Cover of Watchwords by Lily Gurton-Wachter
Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention
Lily Gurton-Wachter


March 2016
288 pages.

Cloth ISBN: 9780804796958

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Excerpts and More

This book revisits British Romanticism as a poetics of heightened attention. At the turn of the nineteenth century, as Britain was on the alert for a possible French invasion, attention became a phenomenon of widespread interest, one that aligned and distinguished an unusual range of fields (including medicine, aesthetics, theology, ethics, pedagogy, and politics). Within this wartime context, the Romantic aesthetic tradition appears as a response to a crisis in attention caused by demands on both soldiers and civilians to keep watch. Close formal readings of the poetry of Blake, Coleridge, Cowper, Keats, (Charlotte) Smith, and Wordsworth, in conversation with research into Enlightenment philosophy and political and military discourses, suggest the variety of forces competing for—or commanding—attention in the period. This new framework for interpreting Romanticism and its legacy illuminates what turns out to be an ongoing tradition of war literature that, rather than give testimony to or represent warfare, uses rhythm and verse to experiment with how and what we attend to during times of war.

About the author

Lily Gurton-Wachter is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri.

"Smart, well-researched, and provocatively argued, this book powerfully demonstrates how the seemingly least political demands of poets (to pay attention) turn out to be deeply enmeshed in political discourse of the time."

—Brian McGrath, Clemson University

"A compelling exploration of the interplay between a poetics of heightened attention and the political debates and technological innovations associated with vigilance and alarm, this book will be important to all Romanticists interested in the dynamic relationship between aesthetic form, affect, and cultural milieu."

—Nancy Yousef, City University of New York

"In her excellent book Watchwords: Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention, Lily Gurton-Wachter examines the varied conditions of attentiveness that occur in times of war. Gurton-Wachter's study is widely interdisciplinary, drawing on an impressive range of writing in aesthetics, moral philosophy, politics, and the science of mind."

—Noel Jackson, Review of English Studies

"Grounded in a thorough understanding of differing modes of attention in the period and drawing inspiration from Simone Weil in particular, Watchwords is a book worth attending to."

—Jeffrey N. Cox, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900


"Gurton-Wachter's study is primarily about poetry of course. But there is no question for her that by the time 'attention' migrates to the poetic sphere in the Romantic movement, it is already saturated by protocols that had evolved under external pressure so that even an activity as entrenched as reading takes on a different disposition. The stakes of her study—and they are considerable—are laid out nicely at the beginning.....war is the repressed and poetry, in this case, an exquisite, intricate, humane form of repression—and attention."

—William Galperin, Wordsworth Circle