Brian McGrath (Clemson University)

Romantic texts have repeatedly played important roles in the development of what we call literary theory. For instance, all of the essays collected in the 1979 Deconstruction and Criticism volume, which did so much to announce deconstruction in the United States, were originally meant to focus on the poetry of P. B. Shelley. In the intervening decades, Romanticists have often been hired as literary theorists, and so the teaching of Romanticism has frequently been paired with the teaching of literary theory. For this special issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons I asked contributors to reflect on the ways they integrate literary theory into their teaching of Romanticism and to reflect on the continued importance of literary theory to Romanticism and the work of Romanticists. I did not define “literary theory” but left the term open to interpretation. Collectively the essays broach a range of questions, but perhaps most importantly: why teach Romanticism and literary theory today? How does teaching Romanticism with literary theory alter our ideas of both?

Contributors received their PhDs from departments well known for getting theoretical (Chicago, Virginia, UC Irvine, and Yale (x2)) and now teach at a range of institutions, some private, some public, some in the United States, some abroad. In selecting contributors I was self-consciously interested in hearing from those who received their PhD after the turn of the century, after the publication of the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001) and so after literary theory courses had become a regular part of departmental curricula. The range of responses tells us much not only about prevailing definitions of Romanticism and literary theory but also about collective goals for the teaching of literature today.

To say that contributors received the PhD after the 2001 publication of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism is also to say that they entered the profession after the most violent decades of the culture wars, when labels for theoretical positions became hardened (one strategy among many, one might say, for resisting theory). In reading the essays I was struck by the degree to which all contributors resist dogmatic claims. In fact, the essays demonstrate a commitment not to theory per se, and certainly not to theory as a lens through which to view the literary object, but to discovering texts (both “theoretical” and “Romantic”) together and anew. Collectively, contributors are more interested in what works, which texts when paired draw from each other new interpretations and new insights, than in claiming allegiance with any particular theoretical position. As Andrew Warren writes, “I find theory most useful, both in my own thinking and in the classroom, when it creates the right kinds of resistances to texts and ideas I have been taking for granted.”

Metonymy and resistance play an important role in several essays in the volume. In his contribution, David Sigler describes teaching Wordsworth’s “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” alongside a chapter from George Bataille’s Theory of Religion, entitled “The Rise of Industry.” Reading Bataille alongside Wordsworth is meant to challenge the available readings of Wordsworth; but similarly, reading Wordsworth alongside Bataille is meant to challenge students’ interpretations of Bataille. The theoretical text does not explain the literary one; but neither does the literary text explain the theoretical one. Ideally, both texts emerge changed after the pedagogical encounter; such is the point, suggests Sigler, of placing the texts side by side. In her teaching, Anahid Nersessian self-consciously embraces the aleatory, producing the chance for unforeseen confluences between Romantic and theoretical texts: ‘One of my goals is to push students toward a non-instrumental relationship to criticism . . . I believe we are all fatigued by studies promising to give an interpretation of some poem or novel through one “angle” at a time, Morris Zapp-style. This sort of pedantic relationship to theory, or to the more constrained genre of criticism, is one current students should consider it their historical privilege to reject.’ In many of the essays collected here, “theory” describes less a critical position than a shared openness to discovering texts together in new constellations of reference and signification. For some, this commitment to discovery might seem yet another strategy for resisting theory, as theory recedes from critical view (especially when so explicitly replaced by “method” in Nersessian’s essay). For others, such a commitment to discovering texts in constellations of reference and signification may simply be one theoretical position among many, if unclaimed.

What is meant by “theory” here, other than a loose set of texts and proper names? In “Nothing Fails Like Success,” Barbara Johnson concludes that ‘if the deconstructive impulse is to retain its vital, subversive power, we must . . . become ignorant of it again and again. It is only by forgetting what we know how to do, by setting aside the thoughts that have most changed us, that those thoughts and that knowledge can go on making accessible to us the surprise of an otherness we can only encounter in the moment of suddenly discovering we are ignorant of it. (16)’ Efforts to transform deconstruction into a set of rule bound procedures must be resisted, argues Johnson. Collectively, it seems to me, the essays in Teaching Romanticism and Literary Theory explore a similar paradox with respect to theory (deconstruction has often been code for theory). Perhaps we must become ignorant of theory too, again and again, if the term is to retain vital and subversive force, especially as each “theory” (formalism, deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, etc.) is reduced to a discrete set of critical procedures. As the courses described in contributions to this volume show, “forgetting theory” does not mean not reading texts we call theoretical. It may just mean reading theory as literature, as still capable of producing surprise. The essays collected here share a commitment to surprise (both for students and teachers). “Teaching,” then, is not the transmission of information but a shared encounter with texts.

Essays by Emily Sun and Eric Lindstrom stage this question about the literariness of theory most explicitly. Sun does not place importance on teaching Wordsworth’s poem alongside a theoretical text, though the fact that Sun has read William Empson, Paul de Man, and Edward Said certainly informs her class design and preparation. Sun’s interest is in discovering the words of Wordsworth’s poem anew and in competing contexts. Teaching in English in Taiwan, Sun explains how the attempt to read Wordsworth’s “sense” in “Tintern Abbey” affected her students’ understanding of the Chinese phrase for senses, wuguan. Drawing on de Man’s “The Return to Philology” Sun reminds us that theory emerges from the deceptively simple (or perhaps deceptively difficult?) effort to read just what is on the page. Pairing literary and theoretical texts may, likewise, demonstrate a desire to cut through received or practiced opinion and, however impossible an effort, get to the words themselves and the questions they raise. In his contribution, Eric Lindstrom reminds readers that literature (or the literary) is one name among many for the gap between object and interpretation, between theory and method.

All five essays move past “discovering” literary theoretical pronouncements buried within Romantic texts, as if one buried a bone just so one could have the pleasure of digging it up again. In response to definitions of Romanticism aligned with an aesthetic purposelessness, Warren in “The Uses and Abuses of Theory (for Life)” moves from Alain Badiou back to German Idealism to ask how Romanticism can or should be instrumentalized to get students to think differently about our most familiar definitions of Romanticism. In “The Intimacy of Infrastructure: Teaching Wordsworth with Bataille,” Sigler shows how reading Bataille alongside Wordsworth allows Wordsworth’s nuanced thinking about capitalist ideology in a poem like “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” to emerge: “When read in combination, Bataille and Wordsworth show how poetic devices present an occasion for radically rethinking subjectivity in an industrial world.” In “Dissensus in Two Registers: Tintern Abbey in Taiwan,” Sun shows the continued importance of philology to our thinking about Romantic poems in historical and contemporary cultural contexts. Sun describes the experience of teaching Wordsworth in Taiwan and demonstrates the continued importance of poetry to “getting theoretical,” as Sun’s Taiwanese students found themselves estranged from their own language and culture by virtue of the encounter with Wordsworth’s poem. Lindstrom simultaneously moves us beyond the traditional canon of British Romanticism to the writing of Robert Frost and moves us back to thinking about the priority of poetry and poetic thinking, not only to our conceptions of Romanticism but also to literary theory. Lindstrom reminds us that how we read is too often preconditioned by our assumptions about what we are reading, and teaching Romanticism and literary theory stretches those assumptions about what makes a lyric poem or a theoretical text. Nersessian calls for thinking of Romanticism not as theory but as method: “replacing theory with method means making Romanticism useful.” Nersessian challenges readers to think about how encounters between Romanticism and literary theory enable new forms of poetic making. With tremendous style and intellectual rigor, each of these short essays shows how discovering Romantic and literary theoretical texts together allows one to discover these texts anew.

Works Cited

Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.