Telling Tales about Genre: Poetry in the Romantic Novel

Article excerpt

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

Line."(1)

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. …