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do we think we see when we look at the ±°s and its cultural work in
England? The years following the restoration of the thrones of Europe “
a settlement orchestrated by England “ have all but sunk from sight so far
as English cultural consciousness is concerned. If remembered at all, they
commonly de¬ne a dismal point of contrast with the earlier phases of
triumphant Romanticism. At best we track a series of wounded beasts “
the failures or madnesses of Darley, Beddoes, Clare. For the rest, critics
simply shut the book of a Romanticism that seemed to translate itself into
a commercialized nightmare: the new craze for Gift Books and Annuals
like Friendship™s Offering, The Keepsake, Forget-Me-Not. Literary history averts
its gaze from this spectacle “ there is scarcely a better word for the scene “
because culture cannot easily capitalize its values. It seems an elegant
 Byron and Romanticism
dumpheap of factitious and overpriced trash “ poor imitations of the life
of the great Romantics.±
That aversion is a negative sign of a version of literary history “ what
Benjamin called the victor™s version. It is the version that wants to distin-
guish sharply between documents of civilization “ High Romanticism,
so-called “ and documents of barbarism “ the gilded poetry and silver-
fork novels of the ±°s and ±°s. But suppose one were to read the lite-
rature of the ±°s as a critical re¬‚ection on its Romantic inheritance.
Writers like Hemans, Clare, Landon, Beddoes, Stoddart “ to name a
few representative ¬gures “ might tell a story of the death of the beauty
that Romanticism created. Romantic nature is a cultural account of the
biological order of things. The “meaning” it ascribes to this order is per-
petual development and growth: in Wordsworth™s classic formulation,
“something evermore about to be.” Such a vision translates “death”
back into a phase or moment of a benevolent or splendid process of life.
The period of the ±°s presents a serious problem for (Romantic)
literary history just because it appears to violate, in historical fact, this
deep cultural myth of Romanticism. A Romantic agony begins when
things of beauty do not appear joys forever “ when no “abundant
recompense” appears to balance the costs of Romantic commitments.
Keats, Wordsworth™s immediate inheritor, reveals and undergoes that
agony. Of course he does so completely against his will, as it were. He
wants nothing more than the joys of beauty and the realms of gold. What
he keeps discovering, however, are pale kings and beautiful, merciless
ladies: death that is deathless, true, but terrible for that very reason “
death that is hardly endurable, and ranged with a beauty that must die
not in a benevolent order of nature but in the gorgeous palaces of art, as
Lamia shows.
In “The Fall of Hyperion” Keats announces this death in speciously
heroic tones: “deathwards progressing / To no death was that visage.”
“Beyond that” shattered splendor with its pale vision of “the lily and
the snow,” Keats says simply, “I must not think.” Beyond it lies the one
story no Romantic poet wants to tell: the story of the death of art and
culture. But the poets of the ±°s followed Keats (and Byron) to explore
this “latest dream” dreamt on the cold hillsides of Romanticism. In
Tennyson™s ± book of Poems “ and perhaps most memorably in works
like “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Palace of Art” “ this Romantic
death appears to discover a new mode of expression, a form in which
the death of art could itself be laid to rest. And at that point a corner
had been turned. A Victorian corner.

Rethinking Romanticism

III

I hope I shall not be misunderstood. The Romantic Ideology was read and
criticized by some as a kind of debunking maneuver because of its an-
tithetical readings of celebrated Romantic passages and works.±· To the
extent that such texts had been turned into idols of a Romantic cave,
it might have appeared that I was trying to write them off the cultural
scene. But the move was strictly a dialectical one “ ultimately, an effort
at a historical reimagining of Romanticism through an exposure of its
concealed, sometimes even repressed, dialogical discourse. We do not
debunk “Tintern Abbey” by sketching its sublimely egotistical projec-
tion of a sibling relationship; that relationship, cruel and benevolent at
once, is one of the most powerful vehicles for the poem™s structure of
feelings.
Traditional critics have executed similar “debunkings” of Romanti-
cism™s celebrated works “ most famously, I suppose, of Byron™s “Fare
Thee Well!” Nor is it entirely mistaken to argue, as Wordsworth and
others would do, that Byron™s poem to his wife is maudlin doggerel.
Byron™s poem is no less riven by contradictions than Wordsworth™s, only
in Byron™s case the poem™s cruelty is being carried by a deliberate mask
of benevolence. Its doggerel, so-called, is merely the clearest stylistic
signal of the poem™s masquerade. Unlike Wordsworth, who pursues a
style of sincerity and “ in “Tintern Abbey” “ comes (forward) to believe
in his own benevolence toward his sister, Byron in “Fare Thee Well!”
writes a rhetorical and quite insincere poem. The work is self-conscious
and duplicitous just where Wordsworth™s poem is honest and unselfcon-
scious. The ultimate (and untranscended) contradiction of Byron™s poem
is that its own awareness of contradiction does not entail an intellectual
or moral Aufhebung “ either for Byron as poet or for his readers. Byron™s
poem offers up to view “ for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear “ a
vision of ultimate contradiction. The paradoxical result gives yet another
turn to the screw of Romantic contradiction: Byron™s Faustian discovery
that truth is unredemptive. In Manfred™s famous lament: “The Tree of
Knowledge is not that of Life.”±
ANNE MACK. Beauty as death, truth as insecure. You tell a bleak story.
R O M E . Perhaps it seems bleak because we so often take for truth what is
JAY
actually Romantic hypothesis: that poetry, or art, will ¬ll the void left by
the previous hypothesis of Enlightenment. Romanticism is the battery of
tests that the movement applied to its own ideological positions. Tennyson
appears the sign of a new epoch because of the way he responded to the
µ° Byron and Romanticism
famous challenge put to him by his friend Trench: “Tennyson, we cannot
live in art.”
A N N E M A C K . Well, he responded “ for example in “The Palace of Art” “ by
arguing that beauty and deep feeling could not substitute for faith “ any
more than reason and enlightenment could. The Victorians are obses-
sed with the question of faith, religious as well as secular. Aesthetically
absorbed, lacking either “honest doubt” or religious commitment, the Soul
presiding in the Palace of Art is weighed and found wanting. Nonetheless,
Tennyson™s poem does not repudiate beauty and its palace:

Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built.
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt.
(“)±

That ¬nal play on the word “guilt” tells it all. The problem lies not in
beauty and splendor as such but in the Soul™s impurity. This poem stands
exactly in the Keatsian tradition we glimpsed earlier “ the line that passes
into the “lightly, beautifully built” silver and gilded writing of the ±°s.
If Tennyson turns a corner on Romanticism, it is a backward turning, an
effort to recover a puri¬ed and “purged” ideal.
R O M E . True, but that program of correction transforms Romanticism into
JAY
something entirely new. We see this change clearly, I think, at the end of
“The Lady of Shalott” when Lancelot muses over the lady™s dead body.
The poem is famous as an allegory of the death of Romantic imagination.
Paradoxically, however, nothing becomes this lady™s life like the leaving it.
Hers is an active death (“Singing in her song she died”), a deliberate move
to terminate her ineffectually angelic life. Never had her social agency
been more powerful than at the moment her corpse was carried into the
heart of Camelot. “Knight and burgher, lord and dame” are terri¬ed that
a glory has passed from the earth. For his part, Lancelot reads the scene
more calmly.

He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
At their simplest “ which is not their least important “ level, the lines make
an explicit plea for a grace beyond the reach of art. The prayer to God
stands as an objective sign that this is a religious grace, something available
through faith alone, not works. Also important is the logic (as it were) of
Lancelot™s thought. His prayer comes as if the lady™s beauty were in need
of God™s mercy and grace. Her loveliness therefore suggests as well a kind
of “fatal gift,” the sign of something problematic lying at the heart of her
poetical character.
µ±
Rethinking Romanticism
ANNE MACK. And yet Tennyson™s poem is not savage or tense like equivalent
texts in Keats and Byron, or mordantly devalued like the poetry of Landon
or Stoddart.
J A Y R O M E . The ¬‚at tone is unmistakable Tennyson “ the sign of poetry af-
fecting an absence of anxiety. The general populace reads the lady™s face
with fear, but Lancelot, the text™s point of departure, remains undisturbed.
Tennyson has unburdened his poem of the Romantic task of salvation.
That task is returned to God. Beauty therefore emerges here as a device
for clarifying vision. It makes no gestures toward an equivalent truth we
might imagine it to symbolize. The poem is allegorical and decorative from
the outset. As a result, the meaning of the poem, like the meaning of the
lady™s death, becomes, as it were, what you will. The poem is not imag-
ined as a deep source from which we might draw life or faith. Romantic
poems are organized in those ways, Tennyson™s poem is different. Like the
Lady of Shalott herself, it looks outward to its readers, without whom it
cannot live or imagine living. It is, in short, a consciously social poem. It
is Victorian.
The poem™s ornamentality therefore marks its distance from a Roman-
tic mode of address, where sincerity and personal feeling are paramount.
Flaunting its arti¬ce, Tennyson™s poetry wears mortality on its face. Such
annunciations of beauty, as Keats and Byron predicted, retreat from imag-
inations of transcendence. Beauty appears the sign of what is mortal.
Gendered female, as in the poetry of Landon, such beauty and arti¬ce
come as ¬gures of deceit and betrayal. Tennyson studied Landon and her
immediate precursors, Keats and Byron, in order to reimagine those dan-
gerous fatalities of beauty. But Tennyson takes his poetry™s decorative forms
to an extreme, paradoxically, in order to lower the temperature of the verse.
The lady of Shalott™s face is “lovely” and that is all. It has not launched a
thousand ships or burnt the topless towers of Ilium. The citizens of Camelot
are needlessly frightened. The poetry invites the reader to approach the
poetry as Lancelot approaches the body of the lady: not struck with fear
or wonder, but bearing a blessing that clari¬es the situation by restoring its
ethical and religious dimensions.
A N N E M A C K . To me that placid surface is little more than a seductive deception.
After all, this is Lancelot commenting on her beauty. If the death of this lady
does not forecast the destruction of Camelot, that ruin appears in the
depthless eyes of her beholder. The word “grace,” in Lancelot™s young
mouth, is a sexist “ indeed, a necrophiliac “ word. Lancelot ultimately
blasphemes with the word since his usage translates it into a purely formal
and decorative meaning.
You™re seduced by Lancelot and by Tennyson™s beguiling surfaces, and
you™re even making us forget our real subject, the problem of periodiza-
tion. When I cut through all this talk of Tennyson I ¬nd you arguing a
position far removed from those dialogical modes of literary history you
were celebrating a little while ago.
µ Byron and Romanticism
JAY ROME. Not so far removed. When I was talking about the poetry of the
±°s and the New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, my thoughts inevitably
went to Tennyson. His early work re¬‚ects and responds to the writing of
the ±°s. The last two poems in the New Oxford Book will be “The Lady of
Shalott” and “The Palace of Art.”
A N N E M A C K . Exactly. You end the collection with an editorial move that con-
structs a mastering (and worse still, a secret) historical narrative about
Romanticism. So much for all that talk about a dialogical literary history.
J A Y R O M E . Where™s the secret? I™m talking about it now, and it™s explicitly
present in the Introduction to the collection. It™s not a secret simply because
it™s represented in a non-narrativized form. As I said before, we know how
to read the grammar of anthologies.
A N N E M A C K . Alright, let™s call it an oblique rather than a secret history.
J A Y R O M E . Fine. Tell the truth but tell it slant.
A N N E M A C K . Secret, oblique, slant “ whatever. It™s a master narrative, isn™t it?
You begin and end your collection in a certain way, like Yeats in his Oxford
Book of Modern Verse. Those beginnings and endings constrain the material
to particular historical meanings. When you stop your collection with those
two Tennyson poems, you want us to imagine the end of Romanticism at
that point, don™t you? And you organize the anthology so that those two
poems will come in with maximum effect in terms of the historical tale
you™re telling. “Obliquely,” and so for maximum effect.
J A Y R O M E . Yes, that™s true. But those two ¬nal poems have an authority of
their own. They don™t have to mean what I take them to mean. I might
even change my mind about them. And didn™t you just ¬‚ing your different
readings in my face a moment ago? Poems don™t have to follow party lines.
Besides, you™re discounting the formal inertia of the anthology, which is
a collection of materials “ in this case, evidence of what took place in the
Romantic period. The evidence is organized to construct an argument for
a certain narrative. But it™s not a narrative itself. It™s more like a building,
or a picture.
A N N E M A C K . And all sorts of evidence is left out.
J A Y R O M E . Of course, the book has its limits. What most attracts me to the
anthology form “ I speak from a literary historical point of view “ is the
prima facie character of those limits. “Heard melodies are sweet but those
unheard / Are sweeter still.” Isn™t that always the case? An anthology is
the very emblem of Derrida™s “supplement of reading.” It solicits revision,
supplementation “ it solicits your critique.
A N N E M A C K . The devil can quote scripture to his own purpose.
J A Y R O M E . Who™s the devil here, me or you? At any rate, you™re the one playing
the devil™s advocate. If I™m the devil, it™s you who take my part. I like spirits
of negation. They™re really just angels in dark clothes, aren™t they?
A N N E M A C K . You can™t seriously want the negation or disproof of your own
views.
µ
Rethinking Romanticism
JAY ROME. You™re wrong, I really will settle for nothing less. Because I can™t
negate my views myself. I want to see the other side of my world. How did
Tennyson put it:
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.
(± “)
The second voyage of Ulysses, that™s what I want. But I can™t go by myself.
So can you take me there? Do you know a way?

NOTES

± Rene Wellek, “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary Scholarship,” in
Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, ±; originally
printed in Comparative Literature, ± [±], ± “, ±·“±·), ±±.
 For good surveys of these events see Jon Klancher, “English Romanticism
and Cultural Production,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser
(London: Routledge, ±), ··“; and Marjorie Levinson™s two essays in
Rethinking Historicism, “Introduction,” and “Rethinking Historicism: Back to
the Future” (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, ±), ± “±·, ±“. For this essay I
have adapted the title of Levinson™s collection.
 See, for example, M. H. Abrams. Natural Supernaturalism (New York: W. W.
Norton, ±·±); and Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company (Garden City:
Doubleday, ±±).
 Though the work of various recent critics might be instanced here, I cite
particularly Peter W. Graham, Don Juan and Regency England (Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, ±°), and the recent work of Peter Manning
(see the essays on Byron collected in his Reading Romantics. Texts and Contexts
(New York: Oxford University Press, ±°), especially “Don Juan and Byron™s
Imperceptiveness to the English Word,” ±±µ“±). Jerome Christensen has
been writing superbly on Byron for several years, and his work is be-
ing gathered in that excellent study Lord Byron™s Strength: Romantic Writing
and Commercial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ±).

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