Uses and Misuses of History:
Looking for the Big Picture of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Since the 1970s, historicism has clearly gained ascendancy in virtually all fields of literary and “cultural” study. “Always historicize!” urged Fredric Jameson in 1981, and scholars are today discovering facts and artifacts in the archives, some of them of debatable value, at a brisk pace. Today, we can hardly attend a talk given by a job candidate for an assistant professorship without viewing the requisite accompanying slides presenting those crude etchings, ink smears, quaint spellings, broken typefaces, and high s’s that look like f’s, those stamps of authenticity that attest directly before the hiring faculty’s eyes to the indisputable fact that the candidate has indeed visited the archive. Far from the exception to the rule, Shakespeare studies have in fact led the march into the archives from the start. But to what end is our current focus — I dare call it obsession — with history and the archive in connection with what at least used to be regarded as literature? My paper’s title alludes, of course, to an essay in which Nietzsche raised a similar question at a time similarly obsessed with history — in his day, one inspired by Hegel, whereas our own is inspired by that peculiar transformation of Hegelian thinking wrought by Marx. Actually, though Nietzsche’s title is usually translated “The Use and Abuse of History,” a better translation would point up even more keenly the essay’s relevance to the question it behooves us now to ask ourselves, even if few are in fact asking it. The more accurate translation of “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben” would be “On the benefit and drawback of history for life,” and the essay appeared in a collection Nietzsche called Thoughts Out of Season. In this essay, I hope to present some thoughts equally out of season today, insofar as they challenge, in parallel fashion, our own obsession with history. Accordingly, I shall first offer a review of Nietzsche’s argument, insofar as it may inform a critique of today’s historicism. Then, I shall sketch a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, focusing on the well-known Sonnet 30, which, as it happens, thematizes the relations of memory, history, and fiction. This reading will provide an example of how history may be understood as the background, rather than the end, of reading in the case of a work of literary fiction such as a sonnet. Thus I hope to explain, if very briefly, what I would consider to be an engagement in a literary work appropriate to its status as fiction — where the facts of the archive must serve the delights of reading fiction and not the other way around.

The Drawback of History for Life

The biggest part of Nietzsche’s critique of the obsession with history is already given in the criterion he urges for judging the value of any intellectual endeavor: does it benefit life? Essentially, the drawback of history is that getting obsessed with the past keeps one from acting in the present. An excess of history, or historicism, causes one to think that knowing history is sufficient, that knowing is action, that history is life. In this regard, history for Nietzsche seems to have the same potentially dangerous function as metaphysical speculation, a bit later, for Heidegger. The detachment from oneself that can be a benefit of the contemplation of history can also lead to a kind of inauthenticity, an avoidance of living one’s own life. Conversely, then, the obsession with history can also lead to a misreading of history so gross as to increase one’s own distortions of one’s self-perceptions. Either we do history poorly, and thus fail to live because we use history to bolster our illusions, or we do history too well, and thus fail to live because we never get around to it. In either case, in my present context, I should like to limit the concept of “life” to that aspect of life most relevant to the reading of works of fiction such as lyric poetry, which is, I think, the experience of the specific pleasure — what Aristotle would call the oikeîa he:doné:, of fiction. How we can translate Nietzsche’s terms to suit the specific case of the reading of older works of literary art such as Shakespeare’s Sonnets will, I hope, become clearer after a further review of Nietzsche’s argument.

History is not altogether bad — hence the “benefit,” Nutz, of history. As beings endowed, for better or worse, with consciousness and memory, we both need history and cannot avoid it. Nietzsche weighs the benefits of history by first dividing it into three kinds, suggesting three different motives: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. Monumental history provides the reader with inspiring models from the past. To some extent, the “old historicism,” with its focus on the daring genius of the original artist, follows this model, though so does much biography and biographical criticism to this day — and there are, I would contend, traces of monumental history even in the life-stories of minor figures so commonly brought out of the archives and into those new historical or cultural materialist job talks. Antiquarian history, dedicated to the preservation and revererence of the past and the fulfillment of our forebears’ desire for immortal fame, has long typified the discipline of Classics, and hence, likewise, informed elements of the “old historicism.” Finally, critical history opposes both monumental and antiquarian history by drawing upon past examples so as to benefit from past mistakes. The New Historicism and cultural studies are primarily, of the three types, forms of critical history. Whether following Greenblatt, Easthope, and others in viewing literary works as strategic artifices of the subject in a field dominated by class struggle, or Bourdieu, Jameson, Guillory, and others in viewing the very concept of the “literary work” as but another strategic ruse doing its bit for ruling class hegemony, today’s critical histories are “critical” in a distinctively Marxist sense, with all the unmasking, deflation, and supposed “grounding” in the supposed “material” that the Marxist tradition implies.

Each of these types of history has its corresponding pitfalls. If the monumental historian turns to the past to find models for him- or herself, then, to some extent, he or she is seeking a reflection of his or her own times and struggles in that past. The past becomes a mirror, and the self- image of the historian threatens to obliterate the genuine distinctness of the past. The very need of monumental history to bring the past near to us threatens to make it cease to be history altogether, and, instead, to become an unwitting fiction, an illusion whose function is somehow to legitimate one’s own desires and struggles by means of the prestige of precedent — and yet, as Nietzsche points out, the mere antiquity of the model does not guarantee the emulator’s moral goodness: bad people, too, can turn to historical models and use them to distort their own moral judgments and presentations of themselves to the judging public. Apparently, many a Nazi leader was a great lover of Goethe — and, indeed, of Shakespeare.

The pitfalls of antiquarian history, I think, are the most obvious in that stifling quality about the modern studies of Classics and medieval literature that has driven many a bright student out of those fields. Until the recent fad of adapting cultural studies and identity politics to those areas — a fad that in this case has taken hold but not yet taken over entirely — the mainstream of published scholarship in these fields has consisted of those tiny incremental bits of trivia — the possible emendation here, the prosopographic background to an allusion there, the verification of authorship of minor works, the biographies of past editors and even of biographers, as well as the rehearsals of standard and time- worn, mostly moral readings of various works of literature and philosophy — those tiny contributions to scholarship that seem to anticipate some future reader, greater and more enlightened than ourselves, who will actually read the works themselves, with the benefit of all the footnotes we have provided. We, however, do not have time actually to read Homer, only to study and edit his works. Here, in a way that anticipates my general adaptation of Nietzsche’s concept of “life” to the more particular case of literary engagement and pleasure, we can see the most clearly how a history that ceases to serve life and instead becomes life’s end in itself becomes, indeed, the end of life — a kind of death. Ironically, it mummifies Homer rather than preserving Homer’s immortality.

The danger of critical history is that it leaves the historian-critic in a paradoxical position of which he or she remains unaware; and a self- contradiction at once programmatic and unwitting quickly becomes mere hypocrisy. The paradox is that the historian attempts to learn from the mistakes of the past, yet must acknowledge how those mistakes have contributed to the making of the present — including the historian’s own endeavor, methods, and even aims. How can the historian not partake of the same problem he or she seeks to understand? How can the historian exempt him- or herself from the same criticism? For Nietzsche, the net result is usually an assumed or explicit attitude of superiority toward the past upon which one sits in judgment. We can see this sort of thing today, presumably, in the otherwise outlandish ideas circulated and taken seriously among Shakespeare scholars, to the effect that people of Shakespeare’s day were strange and grotesque creatures having only one sex and unable to distinguish between interior and exterior or between figurative and literal senses — the sorts of ideas James Wells has notably taken to task. On the larger view, moreover, today’s materialist historicism also makes the converse blunder: if, underlying New Historicism and cultural studies is a presumption that the rise of bourgeois hegemony is bad, leading inexorably to imperialism, colonialism, and all sorts of exploitation and oppression, then what exactly are English professors themselves if not bourgeois? One might explain this self-contradiction away by claiming that the work of uncovering the nasty origins of bourgeois power is part of the greater evolution of humanity from capitalism to socialism. The contradiction of the bourgeois socialist intellectual, in this case, can be subsumed under the general, commonplace rubric of materialist dialectic itself — a secular, leftist version of the Fortunate Fall. Yet such an explanation smacks of bad faith. If bourgeois hegemony is the problem, how exactly is the study of its supposed founding moments — the trips to the archive, the massive publications, conferences, graduate study, hiring, tenure, promotion, and all the rest — just how are these things supposed to serve the end of transforming society? The very activity of criticism presupposes an ever-greater investment in the bourgeois institutions that make it possible. We are not training our students to move forward toward a socialist utopia but to make professional careers out of pretending to do so by way of materialist critical history. Vague intimations and misgivings about this bad faith give rise to frequent handwringing. Very much within the framework of Nietzsche’s critique, however, handwringing does not lead to a popular exodus from the archive and the academy and into, say, the less secure professions of union organizer, leftist journalist, political leader, or terrorist.

But the problem closer to home about our current form of critical history arises from the role literature is supposed to play in it. For the study of literature has become, not the recruitment of historical knowledge in the service of the pleasure of reading works of literary art, but the study of “texts,” regardless of whether fictional or not, as instances of “culture,” which is the general sphere of human social activity in which the dialectic of class struggle is symbolically worked out. Insofar as literature is almost inevitably literature of the ruling class — how else would it get written, let alone published and preserved? — any genuinely artistic pleasure the text has to offer must be precisely the means by which the text serves its ideological purposes. These purposes may be relatively simple, as in Balibar and Macherey, Bourdieu, and Guillory; only slightly more complex, as in Jameson; or subtle, as in the Frankfurt School and in Greenblatt and the other New Historicists. Still, the problem remains that any thrill one might feel about the mere wit, ingenuity, and poignancy of a Shakespeare sonnet must be, ultimately, a guilty pleasure, a measure of our complicity.

Nietzsche’s opening question, borrowed from Goethe, about whether the study of history serves life should inspire us to ask a similar question about what we do: to what end? For those of us who no longer believe in the promise of a socialist revolution that will resolve all paradoxes and return human beings to their supposed aboriginal, unalienated condition of bliss, the continued pursuit of materialist historical investigations into the archives comes across as a dogmatism hardly different from religious fundamentalism, having at the core the same kind of failure to read literary texts as fiction and to appreciate them as such. Rather than seek to understand the poem’s game so that we can engage in its joys, we seek to explain the existence of the game — and thus, in effect, to explain it away. All of this is, presumably, to get our students and readers to “learn to think critically,” by which phrase we mean, not to criticize us, but to know how to categorize phenomena as either bourgeois and hegemonic — hence bad — or marginal — and hence good — even if the phenomenon partakes of both natures in an obscure economy of negotiations, a precarious balance of “subversion” (good) and “containment” (bad). If this pursuit gives pleasure, it gives pleasure at the text’s expense, avowedly reading “against the grain,” rather than in the text.

There is a potentially even nastier way of understanding today’s rush to the archive, one that, since historicism is itself not a work of fiction but a fact of life, falls far better, ironically enough, to a classical Marxist analysis. Academic jobs are far more scarce than the scholars who seek them, and this oversupply of labor affects not only the lives of those on the job market but the working conditions of those who have jobs and even tenure. Competition for jobs puts us in an odd reverse position where we almost, as it were, buy our employment. Possession of a unique fact or two drawn from an archive makes the possessor uniquely valuable to the institution, which can then trade the possession of that fact — in the form of publication — in return for a job. The hiring department looks for evidence that more archival riches will follow after the purchase of this first one. But in effect, the graduate student’s “discoveries” in the archive serve a function not altogether unlike that of the heroine’s virginity in the English 18th-century novel. It loses its value when you give it away, but, up until then, it makes you the more desirable. This economic analysis would then explain much better the evident contradiction between the anticapitalist premises guiding materialist historicism and the evident capitalist interests of those very historicists.

In a way that might surely have surprised Nietzsche himself, Nietzsche’s argument winds up bearing a kinship with that of Descartes, in the thrilling close to his Discours de la méthode, and, before that, Plato’s character Socrates. Explaining why he chose not to publish some of his scientific treatises, Descartes remarks that their publication would have enmeshed him in endless, trivial debates with scholastics — the academic scholars of his day — so that he would never have time to continue to pursue the studies that gave him profound joy and to which he chose to devote his life after retiring from military service. For Descartes, as for Nietzsche, academic study had reached the point where, instead of serving life, it was deferring it endlessly. Since the scholastics could only see the tiny obscurities to which they confined themselves, they were like blind men, who, in order to have a fair fight with someone sighted, would first drag him into a dark cave — whereas Descartes yearned to throw the windows open to let the light in and illuminate the big picture. After Descartes, and later Nietzsche, we again live in an age of a new scholasticism, in which we occupy ourselves with such questions as whether a given Shakespeare play evidences traces of Early Modern capitalist or only of premodern subjectivity, whether a given reading of an Early Modern text focusing on gender pays sufficient attention to race and class as well, whether the artwork can have “relative autonomy” even while it functions as simultaneous reflection and intervention, and even — dare I say it — whether our materialism is materialist enough. Amid our neoscholasticism, it is encumbent upon us, I think, to throw the windows open and let some light in.

The Big Picture of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The history of critical commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets has had much to do with the archive from the start. For a long time, scholars attempted to determine exactly who the fair youth was to whom the majority of the Sonnets are addressed, who was the Dark Lady, and what exactly went on. A belated, modern example is the front matter to Katherine Duncan- Jones’s nevertheless excellent edition of the Sonnets. The New Historicist approach, by contrast, typified by Alvin Kernan, John Barrell, and Arthur Marotti, tends to focus on the economic arrangements of patronage — as they can be explored more fully in the archive. Despite the differences, these two lines of inquiry presuppose the same basic concept of the function of the sonnet, which is to communicate a message. In the first case, the message is a personal one, from Shakespeare to his real addressee, about whose identity we may therefore speculate so as to understand the context of the message and thus more about its hidden content. In the second case, Shakespeare the underemployed poet is communicating various feelings about his condition as the dependent recipient of aristocratic largess. Marotti, specifically, traces a history of the fad of Petrarchism as a code for patronage and similar political and economic relations.

A third line of modern criticism, represented by Richard Lanham and, more recently, Joel Fineman, takes Shakespeare’s Sonnets as an instance of the game of rhetoric — a game which, itself, seems to drift between the function of earnest persuasion and that of game per se. The archive in this case tells us what rhetoricians of Shakespeare’s time — the Puttenhams and the various redactions of Aristotle — said about praise speeches. The problem here is the flattening of a distinction between fiction, on the one hand, which is an avowed game calling upon the reader’s recognitions and surprising him or her with the wit and poignancy of its surprises, and rhetoric, on the other, which is, as it were, a game of words whose speaker hopes will be misread as an earnest message, so as to effect not the delight of recognition alone but the business of persuasion. Nevertheless, and despite his title, Fineman’s focus is primarily on the literary games Shakespeare’s Sonnets play with subjectivity by means of imitating the rhetoric of praise, and, in this sense, Fineman anticipates my own approach.

Both patronage and Petrarchism are, in fact, two of the contexts in the background of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The background to any work of fiction, including a sonnet sequence, is the unmarked ground against which the work presents its pattern of surprises. The background elicits the reader’s recognition in such a way as to form the expectations necessary for surprises to be set up. These surprises, then, mark out a system of paradoxes — a system that yokes paradoxes intrinsic to fiction by nature with the contradictions of life thematized in the work’s content. It is the discovery of this system at the core of the work that gives the reader access to the immense and infinitely repeatable specific pleasure of reading fiction as fiction.

That paradoxes are built into the essence of fiction becomes clearer if we contrast fiction with its contrary, verbal communication — a contrast the more crucial to us because it is precisely the failure to distinguish between the game of fiction and the business of communication that then typifies materialist criticism from the start and that leads to the obsession with critical history and the archive and away from life and the pleasure proper to reading fiction. Verbal communication is only possible insofar as it takes place in an exchange between real participants in a real world. Because words by nature refer to categories, not unique entities, and because words derive their meanings by virtue of their differences from other words, meaning is only possible by virtue of the ongoing process of questioning, answering, revising, restating, adjusting, developing, explaining, etc. — if not actually, then at least potentially. By contrast, a work of fiction is characterized by closure. What a conversation “says” can never be finally decided, because a conversation is never definitively finished, except by virtue of the accidents, such as death, that cut the conversation off, always too soon. But the words of a work of fiction are all the words that work will ever hold in the version that stands before us. There may be other versions, but they are just that — other entities, also possessing closure. Changing views or interpretations of a work are the conversation that surrounds the work, not the work itself. Works of fiction can function as communication by being embedded within communicative exchanges, but even then, it is really the exchanges before and after the work that determine how the work is supposed to function at the moment, and any focus that drifts too far in the direction of the work itself will begin to doubt the simplicity of the communicative function attributed to it — just as, in a quarrel, one person may quote another’s words and say, “You may not have meant to insult me, but that’s what your words said.” In such an instance, one interlocutor is choosing to view a prior utterance as if it were a work of fiction, subject to interpretive speculation.

Accordingly, a work of fiction is not a message, but the playful imitation of a message. It is an utterance in words, and yet it does not really mean anything — a poem does not mean but be — because there is no one really there to mean anything by it. It also does not mean anything because you cannot know what its author “meant.” Even if you asked a living author, you cannot tell whether what he says is in fact the work’s meaning — nor can you say why the author wouldn’t then have said the clearer gloss instead of his original, mystifying utterance in the first place. The essence of language, as a system of signs, is meaning — a sign with no meaning is a contradiction — and yet that is precisely what a work of fiction is — not a message but a game played with messages. And in fairness, Helen Vendler’s focus on play in the Sonnets provides a welcome exception to the major trends of decoding, but her commentaries, while exploring and celebrating Shakespeare’s games on the closest view, lack a sense of the big picture of the Sonnets as a whole.

The definitional paradox of fiction as language without meaning gives rise to a temporal, or spatio-temporal, paradox: the text has a beginning, a middle, and an end — and yet the end is already “there” when we read the beginning, and the beginning is still there when we reach the end. The time sequence of the work is also a quasi-spatial simultaneity, so that reading in sequence also gives us an accumulating sense of the big, still picture. This dual temporality holds regardless of whether the work be written down as a text or memorized and thus “inscribed into the soul,” as Socrates might say. Even oral cultures have a sense of the unchanging song or story and its accurate recitation, and even the changes oral poets make for specific performances work as surprises against the background of the known unchanging essence of the work.

This paradox of dual temporality is, I think, the focus of Sonnet 30, whose themes of memory and debt fit into what I take to be the larger picture of the Sonnets as a whole. On the level of genre, the Sonnets play a game upon the surprising and jarring fusion of the two principle types of sonnet we would encounter in Shakespeare’s day, especially in his Continental models. One is the dedicatory sonnet, typically addressed to a male patron — though of course Elizabeth’s reign wrought an exception to this rule in the works of so many writers as to have made the gender- change somewhat unsurprising — so that perhaps the male patron-addressee could make for a sort of secondary surprise. The other genre, of course, is the love sonnet, harking back to Petrarch, partly by way of Wyatt and Surrey, and, beyond Petrarch, to the medieval courtly love tradition. The fusion of these two very different genres works by virtue of what I conceive as the imaginary incipient drama of the Sonnets. The male addressee of most of the Sonnets — young, aristocratic, light in color (“fair”), and attractive — is consistently associated with the eternal life of art — that is, of the Sonnets themselves — whether metaphorically through marriage and fatherhood (as in the first 17 sonnets) or metonymically through patronage (as in many others) — or, metonymically again, as the mere subject of the Sonnets' celebration, in the place analogous to Petrarch’s Laura-as-laurel, tree sacred to Apollo, god of song. The Dark Lady, by contrast, is associated with sexual desire and the pleasures and limitations of the body — and thus with the sphere of mortal flesh. Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”) first sets up, quite neatly, the thematic opposition between art and nature (as the meaning of the opposition between addressee and summer's day), while Sonnet 144 (“Two loves have I of comfort and despair”) clinches the opposition between the "man right fair" and the "woman colored ill." Sonnet 18 elaborates the paradox of this opposition in its close, since the poem at hand will only live forever — and thus give life to the addressee — “so long as man can breathe or eyes can see” — that is, so long as there are real, living, mortal readers who can continue to read the Sonnet at hand. Ars longa, vita brevis, but art itself — in this case poetry — while it may give “life” to its subject, in turn is only given “life” by real, living beings — the maker and the beholders of ensuing generations. Art aims at immortality, but only because it can engage successive generations of mortal beings. Therefore, art is superior to nature but nature is also superior to art.

Shakespeare plays this paradox out by having the imaginary speaker imply a drama whose situation is a love affair between the addressee and the Dark Lady, giving rise to a range of emotions and tones, from the anguish of (say) Sonnet 41 (“Those petty wrongs that liberty commits”) to the pained ironies of Sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt and will do none”) and 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”), to the ribald puns on hell and fire in Sonnet 144. The dialectical tension within this paradox about art drives the series forward, not necessarily as a progressive narrative sequence, but as a never-ending mystery, giving rise to one metaphor system after another and the layering of conceits or spheres of reference — procreation, patronage, memory, indebtedness and wealth, salvation, promiscuity, adultery and betrayal, mirror images and identification, painting as representation, painting as disguise, etc. This layering of equivalent metaphor systems gives the Sonnets their dazzling richness and complexity.

One aspect of this system of paradoxes, then, is the relation of immortality to mortality, since art is “immortal” but both its makers and its beholders and preservers “mortal.” The duality of mortality and immortality, moreover, characterizes consciousness itself — regardless of one’s particular religious beliefs. We know that we are mortal and will die — and yet the very thought, “We will die,” stands as if one’s own death were contained within that larger thought — as if thought and imagination already exceeded death, its momentary object. Hence intimations of immortality are not confined to the faithful or the Romantic, but can be explained in a more or less Kantian way as inevitable effects of our consciousness of the temporal finitude of life itself. In a related paradox, memory brings its objects near to the present — and yet, as memory, defines the difference between our present and our past — as if we were continually confronting both the nearness and the distance of death. This paradox about memory, and therefore history — indeed, a paradox about the function of the archive itself — informs the thematic material of Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I sommon vp remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lacke of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new waile my deare times waste:
Then can I drowne an eye(vn-vs’d to flow)
For precious friends hid in deaths dateles night,
And weepe a fresh loues long since canceld woe,
And mone th’expence of many a vannisht sight.
Then can I greeue at greeuances fore-gon,
And heauily from woe to woe tell ore
The sad account of fore-bemoned mone,
Which I new pay as if not payd before.
But if the while I thinke on thee (deare friend)
All losses are restord,and sorrowes end.

A combination of legal and financial conceits dominates the poem, and perhaps can be combined if the “sessions” are conceived as some sort of civil court, in which the speaker, as both debtor and judge, must summon up the equivalent of his creditors — the remembrance of things past — which are both memories of losses and of good things that were subsequently lost merely by virtue of the passage of time itself. Memory, in short, is a source of grief, because the memory of sad things renews the sadness, and the memory of happy things renews the loss of those things through time. This is so because memory, paradoxically, makes the past “present” and, simultaneously, assures its place in the past — so that memory simultaneously recovers and loses things past — and it recovers its own moment of loss, repeatedly. Through a kind of pun, the loss of things past is compared to financial losses, which create indebtedness — a debt of grief, which one must pay as an act of mourning in order to be at peace with one’s losses. And yet memory is like an ever- renewed bankruptcy proceeding, in which one must be made to pay for one’s losses with grief ever anew.

Now memory is, of course, tied to the nature of poetry: poems are memorized, recorded in writing — indeed, in Sonnet 55, the speaker boasts that his “powrefull rime” will preserve for the addressee “The liuing record of [his] memory.” And accordingly, just as memory creates an ever- renewed debt of grief, it also allows an endlessly renewable pleasure. Unlike other goods that might give pleasure in their use, the poem can never be consumed, and rereading only restores pleasure rather than depleting it. The addressee of the first 126 Sonnets, the fair young man, whether conceived as a would-be patron or as an aristocratic friend, is consistently associated, like Petrarch’s Laura, with the art of poetry itself. Hence the thought, or memory, of the addressee is the thought of poetry, whose inexhaustible pleasure counteracts the inexhaustible loss of memory, precisely by containing it within its own aesthetic system. Thus the New Historicists are right to think of patronage as a context for this poem, but wrong to think that the poem is saying something, either to the patron or about patronage. Rather, patronage is one of the contexts determining one of the discourses that Sonnet 30 imitates and with which it plays.

To read Sonnet 30, and other poetry, in the way I suggest involves neither the cryptogrammatic and often suspicious decoding nor the elaborate speculative contingencies of materialist historicist readings. History, like memory in Sonnet 30, makes it possible to recover the meanings with which a poem plays, as the contextual background to the discourses which the poem does not embody but imitate. Thus, rather than seeing through the poem to either a personal expression of feelings or a social or political message pleading for economic support from a patron, I see the poem as imitating, and playing with, both of those kinds of discourse. To miss this play is to miss the whole point — and the pleasure — of poetry. Accordingly, I have engaged in what I call a “new formalist criticism,” “new” because of its consideration of the relation between the contradictions of discourse and the playful paradoxes of art. In so doing, I hope to issue an invitation to come back out of the archive and into the sunlight, to enjoy the distinctly literary pleasures whose summer shall not fade.

Amittai F. Aviram
University of South Carolina


This page last updated Sunday, August 7, 2022 by the author — amittai dot aviram at gmail dot com. © 2001 by Amittai F. Aviram.