Not only can be it said that art happens in history, but that history happens within each work of art. Art is kindled when the possibilities for body in history are realized within a medium and form, situated within its own history; and history itself is change, ordered, conceptualized, projected forwards and backwards. To say that humans are historical creatures is no different from saying that we are symbol-using creatures; the form of thought that our practices of language reveal are temporal, and the consequence of coordinating and navigating our temporal being, as we coordinate and navigate our bodily beings, gives us history; we change relative to ourselves, to one another, and to the environment, and our sense of change, and means for expressing and understanding change likewise changes.
A major author, in the sense of the development of literature, then, is an author in whose works a shift in the relation of language, the body, and historical-consciousness happen at once. In some cases, a new experience of one might be enough to shift the others, subtly, without it being obviously apparent. In other cases, a shift of more than one of these happens simultaneously. The point is not that any of these will be idiosyncratic or individually understood (though they might), but that they will be realized in an author’s works. As a consequence, Keats’ new feel for feeling itself cannot fully be appreciated without a sensitivity to his intrusions of brazen sensuality, and yet these I think, can gain a fuller description if they can in turn be related to Keats’ novel understanding of both antiquity and the future, which they entail and imply, without resting upon anything like a philosophy of history. And Tennyson’s decorous language is itself a bid for a vantage point upon history, free from history, in poems that situate the progress and destruction of lifeforms within a fated and uncaring march of time.
Literature cannot offer anything more inherently valuable or meaningful than other, intelligent and intelligible ways of orienting oneself in time, from out of a body, in words—and for doing so by orienting oneself among the possible, rather than the actual, the imagined rather than the necessary. In so doing, in approaching the past and how others in it have oriented themselves (whether in literature, or another art, or elsewhere entirely), the history of the present is constructed; but nothing else, nothing more transcendent than a sense of history of which one has become a part.
It is history, not all the way down, but at bottom, that we are left with—however much a reader may deplore an author’s language or the attitude of an author towards bodies, that reader is thinking, ought to be made to be seen to be thinking, of what is being misunderstood or mishandled of the past and future, of which that author is a part. The Kantian maxim that others not be treated merely as means to an end, but as ends in themselves is a statement about the historicized self-understanding each person ought to be allowed to cultivate. Having a history, and finding what it means to have a history, is what is given to people, or maybe thrust onto them.
For most readers nowadays, authors whose sense of future and past is most explicit in their works are most difficult to appreciate; they belong to nations and histories that are so obviously not our own. But it can be difficult also to appreciate authors whose works turn on characters and plots that seem oblivious to history, as Shakespeare’s earlier comedies might seem to. But As You Like It, Much Ado, and Twelfth Night find their relationship to history implied by their fascination with bodily play, bodily suppression, and decorous and indecorous language; to uncover their historical consciousness would not necessarily be to contextualize them, but would instead be to ask of what they suggest about fortune, desire, and disguise in ordering affairs, in how they suggest that decorum is terribly inadequate for maintaining order, albeit necessary as a vehicle for disorder, and then in observing how thin the line between the mutability of the world they present and the fragility of the world in the tragedy to tease out a self-grounding historical skepticism shared with Montaigne (whose works Shakespeare wouldn’t have read until the 1603 Florio translation); they represent, at any rate, one possible understanding of how historical possibility plays out by way of human desires and chance. Yet even the classification of plays, the modest theory of genres that was entertained at the time, suggests that these did not count as “history,” that history itself was otherwise, either a narrative to which the skepticism of the comedies would be irrelevant and incidental, or else a narrative that could not sustain that skepticism and play, and which the comedies, and comedy itself, is intended to rebuke. Historical consciousness is implicit even the rebuttals offered to imaginative “Histories” by imaginative “non-Histories.”
The historicism that literature demands, and that it sustains, is not a historicism of context alone, though it might depend on knowing a lot about what was being read, or what wars were being waged, and when. It depends upon in-feeling that is native to literary criticism whether or not it is historicist, and that is often lacking from that work that is professedly historicizing. Erich Auerbach speaks to this point in his essay “Vico and Literary Criticism”:
The simple fact that the work of a man is a fruit of his existence, an existence which once was here and now; that therefore everything one finds out about his life may serve to interpret the work—this should not be neglected merely because naïve and overspecialized scholars without sufficient inner experience made bad use of it.
Above all, it is wrong to believe that historical relativism or perspectivism makes us incapable of evaluating and judging the work of art, that it leads to arbitrary eclecticism, and that we need, for judgment, fixed and absolute categories. Historicism is not eclecticism. It is a difficult and infinite task to understand the particular character of historical forms and their interrelations—a task requiring, apart from learning and intelligence, a passionate devotion, much patience, and something that may well be called magnanimity: a state of mind capable of recreating in itself all variety of human experience, of rediscovering them in its own “modifications.”
The task is not, ultimately, to ascertain value, though that may be essential or concomitant, to the goal of historical recovery, especially in works of art.
Among the works of historicism is a recovery of the significance of concepts and forms available to authors at a time, as they sought to work out their imaginative visions. Even an author’s punctuation ought to be available for such investigation.
In the 19th century, Wordsworth’s punctuation, supplied by close family as well as by Wordsworth, responds to, and can lead us to appreciate, a key feature—a quality—of Wordsworth’s vision of solitaries, those who endure on the outskirts not only of social geography, but of history. The punctuation in the interactions with the figures is often abrupt; the temporal weight heavy or strangely-timed, to respond, formally, to what Wordsworth understands: that the divergence between his being and theirs is not metaphysical so much as it is historical; his greatest claims for their simultaneously natural and divine statures arise because he can make no sense of their historical place, leaving them both beneath history (as the time of the world) and above it, divinely. Wordsworth’s poetry is most original in its witnessing to the collision of various sorts of historical time: revolutionary, open, accelerated; traditional, provincial, habitual; natural, seasonal, geological; organic, natal, and developmental; national, regional, local. The problem of life that is wasted is really, for Wordsworth, life that is excluded from history, or history that is withheld from a life that once possessed or even marked it (as in the case of “The Old Cumberland Beggar.”). Wordsworth is like every other great author: historical consciousness and understanding are crucial contexts for understanding and describing significance, which can also only be understood by attending to bodily experience and attuning oneself to the co-existing possibilities in language and form.
But whereas the examination of form is not infinite—however many the possibilities, they can be exhausted by description—the recovery of historical awareness and understanding might as well be; history begets history, though as it does so, a shape might emerge, and it becomes valid to say both that Wordsworth’s poetry—or any poetry—is about history and that history is about Wordsworth’s—or any—poetry.