Repossessing the Romantic Past
Carson, James P., Philological Quarterly
Repossessing the Romantic Past edited by Heather Glen and Paul Hamilton. Cambridge U. Press, 2006. Pp. ix + 254. $90.
In the past three decades a new picture of British Romanticism has emerged in opposition to the focus on six male poets in two generations. Along with the expansion of the field to women writers and prose works, there has been a new recognition of the continuities between eighteenth-century literature and Romanticism, as well as an abandonment of oversimplified binaries between rationalism and imagination, Enlightenment and enchantment, the constraints of genre and tradition and the spontaneous overflow of liberated passion. Repossessing the Romantic Past is a major collection of well-researched essays that serve to consolidate this expansion and renewal of the field of Romantic studies. We can locate an emblem of the new conception of Romanticism in Anne Janowitz's chapter on how Lucy Aikin's memoirs serve as part of the family "reputation machine" that established the fame of Aikin's aunt Anna Laetitia Barbauld (80). Like other contributors to this collection, Janowitz focuses on sociability and conversation, especially in a tradition of rational dissent--located here in the circle of the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson: "In Johnson's dining room Fuseli hung his painting The Nightmare, so Johnson's dining club of discursive rationality was overseen by the Romantic passions of that frightening and compelling dreamscape" (87). In this new vision of Romanticism, the imagination and its unconscious sources occupy the same room as the rational conversations of politically engaged writers in a circle that includes those whom Jon Mee terms "disputatious women such as Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft" (33).
Six of the eleven chapters in Repossessing the Romantic Past focus on women writers: Janowitz on Aikin; Mee on Barbauld's attraction to what Godwin termed "the collision of mind with mind" as opposed to the bluestocking politeness of the dominant Anglican culture; Nigel Leask on Elizabeth Hamilton; Janet Todd on "Jane Austen and the Professional Wife"; and Susan Manly's and James Chandler's contributions to a section of the book entitled "Reopening the Case of Edgeworth." In addition to exploring the culture of rational Dissent, focusing on sociability rather than the solitary communion with nature, and positioning Romanticism within rather than against Enlightenment, the contributors define a Romantic mode that is explicitly non-Wordsworthian, while they reject a view of imagination as a flight from politics. Thus, Kevin Gilmartin replaces "conventional Romantic utopianism (the Lakeland republic of Wordsworth's vision)" with "a potentially shared experience of life in London," which might provide for William Hazlitt a radical "counterweight" to the nightmare of "Legitimacy" (7, 42). In "Shelley's Republics," Michael Rossington elevates Marlow in 1817--with the "working-out of Shelley's differences from Godwin and Hunt"--to a similar status as Alfoxden in 1797, where Wordsworth and Coleridge began their collaboration (65). The book concludes with Jerome McGann's critique of Wordsworth's desire that his poetry be used "as a form of worship rather than a poetic tale" (240). McGann sets against the idealist Wordsworth a tradition of temporality and mortal beauty running from Byron, through Poe and Baudelaire, to Swinburne. In a similar rejection of Romantic transcendence, once Barbauld is "forced ... into retirement by the practical position of Dissenters in a hostile print culture," she did not, according to Jon Mee, transmute these circumstances "into a romantic idea of a 'higher' freedom of the imagination" (32).
An important fact about Repossessing the Romantic Past, not indicated on the title page or in the cataloging information, is that the book is intended as a tribute to Marilyn Butler. The collection concludes with a bibliography of Butler's works, compiled by Heather Glen--a list that indicates the great range of Butler's scholarship, from the four influential books that she published between 1972 and 1981 (Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Peacock Displayed, and Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries), to her editorial labors on the Pickering and Chatto editions of the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria Edgeworth, to almost fifty articles, to a series of major book reviews especially in the London Review of Books. Together the essays in this collection present an authoritative assessment of Butler's eminent place in Romantic studies.
Pamela Clemit, whose chapter derives from her own editorial project on William Godwin's letters (in six volumes forthcoming from Oxford University Press [113n11]), credits "Butler's editorial achievements" for having changed "our preconceptions about Romantic prose in all its forms" (98). Moreover, Butler's editorial work is continuous with her historicist criticism, since she values scholarly editions for "their capacity to open up the text's range of external reference" (99). Clemit takes her title, "Holding Proteus: William Godwin in His Letters," from Kelvin Everest's speculation that "Proteus old" in Prometheus Unbound can be identified with Godwin. Indeed, the identification could be supported by Godwin's own description of the developing capacities and changing motives of human beings in book 2, chapter 4 of the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. "Everything in man may be said to be in a state of flux; he is a Proteus whom we know not how to detain." Clemit's title serves to justify a general introduction to Godwin's letters as a scholarly resource. Only in the case of her three pages on Godwin's correspondence with Elizabeth Inchbald does Clemit advance a specific argument--namely, that "Godwin's letters document a lasting commitment to egalitarian professional relationships between the sexes" (111).
James Chandler partly justifies the "methodological anachronism" of his own recourse to the high theory of Deleuze and Guattari (including Deleuze's account of the cinematic close-up) by noting that, despite her "historicist rigour, Butler acknowledges that sometimes what comes after can be used to illuminate what comes before" (120, 121). Chandler finds Deleuze useful for his own project of seeking a materialist rather than idealist way of understanding the move from place to face in the historical fiction of Scott and Edgeworth--that is to say, the "deterritorialization" that occurs when realistic locodescription gives way before depictions of the expressive countenance, which interpolate another order than that of time and place: "meanings, qualities, abstractions, values, sentiments, thoughts" (132). In avoiding an idealist explanation for how the "realism" of the historical novel is compromised through generic mixture with the novel of sensibility, Chandler rejects what, Jerome McGann calls "the Romantic ideology."
In the opening paragraph of "Coleridge's Stamina," Paul Hamilton suggests that Butler's insights invalidate a methodology associated with Arthur O. Lovejoy and Rent Wellek: "Her astute sense of the politics behind Coleridge's philosophical addresses to his reading public made it impossible to write about him purely in the manner of a history of ideas" (163). In the essay that follows, however, Hamilton fails to make clear the political stakes of Coleridge's abstruse theoretical work on "an existence bound by its diverse repetitions of an original sameness" (179). Nigel Leask follows the path charted in Butler's essays on Romantic orientalism, which rejected the reduction of "oriental settings" to the status of "picturesque backdrops," even while Butler was more "alert" than the early Edward Said "to Western voices of dissent" (18B). However, while expressing his general debt to Butler, Leask argues against her specific assessment that Elizabeth Hamilton's Letters of a Hindoo Rajah is an "anti-Jacobin" novel, by demonstrating "Hamilton's intellectual inheritance from the Scottish Enlightenment" (190) and detailing her criticisms of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Since Repossessing the Romantic Past is a collection by prominent scholars published by a prestigious press, it is fair to ask how fully the book represents the current state of historicist criticism of Romanticism. At a time when there is substantial interest in religion and secularism in the Romantic period, this collection appropriately explores the culture of rational Dissent. A strength of the book is its demonstration of how Romanticism develops from Enlightenment sociability. The importance of periodical literature, journalism, and the reviews is appropriately represented in the chapters by Gilmartin and Janowitz. Leask's chapter considers travel writing and the British Empire, as the Indo-Persian Muslim writes back, in the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, in Asia, Africa, and Europe. National identity is brought into focus when Paul Hamilton observes that Linda Colley's Britons appears to have established a new paradigm to replace Christopher Hill's and E. P. Thompson's work on "the variety ... of competing views suppressed by the national story" (4). There is an acknowledgement of Romantic historiography when Rossington cites Catharine Macaulay and Janowitz praises Lucy Aikin's historical writing. The Gothic is merely mentioned: in McGann's comments on the angel's sublime vision in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and on Wordsworth's internalization of the sublime against the "gross and violent stimulants" supplied by "frantic novels" (228, 233); and in Rossington's meditations on the uncanny resonances of the book's title--"the unpredictable ways in which the past appears to possess the present even as the desire to repossess that past absolutely is frustrated" (63). The opposition between the sublime and beautiful is historicized in McGann's contribution, though his essay stands apart from the critical mode that dominates the book. While McGann states that the apparent death of beauty "is precisely an historical phenomenon" (240), he presents it as an intraliterary one. The phenomenon finds its initial formulation in a poem by Wallace Stevens, and the difference of Byron's response from Wordsworth's is not illuminated by Romantic period journalism or pamphleteering but rather by D. G. Rossetti's identification of the "poetry of the inner standing-point" (232).
Despite McGann's essay and Hamilton's commentary on "Kubla Khan" and "Dejection: An Ode," poetry is underrepresented in Repossessing the Romantic Past--no doubt because Butler's work has redirected attention to Romantic prose and the novel. Although Gilmartin denies any uniform distinction of Hazlitt as "a polite essayist from vernacular radicalism" (58), there is little in this collection about popular culture or laboring class writers. While Butler has published on Robert Burns's politics, neither Burns, Yearsley, Bloomfield, nor Clare is mentioned in the book. Commerce, consumerism, and advertising are likewise absent. While William St Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge U. Press, 2004) numbers among the most important studies of Romanticism in the past few years, the history of the book, of authorship, and of readership appears here only in Clemit's two paragraphs on how Godwin's letters illuminate "his career as a professional author" (107). Perhaps the most striking absence from this collection is any consideration of science, and especially the life sciences. Again, Marilyn Butler, in her long introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of Frankenstein, helped to initiate this fruitful area of investigation in the study of Romanticism.
James P. Carson
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Repossessing the Romantic Past. Contributors: Carson, James P. - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 86. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 319+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.