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To Dwell in Possibility:
Anthologizing a Revised Romantic Poetics
Jeffrey C. Robinson
Jerome McGann's major critical work has consistently encouraged readers to challenge basic cultural assumptions about Romanticism, and The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, available now for the past twelve years and recently reissued in paperback, is no exception. In other currently obtainable anthologies of Romantic poetry the presumed audience has no particular character other than (an unstated) receptivity to the poetry, headnotes, and annotations, offered as a comprehensive account of "the Period." The readers of Romantic Period Verse, by contrast and in keeping with the agonistic nature of McGann's criticism, come to the text alive with predispositions for Romantic poetry with which, in fact, the canon of Romanticism has supplied them: "deceptive apparitions," "things longed for but never really seen" (RPV, p. xix). We reach out to Romantic poetry full of hopes and hungers that, culturally speaking, Romanticism has launched in us; and thus, like Lotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther, we find what we seek. Or, as McGann says in The Poetics of Sensibility (published three years after the anthology), we tend to "pre-read" the poetry (PS, p. 4). This, then, is the charged condition of desire, of text and audience, into which McGann makes his equally charged intervention, which he says is "designed...partly as invitation and partly as argument" (RPV, p. xxv). [End Page 251]
As readers we need, the gesture of the invitation implies, a different kind of welcome or nourishment than we have been getting—and a host with a new feast or banquet of poems. McGann's anthology recalls another Romantic banquet, Leigh Hunt's Feast of the Poets, designed to celebrate, hosted by a very Dionysian (wine-loving) Apollo, without choosing among them, the great impure diversity of English poets. Romantic Period Verse opens the doors of perception to a larger, more heterogeneous world of Romantic possibilities. The welcoming gesture includes in its promises the re-definition of an anthology as "a better resource for study (and even for understanding) than a more theoretical work" (RPV, p. xix). If a deep draught of Romantic Period Verse intoxicates, it doesn't forego an increase in consciousness and a mental transformation. As the poet Charles Bernstein has said: "Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: / it brings you to your senses" (from "The Klupzy Girl"). In my view we still need to learn the lessons from Romantic Period Verse, how to take up its challenges to our received notions of Romantic poetry; in this review I hope to remind readers of the possibilities it offers to us as readers.
In terms of Romantic theory, the urgency of McGann's criticism (in particular The Poetics of Sensibility) and his anthology derives from Romantic poetry's affinity with Friedrich Schiller's classification of poetry into "naïve" and "sentimental" types. Indeed, the subsequent dominant critical tradition has cleaved even more closely to Schiller. Naïve poetry emerges in a fully integrated society like that of ancient Greece; its vitality is all of the present. Sentimental poetry is the product of more complex, "advanced," Western societies in which integration is no longer a fact but has become a nostalgic fantasy or a longing, at best a hoped-for possibility. The sentimental defines Romanticism, a poetry of self-conscious acknowledgment of world-brokenness, what McGann calls "a second-order quest for desire itself" (RPV, p. xix). (At times, he argues, Romantic poets can bring "the naïve" into the experience of the poem, just as a good closed-form poem may contain within its borders the sense of open-form participation in the present.) As I understand this, McGann's account of...