Revisiting 1970: Carl Woodring and Politics in English Romantic Poetry

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"If only our Counter-culture were a bit more articulate and sensitive to literature, it could work together with literary scholarship and learn from Romantic insights into the political function of the imagination.... Mr Woodring's book opens up these issues at a most opportune time, not only for a revaluation of the English Romantics, but also for the teaching of literature in an age of political confusion and sheer ignorance." Although these remarks could have been written this morning, they were actually published in 1971, in a review by Rudolph Storch (TWC, II: 32-36) of Carl Wood-ring's Politics in English Romantic Poetry. The book appeared the same year as the Wordsworth Bicentenary and the founding of The Wordsworth Circle, and may have begun the revolution in literary studies in which we participated and celebrate. Before ideological and identity criticism, before theory and cultural studies, through close and subtle readings of some major and familiar poets and their contemporaries, Woodring identified the energies poets derived from political life and the conflicts they encountered. Before feminist scholars awakened readers to their presence, Woodring used Helen Maria Williams as a biographical paradigm for poets. Like so much else in the book, it was prophetic.

Woodring published Politics in English Romantic Poetry when, apart from politics, literary studies were enjoying golden hours, as I believe we do again now, great teachers, gifted critics, learned scholars, and accomplished writers published books that engaged with literature and with those who wanted to study it. The emphasis was on formalism, new criticism, history of ideas, comparative studies, and structuralism; the required readings included Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye, Wayne Booth, Raymond Williams, Foucault, the Freudians, the Marxists, Germanic-philosophic studies, the visionary, as in Bloom's The Visionary Company, Abram's Natural Supernaturalism, Erdman's Prophets against Empire, the inner life of Hartman's Wordsworth's Poetry, audiences in Richard Altick's English Common Reader, the populist tradition in Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

A literary education in the 60's was still Arnoldian: "Our aim was simple," as Nina Auerbach wrote in her profile of Woodring (TWC, XI:3 [Summer, 1980] 180-183), "to learn everything in the world and to be unyieldingly brilliant about it." But politically, many academics in the 60's, students and faculty, especially Romanticists, were populists, counter-culture, as Storch called it, all in some degree anti-war, anti-authoritarian, and emotionally engaged. But the critical tradition still divided literary life from the political: standard studies such as Crane Brinton's Political Ideas of the English Romanticists (1926) juxtaposed literature and politics, delineated how poetry reflected and deflected the French Revolution, the balancing oppositions of Paine and Burke, Godwin's deviations, a little Bentham, Malthus, Ricardo, culminating in Coleridge, most admired in the 19th century as a political thinker and the subject of Carl Woodring's Politics in the Poetry of Coleridge (1961). While many scholar/critics considered the Romantic writers revolutionary, the politics were tangential, metaphoric, idealistic, philosophical, appealing to those traditional students who would never storm a barricade and surround the Pentagon.

In Politics in English Romantic Poetry (1970), Woodring proposed that the political is the "generative force and an argumentative presence" in Romantic poetry, that they are as entwined and inseparable as language and experience. In sweeping, engaging, precise and insightful chapters he demonstrated the drama of interacting political ideas, personal experience, and poetic imagination. Such propositions sound less risky and revolutionary in 2005 than they did in 1970, before neo-historicism, before McGann's Romantic Ideology (1983) which became a landmark work itself, creating the very hegemony (to use his words) that his critique was to replace. …


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