Tag Archives: Poetic Identity

On His Birthday: Dylan Thomas, Wordsworth, nostalgia and poetry.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, my first and best love in poetry. Lionized by the culture industry but ignored by the academy, this milestone date will hopefully present an opportunity to reassess the value of Thomas’s work, which I feel is sadly neglected.

Dylan Thomas

It is something of a commonplace for Thomas to be associated with the ‘romantic’ tradition, or to be called a Romantic poet. Continue reading On His Birthday: Dylan Thomas, Wordsworth, nostalgia and poetry.

Use Value and Literary Work: Poetic Identity in 19th Century Britain

I am a few days from submitting a full draft of my Ph.D. comprehensive exam rationales. These short written explanations/defenses of my lists are intended to help my committee see how I chose my texts, how I conceptualize the time periods, and what kinds of questions to pose in my oral exam next month.  No pressure, right?  I am not required as of yet to make groundbreaking strides in our field.  (I have four months until the dissertation proposal is due.)  For now, I am to demonstrate a confident knowledge of the area and its current critical debates.

And I must say, despite all odds: I am really enjoying this process.  I mean REALLY enjoying it.


Months upon months ago, I began designing my lists according to major themes in Romanticism and Victorianism.  I borrowed this approach from an old Victorian lit syllabus that divided our readings into the major debates of the period.  Luckily, the Victorian epoch already has names for many of these debates– we get “the woman question” and “the condition of England.” I started there and tried to work backward to see similar debates in Romanticism.  Not impossible, but I eventually abandoned these categories, finding many texts too difficult to compartmentalize.  Within and across the lists, I found too much resistance to these neat categories.

The porous boundaries between literary movements or cultural epochs are a consistent point of debate in literary studies. (This acknowledgment heads the disclaimer we sign upon entering grad school, right? “We all know this fact, but you, grad student, are responsible for challenging these textual boundaries in intelligent and original ways for the next six years”). The long-nineteenth century in British literature itself must expand at both ends to encompass a least a decade in each direction to make adequate sense in the ways we critics currently construct the period. And this is not a phenomenon reserved for the afterlife of each movement alone, but rather the writers and theorists of the Romantic and Victorian movements look backward and forward in attempts to situate themselves and their literature within a cultural narrative that shapes and is shaped by their work. Indeed, what I find definitive of the nineteenth century, a point of connection that unites the various authors and genres represented in my comprehensive exam lists, is a desire for clear situation within and beyond an epoch.

The writers we study desire a lasting cultural influence. They seek to shape and correct, to play a significant role in cultural formation and the national story. I argue that this desire to influence and make a mark is a symptom of economic insecurity. With an emphasis on practicality and pragmatism (the use-value of work) as the bourgeois class rises to influence across the Romantic and Victorian epochs, the “word’s worth,” if you will, of a man or woman of letters seems to require its own proof. This need to defend and define one’s usefulness in society and to posterity (on top of the need to prove one’s self within a chosen vocation, as with Keats, Hunt, DeQuincey and numerous women writers like Mary Robinson) creates a significant identity crisis that gets translated across the century into various points of cultural and historical contention.

"Work" by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865
“Work” by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865

John Guillory writes a compelling history of “use value,” how it was invented and how it comes to odds against aesthetic value in the early nineteenth century. I came to Guillory through Mary Poovey’s brilliant 2008 book Genres of the Credit Economy. Hers is a book you read and pine over, jealous you hadn’t written it first.  Of course the list of books I wish I had written has grown well beyond anything I could reasonably produce in a long academic career; nonetheless, I continue to drool and dream. Teasing out what Poovey calls a “double-discourse of value,” Guillory argues that aesthetic value depended on the emergence of “use value” as an economic concept in the late eighteenth century.  Looking to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Guillory states that use value was invented to discursively clarify the relationship between production and consumption. It seems the people—literary writers and theorists?—were uncomfortable with the affective motivation behind ascribing a product value. Under the increased pressure for utility and practicality, valuing a work of art because of the pleasure it brings seemed a tenable (at best) justification for the time and effort expended in producing and consuming it. Therefore, the discourse substituted in use value which seems to marry production and consumption and get rid of the warm, fuzzy emotional value of art.

At the same time, Literature with a capital “L” cannot become so useful as to be absorbed into other types of writing like economic, scientific, or political writing (here’s the heart of Poovey’s book– how the distinctions arose between the genres).  So here’s the rub—aesthetics branches off from economic discourse for the first time, reiterating that not all written products are works of art. But what’s more, the products that appear like works of art may not be.  Thus Literary writers define what is “fine art” and distinguish between types of imaginative production based upon their adherence to the definition (namely, a work should not call attention to itself as a commodity, so rule out popular works and works of “immediate utility”).

But does this dismissal of “immediate utility” give leeway enough for my argument that poets and novelists in the nineteenth century feel the need to prove their utility?  I say, absolutely yes.  In my own adaptation of this cultural narrative, this is the crux of poetic identity in crisis. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, really, but now of sudden we have the language to explain this phenomenon) literature’s worth can no longer be taken as indisputable fact.  Suddenly, artists must defend the cultural relevance of the work.  What work does Literary work perform? Ironically, Wordsworth’s Prelude (esp. the 1805 version) justifies his seemingly self-indulgent aesthetic exercise in tracing the development of the poetic genius as performing the cultural work of a natural philosopher or historian, as he uses himself as the case study of a mind in development during upheaval of the French Revolution. Similarly, guarding his work against accusations of sensationalism or shock value, DeQuincey justifies his Confessions as being a comprehensive (scientific?) study of the effects of opium consumption, adding the potential educational benefits his mistakes may provide for the reader.

Perhaps more interestingly, Victorians like Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold seek to define a use value for the aesthetic products more obviously abstracted from immediate utility than Wordsworth’s or DeQuincey’s.  Here we have a sense of immediate cultural crisis—the moral fabric of society is degrading as the class boundaries seem to be dissolving, gender roles (especially in the literary marketplace) seem to be in flux, science is questioning what it means to be human (and to be particular kinds of humans, etc). Carlyle and Arnold foresee anarchy, and they don’t seem too extreme with these concerns.  Radical individualism, as Carlyle terms it “democracy,” erases the need for leaders to model correct behavior.  And what will we do without models?  How can we possibly be moral without seeing what morality is?  How can we be cultured if everything and everyone is valued equally?  Carlyle’s answer: heroes and hero worship.  And significantly, his heroes always have a poetic sensibility, that is when his heroes are not poets themselves. Likewise, Arnold famously writes that culture is the answer to anarchy. To read and see all the best that has been known and created–this will civilize and make moral the British populace in flux.


I can see these economic questions of “work” and “value” at the root of my original categories, the major crises of the nineteenth century in British culture.  I feel as though this framework lends itself to a discussion of so many topics in recent scholarship: mental science, gendered work (domestic novels vs. fin de siècle adventure novels; sensibility and sentimentalism; etc.), professionalization of bourgeois occupations, dissenting culture, the widening franchise, the bard’s role in nation-making and historical record, scientific advancement and religious doubt, etc.

All this to say, I am arguing a relationship between economic and social (class) change as the root of writers’ identities. I see the common thread between nineteenth century writers as their struggle to negotiate aesthetic vocations within a market and within a society that seeks a use value for all products (read utilitarianism, read Victorian work ethic, read rise of bourgeois values). Meanwhile every fiber of their beings wants to privilege fine art above products with an immediate utility. Fine art is for posterity, it is lasting and transcendent. Okay so “every fiber” is a gross overstatement, and my actual narrative challenges this art for art’s sake assumption. Ultimately, there is a real anxiety about whether literary work performs a cultural service, and these writers vie for recognition of their worth both personally and occupationally, both in the moment and in literary history.

Young Poets. Young Scholars.

When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and as part of my Modern British Poetry class, I took a literary pilgrimage to Wentworth Place, Keats’s home in Hampstead. This trip was genuinely transformative for me, as it fueled a fantasy that I was John Keats’s lover in another life (hey, we all have our literary crushes). And more importantly it began my creative and scholarly work on the poet. As I wandered room to room, swooning over the handwritten manuscript of “Ode to a Nightingale” in the corridor and tearing up at the death mask encased in the library, I hadn’t a thought of my future with the poet.  But this week I received an acceptance to the first ever Keats Foundation conference at the Hampstead house.  And I began to reflect back on my 20-year-old self and how she would laugh to know that she would return to Wentworth Place as a career Keatsian almost a decade later.

Over the last month, I have been thinking a lot about how identity gets organized, both my own as I am beginning to define myself as a young scholar and that of the poets I study.  This all came about as I prepared proposals for the Keats and His Circle conference in Hampstead and NASSR 2014.  For each of these, I am looking to begin some foundational dissertation work that looks at identity organization in the Cockney School.

Journalist, poet, and radical Leigh Hunt attempts to organize the second generation of Romantic poets in his creative works and his weekly newspaper The Examiner. Though he never writes an overt manifesto and never claims the emergent artists of Romanticism’s second generation as “his” school, I believe he constructs a clear political and artistic mission for himself and his friends. In The Examiner on December 1, 1816, Leigh Hunt published the “Young Poets” article, which announced a new school of poetry led by Percy Shelley, John Hamilton Reynolds, and John Keats (with a nod to Lord Byron). As he writes here and elsewhere, this new school was not innovative so much as restorative, returning the focus of modern poetry to “true” nature and more genuine understandings of “human nature.”

Hunt organizes their poetic identity both as an extension of and reaction to the first generation (esp. after the publication of Wordsworth’s Excursion, lambasted by Byron, Hunt, and Hazlitt as the mark of Wordsworth’s establishment allegiance). He says the new poets are continuing the cultural work begun with the linguistic and political experiments of Lyrical Ballads, a project he believes the now conservative first generation has abandoned. As he defines the cultural work to be done by his school of artists and political reformers, he touts the revolutionary power of loose versification and conversational language (he maintains that the language of conversation is the language of “true nature” and “nativeness”), but he also touts cheerfulness and sociality, as opposed to the Wordsworthian egotistical sublime–poetic insight emerging through solitude. Hunt and crew value brotherly love, charity, and a mutual support of fellow beings. And they uphold these virtues in contrast to the modern vices of extreme individualism, commercial interests, and exploitation of the disenfranchised.

As applied to this circle, the term “Cockney School” in itself demonstrates the ways in which identity gets imposed upon a person or group. Famously, “Z,” a semi-anonymous critic for the Edinburgh Review, printed a series of vicious essays on this group of liberal (and often dissenting) intellectuals from the London suburbs, titled “On the Cockney School of Poetry.”  According to Z, the school was headed by Leigh Hunt, and included such figures as Keats, Webb, Haydon, and Hazlitt.  His reviews frequently digressed from the work of this school, using ad hominem attacks to belittle the men with their shortcomings in class–all with the intent to discredit this second generation of Romantic artists because of their politics.  Intriguingly, pieces of this class prejudice against Cockneys precedes the era, and the stereotype can be seen today in the classic appropriation of Liza Doolittle style Cockney accents in parodies of the English.  A particular favorite of mine in the last year has been Fred Armisen’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II as a sort of Cockney thug on Saturday Night Live.

Nevertheless, the Hunt circle appropriated the qualities of this pejorative stereotype and other labels applied to them, reading into these intended delimitations a revolutionary power for greater liberty. Z complained of their inferior education, their limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, but for Cockneys like Hunt, Keats, and Reynolds translations and retellings proved more democratic, opening new worlds of knowledge and opportunity for people of middle and working class backgrounds. Chapman’s Homer introduces Keats to new peaks, new oceans, new planets, horizons previously inaccessible. Z complained of their vulgarity and obscenity, but Hunt, Keats, and Shelley celebrated sensual overflow and freedom of expression.  Their poems portray this liberty literally by catalogues of sensory images and metaphorically by unconventional representations of love (sympathetic idolaters, demon lovers, love triangles, etc.).

In a trend I find problematic, Keats scholars of the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries perpetuate a prejudice against Keats’s supposed Cockney roots, often undervaluing the politically engaged young Keats of 1816-1817.  Moreover, they divorce his later work from Hunt’s influence (rightly so, perhaps, as Keats distanced himself from Hunt for numerous personal and professional reasons). As a young scholar just beginning my work on Keats’s Cockney roots, I don’t know yet to what extent I agree that Keats’s work transcends his Cockney identity.  Though his 1820 volume may demonstrate sophistication well beyond the wrenched rhymes or weak adverbial descriptors of Huntian style, his thematic concerns remain deeply Cockneyfied.  Romances like Isabella; Or the Pot of Basil and Lamia betray his continued resistance against a modern capitalist economy that exploits both human and nonhuman resources.  And even his great ode sequence, which ostensibly celebrates a pure aestheticism, carries the taint of political agenda and historicity.  The nightingale disappears, the poet awakes. He returns to a historical reality of the Six Acts, the Corn Law Protests, Peterloo, disenfranchisement, disease, and personal loss. To say the least, his 1820 volume shows a conflicted relationship with the Hunt school (perhaps a topic for another post).

Armisen’s Queen from SNL 2013

I feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to explore London and its suburbs again, as a slightly more seasoned romanticist, Keatsian, and anglophile. And while I will not adopt a phony Cockney accent for the duration of my visit, I will expand upon my original pilgrimage, exploring the sites that were key to the school’s development.  On the list thus far, other than Hampstead Heath, of course: Edmonton, Enfield, Guy’s Hospital, and the Vale of Health.  I will keep you apprised of my plans for exploration as well as archival research as the reality of this trip continues to set in.