What might romantic minimality and brevity suggest as alternative additions to our critical vocabulary in romantic studies? How do they allow us to think differently—and briefly—about a constellation of questions and perspectives that throw into relief the necessity to think through the small, negligent, obscure, too little or too much, the ephemeral, the mere there is, the all but not there? The authors of the position papers collected for this issue were each asked to respond to just these kinds of prompts, and to keep their arguments operatively brief. Conciseness and intensification in service of our theme of brevity and minimality was the order of the day. The space between stanzas, like the disappearance of a ruin into history, became equal considerations for reflecting on the brevity of things that the larger “life” of romanticism cannot ever ignore.

Introduction: Too Much, Too Little: Of Brevity

David L. Clark
McMaster University

Jacques Khalip
Brown University

1.         In a brief search of the English Poetry database, the words “minimum” and “minimal” do not appear in the writings of some of the authors who we often associate with the period and concept of Romanticism. That almost insignificant fact, however, calls to mind a much larger series of matters that come to the fore as the clichés that serve as Romanticism’s most common and ponderous “others”: temporal and historical parameters of what Romanticism “was” and “is”; Romanticism’s theoretical suppleness and expansiveness; its too muchness, its affective expansiveness and rhetorical disruptions; its “uncontainable” and effusive structures; its slippery ambivalence as a term that either says too much or too little about the limits of historical thought; its putatively close engagements with vitality, “life,” creativity, infinity; and its ongoingness as a conceptual marker of modernity, refusing to bury a past that inscribes present temporalities through and through. Think of T.E. Hulme, for whom Romanticism posits “that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress” (57). One cannot, then, be too brief about what Romanticism seemingly aspires to, and the commitments it often hopes to maximize.

2.         And yet, as if rescinding Hulme’s terms in a poem that otherwise seems concerned with countering industrialization with pastoral self-expansion, William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The World is Too Much With Us,” considers the fine calibrations involved in deciding what constitutes too much in the first place. If the world is one that is both “late and soon,/Getting and spending,” (Wordsworth 1-2) it is one whose appropriative economies seek to reel in a world as something that is decidedly subject to representation and capture—one that is coercively with us. At the same time, it is also a world that cannot quite be held by those economies that criss-cross each other and seem to miss the very transitional object they cannot nor are properly able to destroy and leave behind.

…we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. (2-9)
The little that is ours is seen, and the more that we don’t glimpse remains the blind spot in nature that cannot be taken. There is a world that is not this world, neither transcendental nor immanent, but something considered otherwise in its measurelessness. And strangely, Wordsworth’s critique of disenchantment and estrangement ends up exposing us to the remains of something that we can neither have nor approximate. If the sonnet’s meter seemingly condenses the speaker’s thoughts into a dynamic of evanescence and materialization, it is one that is transitional, testing, and mildly reparative—it tries to understand how, if there is too much of something with us, too little won’t do either. [1]  Less is not more, in this case—less and more are alternating ideologies.

3.        What might Romantic minimality and brevity suggest as alternative additions to our critical vocabulary? How do they allow us to think differently—and briefly—about a constellation of questions and perspectives that throw into relief the necessity to think through the small, negligent, obscure, too little or too much, the ephemeral, the mere there is, the all but not there? The authors of the position papers collected for this issue were each asked to respond to just these kinds of prompts and to keep their arguments operatively brief. Conciseness and intensification in service of our theme of brevity and minimality was the order of the day. The space between stanzas, like the disappearance of a ruin into history, became equal considerations for reflecting on the brevity of things that the larger “life” of Romanticism cannot ever ignore.

4.         In a prosaic world otherwise tethered to the value of disclosure, unconcealment, publicity, and of making oneself heard, understood, and recognized, consider the small, unobtrusive, fugitive, minute, brief, cursory, and all but illegible sign or trace, the mark that could just as easily be over-looked as seen. What of the forms of life that do not merely endure but in fact honor inconspicuousness and, as Jacques Khalip argues, “anonymity”? Such barely perceivable indications and enunciations constitute what Anne-Lise François calls “open secrets,” i.e., “forms of uncounted experience and unremarkable virtue,” and all “those nonassertive ways of being in the world” for which the least demonstrative, expressive, or forthcoming is also a condition of utmost frankness because unapologetically free from the otherwise irresistible imperative either to withhold or present, to conceal a secret or speak the truth (60). Consider the ephemera that Samuel Taylor Coleridge conjures in “Frost at Midnight,” i.e., the shadowy figure or “stranger’s face” (41), whom he recalls as a child hoping would arrive at his classroom door, but doesn’t, as if a reverse image of the unknown visitor who rings the door-bell in Ionesco’s play, yet cannot wait to be received. Through the eyes of the child, the poet looks for a salvific sign, but what he sees is notable for its barely solicitous substancelessness. Coleridge glances at a glance that never was. An immaterial mediation of a fleeting memory of an encounter that failed to take place—an unmissed encounter, so to speak—seems deliberately to flirt with the limits of what one can be made to feel or read as significant. Here there is no breathing of trauma that enlarges the psychic deep time of Romantic modernity. Rather, Coleridge queerly finds “companionship” with something that must be looked at precisely because it suggests nothing at all: he is queerly drawn to a filmy apparition that approaches in the mode of its own fading, taking pleasure not in a memory but in the eddies of anxious interiority that it leaves in its tremulously minimal wake.

5.        Perhaps this is what it means to tarry with what Emmanuel Levinas calls the trace, “the movement that already carries away the signification it brought” (70). What would it mean to follow such a movement for its insignificance, for unraveling precisely the experiences it nominally would appear to host? Without “getting and spending,” might the trace be the barest mark (which is precisely not the barest life, not answerable, in the manner of the biopolitical, to the measure of life or to a certain normatively sacralizing conception of “life”) that affords interest in a world that is too much—too powerfully coercive, demanding of assent, contractual in its sensible and epistemological obligations? Such a line of thinking suggests modes for reading and writing that circle around just this kind of brevity and minimality. If we have come to think that Romanticism can and must endure as the site of and the arsenal for excavating the historical, then perhaps such a historicism endlessly believes in the repleteness or sustainability of the “Romantic” as bedrock for life. If historicism is excessive in its tarrying of the referent with the letter, might there be an interest in questioning the degree to which such work might be too much, or perhaps too little in its emphases? That we here face an indistinction of exactly opposed weightings suggests that weighting is the problem and that tarrying with an indifference to weighing—weightlessness—offers a way to address that problem. Might “history” indicate a desire to cover over another kind of desire, one that often operates in Romanticism as an interest in Coleridge’s film as that which is never precisely here and not here, too small or too large, unfindable and fascinating in its absence? As we came to realize, the minimal itself is hard to pin down.

6.        Let us offer a working (workless?) definition, or eight ways of looking at minimality:

Min´imum, n. (pl. -ima), & a.

  1. –Scarcity, austerity, dearth, penury, shortness of supply, “learning” to live within one’s means or compelled to live with less . . . and then more of much less (re: the radical diminution of the “the Leech-Gatherer”): all keywords in the seemingly self-evident logics of accumulation and dispossession that play out in different ways in Malthus, Hegel, and Marx and that normatively organize life along the phantasmatic axis of minimal primitive “needs” and unlimited surplus “wants.” Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economisms give life to a powerful double anthropological illusion that privileges the concept of a simple origin in the least: the “man” of sheer needs who is never more essentially human than in this condition of naked life. The creature without wants wants nothing and wants for nothing . . . or so the story goes. As the youthful speaker of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” says, "Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare, / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (7-8). Bravely eschewing or cruelly denied surplus, ornament, or opulence, and thus imagined to be immune to the propertied vicissitudes of time and circumstance, the mirage of the subject who is resolutely independent from wants is compelled to be both scarcely human and the most human. This is not the only place in Romanticism where the minimum and the maximum incoherently meet. In the figures of the discharged soldier, the blind beggar, the bereft widow, the child slave, the dream of the destitution of a life untarnished by luxury flickers troublingly between scandal and nobility. Or one thinks of the hero-waifs of Dickens’s novels, who, through some dark magic, remain sentimentally attractive—to a moneyed class of readers—because they are enduringly human amid unendurable poverty. In conflating bare life with natural life, capital thereby becomes an apology for impoverishment, both notional and real. As Simon Jarvis demonstrates, no Romantic thinker makes the maddening destructiveness of this ideologically saturated anthropology more legible than Wordsworth. For Jarvis, the tale told by the weeping man in “The Last of the Flock” is exemplary in this regard. Our incredulity seems initially to be directed at a fellow whose narrative of austerity muddles wants and needs, but his inconsolable tears point readers elsewhere, towards the derangement of a culture that not only requires the destitution of others but also dares to call that deprivation salutary, a teachable moment. What is the lesson that Wordsworth’s mad and bereft shepherd knows in his bones to be a pacifying and defeatist lie? A “core of essential humanness remains unshakeable by all misfortune” (Jarvis 87).
  2. On the far horizon of “weightless claims to attention” (François 3) lies the zero-degree semiosis of what Walter Benjamin, reading Hölderlin, calls die reine Sprache, i.e., that which is purely or sheerly language, language so entirely divested of its semantic function, so indifferent to the solicitousness with which we naturalize language (compelling it to be human, indeed, the very sign of humanity) that it is divested even of that divestiture (Benjamin 54). [2]  What remains of this subtraction and redaction, as Kevin McLaughlin argues, are “the pieces” or “the bits of language” (66) that can, among other things, testify to the barest of relations among texts as texts: the unused remainders of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater that knock senselessly about Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises is a case in point. The French poet’s “technique of amalgamation,” as McLaughlin says, “imitates a dead spot, a pause, that comes between the two works” (66). Example: In “Brief Encounter: de Man on Wordsworth, or The Irony of The Rhetoric of Temporality,” Lee Edelman reminds us of the spatio-temporal adjacencies that force language to torque between thought and unthought—quite literally the between as the hinge moment (or the blank space between the stanzas in “A slumber did my spirit seal”) that doesn’t quite perform the change from one thing to another. “Brevity,” Edelman remarks, “seen as the soul of wit, can make things easier to remember, thus enabling them to endure, but it also can be seen as duration’s impossible dream of self-erasure, its effort to collapse or minimalize the spatialization of time as distance. In that sense, the simultaneity of events (as opposed to their sequential unfolding) would constitute brevity’s absolute form, its purest realization.”

    Wordsworth famously tarries with spots of time, which are their own genre of minimalia—the lyric distillation of the life of things that punctuates the prose of the world. Against those moments of the living present we might contrast the advent of the “dead spot,” the insentient passing of difference as difference, and nothing more. This alteration and altercation of “live” and “dead” spots brings to mind a memorable verse from Blake: “Los reads the Stars of Albion! the Spectre reads the Voids / Between the Stars” (Jerusalem 36-7). A generation ago, Harold Bloom sketched out six revisionary ratios with which to consider the varied forms that poetic intertextuality can take, but those ratios feel positively baroque compared to the flat relationality or mere difference which McLaughlin associates with the recursiveness and indistinction of what he calls “poetic force” and “unforce.”

  3. Mere, kath’ auto, sheer, bare, naked, divested, bloß. —That which is most what it appears to be because least contaminated by anything else. —That whose wholly unmixed and divested quality renders it plainly available to the mind’s eye. —The self-showing of the depthless and of that which has nothing to hide. The “poets,” Kant claims in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, possess the capacity to apprehend scenes merely as they appear, i.e., prior to the conceptually guided judgments that transform them into the objects of experience. In an often cited reflection on the judgments of taste, for example, Kant dreams of aesthetes for whose impassive and non-acquisitive eyes the sea is not as a source of food or transportation but merely that which appears, meaning—if the meaning of saying “something means something” isn’t already saying far too much in this instance—only its appearance and little else. The minimally cognizable is, as Kant insists, the source of an uncommon pleasure that is also shared and shareable by all rational creatures as rational creatures (153). (The conceptless concept of seeing next to nothing proves to have remarkable staying power. Consider, for example, its important if unexpected modulation in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, for whom seeing “saturated phenomenon” means “letting appearances appear in such a way that they accomplish their own apparition, so as to be received exactly as they give themselves” [7].)

    But mere reflection is also strangely empty, comprehensible mostly in comparison to what it is not, i.e., the “determinate, empirical, contentful knowledge of objects” (Zuckert 1). Rodolphe Gasché points out that although in Kant “the adverb ‘merely’ (bloss) is not to be taken in a depreciatory sense,” (18) its repeated use betrays “the difficulty of isolating, with the required purity, the realm to be delimited” (19). At the point of mereness, the self-showing of an untrammelled purity is haunted by fragility and a vulnerability to all that it has shunned, shed, and excluded. “Looking at the stars forever”: so Rei Terada describes, recalling a strange moment of rapt inattentiveness in Keats’s Hyperion, the almost unimaginable act of merely seeing—neutrally, endlessly (i.e., without an end in sight), and inconsequentially. “Among Keats’s many instances of scanning, survey, aversion, dreaming, aesthetic vision, partial blindness, and so on, I’m most interested in his inclusion of looking that seems openly absorptive, yet withholds its realization,” Terada notes: “Hyperion exhibits a kind of discretion about what might accompany looking at the stars whose motive may be the inclusion of ‘nothing’” (278). Is reading—or a certain conception of reading—the paradigmatic instance of this minimal looking without seeing, eyes wide shut? Example: in a reading of Horne Tooke’s Diversions of Purley alongside Shelley, William Keach focuses on rhetorical abbreviation and speed as components of “Hymn to Mercury,” where the latter figure is endlessly rethought and refigured as a trope for the brevity that enables poetic renewal and imagination. Indeed, as Keach reminds us, to read is necessarily to expose oneself to mere language, for example, to the sheer ordering of letters, phonemes, and words and to the spaces between those pieces of language, i.e., to the minimal differences without which signs cannot appear.

    Other, related questions arise, but this time in a pictorial rather than a linguistic setting, but questions that remind us of the sheerly inscriptive nature of both. What could it mean to attend, for example, to a squiggle in a Blake illustration, and to tarry with whether or to what degree it signifies? Or to consider the top portion of the first preliminary drawing for Francisco de Goya’s memorable print, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, [3]  whose propulsive blur of streaks, marks, smudges, shadings, and frettings offers us a candid glimpse of the very emergence of the image as image out of the chaos of the drawing hand. As Johannes Grave puts it, viewers

    encounter strokes, lines, and flourishes about which it is impossible to decide whether they function merely as hatching or are already the first suggestions of the emerging contour of a representational form. The drawing, we quickly realize, does not just depict the imagination’s independent activity during sleeping and dreaming, but is also the place where it is carried out. (33)
    Yet Grave significantly underestimates the importance of the force of the minimum in Goya’s sketch (and perhaps this is an occupational hazard for anyone exploring the nature of the barely there) insofar as he recuperates what he sees as the incarnation of the imagination at work. In doing so, he phenomenalizes the indeterminate differences and inscriptions that capture the eye without knowing what to do with them. We find ourselves looking not at the drawing of something—including, after Grave, the drawing of the process of drawing—but of something more grossly indeterminate, something on the threshold of drawing but little else. At the instant that we sense the infinite directions that Goya’s image could have taken, but finally did not, the wisdom of Jean-Luc Godard’s remark rings true: “in the absence of the just image, there is just an image” (qtd. in Loshitzky 28).
  4. The irreducible remainder, a concept derived from mathematics, i.e., that which is left over from processes of subtraction or division and which cannot itself be further subtracted or divided: the remainder without remainder. A residuum that traverses a curiously wide semantic field, from a pith or founding and grounding bedrock to something closer to the restive substancelessness and barely there to which the actual remains eternally answerable. That the irreducible remainder can support such seemingly contradictory significances reminds us that it is a figure of desire, the subject of a potent dream of the inviolate origin that is itself inviolate: “Thus the desire or the phantasm of the intact kernel is irreducible,” Jacques Derrida remarks, “–despite the fact that there is no intact kernel” (115). The resistant reste is that which is non-metabolized, the elementally un- or, to be more precise, an-economic remains that are both un-thought (not grasped in cognition) and un-thought (not-thinkable because the condition of thinking anything at all). The Romantic locus classicus is undoubtedly F.W.J. Schelling’s masterwork, the Freedom essay:

    After the eternal act of self-revelation, everything in the world is, as we see it now, rule, order and form; but anarchy still lies in the ground, as if it could break through once again, and nowhere does it appear as if order and form were what is original but rather as if initial anarchy had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible base of reality in things, the indivisible remainder, that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved in understanding but remains eternally in the ground. (29)
    Among the many captivating elements of this harried primal scene is the reversal with which it threatens itself: if the unruly is the generative basis of this “world,” then isn’t the “world” rather than the “irreducible remainder” also what merely remains–or, at the very least, the remainder of the remainder in a chain of formings and unformings without origin or end? At the very least, Schelling surprises us with the possibility that, pared down to its bare foundations, the ground is as unknowable as it is shaky, the scene of a pregnant indeterminacy that he captures by moving restlessly between describing the fundament as either the un-grund or the ur-grund. [4]  So much depends upon the minimal difference between the two barely discernible prefixes qualifying what, strictly speaking, should stand on its own as that which stands. For Schelling—as for his rough contemporary, Blake—the narrative arc of the history of the nature of things is not a fall from order into disorderliness but the reiterated imposition of order on an unruliness that renders that order provisional, anxious, and always on the very threshold of ruin. In its minimal state, reality is equiprimordial with this ancient and pervasive fractiousness, a universe of remaindering, never to be remaindered. Example: Michele Speitz’s “Formal Remainders: Wordsworth, Brevity, and Being Cut Short” turns poetry back and forth on its (in)humanizing desires. What “it remembers and re-members is a humanity that finally belongs not just to human words such as ‘here lies’ but also to the non-human ‘diurnal course,’ pursued by earth, ‘rolled round’ ‘[w]ith rocks, and stones, and trees.’” The “here lies” seems to point to or mark, without specifying, the taking place of something that then follows it, but what Speitz implies is that the this marking might very well have a pathos all its own. What seems left-over is in fact the origin’s trace of itself, haunting the known universe like so much background radiation.
  5. —The shard, sherd, potsherd, or fragment. “The fragment may be a ruin,” Tilottama Rajan remarks, “a diasparactive part of a lost whole, or an intentional spark for something yet to be worked out” (800). Coleridge could be said to condense both possibilities—the burned trace and the slight augury—in the figure of “that fluttering stranger” (26), “the film, which fluttered on the grate” (15) that we discussed earlier. Romanticism may teach us to consider the fragmentary minimum as something otherwise than as a privation. Carol Jacobs has powerfully taught us to think of a decidedly “uncontainable romanticism,” or “an uncontrollable moving beyond all those parameters seemingly fixed within the texts”; such a Romanticism moves by critically turning in upon itself, evolution positing something only to unground each position in a recursive about-face, an involution of form and meaning precisely at all processual turns (ix). Yet what is the materiality of this species of Romanticism—uncontainable, uncontrollable, surplus, excessive, merely more than what is given? Might the force of such a Romanticism be the other side of something adynamic, not even recognizable as a strength or force (or an unforce, as McLaughlin argues), but a worklessness that neither moves nor returns to anything at all? Example: in Karen Swann’s “Keats’s Mask,” the material fragmentation of “Romantic capital” is phenomenalized in Keats’s life mask—as overdetermined a piece of Keatsiana as anything—that is at once the ephemera of Romantic transmission but also a strangely recessive object whose historical shock is unforced, pressureless—“the shocks of what cannot be assimilated into that project—the arrested experience and its detonating posthumous life.” How does the mask circulate in a non-processual “force,” at once symptom of and a grinding down to the impossible nothingness of Romantic thought? Of Keats’s unfinished Hyperion poems, Balachandra Rajan writes:

    The dignity of a fragment in a poetry of self-formation lies in its finding its place in a process, in its being justified by its own extinction. It makes the truth instead of returning to it. It contributes to a whole which is neither beginning nor end but only history. The unfinished, in such a view, carried with it no natural citizenship, no whole from which it was disinherited, or from which its incompleteness has been made to proceed. (249)
  6. A condition, mood, demand or attestation of adequation, sheer commensurateness, vacated calm, and just-enoughness. To make-do with what is given or to-hand can be endured as an imperious and pacifying command— “[T]hat is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 49-50)—or experienced more capaciously as an invitation to subsist, to let-be.

  7. Retraction (almost, but not quite to the point of illegibility), the abjuration of the least vulnerable because occupying the space and time of the Augenblick, the most fleetingly inconspicuous. —The minimal as the distilled and hidden essence. The salvific remnant, but saving because untouched and untouchable: “There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find / Nor can his watch Fiends find it” (Blake, Milton 42-3). Example: the point, in Julie Carlson’s article, is just this kind of distillation and retraction, and retreads the historical and affective transformations that theater allows through poetry: “a point is a feedback loop offering multiple vectors of flight. Some heighten drama and/or the transports envisioned in and through aesthetic moments experienced collectively as an individual. Some are taken to the streets, fostering conviviality, consumerism, spouting clubs, inventions, protest or agitation. Some heighten or depress private theatricals.”

  8. Redaction, subtraction, reduction, suspension, and epoché, a bracketing off of the contingent, empirical, and worldly, leaving nothing but bare relation. Kant’s notion of transcendental apperception would be a profoundly consequential case in point: consciousness’s pure, foundational, and immutable relation to itself as the implied subject of all its representations. Transcendental apperception involves no experience of an object because it is the a priori condition of experiencing anything at all. It is not a state or condition but punctually an act or event of consciousness/self-consciousness. As such it is the occurrence of a founding cleft or division without which a singular mentality would be inconceivable. We are reminded of Heidegger’s thinking of Dasein, which Derrida characterizes as emerging through a process of “reducing or subtracting . . . so as to keep nothing but a relation to itself, a bare relation, to the Being of its being” (11). This is the minimal relation to itself as relation to Being,” Derrida writes, “the relation that the being which we are, as questioning, maintains with itself and with its own proper essence” (11). At the point of the minimum, we appear to arrive at the singular, that which is something in particular and not something else. Example: Galperin’s “Minimal Unit” offers just this kind of yardstick, but one that is impossible to extend:

    [it] surrenders to time but not at the expense of either the unit’s eventfulness as such or the vacancy or pause that, thanks to its unitary quality, prevents [it] from simply escaping or being negated…the minimal unit…performs a cognate function in romantic-period writing in focalizing a state of being that is typically missed or overlooked or discounted, especially in the welter of modernity where ‘one’s own time’ is just a heartbeat from becoming ‘what went before.’
    “Singularity is necessarily divided,” as Jonathan Culler says: “it takes part in the generality of meaning, without which it could not be read, and so is not closed in on itself, punctuelle, but iterable” (871).

Works Cited

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Zuckert, Rachel. Rev. of The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics, by Rodolphe Gasché. Dame Philosophical Reviews 8 Jun. 2003: n.p. Web. 5 May 2015.


[1] See Curran. BACK

[2] For a discussion of Benjamin’s “pure language” or “mere language,” see, for example, de Man. BACK

[4] For a discussion of this question, see Clark. BACK