LOOK ROUND FOR POETRY: UNTIMELY ROMANTICISMS by Brian McGrath, Reviewed by Norbert Lennartz

By Brian McGrath
(New York: Fordham UP, 2022) 196 pp.
Reviewed by Norbert Lennartz on 2023-03-18.

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With its vexing and intriguing title, this book looks like an essay whose neatly balanced six chapters fortunately straddle the line between criticism and intellectual experiment. Brian McGrath takes the rationale as well as the title of his compact book from Wordsworth's Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, wherein its readers are warned that they may "have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness" as "they . . . look round for poetry" (Prose Works, ed. Owen and Smyser 1:116). In light of this warning, McGrath offers new and unexpected glimpses into (mostly canonical) texts with the aim of "discover[ing] momentary flashes of constellation between sometimes disparate discourses" and of laying bare "surprising contexts" that are woven around theses poetic works (15). In most of these cases, McGrath closely examines words, grammatical structures, and rhetorical devices while insightfully re-reading poems by Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. But since some of his conclusions tend to be rather limp or far-fetched, they cast a shadow on his often astounding and brilliant interpretations.

In the first chapter, McGrath highlights the rhetorical device of litotes. As a figure of understatement, litotes counters hyperbole, the device of overstatement commonly associated with Romantic poetry. Although Words­worth's definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads of 1800, Prose Works 1:126) seems to exemplify the Romantic language of excess, McGrath reveals that Wordsworth almost revels in constructions built on litotes and that his habit of negation becomes an irksome mannerism. In essays as well as poetic harangues, he used this figure of understatement and emotional restraint to decry the copiousness of tears in the poetry of his time and the deluges of sentiment in trashy novels, for he thought both kinds of literature flouted the British tradition of moderation and astringency. Yet while McGrath often incisively probes poetry, he ignores the sentimental overflow of European novels such as Goethe's Werther, which may well have played a part in prompting Wordsworth to build his verbal cathedral as a buttress against torrential feelings.

In this context, it is also very intriguing to learn that besides "modesty tropes" (37), Wordsworth specializes in downward gazes, in the literal catastrophe of downturns. He might have noted (though he doesn't) that the old, liminal leech-gatherer of "Resolution and Independence" looks intently downward, waiting patiently to catch leeches in a pond. But in contrasting the downturned gaze of the title figure in "The Old Cumberland Beggar" with the wider vistas of the poems, McGrath shows how Wordsworth subtly grapples with both economics and politics. In linking the downcast eyes of the beggar with his poverty, we are told, the poem "smuggles in its sharpest criticisms of a political economy" (57). This new way of thinking about catastrophe is also said to inflect Wordsworth's use of apostrophe, which the poet musters to address the affluent and politically relevant classes such as statesmen. In thus transforming "possible powerlessness into power," we are told, he uses the apostrophe as "a turn away from catastrophe's literalization" (58).

As long as McGrath stays within the bounds of Romantic poetry, his readings are fresh and stimulating; but when he moves beyond and seeks the untimeliness of Romanticism (fulfilling the promise of the book's subtitle), he tends to become rather abstruse, speculative, and unconvincing. Prosopopeia, he notes, is "a trope common to lyric poetry in which the absent, dead, or inanimate entity is granted a face and a voice to address a living reader" (82). Apparently unable to find adequate examples in Romantic poetry (considering the fact that the addressed west wind in Shelley's ode never responds!), McGrath eventually detects the untimeliness of prosopopeia in the (weird) cases of giving one's vote to a dead candidate in US elections. Though posthumous elections have several times occurred in the US, they can scarcely be construed as instances of of prosopopeia challenging the difference between the living and the dead and thus turning US politics into a space of Romantic liminality. Instead of straining to find parallels between flaws in the US electoral system and the long-standing tradition of the so-called "corpse poem" (which goes back to Lucian's nekrikoi dialogoi), it would have been more rewarding to trace the impossibility of the prosopopeia in Romantic poetry, to show the Romantic poet persistently but vainly trying to overcome walls of silence and even finding his desperate prayers in 'The Ode to the West Wind' unanswered.

The anachronistic reading of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," for McGrath an "old warhorse," (65), leads to similarly questionable results. Citing and paraphrasing J. Hillis Miller's definition of anachronistic reading as the possibility of making visible "conjunctive flashes of aberrant referentiality" (64), McGrath feels free to re-phrase the title of the poem as 'I Wandered Lonely as an iCloud' and to argue that it deals with contemporary anxieties in a capitalist age. This certainly looks far-flung and proves to be as unconvincing as McGrath's attempt to read the poem through the lens of cloud computing, but since the poem does indeed move from wandering to dancing, McGrath is refreshingly interesting when he aligns this movement with what Karl Marx later called the "dancing tables" of capitalism. Yet for anyone who reads the poem as a prime example of the poet's shaping power, it is hard to believe that the dancing heart at the end of it can also be understood as "a commodity" that suddenly turns the poem into "a record of the poet-speaker's resistance to and simultaneous drift into commodification" (77). While the Romantic poet is traditionally seen as a creator, a demiurgos who re-shapes and re-assembles the world from (in this case), the tranquillity of his "pensive couch," McGrath casts the speaker of this poem as a victim, a man driven by the relentless laws of a capitalist market. This shift in perspective is definitely provocative but the idea that workers must adjust themselves to a new dance in the capitalist world rather seems to be imposed upon the poem.

McGrath is certainly at his best when, like a New Critic, he examines the structures and rhetorical elements of the poems discussed and unearths their hitherto hidden potential. While the chapter on Keats's beginnings remains rather obscure, revolving around the paradox that "a beginning does not happen at the beginning" (107) and that Keats more often than not "misses his beginnings" (117), the final chapter --on Shelley's prepositions-- is illuminating. Aiming to chart his sensitivity to the logic and connotations of prepositions McGrath argues that Shelley deploys a "grammar of Romanticism" by using the preposition "among". While the ancien régime favored prepositions modelled on the Chain of Being (above, below), the Romantic poets are said to have used egalitarian prepositions such as "beside", "along" and "among" to represent utopias of democracy. Since Shelley exhorted the west wind to "scatter" his "words among mankind" like "sparks," McGrath contends that Shelley sees himself as an arsonist who loses control of his incendiary words. In The Triumph of Life, Shelley's last poem, which teasingly ends in mid-sentence, the poet lets his careful readers witness the imperceptible shift from "amid" to "among," a step that is apparently highly fraught with meaning. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, reduced to the status of a stunted root at the wayside, uses the centering preposition "amid" ("amid the heirs / Of Caesar's crime" [lines 283-84], "Amid the sun" [line 349]) until he describes his shattering encounter with a "shape all light" (line 352), which he vaguely locates amid the waves and the sun. As McGrath convincingly argues, the encounter with this sublime and ineffable "shape" leads to Rousseau's awareness of having lost his midpoint (a-mid) and center, and from this moment on, he is swept along and marginalised "in a network of relations and differences, disseminated, scattered" (132). The shape offers Rousseau a cup whose liquid suddenly turns his brains into sand and dissolves his consciousness. What looks like an early depiction of dementia in the 19th century is redefined by a change preposition that sweeps him from the midpoint to some undefined locus "among the multitude" (line 460), and is thus blotted out and fragmentary.

It is in these close readings that McGrath's book unfolds invaluable layers of meaning and his "look[ing] round for poetry" proves most rewarding, and it is also here that the "momentary flashes of constellation" shine most brightly. But the flashes are obscured when the author plunges too deeply into the untimeliness of Romanticism and consequently loses himself in vague analogies between the Romantic era and the present. In his effort to level the barriers between aesthetics and politics and to embrace Rita Felski's slogan "No more separate spheres!" (15), McGrath often becomes arbitrary, randomly speculative, and overeager to find weird correspondences. Yet if McGrath's "untimely" and far-flung readings can be taken as experiments, challenges, and provocative hypotheses, readers can certainly benefit from his informed, penetrating analyses and from the clarity and brevity of his style: virtues too often neglected now in favor of critical obfuscation.

Norbert Lennartz is Professor of English Literature, University of Vechta, Germany.

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