The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form

The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form

The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form

The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form


The fragment poem, long regarded as a peculiarly Romantic phenomenon, has never been examined outside the context of thematic and biographical criticism. By submitting the unfinished poems of the English Romantics to both a genetic investigation and a reception study, Marjorie Levinson defines the fragment's formal character at various moments in its historical career. She suggests that the formal determinancy of these works, hence their expressive or semantic affinities, is a function of historical conditions and projections.

The English Romantic fragment poems share not so much a particular mode of production as a myth of production. Levinson pries apart these two dimensions and analyzes each independently to consider their relationship. By reconstructing the contemporary reception of such works as Wordsworth's "Nutting," Coleridge's "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan," Shelley's "Julian and Maddalo," and Keats's Hyperion fragments, and juxtaposing this model against dominant twentieth-century critical paradigms, Levinson discriminates layers, phases, and kinds of intentionality in the poems and considers the ideological implications of this diversity.

This study is the first to investigate the English Romantic fragment poem by identifying the assumptions -- contemporary and belated -- that govern interpretative procedures. In a substantial summary chapter, Levinson reflects upon the meaning and effects of these assumptions with respect to the facts and fictions of literary production in the period and to the processes of canon formation.

Originally published in 1986.


The poetic fragment, while not, of course, unique to the early nineteenth century, is nonetheless a peculiarly Romantic form. Let me clarify that distinction by analogy. Throughout the years, numbers of scholars have argued that the novel assumed determinate form before the eighteenth century got underway. As we all know, the novel, which maintained its position throughout the eighteenth century, appreciated exponentially in the popular and critical marketplace from the early nineteenth century to the present. Most of us feel we can safely claim the form as a dominant modern perspective.

I rehearse these commonplaces in order to emphasize that while the novel does not occur exclusively, most prominently, or perhaps even originally in the early eighteenth century, it enjoys in our critical canons a privileged relationship with that interval--or, with the general and literary ideologies whereby we conceive that interval an organized and meaningful span, a "period." For a number of obvious and not so obvious reasons (for example, the number of novels published in the eighteenth century relative to former periods; conditions of literary production and reception in the period; structure and tendency of literary historiography), most of us allow the eighteenth-century novel historical and therefore formal priority. Quite automatically, one tends to describe the practice of Fielding, Richardson, and Defoe when introducing the form to a beginning student of literature. Indeed, those who contend for a pre-eighteenth-century novel typically argue their submission on the basis of its resemblance to the eighteenth-century form.

Although poetic fragments occur in periods other than the Romantic, criticism tacitly assigns them an unusually motivated and expressive condition within the early nineteenth century, or within that age's dominant . . .

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