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  • The Fragmentary Poetic: Eighteenth-Century Uses of an Experimental Mode
  • Roy Scranton
Sandro Jung, The Fragmentary Poetic: Eighteenth-Century Uses of an Experimental Mode (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 2009). Pp. 173. $44.00.

Self-described as the first of its kind, Sandro Jung presents his study of eighteenth-century fragmentary poetics as both polemic and excavation. Positioning his argument within a wide, avowedly revisionist approach to eighteenth-century poetry, he complicates what he calls, after Paula Backscheider, the “paradigms of old literary history.” Jung demonstrates that the century’s poets weren’t rule-bound time-servers merely filling the gap between Augustans and Romantics, but dynamic experimentalists whose innovations were as rich as, and even more diverse than, those of their Romantic successors. He argues “that there is a need to readjust the literary-historical account of modes and forms in the eighteenth century by means of a consideration of the mode of the fragmentary” (137). [End Page 451]

Jung thus sees the fragmentary not as a genre but as a “mode” that operates on, within, and in dialogue with genre (16). Fragmentation as a deliberate technique, he argues, was modeled on and presaged by the fragmentation of extant works in anthologies going back to the sixteenth century, and arose in response to a complex series of theoretical, historical, and poetic challenges (17–21). Fragmentary composition engaged with contemporary poetic discourses, especially those around organicity, historicity, and the sublime, in profound and dynamic ways. Most essentially, fragmentary composition suggested a practical formulation of the problem of part and whole that troubled the orderly subordination of the one to the other demanded by Augustan poetics. The drama of the fragment enacted what he sees as the era’s central problems: “Writers frequently voiced anxieties about personal and national identity, as well as the feared breakdown of the social order, through modes of incompleteness and ambiguity, emphasizing the fragmented and divided state of the cultural landscape of post-Union Britain” (13).

Jung’s method is not to focus solely on a few canonical authors, but to consider a range of “minor and major authors who experimented with the associations and implications of the fragmentary” (13). He organizes the majority of his argument typologically, looking first at the use of the Pindaric Ode as a template for composition. Beginning with Cowley’s “traductions” (1656), Jung shows how poets took up the “manner” of the Pindaric in a kind of strong misreading, which even as it misinterpreted the actual forms and structures of the Greek odes opened up new and productive methods of composition. “This definitional confusion facilitated an absorption of the term into a field of ‘popular’ poetics in which any poem, characterized by digression, fragmentariness, and sublimity, could be termed ‘Pindaric’” (27). For such poets as Edward Young, William Hamilton, David Mallet, James Scott, and Thomas Warton, the Pindaric manner provided a framework in which the fragmented mix of other genres, spontaneous orality, sublime excess, and digression could combine, in varying meters, in an organic whole.

Jung then turns to the eighteenth-century long poem and its relationship to the epic, which he sees as both recuperative and innovative. What seems to be the “failure” of the epic, exemplified by Cowley’s Davideis and Pope’s Brutus, is for Jung the beginning of its regenerative transformation in works such as Glover’s Leonidas and Pemberton’s Observations, culminating in Thomson’s The Seasons. “The long-poem [sic]. . . ,” he argues, “frequently adheres to the ideational search for completeness, representing man’s attempt to overcome postlapsarian fragmentariness, and in this search uses the fragmentary as a self-conscious device of discourse and reflection, rather than linear progression and action” (83). Fragmentation arises here in terms less of framing than of form; by way of digression and parataxis, fragmentation is used structurally to incorporate sublimity.

In a later chapter, Jung considers fragments both forged and historical—emblematic of the antiquarian turn toward Scottish and medieval oral traditions—in light of questions of national identity. Addressing first fragmentary forgeries and imitations of Spenser, he then turns to the recovery of primitive (and often spurious) fragments characterized by the work of MacPherson, Chatterton, Percy...


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