This essay begins to imagine a theory of difficulty grounded in Romantic poetry but broadly portable into other eras and forms. On my account, the difficult Romantic poem deflects attention by saying more or less what it means, especially when what it means is to condemn features of the historical present. That is, its rhetorical and moral simplicity is lodged in an obvious antagonism to the disconcerting, mostly equivocal moods by which it is also saturated; the result is a suite of contradictions and a strong cocktail of responsibility, self-exposure, commiseration, and very uneven commitment, all on exemplary display in William Cowper’s The Task, a reading of which concludes my discussion. On the way I work through two distinct but equally suggestive notions of difficulty, one phenomenological and the other embedded in questions of canon formation, with particular emphasis on how highly tendentious, hegemonic representations of Romanticism limit how we understand Romanticism’s impact on experimental poetics in the present.


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pp. 451-466
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