Situating my overarching inquiry with respect to current critical conversations about Romantic aesthetics, affect theory and the ethical work of poetry, the Introduction engages with the "affective turn" and its development in literary studies over the last two decades. It traces scholars' renewed attention to the influence of Benedict de Spinoza on Romantic thought; provides an explanation of some basic tenets of Spinoza's philosophy, as well as a more specific discussion his idea of pity as a negative affect; and describes how the book will trace Romantic formal and generic provocations.
This chapter focuses on the continually revised and expanded collection of innovative irregular sonnets that made Charlotte Smith famous in the late eighteenth century. It traces her evolving use of metrical and syntactical strenuousness, a kind of hedging laboriousness, in poems that express hope-against-hope only to turn (sometimes twice—by virtue of two voltas) against even that tenuous optimism. With this move towards hope against hope, Smith refuses those who would rely on sympathy, an impersonal affect, to motivate moral actions on behalf of those who suffer.
This chapter situates William Wordsworth's disappointment aesthetic in light of Romantic critical attitudes towards literary letdowns and aesthetic philosophy. Focusing on "Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman" (1798), it connects Wordsworth's rebuke of sympathy for its failure to produce social harmony to the untold tale that the poem's disruptive formal and generic structures of animate. While Wordsworth aims to transform readers' struggles to find pleasure while anticipating disappointment into the moral and ethical work of the poems, this is an approach that Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales (1800) both troubles and exploits. Through a comparison that demonstrates, for the first time, that Robinson models her poem, "The Shepherd's Dog," on "Simon Lee," this chapter shows how Robinson's own critique of sympathy personifies the dog in order to resist the critique of sympathy that Wordsworth, who rejects personification, promotes.
This chapter reveals Coleridge's later frustrations with Wordsworth's lyrical ballads to depend on a metaphysical dilemma: by 1817's Biographia Literaria, Coleridge has come to disagree with the materialist morality that would justify Wordsworth's prosaic verse. Declaring that metrical irregularity and flat diction feel like tripping down stairs in the dark, Coleridge claims that poetry should make readers feel a perfect coincidence of bodily balance and self-conscious self-control. Retracing Coleridge's steps as he attempts to achieve such equipoise in his critique of Wordsworth's "The Sailor's Mother" (1807), I show how disappointed reading becomes the affective measure by which Wordsworth's poem fails to model self-restraint as a (properly Spinozist, in Coleridge's view) means of preserving the power and integrity of other people. What Coleridge wants from Wordsworth instead, I conclude, is akin to the transformative recitation of The Prelude that Coleridge immortalizes in "To William Wordsworth" (1807).
In this chapter, John Keats refuses the drawn-out negotiations with proximity to discomfort that typifies first-generation Romantic experiments in aesthetic disappointment. In two poems that offer neither pedantry nor opportunities for conventional self-fashioning, "This Living Hand" (1820) and Ode on Indolence (1819), I argue that Keats posits the aesthetic efficacy of instantaneity, or, as Keats says of the actor Edmund Kean's innovative stage-craft, the immediate and reciprocal bond with an audience that can occur when one gives oneself up to "instant feeling, without the shadow of a thought about any thing else." Through sudden arrests and abrupt endings, Keats's poems enact attitudes of dynamic passivity that seek to compel readerly interest, and which just might (re)animate the poet in turn.
This chapter explores revolutionary metaphors of the wind and weather in poems by William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two very different historical situations organize this chapter: the forced extraction and imprisonment of the Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture by the French in 1802, and the public outcry following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. My readings of Wordsworth's sonnet "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" (1802) and Shelley's Mask of Anarchy (1832) reveal that, although border-crossing affects represent a condition of political possibility for both poets, there remains an irresolvable tension between such optimism and the ethics of charging those who are most vulnerable with bearing to be moved to insurrection and violence.
In light of the riotous atmospheres that attended this book's composition, I include a Coda that explores the unevenness of the burden of being moved by external affective force in Romantic thought that, in retrospect, has troubled these chapters all along. Claudia Rankine's "Weather" (2020), an occasional poem for The New York Times Book Review, inherits Romantic figures for revolutionary change at a time when the Romantic history shaped by perpetual crises feels powerfully resonant once more. Learning from Rankine's poem, this final reflection returns to William Wordsworth and the limits of staging aesthetic disappointment while also embracing revolutionary progress that is capable of staying the course.