On Poems for the
Millennium: Romantic
and Postromantic Poetry

Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson, eds.,
University of California Press, (Berkeley, 2009)

Sarah Campbell

The Romantics are more contemporary than we are. The Postromantics are more alive than we now living. This is the barbaric reverse vitality which bleeds out while reading the latest volume in the Poems for the Millenium anthology series. In the same revisionist vein of volumes I and II, this third collection is explicitly constructed to pull forward the avant-garde proclivities of the past, in this case in direct retort to prior glosses of Romanticism. In this presentation of the nineteenth century, Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson substitute “transgressive” and “experimental” for “consoling” and “formally traditional.” From this angle, it’s hard not to read the Romantics as poetic predecessors—not only in the obvious sense of chronological precedence, but also as those who are—still, presently—out there ahead of us in their gumption, eccentricities, vision, and fancy.[1] We can only follow them, or hardly follow them: we see their tails, bobbing in and out of sight through the brush as they make a trail energetically, unpredictably up some mountain, turning switchbacks. Time has come untucked..

The editors’ introduction leads with a poem, a signpost for the anthology.

As the twentieth century fades out

the nineteenth begins


it is as if nothing happened

though those who lived it thought

that everything was happening

enough to name a world for & a time

to hold it in your hand

unlimited the last delusion

like the perfect mask of death

Our sense of time can be a circular business, as is literary anthologizing. What we see in the past is what we are. In acknowledging their editorial bent from the get-go, Rothenberg and Robinson are in their own fashion applying Rimbaud’s directive to the poet to disorder all the senses: in this case, it’s a disordering of the inherited sense of temporal progression as it has been traditionally linked to literary “progression.”

It may be “as if nothing happened,” but meanwhile, “everything was happening”—all depends on where you’re standing in line. The problem of “everything happening” is the sometimes unacknowledged center around which every anthology tumbles, as a genre which, by definition, means to be comprehensive (covering “everything” of a given period or group) through the selection of representatives, cases, and instances to illuminate the larger character. Selection necessitates omission (a certain amount of as if nothing). Added to this universal dilemma of anthologizing is the particular challenge of gathering up Romanticism, which at times self-describes as eluding just such efforts at definition. Writes Schlegel, “[Romantic poetry] cannot be exhausted by any theory, and only a divinatory criticism might dare to characterize its ideal.” Or there is Keats’s elusive poetical Character which, to be “distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime … is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto.” The editors seem to embrace, rather than squash, the inevitable contradiction in that Keatsian “every thing and nothing,” so they bring the gusto forward, while showing it to wear a “perfect mask of death” for many writers of this period.

How to mark the “period” at all is another of the editors’ interventions: they want to extend the Romantic timeframe to include the entire nineteenth century (whereas others cap it at the first third of the century, considering a narrower British and German Romanticism), taking their cue, they say, from thinkers like Walter Pater who held that “ ‘the romantic’ refers less to a historical period and more to a quality of poetic intention.” Schlegel observed at the time, of the time, “The Romantic type of poetry is still becoming; indeed, its peculiar essence is that it is always becoming and that it can never be completed.” There is built-in room, then, to approach Romantic poetry as a live animal, named but uncaged.

Aiming for a more global take on Romanticism, the editors include a section of Asian poets, as well as ethnopoetic and archaeological texts. They sample from the search by canonical poets (Blake, Goethe, Byron, Whitman, Hugo) for new/old origins, sometimes on native grounds, sometimes in other traditions and cultures. The editors’ range of reading shows in the Outsider poets section, which contains a pamphlet from the American Revolution (including an account of the Boston tea party, Old Testament style), a history of the Nez Perce Indians, and typographical blocks titled “The Honest Farmer’s Declaration” which arrange letters in diamond patterns to spell out, in a visual labyrinth, a foundational phrase such as “It pays the rent” layered over with variant readings like, “It yays the rent.”

When it comes to the presentation of “Insider” Romantics (the conventionally canonized), these writers are hoisted high and wide and wild so that we might read them as if for the first time. The selections, as a rule, seek to break with the rule. So, for example, Goethe is seen “not as a conserver of classical traditions but as an originator.” We encounter him, curious and empirical, conducting a series of meticulous experiments in looking; cutting a little circle in a shutter in a darkened room so he can watch his own eye’s response to observing a “blindingly bright and colorless form.” The descriptions are carefully scientific, yet the language (perhaps only to my 21st century ear) approaches the mystical. Little koans of simple, tracked perception blossoming with a visitation of color:

After gazing at the blindingly bright form for five seconds and then shutting the aperture, I observed the apparent form with its color hovering before me. Thirteen seconds later it appeared entirely purple. It then took twenty-nine seconds for it to turn completely blue, and forty-eight to appear before me without any color at all. …

After receiving the above impression of light and then turning toward a light gray object in our dimly illuminated room, our eye will again see an image hovering before it—this time a dark one which gradually develops a green rim. …

Once, toward evening, I found myself in a smithy just as the glowing metal was laid on the anvil. After gazing intently at this activity for a time, I turned and happened to look into the open doorway of a coal bin. At that moment an enormous purple form floated before my eyes; when I glanced over at a light-colored wooden wall the phenomenon appeared half in green, half in purple depending on whether the background was light or dark. At the time I made no note of how this phenomenon faded.

It is hard not to envy a time when the continuity between science and art was more agile and activated, when a poet wouldn’t be shy about writing down both experiments with vision and visionary experiments with language. The anthology shines with these and other such moments where the writers are given over to “the mind in its freedom.” This is not to say, however, that this freedom is simply “given” since there are perhaps as many Romantic outcries over the assault upon the imagination. “The Poet’s life is one perpetual scene of warfare,” writes Mary Robinson, “ … for the enemies of genius are multitudinous.”

Poems for the Millenium III is also well stocked with the bawdy, monstrous, and taboo: Baudelaire insisting we should always be drunk; a subterranean castle of vice, run by a Muscovite named Minksy, penned by Donatien Alphonse Francois, A.K.A. marquis de Sade; Blake’s character Suction telling Quid he can kiss his Roman Anus. Here, there is much humming and gagging. Tum-tum-ta-ta-tum, toot-toot-toot-tra-la-toot goes Diderot’s improvised nephew)– and Gag—gag—gag! sing Ernest Jones’s traitors. Meanwhile, philosophy is as whimsy does; see Novalis: “I used to be devoted to dancing. Now I love music.” And Schlegel declares that “Irony is something one simply cannot play games with.” Or, if you need an image to hang your hat on, try this one, folded into Rimbaud’s instructions for becoming a poet: “Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.” Yes, imagine that.

In moments, the editorial choices feel overtaxed—when a text seems included more for the sake of making a point or for breadth within a group, rather than for its intrinsic interest, as for instance in the sub-section of “Five Dream Works, from Coleridge to Freud.” Or the list of sentences that Mallarme wrote for his English students so they could practice indefinite articles—an interesting curiosity for a Mallarme scholar, but feels gratuitous here, and not nearly as captivating as the wrenching, pared down beauty of his jotted notes for a memorial poem for his eight-year-old son, Anatole.

Especially well-designed in Poems for the Millennium is the commentary that follows the pieces. The editors have landed on a serendipitous formula for their endnotes—often allowing the authors themselves to “comment upon” their own work through brief quotations of poetics statements. Or the endnotes may defer to other scholars’ insights, acting as an abbreviated, most-direct route to the best scholarship on a given author. Sometimes the comments read as if we’ve dropped in, mid-conversation, to a discussion between two scholars, or even a discussion across time, between the author and the editors. For instance, the commentary following the Pushkin material starts with a quote from Pushkin, followed by an editors’ note, which begins: “What is clear too is how Pushkin fit the role of the Romantic poet & how much of the future of Russian writing … would be attributed to him.”

The liveliness of the Romantics as we encounter them in this book is riven through with the conviction that is death. Or, as Pater relays it from Hugo: “Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les homes sont tous condamnés a mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.”

Here we are, in our interval, condemned, but given the chance to know these dead writers more, we who are, were, are their unanticipated readers. The Romantics could not know how they’d be read by posterity—first one way, now another. While we, let’s admit, even in our most self-scrutinizing passages—we cannot tell yet just what kind of readers we turn out to be.

A vast and wild page, the nineteenth century. The editors explain, “The acknowledgment, at least a century old, that Romanticism has many faces lies at the heart of this book.” How old fashioned we seem in the face of their faces—even if those faces are reflecting back, time untucked, our own funhouse-mirror gazes.


[1]        The editors take up Coleridge’s distinction of Fancy (playful, proliferating) from Imagination (synthetic, disinterested)—the editors leaning toward the former; Coleridge preferring the latter.