A Careful Longing: The Poetics and Problems of Nostalgia

A Careful Longing: The Poetics and Problems of Nostalgia

A Careful Longing: The Poetics and Problems of Nostalgia

A Careful Longing: The Poetics and Problems of Nostalgia


This book examines the emergence of a new genre during the eighteenth century: the nostalgia poem. This genre is best understood by reconceiving the premises of nostalgia itself, examining it as first and foremost a mode of idealization rather than a longing for the past. From the poems that make up this genre, we have derived many of our modern ideas and images of nostalgia. In tracing the history of the nostalgia poem, this book also traces a pattern of tropic change, in which a new genre is built around tropes extracted from the dying genres. This new genre then begins producing its own tropes; in the case of the nostalgia poem, these include idealized school days and ruined villages. As these tropes become overly familiar, the nostalgia poem genre itself begins to fall apart. This book reevaluates poems ranging from Dryden's Hastings elegy to Crabbe's The Village, showing how works as varied as Gray's Eton College Ode, Macpherson's forged epics, and Goldsmith's The Deserted Village are all part of a doomed literary experiment - an experiment that has nevertheless determined the course of modern nostalgic thought.


Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loiter’d o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endear’d each scene!

—Goldsmith, The Deserted Village

Writing in 1821, Goethe recalled how years earlier, “OUR more intimate circle [had] enthusiastically received a little poem which henceforth took our whole attention.” The poem that made this lasting impact was Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, which “necessarily delighted every one” and which Goethe and his friends “all too scrupulously tried to reproduce” (402). In praising the poem, Goethe concentrates on its creation of a nostalgic mood:

Everything we loved, esteemed, and passionately looked for in the present
… was portrayed here, not as alive and active, but as a faded, bygone
existence: festivals and holidays in the country, church dedications and
annual fairs… How proper these pleasures seemed, moderated as they
were by an excellent country pastor. (402)

Instead of treating the poem as simple recollection of sentimental memories, as many later critics would, Goethe posits a more careful, strategic use of nostalgia in the work:

Here, too, we found our honest Wakefield again in his familiar sphere, not
in the flesh, but only as a shadow recalled by the elegiac poet’s gently
lamenting tones. The very thought behind this presentation is one of the
most felicitous, once the poet has resolved to revive an innocent past with
sweet melancholy. And how successful the Englishman has been, in every
respect, in carrying out this agreeable project! (402–3)

Goethe recognizes the emotion of The Deserted Village, but he also rightly understands it as a tactical work, as a highly fictive and idealized response to a present desire. And the “resolution” to create a work that combined the “gentle lamentation” of elegy with the “most . . .

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