- Romantic Shades and Shadows by Susan J. Wolfson
To write is to address many audiences at once: those whom we might presently hope to charm, persuade, or rouse, and those whom, though absent, dead, or unavailable to us, we are compelled to call and recall, through images, words, and particles of sound. To read diligently is to attune the ear and eye to these ghostly echoes and allusions. Hence, criticism is a task of spectral imagination. This is the broad claim of Susan J. Wolfson's Romantic Shades and Shadows. Her book surveys "the apparitional semblances in verbal textures: chance associations, ruptures of logic, figural recurrences, and overproductions" that bind Romantic literature to its forebears and, in turn, cause Romanticism to echo through William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (p. 3). Such apparitions emerge not from calculated allusion, nor agonistic rivalry, but from a haunting that is inseparable from strenuous composition: an "irreparable literariness" that both evidences the "close, slow, careful" literary reading performed by the Romantics and demands it from their critics (p. 3).
To cast Romantic allusions and revisitings as shades and shadows might appear morose or even melancholic. But Wolfson's readings of William Wordsworth, William Hazlitt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats are executed with wit and evident enjoyment. There are phantoms of delight as well as gothic specters, and ghostly allusions are more likely to presage infectious punning than traumatic repetition. More generally, Romantic Shades and Shadows hovers between theme and method. On the one hand, it is a loose rubric for topics which range from the irremediable "apparition of name-words" (p. 59) in Wordsworth's autobiographical mode and "Byron's production of ghosts" in service of "the cultural phenomenon called 'Byronism'" (p. 124) to Hazlitt's almost-poetic reworkings of the poets, and Keats's and Shelley's respective ghostly traces in Yeats's verse and modern politics. On the other hand, Wolfson's hauntology is an argument about the historical and analytical methods of literary criticism. Seeing ghosts is a way to insist that there are "surplus energies of literature" that "won't be settled by paradigms of socio-cultural analysis" (p. 4) and to reframe literary historical detail as "the haunts of the present, lodged in books, with a potency of life" (p. 5). Early on, the book gestures to its own critical shades, Jerome J. McGann on one side, Jacques Derrida on the other, and ghostly reading might be understood as a method of extending the Romantic tradition of "close, slow, careful" reading while cutting out the commitment to writers as living subjects that appears in [End Page 197] their wake ideologically or metaphysically suspect (pp. 3–4). Although it does not make explicit mention, by falling for specters the book offers a possible answer to the paradox—or simply the libidinal bind—that Jane Gallop develops in a chapter title from Roland Barthes in the first chapter of her book, The Deaths of the Author (2011): "The Author Is Dead but I Desire the Author."
These methods fruitfully disrupt the standard periodization that Wolfson has elsewhere termed "Our Puny Boundaries" ("Our Puny Boundaries: Why the Craving to Carve Up the Nineteenth Century?," PMLA 116.5 : 1432–41). Her fourth chapter, "Shelley's Phantoms of the Future in 1819," introduces the political landscape of that year in a way indistinguishable from our present moment. The chapter traces historical and literary echoes and repetitions, from Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy (written 1819, published 1832) to The Cenci (1819), and from England in 1819 to Karl Marx in 1848 and Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. Much of the chapter's persuasive force comes from its structure, which turns not on chronology but on something like Wai Chee Dimock's notion of trans-historical "resonance" ("A Theory of Resonance," PMLA 112.5 : 1060–71). Wolfson's Keats/Yeats chapter is an exercise in finely tuned and inventive listening across time and space. Her Byron chapter exemplifies rigorous attention to rhyme. Above all, the book shines...