One thing needs to be said.  The world grows more humanly overpopulated each day, the atmosphere and oceans more polluted (with, among other things, radiation), while vital resources like fresh water seem on the verge of disastrous depletion, even as global warming becomes a ‘norm’ of daily life, as do reports of poles melting, oceans rising, and mega-storms lashing cities.  Overwriting it all is a strangely invisible war (couched as it is in other contexts) between vampiric corporations and a scattered resistance.  Even if we manage to keep our nuclear violence in check, it seems we cannot quite halt our march to self-destruction.

‘Hope’ is necessary if one is to live at all, but it is also the panacea that allows multinationals to pursue ever more ravenous, go-for-the-jugular paths to profit – paths that cut through the lives of people in ‘developing’ countries, through the world’s resources and its capacity to absorb ‘waste’, and through our social policies, which grow ever more draconian.  We live in these circumstances, and in many ways our eyes are open – perhaps open, above all, to our extraordinary capacity to ignore reality and distract ourselves.

This needs to be said because one has to ask why one reads romantic poetry at all.  The obvious answer may be that it is a pleasant escape, a kind of soma.  One reads romantic poetry because one is bourgeois.  One wants to be safe.  One wants to confirm mainstream values and act as if (a ‘warding’ gensture) nothing truly different is actually transpiring in the world.  As some put it, the ecological disaster has already happened – we’re already living in the aftermath.  If so, how ostritch-like indeed it is to seek to inhabit one of those ‘havens’ or ‘enclosures’ that Marjorie Levison said Wordsworth tried to inhabit in writing “Tintern Abbey.” Yet, what better object of study in these times than romanticism!  What irony, to study a group of poets widely said to have turned away from political hopes because the actual conditions were too difficult.  What honesty, to study those who most famously model one’s own cop out.

Even Wordsworth, around 1800, seemed to protest too much when he declared, with reference to his odd shift of attention from revolutionary politics to commonplace objects of nature, “The subject is indeed important!”  Still, presumably, it (the subject of our sensitivity to ‘nature’) must be important.  Even a person who cops out, who shies away from direct political engagement and from soul-exposing artistic production, who avoids controversy and silences himself – even such a weak person would likely only displace his concerns to romantic poetry because the displacement feels appropriate.  That is to say, the issues one might like to face more dramatically and forcefully do somehow deflect intelligibly onto romantic poetry.

For example, Karl Kroeber roundly rejected the notion, fashionable in criticism during the “culture wars” of the time, that we are alienated from nature.  To go against the grain of popular consensus – against what was a basic tenet of intellectual life then (and I might add remains so now) – must have seemed atavistic, naive, and, yes, ‘romantic’.  Less generously, one might even accuse Kroeber of a certain holism or organicism that often gets traced back to fascism.  But, what if this apparently self-evident fact that we are alienated from nature (a notion reiterated and emphasized by a late 20th Century breed of critics who fearlessly exposed ideology to set themselves free from ‘illusion’) is also a kind of self-identifying gesture, a rational premise on which to prop up a sense of critical truth or logical access?  This is difficult, because, bewildering as it is, exposing to ourselves the countless ideas that we ingest and regurgitate as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’ must certainly make us less prone to bigotries and chauvinisms.  Those latter are usually built on nice pure ‘natural’ categories, foreclosing conceptual structures from which to cobble together identities (via the erasure of difference): race, gender, class.

Yet, if we do not take the stand, and argue that we are not alienated from nature, then the truth is that romanticism really does not matter, except as the study of an ideology that, apparently, still afflicts us, and of which we still need to cure ourselves.  Apparently, if we can cure ourselves of romanticism, we will be able to deal with the sociopolitical facts of our concrete world and our problems will get better.  From that point of view, we study romanticism to study our illness.

It is true that studying one’s illness can be a road to its cure.  Perhaps that’s the clever position to take, after all.  Maybe anyone who has ever learned to think critically would be able to attest to the obvious necessity of that approach.  I cannot help feeling, however, that – faced with the urgency of the world’s problems – few people would choose an area of study out of such a detached disinterest.  Yes, there’s always that other alibi: one studies simply out of ‘intellectual curiosity’, as an end in itself – with faith perhaps that such un-self-interested activity ultimately benefits the world far more than any piety, charity, or righteousness.

Is it conceivable, though, that a few people (admittedly, timid, bookish souls) might study romanticism because it is perhaps the only literary movement in the past three centuries that seriously entertained the notion that ‘sensitivity’ is not just an expression of refinement and the ‘leisure’ class (thus of institutional power) but a kind of answer to our problems?  Granted, the media exercises far more power over our senses than any artist (indeed, artists are taken up by the media as convenient puppets).  So, what’s the point of being a voice crying in the wilderness, either as an artist or a literary critic?  Well, the only point would be that this particular answer is extremely inspiring.  To be extremely inspiring, it has to be more than a concept, more than a figure of speech, more (even) than a profound insight.  In short: there must be something in the experience of non-alienation from nature that merits the risks of skirting the dark edges of fascism, and the dark edges of other ‘isms’ including religious dogmas. There must be, to borrow a term from eastern philosophy, a kind of experience that changes all the terms: “valid cognition.”

But if we accept from the onset that this is an impossibility (which even Kroeber did, whenever it was raised in conversation) then what is there to talk about?

Advertisements