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  • Remarks on Romantic Reading
  • Emily Sun (bio)

In 1908–9, Wang Guowei, little known in the West but often considered the most important literary critic and theorist of the modern Chinese era, published a slim volume of poetic criticism, Renjian cihua (Comments on Ci Poetry in the World of Men).1 He advanced there his theory of jingjie, a term that has been variously translated into English as "world," "realm," "aesthetic realm," or rendered simply in its foreignness as jingjie.2 Insofar as jingjie is a condition that does [End Page 178] not pre-exist a poem but depends upon the poem for its coming-into-being, I prefer the approximation "aesthetic realm" for its clarifying service. In Wang's analysis, ci poetry of the tenth century, from the end of the Tang to the Song dynasty, is distinguished by its capacity to produce an aesthetic realm that involves, but is not limited to, the evocation of natural scenery and objects. By means of the evocation of such external realia, the poem produces an aesthetic realm capable of conveying inflections of human emotions and feelings that may not otherwise find expression—utterances that may be evaluated in terms ranging from the vulgarity of mechanical replication to the elegance of singularizing nuance.

While the poems Wang analyzed were from premodern China, his methods derived from European modernity and were influenced, in particular, by Kant's aesthetics and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche's thinking on the will and the drives.3 Wang's critical reading of premodern Chinese texts can be seen, in this sense, as a Romantic or postRomantic reading that positions itself in relation to the aesthetic turn, and project of aesthetic education, of European modernity, activating the latter's promise, rather than imposition, of universality.


In 1816, John Keats wrote the sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," another example of Romantic reading that makes use of the notion of aesthetic realms. The metaphor of reader as maritime traveler in the octave implicitly brings together the waters around the "western islands" already familiar to the speaker with the "wide expanse" of the Mediterranean (ll.3-5).4 The similes of the sestet move into yet wider expanses: an oceanic sky wherein a new planet may "swim," and the Darien peak upon which Keats famously substitutes Cortés for Balboa in staring at the Pacific (ll.10-14). Previous generations teaching the poem tended to place the accent on the mediated nature of Keats's access to Homer. In 2020, one may [End Page 179] find oneself emphasizing rather the mediating importance of another text: Robertson's late eighteenth-century History of America, and the New World narrative it tells in which Western Europe traces its Old World descent from the ancient Mediterranean.5 With a certain naïve complicity, Keats avails himself of a geographical imaginary that bespeaks the biases of post-Napoleonic British maritime power.

But the sonnet also does something else. It performs a specifically poetic action irreducible to the received historical narrative that organizes its scenery. The transition from octave to sestet, besides moving from Europe to America, also moves from outside to inside, and in doing so allegorizes the poem's own coming-into-being. Line eight figures the experience of reading Chapman's Homer in auditory terms, an event of hearing that generates in the sestet the pair of similes that condition the imagination of other scenes. The silence with which the poem ends re-enacts the silence expressed in the volta before the temporally deictic "then" with which poetic speech begins anew. The sonnet as a whole allegorizes how it produces in the sestet an aesthetic realm where what is staged is the encounter with the speechless unknowingness that resides in and moves poetic speech itself.6


In 2020, now more than ever, Eurocentric accounts of the New World and world history itself are being put into question. The field of Romanticism has been reckoning for several decades now with the extent to which the blindnesses and elisions of such accounts inform the misreading that also accompanies Romantic reading. In the early twentieth century, as China underwent...


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