David Miller (University of Stirling)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘In some shut convent place’: The Question of Stevenson’s Poetry

‘Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.’ – Hegel, Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. 2

In his essay Charmed Language, Theodor Adorno characterises the role or position of ‘modern’ lyric poetry as a site or zone, in which a contest or struggle takes place within language against the forces of ‘disintegration and the possible end of the meaningful in art’. The lyric poet must ‘sacrifice’ himself or herself to language in order to shelter it, but this is always an uneasy and ironic commitment because the language to which the poet makes the greatest commitment ‘is not the authentic language to which the sacrifice was directed but a language devastated by commerce and commitment’. The modern lyric poet is thus caught in an ironic and double configuration in which the lyric can never achieve its objective of ‘preserving’, or the ‘rehabilitation’ of language, and is always hovering in a state in which the poet seeks the ‘objective’ control of language in order to ‘preserve its ‘subjective and expressive’ capabilities. But as Adorno claims, ‘language does not itself grant that for which the poet makes the tremendous ‘sacrifice’ and ‘effort’. One result of this failed, but nonetheless productive and utterly intense struggle is that the lyric poet often seeks to protect or shelter the lyrical by configuring it as a ‘fugitive’ and estranged ‘murmur’.

This paper seeks to understand and ‘locate’ Stevenson’s poetry under these ideas and concepts. The idea of a lyric ‘sheltering’ from the ferocious forces of industrial and commercial modernity have, I shall try and show, produced in Stevenson, a poetry in which both the cultural condition and formal patterns of evasion and ‘murmur’ are an attempt to preserve what Adorno termed an ‘historically irretrievable’ condition of lyric expression. By so doing, Stevenson’s poetry becomes the shaded site or zone, in which the battle for the continuation or ‘vanishing’ of artistic meaning from the world is conducted. So although seemingly peripheral, the paper seeks to show that Stevenson’s poetry is in fact, the ‘place’ where some of his main aesthetic pre-occupations and essential questions in relation to art and modernity are enacted.

The paper is twenty to twenty five minutes in duration, and is designed for undergraduates, postgraduates, researching scholars in poetry, and those working on Stevenson generally. Although the paper draws on the works of Hegel and Adorno, it is rooted in close reading, and examples from Stevenson’s poetry.

Categorized as Abstracts

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