Brian Goldberg, The Lake Poets and Professional Identity
Mark L. Barr
Saint Mary’s University
Brian Goldberg’s The Lake Poets and Professional Identity is a careful and subtle exploration of the cultural tropes and social forces that William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey invoked and struggled against in attempting to forge their distinct notions of authorial identity. Goldberg’s central thesis is that the Lake School poets, caught between the unsustainable binary conception of the author either as reclusive (and unpaid) genius or as remunerated hack, sought in legal, medical, and clerical professionalism a more palatable model to help reconfigure the authorial relationship to both work and audience. In this intensive and necessarily episodic study, Goldberg manages a fine balance between both obscure and well-read texts and between the Lake Poets and their eighteenth-century forebears to trace the often uncomfortable fit between the notion of “professional gentleman” and an emerging vocational identity arising alongside the economic model gradually replacing the patronage system.
Part I explores definitions of “profession” and professionalism extant in the late eighteenth-century public sphere. Reading Coleridge’s poetic response to Joseph Cottle’s “Monody on the Death of John Henderson,” Goldberg argues that Henderson’s non-traditional vocational example as a researcher into the occult provided Coleridge with a professional model that could potentially avoid the innately conservative aspects of professionalism and allow greater room for creative and even enthusiastic innovation at the heart of his nascent sense of poetic authority (34-45). Goldberg goes on to read Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” as a vocational text responding to the model of poetic professionalism expressed in Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. After proclaiming the efficacy and legitimizing force of his own training, however, Wordsworth expresses concern about the applicability of the professional model to the office of poetry: if Dorothy is a potential apprentice poet, her gender’s inability to access the category of “professional gentleman” suggests a lack of fit between notions of poet and professional (45-59).
Part II delves into the early eighteenth-century social context from which the Lake School’s ideals of poetic professionalism emerge. Goldberg finds in Richard Savage a progressive, revisionary conception of authorial autonomy that is mirrored in the lives of Samuel Johnson, James Beattie and David Hume (65-89). The section goes on to consider at length Beattie’s poem, The Minstrel, reading it as key to establishing the figure of the wanderer as a dominant trope of poetic identity for the Lake School, an identity modelling a progressive professionalism potentially divorced from its customary associations with conservatism and corruption (90-122). Goldberg explores the Lake School’s invocation of the wanderer in Part III, arguing that, in their early experiments with the trope of itinerant work, the Lakers find only the negative of ideal professional autonomy (128). Goldberg reads Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Southey’s Madoc as “test cases” that encourage a turn to The Task and its author William Cowper (a figure combining failed professionalism, itinerancy and religious enthusiasm) as the crucial model of Romantic poetic professionalism, albeit a model against which the Lake School still, in part, struggles.
In the final section of his work, Goldberg considers two self-conscious attempts of the Lake Poets to control and shape the nature of their professional identity: Southey’s debate with Herbert Croft over fraud and profits relating to certain letters of Thomas Chatterton, and the several versions of Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads. It is here that Goldberg successfully draws together the various historical and sociological strands of argument he has developed in the prior segments, culminating in his most perceptive and nuanced assessment of the extent to which notions of professionalism both helped and hindered the Lake Poets in developing their conceptions of poetic vocation. Goldberg suggests that, in the argument with Croft, Southey showcases the slippage between ideals of “gentleman” and “professional,” finally delineating a collectivist notion of professionalism (206) that locates a sense of public value and authority for the poet in sources of talent and vocation rather than birth (213). Wordsworth, for his part, conceives of poetry as a kind of portable realty, providing a basis for the poet’s social standing and value analogous to that of the landed gentry (215). Through both vocational training and birthright, the poet gains cultural capital and public authority through the production of artefacts that manage to invoke the institutional stability of realty without being vulnerable to the conservatism and corruption associated with traditional, institutionally-based professions.
Goldberg’s work is an impressive intervention in the already well-established critical exploration of Romantic professionalism. As the author himself claims, while there have been many superlative studies of the relationship between individual poets and selected professions (e.g. Wordsworth and the law, Keats and medicine), and other strong examinations of professionalism as a social symptom, Goldberg’s work explores how the systems and practices of various professions influence Romantic conceptions of authorship in quite literal ways (5). Looking more broadly at the phenomenon of “professionalism” itself rather than at the interaction between a poet and one particular profession facilitates, for example, reading “Tintern Abbey” not as the invocation of prophetic, medical or legal discourse but as the articulation of a poet seeking to define his vocational training, justify his form of professional expression, and instigate an apprenticeship; in Goldberg’s hands, professionalism becomes a synergistic category that, amongst other things, interestingly reconfigures the anxieties behind the speaker’s turn to Dorothy at the poem’s conclusion (54-57). Moreover, Goldberg’s work itself is an embodiment of his thesis: if Southey conceives of the ideal poet as existing within a complex web of mutually-supportive social relations, by constantly situating himself within a network of critical discourse, in consistently examining his own assumptions, and moving with exacting care through his evidence, Goldberg produces in his book an analogous model of literary critical professionalism.
However, some may find that Goldberg’s methodology limits the applicability of his study and, perhaps, undermines the category of “Lake Poets” at his book’s foundation. The author explores his methodological assumptions and notes how a consideration of Romantic professionalism inevitably forces one to confront the too-often-unexamined aspect of Romantic ideology which privileges relating the particular to the universal in critical practice. In the execution of his work, Goldberg expresses an alignment with David Chandler’s notion of literary criticism as historical case study, which operates to avoid any reduction of the uniqueness of the particular into some broadly-applicable universal scheme (11). Yet, the case study approach often restricts Goldberg from making any conclusions other than that particular poets in particular works show a variety of distinct engagements with notions of professionalism extant in the public sphere. Some readers may find it difficult to abandon the Romantic notion of finding in the local some echo of the general. Although Goldberg need make no apologies for this effect, of which he is entirely aware, it puts some stress on the notion of “Lake Poets” which the author invokes as a unifying category to bind his work together. While the author does examine the construction of the Lake School with some scepticism, he never fully refutes the notion that the category might, in fact, be a “mistake,” a misconstruction or a purely rhetorical label (15-18). Although Francis Jeffrey’s inauguration of the Lake School itself is a symptom of an anxiety over professionalism that Romantic poets and critics both felt, Goldberg’s examination suggests that the Lakers’ rather distinct notions of what it means to be “professional” had less in common than their perhaps arbitrarily-assigned cognomen might suggest. However, given that there are compelling similarities at least in the social positions of the Lake Poets if not so much in their separate notions of poetic professionalism, Goldberg’s reliance on the Lake School label comes across as an admirable attempt to derive conclusions of more general applicability from the minute particulars of their various lives.
One somewhat contentious aspect of Goldberg’s study is his desire to find a more constructive, positive relationship between the poet and professionalism. However, it seems often that the traditional professions provide only negative examples for the Lake School. In the discussion of risk in the Introduction and first chapter, for example, the author notes that professions emerged in part to manage various social and economic risks: of damnation (clerics), sickness (medical doctors) and injustice (lawyers) (21, 32-33). Noting that the management of these risks implicated professional discourse in inherently conservative and orthodox ideologies (often perceived as “corruption”), Goldberg reveals how Coleridge (for instance) necessarily needed to model his brand of poetic professionalism on a rather unorthodox example (31, 40). Henderson’s experiments in the occult were seen as dangerous and risky in a way that would, I suspect, have been seen as highly unprofessional or “vulgar” as Goldberg puts it (37-8). While a lawyer may get paid to advance novel arguments in court, it is hardly within his or her purview to advance a novel as an argument in court. Coleridge’s engagement with Henderson suggests the poet finds notions of orthodox professionalism do not fit his developing conceptions of poetic vocation, conceptions that seem to exist prior to and perhaps entirely independent of any consideration of Henderson as a professional model. Although Goldberg is interested in exploring professionalism as both a positive and negative example to the Lakers, it seems increasingly difficult for him to maintain the early optimism that there is some kind of balance between positive and negative influences (46). While the author does indeed show that each of the Lake Poets both embraces and rejects aspects of the various professional examples available to them, he also reveals that the Lakers are most often struggling against culturally-dominant ideals of “professional” and trying to forge a notion of the poet that is almost anti-professional. This antagonism between professionalism and poetic expression has been explored by (amongst others) Martha Nussbaum and Wai Chi Dimock, who suggest that professional discourse tends to close down innovation while poetry seeks to supplement the inadequacy of legal discourse (and by extension any professional discourse) to fulfil the office it represents itself as capable of fulfilling, as healer, cleric or legislator. If the professions could truly accomplish the social roles allocated to them, what room would be left for poetry to take up any of these offices? While Goldberg does suggest increasingly as the book develops that there is a conflict between orthodox definitions of “profession” and emerging conceptions of the poet, more might be made of their inherent antagonism from the beginning.
A truly exciting aspect of Goldberg’s work is that it creates a foundation for comparison to radically alternate notions of poetic professionalism that can be found in such authors as William Blake, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley. Blake’s invocation of the artisan paradigm, Wordsworth’s often-filtered emergence through the medium of her brother’s work, Shelley’s unorthodox and sometimes voyeuristic access to professional discourse could all enter into conversation with Goldberg’s work to develop broader conceptions of the Romantic poetic profession. This is one reason among many to judge this finely-crafted study a crucial contribution to the discussion of Romantic professionalism.