Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Romantic Fragment Poem and the Performance of Form

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Romantic Fragment Poem and the Performance of Form

Article excerpt

1. "Defect of undercurrent" and Other Definitions

ROMANTICISM'S CLAIM TO INVENTING THE FRAGMENT POEM HAS COME under fire in recent years. Leonard Barkan has argued convincingly in Unearthing the Past that the deliberate creation and appreciation of fragments as fragments was an aesthetic practice as early as the Italian Renaissance, and that Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures and sketches were valued for their possibility, not their completion: "The non finito is not a mere romantic anachronism but a real expression of early modern artistic culture." (1) Other scholars have suggested that what we call the Romantic fragment is formally part of a mixed genre that goes back at least to Petrarch, and includes Sterne and Diderot as predecessors, particularly for the long and digressive fragment poems of Byron. (2) Others have argued for the extended influence of Romantic fragments into Modernist and even Postmodern poetry. At the heart of all these discussions, of course, is the contested definition of an artistic "fragment," and the hope that we might come to a consensus here on a definition, much less an origin, is surely futile. But the nature of these disagreements, particularly over the canonical fragments of Romanticism, is instructive, I think, because it highlights a deeper discomfort with the notion of artistic intent. Theories which find a way to make particular fragment poems "complete," in other words, presume a particular definition of poetry, and the amorphousness of the fragment allows each critic to put what are essentially matters of taste into formal terms. Are there, then, formal differences between the canonical fragments and the obscure ones? Or just varying degrees of success in provoking our need, as readers, for completion?

Say we begin with that most ingenious fragment, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," both a dream and a fragment according to its title, and the most famous fragment of the Romantic period, perhaps the most famous fragment poem in the English literary canon, the predecessor (if not the originator) of a form that includes Keats's "Hyperion," Wordsworth's "The Danish Boy," Byron's Don Juan, and Shelley's "The Triumph of Life," all of which were described as "fragments" upon publication. As a dream, "Kubla Khan" has become a collective one of which "everything is known ... except what it is about," as George Watson put it over forty years ago. (3)

Many of the critical studies of "Kubla Khan" delineate terms at their outset that are actually designed to disqualify the poem as a literal fragment, preferring, as it were, to use it for more symbolic ends. It is as though the term "fragment," so perfect a metaphor for other aspects of the poem, cannot also be a factual description of its form. In previous treatments of "Kubla Khan" the poem is made whole, so that its stated fragmentariness must be understood as something other than its form: an idea, a modality, a condition, a manner, an imperative. For example, Thomas McFarland begins his study with the statement "Kubla Khan ... is as fully terminated as any poem in the language." (4) Therefore, its fragmentariness must be construed from the biographical events surrounding its composition; the opium-induced dream and its interruption constitute the fragment, not the poem itself. "Kubla Khan" symbolizes the ruins of the poet's own life in the supposed incompleteness presented to the reader in its prefatory note. McFarland's analysis convincingly illustrates both the power and the short--comings of such an approach. In large part, he relies on the idea that aesthetic value is equivalent to completion, so that if Coleridge's poem is to be held up as a great poem, it must by definition be "fully terminated," which, though sinister-sounding, is high praise. But the most astonishing aspect of "Kubla Khan" is precisely its opposition to the way we think aesthetic poetry should sound and feel, even after all these years, however many they are. …

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