The Romantic poets present us with a series of problems that demand the cooperation of literary scholarship and linguistic analysis. W.H.Auden, writing as a somewhat sceptical heir to the legacies of Romanticism and modernism, summarised our difficulties. 'Poetry' he wrote, in memory of Yeats, 'makes nothing happen'. What he meant is that, unlike most other forms of linguistic representation or interpersonal exchange, the poem is confined within the vacuum of its own self-determined formal conditions. It can issue orders, promote one particular moral or ethical position above others, or enable its perpetrator to complain about his own existential condition or that which he shares with the rest of humanity, but it forbids itself from entering the same functional circuit of personal, social or political exchange as the letter, the philosophical thesis or the manifesto for the envisaged rights of man. The problem, from which no poet or reader is immune, is of how to balance the paraphrasable, functional message of the text with its specificity as literary discourse, its self-conscious deployment of linguistic properties and conventions which create patterns of signification that poems do not share with non-poetic discourses. Poetry is never immune from the uncertain relation between textual and extra-textual context, but in the period occupied by the Romantics we encounter a particularly difficult interrelation between functional purpose, aesthetics and poetic form.
It could be argued that Romanticism, at least in its somewhat confined designation as a change in the history of English poetry, was a response to an unprecedented pattern of intellectual, social and political developments. The effects of the Enlightenment were felt in the theoretical underpinnings of both the French and the American revolutions. Writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Paine and Godwin had begun to challenge and threaten the distinction between the literary and political-social functions of writing in ways that went far beyond the Augustan, neo-classical precondition that the text should be grounded upon the empiricism of what is established, precedented and verifiable. Late-eighteenth-century Britain, a country already shaken by war and anarchic economic cycles, was beginning to experience the social unrest that had overthrown the French social order and, in the United States, established a new one. On top of this was what we now refer to as the industrial revolution: individual social functions and instincts were becoming marginalised by a more powerful system of urbanisation, rural dispossession and labour-intensive means of production. The English government under which Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth lived was engaged either in continental warfare—mostly with the French—or in suppressing internal dissent (see Woodring, 1970).
What, you might enquire, has all this to do with the arcane, internalised world of poetic form and language? Auden might well be correct in his assertion that poetry cannot make anything happen, but he also infers that it is the only medium in which the uneasy relationship between our register of events and our primary means of mediating them can be properly tested and reexamined. Poetry of any type or generic designation will always address its own means of signification: it will be about things, impressions, experiences, events, but it will never fully detach the paraphraseable ideational process of communication from the self-referential interplay between medium and message, form and content. Crucial to this continuous and unremitting interplay is the poem's adherence to the double pattern, its simultaneous engagement with and detachment from the rules and conventions of other linguistic discourses. The question we have to address is of how a period known as the age of revolution can be regarded as influential in a series of more internalised individual revolutions in the progress of English poetry.
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