WORDSWORTH AND THE POETICS OF AIR by Thomas H. Ford, Reviewed by Scott Hess
 

WORDSWORTH AND THE POETICS OF AIR
By Thomas H. Ford
(Cambridge, 2018) x + 269 pp.
Reviewed by Scott Hess on 2019-09-17.

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The scope of Ford's book is much broader than its title suggests. While William Wordsworth's poetry does feature intermittently as a recurring touchstone, the book ranges widely over many Romantic discourses and disciplines, both British and German, to demonstrate the significance of atmosphere as a major trope of the Romantic period. Ford documents how this widely diffused interest in atmosphere began to emerge in the second half of the eighteenth century in poetry and aesthetic philosophy, in linguistic, prosodic, and musical theory, in medicine, and in newly emerging natural sciences such as meteorology and chemistry. These new atmospheric discourses marked an epistemic shift. While an earlier paradigm of "pneumatics" linked material objects with immaterial souls, a secularized "atmosphere" was defined by self-reflexivity and the complex mediations of "sensory structures of communicable feeling, at once somatic and ideal, aesthetic and material, affective and conceptual" (20). Atmosphere mediated between language and materiality, poetry and science, subjective experience and cultural contexts, the present and the past, "the weather outside and the weather within" (8). This metaphorization of atmosphere across many discourses in the Romantic period, Ford suggests, holds important lessons for our understandings of climate change and the Anthropocene today, when the imaginative atmospheres of culture, language, and literature have been rematerialized as climate.

The book surveys a wide variety of related but evocatively different terms that fed this Romantic discourse of atmosphere, including "pneumatics, air, spirit, Stimmung, field, gloom, inscription, haze, vagueness, cloud, modification, substance, smoke, gas chamber, breath and mist" (13). In explicating such terms, Ford connects British and German Romantic-era poetry with topics including--among others--Luke Howard's meteorology, Michael Faraday's atomic theory, William Jones's association of physical atmosphere and music, Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy's experiments with gases, Goethe's reflections on translation, the aesthetic theories of Hegel and Kant, and Thomas Sheridan's theories of elocution and prosody. "Atmosphere" came to figure the enveloping ambience of literary texts, cultures, and historical eras as well as denoting material atmospheres and climates. Such widely dispersed discourses of atmosphere, Ford writes, were "neither metaphoric nor literally physical, but instead pointed to a zone of indistinction, or of as yet unsettled knowledge, somewhere between literality and figuration, between scientific concepts and poetic evocation" (4). Signifying "transient effects, affective states and volatile gases" and "projecting a malleable aestheticized universe of protean forms, borderless appearances and liquid states of mind" (8), atmosphere linked emergent scientific disciplines with new discourses of subjectivity, language, historicity, and culture.

The book opens by re-evaluating the theme of Romantic weather in the poetry of the period. Atmosphere, Ford explains, became a figure of self-reflectivity that connected the imaginative and the material, allowing texts to "be understood as atmospheric [...] because atmosphere had already been conceived along textual lines" (20). Ford cites Wordsworth's claim in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) that poetry carries "an atmosphere of sensation" into all areas of human life and knowledge, including new discoveries in the natural sciences (3-4). Exploring connections between material and poetic atmospheres, this opening chapter also probes the Romantic theme of the Aeolian harp and engages a range of other Romantic-era writers, including Shelley, Blake, and Schiller.

Turning next to atmosphere as a figure of mediation, Ford links it to the idea of communicative "medium" and the origin of media studies later in the nineteenth century. In an 1844 essay, Ford explains, Michael Faraday redefined the atom as an "atmosphere of force" (69) rather than a discrete physical particle. Drawing on the eighteenth-century theory of Roger Boscavich, Faraday's atomic theory reconceptualized materiality. He shifted paradigms from the classic Newtonian model of mutually exclusive bodies to a new model of fields and condensations of atmosphere that could overlap and act on one another at a distance. Atmosphere, in this sense, simultaneously established and crossed boundaries, creating "a blur of absence and presence, a changeable fabric of transient appearances, haunting resonances and mutable impressions" (73). Ford links these material discourses of atmosphere with the famously atmospheric effects of Wordsworth's poetry, which seemed to his contemporaries to "communicate a world of half-conscious or inarticulable meaning" (77). He probes these atmospheric effects at length in Wordsworth's poem, "Written with a Slate-pencil, on a Stone, on the side of the Mountain of Black Comb" (1811). The quest for permanence in this and Wordsworth's other inscription poems, Ford claims, destabilizes itself through its atmospheric poetics, creating the modern lyric's "unstable complex of transience and endurance, ephemerality and permanence" (84).

Chapter three links the linguistic self-reflexivity of atmospheric poetry with Luke Howard's 1803 essay, "On the Modification of Clouds," a foundational text for the emerging scientific discipline of meteorology. To write about vague, mutable, and transient phenomena such as clouds, Howard developed new forms of language that identified clouds as formal configurations--cirrus, cumulus, stratus, etc.--rather than as substances. Howard's new meteorological language thus expresses what Ford calls "the paradoxes of vagueness--of absolute specificity that is nonetheless illimitable and undefinable, and of the determinate communication of uncertain meaning and indeterminate references" (96-97), a form of atmospheric poetics that became vital across Romantic culture. To exemplify the relation between meteorological discourse and Romantic poetry, Ford explicates Goethe's poem "Howards Ehrengedächtnis" (or "Howard: An Inscription"), comparing Goethe's three models of poetic translation with Howard's way of classifying clouds. In both cases, Ford writes, "paradoxical translation of the untranslatable comes at the cost of conceiving of both meteorology and poetry as uncertain cloud messengers, unstable and indeterminate modifications, dissolving before our eyes into the inscriptive air of an unrecoverable past" (126).

Turning next to forms of atmospheric mediation in Kant's aesthetic theory, Ford observes that Kant found aesthetic beauty both absolutely singular and irreducibly vague: representing nothing, it was quintessentially atmospheric in its effects. According to Ford, Kant's aesthetic theory cannot specify whether the forms of our senses correlate to the forms of the phenomena we perceive or not. More broadly, Ford finds, this aporia shows how, for Kant as for other Romantic-era thinkers and poets, "atmosphere formed the medium common to historical experience and natural processes at the same time, and in the same breath, as it divorced the structure of human reflection irrevocably from the nature of the things perceived" (146). For Kant, then, atmosphere mediates the human relation to the natural world, but only in such unstable and potentially self-dissolving ways.

The fifth chapter, my favorite, weaves together Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Keats's "Chamber of Maiden-Thought" metaphor, Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes' experiments with various gases such as nitrous oxide, and Thomas Sheridan's theories of prosody, breath, and elocution. Glossing "Tintern Abbey," Ford links material and medical discourses of atmosphere with phrases that produce the poem's atmospheric effect: "wreathes of smoke," "sensations sweet," near suspension of the blood and breath, and "misty mountain winds." In both the scientific discourses and Wordsworth's poem, Ford writes, "blood carried the weather inside, as the aerial chambers of the lungs were reconceived as a transit zone interrelating all the operations of the body with the air outside, linking the subjective imagination organically to the external world" (177). Changing the physical atmosphere could thus change human nature as well, creating utopian possibilities for Wordsworth's poetry just as it did for Beddoes' experiments with nitrous oxide and other gases at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. In his brief later account of the 1798 walking tour that inspired "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth mentions that he passed through Clifton on his way to Bristol, which Ford plausibly takes as a signal that he visited Beddoes on this trip. Ford also uses Sheridan's theories of breath and prosody to construe the meaning of "breath" in "Tintern Abbey" in relation to Wordsworth's claim, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), that meter differentiates poetry from prose.

Methodologically, the book moves rapidly between one text or context and another, across many discursive fields. Though this rapid movement among various discourses offers a compellingly broad overview of atmospheric tropes in the Romantic period, it keeps Ford from fully exploring many of the points he makes. He repeatedly claims, for instance, a relation between atmospheric poetics and Romantic-era print culture, but never stops to investigate that link, leaving it suggestive but vague. He also links the concept of atmosphere to issues ranging from the role of "medium" in media studies to histories of disciplinary formation, different models of translation, the significance of Wordsworthian inscription, a reassessment of Romantic historicism, and the relation between Kantian and modernist aesthetics, among many others. Though consistently smart and compelling, these divergent engagements--in my opinion--diffuse the overall argument and impact of the book. In addition, though the book cites a wide range of poems, it treats only a handful of them at length, and even then it highlights specific words, lines, and passages more than overall poems. Despite Wordsworth's prominence in the title, only three of his poems ("Tintern Abbey," The Prelude, and "Written with a Slate-pencil, on ... Black Comb") receive any extended attention. Nevertheless, the broad scope and rapid shifts of focus in the book effectively convey the webs of relations between various discourses of atmosphere and show how thoroughly such discourses permeated the Romantic period.

The topic of climate change recurs throughout the book, but gets little sustained attention. In my opinion, one of the book's most compelling sections--and by far its most extended engagement with climate change--comes in the first half of the "Conclusion," where Ford argues that literary texts and interpretation can help to sustain "modes of ecological experience which remain still incipient, uncategorisable, unactualised or withdrawn in our Anthropocene present" (202). Overall, however, the book remains quite vague on what ecological lessons we can learn today from these Romantic discourses of atmosphere, and why they might matter for climate change. Disappointingly for me, the second and final section of the "Conclusion" turns into an elaborate demonstration of the "synomonymy" [sic] (209) or supplementary relation between the emotive and breathed "Oh" and the vocative "O" in Romantic poetry. This is a smart theoretical exploration, but given the potential stakes of the project, I found it a less than compelling conclusion.

As this brief description of the final section should make clear, the book has a recurringly deconstructive style of argument that to my mind sometimes obscures its claims and its larger significance beyond the sphere of literary studies. Given the urgency of the contemporary issues to which the book speaks, I wish it had explored the relevance of such theorization in a more direct, clear, and sustained way. To be fair, this is not just a critique of Ford's book but a broader (self-)critique of how some forms of Romantic literary studies have turned to engage issues of climate change and the Anthropocene overall. Is it sufficient to extend familiar post-structural methods to the new topic of atmosphere and end with familiar conclusions of indeterminacy, or do we need more radically different methods and conclusions in order to engage with climate change and the Anthropocene in socially and ecologically generative ways? This is an important larger question about method that I hope eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars of climate change will pursue. Partly it is a question of disciplinary relevance. While literary scholars must still grapple theoretically with the linguistic complexities of literary texts and the historical complexities of the past, we also need to explain to others (and to ourselves) why such textual and historical theorization matters beyond the increasingly shrinking pale of our own discipline. Otherwise we are playing connoisseurial language games while the world burns.

Despite these concerns, I appreciate what this richly theorized and discursively broad-ranging book does accomplish. Ford's ability to trace connections across so many different disciplines and discourses, both British and German, is deeply impressive and illuminating. In following such connections, he establishes "atmosphere" as a key trope for a new Romantic epistemological order (or épistémè), in which science and literature alike shifted away from the model of discrete separate objects to explore the enveloping nebula of atmospheric relations: material, cultural, phenomenological, and historical. Ford convincingly argues that we in the Anthropocene, confronted by a new literalization of cultural atmosphere as climate, have much to learn from this Romantic discourse on atmosphere.

Scott Hess is Professor of English and Environmental Sustainability at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.


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