Felicia Bonaparte, Professor Emerita at CUNY and author of The Triptych and the Cross: The Central Myths of George Eliot’s Poetic Imagination (1979) and The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester: The Life of Mrs. Gaskell’s Demon (1992), offers in The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction an immensely ambitious argument about the language of symbolism in nineteenth-century British fiction. She argues that the novels of this century set out to make the world anew, rejecting empiricism because of its ties to mere subjectivism, and finding faith in a world-renewing project that disavowed eighteenth-century realism in favor of an esoteric sort of symbolic signification that is hard to discern initially. The book falls into four parts: “Chaos is Come Again” describes a nineteenth-century crisis of faith and reason; “Something We Must Believe In and Do” maps such recovery strategies as “The Quest for a New Religion”; “The Making of a New Poetic” explores how realism is undermined by “The Idealistic in the Real”; and “The Inexpressible Must Be Expressed” makes the case for “The Symbolic Language of Myth” that secretly structures a range of nineteenth-century fiction that, she argues, has mistakenly been understood as realist.
A useful place to begin is with Bonaparte’s notion of a pervasive symbolic language that covertly shapes many of the century’s texts, offering hidden meanings below surface ones. Her argument that “symbolism came to be the language of 19th century thought” (a symbolic order that carried with it a preference for intuition over experience) relies on a Foucauldian episteme (9). Bonaparte posits a unitary nineteenth-century “vision of how reality was constructed” and further posits that: “This notion that art must be philosophic and philosophic in certain ways is the fundamental premise of this century’s view [End Page 543] of fiction” (10, 13). By her account, nineteenth-century England had “a ‘poetic’ concept of art … that encompassed the whole of the universe in its definition of art and understood the end of art to be the creation of a new world” (14).
It is this general claim that makes The Poetics of Poesis problematic. Bonaparte might have positioned her work as an account of a set of thinkers resistant to empiricism, who feared that it might result in pure subjectivism and who saw in science principally an upsetting of age-old verities and a challenge to faith grounded in a divine conception of reason. That would have made Poetics of Poesis a helpful guide and a sympathetic extrapolation from a narrow but discernible current in nineteenth-century British thought. Bonaparte astutely explores how Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and other thinkers shaped profoundly by German Romanticism were alarmed by the advent of forms of judgment grounded in the empirical understood as merely subjective, addressing their unease about the rise of scientific objectivity as a desideratum of knowledge. Similarly, Bonaparte’s careful genealogical work tracing the persistence of telling Biblical names in British fiction (in implicit contradistinction to Ian Watt’s influential argument about the rise of meaningless and arbitrary proper names as a key component of realist fiction) is certainly a helpful reminder of latent bits of providential thinking, or symbolic hints, even among novelists who seem in other ways committed to the realist project.
Instead of demarcating the terrain in this way, however, Bonaparte’s claim of typicality makes the symbolism she traces in certain writers (even if it is as seemingly nugatory as the fact that George Eliot makes use of horse imagery throughout Middlemarch [1871–72]) into evidence for her claim for a pervasive symbolic language that undergirds the whole of nineteenth-century thinking. That misstep is especially damaging because Bonaparte defines as “typical” an extremely narrow set of thinkers, thus allowing her study to ignore an extensive body of scholarship, both recent and older, that would place that chosen cadre in a larger context.
Bonaparte declares: “I shall often be turning to Carlyle to cite examples of what the...