Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud

Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud

by Mary Jacobus


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Our thoughts are shaped as much by what things make of us as by what we make of them. Lyric poetry is especially concerned with things and their relationship to thought, sense, and understanding. In Romantic Things, Mary Jacobus explores the world of objects and phenomena in nature as expressed in Romantic poetry alongside the theme of sentience and sensory deprivation in literature and art.

Jacobus discusses objects and attributes that test our perceptions and preoccupy both Romantic poetry and modern philosophy. John Clare, John Constable, Rainer Maria Rilke, W. G. Sebald, and Gerhard Richter make appearances around the central figure of William Wordsworth as Jacobus explores trees, rocks, clouds, breath, sleep, deafness, and blindness in their work. While she thinks through these things, she is assisted by the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Helping us think more deeply about things that are at once visible and invisible, seen and unseen, felt and unfeeling, Romantic Things opens our eyes to what has been previously overlooked in lyric and Romantic poetry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226271347
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/18/2015
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mary Jacobus is professor emerita of English at Cornell University and at the University of Cambridge, where she directed the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities until 2011.

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Romantic Things



Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-39066-6

Chapter One

Cloud Studies


A cloud is a visible aggregate of minute particles of water suspended in the atmosphere. — Thomas Forster (1815)

Cloud is a body without a surface but not without substance ... Although it has no surface, cloud is visible. — Hubert Damisch (2002)

Clouds have always fascinated sky watchers: forming, spreading, massing, dissipating in streaks and wisps; glowing at sunrise and sunset; processing lazily or purposively across the sky. Weighty and substantial bodies of minute droplets, they mysteriously combine visibility and volume without surface. Are clouds objects? Are they phenomena? The story of the "invention" of clouds has been told by Richard Hamblyn, and the dramatic rise in the popularity of cloud-spotting suggests that they hold more than meets the eye. The principles of cloud formation were first understood in the early nineteenth century, when Luke Howard produced his classification of clouds as part of the embryonic science of meteorology. Driven by the turbulence of high-altitude winds and storms, bearing moisture or volcanic dust, clouds—we now know—form part of a global weather system. For artists and poets of the Romantic period, they also provided a metaphor for mobility and transformation. Shelley found in clouds a swift-moving image of constancy-in-change—"I change but I cannot die" ("The Cloud," l. 76). But he was a scientist as well as a poet, and his cloud behavior was based on the taxonomy of Luke Howard's early nineteenth-century Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1804). The sky, then, was more than a poetic workshop—it was a mobile laboratory for the study of airborne water.

Clouds draw the eye upward: to movement, distance, and height, to the dynamics of space and the overarching sky. For most of us, they provoke ideas about both transcendence and inwardness. When we look up, we lose ourselves. Clouds are associated with cosmology, but also with inner states. It is this combination of indeterminacy, space, and interiority that particularly interests me here. Clouds, I want to argue, make us think not only about form and vacancy, mobility and change, but also about the peculiar realm of affectivity that we call "mood." Whether we feel uplifted or depressed, we tend to take the ups and downs of internal states for granted—so much so that we scarcely notice them. Mood is like the weather, changing and unformed, yet always with us. In classical landscape painting, weather and mood tend to converge on the drama of the sky. A cerulean sky spells calm; dark clouds indicate tempestuous events or passions. But in temperate climates, we most often experience an in-between state that is subject to subtle fluctuations of brightness and shadow, transparency and opacity. Englishness, and especially English landscape, has everything to do with changeable weather and the presence of atmospheric moisture—with updrafts and downpours, bursts of sunshine, sudden rain showers, clouds and mists. For cloud painters like Constable, this environment formed what his first biographer called "a history of his affections," at once embodied and transient: "no two days are alike, nor even two hours." It is no accident that the most detailed account of Constable's cloud studies is by the meteorologist John Thornes.

The object of keen meteorological observation during the Romantic period, clouds paradoxically serve to abolish the representational realm altogether. Goethe, in the series of poems inspired by his reading of Howard's early nineteenth-century classification of clouds, wrote: "Ich muss das alles mit Augen fassen, / Will sich aber nicht recht denken lassen" (All of this I have to take in with my eyes, / But it will not let itself be grasped by thought). Goethe's clouds offer a way to represent the mind to itself; however minutely or evocatively described, they evade the grasp of thought, much like the mind. The sky extends the mental sublime into the realm of clouds or thought. In the landscape of Kant's sublime, nature represents the mind by analogy while also manifesting that it has a mind of its own. Wordsworth's poetry works on us because we recognize in his cloud landscapes a representation—at once natural and transcendental—of how there is always more than the mind can grasp in nature, as well as in the imagination (just as in the Snowdon episode of The Prelude a sea of cloud usurps a real sea). Looked at from the point of view of a more recent taxonomy, clouds verge on the aesthetic of indeterminacy known as "l'informe" (a potent invention of twentieth-century modernism) and hence on chaos and shapelessness. They thus lend themselves to being thought about in the philosophic domain that the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty calls "the visible invisible." Clouds are confusing, not so much because they mix elements or constantly change shape, but because they challenge the phenomenology of the visible with what cannot be seen: the luminous opacity associated with the phenomenology of sight.

What Thomas Forster (the nineteenth-century cloud scientist who most directly influenced Constable) called the "nubific principle" can also be read as a principle of painting. Viewed as a signifier, clouds have given rise to at least one counterhistory of painting. Hubert Damisch's study A Theory of /Cloud/ (1972) makes /cloud/ the sign of painting's paradoxical combination of the ephemeral and the material. Above all, it signals the escape of painting from the dominance of perspective and its historical transformation; the problem of surface became the problem of illusion. By the use of two forward slashes, Damisch transforms a word denoting "cloud" in any simple descriptive, referential, or figurative sense into an index or signifier. Enslaved to linear perspective (so Damisch argues), painting seeks another way to represent visual experience. /Cloud/—whether rendered as the absence of sky or as deceptive trompe l'oeil—poses an alternative to the linear order. It becomes a sign of all that painting has to overcome. Instead of organizing the limits of a flat surface, the illusionistic clouds of the painted baroque cupola overflow their architectural frame. Correggio, according to Damisch, was the first to construct his pictures from the point of view of a Kantian subject for whom space is a constitutive aspect of consciousness.

Damisch's semiotic analysis of pictorial production takes the theme and texture of /cloud/ as an indexical case study for the development of painting; his /cloud/ becomes the defining problematic of painting from the baroque to the present day. This "pictorial" or "painterly" space—what he calls "a free and unlimited depth, considered as a luminous and aerial substance"—is opposed to a modernist emphasis on linear style, with its flatness and overlapping forms. /Cloud/ is the sign of the volume repressed by modern painting's fixation on the flatness of the representational surface. Its semiotics challenge the insistence of twentieth-century modernism on the representation of painterly space. Clouds round out pictorial space instead of flattening it; they point to the organization of the pictorial as a dialectic of surface and depth. /Cloud/ negates solidity and shape. Nebulous and indefinite, it signals an indeterminate volume, defying the medium and restoring painting to the realm of illusionistic space. But /cloud/ also contains the paradox of form which signifies itself.

It may be a stretch to connect the vertiginous spaces of Correggio's painting to Constable's scientifically informed descriptive cloud studies, with their particularities of time, date, and weather conditions. But this connection is crucial to Damisch's argument, and it will also inform mine. The painterly aspect of Constable's clouds serves as a reminder that even the most local and descriptive of painters can simultaneously strive for the dynamics of abstraction. Whether inspired by the flat Suffolk landscapes of his rural childhood, where his father was a prosperous miller (and both wind and water powered the mills), or by the views from airy Hampstead Heath overlooking London, where he spent his professional life, Constable had read meteorologists such as Forster, if not his precursor, Luke Howard. His cloud studies record the formation and transformation of clouds in response to the air and wind, for which Hampstead, high above the city, provided a perfect viewing point. But like Monet's water lilies, the series of Hampstead cloud studies that Constable painted during 1821–22 can be understood as a painter's reflections on problems of depth, space, and form. His records of transient weather effects involve a painterly immersion, in air rather than water. Clouds are notoriously hard to draw not only because they change and move but because of their technical demands. Their challenge to graphic techniques and media, and their association with the brush, make them a theme especially suited to ink wash, watercolor, and rapid oil sketches. Cloud studies require attentiveness to subtle gradations of color and volume, along with swift, fluid, confident, and improvisatory technique.

Clouds are to outline as color is to drawing: like Rothko's fields of color, they oppose line. Cloud studies also resemble the early nineteenth-century Romantic lyric—they record the moment as a rapid or imperceptible succession of feelings and thoughts. Clouds mount, mass, tower, or darken. They provide a barometer of feeling. As Constable famously wrote in a letter to his friend and patron the Reverend John Fisher in October 1821 (the period of his Hampstead cloud studies), "painting is but another word for feeling." In the same letter, he added that the sky is not "a 'White Sheet' drawn behind the Objects" (like the backdrop to a painted scene) but rather "the 'key note'—the standard of 'Scale' and the chief 'Organ of Sentiment.'" Clouds, for Constable, were a source of feeling and perception, an "Organ of Sentiment" (like the heart or lungs) as much as meteorological phenomena. If painting is another name for feeling, and the sky an organ of sentiment, then his cloud studies are less a notation of changing weather effects than a series of Romantic lyrics: exhalations and exclamations, meditations and reflections, loosely attached to a specific location or moment in time. Constable's skies may sometimes lend themselves to allegory, as in the rain cloud and rainbow over Salisbury Cathedral or the storm clouds that lower dramatically over Old Sarum. But more often, they evoke fleeting states of mind, feeling, and atmosphere. As they mount or move across the sky, they become a language for inner activity: darkening here, lightening there, here an ascent, there a fraying or an accumulation of intensity; a passage of calm before a storm or a glimpse of cerulean sky.

Constable's cloud studies express states of mind that are elusive and transient, yet their movement and rhythm evoke the familiar play of light and shadow across a landscape. Clouds have a directional tendency, traveling on what are, incongruously, known to meteorologists as "streets," as if they were traffic. Constable's cloud studies catch something as indefinable yet ever present as our own internal weather—tendency and mobility. How better to register the constantly shifting relation between perception and feeling, embodied consciousness and underlying emotional states? The sky, then, functions both as an organ of sentiment and as a form of nonreferential free association—as both visibility and invisibility, form and l'informe—but above all as a mode of perception. But clouds also carry a material freight along with their aesthetic and emotional connotations. We should not lose sight of the great nineteenth-century changes—at once scientific and industrial—that formed clouds as we know them. Before coming back to Constable, I want to turn to his early nineteenth-century contemporary: the Northamptonshire laborer-poet, John Clare—famous for his poetry of detailed natural observation, for his madness, and for his long confinement in mental institutions. Clare, I want to suggest, not only observed nature minutely but also saw more than he knew, and perhaps knew more than he could actually see. This is especially evident when it comes to Clare's clouds.

"Under a Cloud"

& we often see clouds which we identify by their curling up from the orison in separate masses as gass clouds which ascend into the middle sky & then join the quiet journey [of the] clouds & are lost in the same colour. — John Clare, Northborough (October/November 1841)

John Clare, adrift on a cloud journey, also experienced his depressions as being "under a cloud." In what is probably his most famous poem, the anguished "I am" of 1844, he describes himself as "like vapours tost / ... Into the living sea of waking dreams" (ll. 6–8). A near contemporary of the contrastingly upwardly mobile and professionally successful Constable, Clare shared with him an acute attunement to changing weather and seasons—so much so that his depressions were apparently exacerbated in spring and autumn by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). His poetry links the Romantic period, with its impulse toward natural description and its evocation of inner states, to the realism of the high Victorian age, with its scientific impulse and its emphasis on the individual's relation to society. His exquisite sensitivity to the sights and sounds of rural England—birds and their nests, the changing seasons, rural pursuits and occasions—reflects a twofold taxonomic impulse. Recording natural phenomena such as weather variations formed part of a growing movement to catalog the environment that engaged professional, amateur, and local naturalists during the early nineteenth century. But Clare's poetry also responds to the fact that the countryside itself was undergoing rapid change under the pressures of nineteenth-century agricultural capitalism, enclosure, and urbanization, as poorly paid agricultural laborers migrated to the new industrial and commercial centers. By the 1840s, the rural idyll had already become a nostalgic past for many urban immigrants, and even for agricultural workers like Clare who remained on the land.

Clare can be read as a social observer despite himself, as well as a close observer of the natural phenomena of early nineteenth-century rural England—recording what John Barrell has called "the dark side of the landscape." But (as Barrell has argued elsewhere) enclosure does not entirely explain Clare's alienated vision or his myopic and self-protective focus. Clare lived on the margins of a London literary world that brought him notoriety and sales but that, exposing him to the fluctuations of literary taste, ultimately failed to provide his family with a steady income. His early volumes—Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), The Village Minstrel and Other Poems (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar (1827), and The Rural Muse (1835)—established him in the tradition of self-taught "ploughman" poets such as Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield (a poet illustrated by Constable). But these rural poets had become much less fashionable by the 1830s, the period that coincided with Clare's increasing destitution and depression. Arguably, both he and his poetry had already become an anachronism, awaiting discovery by twentieth-century writers such as Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, and Iain Sinclair, for whom he became a poet's poet and naturalist, as well as a protoenvironmentalist. Economic circumstances (not just bad weather) may have exacerbated both Clare's illness and his fixation on Lord Byron, the aristocratic outsider and alter ego whose Childe Harold and Don Juan Clare hectically rewrote in 1841, the year of his flight from Dr. Allen's asylum in Essex.

Clare's acute sensitivity to his surroundings—Northamptonshire's hedgerows, fields, flowers, and birds—included England's moist climate and changeable skies. Weather is necessarily an object of minute observation to anyone who works on the land. He too may have known Forster's book, given his observations on atmospheric phenomena. But Clare, no less than Constable, uses weather as an internal barometer to register minute shifts in mood and feeling for which he had no other language and for which the trappings of Byronic melancholy provided a clumsy, ventriloquized substitute. Observing nature offered the resources of a finely calibrated vocabulary quite unlike the Byronic rhetoric of Clare's Child Harold, with its "Hues of Hopeless Agony," or the colorful Regency shorthand—"blue devils" and "black melancholy"—by which Clare's letters refer to his depressions. The language of journeying clouds provided an alternative means to record precarious emotional states and minute interior changes, via his rural surroundings. The alternation of sun and shower, settling and flight (typically the nesting and alarmed flight of birds), underpin the recurrent rhythms of Clare's poetry. His perspective is pedestrian: that of someone looking down as he walks, then skyward: "The grass below—above the vaulted sky" ("I am," l.18). But as John Barrell suggests, his penchant for minute particularity was also a drawback, functioning as a defense against other forms of encroachment from outside: "[Clare] is happy to look into the distance only if it is empty, if there is nothing there; and if there is a thing there, it destroys for Clare the illusion of space and depth, because it makes him want to examine it, in its particularity and detail, and thus he focuses on it too sharply." Barrell's perceptive comment suggests how the sky's emptiness provided a temporary refuge from Clare's characteristically obsessive detail and close-up seeing. This is what another poet, John Ashbery, in "For John Clare," calls "The feeling that the sky might be in the back of someone's mind" (a "Clabbered sky"). Space and depth are impinged upon, and closeness and expansion are in tension: "There is so much to be seen everywhere that it's like not getting used to it.... There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out." The so-much-to-be-seen is altogether too much.


Excerpted from Romantic Things by MARY JACOBUS Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: The Gravity of Thing

Chapter 1 Cloud Studies:
            The Visible Invisible
Chapter 2 Pastoral, after History:
            The Apple Orchard
Chapter 3 Touching Things:
            “Nutting” and the Standing of Trees
Chapter 4 Composing Sound:
            The Deaf Dalesman, “The Brothers,” and Epitaphic Signs
Chapter 5 “Distressful Gift”:
            Talking to the Dead
Chapter 6 The Breath of Life:
            Wordsworth and the Gravity of Thought
Chapter 7 “On the Very Brink of Vacancy”:
            Things Unbeseen                     
Chapter 8 Senseless Rocks


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