Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The English Jacobin Novel on Rights, Property and the Law: Critiquing the Contract/arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language, Politics/romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

The English Jacobin Novel on Rights, Property and the Law: Critiquing the Contract/arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language, Politics/romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period

Article excerpt

THE ENGLISH JACOBIN NOVEL ON RIGHTS, PROPERTY AND THE LAW: CRITIQUING THE CONTRACT. By Nancy E. Johnson. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. viii + 215. ISBN 1-4039-3573-4. No price given.

ARBITRARY POWER: ROMANTICISM, LANGUAGE, POLITICS. By William Keach. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. xvi + 191. ISBN 0-691-11766-7. £26.95.

ROMANTICISM, ENTHUSIASM AND REGULATION: POETICS AND THE POLICING OF CULTURE IN THE ROMANTIC PERIOD. By Jon Mee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-19-818757-2. £53.00.

These books are all concerned with the relationship between literature and politics. Johnson's title provides a summary of her topic as she explores the change and development of the idea of a 'social contract' from Algernon Sidney and John Locke through to novelists ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft to Maria Edgeworth. She is particularly concerned with the abstract idea of 'rights' and the practical authority of 'property' and the tension between 'things as they are' (to use William Godwin's words) and the way the novelistic imagination conceived things as they might be. Keach's title, emphasizing as it does the idea of 'arbitrary power', is itself a form of political manifesto, and the writer's declared hostility to the 'terrorism' of the Bush administration makes this book a committed exercise in 'psycholinguistics'. What Keach is particularly concerned with in the Romantic era is the interplay between what he designates as 'arbitrary power' and the 'arbitrary' nature of the signifiers of language. Keach's politicizing of linguistics might have seemed too 'enthusiastic' to some of the writers with whom Mee is concerned, for, as Mee demonstrates, radical enthusiasm was perceived as a potent and potentially dangerous force from the English (religiously inspired) revolution of the seventeenth century through to the tsunami occasioned by the tectonic shocks of the (secular) revolutions in France. How far might enthusiasm be harnessed as a driving force for regulated change; in what ways might it be more safely incorporated into the porous concept of the 'aesthetic'?

These books are concerned, therefore, with major issues. Preference among them is inevitably a subjective matter, but, for this reviewer, Mee's argument has a substantive importance, backed by a weight of evidence and argument, which is distinctive and distinguished. The book begins with a long and thorough examination of ideas of enthusiasm in the eighteenth century, its relationship to religion, and the pejorative application of the word to 'mob' culture. We are placed, therefore, on that dangerous and unregulated frontier where religious fundamentalism crosses into political action. (Mee, however, is not concerned with application to our own period.) In the 'long' eighteenth century an alternative idea of enthusiasm developed in which it became associated with the vatic inspiration of poetry and entry into a world of imagination which possessed an alternative validity to the everyday world. It was in its enthusiasm, therefore, that poetry differed from the novel concerned with 'things as they are'. The link between religion, politics and poetry having been established, Mee then offers, as illustrations of the general theme, close readings of Coleridge, Barbauld, Wordsworth and Blake. It is an excellent choice since the examples range from 'Tory' to radical visionary, from established religion to nonconformity, and, in the case of Coleridge and Wordsworth, involves a movement from their earlier politicized 'pantisocracy' to the domestic affections of the society of the Lakes. So fundamental is the idea of enthusiasm in the period that Mee, ultimately, suggests that it is a 'larger and more capacious term' than 'Romanticism' - with the implication that further study might proceed in this direction. Should he be correct, this would be a 'seminal' book, although an older generation might suggest that ideas of the 'imagination' have equal claims for attention. …

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