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Romanticism Reconfigured: A Preliminary Listing

- Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson


In the process of composing a book of romantic & postromantic poetry & with an eye on the continuities & differences from the modern & postmodern present, the field before us has opened to include the following, sometimes contradictory definitions & characteristics of romanticism, both the  poetry & the identity & function of the poet.

– A first challenge to closure, as regards both form and content (conventional/inherited truths), and the beginnings of an “open poetry”; thus Schlegel (Atheneum Fragment 116), that the “particular essence” of romantic poetry is “that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.”  Or Blake: “Poetry Fetter’d Fetters the Human Race.” 

– A conscious emphasis on defamiliarization, what Novalis signals when he writes: “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics.”  Or Coleridge: “The common end of all narrative, nay of all, Poems is … to make those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a circular motion – the snake with its Tail in its Mouth.”  (Letter to Joseph Cottle, 1815)

-- A foregrounding of emotions, feelings, and perceptions in the act of composition, not in any loose sense but as process and experiment (Wordsworth’s term in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads), not against but in the line of Enlightenment and neoclassical emphases on rationality and logic.  Offshoots of this concern are Wordsworth’s “poem on the growth of the poet’s mind” (The Prelude) and the writings of a wide range of poets concerned with alternative states of mind from dreaming and fantasizing to mystical and psychedelic forms of experience (Coleridge, Nerval, Büchner, De Quincy).  Romanticism in this sense features nascent forms of the “unconscious” (a term likely coined by Thomas DeQuincey).

– The poet as visionary / seer (voyant) and poetry as a vision-making or vision-recording activity, what Breton called “a sacred action,” though practiced most often in a secular context (what Thomas Carlyle famously termed “natural supernaturalism”).  As an act or strategy of composition we would tie this to Shelley’s redefinition of poetry as “vitally metaphorical” – an instrument therefore in the search, now renewed, for “the before unapprehended relations of things.”

– Along with this, the poet as a conduit for other voices, as in Whitman’s call for a “song of myself” that includes a multitude of other selves, or, where it exists, an attempt to bring excluded classes and orders of being into the mix of poetic voices and experiences.  This in turn is a force behind an emerging ethnopoetics, which is itself, though not under that name, an innovation of the Romantic and postromantic nineteenth century.  Texts in dialect and texts transcribed or translated from oral sources can, then, also be seen as an important part of our gathering.

– An erasure of the boundaries between poetry and other forms of composition and speculation – often to be noted in the works of Goethe or in Poe’s booklength “prose poem” Eureka.  With this, as in the fragments (epigrams) of Novalis and Schlegel, comes a push toward “a new mode of writing that would combine literary, critical, and theoretical discourse” (but philosophy and science as well) as a kind of mischgedicht (poem of mixed means).  And that mode in turn is reflective of a new era of genre mixing and crossing, operative in all arts from then to now. 

– At its finest, a poetry that allows for a guiding principle of uncertainty, for which Keats’s “negative capability” serves as a working model: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”: a phrase picked up by many radical and experimental twentieth-century poets.  Along with this comes a foregrounding, where possible, of “romantic irony,” as it relates to techniques of defamiliarization and moves toward what Jean Paul posited as the “humoristic” in romantic thought and writing.

– Alongside the celebration of beauty (both “intellectual” and physical), a recurring exploration of the ugly and the grotesque, taken to extremes that will continue and intensify over the coming two centuries.  Pushing past the more rarefied sublime (“the tempestuous loveliness of terror” – Shelley), with its sources in the neoplatonic past, there is a desire to bring to surface what has been suppressed and outcast (Whitman) – outside the realm of the simply beautiful.  The contraries of “beauty” and “ugliness,”  like “good” and “evil” in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven & Hell, come together in a renewed meeting and clash of opposites.  (On the road too to Tzara’s pairing of “intensity” and “disgust” as primary Dada [modern and postmodern] values.)

– In the religious sphere, a calling into question of traditional religious forms, as in Victor Hugo’s multiphasic recastings in his monumental Dieu, Goethe’s probings into Islam, or Shelley’s defense of atheism alongside his defense of poetry.  At one extreme a line from Jean Paul to Nerval and Nietzsche explores the image of “the death of God,” which the nineteenth-century writer Charles Nodier called “the most daring idea of the Romantic spirit”; at another poets like Hopkins in England and Norwid in Poland make new approaches to deity through radical recastings of language itself. 

– Alongside romantic ideas of fancy and fantasy, an emergence of a new realism: a poetry of “minute particulars” (Blake) and an attention to the details of the (physical/social) everyday world.  Nature as a central, even a spiritual, value leads through Rousseau, Goethe, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and others to the concern with wilderness and ecology in twentieth-century poetry.  Indeed, we stress not the antagonism between poetry and realism or poetry and science, but that for some writers presented here poetry and science are complementary manifestations of an inquiry into the natural world and our relationship to it.

– A heightened sense of the transgressive set against an officially sanctioned ethos of gentility and conformity.  The contents of a significant body of poetry open on areas that are increasingly subversive, sexual, or blasphemous, from De Sade and Blake in the 1790s, through Shelley, Hugo, Jean Paul, Baudelaire, Whitman, and Nietzsche, among a host of others.  This marks the surfacing of the outrider tradition (A. Waldman) and the poète maudit in postromanticism and modernism.

 – A widespread experience of exile – forced or voluntary – that affected a large number of the poets gathered herein, as marker of a new-found location (dislocation) at the margins or in the “creases” (R. Schechner) of their respective worlds.  Sometimes a result of the transgressive/subversive nature of their writings (above), it surfaces as an away-from-homeness in the works and lives of poets such as Heine, Mickiewicz, Byron, Pushkin, Norwid, Beddoes, Rimbaud, and with it a (liminal) sense of writing between languages and cultures.  (For which, see Pierre Joris’s advocacy of a “nomadic poetics” or Schiller’s early account of the Romantics as “exiles longing for a homeland.”)

– An accelerated change in the notion of what a poem can be, going from Blake’s illuminated poems in the early years of the century to Mallarmé’s Coup de dès at the very end.  Among the changes in form are the following:

                    : irregular forms and radical transformations of poetic genres (odes, experimental sonnets, sprung rhythm, etc.) and early free verse, not only as these appear in Blake, Mallarmé, and Whitman, but Goethe, Hopkins, and, premeditated or not, in the “palimpsests” of Hõlderlin.

                    : prose as a medium for poetry, involving both the development of the prose poem and, after the fact, writings in prose that share the dynamic character of the new poetry; experiments, therefore, not only in poetic form but in the sentence and the paragraph: the essay, the aphorism, the spontaneous notebook entry (cf. Dorothy Wordsworth, Joseph Joubert, but also Coleridge, Hopkins, et al.), and the nineteenth-century poetic and even political/social manifesto. 

                    : The fragment as a conscious poetic form, significant enough for Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy to write: “Indeed the fragment [… the genre in which the Jena romantics’ best-known texts are written, the genre that has become almost inevitably associated with their name …] is the romantic genre par excellence.”

                    : Improvisation and performance poetry, as a goal or ideal more than a realization, e.g. in poems around the Italian figure of the “Improvisatore” by Byron, Coleridge, Beddoes, and De Stael.

                    : Approaches to what would later emerge as sound poetry, most notably among the British non-sense poets Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, but also in the glossolalia and glossographia of the American Shakers and in the occasional works of writers such as Lafcadio Hearn and August Strindberg.  Sound, in workings such as these, does not serve “meaning,” but travels beyond meaning’s precincts.

                    : Experiments with dialect (Burns, Scott, Hebel, Belli, et al.) and with a gradual turning to the demotic in general (as in Wordsworth’s search for a poetry written in “a selection of the language really spoken by men”).  With this too a concurrent demand for the rights to practice an idiolect, a personal dialect and syntax, whether spoken or written.

                    : experiments in verbal/visual interaction that would include the plates or “visionary forms dramatic” of Blake, the Caprichos with accompanying texts of Goya, and the illustrated nonsense poems of Edward Lear.


[From Poems for the Millennium, volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg & Jeffrey Robinson, scheduled for publication in January 2009.]


Jerome Rothenberg & Jeffrey Robinson


[This article can also be found on Jerome Rothenberg's new web-blog for poetry and poetics entitled:



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