Romantic Forms and Methods

Lecturer: Prof. David Duff

This lecture series examines three recent critical approaches which shed new light on Romantic forms and on the publishing culture of the Romantic period. Each lecture focuses on a particular form, or set of forms, and shows how modern methodologies can combine with earlier theories to produce a new understanding of the form’s distinctive poetics and place in Romantic literature.

The first lecture applies cognitivist criticism to the paradigmatic Romantic poetic form, the ode. Interest in ‘verse cognition’, or ‘how poems think’, is a recurrent theme in modern criticism, most vigorously pursued in the quasi-scientific method known as ‘cognitive poetics’. The lecture demonstrates that such approaches have powerful antecedents in Enlightenment and Romantic criticism, which undergoes its own ‘cognitive turn’, drawing on the contemporary science of mind. The lecture focuses on the claim, posited by Edward Young and taken up by Coleridge, that the ode has a distinctive ‘logic’ of its own, ‘as severe as that of science’ (Coleridge), and on the phenomenon of ‘transport’, theorised by Enlightenment critics in terms of the aesthetics of the sublime but reinterpretable through current theories of ‘hot cognition’, immersion, and attention. Poems to be discussed include Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

The second lecture shows how recent developments in narratology can illuminate two formal innovations of the 1790s, the Gothic horror ballad and its Romantic foil, the lyrical ballad. Commonly seen as an example of Romantic genre-mixing and, in Wordsworthian terms, as an experiment in poetic language reform, the lyrical ballad can also be approached through the narratological theory of ‘eventfulness’. The ‘script’ against which innovative features of the lyrical ballad are registered is, in many instances, that of the Germanic horror ballad, a fashionable narrative genre built around sensational incidents, sound effects and an aesthetics of shock and surprise. While preserving elements of this structure, Wordsworth and Coleridge convert crude narrative sensations into moments of emotional and linguistic intensity, creating psychopoetic ‘events’ of great lyrical power. In so doing they also offer a therapeutic literary solution to the over-stimulation produced by a real-life script, the ‘great national events’ which shook the revolutionary decade. 

The third lecture illustrates the ‘bibliographical turn’ in Romantic studies, extending the field of book history by focussing on a previously unexplored form, the prospectus. Familiar to modern readers through Wordsworth’s description of an extract from his unfinished philosophical poem The Recluse as ‘a kind of Prospectus of the design and scope of the whole poem’, the term prospectus in its literal sense designates a type of printed advertisement used to announce a projected book, series, journal or newspaper. Associated particularly with subscription publishing and with expensive, large-scale ventures such as encyclopaedias, the form acquired new visibility in the Romantic period as the publishing industry expanded, periodicals proliferated and literary advertising became more sophisticated. The lecture examines creative transformations of this ubiquitous commercial form, showing the saturation of Romantic aesthetic discourse in the language of book-making and book-selling, notwithstanding writers’ problematic relationship to publishers and deep-seated mistrust of the reading public.