The Drive to Failure in Romantic Representation | Dissertation Abstract | University of Washington

Chair: Nicholas Halmi, University College, Oxford



As the modern academy continues to remake the literary canon--to determine whether such a thing should even exist, and if so, along what lines it should be formed--the notion of artistic quality has come under scrutiny as we try to determine, amid a glut of media and a world of distractions, what artworks are worth saving, and what value, if any, is there in studying artistic failure.  

Within studies of British Romanticism, the notion of failure has emerged as a topic of particular, and recurrent distinction.  Marjorie Perloff’s “poetics of indeterminancy” is only one example, pointing as it does to work that is either structurally or thematically irresolute and offering a positive reading despite the cracks in a given poem’s surface.  Jerome McGann writes about the recent failure of all synthetic narratives, “historicist, dialectical, and psychoanalytic,” which, he writes, “have seen their truth values turn imaginary” (LH 825).  But these are only two of the better-known such treatments: Cian Duffy and Paul Foot both write about the failure of Shelley’s political revolutions, and of his poetry to effect their outcomes.  Harold Bloom writes about biographical failures especially in Coleridge, Frederick Burwick about psychological failures, and Marjorie Levinson and Balachandra Rajan, to name just two, about fragments, or the failures of certain poems to finish. 

What all such studies neglect, however, is the performative aspect of such failures: that, when aesthetic disaster occurs within a work, rather than within a biography, they can be considered motivated, part and parcel of the work’s meaning-making.  The present work groups and explains aesthetic failures under the aegis of the theatrical.  I argue that they are not accidental, but authorized and intentional, and as such, are not crippled the burden (of the past, of history, etc.) but are instead formalistic showcases of defeat that discourse on, and mean to transcend, poetic limits. 


The six chapters that make up Vanishing Point comprise readings and critical discussions of a particular formalistic poetic device I call “the drive to failure” in major poets of the British Romantic period, demonstrating in each what the move looks like for that author, and what critical appercu must be in place to understand it.   The project explores the notion of grounding, which I refer to as “failure,” in its differing iterations across the poetic and critical spectrum which this dissertation maps in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and to some extent, Hunt and Byron. 

My method is to focus on the pivotally absent centers of certain poetic work in the British 19th century.  I highlight poems that are considered failures in otherwise strong oeuvres, weak lines in otherwise strong poems, lapses of attention mid-description, and the curious phenomenon of the intentional fragment poem in order to show what the resistance to completion, or to “success” might mean in each of these cases and to outline the recuperative function that the absent center serves.  Theoretically, and in addition to a diverse and contemporary range of Romantic scholarship, my arguments are grounded in work on representation and impossibility, especially Vogler, Zizek, de Man, Kant, Coleridge, Nancy, Levinson, and Deleuze.

Chapter Outline

The first chapter, Lyre Liar, argues that an “authorized fragment” (one wherein the poet has an opportunity to finish the work, but doesn’t, as opposed to an “accidental fragment” wherein he drowns, loses the manuscript, etc.) constitutes a kind of ontological subject that thereby deserves unique consideration.  When poets promise something, and fail to deliver, often they are suggesting something about the greatness of their original conception.  Percy Shelley says the “mind in composition is as a fading coal,” which phrase is not meant to evoke the warmth or slight glow of coals and thereby to speak to composition’s value, but to point back at the original fire.  If what we have is this poem-object (hot, alive) we are forced to imagine what it could have been.  By not fulfilling his ostensible aim, the poet has enhanced the strength of the vision he once held, and bolstered his prophetic, if not poetic credentials thereby.   

The next chapter, The Prison Bower of Meaning, posits that one demonstration of literary power might construct a black hole as a way of exploring what is poetically knowable.  I use a section of Coleridge’s Nihil Negativum Irrepraesentabile in which he differentiates between a “negative quantity” and “an absence,” to show how poems like This Lime Tree Bower, my Prison, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner are epistemological excursions before they are purely literary ones.  Meaning is confused, or contradictory in these poems because they are not intended to mean; they suck meaning back into themselves intentionally before it can escape into sense.  In this chapter, de Man’s work is used as a bridge between Coleridge and Gilles Deleuze, especially as it argues how Mont Blanc-the-poem is like Mont Blanc-the-mountain in that they are both solitary objects that refuse to connect to other objects in the signifying chain. 

Part of the next chapter, Keats and the Poetic Ruin, has been published in slightly different form as my contribution to the book Literary and Poetic Depictions of Work and Labor in the Romantic Era (ed. Clason et al, 2011); it argues that though the Ode on a Grecian Urn may be one of the language’s greatest poems, it also contains some of poetry’s worst lines.  Those lines, especially “More happy love, more happy, happy love,” are not mis-steps; they are failures, and, I’m arguing, active failures in the sense Slavoj Zizek intends when he writes of the subject’s experiential “displeasure” in sublimity, the “inadequacy” of a remnant that suggests “incomparable greatness.”  The poem thereby tropes a kind of theatrical dive, meant to claim for the poet a documentable experience of the sublime.  In what then becomes a discourse on imaginative limits, Keats discusses the form’s ability to “tease us out of thought,” connecting that lack of thought with silence, and ultimately to a breathlessness he enacts in these passages.  As the poet demonstrates the failure of the poetic faculty in the face of the sublime encounter --making a spectacle of the climb, failure, and recovery-- he also hopes to induce a similar reaction in his readers, attempting to move us out of breath and to the same pitch of delirium he has exhibited, to make his private imaginative environment a public one wherein his theatrical swoon is contagious.

Next, a chapter called Violence and Absence considers the active representation of absence-- a stone circle, a zero, an “O the difference to me!”-- as a response to violence.  Absent histories create involuntary misreadings, as in Tintern Abbey, and Three Years She Grew, but present absences can heighten the descriptive violence as in a Hitchcock film where one only hears the scream as a camera cuts away, or as in Wordsworth’s Alice Fell, wherein the violence reeked upon a girl is displaced onto surrounding objects making it at once more palatable and more subversive.  This chapter’s method is to consider Ovid (Wordsworth’s early favorite) as a likely template for this trope.  I show that certain of Wordsworth’s poems emerged as exercises in Ovidian imitation, and that he’s used the erasure of his poetic father to add darkness and suggestion to poems which are often misread as innocent.

Finally, the Laugh of Recognition, compares Byron and Hunt as models of aesthetic self-awareness and posits Hunt’s failure of critical distance as an anti-Wordsworthian trope, fighting for poetic strength in Harold Bloom’s terms from his middle critical period.  Other failures discussed in this chapter consist similarly of failing to keep respectable distance from the work before one, but, in these cases, the intentional gesture (the wink) rescues the artwork qua artwork in the manner of Byron’s self-knowing slips.

I expect this research to contribute to robust debates surrounding the nature and purpose of failure across artistic disciplines, in recent collections like Wordsworth’s Poetic Theory (2010) and The Horizon (2011), while it suggests a new and defensible way of reading performative aesthetics. Moreover, since this work is principally theoretical, and not bound by the confines of the period or genre on which it is demonstrated in this dissertation, it opens a vein for further inquiry into the notion of recuperative aesthetic loss, and in that, is poised to play an important role in shaping the perception not only of certain poems, or periods, but of artistic practice generally.