The Romantic Paradox A Summary

The Romantics foregrounded a perennial and so far unresolved linguistic problem: they sought to close the gap between what occurs outside language and the means by which we address, mediate and communicate these phenomena. But to do so they drew almost entirely upon the linguistic genre which both intensifies and encloses language's function as a differential, self-determining sign system: poetry. For the reader, particularly the critic/superreader, they caused a fissure between the two frames of reference shared by linguistics and literary studies: text and context. Each of the texts examined, from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley and Keats, shares a tendency to create an uncertain relation between our awareness of its intrinsic features and its consequent designation as a speech act and our broader awareness of the cultural, stylistic, biographic and socio-political codes upon which it draws. The primary cause of this interpretive disjunction is their continuous and unremitting interfusion of the referential and the material dimensions of the linguistic sign. It becomes virtually impossible to base a naturalisation upon a clear distinction between the internal, interconnected sign systems of each poem and the points at which the semantic, contextual and cultural designation of each dominant thematic sign (Psyche, Innocence, Experience, The Idiot, Tintern Abbey, Immortality, Kubla Khan, The West Wind) connects with its counterparts in the world outside the text.

The problems engaged with by the Romantics would be largely marginalised by the poets of the later nineteenth century and returned to, with a vengeance, by the modernists. They are embodied in the distinction between the later poems of Blake and the notoriously self-referential sound-texts of Shelley. Both poets shared the objective of capturing in a single text the complex relation between the spatio-temporal nature of events and experiences and their effect upon the speaker. Their diametrically opposed practices offer us an intriguing insight into the perplexing choices that confront all poets. To move, as Blake did, toward the end of the sliding scale that reduces the poetic function to the use of the unmetrical line will involve the reader in an interpretive bind. If the poetic function is not palpably and self-evidently present how do we judge the signifying processes of the text against other discourses that are not intended to engage with issues that our cultural programming obliges us to associate with poetry? If, on the other hand, we encounter texts such as Shelley's in which the poetic function supersedes both the internal syntactic-semantic and the related contextual functions, how can we claim that poetry is anything other than an enclosed self-perpetuating game, without any relevance for 'real' interfaces between language and the world? As we shall see this problem becomes even more complex for the reader of twentieth-century poetry, but for the moment consider the following conundrum. Poetry inscribes and effectively validates the specificity of literature. Unlike other forms of discourse it encloses, animates, and sometimes creates the situation of the utterance. Yet poets, particularly the Romantics, argue that it is the only form of language that can disclose the purity of pre-linguistic experience. The question of why this peculiar paradox has endured and persists will be considered more fully in Chapter 6.


Use the following poems and extracts to test my thesis that Romantic poetry opens a fissure between the poetic function, the elements that combine to produce complex textual patterns, and its referential counterpart, the inferred pre-linguistic situation or the intention of the utterance. The best way to conduct such an exercise is to monitor your own processes of naturalisation. Ask what Leavis refers to as the 'obvious questions'. Who is speaking to whom? What do the syntactic and deictic features tell us about the situation of the utterance? How does the conventional element of the double pattern (metre, rhyme, etc.) relate to its cognitive counterpart (the para-phrasible message)? Use these questions as anchor points in your decoding of each text, and then consider two crucial problems: have you marginalised or perhaps corrected internal patterns of signification in order to 'make sense' of the text? Does the metrical or rhyming pattern of each passage operate as a substitute for continuities of syntax and points of reference?

(i) The opening paragraph of Coleridge's 'The Eolian Harp'. Is the speaker addressing Sara directly, or are the events and feelings recollected and mediated at some later point? Do the deictic references and the shifts in tense allow us to properly answer this question?

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined

Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is

To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o'ergrown

With white-flowered Jasmin, and the broad-leaved Myrtle,

(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)

And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,

Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve

Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)

Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents

Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so hushed!

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea

Tells us of silence.

(ii) Lines 11-30 of Coleridge's 'Limbo'. What exactly is 'Limbo'? A mental state? An imagined but indescribable condition? A place? Does the complex pattern of metaphoric excursions distort or clarify the situation that Coleridge attempts to describe?

Tis a strange place, this Limbo!—not a Place,

Yet name it so;—where Time and weary Space

Fettered from flight, with night-mare sense of fleeing,

Strive for their last crepuscular half-being;—

Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny hands

Barren and soundless as the measuring sands,

Not marked by flit of Shades,—unmeaning they

As moonlight on the dial of the day!

But that is lovely—looks like Human Time,

An Old Man with a steady look sublime,

That stops his earthly task to watch the skies;

Yet having moonward turned his face by chance,

Gazes the orb with moon-like countenance,

With scant white hairs, with foretop bald and high,

As 'twere an organ full of silent sight,

His whole face seemeth to rejoice in light!

Lip touching lip, all moveless, bust and limb—

He seems to gaze at that which seems to gaze on him!

(iii) Introduction to Blake's 'Songs of Experience'. Compare this with the above discussion of the Introduction to 'Songs of Innocence'. Who 'walked among the ancient trees'—'The Holy Word' or The Bard'? Are stanzas 3 and 4 the words of the Bard or the words of the speaker addressing the Bard? Who is asked to 'Turn away no more'—The addressee (us), the Bard, someone else?

Hear the voice of the Bard! Who Present, Past, & Future sees Whose ears have heard, The Holy Word,

That walk'd among the ancient trees.

Calling the lapsed Soul

And weeping in the evening dew;

That might controll,

The starry pole

And fallen fallen light renew!

O Earth O Earth return! Arise from out the dewy grass; Night is worn, And the morn

Rises from the slumberous mass.

Turn away no more:

Why wilt thou turn away

The starry floor

The watry shore

Is giv'n thee till the break of day.

(iv) Lines 46-54, Book I, of Wordsworth's The Prelude. If, as Wordsworth states, this is the memory of a moment of poetic inspiration (note the tense of the passage), are the 'measured strains', 'here / Recorded' an admission that the original experience is irretrievable?

Thus far, O Friend! did I, not used to make

A present joy the matter of a song,

Pour forth that day my soul in measured strains

That would not be forgotten, and are here

Recorded: to the open fields I told

A prophecy: poetic numbers came

Spontaneously to clothe in priestly robe

A renovated spirit singled out,

Such hope was mine, for holy services.

(v) Lines 1-17 of Shelley's Alastor. Try to paraphrase this passage. Do the repeated conditional phrases ('If) make sense in themselves? Why does the speaker ask for forgiveness? What exactly is 'this boast?

Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!

If our great Mother has imbued my soul

With aught of natural piety to feel

Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;

If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,

With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,

And solemn midnight's tingling silentness;

If autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood,

And winter robing with pure snow and crowns

Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs;

If spring's voluptuous pantings when she breathes

Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;

If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast

I consciously have injured, but still loved

And cherished these my kindred; then forgive

This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw

No portion of your wonted favour now!

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