Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Overflow of Powerful Feelings

Years ago I read an essay on poetry by Penelope Laurans called "'Old Correspondences': Prosodic Transformations." It contains this passage "Indeed, it seems to me that [Elizabeth] Bishop exercises her technical proficiency to cut her poetry off from that 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling' so immediately central to the Romantic imagination. Frequently it is this quality of restraint that keeps the poetry from sentimental excess and gives it its elegantly muted modernest quality." She has made a kind of dreadful mistake here in using that quotation. I freaked out about it in class, but have not though about it for years.

This week I was reading Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty Three of the World's Best Poems (You, or at least I, have to admire how she got her name in the subtitle). Now Camille Paglia, for the most part, is a critic I really like, someone who, like Bloom, writes about poetry in such a way as to actually make people feel it is important and exciting, as it should be. But she makes that same damn mistake when she writes "Wordsworth called poetry 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. The new Romantic values were immediacy and emotional truth, replacing the cooler, more formal standards of Neoclassicism, such as symmetry, perfection, and control."

The mistake in both cases is that they have truncated the Wordsworth quote to make it say something very close to the opposite of what it says in context. What Wordsworth actually wrote was this: "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." That last phrase is kinda important, since both Laurans and Paglia use the truncated quotation to demonstrate an opposition between Romantic poetry (sentimental excess, immediacy and emotional truth) and something else (technical proficiency, restraint, cool, symmetrical, perfect and in control) -- when it is clear from the full quote that Wordsworth thinks Romantic poetry contains that something else. If anyone ever wondered (though I am sure no one did) why Bloom says that Modernism and Post-Modernism are just Late-Romanticism, this is at least one reason why.


neilshyminsky said...
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neilshyminsky said...

One of the classes I TA was reading "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" this week, and the full quote is something I should remember to drop next week. As we went through them, a number of the students were expressing frustration with Coleridge's opaqueness in the former (I was focusing especially on the way that the paratextual elements problematize the seemingly obvious moral) and wonder at his pacing in the latter (the push and pull effect between 'the real' and 'the imaginary'). The first stresses is pointedly unspontaneous - and even punishes the reader who doesn't reflect critically - and the second seems to literally capture that overflow which explodes forth from recollected tranquility. And I think Bloom is right, too - Keats is one of my favorite poets precisely because, in so many respects, he's born at least 100 years too early.

Y'know, I gave up English because I just wasn't having fun studying it anymore. Teaching it, though? So much more satisfying.