Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
A first reaction to the title of this book might be to wonder that it has apparently not been used before: ideology, imagination, subject, society, discourse, Romanticism - a compendium of weighty terms elegantly linked. Another might be to sigh at their familiarity and abstraction: are we in for a strenuously theoretical restatement of some well-worn themes? Readers of George Eliot might have a third reaction: is this a book about Romanticism with a chapter about Eliot tacked on at the end? To answer all these questions simply, let me say that this is a valuable book and recommend it to anyone interested in Eliot's thinking about her art.
The scope is large: there are chapters on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Eliot and a strong, even grand, overall narrative. Pyle argues for a deep continuity between Romanticism and the social imagination of George Eliot, but this continuity has a conceptual break at its heart, a break he locates in Shelley's 'The Triumph of Life'. Up to this point Romantic poetry celebrates imagination as a means of reconciling subject and society in enduring cultural forms. For Wordsworth, imagination is a poetics of 'enshrinement'; for Coleridge it is a figure of the institutionalization of knowledge. In Shelley's Prometheus Unbound an act of imagination, Prometheus's recantation of his curse on Jupiter, ushers in a Utopian state which is the end and fulfilment of history, but later in 'The Triumph of Life' Shelley offers us 'no "imagination" to lead us from tyranny to freedom' (115), acknowledging the ideological nature of language itself. As De Man and Hillis Miller have shown, the poem is extraordinarily hospitable to what Abrams called 'the deconstructive angel'; building on their analyses, Pyle writes of 'imagination's eclipse' and the 'permanent pressure of history inscribed in Shelley's final, materialist poem' (122). There follows an enigmatic chapter on 'the materialism of poetic resistance' in Keats, and finally a discussion of George Eliot that drives a firm wedge between imagination - with its potentially destructive powers - and sympathy, the key to social consciousness and indeed its artistic medium. Pyle has interesting things to say about Eliot's exploration of the narrative voice.