Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth
University of New Mexico
In Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth, Tim Fulford revisits territory made familiar by Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), John Barrell’s The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and most recently Elizabeth Helsinger’s Rural Scenes and National Representation: Britain, 1815-1850 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Like Williams, Fulford attends to the opposition between the Country and the City, focusing in particular upon the works of Thomson, Cowper, Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as upon the picturesque theories of Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight, Humphry Repton, and William Gilpin. Like Barrell and Helsinger, Fulford examines in fine detail the complex web of relations among landscape aesthetics, poetry, rural poverty, and politics. More carefully attending to the particularities of party politics than these writers, Fulford traces a genealogy of transformations in the political inflection of landscape poetry from The Seasons to Home at Grasmere. In so doing, this remarkable book offers an implicit critique of the new historicism, while detailing the relationships among party politics, agrarian change, landscape poetry, and each poet’s unique attempt—stylistically and thematically—to claim some moral, political and personal authority for his poetic voice.
As Fulford demonstrates with fine detail and with a stylistic grace all too uncommon to much contemporary critical discourse, landscape poetry, at least since the time of Thomson, was always fully imbricated in the changing social, political, and moral debates of its day. Eschewing the monolithic view of history as a succession of grand events, the sort of history that folds literary texts back into a Glorious, or American, or French Revolution writ large, Fulford focuses upon the local and contemporary, especially the agrarian, politics in which each poet was intimately involved. Fulford takes pains to describe how each poet’s particular version of landscape poetry is shaped by the way private concerns and local incidents intersect with national issues and party politics regarding the changing status and social function of the landed gentry. Beginning with Thomson’s landscape poetry of the 1730s and 1740s, Fulford argues, the erosion of moral authority and social responsibility of the landed gentry made increasingly problematic the British poet’s ability to “represent an uncontroversial ground of liberty in which a providentially arranged natural order could be observed at leisure, thus perpetuating the taste and disinterest by which the gentry might reproduce that liberty and independence in wise government” (8). As the moral authority, political integrity, and social stability of the landed gentry gave way to the encroachment of the market economy into rural England, and as the landscapes of rural England increasingly became the sites of political contest between landed and commercial interests, British landscape poetry, as it were, lost its pastoral innocence. Because the virtual landscape was now fraught with the troublesome contradictions over land and landed interest permeating the actual landscape, the universalizing strategies and tropes of earlier pastoral and georgic poetry rung increasingly hollow. The prospect view, by means of which “the propertied classes were able to present their political dominance as confirmed by the natural scene” (3), began to lose its universal appeal as the “independence and disinterest on which depended the gentry’s and nobility’s legitimacy as the people’s representatives in parliament was being undermined” by “a system of placement, pensioners and patronage” (8).
In their struggle to recover poetic authority and to preserve, or restore, the idea of liberty within a landscape poetry destabilized by its own politicization, British poets drew upon, modified, and sometimes challenged the landscape aesthetics of their precursors. Fulford shows that Thomson, Johnson, Cowper, the picturesque theorists, Wordsworth, and Coleridge engaged in a dialogical exchange that modified landscape poetry to meet the particular ideological problems faced by each writer as he engaged in his own version of pastoral politics. As Fulford explains in the introduction: “The representation of landscape was never simply a disguised ideology presenting gentlemanly aesthetic judgment as naturally, and by implication socially and politically, valid. It was also a discourse in which that judgment could be redefined, challenged, and even undermined . . .” (5). As these writers invoked the discourse on landscape to negotiate their own conflicted relation to the politics of the country and the city, they were also faced with the task of finding new ways to figure personal and public liberty and authority in a society that no longer would sustain the pastoral-georgic ideal of an earlier era.