This chapter shows that the Romantic period was very much a preview – similar and yet different – of our own "connected condition." Romantic poets witnessed the rise of transcription technologies (shorthand), large-scale data collection and processing through standardized forms, social networks and communications and transportation infrastructure, and instantaneous contact at a distance via telegraphy. The chapter goes on to discuss the concept of the "dream of communication," ideals of good writing style (like clarity and brevity) treated by the New Rhetoric of the eighteenth century, the book's own method (the "normal method"), poetic difficulty, and finally the chapters to come.
Although Coleridge is mostly known for being a copious talker who was impossible to transcribe, this chapter recovers Coleridge's role as transcriber, theorist of transcription practices, and inventor of his own idiosyncratic shorthand. Considering Coleridge's time as a parliamentary reporter, his self-reflexive notebook entries, and the history of stenography, this chapter posits that Coleridge pursued an efficient writing system to record not speech but the flow of his own silent thoughts. Also discussing today's optical character recognition software and the shorthand effect (when letters or words uncannily become illegible shapes, and non-linguistic shapes come to look like linguistic signs), this chapter culminates in a reading of the "signs" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
This chapter considers William Wordsworth's thirty-year civil service career as a Distributor of Stamps to examine how Romantic literature was shaped by several intertwined developments: the formation of a fiscal bureaucracy in Britain during the long eighteenth century, the attendant proliferation of bureaucratic genres and media, and utilitarian theories of administrative efficiency. This chapter argues that Wordsworth's writing responds to what it calls bureaucratic form: the form taken by writing when the efficient capturing and communicating of data, or "particulars," are principal considerations. Operating in concert with the contemporaneous virtue of brevity in writing and long-standing concerns about brevitas in literature, bureaucratic form made the economical collection and delivery of information an ideal for all kinds of writing. This chapter shows that Lyrical Ballads (1798), Essays upon Epitaphs (comp. 1810), and above all, The Excursion (1814) accommodate, as much as they ignore, the rule of streamlined writing.
This chapter approaches the Romantic period as an instructive earlier moment for today's digitally networked life, and views Shelley's poetics as offering a compelling way of being a networked being. Shelley sat at the nexus of two contemporaneous discourses: proto-sociological discourse found in Scottish conjectural histories and Romantic-era reflections on poetic communication. From this position, Shelley engages in sociological and medial thinking. He offers the obscure medium of abstract poetry as a model for a specific form of social interaction suited to modernity: an interaction that would forge a middle way between an empty commercial kind of dependence and the total intersubjectivity that he calls "love." Reading Epipsychidion (1821) in light of these concerns, and positing a "poetry of ambiversion" that allows for both connection and disconnection, this chapter suggests that Shelley arrives at a modern ethos of communication that is neither purely business-oriented nor amatory.
The fourth chapter proposes a new way to read Keats's most famous letters and his two fragmentary attempts at epic, Hyperion (1819–1820). There is a major, although overlooked, dissonance throughout Keats's letters and poetry. On the one hand, they dramatize his wish for rapid, intuitive communication between individuals at a distance, a fantasy fueled by the period's advancements in telegraphy. On the other, Keats's writing reveals a commitment to laborious, meandering reading—a mode of encouraged by the densely figurative poetic language of the literary tradition that he idolizes, and which has its origins in the allegorical language of scripture and the rhetorical concept of ductus. Ranging over Keats's letters as well as different moments from his verse, this chapter culminates in a reading of Hyperion. The discordance between Keats's two tendencies or "ways"—rapid transmission and slow reading—precipitates the impasses that prevent him from continuing Hyperion.
The conclusion offers a theory of literariness based on the "dream of communication" discussed in this study. The conclusion goes on to discuss Walter J. Ong's critique of the "media model" of communication, Roman Jakobson's definition of poetic communication, and Jonathan Culler's idea of "literary competence." Responding to these other theories, this chapter ultimately recommends a new kind of literary competence for today, one that would include a sensitivity to the different forms of verbal communication in our media-saturated environment.