- Sean PryorSean PryorUniversity of New South Wales
If poetics customarily deals with generalities, history seems to insist on particulars. In the 21st century, various literary critics have sought to manage these competing imperatives by developing an “historical poetics.” These critics pursue sometimes very different projects, working with diverse methodologies and theoretical frameworks, but they share a desire to think again about the relation between poetics and history.
Some critics have pursued an historical poetics by conducting quantitative studies of changes in metrical form, while others have investigated the social uses to which poetry was put in the cultures of the past. Both approaches tend to reject received notions of the aesthetic or literary, with their emphasis on the individual poet and on the poem’s organic unity. Much work in historical poetics has focused instead on problems of genre and reception, seeking the historical significance of poetry in what is common and repeated. Sometimes this work has involved extensive archival research, examining memoirs, grammar books, philological tracts, and other materials in order to discover how poetry was conceived and interpreted at a particular time. These methods allow critics to tell histories of poetry and to reveal a history in poetry. The cultural history of poetic forms thus becomes a history of social thought and practice conducted through poetry.
For other critics, however, the historical significance of a poem lies instead in the way it challenges the poetics of its time. This is to emphasize the singular over the common and repeated. In this mode, historical poetics aims both to restore poems to their proper historical moment and to show how poems work across history. The history to be valued in such cases is not a ground or world beyond the poem, but the event of the poem itself.
- Literary Theory
Poetics and History
If poetics customarily deals with generalities, history seems to insist on particulars. In the 21st century, various literary critics have sought to manage these competing imperatives by developing an “historical poetics.” This desire to think again about the relation between poetics and history was a response to major developments in late 20th-century literary criticism. In particular, the call for a newly historical poetics responded to New Formalism and to earlier formalisms, which were sometimes said to neglect history.1 The call for an historical poetics responded to New Historicism and to later historicisms, which were sometimes said to neglect questions of structure, form, and technique.2 Above all, the call for an historical poetics encouraged critics to ask not just what the terms history and poetry can mean, but why history and poetry, together, seem valuable.
In answering these questions, scholars have adopted diverse theoretical positions, performed a range of analytical maneuvers, and addressed very different materials. One group of scholars working in historical poetics writes primarily on 19th-century British and American poetry; another works primarily in classics and on Russian literature and literary theory.3 The two groups came to the term historical poetics differently, and their members refer to each other only rarely and in passing. There are, in addition, other scholars who have published important work alongside or in response to the members of these groups; there are some who have turned independently to the term historical poetics, with regard both to literature and to film; and there are some who have engaged with the same issues without recourse to the term at all.4 The writings of all these scholars have been shaped by collaborations and conflicts, though shared preoccupations cut across some of the differences. Deployed and interrogated by so many, historical poetics does not designate a single, settled field of study, critical methodology, or literary-historical program; instead, it marks a set of problems.
This article does not attempt a genealogy of groups, individuals, or their ideas.5 Working back and forth across explicit affiliations, it aims to examine some of the conceptual preoccupations of historical poetics in its various modes, as well as to explore the relation of historical poetics to other developments in literary criticism. But it is worth noting, at the start, that the term historical poetics is not new, for the first formulation of an “historical poetics” appeared in the writings of the 19th-century Russian literary theorist, Alexander Veselovsky. Some 21st-century critics engage with Veselovsky’s work, as well as with that of later Russian theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Olga Freidenberg, but many do not, their mode of historical poetics often differing dramatically from Veselovsky’s. Nevertheless, Veselovsky’s attempt to develop an historical poetics can serve here, not as a common origin, but to introduce some important problems.
Veselovsky’s field of expertise was popular legend and folklore, especially that of the Middle Ages. Working with and guided by these materials, Veselovsky’s arguments ran counter to the dominant critical currents of his day. Veselovsky rejected German or Romantic aestheticism, emphasizing the composite and the generic over the unified and the singular. “German aesthetics does not yet know what to do,” he wrote in 1870, “with the Kalevala or with the French chansons de geste.”6 Veselovsky also rejected that model of literary history which tells the tale of poetic schools or which singles out great writers as exemplars of their age. Too often in such histories, Veselovsky complained, “some great man is made to answer for the unity of the viewpoint, for the integrity of the generalisation”—that is to say, for the critic’s interpretation of the social and cultural moment under investigation.7
Veselovsky’s interest in the popular and the generic has a number of consequences. First, to understand the history of literature, critics should not generalize from a few choice examples. Critics must instead engage in the long and painstaking process of accumulating and assessing all available instances. A generalization may be called properly scientific, Veselovsky argued, only when the critic’s “work has been conducted step by step with a ceaseless verification of the facts,” and when “not a single item of the comparison has been omitted.”8 Veselovsky’s proposal for literary history thus raised the problems of exemplarity and of scale, anticipating key 21st-century debates.9
Second, because literary forms emerge in response to what Veselovsky called “a popular-poetic demand,” or “an urgent call of the times,” the history of literature represents a history of those times.10 Literary history, Veselovsky wrote, is “the history of social thought in its imagistic-poetic survival.”11 Literature has a history, and literature records a history—the history of collective consciousness.
Third, literature records social thought not only in the rise and fall of genres, such as the epic and the drama, but also in a range of smaller and more mobile formal elements, devices, formulas, and motifs, from particular plots, through particular character types, to particular images. A given plot or image which, having been born in response to some social demand and having then fallen into a long sleep, may, given a new and appropriate demand, awaken again centuries later. In this way, Veselovsky argues, “we explain the renewal of some plots, whereas others are apparently forgotten.”12 Forms emerge in history, and forms persist across history. As a result, the literary work is not an organic unity sprung from a single mind, but a composite or sedimentary record of countless forms and of the social thought they index. Literary history is not chiefly a matter of intertextuality and influence, of one poet’s borrowings and departures from another poet, but of the survival and transformation of forms over the longue durée. As Boris Maslov explains, this means that “Historical difference”—the historical change which make the demands to which forms respond—“is manifested in modulations of inherited formal elements.”13 Again, there is a history of literature to be told, and there is a history to be found in literature.
Fourth, however, there is a limit to Veselovsky’s historicism. The epic may rise to prominence only in certain situations, but it is itself always available: the epic, the lyric, and drama stand outside history as permanent potentialities. “These forms are the natural expression of the mind,” Veselovsky claimed, and “they had no reason to await history in order to manifest themselves.”14 There is thus an ahistorical aspect to Veselovsky’s literary history.15 These natural expressions of the mind, the genres of epic and lyric and drama, are not categories induced from a sufficient phalanx of particulars, but categories given a priori; these categories shape the making and the understanding of whichever particulars happen to arise. The dialectic of particular and general is an old problem, and it has been especially important to theories of genre, but it is telling that, as Robert Bird notes, Veselovsky offers both “the empiricism of the literary historian” and “the theorist’s desire for a universally … valid taxonomy.”16
This is telling because any attempt to configure history with poetics confronts that dialectic of particular and general. For Gerard Genette, a structuralist, the task of poetics is to establish “the entire set of general or transcendent categories—types of discourse, modes of enunciation, literary genres—from which emerges each singular text.”17 But even Genette establishes his taxonomies through detailed consideration of, for example, the history of the terms parody and pastiche, and of a substantial set of parodies and pastiches from across history. Genette inherits the terms which he makes into transcendent categories, and he knows that no taxonomy can halt the ongoing history of those terms. “In proposing this taxonomic and terminological reform,” he reflects, “I hold no real hopes for its future.”18
Yet it is not simply that history generates the recalcitrant particulars, thwarting the generalities of poetics. If poetics operates between poems and poetry, or between the line “To be, or not to be, that is the question” and the category of blank verse, history too has its generalities: the era, the period, the tradition, the development, the transition, the rupture, the moment. Each is a tool for conceptualizing and narrating a set of particulars. This dialectic generates much of the maneuvering performed by 21st-century scholars engaged in historical poetics. The problem partly lies in which generalities and which particulars a given critic values.
It is worth remembering, at this point, that the term poetics has multiple meanings. For a Genette or a Veselovsky, it denotes the study of the way literary works are made. Often, these ways of making are common to a genre or tradition. But poetics also sometimes denotes those ways of making themselves, rather than a description or theory of them, so that to refer to the poetics of Restoration verse or of the dramatic monologue, would be to indicate something common to the poems of a period or a genre. In this sense, the ways of making may be specific to an author or even a work: the poetics of Aphra Behn, for example, or of The Song of Lawino. At the same time, poetics can in its broadest sense refer to ways of making anything—the poetics of space, the poetics of food—and in a narrow sense it can refer, specifically, to ways of making poetry.19 Veselovsky deals with a variety of literary forms, but most 21st-century critics working in and with historical poetics attend specifically to poems.
Histories of Poetry
Questions of Scale
What, then, can historical poetics look like? One common practice has been to tell a story about poetry in terms of a device or genre. Historical poetics often takes for its object something smaller or larger than the individual poem or poet. The device, genre, or other form in question can be tracked and compared across a large number of poems and poets, and even across the centuries. Eric Hayot has described this as an effort to revive “large-scale literary historical criticism.”20 But it is by no means an effort or a focus unique to historical poetics. When Franco Moretti exhorts critics to turn from close reading to distant reading, for instance, he proposes a “focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems.”21
Such shifts in scale have on occasion meant taking a quantitative approach. Seeking to understand why rhyme has proved so prominent in Russian verse, Boris Maslov and Tatiana Nikitina take as their case study a particular ten-line stanza used in Pindaric odes written by 17th- and 18th-century French, German, and Russian poets. From their statistical analyses, Maslov and Nikitina conclude that “rhymed syllabo-accentual verse is a site of nuanced calibration of two principles of organization: rhyme and rhythm.”22 When rhyme is regimented, rhythm can afford to be relaxed, and when rhythm is regimented, rhyme may be relaxed. Maslov and Nikitina note that this “compensatory mechanism … is by no means a strict law of comparative metrics”; they do not mean to universalize absolutely.23 But nevertheless this “relation of compensation between rhythm and rhyme can,” Maslov and Nikitina explain, “be viewed as endemic to Russian versification throughout its history.”24 This means that even the “extraordinary rhythmic experiment” represented by the work of Mikhail Lomonosov, who in the 1740s and 1750s loosened his rhythms and tightened his rhymes, is enabled by a common principle.25 Though the calibration of rhyme and rhythm may be discerned statistically, it is “unlikely to be subject to conscious manipulation by the poet.”26 It is the common principle, the conditions for the development of poetic form across the longue durée, visible only at a certain scale of analysis, which most matters here. There is an emphasis on continuity rather than rupture.
Though few other scholars engaged with historical poetics have taken a quantitative approach, these values are more common. In discussing repetition in the poetry of John Clare, Caroline Levine warns that those who value “the distinctive, the original, and the resistant most often point to exceptional instances and thus tend to wrest our attention from collectivities and solidarities.”27 For Meredith Martin, the inheritance of German romanticism and aesthetic theory “provides an abstract idea of literary genius” and encourages us “to think of poetry in terms of expression and persona.”28 Clearly, if individual poets have at best incomplete control over their rhythms and rhymes, and if those rhythms and rhymes are partly determined by common principles or collective practices, such a position is inadequate.
Period and Genre
One logical complement to this approach to the history of poetry, is a focus, not on poems as self-sufficient objects of analysis, but on those poems’ “social lives”: the ways in which poems were used and circulated, the social functions performed by poetry. In this way, Michael C. Cohen tells the story of itinerant balladmongers in New England at the turn of the 19th century, while Jason R. Rudy examines the poetry written later in that century by immigrants en route to Australia and New Zealand.29 Such cultures can seem foreign to 21st-century readers. “I am mostly interested in poems that have not been read in a long time,” writes Cohen,
poems that, based on what I can deduce from their archival context, may never have been read at all; and poems I assume some readers might think not worth reading or, at least, and this is a key distinction, not closely. Put another way, many of the poems I consider have a vexed connection to literariness.30
This is not, then, a history of poetry to be conducted primarily through detailed textual analysis, though close readings do feature on occasion. There are no well-wrought urns in these histories, no masterpieces and no geniuses. “The banishment of the poet, combined with a rejection of the organic unity of the work of art,” write Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov, “is one of the inaugural gestures of Historical Poetics.”31 Here, again, historical poetics sets itself against prominent received notions of the aesthetic and the literary.
When Christopher A. Faraone considers the Chryses episode in the first book of the Iliad, for example, a broad generic history offers a framework for solving critical problems which the assumption of organic unity, with its concern for consistent characterization, cannot: “The Chryses episode in Iliad 1 … provides an interesting case study of how Panhellenic epic poetry … can absorb an epichoric cult hymn with its local etiologies and epithets and use specific features of its style and content to manipulate and intrigue its audience, because it”—the audience—“already knows the hymnic genre so well.”32 The Chryses episode exemplifies a moment of transition, as local cult practices are subsumed by delocalized epic. This is a moment of transition both in ancient Greek society and, more specifically, in poetry’s social uses. Though such an argument might seem to perpetuate a traditional investment in canonical masterpieces—motivated by wanting to understand the Iliad—its real interest lies in genre, in the relation between epic and Homeric hymn.
This approach to genre turns from transhistorical principles and patterns to the commonalities of a given historical period. For many, to attend to period and genre in this way is to navigate the Scylla of the singular poem and the Charybdis of a universalist poetics. Yopie Prins thus urges critics working in historical poetics “to develop different approaches to different centuries, taking into account generic shifts in the production and circulation of poetry and insisting on the cultural specificity of poetic genres.”33 This may mean, for example, resisting the conflation of hymns, odes, elegies, and other genres into what is said to be the ahistorical and anachronistic abstraction of the lyric. It may mean resisting the ahistorical and anachronistic abstraction of poetry itself, said by Cohen to be a 20th-century imposition on 19th-century poems.34 (For Steven Connor, in contrast, poetry is concrete, while art is the airy abstraction.)35 But a concern for particularity can also mean giving historical specificity to the lyric or to poetry, conceived differently at different times and in different places.36 As Levine puts it, “to recognize a work’s genre is a historically specific and interpretative act.”37 In this way, Levine distinguishes between genre, conceived of as historically specific, and form, conceived of as transhistorical. Genres mutate, Levine argues, but forms “remain stable over time” and thus can “migrate across contexts in a way that genres cannot.”38
So, an investment in genre often focuses critical attention on an historical period and it often leads to an interest in reception and circulation. Telling the history of poetic genres means working with how audiences understand the significances of cultic hymn or investigating the social lives of the monody. Because poems “are read through the generic conventions that make up the history of reading poetry,” Prins argues, we need to attend to the “repeated readings that compose the poem’s reception, each an act of recognition.”39 When we consider the history of the genre of the ballad, it emerges not as a fixed verse-form but as a set of shifting cultural practices and values. The “idea of a stable ballad stanza form,” Martin notes, “is an abstraction of actual verse history”: in fact, a whole range of verse-forms were, in the 18th and 19th centuries, published and circulated as ballads.40 A genre such as the ballad thus becomes less a matter of making and more a matter of hearing and reading, as well as of printing, selling, singing, memorizing, rewriting, providing with illustrations, and a host of other activities.
In order to write the history of poetry as a history of genre and of reception, many critics have therefore turned from the poems of the past to past writings about poetry, and to the connections between that discourse and broader cultural concerns. In the 19th century, Martin explains, “Ballad discourse formed an intellectual constellation with contemporary linguistics, rhetoric, and the burgeoning field of English literary criticism,” and that constellation was itself constellated with political writing and educational theory.41 The history of the ballad therefore proves inseparable from the history of thinking about the ballad, and of social thought at large. Whether one’s concern is with genre or form, this emphasis on reception has compelled a substantial effort to recover forgotten discourses about poetry. To take Victorian poetry on its own terms, Prins writes, thus means “backtracking through Victorian metrical theory and actually reading all those treatises and pamphlets and polemics and hypotheses that circulated in the nineteenth century.”42 The archive is large, rich, and, as the 21st century proceeds, increasingly accessible online.43 “Nineteenth-century poetics developed via a vast, unruly array of handbooks, manuals, periodical articles and reviews, memoirs, grammar books, philological tracts, essays, letters, and histories.”44 This archive enables scholars to put the familiar but sometimes idiosyncratic theories of canonical poets and critics in the context of often less familiar but sometimes more widespread ideas and practices.
If this historical poetics seems a history of ideas about poetry rather than a history of poetry itself, it aims to show that the two are in fact inseparable. This historical poetics works, Prins explains, “recursively as a loop, reading simultaneously from inside out and from outside in.”45 The aim is not to discover in a forgotten essay or letter the truth of the ballad or a true theory of blank verse, which could then be brought to bear on a reading of Banjo Paterson or Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “practical application is not the point of historical poetics” in this mode.46
This is, again, an approach opposed to aesthetic theory, as well as to traditional methods of scansion. It is also opposed to linguistic studies of poetic form. In the introduction to a collection of essays which, heavily indebted to linguistics, deal with Old English and Middle English poetry, J. J. Anderson and C. B. McCully ask “What is ‘a metre’?”47 Whatever the answer, it should be as true for Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as it is for Louise Bennett’s “Bans a Killin.” “In a universalist theory,” writes Geoffrey Russom, “metrical principles are formulated to apply within all relevant styles and traditions.”48 Scholars working in generative metrics have proposed theories of meter based on the categories of universal grammar, thereby offering ahistorical frameworks for reading diverse metrical traditions and poems.49 Linguistics has furnished other scholars with analytical tools for narrating the history of meter in English, from Beowulf to Seamus Heaney, encouraging a particular focus on how that history was affected by changes in the language and by the movement of verse-forms from one language to another.50 In contrast to such studies, the metrical theories of, say, the Victorian period, can seem “antiquated,” incapable of accounting for the poetry even of its own time.51 But for historical poetics the antiquity is what matters, since what has been lost in discarding the musical scansion of Sidney Lanier or George Saintsbury’s classical scansion is key to understanding the poetry of Lanier’s and of Saintsbury’s times. Saintsbury and Lanier exemplify the ideas and values brought to poetry by their contemporaries. The aim is thus not a theory but, as Prins puts it, “a cultural history of forms.”52
Most of all, an historical poetics which engages with the poetics of the past sets itself against a presentism in interpretation. If encounters with poems are always mediated by ideas about poetry, whether to do with genre, meter, or some other feature, then this historical poetics wants above all to avoid “imposing our own ideas (or idealizations).”53 For Cohen,
This critical approach is not simply about recovering lost authors, texts, genres, or contexts; it is also about reimagining poetics through a historically precise method, and therefore reconsidering questions of poetic form, reading, mediation, circulation, and address from (in this case) a nineteenth-century vantage point.54
The 19th century is ideal for such a project, because the archive is available. But if one’s concern is with the cultic hymn in archaic Greece, then one’s evidence is largely, though not exclusively, the extant hymns. As Maslov has shown, the attempt to discover what Greeks in the archaic period thought about poets, and whether indeed they had an idea of the poet equivalent to what is meant by the word poet in the 21st century, must turn for evidence to the ways in which Greek poems refer to themselves and their performers or composers.55 It is easier to discover what Gerard Manley Hopkins’s contemporaries thought about alliteration, than what alliteration meant to those who first heard “The Wanderer.”56 We should remember that modes of historical poetics are themselves historically constrained.
Histories in Poetry
Whatever the available materials, the ambition to address questions of poetics historically often means attending to what Rudy calls “the situatedness of poetic meaning: the necessary relationship between a poem’s readerly contexts and its meaning.”57 This meaning may involve both referential content—what it is that Milton meant by “two-handed engine”—and, more importantly, connotation and value: what blank verse meant to Milton, as the recovery of ancient liberty; what it meant to his contemporaries; and what it meant and means to later readers. Meaning encompasses interpretation, reception, and use. From this perspective, the poem is an experience, as well as an object. If one mode of historical poetics might thus seek to study changes in the syntactical organization of the heroic couplet over the centuries, another might seek to show how the heroic couplet meant something very different for the Augustans and for the modernists. It may be that there is hard evidence for the specific meanings which particular readers found in a given poem or form. It may instead be that contextual materials allow a plausible reconstruction of the meanings which would, at a given time, have been available. In either case, this approach would be opposed to presentist reading, said to be blithely unconcerned with such specificities. For the true presentist, Cohen warns, it “does not matter if no one (including, notoriously, the author) has ever found the meaning that my reading discovers.”58
This emphasis on the situatedness of meaning may be placed on a spectrum between two other emphases: a universalist, ahistorical approach to poetic meaning and an approach to the meaning of individual poems as historically singular. To reimagine poetics from an historically precise vantage thus seems to be, again, to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, reconciling poetics with history. Yet history and poetics meet at every point on this spectrum. One can argue that the unchanging form of the heroic couplet allows, if not a constant set of meanings, at least a constant set of affordances which condition meaning. “While its meanings and values may change,” Levine writes, “the pattern or shape itself can remain surprisingly stable across contexts. But as they move, forms bring their limited range of affordances with them.”59 Though rhyme’s “historical and cultural circumstances” may change drastically, rhyme itself “will always repeat,” and, as Levine shows, rhyme’s repetition can determine the meaning of a poem’s treatment of its themes and contexts. Rhyme can, for example, affect a poem’s treatment of agricultural labor, with its daily and seasonal repetitions, and of the repeating injustices of social inequality more broadly.60
To write the history of poetry as a history of meaning, is thus, very often, also to pursue the history in poetry. This can involve, as here, tracking relations between a poem’s formal repetitions and the social and material repetitions which characterized its historical moment. Or it can involve working from that archive of memoirs, grammar books, and other materials towards cultural, political, and economic structures. For instance, Martin argues that 19th-century British poetics reveals
a conception of meter that stands for a host of evolving cultural concerns, including class mobility, imperialism, masculinity, labor, education, the role of classical and philological institutions, freedom, patriotism, national identification, and high art versus low art.61
Such a conception of meter was put to specific political work, not least through pedagogical systems: “English literature, and the rhythms and meters of English poetry in particular, could, according to this narrative”—the narrative propounded by 19th-century poetics—“civilize the newly enfranchised English masses.”62 In sum, meter meant nation. Attending to that narrative, Martin traces connections between nationalist conceptions of the ballad and the imperialist logic of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842), as well as the imperialism of Macaulay’s Memorandum on Education, with its violent denigration of the literary, historical, and intellectual traditions of Sanskrit and Arabic.63
A concern for reception and for genre, meter, and other commonalities, repeats the turn from single work and lone author to the collective and the everyday. Cohen argues that, because the literary history of 19th-century American poetry has so often been restricted to Whitman and Dickinson, with passing attention to Longfellow and Poe, genuinely “popular nineteenth-century poets have been so thoroughly elided … that their ubiquity in daily life is”—when it is recognized at all—“difficult to imagine as anything other than unfortunate.”64 Yet the poems of these other poets illuminate the daily lives of large numbers of people, because those people found the poems meaningful. The meanings people found in those poems represent a history of collective consciousness, so that one can, in writing a history of poetry, write a social history. “I am most concerned,” Rudy writes, “with asking how reading British colonial poetry reshapes our understanding of the period, its history, and colonialism more broadly.”65 Because this involves attending to the collective or popular, poetry emerges with real historical agency. “I show poetic genre,” Rudy continues, “to be a powerful mechanism supporting the cultural work of British colonialism.”66 The situatedness of poetic meaning leads the critic to the poem’s situation.
Poetry and the World
This is one way in which to seek a history in poetry. It is, as Simon Jarvis puts it, to “write a history of the world conducted by means of poetry.”67 It involves the old problem of how to conceive of poetic form in relation to culture, and in particular the problem of whether to understand poetry as passive or active, or both. A given poetic form may be read as the passive reflection of a dominant ideology, for example, or transformations in poetic form may be shown passively to reflect changes in the structure of the language.68 But as Kliger and Maslov suggest, historical poetics, at least in some of its modes, “provides us with a way of understanding literary practice … as not only a response to, but also a constitutive factor in, history.”69 In this, historical poetics bears comparison with other major approaches to history and literature. Pursuing a Marxist criticism, Fredric Jameson proposes that a given formal element should be understood “not as a mere reflex or reduplication of its situational context, but as the imaginary resolution of the objective contradictions to which it thus constitutes an active response.”70 For Theodor W. Adorno, in turn, the “truth content” of an artwork lies in its determinate critique of history—of those very objective contradictions—and this critique lies, not in what the work has to say about history (its ostensible “message”), but in the historically specific configuration of its form.71 Participating in history, the singular form of a single work may, therefore, crystallize a “social truth,” exposing domination and illusion.72
But both for Marxism and for historical poetics, there is the question as to whether the history of the world needs to be conducted through art or poetry. Poetry was important to the lives of large numbers of colonizers and colonized, and poetry was deliberately conscripted into the colonial project, but does attention to poetry radically alter the general picture of British colonialism in the nineteenth century? Does one need to have analyzed the Chryses episode to understand the transition from local cults to Panhellenic culture in archaic Greece? For some critics, poetry in particular and literature in general do indeed “provide principal evidence for studying the longue durée of the history of consciousness” or for studying the collective consciousness of a particular historical period.73 This will be more true in some cases and less true in others; it will depend on the available evidence and on the social position and functions of poetry in the situation at hand. But for this mode of historical poetics, poetry has a crucial part to play in writing that broader history.
It is possible to object, however, that poetry is more than this, or is sometimes more than this, and that to seek the history in poetry in this way risks reducing poetry to evidence for projects which are indifferent to the literary or the aesthetic. Such studies, which might be said to take what Derek Attridge has called “an instrumental attitude to literature,” certainly provide “valuable accounts of literary works as indices to the historical, sociological, and ideological texture of earlier periods.”74 But though these results are valuable, such studies reflect “a primary interest somewhere other than in literature.”75
This is unsurprising, since historical poetics often sets itself squarely against the literary or aesthetic. It is, moreover, quite possible to historicize the literary and the aesthetic themselves. One way to do this, is to show how a particular author or poem, at a given point in history, seems through a singular formal performance to oppose or exceed the claims of the generic and the collective. Literary or aesthetic distinction then emerges, not in conformity to a priori categories, but as a text’s performative achievement. In this way, Dino Franco Felluga has shown how Byron’s Don Juan directly and influentially resists the constraints of genre:
For Byron and for the verse novels that followed him, referent, form, and genre are precisely what is not true to the poem (or, for that matter, to the self); they take us out of the poem to the ground of history beyond it, or they are what we perform on the poem by marking it as belonging to any one genre or structure.76
Along similar lines, much work in historical poetics has sought to demonstrate how, though genres constrain, they often also generate innovation, and may do so even when, as in Don Juan, the single poem challenges generic thinking.
Virginia Jackson takes for her case study Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak,” published in 1903. Dunbar’s poem tells the story of a lynching, in the voice and from the perspective of an oak branch, the branch on which the victim was hung. The poem is a ballad, and so in a genre which by 1900, as Jackson explains, “was not only the most popular and most commonplace verse genre printed and read in the United States, but also the genre manufactured to look as if it were a communal, original, and democratic inheritance.”77 Bringing theme and form together, Dunbar frames “uncommon contemporary violence”—the lynching—“as common poetic history,” and thus uses “both the genre and the story … to point to the silencing of reliable sources, the silencing of accessible archives, the silencing of first-person narrative, and finally the silencing of history in the modern life forms of racism and of poetry alike.”78 This is a history in poetry, and in a remarkable poem, whose innovation can be grasped only through the history of a poetic genre, with all its repetitions and commonalities. Here, moreover, the poem’s singular and historically specific form critiques domination and illusion.
Singularity and History
The example of “The Haunted Oak” raises again the issue of the value critics place in generalities and in particulars. From the perspective of historical poetics, Dunbar’s poem emerges as a specific adaptation of collective practices of reading and writing, and as a specific response to a shared historical moment. The generic framework gives this interpretation historical plausibility, though there is no comparably common framework for the poem’s sophisticated critique of those generic codes. It takes an historical poetics to see the poem’s singularity, which is to say, Jackson’s reading entertains two vantages at once, then and now. The poem’s historicity is multiple. If texts “exist only in their readings,” writes John Frow, then “they have not one history but many, each grounded in and flowing from an interpretation and the structure of interest from which it derives.”79
The singularity of the poem is important, too, to Andrea Brady’s reading of “Lycidas.” Brady shows that countless imitations of Milton’s monody, though seeming to conform to its generic model, miss its careful articulation of form and theme: the imitations retain the poem’s prosody and imagery but jettison its anticlericalism and apocalypticism. “The eighteenth-century poets whose imitations reduce ‘Lycidas’ to an ornamental surface into which other subjects can be arbitrarily inserted have,” Brady argues, “made the wrong choice, mistaking its melodies for exchange values and ignoring its prophetic singularity.”80 What matters to an historical poetics of this kind is the singularity of an individual poem and the work that poem can do across history:
the music of “Lycidas” is not merely vestigial, lamenting an irrecoverable past or its antiquated generic origins, or trapped in the specificity of its historical moment; it also points to the future, illustrating how lyric might combine with genuinely nourishing instruction to overcome death.81
Such a poem had a “revolutionary potential” and it has a “revolutionary potential,” precisely because it can be properly accounted for by neither the poetics of its day nor its subsequent reception.
An historical poetics of this kind works dialectically between the past and the present. As Kliger writes,
the past refuses to stay still, to coincide with itself, like some object delimited in space, like a “historical period” understood in traditionally historicist terms. Rather, the “past” is itself entangled in multiple transcendences toward its own “futures” and “pasts,” and with every new moment it is invoked anew, it appears in a different shape.82
This alternative, non-linear historicity may be visible in a poem’s sedimentation of literary forms from across the centuries.83 Or it may be visible in the way a particular meter, a single poem, or even a single line makes available across centuries a meaning and an experience.84 The meaning may be a revolutionary politics; the experience may be what Jarvis calls the “intense delight” afforded by an “unprecedented and unrepeatable” verse technique.85 For Eric Weiskott, the particular metrical forms developed by the Gawain poet, by William Langland, and by Geoffrey Chaucer made specific kinds of thinking newly possible, and their poems make these kinds of thinking still available.86 For this phenomenological mode of historical poetics, a meter is “a historically durable and culturally significant practice,” and a single poem may be an irreplaceable contribution to intellectual history.87 But the work in question need not be as canonical as The Canterbury Tales, and to value its singularity need not mean canonizing it.88
The specificity of period and genre which, for one mode of historical poetics, remedies the false generalities of aesthetics and linguistics, is, for this other mode, itself an obfuscating generality. But this other historical poetics has its abstractions, too, working from the single poem to the potentialities of lyric, for example, or of poetry in general. Far from ahistorical, this approach also pursues a history in poetry. The history in such instances is not a political ideology, social formation, or cultural logic, not a ground or world beyond the poem; it is the event of the poem itself.89
The historicist imperative is strong, and it sometimes threatens to subsume poetics. One way in which to summarize the situation, would be by asking whether the literary critic should value poetry or history. Should the critic seek a history of poetry, because an investment in poetry can be taken for granted, or should the critic seek the history in poetry, because only history provides a basis for knowledge and politics? A second way in which to summarize the situation, would be to decide that this is a false choice. The history to be found in poetry may be the history of the world beyond, but it may also be a history of poetry’s importance in the world, whether that importance be grounded in general habits of use cultivated over generations or in the specific qualities of a single poem’s nonce stanza-form. In all its modes, historical poetics asks us to remember that, through time, poems have mattered.
Discussion of the Literature
Alexander Veselovsky’s 1870 lecture “On the Methods and Aims of Literary History as a Science” appeared, in a translation by Harry Weber, in the Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature in 1967. Veselovsky’s Istoricheskaia poetika has not yet been translated into English, but Boris Maslov’s translation of the introduction may be found in Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics (2016), edited by Boris Maslov and Ilya Kliger. The other essays in this excellent collection test the limits of Veselovsky’s project and complement it by moving in new directions. The essays deal with a variety of texts, from Homeric epic to Dostoevsky’s novels, and a number of the essays compare Veselovsky to later Russian literary theorists, including Mikhail Bakhtin and Olga Freidenberg. The 2017 cluster of four essays on “Historical Poetics in Theory” which appeared in Poetics Today extends this work, bringing Veselovsky into dialogue with theorists such as Roman Jakobson, Yuri Lotman, Georg Lukács, and Viktor Zhirmunsky, as well as with developments in World Literature.
Working in an entirely separate tradition, Yopie Prins gave the problematic relation of history and poetics new prominence in her 2008 essay, “Historical Poetics, Dysprosody, and The Science of English Verse.” For Prins, recovering forgotten treatises in poetics, such as Sidney Lanier’s The Science of English Verse (1880), allows critics to put aside the anachronistic assumptions and values of subsequent literary criticism and theory, and so to read the poems of the past from the perspective of their own day. Prins’s proposal led Simon Jarvis to counter, in his essay “What is Historical Poetics?” (2014), that a poem’s historical significance lies in how its technique exceeds capture by contemporaneous discourses about poetry. For Jarvis, Alexander Pope’s bravura performance in An Essay on Man goes beyond both the poetic theory of Pope’s contemporaries and even that of Pope himself. The essays collected in a 2016 special issue of Modern Language Quarterly (77.1), edited by V. Joshua Adams, Joel Calahan, and Michael Hansen, helpfully demonstrate a range of positions on these and related questions, including further essays by Prins and Jarvis.
The problems of method, material, genre, period, and singularity have been debated in a series of monographs and special issues explicitly engaged with historical poetics. Meredith Martin’s The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930 (2012) and Michael C. Cohen’s The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (2015) offer strong cases for the study of past poetics and of poetry’s social uses, respectively. Eric Weiskott’s English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (2016) approaches meter as an historically mediated event. The 2019 special issue of Critical Quarterly (61.1), edited by Ben Etherington and Sean Pryor, examines the role of the example or exemplar in criticism’s attempts to think about history and poetics together.
It needs to be remembered, finally, that few if any of these problems or methods are unique to scholarly work which explicitly aligns itself with historical poetics. Instead, the term historical poetics serves helpfully to mark what are issues of more general concern.
- Adams, V. Joshua, Joel Calahan, and Michael Hansen, eds. “Historical Poetics.” Special issue, Modern Language Quarterly 77.1 (March 2016).
- Cohen, Michael C. The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
- Etherington, Ben, and Sean Pryor. “Historical Poetics and the Problem of Exemplarity.” Special issue, Critical Quarterly 61.1 (April 2019).
- “Historical Poetics in Theory.” Special cluster, Poetics Today 38.3 (September 2017).
- Jarvis, Simon. “What is Historical Poetics?” In Theory Aside. Edited by Jason Potts and Daniel Stout, 97–116. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
- Kliger, Ilya, and Boris Maslov, eds. Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.
- Martin, Meredith. The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- Prins, Yopie. “Historical Poetics, Dysprosody, and The Science of English Verse.” PMLA 123.1 (January 2008): 229–234.
- Veselovsky, Alexander. “On the Methods and Aims of Literary History as a Science,” trans. Harry Weber, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 16 (1967): 33–42.
- Veselovsky, Alexander. Istoricheskaia poetika. Moscow: URSS, 2004.
- Weiskott, Eric. English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
1. For historical poetics and New Formalism, see Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov, “Introducing Historical Poetics: History, Experience, Form,” in Persistent Forms: Explorations in Historical Poetics, ed. Ilya Kliger and Boris Maslov (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 1–36 (p. 29, n. 5); and V. Joshua Adams, Joel Calahan, and Michael Hansen, “Reading Historical Poetics,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 1–12 (4). See, also, Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism,” ELH 82, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 385–405.
2. For historical poetics and New Historicism, see Leslie Burke, “Historicist Hermeneutics and Contestatory Ritual Poetics: An Encounter Between Pindaric Epinikion and Attic Tragedy,” in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 90–127 (91).
4. See David Bordwell, “Historical Poetics of Cinema,” in The Cinematic Text, ed. R. Barton Palmer (New York: AMS, 1989), 369–398; Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (London: Verso, 2015), 2; and Julia S. Carson, Ewan J. Jones, and D. B. Ruderman, “Introduction: Romanticizing Historical Poetics,” Essays in Romanticism 25, no. 1 (2018): 1–9 (2).
5. A brief genealogy of the two main groups of scholars working in historical poetics is offered by Adams, Calahan, and Hansen (“Reading Historical Poetics”). See, also, the “Discussion of the Literature” section.<COMP: Please link the title to the actual section heading in the paper>
7. Veselovsky, “On the Methods,” 35.
8. Veselovsky, “On the Methods,” 36. See, also, Alexander Veselovsky, “Envisioning World Literature in 1863: From the Reports on a Mission Abroad,” trans. Jennifer Flaherty, ed. Boris Maslov, PMLA 128, no. 2 (2013): 439–451 (445).
9. See, for instance, Ben Etherington and Sean Pryor, eds, “Historical Poetics and the Problem of Exemplarity,” special issue, Critical Quarterly 61, no. 1 (April 2019); and James F. English and Ted Underwood, eds, “Scale and Value: New and Digital Approaches to Literary Theory,” special issue, Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (September 2016).
10. Alexander Veselovsky, “From the Introduction to Historical Poetics: Questions and Answers” (1894), trans. Boris Maslov, in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 39–64 (60).
11. Veselovsky, “From the Introduction to Historical Poetics,” 40.
12. Veselovsky, “From the Introduction to Historical Poetics,” 60.
13. Boris Maslov, “Metapragmatics, Toposforschung, Marxist Stylistics: Three Extensions of Veselovsky’s Historical Poetics,” in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 128–162 (145).
14. Veselovsky, “On the Methods,” 39.
15. For a development of this ahistorical framework in terms of linguistic anthropology, see Maslov, “Metapragmatics.”
16. Robert Bird, “Schematics and Models of Genre: Bakhtin and Soviet Satire,” in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 429–457 (430).
17. Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (1982), trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 1.
18. Genette, Palimpsests, 26.
19. For discussion of the term poetics with specific reference to historical poetics, see Adams, Calahan, and Hansen, “Reading Historical Poetics,” 1; Kliger and Maslov, “Introducing Historical Poetics,” 14; and Yopie Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?,’” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 13–40 (14).
20. Eric Hayot, Foreword to Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, vii–xv (viii).
21. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (January–February 2000): 54–68 (57).
22. Boris Maslov and Tatiana Nikitina, “Rhyme in European Verse: A Case for Quantitative Historical Poetics,” Comparative Literature 71, no. 2 (2019): 194–212 (200). See also Natalie M. Houston, “Towards a Computational Analysis of Victorian Poetics,” Victorian Studies 56, no. 3 (2014): 498–510. Marina Tarlinskaja’s English Verse: Theory and History (The Hague: Mouton, 1976) is a ground-breaking effort to study the history of English verse-forms quantitatively.
23. Maslov and Nikitina, “Rhyme in European Verse,” 199.
24. Maslov and Nikitina, “Rhyme in European Verse,” 201.
25. Maslov and Nikitina, “Rhyme in European Verse,” 203.
26. Maslov and Nikitina, “Rhyme in European Verse,” 200.
27. Caroline Levine, “Revaluing Repetition: John Clare’s Verse-Thinking,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 65–80 (68).
29. Michael C. Cohen, The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 17–59; and Jason R. Rudy, Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 19–42.
30. Cohen, The Social Lives of Poems, 2.
31. Kliger and Maslov, “Introducing Historical Poetics,” 14.
32. Christopher A. Faraone, “On the Eve of Epic: Did the Chryses Episode in Iliad 1 Begin Its Life as a Separate Homeric Hymn?,” in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 397–428 (419).
34. Cohen, The Social Lives of Poems, 13.
35. Steven Connor, “Doing Without Art,” New Literary History 42, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 53–69 (55).
36. Recent debates about the historicity of lyric have been lengthy and complex, but the key texts include Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, “General Introduction,” in The Lyric Theory Reader, ed. Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 1–8; and Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
37. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 13.
38. Levine, Forms, 13. See, also, Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?,’” 37.
39. Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?,’” 15.
40. Meredith Martin, “‘Imperfectly Civilized’: Ballads, Nations, and Histories of Form,” ELH 82 (2015): 345–363 (361). See, also, the essays collected in Michael C. Cohen, ed., “The Ballad: A Special Issue on Historical Poetics and Genre,” special issue, Nineteenth-Century Literature 71, no. 2 (September 2016).
41. Martin, “‘Imperfectly Civilized,’” 349.
42. Yopie Prins, “Voice Inverse,” Victorian Poetry 42, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 43–59 (54).
44. Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter, 19.
45. Prins, “‘What is Historical Poetics?,’” 14.
46. Prins, “Historical Poetics,” 233.
47. J. J. Anderson and C. B. McCully, Introduction to English Historical Metrics, ed. J. J. Anderson and C. B. McCully (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1–6 (3).
48. Geoffrey Russom, The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 20.
49. See, for instance, Kristin Hanson and Paul Kiparsky, “A Parametric Theory of Poetic Meter,” Language 72, no. 2 (June 1996): 287–335.
50. Martin J. Duffell, A New History of English Metre (London: Legenda, 2008).
51. Yopie Prins, “Victorian Meters,” in Joseph Bristow, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 89–113 (89).
52. Prins, “Voice Inverse,” 53.
53. Prins, “Voice Inverse,” 54.
54. Michael C. Cohen, “Getting Generic: An Introduction,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 71, no. 2 (2016): 147–155 (153).
55. Boris Maslov, “The Semantics of ἀοιδός and Related Compounds: Towards a Historical Poetics of Solo Performance in Archaic Greece,” Classical Antiquity 28, no. 1 (2009): 1–38.
56. See Eric Weiskott, “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 4 (December 2016): 473–498.
57. Rudy, Imagined Homelands, 6.
58. Cohen, The Social Lives, 10.
59. Levine, Forms, 7.
60. Levine, “Revaluing Repetition.”
61. Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter, 4.
62. Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter, 6.
63. Martin, “‘Imperfectly Civilized.’”
64. Cohen, The Social Lives, 234–235, n. 26.
65. Rudy, Imagined Homelands, 4–5.
66. Rudy, Imagined Homelands, 6.
68. See C. B. McCully, “Towards a Theory of Poetic Change,” Language and Literature 12, no. 1 (2003): 5–25.
69. Kliger and Maslov, “Introducing Historical Poetics,” 2.
70. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 2002), 104. For further comparison of historical poetics with Jameson’s work, see Kurke, “Historicist Hermeneutics”; and Boris Maslov, “How to Murder a Work of Art: Philology, Historical Poetics, and the Morphological Method,” Poetics Today 38, no. 3 (September 2017): 485–518 (501–503)
71. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2004), 175.
72. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 298.
73. Maslov, “Metapragmatics,” 146. See, also, Veselovsky, “On the Methods,” 42.
74. Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 7.
75. Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, 13.
76. Dino Franco Felluga, “Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Don Juan and the Truth Claims of Genre,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 105–120 (108).
77. Virginia Jackson, “Specters of the Ballad,” Nineteenth-century Literature 71, no. 2 (2016): 176–196 (182).
78. Jackson, “Specters of the Ballad,” 185.
79. John Frow, “On Midlevel Concepts,” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 237–252 (244).
80. Andrea Brady, “From Grief to Leisure: ‘Lycidas’ in the Eighteenth Century,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 41–63 (60).
81. Brady, “From Grief to Leisure,” 59.
82. Ilya Kliger, “On ‘Genre Memory’ in Bakhtin,” in Persistent Forms, ed. Kliger and Maslov, 227–251 (245).
83. See Ilya Kliger, “Historical Poetics between Russia and the West: Toward a Nonlinear Model of Literary History and Social Ontology,” Poetics Today 38, no. 3 (September 2017): 453–483.
84. For an argument about the historical singularity of single lines, see Simon Jarvis, “Superversive Poetics: Browning’s Fifine at the Fair,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 1 (March 2016): 121–141.
85. Jarvis, “What is Historical Poetics?,” 101.
86. Eric Weiskott, “Early English Meter as a Way of Thinking,” Studia Metrica et Poetica 4, no. 1 (2017): 41–65.
87. Eric Weiskott, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 2. Since the transformation of a verse-form is a “transformation of language and sensibility,” T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Few things that can happen to a nation are more important than the invention of a new form of verse.” See T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation” (1927), in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, vol. 3, Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, ed. Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli, and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 195–234 (222).
88. Investing in the singularity of the text is often conflated with “an obsessive focus on canonical texts,” though the one need not entail the other. See Nancy Armstrong and Warren Montag, “‘The Figure in the Carpet,’” PMLA 132, no. 3 (2017): 613–619 (613). For the argument that attention to individual poems helps criticism to resist abstract and over-simple generalizations, see Dorothy J. Wang, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 39.
89. This argument might be compared to that of Alain Badiou, for whom the poem or other work of art is not itself “an eventual singularity,” but for whom the poem brings the event to language: “every naming of an event or of the evental presence is in its essence poetic.” See Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 11, 26.