Modernity’s Mist explores an understudied aspect of Romanticism: its future-oriented poetics. Whereas Romanticism is well known for its relation to the past, Emily Rohrbach situates Romantic epistemological uncertainties in relation to historiographical debates that opened up a radically unpredictable and fast- approaching future. As the rise of periodization made the project of defining the “spirit of the age” increasingly urgent, the changing sense of futurity rendered the historical dimensions of the present deeply elusive.
While historicist critics often are interested in what Romantic writers and their readers would have known, Rohrbach draws attention to moments when these writers felt they could not know the historical dimensions of their own age. Illuminating the poetic strategies Keats, Austen, Byron, and Hazlitt used to convey that sense of mystery, Rohrbach describes a poetic grammar of future anteriority—of uncertainty concerning what will have been. Romantic writers, she shows, do not simply reflect the history of their time; their works make imaginable a new way of thinking the historical present when faced with the temporalities of modernity.
“Modernity’s Mist is an impressive work that both offers new perspectives on Romantic historicism and shows the historical stakes—which is to say, too, the ethical and political stakes—of Romanticism’s formal complexities.”
—Studies in Romanticism
“Emily Rohrbach’s Modernity’s Mist is an imaginatively conceived, scrupulously researched, and beautifully written work of Romantic literary criticism.”
University of Oregon
In Modernity's Mist Emily Rohrbach has written a counter-history to Nietzsche’s account of modernity as the story of the present indebting itself to the future by making a promise to it. She has given us a non-apocalyptic framework for understanding Romanticism’s secular engagement with a future whose inscrutability makes it neither necessarily redemptive nor destructive. Remarkable here is not just the elegance with which Rohrbach renders the readerly experience of being beset by the shadows of things that elude direct experience or narrative totalization, but the absence of bitterness with which she handles a subject that might well occasion it, given the disproportion between the ‘plenty’ of multiple if unrealized, competing possibilities and the relative ‘little’ of actual historical outcomes.
University of California, Berkeley
For too long critics and scholars have focused concerns about Romantic futurity in the pyrotechnical, apocalyptic texts of Blake and company. Rohrbach, in a series of original readings, sets our sights on more pervasive, everyday engagements with the future. Her exemplary, well-chosen authors, especially Keats, feel the pressure of the future on the present and tend not to resort to the Bible, as do some of their contemporaries, to make sense of the future to come. Thanks to Rohrbach we are in a much better position to understand what was so urgent, if not quite knowable, for Romantic poets and novelists.
“Rohrbach’s clarifying book engages notions of history in the period by focusing on how people thought and felt about not the past but the future. Rohrbach investigates the ways in which anticipation about the future, which in her exemplary writers remains unknowable, can disorganize, disorient, and, I think, ultimately liberate the present.”
—Jeffrey N. Cox, SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Lucidly argued and beautifully written, Modernity’s Mist will help us think in new ways about what we mean when we speak of the historicity of a text. Emily Rohrbach identifies in Keats, Austen, Byron, and other early nineteenth-century writers, whose sense of their present moment was shadowed by the uncertainty and inaccessibility of the future, a kind of historical thinking that has to do less with context and more with the temporal experiences of reading —variously dizzying, digressive, or shot through with anticipation—enacted by poetic form and non-linear narrative structures.
University of California, Berkeley
“…Rohrbach shows that the writers not only reflect the historical condition they inhabit, but also that in and through their writing they are exploring it—via the stylistic techniques of hiatus, variance, pause, rapidity, digression, and so on. This artistic exploration amounts to an intervention into the culture and its tensions, so that Rohrbach is reclaiming the worth of the literary, her work being both informed by New Historicism and critical of its reductive effect on the material it considers.”
—Ralph Pite, European Romantic Review