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  • Romanticism and Consciousness Once More
  • William Galperin (bio)

Having very recently contributed to a special journal issue on "What's Next for Jane Austen," which involved, for my part, an Austen redo based on two fragments, The Watsons and Sanditon, that bracket her achievement while also moving in quite different directions, there is the temptation, responding to this call, to rush to the margins once more: from the neglected writings of the usual authors, to the great or generative work of neglected writers, to issues, interests, methods, and discourses that are shaping the discipline at large which are not marginal so much as a reminder that a received sense of a period or movement will someday find itself in receivership.1 The "future of Romantic studies" has long been something of a redundancy, beginning with the field's formation (more or less) in the mid-twentieth century, when the field's future and that of literary studies (in the wake of the New Criticism) were generally in lockstep. Romantic studies, or so it seemed, were something transformative, starting with the pathway "beyond formalism" (commemorated in an English Institute volume Romanticism Reconsidered) and transitioning rather rapidly to deconstruction, where "a literary or poetic consciousness" was a "privileged" formation in which "an intent at demystification… consciously present in the mind of the [End Page 107] author" was "naturally coextensive with the function of the critic."2 These are Paul de Man's words, which he used to describe a practice that will be familiar to many of us and that he saw as "dangerous" in part because it bootstraps his method of rhetorical reading to a phenomenology, an intersubjectivity, in which the "void" that "poetic language names with ever-renewed understanding" (as he put it) is largely appropriated.3 What de Man doesn't emphasize, however, is that this dangerous criticism describes an "understanding" to which language is necessarily incorporated (and vice versa), both in the practices he warns against and in the practice that, on his example, stands as a warning: a "consciousness," in short, to which all comers in Romantic studies—from deconstruction, to historicism, to affect studies—have ultimately paid their respects.

Romanticists are no longer issuing marching orders to the discipline at large as they did in that heady interval from 1960–1990. But the doublet—"Romanticism and Consciousness"—seems as relevant today as it did all those years ago, if only because the representation of a consciousness, an understanding, whether in a Romantic poem or through free-indirect discourse, or through some predicament of language, or through some enigmatic signal or message that literature registers, gets at two fundamental aspects of period-based writing that are unavoidable: an awareness that is necessarily particularized and an abiding sense that this particularization marks a difference that, while not necessarily exclusive or even true, is for the moment, and at ground zero (as it were), irreducible. When Wordsworth exclaims "the difference to me" or is struck dumb by the "rocks and stones and trees" in two lyrics written at virtually the same time, he is neither an apogee of transparency nor the progenitor of an egotistical sublime. He is a "consciousness" in a form that is indisputably authentic—at least in the act of reading. [End Page 108]

William Galperin

William Galperin is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and the author, most recently, of The History of Missed Opportunities: British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday (2017).


1. William Galperin, "The Counterfactual Austen," TSLL 61.4 (2019), 362–77.

2. Romanticism Reconsidered: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. Northrop Frye (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968); Paul de Man, "Criticism and Crisis," in Blindness and Insight, ed. Wlad Godzich, rev. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 14.

3. de Man, "Criticism and Crisis," 14, 18.



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