- Form in the Context of History and Other Meaningful Structures
I was recently reminded of that old adage of Pope's—in poetry, "The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense"—and of the long critical tradition of taking this to mean that form (diction, syntax, meter, rhyme, etc.) ought to reflect and amplify meaning.1 Form should reinforce content, or so it seems.2 But in a burgeoning of new work on how form itself means, whatever normative hierarchy echoic form might entail has been reworked along the lines of an appropriately radical attentiveness to motion and matter. In this new scholarship, the diversity of form's animating, galvanizing potential (and not just in poetry) license interest in the causes (absent or otherwise) and effects of form's powerful enmeshments. By enmeshment I mean that form doesn't often escape content or context in these new approaches, and that when it does it risks ceasing to mean anything altogether. What seem to me the most promising recent approaches to form attend to the particularities of history and authorship, while thinking too in terms of other meaningful structures: models of self-making or becoming; philosophies of language; theories of relationality or subjectivity; studies of mediation and material history; dynamics of environment, network, and niche.
Perhaps such an approach is not new but rather newly essential. It is, after all, the kind of thinking that propelled Edward Said's decadeslong interest in the "late style" of Theodor Adorno, whose hermetic, intractable prose, argues Said, stalls the negative dialectical engine that had always powered Adorno's critiques. Said regards Adorno's late style as "injecting Marxism with a vaccine so powerful as to dissolve its agitational force almost completely. Not only do the notions of advance and culmination in Marxism crumble under his rigorous negative scorn, but so too does anything that suggests movement at all."3 That late style stymies and stutters reveals the affective and political [End Page 141] ("agitational") force of one meaningful structure (the dialectic) in tension with rhetorical and expressive forms that are both uniquely individual (idiosyncratic!) and historical. To be "late" is, in part, to sidestep the norms through which certain forms resonate in their own time. Said's insight about timeliness reinforces the value of thinking historically about form without treating form as merely fodder for the discoveries about history that form can also afford.
When it comes to the pressing issues of the next decade, Romanticists are well-positioned to continue exploring how form itself means in light of history and other meaningful structures. This includes those structures with which we have longstanding critical relationships (like dialectics) as well as those with which we are still becoming acquainted (here's looking at you, systems theory). For our scholarly engagements with the second-generation Romantic poets, form's timeliness has been, and will continue to be, an especially evocative site of inquiry, into which we might bring these new approaches to form in creative and undoubtedly generative ways.
Carmen Faye Mathes is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Regina whose book project, on provocative poetic forms, is very nearly finished.
1. Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism," in The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. E. Audra and Aubrey Williams, 11 vols. (London: Methuen, 1961), I, line 365. Emphasis in original.
2. For an authoritative reconsideration of this assumption, see Courtney Weiss Smith, "The Matter of Language; or, What Does 'The Sound Must Seem an Eccho to the Sense' Mean?" ELH 87.1 (Spring 2020), 39–64.
3. Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (Vintage, 2007), 14.