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Reviewed by:
  • Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic
  • Patrick McHugh
Donelan, James H. 2008. Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. $93 hc. xvi + 216 pp.

James H. Donelan's Poetry and the Romantic Musical Aesthetic examines four cultural giants all born in 1770: Hölderlin, Hegel, Wordsworth, and Beethoven. In each separate and largely self-contained study, Donelan elaborates an interdisciplinary and erudite re-interpretation of Romanticism, offering original insight into ideas of the self-conscious mind emerging in early nineteenth-century Europe. He argues that because music connects sensory experience and spiritual significance it exemplifies the autonomous aesthetic creation of the Romantic self. To develop this argument, Donelan restricts the ambitions of German Romanticism, of Hegel and Hölderlin 's ontological and historical claims for aesthetics, allowing only for the autonomous creation of an artist's self-consciousness. Similarly, he insists on the autonomy of this aesthetic process, the independence of the individual self, and the continued relevance of this notion of Romantic selfhood, dismissing along the way efforts in recent theory to deconstruct or historicize or otherwise challenge the autonomy, independence, or contemporary relevance of the Romantic self. He fails to recognize, however, that the very concept of the musical aesthetic he rigorously unearths more readily serves the theory he dismisses.

Crucial to Donelan's concept of the musical aesthetic is a reading of The Phenomenology of Spirit. In Hegel's history of self-consciousness becoming objective and universal, Donelan highlights the sensory encounter with an object as the ground for self-conscious human subjectivity, which emerges over time through reflection upon this sensory encounter. Music, "absolute" or purely instrumental music, is special because it is "between" object and subject. Unlike other art objects, music has neither visible form nor any determinate physical place, yet exists for the subject's sensuous apprehension; at the same time, as an aesthetic object produced by and for conscious contemplation, music powerfully affects human spirit. Donelan then contests Hegel's view that music is a lower art form, and that all art lies lower than religion or philosophy, because the higher forms of spirit are rich in conceptual content enabled by language. First, he argues that absolute music, [End Page 175] though it uses no words, does indeed articulate ideas in its relation to its cultural and intellectual context. Second, Donelan argues that leaving music or art behind in spirit's development toward higher forms of self-consciousness elides what is an essential element in the process of becoming self-conscious, that is, the connection to sensory experience and thus to the objective world. Unlike religion and philosophy, art takes place in paint and canvas, wood and stone, but especially for Donelan's purposes in the sound of musical notes or the structured sound of metered poetry. In its brevity and narrow focus on music, Donelan's critique is limited as a contribution to Hegel scholarship, especially since it doesn't address the implications of the critique for Hegel's ambitious ontological and historical claims for aesthetics and for self-consciousness. Nonetheless, through this reading of Hegel, Donelan defines the Romantic musical aesthetic as an instance of self-consciousness that is both thing and idea, both a sensory object and an act of a subject reflecting upon sensory experience.

This sensory musical aesthetic is evident in Hölderlin's poetry, but only, again, at the cost of reducing profound ontological and historical claims to the assertion of individual consciousness. In such poems as "Brot und Wein" and "Patmos," Hölderlin reflects within poetry on the ontological function of poetry, which for Donelan emphasizes how the poet brings himself into being as "an autonomous subject who has acquired self-consciousness and whose words allow this self-consciousness to have real existence" (58). Hölderlin, echoing Hegel (and as later elaborated by Heidegger), claims much more ontological and historical power for poetry—a capacity to bridge the gap between ancient Greece and his own Germany, between God's infinite wisdom and humanity's limited knowledge, and so bring forth into objective being not only his own self-consciousness but also that of his world. Donelan, however, brackets the broader ontological...


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