Patricia Parker’s Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode is an astounding book for anyone encountering the word “romance” in a poetic context for the first time. Here’s an extract from the Introduction:
“Romance” is characterized primarily as a form which simultaneously quests for and postpones a particular end, objective, or object, a description which Fredric Jameson approaches from a somewhat different direction when he notes that romance, from the twelfth century, necessitates the projection of an Other, a projet which comes to an end when that Other reveals his identity or “name.” […] When the “end” is defined typologically, as a Promised Land or Apocalypse, “romance” is that mode or tendency which remains on the threshold before the promised end, still in the wilderness of wandering, “error,” or “trial.” When the posited Other, or objective, is the terminus of a fixed object, as in a poem of Keats or Valéry, “romance” is the liminal space before that object is fully named or revealed. (4)
Her project is to “suggest some of the affinities between the romance and lyric poetry.” The book is largely on longer poems by Ariosto, Spenser, Milton, and Keats, but she invokes, quite unexpectedly, an absolute beauty of a poem, Mallarmé’s “Le Nénuphar blanc”…
Finally, when the end is not, typologically, an apocalyptic fulfillment but rather abyss or catastrophe, as in Mallarme’s Un Coup de dés, “romance” involves the dilation of a threshold rendered now both more precarious and more essential. This connection between naming, identity, and closure or ending remains a persistent romance phenomenon, from the delaying of names in the narratives of Chrétien de Troyes to Keats’s preference for the noumenal over the nominal, for “half-knowledge” over “certainty” or “fact.” For poets for whom the recovery of identity or the attainment of an end is problematic, or impossible, the focus may be less on arrival or completion than on the strategy of delay. In this respect, though their tendencies are different, Mallarmé’s deferral of revelation in the prose poem “Le Nénuphar blanc” falls as much within the sphere of romance as the period before the unmasking of the “Other” in the Erec et Enide.
The poem is quite something. You wouldn’t know it from this alone, and I don’t think it’s available online, unfortunately, but I found it in my own Oxford Worlds’ Classics edition of Mallarmé’s works. I also enjoyed reading Thomas Connolly’s article on the poem, and hope to get a copy of Barbara Johnson’s soon: “Allegory’s Trip–Tease: The White Waterlily,” in The Critical Difference. I’m now thinking about how Mallarmé’s a sort of poet of the zero. I’ve always loved his work but worried that it resounded in a kind of ipsissimosity (self-referentiality) which was ultimately nullifying, in a moral sense. I have a tendency to have moral quibbles with artists, which I don’t fully understand, but maybe you can guess why his obsession with whiteness and the vierge [virgin] always made me suspicious. Connolly’s article made me rethink Mallarmé, as he reads “Le nénuphar blanc” as a poem of inversion, in which Echo and Narcissus trade places, and in which the speaker really attempts to encounter the absent female:
The speaker’s gaze is not locked into a destructive cycle of autospection, but is clearly directed toward a female Other, who may or may not be seen. Johnson also sees this myth as key, but realizes the need to reverse the roles of Echo and Narcissus, such that “here it is the woman who reflects herself in the pool and the man who watches impotently” (16).
But back to the Parker text. I’d like to read her chapter on Mallarmé, Stevens and Valéry more carefully, and the ones on Milton and Spenser too (there’s also one on Ariosto), but I didn’t scan those before leaving the library yesterday. The one I did scan was on Keats. It’s rather long, but my plan is to collect a list of key insights from the text, here…
Romance, like indolence, is simultaneously a refuge from the waking world and a dangerous evasion (160)
That romance was a chiaro-oscuro border realm being crowded out by the empire o f enlightenment links its attractions—and its dangers—to those of the secluded retreat, or enchanted ground, that countless eighteenth-century poems seek to rediscover. Each of the poems which invoke a power—“Contemplation,” “Peace,” “Solitude,” “Fancy”—and ask to be led to that power’s sequestered cell is in effect a brief romance, a quest for a respite from the waking world. (162)
[…] there is at the same time the nagging suspicion that the poet who seeks it may be guilty of the purely negative side of what Stevens was to call “evasion,” a cowardly refusal of responsibility to the world of things as they are. (163)
From Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: “So delightsome these toys are at first, they could spend days and nights without sleep, even whole years alone in such contemplations, and fantastical meditations, which are like unto dreams, and they will hardly be drawn from them, or willingly interrupt, so pleasant their vain conceits are, that they hinder their ordinary tasks or employment; these fantastical and bewitching thoughts so insinuate, possess, overcome, distract, and detain them, they cannot, I say, go about their more necessary business, stave off, or extricate themselves, but are ever musing, melancholizing, and carried along, as he (they say) that is led around about a heath with a Puck in the night, they run earnestly on in this labyrinth of anxious and solicitous melancholy meditations, and cannot well or willingly refrain, or easily leave off, w inding and unw inding themselves, as so many clocks, and still pleasing their humours, until at last the scene is turned upon a sudden, by some bad object, and they being now habituated to such vain meditations and solitary places, can endure no company, can ruminate of nothing but harsh and distasteful subjects.” (163)
The ambivalences of romance and its delightful, and suspect, “error” suggest a context fo r the period we now call Romantic. In the course of one of his essays, John Stuart Mill pauses to consider the difference between two of his century’s great figures, Jeremy Bentham and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the man of enlightenment and the poet. The two are distinguished by what they led men to ask themselves with regard to any “ancient or received opinion.” Bentham, says Mill, would ask “ Is it true?,” Coleridge, “What is the meaning of it?” Bentham’s question presupposes the possibility of an answer “yes” or “no,” an axiom of logic which Aristotle termed the law of the excluded middle. Coleridge’s question, on the other hand, suspends such direct answering in favor of an exploration, a dilation of the space between the logician’s, or the pragmatist’s, Either-Or. (164)
In his essay Poetry Distinguished from other Writing, Oliver Goldsmith singled out the history of the term “hanging” or pendant from Virgil to Milton as the epitome of the figurative or picture-making power of poetry, […] Coleridge’s own description of this “suspension” comes in his account of the division of labor between him self and Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads: It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our outward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” The familiarity of the passage obscures its menace; but the old ambivalence continues in the language of the description itself. The “willing suspension of disbelief” given to the shadows of imagination” has as its undertone the Gothic danger of a raptus or rape by these shadows, and the passage weighs heavily on its all-important qualifier, that such suspension is only “for the moment.” (165)
Alright, this is sort of the overview before the real readings begin, that is, of Keats himself. I am not sure the listing of quotations is best, it would be better to actually write something that threads it all together. Keats does not fit any “purely developmental scheme,” the “characteristic fluidity or ambiguity of the verse” makes it difficult to “wrest” from it a “coherent philosophy or definitive conclusion,” his statements often seem to “look two ways at once” (167). He’s a bit of a “chameleon,” and you might even attribute to him some daoist wu wei. Yes, negative capability is an equivalent concept—and I enjoyed the moment when Parker brought out the etymology of “doubt,” which “retains its root sense of the ability to look two ways at once, of Janus as the threshold emblem of poetic surmise” (171). Here’s the actual, original Keats definition of negative capability:
I had not a dispute, but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed so enormously— I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. (171)
Her discussion of doubt, and of “wise passivity over an impatient questing” follows this. Another nice quotation from Keats describes the mind as a “thoroughfare”: “to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts,” and (now in Parker’s words) “to enjoy that absence of identity which Keats associates with Men of Genius over Men of Power.” I wonder if this terminology is Keats’s own? There’s no footnote on this sentence.