ENGLISH 400/425 (Fall 2001)

Critical Theory & Romantic Poetics:

Blake in Context

Professor Mark Lussier



From Kant to Coleridge


            I “feel” as though we’ve lost a considerable amount of time during the past week. However, when I review the amount of reading already completed, when I read your responses to the material, or when I ponder the shift to Blake and beyond, I find much to be pleased with thus far. Today’s lecture represents the fusion of two separately prepared lectures, which I’ve sutured together in the last 48 hours, and my hope is to move rapidly through Kant to Coleridge in our critical reading, while addressing parallel concerns flowing through the assigned reading from Blake. And so, the passage will be rapid (hopefully not rabid) but at least half of the material should be familiar to you. And now, it’s off to work we go.

            As your editor Richter suggests, the shift from mimetic (bodied forth in my lectures as the symbolism of the ‘mirror’) to expressive criticism (a psychological depth model involving functions of mind and its ex-pression) occurs with the advent of what we now call ‘the Romantic movement’ in Europe. To make complete sense of this shift, I will once again turn back, briefly, to John Locke’s views of mental functions (‘human understanding’), to connect directly to both Kant and Blake. When Locke asserts the tabula rasa or ‘blank slate’, he internalizes the Newtonian mechanical metaphor, applying it to the ‘sensorium’ of the mind. As well, Locke believed that only two types of information formed our ideas: sensations and self-contemplation. Locke views mind as a computer programmed with simple ideas and vast memory (well, the RAM speed for this biological computer is rather slow as we know [CT 315-6]). A strong dualism emerges from this view of mind’s interactions with matter; a radical disjuncture occurs between psyche and physicality. Locke’s views resonate quite well with those held by Rene Descartes (the author of the cogito credo: “I think, therefore, I am”), yet the importance placed on self-contemplation leads to Blake’s argument that we become lost or captured by the images seen in that self-contemplating mirror of self-consciousness.

One could argue that this dualism has always been present in the classical criticism. After all, Plato posits an ideal realm of eternal, absolute essence, and Aristotle’s analysis of physis, like his analysis of poetics, systematically anatomizes material by mentality. As the Platonic and Aristotlelian systems interacted across time, the concepts undergo modifications (e.g. when Sidney merges Hellenic and Hebraic materials in his apologia), but both systems reify mental function as the primary means of confronting and, ultimately, conquering ‘nature’. [For this reason alone, I would argue that criticism’s past concerns remain relevant for our particular moment, for such views—termed enlightenment epistemology—have contributed to the looming ecological crisis we will shortly confront]. The divide established between mind and matter, a type of psychological alienation of the organism from its environment, leads to one strain of emergent Romanticism—the mournfully Schiller’s estrangement model: “The correspondence between his feeling and thought which in his first condition actually took place, exists now only ideally” (CT 297). Further still, “because the ideal is an infinitude to which he never attains, the civilized man can never become perfect in his own wise, while the natural man can in his” (CT 297).

We must note that, while this argument was ostensibly mounted to distinguish between Schiller and Goethe (his multi-talented contemporary ‘genius’) and their poetic tendencies, the section we read suggests that this is a boundary condition for us all. We all have within us “poetic spirit” (296), and in language reminiscent of the American Revolution Schiller viewed this endowment as “immortal and inalienable in mankind. It cannot be lost except together with humanity or with the capacity for it” (296). On this issue, Blake and Schiller are in complete agreement; they differ in that Blake believes that rationality and its others (reason, utility, efficiency) have grown so dominant as to threaten extinction of poetic spirit itself.

Such Blakean concerns clearly come into view in the early tractate works “All Religions are One” and “There is No Natural Religion” (A and B). The form of the tractates ‘mirror’ the analytical model of empirical and rational philosophy, as when “All Religions are One” begins with an argument and extends through seven principles to mount the counter-empirical argument. At the level of form, from a Schillerian point of view then, Blake’s tractates engage in “satire” and are, hence, sentimental. However, across these principles Blake argues against “the true method of knoweledge” as being “experiment’ rather Blake urges that “an universal Poetic Genius exists,” and that the “method” poised against experiment is experience (a forgotten element once present in enlightenment thinking but slowly erased from critical presence). I would further argue that the notion of “experience” actually intersect with, and binds together somewhat, Hume’s and Kant’s views on “taste.” For Hume, the final judgment of a work emerges through the test of time hypothesis: what “attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy” (245). For Kant, “Taste is the faculty of judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction” (260). For both, taste records immediate experience and conveys, across time, eternal verities resident within the counter-form, the art object, that opposes the by-products of the technological imagination and instrumental reason.

By the time critical theory arrives at its point of rupture (think ‘geology’here, a revolution happening simultaneously in another, related discipline [also Foucault]), the fault lines in past critical endeavors have been uplifted by historical processes. As briefly discussed above, notions of “taste” form one such fault line or pressure point. Mind forms another such a fault, since it directly bridges two supposedly separate realms via sensate perception, for mind functions as the seat of “spirit”—in Kant’s phrase “the animating principle of the mind” (CT 277) itself. In Kant, one can see, like reading the wall of the Grand Canyon, strata of past critical thought. For Kant, when mind engages itself in creativity, “the imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very powerful in creating another nature” (did somebody say Sidney or Pope: CT 277), and that manifest ‘other’ nature, the created object, records “genius,” the offshoot or “union” (CT 279) of “imagination and understanding” (CT 279). Now here is something both old and new, old in the privileged accord granted to the artist, new in its thoroughly psychologized view of mental function, for genius emerges from a chora, a group: “Thus genius properly consists in the happy relation between these faculties, which no science can teach and no industry can learn” (CT 279).

Blake, like Kant, champions the expression of genius, even attributing all expressions of philosophy to poetic genius: “Thus all sects of Philosophy are from Poetic adapted to the weaknesses of every individual” (Blake’s playful satirization of Plato: 1). The early tractates boisterously subsume all religions to the ex-pressions of poetic genius, yet the following tractates make clear that the impediment to poetic genius in this particular age is the elevation of physical processes (remember the importation of mechanical metaphor for mental processes discussed above) and the binding influence “reason” exerts psychological within the individual (Freud’s arena of experiment) and within culture (in what Fredric Jameson terms “the political unconscious” of cultural processes). Thus, Schiller and Blake seem to share a sense of alienated consciousness and the potential path back to full intergration: “Nature sets him at one with himself, art divides and cleaves him in two, through the ideal he returns to unity. . . For the one (naïve) obtains its value by the absolute achievement of a finite, the other by approximation to an infinite greatness” (297). Blake’s poetry continually tends to dramatize, through what Blake terms  “visionary forms dramatic,” expressing (in language connected to Schiller) the drive of desire at the core of creativity: “The desire of Man being Infinite the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite. “He who sees the Infinte in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only” (3). Blake shatters the mirror of self-reflection that emerges from Locke, and while Locke’s philosophy collapses into more complex models of mind, the mechanical metaphor (and hence an ideologically problematic view) gets adopted for all biological processes. Yet Blake’s counter-view of such biological processes and his attempt to dramatize aspects of mind’s engagement of matter appears early in Blake’s poetic work and remains a critical constant across the canon.

One can without exaggeration suggest that the entirety of Blake’s most difficult works re-present the ‘unhappy relations’ between the mental faculties, an inward war for supremacy manifest in the various cultural forms given a physical body. Yet this concern is certainly present in his early poem The Book of Thel, which in its very title underscores its status as object, as something created, something to be judged by Kant’s “aesthetical sense” (257). The methodic form of the poem, a dialogic exchange between Thel—a named “Subject” of self-contemplation (hear Locke in the background)—and several “objects” speaking from the position of nature—giving voice to what might be described as an ‘economy of nature’ and ethos of otherness simultaneously.

The sources for Blake’s Thel are diverse, with etymological resonances of “will” or “wish” or even “dew.” In describing the work, agreement can be found in the formal motion of the poem, a dialogic thrust designed to enliven our reflections upon it and function, thereby, as a vehicle to enlighten: shattering the mirror of self-absorbed and self-enclosed introspection. The opening stanza offers this view in a splendid anaphoric sequence of metaphors that underscores this poetic concern:

Ah! Thel is like a watry bow and like a parting cloud.

Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water.

Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face

Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air.

Ironically, as the subsequent dialogues with discrete entities from nature aptly demonstrate, Thel is not literally these (that is, she has trouble identifying [forging identity with] with the view we exist not for ourselves or everything that lives is holy, but she is symbolically these (that is, she laments her own transient nature without sacrificing selfhood—the only possible answer to the desire embedded within her queries. My view would be that, given Blake’s tendency to offer sublime allegorical treatment of poetic materials, as for Thel so, potentially, for all!

            Blake’s poetry provides a map of mind within its thematic narrative and symbolic language, and the process for shattering the mirror of mind and nature employed by Blake was to turn self-reflection into an art, rather than a science, and to unveil the projective aspect of mind’s relationship with matter. The unification or resolution of dichotomies is a prominent feature within Blake’s work, but this same type of drive can be discerned in the critical thought (and poetic endeavors) or both Wordsworth and Coleridge. Certainly, as Coleridge makes clear in his oft-cited Fourteenth Chapter to Biographia Literaria, the genesis of Lyrical Ballads, a foundational text for English Romantic thought and expression, arises from what might be described as a creative complementarity, a type of counter-enlightenment “experiment” (CT 322) that represents “a series of poems . . . composed of two parts” (322). For Wordsworth, the poetic effort focused on “subjects . . . chosen from ordinary life,” while for Coleridge the effort would focus on “incidents and agents” of a “supernatural” strain (CT 322). However, the mission was to creatively erase the perceived differences in these counter modes. Coleridge would “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith” (CT 322). In other words, Coleridge sought humanize the supernatural sufficiently so as to gain readerly acceptance of literal impossibilities. Wordsworth, on the other hand, would seek “to give charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite feeling analogous to the supernatural” (322).

            Of course, I have here foregrounded Coleridge’s much later recollections of the origins of the volume (published a full decade of the first appearance of the revolutionary volume), and I should re-turn attention to Wordsworth’s crucial 1800 and 1802 prefaces. Wordsworth’s “principal object” was to re-present “incidents and situations from common life,” throwing over these events “a certain colouring of imagination whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (303). The implied ‘revolution in poetic language’ (to borrow a phrase from Julia Kristeva) opposed the prosody of “false refinement and arbitrary innovation” associated with the high Augustan mode associated with Alexander Pope. This leads Wordsworth to propose that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (304) but with a layer of “purposeness” (ala Kant) directed “to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement” (304). Here one sees the emergence of that strain of associationism and sentiment discussed by Richter in his introductory comments to this section (CT 300-1).

            In regard to poetic language itself, Wordsworth certainly swerves from the views previously seen in the permutations of the idea of “imitation.” Whereas most of our critics have proposed that poetry seeks to imitate nature, Wordsworth sought “to imitate and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men” (CT 305); that is, Wordsworth’s mode seeks to imitate the ex-pression of feelings and emotions, rather than the orders and symmetries of nature exclusive of mankind and he makes an intimate part of this endeavor the generation of pleasure (albeit defined differently than common usage of the term): “as the pleasure which I hope to give by the poems I now present to the reader must depend entirely on just notions upon this subject [character], and, as it is in itself of the highest importance to our taste and moral feelings” (307). Note, here, the re-appearance of “taste” and “moral feeling,” terms that should be quite familiar at this point in our passage through the critical tradition.

            As noted previously, WW positions “overflow of powerful feelings” as poetry itself in the opening paragraphs of his “Preface” (see 304), a poetic culmination of sentimentalism, but WW wisely qualifies this view much later, when he proposes that the overflow “takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquility” (312). Said in a nutshell: poetry contains, as form, the flow of feelings emerging from “emotion recollected” (312), memory functioning as a deep spring feeding the flow itself. We’re not looking at a poet of immediacy, although his notebooks suggest otherwise, nor a thinker prone to express himself publically as a critic. While he rails here against “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies [e.g. Schiller and Goethe—remember them], and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” (305), the thrust of his poetics depends, in part, on the importation of techniques from that same type of prose to provide poetry with greater psychological depth and insight (see pp.305.2—306.2). As the first statement of poetics at the turn of the century, reflecting as it does STC’s views as well as WW’s, the preface/s to LB—followed by PBS’s DP and WW’s LoG–offer an exemplar view of functional poetics from a poet committed to recording in concise and unadorned language “the structure of his own mind” (308.1).

While WW finds verse fit “to typify the affinity betwixt metrical and prose composition" (306.2), his critical argument actually depends upon a textual effect developed with the novel itself. Not surprisingly, I want to analyze evidence of a novelistic feature at work in the ‘preface’ that opens, of course, onto WB, and I intend, today, to bring into view a ‘construction of a reader’ upon which WW bases his case (like Blake [in part] on “experience). I should also note that the type of criticism I practice today is akin to that proposed and or supported by theorists in the “Reader-Response Criticism” section of the text (917-1014). While the most memorable explosions in WW’s revolution/renovation of poetic language (back to the roots—literally [in theory])—those concerning the poet, poetry, or the pleasure principle (“knowledge is pleasure” [309.1: see also Lacan, FS]—soar from the page (read 309.2 x 2), the argument is promulgated by reference to common experience between the author and “the reader” (314). [I have quoted the last instance of this sign post to allow us to drift backwards through the text and trace this reader’s presence.]

This constructed reader is nothing new, since it’s a philosophical and narratological constant in the prose of the 18th C. Sterne’s TS unveils with wit and clarity how such a “reader” (if we as readers buy into this constructed space) can be endlessly manipulated to promote textual effects, especially humor. As well, from Locke through Kant and Schiller, philosophers often ask readers to compare their experience with that suggested/promoted within critical discourse (an occasional presence in your own reading for this class). Although you might not recollect, the practice of such constructs extends back to the first figure for this course, Plato, but today we must note that a poetics constructed from the ‘overflow of recollected memory’ (rather than direct experience uncognized [i.e. not re-cognized—remember our discussion of sublime and beautiful] positions itself critical veracity on the immediate and direct agreement of a constructed reader.

Moving backward through the text, WW concludes his discursis with “one request to make of my reader” (314.1), to judge the poems with “his own feelings” (314.1), thereby opening up the poetic experience to even “the most inexperienced reader” (314). As you can see from page 314.2, WW’s “reader” will experience pleasure, know it consciously, through WW’s assistance. (Read) The implied equality between author and reader breaks down when we recall that the poet, while “a man speaking to men” (307), speaks from a higher ground (read passage). Note that the author, immediately prior to this powerful passage, prepares the reader by aligning the poet’s “taste and moral feelings” (307.2) with readers who exhibit “a rational mind” (307.1) and “good sense” (see Kant on “common sense” in previous reading), and this is accomplished across with the author pointing ‘my reader’s attention to this mark of distinction, the ex-pression of excitement in/from the human mind (see page 305). Note as well, in the passage that immediately follows, WW creates a hierarchy that will support the later one wherein the poet is the one who speaks to others (query: but does he listen? Answer: yes—see Prelude).

One could argue that all poets, even all writers, write with purpose (indeed, the first Freshman Composition textbook I ever taught from in 1979 was entitled Writing with a Purpose), although this process produces pleasure as a by-product (“his [i.e. the reader’s/yours] knowledge is pleasure” [309.1]), rather than a balance between pleasure/delight and learning/instruction as uttered by Horace and rehearsed by Sidney and Pope. WW’s argument, then, seems to anchor itself in what RB later termed “the pleasures of the text” in all its dimensions. As the prime form receiving the overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility in all its ex-pressions (both verse and prose), “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” (309.2). Viewed collectively and transculturally, poetry functions as the ex-pression of spirit in its passage through life/materiality/history, and this view is extremely close to that proposed by Hegel in next week’s reading (spirit crucified on the cross of history). And as readers we are implicated in the process, are brought in to authorize the integrity of the thought presented. The author places authority in the reader but thereby co-opts our textual reception.

Of course, here one can hear Kant whispering in the wings, and his views on spirit and genius (as well as other Kantian categories like the beautiful/sublime or noiumena/phenomena) were known to WW. He was certainly exposed to a wide range of philosophical material, both at Cambridge and in his travels across the continent. More likely, WW received his impressions of these thinkers from the voracious reader STC, a type of indirect track to knowledge found in the preface as well (read 308.2). His elevation of the “simple and rustic” as the proper subjects of poetic thought has a tinge of the “noble savage” of Rousseau, and we should also remember that WW was present in Paris during the French Revolution (see brief reference on page 305.1). His evocation of the evils of gothic novels belies a reliance on the novelistic devices of readerly manipulation found therein. Many strains of thought come together in WW’s preface/s, with the composite result that critical theory, indeed western epistemology, shifts to self-anatomy and poetry shifts to self-expression—both endeavors that bring critical analysis into the realm of mind and away from the realm of nature.

Blake, too, knows via his trade, printing, processes of ‘readerly’ (R. Barthes) manipulation; indeed, WB exploits his prodigious knowledge of textual production and aesthetic reproduction, pushing the medium of printing into new discursive territory (spatial metaphors are good for Blake, since all things visionary emerge from inscribed metal plates, a literal expanse within which to cast one thoughts). Indeed, at several crucial junctures Blake’s poetic endeavors begin with preludia that directly engage readers and urge some action or reaction (e.g. the preface to J: see 145). However, for Blake (against WW), poetry becomes self-anatomy in an attempt to break through the layer of the “rational mind,” to shatter the mirror of mind and/or the mirror of nature, to access and unleash the drives fueling the interactions among those mental faculties composing his sublime allegory.

Blake knows that all readers are, by definition, ‘mental travellers’ (both genders equally express the boundary condition of suffering), where every act of reading functions as an opportunity to ‘alter the eye’ (see 485.61). Thus, WB and WW actually share something crucial in both method and outcome: the deployed method is a form of “meditation” (304.1), and readers leave the space of the poem “in some degree enlightened” (304.2). While Blake’s earliest poetic efforts, those poems included in PS (1783), evidence strong connections to the current poetic trends (keep in mind that WB is a contemporary of DR.J), the works also show surprising innovations (e.g. when the imagery of spring as male and England as female unite in “To Spring”—both an inversion of expectation but also an appropriation from OT prophetic symbolism. As well, once one is familiar with Blake’s later mythic organization of all acts of mind and matter, the use of seasons to express types, although pointing directly back to Thomson’s mid-century success (The Seasons) and Vivaldi’s just famous musical treatments of the same theme, also points forward to the mythic prophecies to come (see 409: “To Winter”). Although they share some commitments, WB’s PS are filled with, depend on, personification, since Blake views the perceptual dynamic as projective and formative, where WW has maintained a commitment to accurate mimetic representations of natural as mediated by emotions.