Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Opposite of News: Rethinking the 1800 Lyrical Ballads and the Mass Media

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Opposite of News: Rethinking the 1800 Lyrical Ballads and the Mass Media

Article excerpt

I heartily recommend a dose of the British Romantic poets to defuse the constant barrage of current news reports.

--Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 31 March 2003

THE POSSIBILITY OF AN OVERLAP BETWEEN EARLY ROMANTIC LITERATURE and newspaper journalism might seem unlikely to scholars, since many of the central tenets of a key Romantic document, William Wordsworth's Preface to the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, appear to be fundamentally opposed to the transitory, episodic, and heterogeneous qualities of any periodical publication, especially a daily newspaper. Romantic literature, as the author of the letter quoted above suggests, is generally seen as the opposite of news, an antidote to the dominance of newspapers and the proclivities of their readers. This view has been rigorously challenged, most prominently by Marjorie Levinson, who has drawn attention to the topicality and contemporary significance of Wordsworth's verse, implicitly situating the poems within the world of current affairs. (1) But a specific, personal and sometimes overlooked contest for readers and for authority emerges from the relationship between newspapers, journalism and literature in the year that Wordsworth wrote the Preface.

Eighteen hundred was a year in which the battle between newspapers and books for readers was felt particularly keenly. Mary Robinson, writing in the Monthly Magazine in late 1800, provides a valuable insight into this battle:

   There never were so many monthly and diurnal publications as at the
   present period; and to the perpetual novelty which issues from the
   press may in a great measure, be attributed the expansion of mind,
   which daily evinces itself among all classes of people.... The daily
   prints fall into the hands of all classes: they display the temper
   of the times; the intricacies of political manoeuvre; the opinions
   of the learned, the enlightened, and the patriotic. But for the
   medium of a diurnal paper, the letters of JUNIUS had been unknown,
   or perhaps never written. Political controversy and literary
   discussions are only rendered of utility to mankind by the spirit of
   emulative contention. The press is the mirror where folly may see
   its own likeness, and vice contemplate the magnitude of its
   deformity. It also presents a tablet of manners; a transcript of the
   temper of mankind; a check on the gigantic strides of innovation;
   and a bulwark which REASON has raised, and, it is to be hoped, TIME
   will consecrate, round the altar of immortal LIBERTY! (2)

Robinson's notion of the "emulative contention" within and between the press and literature is a canny summary of the state of affairs in 1800. Literature and journalism, as Lennard Davis has convincingly argued, spent the eighteenth century disengaging themselves from their tangled relationship while struggling to secure the same pool of readers. In Factual Fictions, Davis outlines a tentative theory of the relationship between news and fiction, arguing that, prior to the eighteenth century, "the news/novels discourse is a kind of undifferentiated matrix out of which journalism and history will be distinguished from novels--that is factual narratives will be clearly differentiated from fictional ones." (3) Davis' intriguing speculation implicitly raises a critical challenge for poets around 1800: if, by the end of the eighteenth century, readers turned to newspapers for facts and to novels for pleasure, what role could poetry play in the literary marketplace, and how could poets engage with a public accustomed to reading in this way?

This challenge evidently underpins Wordsworth's characterization of contemporary readers in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Unlike the 1798 Advertisement's warnings about the "feelings of strangeness and aukwardness" that readers would have to confront when approaching the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads--warnings that juxtaposed Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poems with contemporary expectations about poetry--the 1800 Preface identified the challenge to the new edition as emanating from journalism and the literary genres and tastes that it spawned and fostered. …

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