Chapter 3: Poetic Difference

by: Jeroen Mettes

What interests us in romanticism is that we still belong to the era it opened up.
Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe (1988:8)

But in order to render myself intelligible I must
previously, in as few words as possible, explain
my ideas, first, of a poem; and secondly, of
poetry itself, in kind and in essence.
Coleridge (1982:171)


Poetry is not verse. Stating this is not quite the same as making the poetic difference, but the assertion—as much a “common sense” as a “romantic” statement—goes a long way. Thus when Friedrich Schlegel says about the Wilhelm Meister that “[d]iese wunderbare Prosa ist Prosa und doch Poesie,” a poetics is implied in which poetry is not essentially defined by lineation, metre or canonical forms. The high esteem for prose among the German early romantics is well-known and no doubt their most original work has been written in prose forms: critical fragments, novels, lectures, letters and, perhaps above all, Novalis’ prose version of the Hymns. William Wordsworth, in the “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads (1800, 1802) similarly praises prose. Hoping to write in the “language really used by men” (Wordsworth 2000: 241), he rejects “what is usually called poetic diction” (Ibid. 244), and declares that “there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition” (Ibid. 245):

not only the language of a large portion of every good poem, even of the most elevated character, must necessarily, except with reference to the metre, in no respect differ from that of good prose . . . [and] likewise . . . some of the most interesting parts of the best poems will be found to be strictly the language of prose, when prose is well written (Ibid. 244-45)

Wordsworth, then, does not go as far as Schlegel in that he sticks to metre as a defining property of poetry. He is making a point about diction, about “the language” of a poem, rather than about its form. There is no difference between well-written prosaic and poetic language, only between the forms in which this language may be molded. “The only strict antithesis to prose is metre” (Ibid. 245), i.e. prose is not opposed to poetry. The metric mold is merely external, a supplement to the already well-written core of prose/poetry. Wordsworth admits that the terms are confusing, but this is so only because the poetic difference has not been made explicit. While Wordsworth still says, “I here use the word ‘poetry’ (though against my own judgment) as opposed to the word ‘prose,’ and synonymous with metrical composition” (Ibid.), his friend Coleridge, about a decade later in the Biographia Literaria, will define the poem, not poetry, as “metrical composition,” thereby explicitly distinguishing poetry from poems.

Coleridge, in fact, gives a much more complete definition, which also encompasses another distinction of Wordsworth’s, that between poems and “matters of fact”:

A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part. (Coleridge 1982: 172; his italics)

This “whole” is of course the “organic whole” Coleridge more or less introduced in English criticism. But whereas organicist rhetoric has in later years so often been used by advocates of free verse, Coleridge believes the organic relation of parts to whole can only be guaranteed by metre:

[I]f the definition sought for be that of a legitimate poem, I answer it must be one the parts of which mutually support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influence of metrical arrangement. (Ibid.)

Of course, metre alone does not make for a “legitimate,” i.e. “organic” poem, but it is metre that forms the heartbeat of the organism and hence guides “the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attraction of the journey” (Ibid. 173). Metre, then, is not merely a fancy bonus on well-written prose, as Wordsworth makes it seem, but essential to the poetic experience.

Moreover, organicism is as always opposed to mechanism, but that does not mean that metre is any way mystical or “inspired”; as Coleridge says, it has a purpose and its influence can be known. Metrical composition is a skill, an art, the primary skill of poetic artifice. Metrical artifice has organicity as its purpose. But is the organic then merely an imitation of nature? Is the whole only the semblance of a whole? This will not do for Coleridge. Therefore he has to show how life gets into the poem, how it must be there from the beginning, and not only as a representation of life. This is where poetry, as distinguished from the poem, comes in. “[P]oetry of the highest kind may exist without metre, and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem,” Coleridge writes (Ibid.), and the examples that he gives of this unmetrical poetry—Plato, Bishop Taylor, Isaiah—suggest that he is again thinking much along the lines of Wordsworth: these writers may not be writing verse, but they are writing in the same “language” as Homer and Shakespeare. In other words, we say that certain passages out of Plato or the Bible are poetic, that they in some way partake of poetry, in the same way that the Sonnets do. The novelty of Coleridge’s contribution lies in how he—philosophical as ever—reads the difference between poetry and poems as a transcendental difference in the German sense: poetry is the condition of possibility of poems qua organic wholes. If metre is the heartbeat of the poem, poetry is its life-infusing spirit:

[I]f a harmonious whole is to be produced, the remaining parts must be preserved in keeping with the poetry; and this can be no otherwise effected than by such a studied selection and artificial arrangement as will partake of one, though not a peculiar, property of poetry. (Ibid.; Coleridge’s italics)

The artificiality of this arrangement, of course, is that of the imagination as opposed to the mechanical fancy; it is also a higher artificiality than that of metrical composition. A German would have said: it is the unconscious artificiality of genius, to which the highest freedom has become second nature or instinct. Which is to say, the imagination is not artificial at all, but rather the point of identity between artifice and organism, conscious and unconscious, subject and object. Of course, given this vocabulary, it proves irresistible to in turn identify the imagination with a psychological faculty and transcendental poetry with the empirical poet:

What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution to the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts and emotions of the poet’s own mind. The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, which the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. (Ibid. 173-74)

Coleridge thinks to solve the problem of poetry with the poet, to put the poet in the abyss that he has only just opened up underneath the poem. But, as we will see, poetry is not a solvable problem, it is dissolution itself. If it is the transcendental ground of empirical poems, it cannot itself be grounded—not in poems, but in nothing empirical, not even in the poet qua genius. In the next chapter, I will return to Coleridge and to this curious empirico-psychological bent in his avowedly transcendental thinking—which I believe is typical for “organic theory” in general—, but for now it is enough to place the “discovery” of poetic difference in early romanticism, regardless of how quickly and by what means the “discovery” was covered over again, and that poetry is precisely that which makes the poem what it is—an organic whole, Coleridge says; a singularity, I will say—without coinciding with it.

Of course, poems—or, more generally, works of art—have long been regarded as peculiar objects. Being cultural products, they are obviously different from any natural object, but they are not entirely cultural objects either, that is, works in the sense of “simple produce of the common day” (Wordsworth). Socrates, in Plato’s Ion, famously distinguishes the work of the rhapsodist—and, implicitly, of the poet—from that of all other artisans. The artisan’s art is practical knowledge, skill, techne. Ion, the rhapsodist, claims that being a good performer entails having the expert knowledge of all Homer’s characters, so that he has, for instance, all the skills of a brilliant general. Socrates replies:

You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. And if you have art, then, as I was saying, in falsifying your promise that you would exhibit Homer, you are not dealing fairly with me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired.

Inspiration, then, is sharply distinguished from techne or craftsmanship—a gesture that invalidates every claim to seriousness the artist could dream of making. It is hardly surprising that Ion’s art is accused of being Protean. In the Timaeus, Plato represented God as a cosmic craftsman, and no doubt techne is by definition formative capacity. The poet in his work can take on a variety of skills, but only in appearance; he can take them on as his work is inherently without skill, just as “[t]hat which is to receive all forms should have no form” (Timaeus). An element of essential formlessness is thus what distinguishes the poem from all other cultural products: inspiration. For Plato, this disqualifies the poetic utterance as a serious speech act, but a long and influential tradition has hailed inspiration expressly as what dignifies the poet as someone originally in contact with the “divine.”

A concept similar to inspiration is the sublime. It is not at all surprising that Boileau should have translated Longinus’ treatise. Precisely a classicist poetics—that is to say, a normative poetics with clear rules on how to proceed from the general poetic ideal towards a particular poem—is in need of a concept that could distinguish the poem from a mere mechanical production. One can call it the sublime, one can call it genius; in either case, it functions like a secret ingredient, the je ne sais quoi that gives a work of formal perfection an intense glow—a glow that seems to come from the inside and not from any externally imposed measure—that it otherwise would never have had. Evidently, classicists must have already made a distinction, not only between the ideal Poem (the one that poets should strive to imitate) and the particular poem (the imitation of the ideal which is more or less (im)perfect), but also—at least implicitly—between the Poem/poem and the poetic. The poetic is the incalculable operator, the secret ingredient that makes a poem an instance of poetry, i.e. a singular, radiant work of art.

In classicist theory the poetic was bound to remain marginal—even if endlessly debated over under the names of the sublime or genius—but the early romantics will bring it to the centre of their thought in order to reinscribe it into the relation between the transcendental and the empirical, the Absolute and its formal expressions. “Das Reich der Poesie ist unsichtbar,” one of the interlocutors of Friedrich Schlegel’s Gespräch über die Poesie remarks (494), discriminating between the kingdom of poetry and the totality of all poems, which is, at least potentially, a visible body, a corpus. “[D]ie ganze eine und unteilbare Poesie” (495) is distinguished from all particular works; yet it is also not thought of as a Platonic heaven of ideal Forms. In that case, the distinction would still be between Poems and poems, archetypes and resemblances, Forms and forms. But the poetic difference is between poetry and poems, between a transcendental or absolute poetry and individual works (or the totality of all individual works), which are individual works of art only by partaking in a critical chaos or “romantischer Verwirrung.”

The group around the Athenaeum do not make the distinction as explicitly as Coleridge will a little later in England; nevertheless, it is unmistakably made. We actually see Schlegel discovering the difference. At first, he is concerned with defining a particular kind of poetry, i.e. romantic poetry, but the way he defines it will lead him to a theory of poetry qua poetry, i.e. poetry beyond any kind, or absolute poetry. In the following fragment, Schlegel uses Kantian terminology to describe what is commonly known as romantic irony:

Es gibt eine Poesie, deren eins und alles das Verhältnis des Idealen und des Realen ist und sie also nach der Analogie der philosophische Kunstsprache Transzendentalpoesie heißen müßte. . . . So wie man aber wenig Wert auf eine Transzendentalphilosophie legen würde, die nicht kritisch wäre, nicht auch das Produzierende mit dem Produkt darstelllte . . . : so sollte wohl auch jene Poesie . . . in jeder ihrer Darstellungen sich selbst mit darstellen und überall zugleich Poesie und Poesie der Poesie sein.

The self-reflectiveness of works like Ludwig Tieck’s Der gestiefelte Kater—which counts members of the audience among its characters, who criticize the play as it unfolds, not just between but during scenes—should not be understood as prefiguring postmodern “ontological scepticism,” but rather as an artistic variety of critical idealism. As Benjamin has noted, the Jena romantics take their queue from Fichtean reflection. In the same way that the latter defines consciousness as the knowing of knowing, the romantic work of art is the “poetry of poetry.” This reflection can and must always be infinitized, multiplied “wie in einen endlosen Reihe von Spiegeln”—not because the nature of reality is to be questioned, but because this procedure points to the “truth” or reality of art.

On one level, Schlegel’s thinking resembles that of Schiller: modern or romantic poetry is “sentimental,” “self-conscious.” Yet beauty does not mediate truth, as it does in Schillerian play, it is truth. Of course, the work must be beautiful; this is in fact the only poetic criterion, since all other criteria would have to come from outside the aesthetic domain or consist of a classicist corruption of the aesthetic from the inside: “[E]s gebe nur Eine Poesie, und es komme nur darauf an, ob etwas schön sei; nach der Rubrik könne nur ein Pedant fragen.” However, beauty is thought as truth: there are beautiful works and there are non-beautiful works, just as there are true and false propositions, and there is no intermediate value, no more or less beautiful. Saying that beauty is truth and truth beauty means that art or poetry have become critical categories. A poem is beautiful and therefore poetic or it is not beautiful and therefore not poetic; only the first poem is worthy of criticism. The latter can then no longer be understood as judgement in the sense of comparing and rating on the basis of transcendent criteria. As Schlegel says in his “review” of Wilhelm Meister:

Denn dieses schlechthin neue und einzige Buch, welches man nur aus sich selbst verstehen lernen kann, nach einem aus Gewohnheit und Glauben, aus zufälligen Erfahrungen und willkürlichen Forderungen zusammengesetzten und entstandnen Gattungsbegriff beurteilen: das ist, als wenn ein Kind Mond und Gestirne mit der Hand greifen und in sein Schächtelchen packen will.
Ebensosehr regt sich das Gefühl gegen eine schulgerechte Kunstbeurteilung des göttlichen Gewächses. Wer möchte ein Gastmahl des feinsten und ausgesuchtesten Witzes mit allen Förmlichkeiten und in aller üblichen Umständlichkeit rezensieren?

In fact, Schlegel goes on to describe Goethe’s novel as “eins von den Büchern, welche sich selbst beurteilen.” Here we have the emblem of the romantic artwork: it judges or criticizes itself. Criticism in the restricted sense does not pass any judgement beyond the implicit universal judgement—“this is beautiful”—that accompanies all writing on a singular work of art; if it were not beautiful, if it had not been thought art by the critic, there would be no point in writing about it. Criticism like Schlegel’s should rather be seen as a further reflection, as a continuation or “completion” of the work to infinity. It is in this sense that criticism, as the reflective irony of the work, is something like the essence of romantic poetry, which solicits criticism because it is never finished, because it is never finished with itself: “Die romantische Dichtart ist noch im Werden; ja das ist ihr eigentliches Wesen, daß sie ewig nur werden, nie vollendet sein kann.”

What does it strive for, this progressive Universalpoesie, as Schlegel calls it in the most famous of the Athenaeum fragments? For the universal, for the dissolution of form, by way of endless reflection, into the formlessness of absolute poetry. Perhaps the name of Universalpoesie is not well-chosen: it is neither universal (yet) nor poetry as such (yet). Romantic poetry is still a kind of poetry. The literary genres that Schlegel privileges—the novel, the fragment, the letter—reflect the formlessness of the Absolute, but they do so precisely as reflections, metonymically. The romantic fragment is a “Fragment aus der Zukunft,” a messianic index of the poetry to come. The novel, in its unlimited capacity to swallow up genres through its apparent prosaic formlessness, is ultimately still a form among others, a generic image of the other of all genres. Accordingly, Schlegel still imagines poetry as something like a transcendental Poem, “das unendliche Gedicht, welches die Keime aller andern Gedichte verhüllt” (Gespräch, 497). Yet this Poem of all poems—which would be better termed poetry—has nothing in common with the transcendent Poem of classicism; it is not a Form but the formless condition of all individual formality. The imagery and expressions Schlegel deploys are similar to the ones we have seen Novalis use when speaking of the Absolute: “reizend gebildete Chaos” (Gespräch 480); “das schönste Chaos von erhabnen Harmonien und interessanten Genüssen” (Lucinde); he celebrates the dissolution of “das große Chaos streitender Gestalten in ein harmonisches Meer der Vergessenheit” (Ibid.). The sea of the Absolute from which all individuality derives and into which all of it will disappear is a recurring motif: “Jede Muse sucht und findet die andre und alle Ströme der Poesie fließen zusammen in das allgemeine große Meer” (Gespräch 473). Moreover, it is not so strange that the Absolute should still be spoken of as a poem, since the Absolute, in Hegel’s phrase, must be constructed; Schlegel says it must be “gebildet.” Poetry is the project, the destiny of romantic poetry, i.e. of romantic poems: “Die romantische Dichtart ist die einzige, die mehr als Art und gleichsam die Dichtkunst selbst ist: denn in einen gewissen Sinn ist oder soll alle Poesie romantisch sein.” We might as well say that the early romantics “discovered” poetry as such.

But how should we understand the transcendental relationship between poetry and poems? Whereas it is clear how a transcendental subject can constitute its object, how objects conform to our knowledge of them—indeed, how they must conform for cognition to be possible at all—, it is not immediately obvious how poems should conform to poetry. The answer, to put it quickly, lies in the should. If what is beautiful is what is true, this must be so, not because of a necessary law of nature but because of a determination of freedom: the equation of truth and beauty is just. This makes some sense when we remember the primacy given to the moral, free subject by Kant and Fichte. Yet, again, how can a work be thought of as free? Freedom, for Kant, is not the absence of all laws; it is rather the assertion of the internal Law—the moral Law—over all merely natural and otherwise external determinations. Freedom as self-legislation is therefore the prerogative of the autonomous subject. But a work of art, the romantics insist, must be equally autonomous, i.e. its laws must be wholly immanent. It must be a singularity, an individual that is its own species or genre or, in Kantian terms, must rank somewhere between the universal (in the sense of general) concept and the particular form. The faculty that mediates between the understanding (the faculty of concepts) and the intuition (the faculty of forms) Kant calls the imagination (Einbildungskraft). In the first Critique, the imagination synthesizes the sensible manifold received by the intuition in order to pass it on to the judgement of the understanding; the imagination is wholly instrumental to the understanding which, as Kant says, “legislates” in the theoretical domain. In the Critique of Judgement, however, the imagination is not submissive to any other faculty; yet the role the imagination plays in aesthetic judgement is made to account for the relationship between faculties in general. At any rate, in the third Critique we find the first indications of something like a philosophical theory of artistic autonomy.

As I have said, Kant reserves the term “autonomy” for the moral subject. Aesthetic judgement, he says, insofar as it is not submitted to any determining faculty, is “heautonomous.” An aesthetic judgement or a judgement of taste is what Kant calls a reflective judgement. The latter is distinguished from the determining judgements of theoretical knowledge that featured in the first Critique. Whereas determining judgements apply universal concepts to given particular intuitions, in reflective judgements “only the particular is given and the universal has to be found.” The universal, therefore, is not an a priori concept of the understanding; if it were a priori, it would not have to be found. Hence saying “this is beautiful” or “this gives pleasure” does not determine the object in question as beautiful, not objectively or universally. Classicism may have thought so, but the categories of classicism are hardly the categories of the  understanding—they are ultimately arbitrary norms. So the reflective judgement does not bring an intuition under a concept, but rather releases the form (the intuition) of the object to the free play of the imagination, which Kant conceives of as a harmonious if indeterminate relationship between the intuition (the faculty of forms) and the understanding (the faculty of concepts). Reflection is purely formal reflection, a free harmony between the two faculties of knowledge. Nothing is determined as in theoretical cognition; moreover, there is no categorical imperative, no practical determination. Reflective judgement “never legislates for nature or for freedom, but only for itself” and is “heautonomous.” But, Kant points out, when we say that a landscape or a painting is beautiful, we demand it be true for everyone. This is a brilliant observation. Normally speaking, food is not beautiful since it is only good for my stomach; it may please me, but this pleasure is wholly in my own (sensuous) interest. I can imagine, however, being so delighted by a particular dish that I want everyone to taste it. This desire is wholly disinterested, since I gain nothing by it—unless I have, say, patented the recipe—and thus lays claim to a pre-theoretical, non-objective universality, or what Kant calls “common sense.” “This food is beautiful” is an example of an aesthetic judgement or judgement of taste which does not determine the food—or, rather, the sensation, the sensible intuition, literally the taste of the food—as beautiful, but appeals to an indeterminate agreement between faculties. Kant “needs” this indeterminate accord in order to account for the fact how determinate relations—the judgements that make up theoretico-scientific knowledge—are at all possible. Kant basically argues that the objective universal of theoretical knowledge must be “preceded” by a free, indeterminate universal that makes the former possible in the first place. He finds proof of this non-theoretical universal in aesthetic judgement. As many commentators have noted, Kant is less interested in art as such than in grounding his system of metaphysics. No wonder he understands art as essentially a matter of disinterested judgement! The work itself serves only as the particular occasion of passing judgement.

The romantics will go much further. First of all, they will speak not of the heautonomy of judgement, but of the autonomy of the work, as if the work were a moral subject, a “subject-work” as Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe have called it. This would not make any sense in a strictly Kantian context, but as we have seen, the romantics have no problem deliberately confusing subject and object: “Alles ist beseelt für mich, spricht zu mir und alles ist heilig” (Lucinde). This comes down to granting the highest possible status to the transcendental imagination. Secondly, they will announce that the work is essentially interesting. That is to say, if it is a work of art, it will interest us, and will solicit criticism. The judgement is immanent to the work; it completes the work’s work of reflection. Whereas Kant submits art to judgement, the romantics submit judgement to art. This does not mean that the universal dimension is lost; on the contrary, it is still the judgement—the bare proposition “this is art”—that supplies it. This happens not through an appeal to “common sense”—a move that leads away from the singular work and in that sense is still classical—, but to the critical operation understood essentially as poetic activity, as the final act of what Novalis calls “romanticizing”: “Indem ich dem Gemeinen einen hohen Sinn, dem Gewöhnlichen ein geheimnisvolles Ansehen, dem Bekannten die Würde des Unbekannten, dem Endlichen einen unendlichen Schein gebe, so romantisiere ich es.” This is what we do when we predicate of a poem that it is poetic: we infinitize it or, more accurately, we dissolve it into the Absolute. “For from the death of the single work, blossoms the form of the whole” (Schlegel, cited by Benjamin 2004: 163). It should be obvious by now that this “form of the whole” refers to the positive formlessness of absolute poetry, or poetry qua Idea of the transcendental imagination.

The crucial point to be made is that the Idea—poetry as distinct from the poem—does not exist apart from the poem. It is not the ideal Poem that the classicist struggled to imitate; it is not a transcendent Platonic Idea, but an immanent one. This means that the ontogenesis of a poem, that poetic Bildung is basically twofold; two things have to be produced in order for there to be a work of art. First of all, there should be a form, a text, an object. This is obvious. But every poem, if it is to be a singular and autonomous individual, must also construct the formless abyss out of which it arises, since it is only this self-created depth that sets off the work as an instance of the Absolute. Being a singular individual does not mean being a particular representation of a general concept or ideal or genre, but being a work that “eine Gattung für sich bildet” (Gespräch). A genuine work of art is always the only one of its species—it derives its formal rules only from itself—, but its autonomy depends on the construction of a fertile chaos (“fruchtbares Chaos”) “underneath” or “within” the work’s formal limits: “Gebildet ist ein Werk, wenn es überall scharf begrenst, innerhalb der Grenzen aber grenzenlos und unerschöpflich ist, wenn es sich selbst ganz true, überall gleich und doch über sich selbst erhaben ist.” In other words, a well-wrought poem must be absolutized, romanticized, universalized. And it actually depends on the reader to do so. This does not necessarily make for handing over the means of production to the reader; the latter has only to reflect, to say “this is beautiful,” “this is poetic,” “this partakes in poetry”—and she does not even have to say this explicitly, since the fact that she is still reading (thinking, criticizing . . .) should say enough. In fact, I would say that the work works through the reader, and that this is the deeper meaning of “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1982: 169).

The literary Absolute, then, is nothing “romantic” in the vulgar sense of the word. It is even prosaically arbitrary insofar as it depends on a decision or affirmation of the reader. Nevertheless, it is this “decision”—an act of criticism that can be conscious or unconscious, manifest or latent—on which the autonomy of the work depends. Without Absolute, no singularity; without poetry, no poems; without the formless, no form. It is as simple as that, the romantics presume: for there to be works, there must (should) be art. Again, the transcendental terminology is not coincidental: must is a moral verb. “In a certain sense, all poetry must (should) be romantic.” So soll es sein: it will be because it must be. As we have seen, the work is understood as a subject. No wonder the Bildungsroman is such a favourite of Schlegel and Novalis; its content—the formative history of an individual—reflects the spiritual content of the work of art in general. Thus, writing about Wilhelm Meister, Schlegel suggests that the reader “fühlt gleichsam überall die Persönlichkeit und lebendige Individualität des Werks” precisely because of its “geistigen Zusammenhang” (460). The spirit of the work is often equated with the author’s, especially in Novalis’ earlier criticism:

[D]arstellen, um darzustellen ist ein Freyes Darstellen. Es wird damit nur angedeutet, daß nicht das Obj[ect] qua solches sondern das Ich, als Grund des Thätigkeit, die Thätigkeit bestimmen soll. Dadurch erhält das Kunstwerk einen freyen, selbstständigen, idealischen Karakter—einen imposanten Geist—denn es ist sichtbares Produkt eines Ich. (Novalis’ emphases)

Similarly, Schlegel speaks of “das Göttliche der gebildeten Willkür” of genius (460). This is the romantic ideology so often criticized in recent years—we will encounter another aspect of it in the theory of “organic form”—, but I want to suggest that the cult of the Author only covers over a profound discovery: poetic difference. In Deleuzean terms: poetry is reterritorialized on the Poet as quasi-transcendent figure. This does not at all discredit the discovery of poetry qua the absolute deterritorialization of poems. The “formed” or educated arbitrariness Schlegel mentions comes down to a deliberate dissolution of empirical form into ideal formlessness. Moreover, the Fichtean influence should be amended by the romantics’ very original conception of the latter’s absolute “I”: “We are potential, chaotic organic beings” (Schlegel, cited by Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe 1988: 51). Schlegel and Novalis definitely believe in Fichte’s “system of freedom.” In fact, the romantic conception of the Absolute cannot but unfold systematically—this is not necessarily true for the modern Absolute in general, as we shall see in later chapters—, but the system depends on a constructed core of abyssal confusion: “Nur diejenige Verworrenheit ist ein Chaos, aus der eine Welt entspringen kann.”

Chaotic beauty, fantastic truth, arbitrary justice: these are the three main features of the romantic conception of poetry. Schlegel started out by defining romantic poetry as transcendental poetry. Transcendental poetry, however, turned out to be poetry as such, as distinguished from any particular poem or general Poem (genre or ideal). I do not agree with Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe when they argue that the literary Absolute is literature as a genre. The question, “What is literature? What is poetry?” is no doubt the question asked by the poem—explicitly so by the modern poem—, but this question takes the (non-)form of a problem. The poem raises itself to the level of a problem. But poetry is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem itself. It is the absolute problem. A problem cannot be a genus, not even a problematic genus, since a genus is the universal answer to a particular question. The romantics depart much further from Kant than merely by infinitizing—deferring until eternity—the concept looked for in reflective aesthetic judgement. This would be a meagre definition of the Absolute indeed: the absolute concept or absolute genus that is forever still to come. What is infinitized is rather reflection itself, that is, the play of the imagination, which is always a play of forms. The romantic imagination—the imagination “romanticized”, absolutized—is the problematization of form, which can only be imagined on the level of the poem as a tendency towards formlessness. The transcendental or critical turn, it must be repeated, entails two moments: “Das Wesentliche ist die Fähigkeit, Gegenstände unmittelbar zugleich zu idealisieren und zu realisieren, zu ergänzen und teilweise in sich aufzuführen.” Every real poem—if it is to be more than a empirico-formal resemblance to an invisible Form, more than an intuition brought under a concept, or more than a particular subsumed under a species or genus, even if the latter constitutes an “absolute” genus—must be accompanied by an equiprimordial construction of its Idea, of poetry as its transcendental ground. In romantic parlance: a poem must be a work of the imagination (as distinct from the understanding and the intuition). It is thus no surprise to see the tendency towards formlessness that I have defined as constitutive of modern verse given transcendental significance: “Da nun transzendental eben das ist, was auf die Verbindung oder Trennung des Idealen und des Realen Bezug hat, so könnte man wohl sagen, der Sinn für Fragmente und Projekte sei der transzendentale Bestandteil des historischen Geistes.”

Poetic modernity begins with romantic criticism inasmuch as the latter inaugurates the becoming critical of poetry in every sense of the term “critical.” Yes, it is indubitably tautological to justify a critical decision by reference to criticism or to the critical spirit; it is reflective, romantic—and as such I have an interest in it. The romantics have shown very clearly that literary criticism can never be disinterested; the poem depends on the critic’s interest. However, this interest is solely in poetry, or that which in the poem is more than a poem. Whether we call it the poem’s Idea, as the romantics did, or its poetic function, it comes down to saying the same thing: there is a difference between a poem and poetry. And if every act of criticism involves deciding on what counts as poetry, the stakes of criticism are always theoretical: “I should call that investigation fair and philosophical in which the critic announces and endeavours to establish the principles, which he holds for the foundation of poetry in general” (Coleridge 1982: 237). A theory of modern poetry, as I have set out to formulate here, therefore implies a theory of poetry in general. As Schlegel says, all poetry will have to become romantic. Similarly, it turns out I am not so much looking for a theory of modern poetry as a modern theory of poetry. But this is completely necessitated by the nature of modern poetry or, more accurately, by the question or problem posed by modern poems. This question does not have to be thematically or literally stated—although it can be—but is posed as a tendency towards formlessness. Accordingly, affirming poetic difference entails affirming a certain unfinished project in literary history. As I have made clear in the “Preface,” I pledge allegiance to this particular flag. I would not, however, call the project “romantic” per se, let alone “progressive universal poetry.” There are simply too many aspects of romanticism and romantic theory that seem to me things of the past, and in any case are wholly inadequate to the phenomena I wish to investigate. In later chapters, therefore, I will present a theory of poetry that is more properly modern (though still understanding poetic modernity’s birthplace as early romanticism). But before I do so, I want to take a closer look at three concepts often thought essential to the aesthetics of romanticism and that I emphatically do not want to rehabilitate: the concepts of organic form, the sublime and the Bildungsgeschichte of mankind. These are complicated notions—much more complicated than is sometimes assumed—and insofar as they advance certain images of formlessness, they warrant close attention rather than outright dismissal.


4. (&5?) Hier wil ik opsommen wat het waard is te redden van de romantisch-kritische traditie & de sprong maken naar Deleuze (die ik met enig voorbehoud in die traditie wil plaatsen).

Vervolgens: PART II: De positieve theorie.


Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.