British Romanticism and the Edinburgh Review: Bicentenary Essays/the Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries

By Jones, Christine Kenyon | The Byron Journal, June 2004 | Go to article overview

British Romanticism and the Edinburgh Review: Bicentenary Essays/the Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries


Jones, Christine Kenyon, The Byron Journal


BRITISH ROMANTICISM AND THE EDINBURGH REVIEW: BICENTENARY ESSAYS. Edited by Massimiliano Demata and Duncan Wu. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pp. xi + 219. ISBN 0-333-96349-0. £42.50.

THE POLITICS OF NATURE: WILLIAM WORDSWORTH AND SOME CONTEMPORARIES. By Nicholas Roe. Second edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pp. xiii + 244. ISBN 0-333-96276-1 paperback. £14.99.

This collection of essays by Demata and Wu commemorates the founding of the Edinburgh Review in 1802. It focuses on the way in which the periodical redefined Scottish culture following the extension of Union to Ireland in 1801, and explores the Edinburgh's important contribution to the emergence of Romantic literary culture. The relationship between Byron and the Edinburgh receives particular attention, with two of the nine essays concentrating on this topic and several others making important references to it. Indeed, even in the sections which do not refer explicitly to Byron, Byronists will find a pronounced feeling of familiarity as they recognize the characteristics shared by the Edinburgh's reviewers (particularly Francis Jeffrey) and the noble poet. These include a Whiggishness that does not quite fit in with the Holland House circle; a complex and complicated awareness of the differences between Scottishness and Englishness; a 'mitigated scepticism' inherited from Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment tradition; a fascination with travel and travel-writing; and attitudes towards literary writing which combine the reiteration of conservative aesthetics with actually revolutionary poetic practice.

Thus Philip Flynn, in 'Francis Jeffrey and the Scottish Critical Tradition', could be referring to Byron's own early Aberdeen education and his life-long thinking habits, almost as much as to those of Jeffrey's circle, when he uses John Gibson Lockhart's words to characterize them as 'the progeny of the sceptical philosophers of the last age'. Fiona Stafford in 'The Edinburgh Review and the Representation of Scotland' similarly describes the Review (as 'varied, heterogeneous, constantly changing in attitude and focus, and yet undeniably a single entity') in terms which sound like a description of Byron himself. Stafford shows how Byron's attitude to Wordsworth and the Lakers ('I wish you would exchange your lakes for ocean') owes its ancestry and even its watery metaphor to Jeffrey's attack on Wordsworth for retreating into rural seclusion rather than choosing to live, as 'all the greater poets lived ... in the full current of society'. Stafford makes a valuable addition to the studies which have sought to set Byron in his Scottish context by showing how Henry Brougham's notorious attack on Byron's Hours of Idleness (in 1808) is one which was 'close to home' in terms of an attack on specifically Scottish literature. Byron's riposte in turn draws on English caricatures of Scots by depicting the reviewers as 'an "oat-fed phalanx", descending from the north to attack unsuspecting English bards', and Stafford points out how Byron's division between Scottish reviewers and English poets also 'plays on an old anxiety about the absence of literary talent north of the Border', associating Jeffrey's Scottish identity 'with a lack of genius, taste or compassion, and an overabundance of pride, clubbishness and grubby, commercial interest'.

Timothy Webb mentions Byron's 1812 House of Lords speech in favour of Roman Catholic emancipation as part of his illuminating consideration of the way Ireland is figured in the Edinburgh Review, while Massimiliano Demata, in a perceptive article which is the first to address travel-writing in the Edinburgh, demonstrates how Byron's orientalism differed from that of the Edinburgh. Although Byron and Brougham shared an enthusiasm for the well informed and thoughtful travel-writing of Edward Clarke (Byron also liked Clarke's hostility to Lord Elgin), the Edinburgh's numerous articles on travel in the Near East 'consistently expressed a low opinion of Ottoman institutions and inhabitants'. …

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