Romanticism, History, Historicism: Essays on an Orthodoxy

By Rawes, Alan | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Romanticism, History, Historicism: Essays on an Orthodoxy


Rawes, Alan, The Byron Journal


ROMANTICISM, HISTORY, HISTORICISM: ESSAYS ON AN ORTHODOXY. Edited by Damian Walford Davies. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. Pp. xx + 234. ISBN 978 0 415 96112 7. £85.

This volume of essays opens with a brief preface in which Alan Liu considers what he calls the 'mortality' of his own 'intellectual moment', bringing 'into clear focus what the New Historicism, in [his] view, was ultimately all about' but also raging, a little, 'against the dying of the light'. Damian Walford Davies' introduction to this timely collection then states that the book's eleven chapters 'reflect meta-critically on the mixed inheritance, blessings, and legacies of Romantic New Historicism', aiming to 'assess and interpret' New Historicism's past and 'hybrid present'. Here the volume speaks very much to its own historical moment, in which New Historicism 'continues' very much to 'condition' Romantic Studies but in ways that make this particular historical approach to literature seem increasingly old-fashioned, formulaic and conservative. However, the volume wears its overall ongoing commitment to the New Historicist 'project' on its sleeve: as the editor puts it, the essays are, in their various ways, concerned with how that project 'might be taken forward', rather than displaced, 'in Romantic Studies'.

The first four essays 'assess the maladies, limits, eddies, and affective pull of New Historicism'. For me, these essays contain some of the most exciting writing in the volume. In 'The Incommensurable Value of Historicism', Tim Milnes laments rather than celebrates the 'persistence of historicism (in its current form)', arguing that 'in the areas of "theory" and "methodology"' New Historicism 'damagingly constricts Romantic scholarship'. Unable to meet the 'challenge' it sets itself - that of clarifying 'its own theoretical and historical location' - Milnes argues that New Historicism is 'particularly susceptible to the critical contortions produced by any methodology that attempts to externalise its own value position'. He closes by suggesting how 'historicism might begin to move beyond' its 'maladies' - by giving up 'the assumption that literary criticism needs to be underpinned by a "theory" of truth encompassing a "methodology"'.

Beginning with the proposition that 'literary history and historicism are practiced in entirely different ways', 'The Hair of Milton: Historicism and Literary History' by Erik Gray argues that, however desirable it may be, reconciling the 'delineat[ion] of a particular historical moment' and 'the narrative sweep that literary history offers' is not only 'extraordinarily difficult' but also 'puzzled the Romantics' themselves. Discussing Keats's 'Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair', the essay details Keats's 'struggle to reconcile or at least acknowledge' Milton's 'material presence [...] now' and his 'historical importance'. Highlighting just how very difficult it was for Keats to 'balance synchronic and diachronic versions of history', Gray nevertheless rather sidesteps this difficulty in concluding that this is now 'the challenge for historicist criticism', a criticism that has hitherto been 'almost entirely divorced from the diachronic considerations of literary history'.

Kelly Grovier's '"In Embalméd Darkness": Keats, the Picturesque, and the Limits of Historicization' focuses on 'Keats's achievement' (particularly in 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and 'To Autumn') through the 'aperture' of the 'contemporary vogue aesthetic of the picturesque' in order to 'unsettle and invigorate the historicist conclusions of recent commentators' who find Keats's 'later landscapes [...] inscribed with deeply encoded political meanings'. For Grovier, the picturesque, as 'deliberately engaged by Keats' in his 1819 odes 'necessarily' involves a 'political ambivalence' that exposes one of New Historicism's limits by rendering one of its characteristic critical methods - the 'attempt to attach "immediate" or "precise" political meanings' to poems - 'partial at best'. …

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