighty reading.

My education in Romanticism has been spotty. As an undergraduate at Beloved Alma Mater, I must have taken a survey course that covered the Romantics, but I don't remember a moment of it. And I was feeling the lack when I came up to grad school at Campus on the Hill. CotH's PhD program, however, was not the best place to fill in holes in one's undergrad education. The grand old men of Wordsworth studies could still be seen walking the halls (MH Abrams would have coffee every morning with Archie Ammons downstairs, & I was even a TA for one Stephen Parrish's undergrad courses – Victorian novel, I think), but they generally weren't teaching graduate seminars anymore. So I enrolled in a "Romantic Poetry" seminar with Professor Fearsome DeManean, & found myself largely at sea for 14 weeks, reading poems I hadn't read before – enjoying them, for the most part – & then every week sitting stupidly around the seminar table as my fearsomely theory-savvy colleagues argued the fine points of (mostly) Paul De Man, with very occasional reference to Keats, Wordsworth, or Shelley.

I already had a well-developed taste for Blake, & somehow managed to develop a taste for Wordsworth as well. I put stacks of Byron on my comprehensives lists, and dutifully read them (with nothing less than constant enjoyment). And since then I've read around a great deal – most of Keats's poetry and letters, lots and lots of Coleridge, bits and pieces of Shelley. I worked up Keats in general for a "lifelong learning" lecture series I did a few years back, & had the great satisfaction of reducing a roomful of elderly women to tears with a pathos-ridden performance of "Ode to a Nightingale." I've taught Lyrical Ballads several times, & know The Prelude pretty darned well.

It's a matter of improving what Jonathan Mayhew calls one's "scholarly base." Now, I know I'll never be a scholar of Romanticism (tho I wouldn't mind teaching an undergraduate course on Romantic poetry someday), so the "scholary" isn't quite applicable; but as so often, I've gotten the urge to know more, to fill out or round off the vast blank or roughly sketched areas in my own mental map of what everything means. (I got a similar urge in re/ Marx & the Frankfurt School about a decade ago, Milton sometime before that, Hegel about five years ago, Victorian thought at the same time – all ongoing projects.)

It feels oddly like a counter-productive impulse, so far as one's academic career goes. The classic model is that you establish yourself in one limited sub-discipline, then branch out in subsequent work to adjacent or occasionally more distant fields. I don't know any model, offhand, for this kind of intellectual back-filling. Maybe I'm trying to retool myself as a classic "generalist" – a term I deeply distrust, & which is of course the kiss of death in academia these days. Or maybe I'm just trying to get myself to where I can take more pleasure in Keats & Shelley.

12 comments:

Jonathan said...

I do a lot of back-filling myself in the continual process of scholarly self-fashioning.

What you describe here includes a substantial amount of expertise already, with everything BUT a true specialist's level of detail. In other words, you know more about romanticism than practically anyone who isn't a specialist in romanticism. Usually when you have an intellectual itch like that you need to scratch it, because you never know where it is going to lead.

Susan M. Schultz said...

As I get older, the phrase "academic career" means less and less to me. Enjoy your reading, Mark!

Archambeau said...

Coleridge is your man, if your drawn to Romanticism but embarrassed about it. In "The Aeolean Harp" he gets swept away on mystical pantheism (or panentheism, I forget which), then apologizes about it to his wife. In "Kubla Khan" he swoons with visions, but then watches the square community freak out at him and cringes a little inside. Same deal with the "Rime." And half of his prose is devoted to thinking up ways of making Romanticism square with the conservative order of things. Also, he's big on hermeneutics, and reads all of the Protestant theologians from Germany, the homeland of tight-ass Protestant theology.

Archambeau said...

I'd also add that it is probably about time for a few people to try to do a new, informed-by-all-we-now-know-about-the-limits-of-it-etc version of the Grand Recit, the big Auerbach/Ernst Curtius summa literaria occidentiae. I mean, I think we were right to go away from all that, but isn't it time for an antithesis, lest we all wallow in the smugness of our various petit recits? The very lack of a model for the Modern Major Generalist indicates that it is time for someone to go about establishing that model. It'll make upholders of our current consensus squeal, maybe, but that's not a bad thing. Go to it! Banzai!

Bob

undine said...

I do this "back-filling," too. I hope you'll write about the contemporary work that you read about them.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Bob's remarks about Coleridge are right on. If I'm a romanticist of the sort you describe (and I'm flattered), then it was due at first to STC. Of course that means you have to read the big Holmes bio. But only after you read his Shelley bio, which someone over on FB already recommended to you. And the Keats bios by Bate and Motion. And Daisy Hay's The Young Romantics. And Ackroyd's Blake. What is the point of all this? Other than making you get yet another new bookcase each and every one of these will help you dispense with the "embarrassment".

Anonymous said...

"I've gotten the urge to know more, to fill out or round off the vast blank or roughly sketched areas in my own mental map of what everything means. (I got a similar urge in re/ Marx & the Frankfurt School about a decade ago, Milton sometime before that, Hegel about five years ago, Victorian thought at the same time – all ongoing projects.)" Yeah. Urge or Demiurge, respect!

John Matthias said...

I'd like to have shared a coffee with Abrahms and Ammons. (Ammons, of course, WAS a Romantic poet. A new walk is not a new walk, except to a Romantic.) Did you read The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. Still terrific books. It was hard to get the Romantic news at Stanford since, for Yvor Winters, Romantic poetry was not only boring, but evil. I always felt sorry for the poor old prof -- can't remember his name -- who taught the Romantic poets to grad students and had to confront half a dozen Wintersians sharpening their knives and their teeth twice a week. I got back to Wordsworth from living in Suffolk and looking at Constable paintings. Eventually, I was asked to give a talk at a conference surrounded by Constables and Turners, the piece that became "A Self-Reading and a Reading of the Self in the Romantic Context from Wordsworth to Parkman." (It appears in my Reading Old Friends collection.) In the end, Byron, Shelly, and Keats fell away again, but Coleridge and Wordsworth stuck. That's why I recommended that recent double biography, The Friendship, which I recommend again.

John Matthias said...

Matthias can't spell Abrams or Shelley.

Kent Johnson said...

It's sort of interesting that a poet like Prynne and a number of the younger UK a-g in semi-orbit about him are so crazy about the Romantics, particularly Wordsworth.

Prynne has a thick essay on Wordsworth and phonology in the last issue of the Chicago Review (before this new one, I mean, which I guess is just out): a tour de force close reading by way of discussing a bit the phonological attentions of his own project. Pretty amazing. I can barely read it anymore for all the notes and questions and proto-objections scribbled in it.

Maybe Harold Bloom is right, at least when it comes to the leading edge of still-unravelling late-late Modernism!

Also, speaking of Ammons, whom John Matthias mentions below, and again of the CR, I've heard a rumor that the journal has their next special issue on Ammons!

bill sherman said...

hmmm. i believe all poets are Romantics, really. best watch out for "the return of the repressed"...of course, for maximum embarrassment, try LIBER AMORIS, which, nevertheless, is a brave and noble text. Romanticism is more complex than one might think. the Byron of MANFRED is not the Byron of DON JUAN. or listen to Bunting read THE RUINED COTTAGE...maybe Van Morrsion was right when he sang that after foreshadowings, it all began with Wordsworth and Coleridge "smoking up in Kendal" (i.e. the Lake Country). but one can't go into a chemist's shoppe (drug store) and ask for a bottle of laudanum any more...and as Robert Morrison points out in the new bio, DeQuincey was an ENGLISH opium-eater; i.e. there was a specific particularity to Romanticism in the UK.

Notpen.com said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.