WATCHWORDS: ROMANTICISM AND THE POETICS OF ATTENTION by Lily Gurton-Wachter, Reviewed by Colin Jager
 

WATCHWORDS: ROMANTICISM AND THE POETICS OF ATTENTION
By Lily Gurton-Wachter
(Stanford, 2016) xiii + 270 pp.
Reviewed by Colin Jager on 2018-01-05.

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To attend to something is a curious thing. When we tell someone--a restless child, perhaps--to pay attention, we don't mean that she should necessarily do something. Instead we are asking for a very active kind of waiting, a devotion of her full mental and physical self to a situation: sit up straight, concentrate, be fully present yet immobile, as if poised on the edge of something. Lily Gurton-Wachter's excellent book is a cultural and literary account of such acts of attention in the early nineteenth century. As she notes, the Romantic era was "a particularly troubled and rich moment for attention" (2). Why? Some of the reasons are historical. The 1790s, as scholars from Iain McCalman and Marilyn Butler to Kenneth Johnston and John Bugg have taught us, were variously marked by repression, suspicion, and prevarication. And recent work by Mary Favret, Jeffrey Cox and others demonstrates that the years of the Napoleonic Wars were also marked by a distinctive kind of watchful anxiety, a vague sense of dread (and guilt) that made for a distinctive mood.

Gurton-Wachter's study resembles Favret's influential War at a Distance (2010) in giving this cultural complex a name--"attention" in Gurton-Wachter's case, "wartime" in Favret's--and insisting on the importance of its analysis. Favret, however, describes a wartime mood or "climate" and argues for its influence on our present understanding of war. By contrast, Gurton-Wachter aims to show how the cultural discourse of the period comes to be dominated by a kind of paranoid vigilance that Romantic-era poetry both registers and resists. The attention stirred by Romantic poetry is ambivalent, she writes, aware that it is "constituted by ... modes of attention" that it also criticizes (3). Such self-consciousness thus makes possible "alternative modes of attention" (3).

In her subtitle and throughout the book, Gurton-Wachter calls this double awareness a "poetics of attention." Her concern, then, is less historical (how a certain formation in the past has shaped our present) than historicist and formal. In order, these two concerns prompt two big questions: what is the relation between a particular cultural formation like Romantic poetry and larger coexisting ones like war or the state, and what resources does poetry have that might resist paranoid attention, or redirect it elsewhere?

Formally, Gurton-Wachter proposes a "poetics of attention," which highlights poetry that "uses verse form to explore attention's conditions and its limits, its forcefulness and its finitude" (11). To illustrate these effects, she cites at various points metrical patterns that operate below the threshold of consciousness; verse that encourages a divided attention or oscillates between attention and relaxation; and the repeated "O" in a poem by Coleridge, which is said to hold open a space of possibility that escapes wartime propaganda. To the anxiously watchful attention encouraged by a vaguely Foucauldian state apparatus she contraposes the fearlessly watchful attention made possible by poetry. The latter, she claims, offers something like resistance to the "militarization of attention" (5) encouraged by the British state during an era of both distant war and nearby threat.

To show how Romantic poetry deliberately stimulates divided attention, the first chapter treats rhetorical theory in Erasmus Darwin, Condillac, and Priestley, and then turns briefly to Wordsworth's poetic theory and (at greater length) to the poetry of Blake. For those worried about invasion, "double attention" meant re-doubled attention: concentrating even harder, watching even more carefully for threats at home and abroad. By contrast, Gurton-Wachter argues, Romantic poetry asked its readers to divide their attention between manifest threats and latent effects: between what we consciously register and what we typically register unawares, like the effect of meter. Starting usefully with Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Gurton-Wachter turns to the "Watch Fiends" of Blake's Milton and Jerusalem. For her, they are agents of political repression who cannot find the "moments" in each day made available through poetry.

Chapter two treats the 1790s as a decade of alarm. As those who lived through that decade observed, "alarms" spread more frequently and rapidly than ever before, and during Pitt's state of emergency, certain words--terror and terrorism, alarm and alarmist--circulated widely, whipping up public concern. Gurton-Wachter contrasts such government-sponsored alarmism ("if you see something, say something," as it were) with poems by Cowper and Coleridge that "empty out" language. A few years before the nineties, she notes, Cowper's "Needless Alarm" (1785) strives to detach sound from meaning and thereby liberate attention from fear; on the other hand, Coleridge's more anxious musings in "Fears in Solitude" (1798) seem to bind reading closely to fear, suggesting that the decade of revolution and war has taken their toll.

Wordsworth's Prelude responds to this sense of wartime alarm. Analyzing the poem in chapter 3, Gurton-Wachter explains most fully the kind of attention particular to poetry. It comes, she argues, not in the moment of strained listening but in its aftermath, as one relaxes and allows other kinds of sensations to enter. Wartime surveillance and fear may own the moment in which we are asked to attend. But no one can maintain rigid attention at all times, and the aftermath of attention "prompts a ... sensitive receptivity" to historical determination (88).

To illustrate these points, Gurton-Wachter turns to some of the key moments in The Prelude: The Boy of Winander, Waiting for the Horses, and the account of Revolutionary Paris in Book X. In the famous passage culminating in the echo of Macbeth's "Sleep no more!" (1805 Prelude 10:77), for instance, Gurton-Wachter points out that Wordsworth describes himself as both "keep[ing] watch" and "reading at intervals" (10:61-2). "In the intervals between states of heightened alertness," she writes, "the poet creates a rhythm between watchfulness and withdrawal which itself conjures up historical feeling as the state of alarm it would have produced" (105). By means of this complicated temporality, Wordsworth is said to be not avoiding history but honestly accounting for the impossibility of recording history-in-formation.

Impressive as such a reading is, it may not fully explain the relationship between these characteristically Wordsworthian oscillations and what used to be called Romantic apostasy--that is, the swerve from political engagement to private acts of self-creation and (eventually) political quietism. In arguing that poetic form may arouse alternative modes of attentiveness, Gurton-Wachter reaches the cusp of a major claim about the political possibilities of Romanticism. But then she settles for an easier claim: that poems which arouse relaxed, fear-free acts of attention also betray an "unnerving proximity" to the governmental production of fear.

While wartime alarmists played upon the nation's sense of vulnerability, Gurton-Wachter's fourth chapter shows how Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head reconceives that vulnerability. If Wordsworth identifies the moment of relaxation as the alternative to attention, Smith directs the reader's attention to something else: not hypothetical French invaders but rather a world that crosses the boundaries of nation states: natural history, plants, animals (including their sounds), and human travelers and immigrants. The very materials of Smith's poem are wonderfully described as "divided between the prospect view and a more minute observation of the ground and its materials." The reader's attention, adds Gurton-Wachter, is likewise divided, made "to oscillate between verse and the long, detailed notes that both add to and distract from it" (112). Looking up and looking down, looking out and looking in, reading verse and reading prose notes--this is the poetics of attention in a nutshell. But I wish that Gurton-Wachter had made more of this shift to the reader's attention; it might have curbed her occasional tendency, as in the Wordsworth chapter, to stress the mere representation of divided attention in Romantic poetry.

In her final chapter, on Keats, Gurton-Wachter shows how the "years of melancholy and uncertainty which followed Waterloo" (142) turn watchfulness "from the political anticipation of invasion to a sympathetic ... attention to another's suffering in the aftermath of war" (143). Sympathetic attention is twofold, including not only medical care for injured soldiers but also aesthetic interest in the "fragmented bodies known as the Elgin Marbles" (143). Though this pairing struck me at first as perhaps too clever, I was convinced by the end of the chapter. Here Gurton-Wachter's argument comes as close as anything else in the book to an earlier model of historicist criticism, in which a particular historical sign (wounded soldiers) is shown to be the repressed condition of a literary artifact (Saturn's nerveless hand in Hyperion) as mediated by a cultural phenomenon (the Elgin Marbles). Gurton-Wachter is clearly influenced by studies such as Alan Liu's remarkable account of Wordsworth and Napoleon in Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989), but once again she highlights the role of attention in these encounters between historical trauma and aesthetic artifact. Thus the Hyperion poems, she writes, are "about paying attention to another's pain" and also describe attention itself as painful: in attending to pain, one feels it. With his own extraordinary attention to nerves, fibers, and shooting pains, Keats is of course the perfect example of a poet who generates this kind of attention, and Gurton-Wachter's own attention to the reader in this chapter nicely complements her chapter on Smith. When Apollo in The Fall of Hyperion attempts to "read" Mnemosyne's face, and the enormities of history "pour into the wide hollows" of his brain all at once, fragmentation and brokenness indeed seem the only route that remains open. All at once, history--especially the history of wartime-- is simply too much for anyone to take.

A substantial afterward, "Just Looking," follows elegantly from the Keats chapter. Though I found it both profound and wonderful, it also struck me as occasionally frustrating, and thus a good way to measure the impact of this book. Here Gurton-Wachter most directly enters the current critical debates about reading that have been her subtle interlocutors all along. Keats, she writes, "emerges as a reader who is stupefied with wonder and whose response to war is just to acknowledge it." Such acknowledgement, she adds, "speaks to the afterlife of Romantic attention to and during war that rejects narrative, closure, explanation or argument to understand reading as just looking" (180).

Here the opposition between attentiveness and relaxation that structures Gurton-Wachter's account of Wordsworth, Smith, and others returns as an ethical posture that readers are invited to take up: attention becomes a certain kind of withdrawal of attention, a way of not forcing or "interpreting" but simply recording. This ethics of witnessing will be familiar to anyone who has dipped into our current debates about reading practices, and Gurton-Wachter smartly suggests that some of the current theories (she mentions Best and Marcus's "surface reading" and Latour's much-cited essay on critique) have precursors in a Romantic poetics of wartime. But her own account is unfortunately hampered by the same reductive binaries--looking versus interpreting, surface versus depth--that have made the larger debate about reading so theoretically bankrupt. (An unconvincing attempt to bring Freud into the mix doesn't help matters much.)

The afterward, and indeed other strands of the book as a whole, are frequently inspired by the writings of Simone Weil, and Gurton-Wachter's treatment of attention in reading is more satisfying when she is working directly with Weil rather than with our current theories of reading; indeed her recovery of Weil amounts to a real and signal contribution to Romantic criticism and to critical methods more generally. Moreover, I think, the passages she cites from Weil's essay on the Iliad beautifully demonstrate why the "just looking versus interpretation" binary is so reductive. For Weil, of course, interprets as well as looks. As Gurton-Wachter herself explains, Weil's writing about the Iliad evinces a bitterness about the multiple harms of war, "a slight coloring ... which can be neither sought nor pointed to, but which is nevertheless everywhere, spreading over the whole book and the whole human race, like sunlight, everywhere and yet nowhere in particular" (185). This is a marvelous description of what might once have been called "tone" or "mood," and it would count as something other than interpretation only if we decided beforehand that all "interpretation" is somehow imperialist.

From Weil's discussion of Homer, Gurton-Wachter infers that "[w]e cannot ... take sides and pay attention at the same time." The Iliad, she writes, is powerful precisely because its neutrality "allows [Homer] to pay attention to war, to understand the basic fact that war itself doesn't take sides, turning everyone it touches, victor and vanquished equally, into a thing" (187). This is brilliant (and, I believe, right, though one might want to observe nevertheless that there are important differences between becoming a victorious "thing" and a vanquished one), but to insist that such neutrality is an alternative to interpretation misrepresents and underestimates the profundity of Gurton-Wachter's point. One must learn, after all, to pay attention to some things rather than others, and in so doing we interpret as well as take sides. Homer, like Weil and Gurton-Wachter herself, clearly does take sides: all three take the part of humanity, and of the possibilities of human experience under inhumane conditions, as against those political and social forces that, like war, thoughtlessly crush them both.

Though I have questioned the methodological lesson that Gurton-Wachter draws from her account of Romantic-era poetry, I nevertheless admire this book a great deal. It prompts disagreement precisely because it is so rich and nuanced, with so many sensitive accounts of Romantic-era writing and culture. It brings important issues to the fore with admirable clarity.

It also prompts a final thought on another methodological issue: the relation of form to history. In what is perhaps her most forceful claim for a Romantic poetics of attention, Gurton-Wachter contends that attention can be repurposed, that it can escape the control of a state bent on encouraging its citizens to pay attention (to be vigilant, to report, to spy). At the most general level she argues that aesthetic form resists the pressures of history not through flight or retreat but simply by making a concerted effort to document and describe. Under the right conditions, she writes, such description can disrupt our settled habits of attention "so as to notice something else, in some other way" (31).

This notion of an alternative to the expected or encouraged way of seeing threads its way through the book. At the start, taking her cue from Blake, Gurton-Wachter declares that "to widen the scope of attention, to demand double or multiple attention, is to open it onto alternative ways of imagining both history and politics" (35). At the end, she stresses a "wartime poetics of attention, a poetics obsessed with other ways to watch and other ways to read" (191). But what, one might ask, are those other ways? Is mere possibility enough, or should we have specific alternatives?

The closest Gurton-Wachter comes to filling in this blank comes in her treatment of Blake's Watch Fiends, when she contrasts their paranoid, state-controlled attention with the very different kind of attentiveness manifested by Los and, by extension, poetry itself: a "patient, passive attention to the given [that] offers what we might not ordinarily notice and what we can't seek because it's always there" (58). Thus defined, reading cultivates the virtue of attentive non-intervention. Though she is less overtly theoretical than critics like Anne-Lise François, Rei Terada, and Anahid Nersessian, Gurton-Wachter joins them in showing how living and reading may be motivated by a certain lightness of touch and ethics of non-interference. To some, such an ethics might imply a certain ecological consciousness. But with its focus on the given rather than on change, it might suggest to others a kind of political quietism.

I do not intend this is a criticism. It may well be that if we are to find in Romanticism a way of thinking about politics that is relevant for our own day, it will come by way of meditations on the given, on the textures of experience and perception which, like the formal materials of poems themselves, generally operate below the surface of consciousness.

Colin Jager is Professor of English and Interim Chair of the Department of English at Rutgers University.


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