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.