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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 15, issue 2 (June 2017) : 201-215
Romantic Balloons
Toward a Formalist Technology of Poetics
Arden Hegele
Rubric A: Authorship
Rubric B: English Poetry



This essay traces the history of the hot-air balloon as a figure for formalist approaches to reading poetry, and finds the most compelling and enigmatic investigation of the trope in Anna Letitia Barbauld’s mock-epic poem of 1797, “Washing Day.” Anticipating Nicholson Baker, Maureen McLane, and Helen Vendler’s modern uses of the hot-air balloon as a symbol for formalist literary analysis, Barbauld concludes her poem with the figure of the Montgolfier balloon as a “bubble” that is equated with the production of verse, a simile rife with anxiety about the relationship of poetics to the domestic labor of washing, but also to the manifold discourses implied by the Romantic-era balloon, such as political invasion, femininity, cosmopolitanism, and even madness. What emerges at the end of Barbauld’s poem, however, is not the dismissal of eighteenth-century women’s work (whether laundry or poetry) but a transhistorical model of poetic form as a technology to be operated by a close reader, an idea that subverts Cleanth Brooks’ metaphor of the “well wrought urn” through Margaret Cohen’s account of “craft.” Resisting Brooks’ notion that the poetic vessel is antiquarian, inert, and stable, Barbauld’s airborne vessel, like Cohen’s ships, is dynamic, labor-intensive, and buffeted by external currents. The transhistorical reach of the trope of the balloon through literary criticism that this paper traces brings into focus the reader’s relation to poetic form in a new way, to ask what treating formalism as technology might mean for the conception of close reading as labor.

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