Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America

By Marc Redfield | Go to book overview

2. Theory and Romantic Lyric
The Case of “A slumber did my spirit seal”

During their brief tenure as the public face of “theory,” the Yale Critics, as we have seen, made visible a conflicted affinity between theory (as “high theory,” which is to say as theory-as-deconstruction), on the one hand, and the academic field of romanticism, on the other. We have also seen that, for various institutional, historical, and literary-historical reasons, romanticism—meaning here above all British and comparative romanticism—has been the literary field most intensely engaged with aesthetic questions in the American academy. Given the lines along which modern aesthetics developed, it is then almost tautological to observe that until relatively recently the academic study of romanticism consistently privileged the study of lyric poetry. “Lyric was finally made one of three fundamental genres during the romantic period,” Jonathan Culler summarizes, “when a more vigorous conception of the individual subject made it possible to conceive of lyric as mimetic: mimetic of the experience of the subject.”1 Associated with voice, subjectivity, and intensity of expression and feeling, lyric began to become, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, an available name for the essence of poetry, and ultimately, by extension, literature or literariness itself. If one discounts the difficulties encountered whenever one looks closely at particular contexts and texts, one can track an increasingly normative aesthetic concept of lyric from romantic and nineteenth-century writing through the modernist revolution of Eliot and Pound, and into twentieth-century academic criticism. The most remembered work of I. A. Richards, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks, and W. K. Wimsatt turns on the interpretation of lyric poems, to the point that the centrality of lyric in New Critical scholarship and pedagogy has become a cliché of intellectual history. As young-Turk romanticists, Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman shared at least one thing with the disciples of T. S. Eliot: a commitment to literature as poetry, and to poetry as paradig-

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