Criticism 44.2 (2002) 202-205
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Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, History, by Deborah Elise White. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, Pp. 227. $45.00 cloth.
Each of the three writers covered in Romantic Returns may be associated with one of the topoi—"Superstition, Imagination, History"—listed in the book's subtitle. Superstition is treated at length only in the chapter on William Collins's poetry; William Hazlitt's treatment of imagination and ethics is the focus of a second chapter, and—while Shelleyan imagination is certainly central to this book—the final chapter is entitled "Shelley and the Proof of History." That said, Deborah Elise White's introduction makes clear that her primary interest throughout is not so much in a developing historical narrative as in Romantic imagination and its variously constructed relationship to historical individuality—to the way the Romantic "I" is constituted—and her primary argument is that "Romantic texts often offer a more, not less, sophisticated account of 'ideology' and 'illusion' than that offered by contemporary criticism [of Romanticism]" (2-3). She notes further that her "aim is not . . . to defend aesthetic values that somehow 'transcend historical divisions,' but rather to reinvestigate and reinvigorate ways in which the category of the aesthetic—for which the Romantic term is imagination—enables a critical and reflexive articulation of the historical passage between knowledge and action, epistemology and ethics, fine art and politics. . . [and that a] meaningful—as opposed to a cynical—politics may not be possible without aestheticization. In brief, to arrive at anything like the problem of history and context . . . one needs to confront and not merely to 'critique' the position of imagination" (3-4).
Although the introduction claims not to be constructing, or re-constructing, a literary or cultural history, the chapter on Collins starts from Geoffrey Hartman's suggestion that Romantic defenses of imagination may stem from eighteenth-century attempts to distinguish imagination from superstition. The ensuing readings of how, in Collins's progress poems, poetry "can only narrate the progress of civilization. . . at the cost of narrating . . . its own decline" (35), [End Page 202] like the comments on the peculiarities of Collins's language as "its setting-to-work in the act of poetry" (31), are not in themselves ground-breaking. Nor is it unusual to note that in the various tensions—"between poetry and progress, superstition and enlightenment, or even between Scotland and England—one cannot always tell on which side of the border Collins's loyalties lie" (36), although White does offer nicely nuanced readings of Collins's poetry and especially of the often overlooked "Highlands Ode."
More interestingly, White rehearses the political climate of both 1749-1750 when the "Highlands Ode" was written and of the 1780s when the manuscript of the poem was found, to consider "the sheer inextricability of the political and the literary allegory," rightly noting that criticism of Collins "has not usually had much to say about the relays between his literary topoi and his patriotic ones" (38). She returns also, to Collins's uses of Milton, Thompson, and Tasso (as well as, perhaps less convincingly, of Spenser) noting that "geography allegorizes history, but history, too, when treated as a sequential narrative of progress . . . increasingly reveals an allegorical dimension" (43). In effect, White argues, Collins's often-remarked-upon performative self-consciousness shows us the process by which the Enlightenment produced what it claimed to discover and interrogate, namely the conflict between the historical and the poetic. Finally, if the resulting view of Collins's poetry will not surprise those who specialize in his work, the close readings are deft and subtle, the case reformulated for the "mutual determination of the geopolitical and the literary-history subjects [in both senses of the word] of Collins's poetry" (50). Moreover, White takes her examination of literary history and history in Collins a step further than previous critics have, noting the way the poems' shifting registers destabilize the very categories of imagination and power which they engage.
The reading of Collins launches the next chapter, on Romantic imagination in Hazlitt, especially in Hazlitt's...