POETIC FORM AND ROMANTIC PROVOCATION by Carmen Faye Mathes, Reviewed by Stephen Tedeschi

By Carmen Faye Mathes
(Stanford, 2022) xiv + 245 pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Tedeschi on 2023-02-12.

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What happens when a poem provokes us? What can such provocations reveal about the nature of poetry, affect, and the self? In this book Carmen Faye Mathes shows how Romantic-period poets manipulate poetic form to provoke specific affective responses in their readers and how they think these provocations work. Mathes frames her analysis of the poets' theories and practices in terms of Benedict de Spinoza's theory of affect. In doing so she seeks first to extend Romantic literary studies' interest in Spinoza--which is still following the lead of Marjorie Levinson's trailblazing "Romancing Spinoza" (2007)--beyond ontology and into affect theory. Second, Mathes aims to give Spinoza a more prominent role in studies of Romantic conceptions of affect--a subfield headlined for Mathes by Adela Pinch's Strange Fits of Passion (1996) and Miranda Burgess's "On Being Moved" (2011). While those studies mainly focus on British philosophers and Immanuel Kant, Mathes's study aims to use Spinoza's theory of affect to revise our understandings of the theories of poetry, the poetic techniques, and the models of aesthetic experience characteristic of the Romantic period. The book's argument is thus both topical and ambitious.

Mathes takes up current perspectives on two of the main concepts involved in Spinoza's theory of the affections. First, she joins Hasana Sharp in associating Spinoza's theory of affect with "Anti-colonial, antiracist, feminist and queer approaches to materialisms" (18) that emphasize the embodiment of thought and feeling. For Spinoza, as for Hume, affects circulate like contagions. They penetrate and move our bodies before our minds can recognize them. These "precognitive responses to stimuli" are "impersonal" and "pre-personal" (9). According to Mathes, Spinoza's theory of affect demonstrates our vulnerable involvement in the world around us. Spinoza also argues, Mathes notes, that virtue lies in our ability to recognize the incursions of affects and to submit these invasions to the governance of reason. Without the regulatory power of reason, one would be blown about by external causes without freedom or agency. But Mathes focuses less on Spinoza's confidence in the regulatory power of reason than on his recognition of our bodies' vulnerability to affect.

Second, Mathes follows Warren Montag's reading of the political logic of Spinoza's concept of conatus. In managing our affections, reason cooperates with our conatus, our inherent striving to persist in our being as free agents. For Mathes as for Montag, we strengthen our power to persist by joining others. In Montag's reading of Spinoza, "[t]he individual who seeks to increase his power to think and to act will seek to combine with other individuals to compose an individual proportionately more powerful than each one alone" (Bodies, Masses, Power [1999], 31). Yet Mathes stresses not so much the political extensions of Spinoza's theory of reason--such as his endorsement of a liberal constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and tolerance--as the power this conception of the conatus affords to "border-crossing political affects" (171). Mathes's goal is not to present a new reading of Spinoza's theory of affect or to reconstruct the interpretation of Spinoza current in Romantic culture; it is to use Spinoza as he is read today to rethink Romantic poetics.

According to Mathes, Romantic poets provoke affective responses in their readers by setting up and then breaking formal expectations. These poetic provocations "disrupt, delay or refuse ... readers' expectations of form and genre" (4) and produce an "aesthetic disappointment" (9) in which "readers feel their susceptibility to outside impressions as a kind of dissonance" (9). In his 1798 Advertisement to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth warns that readers unaccustomed to his style of poetry may have "to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness" (Prose Works, ed. Owen and Smyser [1974] 1:116). Mathes often uses this statement (4, 59, 99, 105, 177, 181) to represent the disappointment aesthetic. Such poetic provocations make us aware of our susceptibility to affect (assisting in the task Spinoza assigns to reason) and of the difficulty of sympathetically aligning with others (revealing the resistance set against our conatus). Turning away from the relation between poetry and pleasure, Mathes emphasizes that Wordsworth wants his readers to struggle. But Wordsworth says he wrote the Preface in the hope that his readers "may be spared any unpleasant feeling of disappointment" (Lyrical Ballads [1800], in Prose Works 1: 122). Why should we think of genres, patterns, and forms as templates that lead us to expect perfect regularity rather than as frameworks that prepare us for novelties? Why should we think of deviations from the pattern as disappointments rather than as moments that intensify our attention and burst upon us with pleasurable surprise?

Mathes's argument unfolds over five chapters that roughly follow the order in which the texts analyzed were composed or published, ranging from Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Stanzas (1784) to Percy Shelley's Mask of Anarchy (composed 1819). Zooming out from a personal to a planetary scale, the focus of the argument seems to widen with each chapter. While the first chapter considers the permeable yet irremovable boundary of the individual subject, the central chapters treat the interpersonal transmission of affect, and the final chapter and coda open out into the material environment, imagining affect swept by the wind around the globe. The concept of provocation expands accordingly, from the direct force of a personal encounter to an atmospheric urge for political action. The analysis of form shifts too, moving first from examining local poetic techniques, then to reconstructing friendly debates about the philosophy of poetic form, and finally to listening to sounds in the air.

Chapter 1 exemplifies how Mathes analyzes poetic form and links poetic techniques to Spinoza's theory of affect. Mathes tends to focus on moments of representative versification, that is, passages where the movement of the verse seems to enact what the poem says. According to Mathes, such moments provoke us by deviating from our expectations. For example, Mathes reads the turns in Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets as enacting the complex feeling of "hope against hope" (23), the "guarded optimism" (28) manifest in Smith's tenacious striving to continue to exist while "enmesh[ed] in a world of powerful external forces" (28). "Hope against hope is the form of a sonnet in miniature: one feeling, a turn, and another feeling that lets us see the first feeling anew" (44). Indeed, Mathes says, Smith's sonnets often have an unsettling tendency "to turn and then turn again" (49). The form of the sonnet corresponds to the complex affect that it depicts. Similarly, Mathes reads the hypermetrical final line of Sonnet XII--"'Till in the rising tide the exhausted sufferer dies" (14)--as straining to extend the life of a mariner struggling to survive after being cast upon a rock in the sea. Since the mariner is, in turn, a figure for the struggling poet, the line performs Smith's resilient conatus.

Examples of representative versification, however, do not necessarily support Mathes's broader arguments about Romantic-period understandings of poetic form. Representative versification is an ancient and common device: it does not, by itself, reveal something distinctive about Romantic-period poetic techniques. Indeed, one might wonder if such passages provoke the reader or prove the power of poetic conventions. After all, Mathes herself argues that the reader immediately feels the effects of Smith's turns and hypermetrical lines and that Smith knows she can count on her readers' responsiveness.

Chapters 2 and 3 argue "that an aesthetics of disappointment ... was essential to the development of Romantic poetry and criticism in Britain" (59). Romantic poets, we are told, want their readers to struggle with the disappointment of finding their "formal and generic expectations" (59) unfulfilled, or at least to confront the possibility of feeling disappointed. Mathes qualifies her claim by noting that "near disappointments" (59, emphasis original) derive from the same aesthetic impulse and that "the value of a disappointment can lie in the pleasure of having just avoided it" (72). The disappointment aesthetic seems to be a special case of a broader inquiry into poetry and anticipation.

Chapter 2 finds Romantic poems debating Spinoza's characterization of pity as painful and contrary to the conatus. The aesthetic disappointments of Wordsworth's "Simon Lee" force the reader to consider the limits of sympathetic feeling. Though the speaker presumes to understand Lee--his "overfamiliar, even parental" attitude "is reflected in the poem's doting cadences" (66)--he is surprised by Lee's unsettling overflow of tearful gratitude. According to Mathes, the form of the poem similarly disappoints the reader. It explicitly defies the expectation that it will tell a tale, and the unrhymed penultimate line of each stanza produces a flat, "prose-like syntax" (66). The poem provokes the reader into "grappling ... with the limits of our ... sympathetic knowledge of ... another's pain" (59). Mathes might have contrasted her Spinozan reading of Wordsworth's poems of troubled sympathy with Nancy Yousef's sharp analysis of the same in Humean terms (Romantic Intimacy, 2013).

Boldly complicating her argument, Mathes reads Mary Robinson's "The Shepherd Dog" as a response to "Simon Lee" that "disappoints the disappointment aesthetic" (85). Robinson's "personification" of the dog--her representation of its "motivations" (63)--reaffirms the ties of sympathy questioned in "Simon Lee," extends them to animals, and aligns them with the conatus. According to Mathes, Robinson thus rejects "Wordsworth's rejection of personification ... in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads" (80). The complications get tricky to unravel. In disappointing the disappointment aesthetic, Robinson nonetheless deploys representative versification, which in Smith provocatively defies expectations: "The extra beat of the Alexandrine ... underscores the faithfulness of the dog, who, like the line, does not want to give up" (79). Romanticists may question whether Robinson's poem answers Wordsworth's Preface. Robinson published "The Shepherd's Dog" with Lyrical Tales in November 1800; Wordsworth's Preface first appeared with the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in January 1801. In the Preface, Wordsworth renounces "personifications of abstract ideas" (Prose Works 1: 130), not representations of our deep affective interactions with animals.

Turning in chapter 3 from one dialogue to another, Mathes studies Samuel Taylor Coleridge's responses to Wordsworth's poetry in the Biographia Literaria (1817) and the Dove Cottage manuscript version of "To William Wordsworth" (1807). Mathes argues that Coleridge hews to "a theory of ideal reading" grounded in "a radical materialism" (92). As a reader, Coleridge wants to be moved by poetry while maintaining total awareness of his bodily, affective activity, which Mathes calls "proprioceptive self-possession" (92). She traces Coleridge's critical response to Wordsworth's poetry in the Biographia to a dispute over Spinoza. In Lyrical Ballads, we are told, Wordsworth emphasizes Spinoza's disclosure of "our susceptibility to forces outside our control" (110) by imposing on his readers with provocative, prosaic poetic techniques. "Coleridge's Spinoza, by contrast, teaches self-restraint as an exercise in preserving the force and integrity--that is, the proprioceptive self-possession--of other people" (110). In "To William Wordsworth," Mathes argues, Coleridge represents listening to his friend recite The Prelude as an ideal reading experience. The recitation's "never-ending predictability" (24), the "dependable formal characteristics of the verse" (117), and the "ideal coincidence of form and content" (117) ward off disappointment and tune the mind to God's unerring will. But since several chapters of the Biographia argue against various materialist philosophies, this reading of Coleridge raises questions. Does his interest in the physiology of reading necessarily associate him with radical materialism? And is there a better way to make someone aware of their proprioceptive senses than to keep them a little off balance?

If Mathes finds that Smith, Wordsworth, Robinson, and Coleridge explore the poet's power to communicate affect to the reader, chapter 4 argues that John Keats aspires to "Affective reciprocity" (119, original emphasis), that is, to forming an "immediate and reciprocal bond with an audience" (25), even over a distance. Keats finds a model of this reciprocity in the acting of Edmund Kean, whose passionate performances send a current of affect circulating between the actor and the audience. Mathes sees Keats testing various strategies for conjuring a "virtual connectivity" (125). He invites his brother in America to read a passage of Shakespeare at the same time he does, and in a famous letter he imagines himself, Milton, Wordsworth, and Reynolds as "proximate bodies" (129) shrouded in the same mist. Poetically, Mathes argues, Keats answers Wordsworth's notion of wise passiveness with a model of active withholding, a reticence that invites the reader closer and "prompts intimacy without agency" (138). Coming upon the short final line of "This Living Hand," for example, the reader "might feel compelled to fill in the blanks--'I hold it towards you--Will you take it?'" (134). The reader virtually assumes the position of the poet and reciprocally extends her hand. Other recent studies of synchronized readings or of the relation between the poet and the reader--including Yohei Igarashi's The Connected Condition (Stanford, 2020), Oren Izenberg's "We Are Reading" (2007), and Stacey McDowell's "Wordsworth and Reading's Promise" (2021)--are more circumspect about poetry's power to conjure virtual co-presence.

The final chapter and coda zoom out to observe the circulation of affect on a global scale. In Wordsworth's "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" and Shelley's political poems, Mathes finds images of revolutionary political affects being swept up in the wind and carried around the world by what she calls "affective boundary-crossing" (147, emphasis original). Carried with the wind on ships, poems generate similar affects and sound waves in places all around the globe, potentially facilitating the formation of radical political combinations. Mathes's coda lingers on how Romantic poetic provocations might relate to what it means today to "weather" hard times, to endure the pain and grief of repression, and to possess the "privilege of un-affectability" (183).

In contributing to dynamic inquiries at the core of contemporary Romantic literary studies, Poetic Form and Romantic Provocation is a significant achievement. The book introduces new approaches to Romantic literature and opens opportunities for further scholarship. How would our understanding of Spinoza's influence on Romantic-period poetry and affect change if we took up Montag and Stolze's caveat that Spinoza's thought is "never strictly identifiable ... as ... 'materialist'" (cited in Levinson, "Romancing Spinoza," 373)? What is the relation between Spinozan "affectability" and "sensibility"? How would new ways of reading poetry introduced by, say, the Historical Poetics Working Group, contribute to our sense of the affective power of poetic form? These are questions worth pursuing.

Stephen Tedeschi is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Alabama.

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