Romantic Circles Reviews

Robert Crawford, ed., Robert Burns and Cultural Authority

Robert Crawford, ed., Robert Burns and Cultural Authority. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. xiii + 242 pp. $29.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-87745-578-3).

Reviewed by
Ian Duncan
University of Oregon

First things first: Burns is a great poet, as technically accomplished, interesting, ambitious and historically consequential as anyone else writing verse in the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It's worth stating the case baldly, since standard versions of English literary history (including most of those still current) have failed to give any plausible account of Burns's achievement or cultural place. "Romanticism," a term non-synchronous and non-homologous between English and Scottish developments, is only part of the problem. Burns wrote in Scots, a vulgar drawback; more subtly, he eschewed what later criticism decreed to be the major poetic genres; this was what Arnold meant when he put Burns down for lacking "high seriousness." Burns's work, writes the editor of the present volume, "is the most alert and renovating literary channel of vernacular culture produced anywhere in the English-speaking world of the eighteenth century". It is also poetry of formidable intellectual energy and sophistication.

Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent

Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. xviii + 315. $75.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-818396-8). $24.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-19-818629-0).

Reviewed by
Anne Janowitz
University of Warwick

Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent is a substantial contribution to the on-going debate about Keats's politics. As Roe notes in his discussion, Jerome McGann's 1979 article, "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism" (Modern Language Notes 94 [988–1032]), and Marjorie Levinson's subsequent Keats's Life of Allegory: the Origins of a Style (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1988) developed a historico-political reading of Keats's poetics in the context of class culture and politics. But it was the discussion of Keatsian stylistics presented by William Keach in a 1986 Studies in Romanticism forum on "Keats and Politics" that may well be a more crucial inspiration for Roe's thorough and wide-ranging study of the elements that together add up to the political-poetics of the "Cockney School." For the main investigation of Roe's study is how "Z"'s Blackwood's articles shaped a set of erroneous critical commonplaces about Keats (which, Roe wryly argues, underpin the greater part of twentieth-century Keats criticism, including the ostensibly demystificatory approach), but also, paradoxically, accurately responded to the force of a coherent political grouping. But if Roe shows us how we came to have a version of Keats that has until recently dominated the critical tradition, he also opens up the questions of Keats's own literary and political inheritance by looking closely at his formation in the culture of Dissent. So Roe is able to place Keats within a consistent narrative of the trajectory of the liberal intellectual tradition from the 1780s through the 1820s.

Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.  xi + 278pp. $34.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8262-1221-2).

Reviewed by
G. Kim Blank
University of Victoria, British Columbia

Quite early in his writing career, Percy Bysshe Shelley came to accept, with varying amounts of resignation, resentment, and disappointment, that he was more or less writing for posterity—not that this ever stopped him from wanting to reform his own world, or from confronting hypocrisy, injustice, and tyranny. Once an idealist, always an idealist—well, it helps considerably if you die young. Shelley knew this very well, fatalistically prefacing his first mature poem, Alastor (1816), with a few lines from Wordsworth's Excursion (1814):

                    The good die first,
And those whose hearts are as dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.

Shelley ironically turns Wordsworth's own words against his older and now disappointing contemporary, who, as Shelley laments in his sonnet to Wordsworth, was as good as dead anyway; as for those dry-hearted survivors, Shelley may well have had in mind his contemporary reviewers. Kim Wheatley's Shelley and His Readers examines the relationship between Shelley and his contemporary reviewers, sensibly noting that in his early writing Shelley's radicalism is openly oppositional, resulting in equally oppositional reviews, while later poems, like Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, remain radical but sometimes manage to subvert or divert the reviewers' reactionary responses with their highly aestheticized form. The result, then, of poetry like Shelley's might be to encourage readers to separate the political from the aesthetic.

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. Eds. Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee

Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. 8 volumes. General Editors, Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee.  London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1999.  3,200pp (chiefly facsimile). £595.00/$950.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-851-96513-0).

Reviewed by
Charlotte Sussman
University of Colorado at Boulder

Few political movements can have spent so much energy worrying about the relationship between literature and other kinds of materials than the British antislavery movement, or invested so much faith in their forceful interaction. In the course of "Slavery. A Poem" (1788), for example, Hannah More undertakes an investigation of the power of poetry alongside her indictment of British slavery. She calls upon not only "Liberty" and "Freedom," for inspiration, but also upon the author of the dramatic version of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn's narrative of slave rebellion: "O, plaintive Southerne! whose impassion'd strain / So oft had wak'd my languid Muse in vain! / Now, when congenial themes her cares engage, / She burns to emulate thy glowing page[.]" More thus implies that her poem's political efficacy will spring from its ability to carry the emotional impact of a play. A few lines later, however, she rejects the affect of "bright invention": "For no fictitious ills these numbers flow, / But living anguish, and substantial woe; / No individual griefs my bosom melt, / For million feel what Oroonoko felt." Even here, though, it seems as if the millions of actual slaves merely mimic the feelings of the fictional hero. The poem suggests that an understanding of "real" suffering depends on the powers of representation, even as its narrator insists on the primacy of experience: "Rhetoric or verse may point the feeling line, / They do not whet sensation but define." In this way, More, along with many in the antislavery movement, implicitly celebrates print culture, and the inherent value of the written record. Of abolition, she says "What page of human annals can record / A deed so bright as human rights restor'd? / O may that god-like deed, that shining page, / Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!"

Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature

Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xii + 297pp. illus: 30 halftones. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-59195-3). $22.95 (Pap; ISBN 0-521-64460-7).

Reviewed by
Christopher Braider
University of Colorado at Boulder

Karl Guthke's The Gender of Death surveys portrayals of death in European art and literature since the Middle Ages. As the title indicates, the organizing theme is gender. In both literary and visual images of what Guthke styles the "unimaginable"—a misleading term in that, unknowable as death may be, it is hardly unimaginable—a means of choice has been personification, giving death a human form. One consequence of this prosopopeic humanation is to assign death a gender reproducing the gendered state of humanity itself. So are there definite rules, codes, or regularities governing which gender death takes? More specifically, to cite the theoretical question that opens the book, "is Death a woman?" And if death is not always a woman—and Guthke's survey amply documents that it is not—what determines which gender is chosen in any given instance? Is it, for example, a function of grammatical gender—the fact that death is a "feminine" noun in some languages and "masculine" in others? And once the mass of historical evidence Guthke marshals has compelled us to acknowledge that there is in fact no fixed correlation between grammatical gender and the gender of death, what other cultural influences might explain the relative emphases observed as we move from one culture or period to the next?

Nancy Easterlin, Wordsworth and the Question of "Romantic Religion"

Nancy Easterlin, Wordsworth and the Question of Romantic Religion. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996. 182 pp. $33.50 (Hdbk; ISBN 0 8387 5309 4).

Reviewed by
Beth Bradburn
Boston College

Nancy Easterlin's Wordsworth and the Question of "Romantic Religion" vividly manifests both the advantages and the pitfalls of an interdisciplinary approach to literature. Easterlin addresses the question of Romantic religion by thinking about religion, and by bringing to bear the cumulative insights of the field known as psychology of religion. She argues persuasively that the psychological study of religious experience may productively rediscribe some important tensions in Romanticism; for example, she points out that it is "the paradoxical discrepancy between religion defined, on the one hand, as affective experience—state of heightened consciousness or intuition of the divine, for example—and, on the other, as organized belief systems that describes the characteristic and manifestly problematic religiousness of romanticism" (29). The tension between individual and social that seems to pervade Romanticism is, in other words, also the paradox of religion.

Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte

Stephen C. Behrendt, Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte. London: Macmillan, 1997.  xii + 268pp. illus: 8 portrait plates. £50.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-69580-1).

Reviewed by
Simon Bainbridge
Keele University

"The great historical event of 1817," according to Harriet Martineau, was the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte Augusta, the twenty-one year old heiress to the throne and the daughter of the Prince of Wales. Martineau described the reaction to what was seen as a tragic event as follows: "never was a whole nation plunged in such deep and universal grief. From the highest to the lowest, this death was felt as a calamity that demanded the intense sorrow of domestic misfortune" (1). In Royal Mourning and Regency Culture: Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte, Stephen C. Behrendt provides an extensive survey and scholarly examination of the many and varied for&ms taken by the extraordinary outpourings of grief for Charlotte, investigating particularly the appropriation and "commoditization" of Charlotte's death by "writers, clergymen, politicians, artists, artisans and commentators" (2). For Behrendt, whose previous work in the period has often focused on the relation between history and myth, Charlotte's death is not only a "great historical event" in which a potential political disaster was transformed into a "normative, ultimately calming event by a variety of cultural forces" (2), it is also a subject which enables us to study mythmaking—"the ways in which historical figures and events come to be invested with qualities of myth, not just by an intellectual and aesthetic elite but also by the general public" (23). For Behrendt, mythmaking is a process central to both the Romantic period and our own times, and the outpouring of literary and extra-literary responses to the princess's death "reveals what prove to be not historically remote (and isolated) but rather perennially compelling intellectual, spiritual and cultural impulses, which drive the mythologizing of a popular subject in times of domestic instability and cultural or spiritual crisis" (26). Behrendt's claim for the contemporary relevance of his study was underlined by the death of Princess Diana and the subsequent mourning, appropriation and commodification of her in the same year as the publication of Royal Mourning and Regency Culture.

Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England.

Kevin Gilmartin, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 21. Cambridge University Press, 1996. xiv + 274pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-49655-1).

Reviewed by
John Kandl
Walsh University

Kevin Gilmartin's Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth-Century England is a timely and useful exploration of the radical press's complex and often contradictory relationship to the print culture of the early nineteenth century. Gilmartin particularly focuses upon the radical movement's "style of political opposition that aimed to replace the distinction between whig and tory with a more ominous one between the people and corrupt government, and to make the press a forum for mobilizing this distinction on behalf of parliamentary reform" (1). In studies of the various political and rhetorical strategies of such radical voices as Wooler, Carlile, Wade, Cobbett and Hunt, Gilmartin explores the "contradictory energies generated by the radical effort to remain engaged with a corrupt system while resisting its influence" (196).

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