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Jerome Rothenberg & Jeffrey C. Robinson, eds.: Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, 928 pages. University of California Press. Paper. US $34.95. 978‒0-520‒25598-2 paper.
Jerome Rothenberg, with Steve Clay: Poetics and Polemics: 1980–2005, University of Alabama Press, 2008.

reviewed by
Joe Safdie

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Joe Safdie and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Isn’t It Romantic?


The appearance of Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson, raises a few questions. Why another anthology of Romantic poems? Does this anthology bear any resemblance to the first two in the series? Who is its intended audience? And last and probably least, what would Harold Bloom think about it?

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Let’s take those questions in reverse order. Bloom’s famous concerns about the “anxiety of influence” and canon-formation were criticized extensively in a 1981 essay by Rothenberg called “The Critic as Exterminating Angel,” [1] and one way to look at this gathering — along with the other anthologies Rothenberg has produced or collaborated on, including the two previous volumes of this series and other hugely influential volumes dating back to 1968’s Technicians of the Sacred — is as a manifesto antithetical to everything Bloom stood for. Instead, it represents “a poetics of the open as against the closed, the free against the fettered, the transgressive and forbidden against the settled” (Poetics & Polemics 7). In that context, it advances a radical Romanticism that recalls its associations with revolutionary thought of all kinds, and seeks to re-imagine the familiar dichotomies between reason and imagination or the individual and social reality that have become part and parcel of the cultural mainstream.

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But while it’s easy to dismiss Bloom’s limitations — his conservative Oedipal complex, his anti-liberation theology — it’s still daunting to see this “big Romantic book” as “a radical usurpation of the canon” (Poems 8), some sort of anti- or counter-canonical enterprise that might change the prevailing views about Romanticism and even give the venerable Norton Anthology a run for its money. If anything like that is going to happen, we’ll need to unpack some of the assumptions behind this book, which will also allow us to explore the function of anthologies in general.


In the introduction to Volume I of this series, Rothenberg and Pierre Joris wrote that they wanted to accomplish their ends “without turning the selection of authors into the projection of a new canon of famous names” (3). No danger of that here: while it’s true that only 37 of the 66 authors who appear in the three main “galleries” of the anthology also appear in one or another version of the Norton Anthology (World, English or American), many of the omitted are better known for other genres of writing (Charles Fourier, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) or are well-known and widely available (Nerval, Laforgue, Apollinaire) or are writers whose choice of dialect(s) make translation difficult (Giuseppe Belli). But considerations of this sort are usually equivocal: for example, the Spanish writers Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Rosalía de Castro are in the World Norton but not here, while the English Romantic Norton opens with Anna Letitia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith, also absent from these pages. There are a few writers I confess I never heard of until finding them here — the Greek experimentalist Dionysios Solomos, Cyprian Norwid of Poland, Victor Segalen, writing in French, Arno Holz (an early adherent of Visual Poetry) in German, the Colombian José Silva — and discovering new and interesting work is always a good reason to pick up a book. But surely its necessity, its raison d’etre, lies elsewhere.


Mentioning people like Laforgue and Apollinaire does imply one huge change: rather than seeing the chronological “end” of Romanticism in about 1830 (the English Romantic Norton ends with the passage of the first Reform Act in 1832, an important but not earth-shattering event), the editors extend the movement — or that part of it that was “experimental and visionary” — throughout the entire 19th century and into the 20th, thus coining the term “Postromantic” and making it a true “prequel” to the first two volumes of the series. But that, in turn, raises a few more questions: what “experimental and visionary” qualities do these former writers share, exactly, with their successors, and — since very few people are going to pick up a 928-page book at their local bookstores for light summer reading (even though it is available as I type at Amazon for $23.07) — in what undergraduate classes would such a volume be required?


Again, let’s go in reverse order. At a recent dinner party, one guest who had seen the book in galleys was enthusiastic, saying that, in comparison, the venerable Norton Anthology was pathetic. As I’d been teaching a British Literature survey course for four years, largely using the Norton, I filed this piece of information away silently. As it happened, I had also kept a New York Times notice from January 2006 on the most recent (8th) incarnation of the English Norton and dug it out in preparation for writing this review. The article, an essay by Rachel Donadio called “Keeper of the Canon,” mentioned that the English anthology was Norton’s top seller, with eight million copies in print since 1962, and that its editor “holds one of the most powerful posts in the world of letters, and is symbolically seen as arbiter of the canon” (27).


In that respect, it’s interesting that there’s been a changing of the guard: Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who published the entertaining Will in the World in 2004 and is one of the leaders of the critical school known as New Historicism, has now taken over main editing duties of the English Norton from his predecessor, noted Romantic scholar M. H. Abrams, best known perhaps for his book on Romantic theory, The Mirror and The Lamp in 1953. [2] Abrams lamented some of Greenblatt’s changes, which included scaling back on the Romantic poets to make space for more Modernism and Gothic literature. As well, the article noted amusingly that, besides Bloom and Lionel Trilling’s Oxford Anthology of English Literature in the 70s, Northrop Frye had briefly joined the contest to dethrone the Norton, but his proposed Harcourt counter-anthology, which he wanted to call “Burnt Norton,” never materialized.


Such scholarly competitions for the attention of thousands of undergraduates might involve many criteria: a better, somehow more representative selection from the major figures, or a re-contextualization of some of their more famous works; a more multicultural gathering, with more women, minorities, post-colonialists and working-class writers; writings organized by theme or subject matter rather than chronologically; the introduction of heretofore “minor” figures, with the connections between majors and minors explained; or a geographically expanded selection, as Romanticism was a worldwide movement. Indeed, all of these tendencies are on view in the volume under consideration here, and some specific details will follow. On the other hand, any reasonably competent Romantic anthology (and there have been many, over fifteen in the last twenty years) will also offer many of these features — and as Ed Dorn asked in Hello, La Jolla: “Sure, there may be some interesting juxtapositions, but so what[?]” (65). We’re back to the original questions: why exactly was it necessary for the University of California to extend its imprimatur to this particular version of Romanticism? Why is it important? Why is it necessary?


In beginning to answer those questions, we should remember another crucial audience for this volume is poets, and those deeply involved in the study of poetry, undergraduate or not. And for them especially, we should ask one more: What exactly is the function of an anthology? According to the Greek etymology, it’s “a gathering of flowers” (viz., Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers), and in an essay called “The Anthology as a Manifesto and as an Epic,” Rothenberg describes the meadows he’s gathered his in, quoting Gertrude Stein: “as it is old it is new and as it is new it is old.” Also in that essay, he says that there are two main kinds of anthologies:


1. those that deceive me/us by a false sense of closure and authority… the canonical anthologies we all know as the great conservatizing force in our literature(s)… gatherings of acceptable/accepted poets . . .

2. those I had hoped to do with regard to the past and those still more rare and useful ones that opened up and thereby changed the present.


The first kind, he goes on, serves to “rein in or exclude those moves that challenge too overtly the boundaries of form and meaning or that call into question the boundaries (genre boundaries) of poetry itself,” while the second “use[s] the form as a kind of manifesto-assemblage: to present, to bring to light, or to create works that have been excluded or that collectively present a challenge to the dominant system-makers or the world at large” (Poetics & Polemics14).


Thinking back to the anthologies that have probably influenced many of Jacket’s readers — Don Allen’s New American Poetry in 1960, certainly, or An Anthology of New York Poets ten years later, or perhaps Another Republic, an international anthology of the 1970s, or any of the others that Rothenberg has worked on, with various collaborators — it seems clear that they fall under category #2. As Rothenberg has it, that means that they’re a) manifestos; b) ways of laying out an active poetics, by example and by commentary; and c) grand assemblages, including past work “that had been kept beyond the pale” and present work “that has been kept from comparisons” (Poetics & Polemics 15).


They can also be combinations of “avant-garde” work (however defined) and so-called multicultural work. An example of that crucial blend can be seen in Rothenberg’s view of Pound’s book Cathay:


Rather than a capsule glimpse at an ancient — and from a Western perspective, exotic — poetry, it represented Pound’s sense of what it was to be alive and writing poetry in 1915 (in the midst of the First World War). “Largely a war book,” as Hugh Kenner describes it, “its exiled bowmen, deserted women, leveled dynasties, departures for far places, lonely frontier guardsmen, and glories remembered from afar, were selected from the diverse wealth in the Fenollosa notebooks Pound was working from by a sensibility responsive to torn Belgium and disrupted London.” (Poetics & Polemics 9)


In other words, “something in Chinese language and culture served as both a model and a confirmation” to “the objective of Pound’s imagism and that version of it ‘in motion’ that he called vorticism,” namely, “connecting to the concrete particulars of the world around us” (Poetics & Polemics 10). The connection between multicultural work and radical poetic techniques is the crucial point here, just as the cluster “Some Orientalisms” in the anthology refers both to the 19th-century colonialist drive for control over non-European people and the corresponding opening to unfamiliar poetic horizons and techniques: “the locus, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, of the ‘unreportable place,’ unknown myths, unknown subjectivities” (Poems 806).


Including in other “clusters” such things as excerpts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and unfamiliar translations from Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and Icelandic is again not meant as a collection of exotic antiquities, but as an experimental gathering of modes that might speak to us in our various contemporary situations; like the previous two volumes, the chronological “galleries,” which stretch from the late 18th century to the early 20th, are intermixed with the afore-mentioned “clusters” and thematic “books” of “extensions” and “origins,” the former featuring visual, performative and conceptual works not usually associated with Romanticism and the latter “tilted toward the ethnopoetic” (Poems17).


These principles create a book with stunning surprises: different readers will have to choose their own favorite discoveries — one of mine was the absolutely insane Pushkin poem, “Tsar Nikita and His Daughters” — but one more point needs to be stressed: the unfamiliar works collected here, some of them, no doubt, falling into what Bloom has sneeringly called “The School of Resentment” (postcolonialist and political literature), are not being offered against a deeper historical grounding of the material. Rather, it’s exactly the hidden connections between the literature of the past and present that the editors seek to uncover. In this light, Bloom’s insistence that “everyone who now reads and writes in the West, of whatever racial background, sex, or ideological camp, is still a son or daugher of Homer” (qtd. in Poetics & Polemics 71), even though “No Coyotes or Taras appear in his mythologies, no Milarepas or Li Pos among his canonized poets” (71) is doubly inadequate: “Western definitions of poetry and art were no longer, indeed had never been, sufficient and… our continued reliance on them was distorting our view both of the larger human experience and of our own possibilities within it” (Poetics & Polemics 12).


Another basic principle of much of Rothenberg’s previous anthology work has been to rescue un-canonical traditional material. Writers date themselves by which of his anthologies they consider most important or influential; for me it was America A Prophecy (1974), edited with George Quasha, with its gatherings from (on consecutive pages) the Mayan Popol Vuh, the Nez Perce Indians and Archibald McLeish, or Pound preceded by Frances Densmore and succeeded by Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, knitted together with small dollops of commentary (smaller than in this volume). There was a “Book of Origins” in that book as well; in the introduction to this one, the editors say that, at the end of the 18th century, “Something had happened — Enlightenment or Revolution or, on its more doubtful side, Imperium — that brought other worlds into view & put the inherited past into question” (395). Some lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” serve as that book’s epigraph:


Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung. (qtd. in Poems 395)


Indeed, this might serve as yet another of the organizing principles of the book. Finally, one of the more interesting sections for me are the selections from the canonical Romantic authors: for example, I’d seen and admired Browning’s gritty “Caliban upon Setebos” before — it’s in the English Norton –but somehow missed Tennyson’s intensely musical “Hesperides” and these lines from “Maud”:


See, there is one of us sobbing,
No limit to his distress;
And another, a lord of all things, praying
To his own great self, I guess;
And another, a statesman there, betraying
His party-secret, fool, to the press;
And yonder a vile physician, blabbing
The case of his patient — all for what?
To tickle the maggot born in an empty head,
And wheedle a world that loves him not,
For it is but a world of the dead. (Poems 516‒17)


I wish Lord Alfred had done more of this, myself.


Having said all this, I do have a slight qualm, and it arises from the editors’ admission in the introduction that “there has always been a conservative view of Romanticism and a radical one, and, moreover, a conservative later history of the fate of Romanticism and a radical history.” The conservative view, they write, sees the visionary, expansive side of Romanticism as having built-in limits, “as if ‘common sense,’ a sense of the ‘tragic’ nature of human life, or the knowledge of a ‘realist’ account of modern life asserts itself as a thankful check upon Romantic visionary excess and experiment” (4‒5).


But doesn’t everything have its limits? Opening the anthology at random, as I do frequently, I recently came across what at first seemed a parodic stereotype of romanticism in part two of Heinrich Heine’s poem “Morphine”:


o lamb lamb I was your shepherd once
guarded you against the world
I fed you with my bread
with water from this well –
o rage of winter storms
my breast was warm to you
I gripped you in tight love –
the rain had thickened
wolves & mountain rivers howled
from their stone beds (316)


A few pages later, however, reveals the same poet’s change of styles into a more hard-bitten realist: in an excerpt from “Germany: A Winter’s Tale,” he sounds a bit like Byron making fun of Wordsworth and Coleridge in “Don Juan”:


Here’s Wille, whose face is a register;
His academic foes
Had signed inscriptions in that book
Too legibly — with blows.

Here was that thorough pagan, Fuchs,
A personal foe of Jehovah —
Devoted to Hegel, and also, perhaps,
To the Venus of Canova. (322)


Later, the speaker meets up with “Hamburg’s protecting goddess,” Hammonia, who turns out, despite her “wondrous high breasts” and “superhuman rear,” to be rather priggish, fond of patriotic lyrics by Klopstock; she urges Heine to


Stay with us in Germany;
You’ll find things more to your liking;
You’ve surely seen with your own eyes
That progress has been striking.

And the censorship is harsh no more —
Hoffmann grows milder with age;
No more will he mutilate your books
As he did in his youthful rage. (328)


It’s probably just a matter of taste, but I enjoyed the urban narrative momentum of these lines after so many rages of winter storms. In the note that follows the Heine selections, the editors note that his work marks “A turning from Romanticism as previously practiced & a reminder of how much tension existed in such movements”; specifically, he became “a satirist/ironist” whose “oppositional, often courageous practice [was] marked by a strong impulse toward dismissal & invective.” And who was he dismissing? “Those ‘Goethians’ & Jena School Romantics… who ‘allowed themselves to be misled into proclaiming the supremacy of art and turning away from the demands of that original real world which, after all, must take precedence.’” Raising this issue, write the editors, points “to a conflict that has still to be resolved” (Poems 334).


But if we can’t resolve it, we might at least explore it a little more. Romanticism is known to be many things, but except for a very few exceptions like Byron, dismissive satire isn’t one of them. It’s one thing to extend its traditional historical borders to the entire 19th century and part of the 20th, thereby being able to trace the similarities between the familiar and unknown Romantics and those that followed them, like both Brownings, Poe, Baudelaire, Martí, Edward Lear (!) and the Russian Futurists (instead of splitting those latter writers off into other volumes, as the Norton does, with critical tags like “Victorian” or “realist”). But what’s the real value of “blur[ring] the distinctions of Romantic and Postromantic as much as… insist[ing] on them”? (Poems 7) For example, in an essay that Robert Browning wrote about Shelley, part of which is reprinted here, he writes:


For it is with this world, as starting point and basis alike, that we shall always have to concern ourselves: the world is not to be learned and thrown aside, but reverted to and relearned.… There may be no end of the poets who communicate to us what they see in an object with reference to their own individuality; what it was before they saw it, in reference to the aggregate human mind, will be as desirable to know as ever. (Poems 530)


Not only is this not Romanticism traditionally conceived, it’s not Romanticism of any sort. It’s more in the spirit of the Enlightenment, and (speaking of connections) is also picked up in Olson’s “Projective Verse”:


Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. (24)


But isn’t Blake’s determination to see more in the “guinea” sun than is “really” there one of the guiding lights of Romanticism? And haven’t we been taught (since Abrams’ book, but also since Wordsworth), to see Romanticism as some sort of glorification of the individual, notwithstanding Keats’ criticism of Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime”? It’s one thing to blame “conservatives” for the view of Romanticism that enshrines it as “primarily a poetry of the individual subject asserting an inner freedom in the face of growing industrialization” (4), but I’d think that view would be widely shared among people with a casual knowledge of it, and among many of those afore-mentioned undergraduates as well. In fact, it is how Byron saw the “Romantic” poetry written by Wordsworth and Coleridge.


As material from the anthology started to appear on Rothenberg’s blog, I asked him whether it was just going to champion imaginative transcendence and not mention the political real-world conditions many Romantic writers were trying to transcend — for example, whether it would include Shelley’s great political sonnet “England in 1819” as well as the dream visions of “Queen Mab” or the bleeding of “Ode to the West Wind.” On that point, I needn’t have worried: the introduction mentions several concerns of the early 19th century, which, the editors write, have now returned to plague us — nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, ethnic violence, growing extremes of wealth and poverty under hegemonies of industrial capitalism, and reemerging religious fundamentalisms among them. But such concerns seem to disappear in the celebration of the “visionary and experimental Romanticism” collected here; to use the editors’ own terms, Romanticism’s transgressive side is often superceded by its experimental side. In fact, if avant-garde artists feel they can ignore or “transcend” these unpleasant realities, or indulge their radical sensibilities in one or another reincarnation of “art for art’s sake,” the very separations that Rothenberg and Robinson are working against might re-emerge.


Rothenberg, at least, is aware of the danger. In his essay “The Poetics of the Sacred,” he writes “the transcendent… implies for me too great a denial of the here and now; and the source of poetry, as I understand it, is deeply rooted in the world around us: doesn’t deny it so much as brings it back to life” (Poetics & Polemics 5). Or, as Byron has it in an excerpt from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” included here, “But this is not my theme; and I return / To that which is immediate” (234). Which is why the existence of this anthology is finally a cause for celebration: its editors have done more than resuscitate Romanticism. They’ve also made it part of a vital tradition, generative of much of the imaginative work that sustains us today, thus “bringing back a sense of innovation, danger, and revolution… to work too often taken for granted or robbed of its newness and power through repetition and enshrinement (canonization)” (4). And that, Mr. Bloom, is an achievement that even you might want to note.


[1] The anthology appears at the same time as a collection of Rothenberg’s long and short essays and interviews called Poetics & Polemics: 1980–2005 (University of Alabama Press). Without slighting the contributions of the Romantic scholar Jeffrey C. Robinson to the anthology in any way — indeed, his recent Unfettering Poetry: The Fancy in British Romanticism intriguingly reverses Coleridge’s famous dictum about the fancy being subsidiary to the imagination, and is one of this volume’s guiding “re-imaginings” — I will be quoting or paraphrasing many of Rothenberg’s essays in this review, and will make clear when I’m talking about one of them (Poetics & Polemics) as opposed to commentary or poems from the anthology (Poems).

[2] Coincidentally enough, Bloom claims Abrams as his intellectual “father” — “a precarious position to be in,” said Abrams dryly, considering the “strongly Oedipal” nature of Bloom’s theories.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. : Oxford University Press, 1953.

Donadio, Rachel. “Keeper of the Canon.” The New York Times Book Review. 8, 2006: 27.

Dorn, Edward. Hello, La Jolla. : Wingbow Press, 1978.

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.Edition, Volume D: The Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Olson, Charles. Selected Writings of Charles Olson.Creeley, ed. New York: New Directions, 1966.

Rothenberg, Jerome & Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. One. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Rothenberg, Jerome & Jeffrey C. Robinson, eds. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry. Three. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Rothenberg, Jerome, with Steve Clay. Poetics & Polemics: 1980–2005. : The University of Alabama Press, 2008.

Joe Safdie

Joe Safdie

Joe Safdie has published Mary Shelley’s Surfboard (Blue Press, 2005), September Song(Oasis Press, 2000), Spring Training (Zephyr Press, 1985) and Saturn Return (Smithereens Press, 1983) and, in the 80s and early 90s, edited two literary magazines, Zephyr and Peninsula. He lives, writes and teaches in San Diego.

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