- The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry Since 1900 by Michael O’Neill
The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 is a monograph on the teasing subject of what influence the Romantic poets had on their Modernist brethren. It is a particularly teasing question since many Modernist writers flatly denied that they were influenced by the Romantics. There have been numerous publications in this field and hence O’Neill’s well-researched addition ploughs a mixture of virgin [End Page 213] and cultivated turf. For instance, the metaphor of all-sustaining air links Yeatsian fish gasping on the Modernist strand to Crane’s ‘the visionary company of love, its voice/An instant in the wind.’ Both quotations are well known references to Modernist belatedness; however, O’Neill adds an unexpected twist of newness by pointing out that the phrase derives from Asia’s atheistic comment in Prometheus Unbound that love like ‘the all-sustaining air […] makes the reptile equal to the God.’ Shelley’s phrase proleptically combines Platonic transcendence with downbeat Darwinism, an apt metaphor to describe Modernist ambiguity with reference to Romantic forbearers.
It is as well to get what Michael O’Neill’s book is not out of the way first. He does not offer a proposed psychological mechanism as an insight into how literary influence occurs in the same way that Bloom supposes that the relaxation of active repression allows echoes to sublime into post-Romantic verse. Nor does he break the butterfly of individual allusions on the wheel of historical determinism in the way that Blake’s Orc cycle dominates Bloom’s The Visionary Company (1961), where the failed career of Napoleon acts as a generalised allegory for the Romantic dilemma. Thus, there is no attempt to offer an all-encompassing historical narrative that links individual responses to such cataclysmic events as the two world wars and the rise and fall of fascism and communism. O’Neill dismisses Bloom’s theories as Oedipal; therefore, he calls his book post-Bloomian and, presumably, does so, on the strength of Ricks’s criticism that we are victimised by Bloom’s sub-parricidal, melodramatic rhetorical flourishes. He suggests that influence involves interplay between indebtedness and individuation, which is not necessarily a joust between male egos (although there are a great many more masculine voices present in his orchestra of literary echoes than feminine ones). Rather than mere anxiety, a later poet feels the acknowledgement of admiration. The result is a tissue of verbal correspondences that endows the reader with an overwhelming sense of O’Neill’s erudition and fine eye (or should this be ear) for echo-detection. We must not forget that there are many who ridicule the idea that such aesthetic endeavour is worthwhile or in fact possible. The Manichean opposite of Michael O’Neill is the sceptical thesis that just because a line in a later poem sounds exactly alike to an earlier one in terms of mutual similarity of rhythm, alliteration, assonance and topic, this does not mean that said convergence actually has to be directly influential.
The chapter on Yeats starts with a pithy definition of Romantic poetry as a ‘struggle between poetic desire and recalcitrant reality’. O’Neill redefines Yeatsian reality as something that swithers between a glance at a would-be un-illusioned Modernism and the quasi-occult sense of the real, because, as Yeats says, ‘art / Is but a vision of reality.’ Art is therefore the movement of self-creation; a self-fashioning conceived as a conscious effort to ‘imagine ourselves as different from what we are,’ and thus to move against the grain of what is thought to be natural. O’Neill thus favours Yeats’s heroic condition, the active virtue that fights for imaginative life, over Freud’s insistence on the failure of the sovereign ego ‘to exercise mastery over its own household’. Yeats...