Formalism and the Spenserian Stanza
The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Formalism and aestheticism, so long anathema to the avant garde in literary—or, rather, cultural—studies, have recently started making a comeback. Susan J. Wolfson, leading the charge in her appropriately named Formal Charges (1997) and in numerous essays, argues that the current prejudice against formalism is misplaced because formalism is not the tool of reaction for which many late-twentieth-century theorists have taken it (227-232). In fact she demonstrates, as Shklovsky suggested before her, that formalist criticism can make radical, disquieting discoveries (20). Substantial essay collections such as Aesthetics and Ideology (1994), edited by George Levine, and Revenge of the Aesthetic (2000), edited by Michael P. Clark, as well as a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly (March, 2000) entitled Reading for Form, show that Wolfson’s voice is not a lone cry from the wilderness. Even a group of contemporary poets have joined the fray, dubbing themselves “New Formalists” and, as a deliberately self-defining act, writing in regular verse forms. Some of these poets have also theorized about their poetic practices in collections such as Annie Finch’s After New Formalism (1999). Thus, when such a pivotal figure in cultural studies as Edward Said turns his attention in a recent book (Musical Elaborations) to the meanings of music, that form of forms, we should perhaps not be too surprised. We should similarly take in our stride Said’s enthusiasm (‘Scholarship and Commitment’, 7-8) for the work of Elaine Scarry, who claims that the duty of literary scholars is to pay attention to the form of the ‘beautiful object’, for in this act of attention lies one of the sources of human morality (‘Beauty and the Scholar’s Duty to Justice’ 25; On Beauty and Being Just 90-93).
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