Manner and Matter

Charles Taylor
The Malaise of Modernity (CBC Massey Lectures)

[A]n important subjectivation has taken place in post-Romantic art. But it is clearly a subjectivation of manner. It concerns how the poet has access to whatever he or she is pointing us to. It by no means follows that there has to be a subjectivation of matter, that is, that post-Romantic poetry must be in some sense exclusively an expression of self. This is a common view, which seems to be given some credence by well-known phrases like Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.”


The confusion of matter and manner is easy to make, just because modern poetry cannot be the exploration of an “objective” order in the classical sense of a publicly accessible domain of references. And the confusion lies not only with commentators. It is easy enough to conclude that the decline of the classical order leaves only the self to celebrate, and its powers. The slide to subjectivism, and its blend of authenticity with self-determining freedom, is all too readily open. A great deal of modern art just turns on the celebration of human powers and feelings. The Futurists again come to mind as examples.

But some of the very greatest twentieth-century writers are not subjectivist in this sense. Their agenda is not the self, but something beyond. Rilke, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Mann, and others are among them. Their example shows that the inescapable rooting of poetic language in personal sensibility doesn’t have to mean that the poet no longer explores an order beyond the self.

That concentration on the how gets to a what however fleeting.

And so for day 2476

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