Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
Celebrating 125 Years of Publishing
In the large circular paintings that Robert Barker exhibited in his Panorama in Leicester Square, notably his painting of London (1795), viewers encountered a distended present in which the everyday, a stratum of experience that, as Maurice Blanchot notes, is "never see[n] a first time but is only see[n] again," comes eventually to view. The "panoramic" experience registers a period-bound phenomenology in which the everyday becomes visible and thinkable for essentially the first time.
The emergence of the everyday in the romantic period involved a mode of recovery that pitted an empirical history—where the past remains a guide to what is probable and likely to reoccur—and a history in which the prior is sufficiently singular that its reproducibility in any form apart from what "every day life" is undermined. This latter history is evident in Wordsworth's demonstration of what subjective or "poetic" experience routinely forgets or misses. It is at work in Austen's revisions that return her to a world appreciable solely in retrospect. In Byron it is allied with the "history" to which marriage and everyday domesticity are consigned before marriage, or by a nostalgia that, lacking mnemonic support, is radically anonymous and conceptual. From domestic fiction to the fragment poem, including Byron's Don Juan, romantic-period literary production is marked by genres answerable to the everyday.
Although the "everyday" has long been synonymous with malaise, anomie, and routine, the conditions surrounding its emergence in the romantic period, where it names a possible world that has been missed or overlooked, are recapitulated and extended in twentieth century thought. In the conceptual moves undertaken by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time and by Henri Lefebvre in his three-volume Critique of Everyday Life, the everyday is dependent, practically as well as dialectically, on an entrenched orientation typically associated with idealism, or with romanticism in its "standard" formation, that "being-in-the-world" (Heidegger) both predates and supersedes. A similar conception of the everyday obtains in the writings of political theorist Jane Bennett, whose sense of an enchanted materialism echoes both Lefebvre and philosopher Stanley Cavell in stressing the "extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday" and the larger assemblage to which we all belong.
It is a characteristic, and a representative, feature of Wordsworth's poetry as a period-bound discourse that the material opportunities it misses—or that often evanesce in his writing—are recoverable and acutely palpable as a result of being missed or misrepresented in a history of missed opportunities. In such a history the claim to historicity, which is typically subsumed in a movement from seeing to imagining, or from the particular to the universal, is reversed in a double take, where historical distance, however brief, allows for a second look. In this second look, "things of every day" emerge in ways that are striking and depersonalized in contrast to both conventional poetic practice and, as it turns out, the daily writing of Dorothy Wordsworth (the poet's sister), which lacks historical perspective and where the everyday is seemingly everywhere and nowhere.
In the approximately fifteen years during which her first three novels were revisited and revised, Jane Austen achieved an appreciative perspective on her milieu that would have been impossible had that interval been less protracted and less consequential. By process of revision and reflection, a world and milieu that had been written out of history was provisionally restored in a practice inimitably Austenian. This restoration is especially evident in the two novels composed just after the period of revision—Mansfield Park and Emma—whose worlds remained both an unprecedented representation of "real life" to contemporary readers and a resuscitation of a present lost to time. Similarly, the letters that Austen wrote her sister over the course of her life make clear that the "real natural every day" world that she brought vividly to the published page was the only "prospect" when there was increasingly no future for her.
An overlooked aspect of Lord Byron's short unhappy marriage to Annabella Milbanke remains the "singular," everyday world of relation that marriage represented for him, both beforehand, when marriage was an abstraction performed in correspondence with Milbanke, and afterwards, when the Byron marriage and the world it figured was literally a history of missed opportunities that the poet recaptured and reinscribed in Don Juan. The finite, epistolary conversation that constituted the Byron courtship was more than a trial run at marriage, particularly as the opposite of what Byron disparagingly called "love." It proved a stay against a future that, on the relational front and in Byron's contemporaneous Eastern Tales, was devoid of either hope or possibility. Here, in the sway of anticipatory nostalgia, marriage day after day would be suddenly fathomable and as valuable as the monetary fortune Byron also sought, but as a history of missed opportunities.
Along with the repetition of days that it mimes as an endless conversation, Don Juan is additionally representative in the way a missed opportunity (the Byron marriage) is recognized and honored by the poem's form. The ever-unfolding poem amounts to a history that takes the form not of retrospection but of what might have been. Don Juan registers the gain, the "willingness for the everyday," that marriage produces in practice, and in this case poetic practice, and "in the repetition of days" (Cavell) to which his poem conforms. As a relational do-over, whose ending, accordingly, was a parting unto death, the poem connects to fragment poems—a quintessentially romantic genre—by Coleridge and Shelley and to the tendency in Keats's Odes to foreground a present that goes undocumented or is closed off by form.