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Kevis Goodman. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History

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Kevis GOODMAN. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge University Press, 2004, xv + 225 pp., €93.92, ISBN 0-521-83168-7.

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1Finely imagined, rigorously researched, beautifully written, Kevis Goodman's Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History examines the hardly celebrated georgic genre's protracted, protean return in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It offers us a perspective new in the depth and rigor of its imaginative engagement with the (re-envisioned) relationship between poetry and history in the eighteenth century. Moreover, Goodman's account presents a fresh prospect on literary criticism and history of the 1980's and 90's as the author takes on the discovery of a specific potentiality of the “new historicist” project—that is, the registering of history as poetic disturbance. This is both to refute the new historicist claims of Romantic poetry as the elision or burial of history and to take the insights of those claims to a new level. Goodman takes her cue from Raymond Williams's “structures of feeling [which are] as often as not [...] a certain kind of disturbance or unease”; contrary to the critical reception of that “feeling” in the last few decades, Goodman asserts: “To my mind [Williams] cannot be accused of a naive empiricism or a cult of the “lived”; at the same time, however, he was not willing to settle for the equally naive position that all experience is reducible to its discursive or technological mediation” (7). And neither is Goodman herself, as this entire book movingly attests.  The study is more than a little exciting, I should add, in its intersections of texts on optical technologies and linguistics with newspapers and poetry. It aspires to open issues specific to this poetic genre up both to the “postmodern” field of “media theory,” for which it offers a pre-history, and to the work of developing a historicist method in the wake of the “new historicism.”

2Chapter one, “The Georgics and the cultivation of ‘mediums,' 1660-1712: ‘sensible paths' and pleasurable ‘By-ways,'” presents two main and interlinked claims. It cogently argues for a genealogy of Addison's “nascent aesthetic program,” the principle of the reader's imaginative work, not in Addison's reading about Locke's principle of association, as is so often claimed, but in his reading of Virgil's Georgics. To facilitate this argument, moreover, the chapter begins by making the claim, and examining the evidence, of an early “media theory” around the year 1600. This theory took shape at the intersection of the new science (especially its optical aspects) and contemporary debates about linguistics; at this intersection, too—and not incidentally—Goodman finds a renewed and profound interest in the Georgics, which were conceptualized by Addison and others as a promising “medium” for information precisely in their indirection. Renewed seventeenth-century interest in the Georgics is put into provocative relation specifically with Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665) and John Wilkins Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668); both expressions of desire for sense immediacy betrayed that, in fact, immediacy was just a desire. The necessity of mediation Hooke's work poignantly witnesses in the proliferation of mediating technologies (telescopes and microscopes), which bring the world closer. The “sensible paths,” pathways of sensation, Hooke seeks to enhance by artificial means; like Hooke's instruments, the Georgics, Goodman emphasizes, also function as self-conscious artificial mediums.  Contesting some recent characterizations of the Georgics as workaday, practical poems or realistic representations of husbandry, Goodman argues that these poems “offered, and were understood by the linguistically self-conscious seventeenth century to offer, a glittering verbal tekhnē, producing a medium (to metaxu, that ‘in-between') capable of stimulating a work of reading that was not assumed to be the same as the work it described or—since the Georgics are not after all very realistic—the work it stimulated” (21). Hooke's “sensible paths,” which he means to improve by mediating technologies, become Addison's fortuitously diverting “By-ways” to truth: “[Virgil] loves to suggest a Truth indirectly,” Addison notes in the Spectator, with the idea that the pleasures of the imagination will attend our access to these teasing “By-ways” (quoted in Goodman, 32). As for Addison's “principle of pleasure”—Addison's phrase before it was Freud's--Goodman asks, “What does this insistence on the ‘principle of pleasure' signal if not also an awareness that there lies something beyond it, too?” (36). And this is really the crucial point, for Goodman credits the Georgics, even via Addison's reading of them, with registering displeasure, discomfort, dissonance, as aspects of the real, of history, that exceed the Lockean “Idea” and thus also “positivist or history-of-ideas analysis” (36). What is more, critical descriptions of elision or denial, so often advanced by the “new historicists,” in this light appear insufficient or over-simplified, for Goodman will ask us in the next chapters to understand just such poetic disturbance as itself a form of history. This first chapter effectively establishes Goodman's reading of the Georgics as being “about poetry as [verbal] tekhnē” and as offering a productive “medium” for information, for instance; the following chapters thus elaborate her conviction that Georgic influence would outlast “the ‘true Georgics' or formal imitations of the early eighteenth century” by becoming precepts for reading “even where the signature of the genre is more muted” (29, 36).

3The second chapter describes an evolution of the affect of discomfort from the “matrix of experimental philosophy and linguistics that shaped Newtonian Science” to Thomson's poem The Seasons, where discomfort appears as a historical manifestation largely overlooked (42). Paying heed to that “'indispensable something in between,'” Goodman sees this discomfort or disturbance as a problem of historical presentness, when the present has become something other than an unmediated given. Part of what The Seasons does is to bring that disturbance into more vivid, if pleasingly indirect, relation with “an uncomfortably charged international socio-optics” associated with the British imperial project (40). Only in retrospect, then, can we see an inchoate imperial turn in Robert Hooke's ambitions with the microscope, “an inlargement of the dominion, of the senses” (42). But Goodman makes us at least as much aware of the anxieties that attended this new media. Margaret Cavendish, for instance, expresses concern over the instrument's effects not only on the “object,” which it alters in magnification, but also on the “subject”—she memorably describes looking through the microscope as like putting on a high heel shoe, which, if it is too high, causes one to fall. Locke, Berkeley, and Richard Bentley Boyle worry as well about the effects: from psycho-physiological to social-semiotic. Insofar as the “microscopic eye,” according to these commentators, abolishes the Cartesian dualism of a crisp subject and object relation, the heightened power of sense perception leads to heightened vulnerability and permeability. Unlike the camera obscura which tends to reify the subject-object duality, it “offers instead [...] a sensory circuit, poignantly open and permeable to its environment” (49). In The Seasons, Goodman focuses on a section that explicitly invokes “the microscopic eye” to advance her claim that Thomson brings the troubling concept closer to (the distance from sense-perception of the) empire. The poem's “microscopic eye” lets in “that evacuated imperial history” which the actual instrument cannot. References here to “nameless Nations” and “unseen People,” for instance, Goodman cogently reads as challenging the ambition to “command things” through increased sense perception as Hooke had put it, since “unseen People” escape sense-verification and, Goodman reminds us, the concept of naming was central not only to the milieu of Wilkins, Hooke, and Power, but also to imperial ambition. Insofar as something exceeds sense-verification (figured as visual, microscopic), that excess registers in “Noise”: a “return of the ear in the silent medium of print” (62). Noise troubles the pleasures Addison celebrates in the georgic medium's pleasing “By-ways” of information, and it registers “the presentness of ongoing history beyond lived experience, or phenomenological verification” (64). At the chapter's conclusion, Goodman provocatively refers to this “Noise” as “what Lyotard would call the ‘idiom' for what cannot yet be phrased, but must be” (66). The temporality of noise thus seems to recall (and resist) the book's opening reference to the Georgics, where Virgil “famously imagined his own violent present as the future's past” (1); that is, Thomson's “Noise” appears as the stuff it would seem impossible to clearly envision in the present moment via a future retrospective or otherwise. Goodman never overstates her points, however, and the possibility of connections such as these, ancillary perhaps to the main argument, tell of its suggestive power.

4Goodman next puts georgic-inflected poetry into a dialogue not with optics, but with the newspaper—as two “distinct vehicles of ‘intelligence'”—in the third chapter, “Cowper's georgic of the news: the ‘loophole' in the retreat” (71). Cowper's “loophole,” which critics have read in its current sense of escape, Goodman understands in its original sense “as an ‘opening' or passageway, useful for both communication with and fortification against the outer world” (69). In The Task, Cowper's Englishman thus is “engaged in sofa-travel through the participatory medium of the news,” which the poet attempts to articulate and render “conversable” in the form of verse—hence, not an escape, but a rival medium for information (92). Although Cowper's poem represents an attempt to overcome the random organization of the eighteenth-century newspaper, that rival medium effectively linked the phenomenological life of the individual reader to far flung places connected to the British imperial interest in ways the poem invites. Omai, a person from the South Seas brought to England in 1774, figures in Cowper's poem as “wishful, anxious gazer” back on his native island looking across the seas toward Britain. The actual news coverage of his visit to England was contradictory and chaotic, and Cowper's poem tries to make sense of it. But Omai appears as the “mirror image” of the speaker, both looking out “in the impossibly frozen situation of apprehending something without knowing when, who, or what it will be” (94). This uncertainty points to the present as a historical moment that exceeds any available means of articulation in direct statement, thus appearing only at the level of poetic figure; we encounter here the antithesis of John Barrell's “equal, wide survey,” and Goodman gives us a neologism—“the unconversable world”—for the dark side of Hume's ideal “conversable world” (88). At the level of the subject, this unconversability registers as a “vacuity of thought” as, with Locke, Cowper presents an anti-Cartesian view of the unthinking soul: “I am conscious, and confess/ Fearless, a soul that does not always think” (97; The Task, 284-5). The poem extends consciousness into moments devoid of thought or idea, which finally Goodman all but inscribes as “the as-yet-unknown implications of overseas intimacy” (97). And so, The Task, like The Seasons, incorporates a sense of presentness which does not entirely cooperate with the Addisonian principle of pleasure, but which needs to be somehow managed, even if it cannot be fully narrated (i.e., made into polite conversation).

5Reading these particular discussions of “noise” and the “unconversable world”—as challenges to representation—British Romanticists may have some gathering suspicions about the focus of the final chapter, which delivers us into nineteenth-century historiography. This final chapter, on Wordsworth's The Excursion, we might thus see as retroactively offering (without claiming necessarily to do so) a surprising genealogy of Romantic historiographical debate out of seventeenth-century optical science and the eighteenth-century culture of the news. It also envisions the legacy of the Georgics in Wordsworth's poetry as something more than the didacticism usually cited, insofar as Virgil raises questions about the relation to the past that inspire Wordsworth's explorations in The Excursion. The main question is one of nearness and distance: how to manage distance at the site of the production of the past? Wordsworth's description of the Solitary opens the chapter as he recoils from the possibility of every grave “yielding its contents to eye and ear” (5: 253). The Solitary's loss upon loss of loved ones does not serve to explain his apathy (Goodman observes that any one of these losses would be grounds for grief); that these losses resemble each other descriptively, she cogently argues, suggests a “hastiness of desire for a surrogate object” and “the perils of his wish for immediacy, the consequences of the bid to recover and repossess too soon, which leads to another, then another loss” (115). Referring at last to Freud, Goodman explains the Solitary's apatheia in the temporal terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “for Freud, it is not only the nature and severity of the event which decides the trauma but also the ‘lack of preparedness' for it” (124). (The dead can thus disturb the discourse of the living—a temporal disturbance, which Goodman wants us to see as another form of the spatial disturbances she has attended to in previous chapters.) Hence the historiographical imperative: “a retrospective bid to place death and disappointment in time so that they can be confronted without ‘recoil' [...] Such recoil threatens, if not history itself [...] then certainly its retention and transmission over time” (126). Successful transmission, then, Wordsworth embodies in “the ‘passages of life' [which] strive for a mode of informing, ‘time-release' intelligence” (135). Like Walter Benjamin, therefore, Wordsworth supports a non-psychologically shaded anecdotal form of history as fit for transmission precisely because it does not permit us to approach the past too closely. A parallel to Addison's teasing “by-ways,” Wordsworth's anecdotes are indirect passages to past lives, and poet's innovation Goodman understands precisely as “his refusal to gratify the desire for the immediacy of the past, or intimacy with the dead” (133).

6One aspect of the project perhaps left a bit too indirect is the difference inherent in the move from the Georgics to the georgic modernity of the book's title. In view of Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, for instance, only the historiographical poetics and overt temporal concerns of Wordsworth would seem to merit the badge of “modernity,” so a new designation or clarification of the term for this study would have been helpful. Given the historiographical interest of the final chapter, I return to the historicism of Goodman's project, which she describes in the following way:

7I am interested in these moments of excess and dissonance as records of an otherwise unknowable history. (I should caution however, that my interest in history-on-the-move and its affect does not produce an analysis of the sort that explains a poem by showing the relevance of some particular event or cultural force; part of the challenge is to find a way to give rigor to processes whose resistance to clear apperception is part of my very subject.) (9)

8Goodman's study contributes rigorously indeed to the project of conceiving of a helpful historicism in the wake of the so-called “new historicism.” And yet, when one considers the concerns of Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism next to some other recent publications—I shall refer to Philip Shaw's Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination (2002) and Peter Fritzsche's Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (2004)—the comparison opens up the question of her procedure's relation to the kinds of historical investigation, which she wants to contain in the parentheses above. In Shaw's study, Waterloo is certainly a cause of disturbance or discomfort, not only in respect to the idea of the nation, but also in respect to historiography: “having uncoupled itself from the annualized account, Waterloo takes on the status of a supersensible Idea, ungraspable from the point of view of conventional historiography” (Shaw 3). Goodman's interest of course is more in super-Ideational sense, but the way this effect/affect registers in the poetry, the way both excesses trouble unity, or vex totalizing representation, brings the discussions closer than we might assume. (In Paul Hamilton's Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory (2003), a notion of “heterological politics” is conceived as the push against totalization.) Fritzsche's study, on the other hand, not ostensibly literary criticism but a work of historiography, raises for me different questions about Goodman's book. When Goodman argues that The Excursion's conflation of the elegiac and the historiographical “is thoroughly conceived and given generic form in the Georgics,” an historicist might wonder then why the turn to historiography came not with Thomson or Cowper, but only with Wordsworth, and what happened to that conjunction in the eighteen hundred years or so between Virgil and Wordsworth (112). Fritzsche's study—interestingly in light of Wordsworth's own anecdotal inclinations—employs an anecdotal historical method to suggest that the post-French revolutionary period inaugurated a melancholic sense of history, a sense of the past as lost. Goodman's assertion that the Georgics had their own elegiac historiography thus might have implications for claims about the historical inventions of the Romantic period. As Goodman overtly states, it is not her intention to explore these questions of historical analysis. But the connections between her study and the concerns of very different (literary) historical investigations, if they do not tell us something about the spirit of our own critical age, at least attest to the astonishing insights and suggestiveness of this important, rigorous—and fascinating—book.

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Emily ROHRBACH, « Kevis Goodman. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 7, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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