Nowadays, you can often spot a work
of poetry by whether it's in lines
or no; if it's in prose, there's a good chance
it's a poem. While there is no lesson in
the line more useful than that of the picket
line, the line that has caused the most adversity
is the bloodline . . .
Charles Bernstein, "Of Time and the
In a 1794 review of Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, Samuel Taylor Coleridge takes notice of one of the novel's "charming" pieces of original poetry. He reprints it because, as he says, "poetical beauties have not a fair chance of being attended to, amidst the stronger interest inspired by such a series of adventures."(2) His admonishing review of Matthew Lewis' The Monk similarly concludes with a poem excerpted from the novel: this "exquisitely tender elegy . . . will melt and delight the heart, when ghosts and hobgoblins shall be found only in the lumber-garret of a circulating library."(3) Coleridge's fears for the fate of poetry, written into his reviews of these novels, articulate two of the major interests of this paper: the critic's desire to construct narratives and contexts for particular genres, and the means by which criticism, poetry, and the novel in the late eighteenth century "arose to contrast, complement, and define each other's aims."(4)
My interest, therefore, is not simply how the critic-- especially the romantic but also the poststructuralist critic--does or does not locate a genre or a text in a history. A number of recent critics, including Jerome McGann, Clifford Siskin, and Alan Liu, have already demonstrated the difficulties inherent in such a gesture, given criticism's participation in a romantic version of history which itself performs a "mimetic denial of history."(5) These critics, of course, do not expressly address themselves to genre criticism or the history of genres; nevertheless, like Coleridge, they are engaged in a sort of genre construction, singling out the lyric moments--the romantic poems--which overwrite our imaginings of history.(6) According to McGann and Siskin, romantic criticism, especially as it has developed from a Wordsworthian poetics, guides our reading toward a "lyric turn" away from history.(7) We have been taught to subordinate the conflicts of history to the structures of individual consciousness provided by the romantic lyric. Sounding a similar note, Liu contends that the rhetoric of new historicism and cultural studies repeats the sublimation of history at work in, for instance, the Lyrical Ballads, by virtue of a romantic interest in the "detail" which inevitably devolves into a lyric moment of "local transcendence." "There is a whole subgenre in cultural criticism," complains Liu, "of sustained and egregiously adventitious uses of romanticism--gorgeous insets of romantic consciousness so well wrought, so self-sustaining, that we wonder whether cultural criticism is at last something like Keats's Grecian Urn."(8) Criticism, especially when it tries to accommodate the grand alterity of historical circumstance, writes "something like" a lyric poem.(9)
My interest lies more in a phenomenon that inverts the terms of these critics' readings and returns us to the occasion of Coleridge's reviews. What do we make of imagined histories--fictions--that determine our under standing of the lyric poem? More specifically, how do we read lyric poems inserted into the narratives of romantic novels? On one side we have Coleridge's chivalric response to the appearance of poems in the novel: he wants to protect the fragile "beauty" from the "adventures" of fiction and circulation. Poetry requires the critic's attention and intervention so that it can be presented to the public, its virtue intact, its value undiminished. On another side we have the accusatory posture current criticism takes toward lyricism in its histories: the "lyric turn" is a seductive, "gorgeous" ploy that betrays history itself Jay Clayton, in his study Romantic Vision and the Novel, invokes this latter response when he finds "poetic moments" disrupting the "classical" English novel: in those cases, "the dangerous allure of lyric" threatens to "damage the narrative form" and thereby the "ethical" concern of fiction.(10) On still another side, we have Gary Kelly's assertion that original poems were inserted in novels in a "ladylike" bid for "literariness."(11) More significantly, Kelly hints that lyric poetry corrects, contains, and hypostatizes the feminine in the novel, shielding it from the "male-dominated public and social world" of plots and social interaction. The presence of lyric verse correlates with the novel's promotion of its "disciplined yet expressive," "inwardly disciplined" heroine (English Fiction, pp. 52-53, 55). Despite evident differences, all these readings are engaged in familiar dialectical evaluations of genres. They all (except Kelly) rely on canonical romantic poetry as their touchstone, they all resort to a gendering of genre, and they all invite a romance plot (centered on the threatened virgin or alluring seductress) to tell their critical stories. One might say that in their attempts to differentiate lyric from history, poem from fiction, poesis from ethos, they write "something like" a romance novel.(12)
As this last remark suggests, our critical understanding of the two genres may not be so distant from the novel's understanding of them. Yet by emphasizing fictional narratives over the lyric moments that shape our sense of genre, by assigning poetry to a novel fate, I hope to engender another sense of literary history. If a romantic ideology written by canonical male poets has shaped the way we read poems against prose fiction, women's literature against men's, lyric against narrative, then we might ask ourselves what gendering of genres, what critical stories, were imagined by early romantic authors who wrote both poetry and novels and who, moreover, wrote them into the same work. As I will argue, such works, written in the 1790s by Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and Mary Robinson, use the tight relationship between the two genres to derail questions of the novel's legitimacy--and history. More importantly, they show us how the novel displays poetry to its own advantage, using the structures of romance, physical appearance, and commodification to engender a "feminized" lyric, while accruing to itself the virtues of the "real," the true, and the natural. What happens to poetry in these works, in other words, helps the novel write a story about itself.
In taking up Nancy Armstrong's suggestion that "we can use literature as a kind of history . . . as a woman's history," I hope we can reconsider, as she does, the relations between new historicism and feminism, literary criticism's most recent pair of "unruly children"--"appropriately enough, a boy and a girl." Aiming for the best of all critical worlds, Armstrong imagines a discussion of genre that will engage both these children in the same story, not bound to gendered notions of history. But this is a familiar romance, a romance about family: even to intimate relations between brother and sister harkens us back to the world of late eighteenth-century novels and romantic poetry.(13) There, oscillating between the plots of inheritance, legitimacy, and obstruction to marriage, we can begin our examination of some "other" romantic histories of the relationship between poetry and the novel.
We are familiar with a critical habit that places the study of genres within the discourse of family, a habit that has repeatedly come under suspicion. In "The Law of Genre," Jacques Derrida calls up the notion of consanguinity only then to collapse it into a question of markings--circumstantial appearance rather than inherited value. That Derrida locates the concern with generic categorization in the Romantic period, when debate raged over whether identity was determined by inherited family titles or by circumstance and
[Incomplete Text On Original Publication] of lineage and class. Writing as both poet and novelist, Smith allows us to puzzle over the "connection" that, in Wordsworth's Preface, is sentimental, enlightened, and extra-familial. The stories that circulate in her novels, her poems, and reviews of them both, revise the notions of legitimacy in literature and the social relations figured by genre.
The critic's urge to distinguish poetry from the novel was especially pronounced--and compromised--in reviews of Smith's novels, in part because Smith was simultaneously recognized as an important English poet and novelist. In 1798, …