Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in the Lay of the Last Minstrel

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in the Lay of the Last Minstrel

Article excerpt

Since [Scott], since a certain break or rapture that took place with [Scott], [poetry] is no longer what was understood by this word, but rather the agency (or insistence) of the letter in the unconscious. [Poetry] is the letter and hence what passes in and through the unconscious.(1)

I LIKE TO THINK OF THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL AS THE GREAT UNREAD poem of the romantic period for several reasons, each of which puts a different pressure on the key terms of that phrase, "the great unread poem." Perhaps the least important of the terms for my discussion is "great"; to advertise an unread, untaught text as "great" is usually merely to insist that it is qualitatively indistinguishable from texts that are already anthologized, taught, written about. But to examine the concept of literary "greatness" in relation to Scott's Lay is valuable, I wish to suggest, because Scott's own literary career--from collector and editor of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border to his rise to prominence as the single most popular poet of the first decade of the (British) nineteenth century to his abdication as Parnassus' chief and self-reinvention as the anonymous "Author of Waverley" and the world's most popular novelist--appears to offer an allegory of the historical fortunes of the conception of "poetry" itself.

The absence of a theory of the poem seems to me a glaring blank in the critical discourses of cultural studies and print culture, for, with the exception of John Guillory's fine account of the development of a "vernacular" canon in the "Mute Inglorious Miltons" chapter of Cultural Capital and Susan Stewart's "Notes on Distressed Genres," there has been little reflection on the persistence in 1800 and after of what would appear, by most contemporary accounts, to be the outmoded medium of the poem.(2) Consider the extent to which Enlightenment theories of the origin of languages regarded poetry as the most archaic form of discourse, and meter and rhyme chiefly as mnemonic devices for the preservation of cultural history in the absence of writing. The problematic archaism of a written poetry culminates with the development in the eighteenth century of print capitalism as a truly massive medium. Influential arguments advanced by Habermas and Anderson, among others, about the normativizing and nationalizing effects of print culture presuppose that print is a more or less silent medium; by silencing actual speech differences--class, provincial, and gendered vocal inflections--print is the medium of a virtual community of speakers.(3) Within such a framework, poetry's identification with the residual sound effects of meter and rhyme--especially those rhymes that, as in Burns and Scott, play upon "northern pronunciation"--seems to threaten the Enlightenment ideal of transparent communication.

The most widespread solution to this evident dilemma is to identify poetry as the language of the passions; poetry represents that excited utterance which, according to grammarians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is registered in prose only by the unmeaning interjection (oh!, ah! alas!).(4) We might see here a kind of mental geography of uneven development working in concert with the familiar Enlightenment and romantic ethnographic interest in the rural; in the same way that oral history projects like Scott's Minstrelsy attempt to fix and preserve the vanishing traces of folk expression, so (written) lyric comes to be seen as an attempt to arrest the semiotic babble and rapid evanishments of emotion. One understands almost immediately, in this context, the transitional function of Scott's and the Lake School's attempts to reanimate lyric by linking it with the ballad tradition, with the oral traditions still part of "low and rustic life." But the question remains: given the prevalent understanding of poetry as a medium, as a specifically oral medium to be eventually supplanted by the more efficient media of writing and of typography, how might poetry claim any but a marginal position (antiquarian or domestic) in print culture? …

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