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Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity

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Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Cambridge Studies in
Romanticism Series, no. 35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 268pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-64144-6).

Reviewed by
James Najarian
Boston College

Andrew Bennett, the author of Keats, Narrative and Audience (Cambridge, 1994), returns to the topic of the poet's audience in his second book, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Bennett argues that Romantic writers were not only concerned with their posthumous reception—like authors of earlier eras—but they began to frame their reception in terms of an ideal audience, so that posthumous reception became the imagined ideal or precondition of poethood: "Posterity is not so much what comes after poetry as its necessary prerequisite—the judgement of future generations becomes the necessary condition of the art of writing itself" (4). Writers not only imagine their poetry surviving them, but surviving them in a peculiar way. The death or dissolution of the poet becomes an imagined necessity for the timelessness of his poetry. Neglect during the poet's lifetime is written into this narrative. Neglect actually adds to the cachet of posthumous fame. The reclamation of the writing of the neglected-but-rehabilitated poet finally redeems his life. The idea of "genius" is crucial here, as neglect seems to authenticate genius; Isaac D'Israeli and William Ireland equated the two. A brief poetic life like Keats's—or Chatterton's or Shelley's—both takes part in and sustains this imagined trajectory.

Bennett connects the construction of this narrative to changes in the economy of literary publishing. As the audience for poetry fragments in the first decades of the nineteenth century provided huge profits for some authors—like Campbell, Byron, Scott, and for none others—authors began to construct an ideal audience in and of the future. Shifts in copyright law that assured authors of the "possession" of their work so that even after their deaths (the proceeds would go to their heirs) also placed poets' emphasis on the future. This posthumous consolation offers a "life and death" different from a Chrisitian kind, consoling not only during the present, but also in the future. Bennett is clear to show that this formulation differs from Renaissance or eighteenth-century fame, for Romantic authors do not only hope their works will survive, they also hope their poems will be revived. Time, they assure themselves, will preserve their neglected works.

Bennett, however, is careful not to shrink his notion into a reductive axiom. In his examination of Romantic authors, Bennett stresses the variety of responses to the conundrum of posterity. Posterity becomes an ideal poets are ever challenging, ironizing, working with or working through. Expressions of this concern with posterity do exist in women's writing, he notes, but are far rarer than in men's. For Bennett, women often ironize the masculine obsession with posterity—in Felicia Hemans's case, opposing maternal love to monumentalization, in Letitia Elizabeth Landon's, emphasizing the poet's future obscurity. Maybe this attitude, Bennett writes, accounts for their exclusion from the canon as much or more than their sex. In the end, even arguments about canonicity are inherently Romantic, and writers like Hemans and Landon questioned these ideas before they even came down to us.

The second movement of the book investigates five of the canonical poets' reactions to the ideal of posterity. Wordsworth's anxiety about the survival of his poetry is caught up, Bennett argues, with the fret about not being survived by his literal progeny—his family. Unlike other poets, Wordsworth does not seem to have worried about his poetry being obscured, but his work is fascinated by the idea of remains and ruins, which amount to what Bennett calls "a performance of memory, the paradoxical achievement in the present of a future remembrance" (106). What disturbs Wordsworth's fantasy or belief in his own "remains" is the death of his children, as Bennett shows in a sensitive reading of "Surprised by Joy." For Wordsworth, the culture of posterity conflicts with the ideal of personal, biological survival in his progeny.

Coleridge is also at cross-purposes with the idea of poetic survival. Bennett examines Coleridge's obsessive love of talk, that most transitory of media, and how his poetry seems to want to approach the level of talk or even of mere noise. Everyone who met Coleridge was impressed or depressed by his torrent of talk. ("Zounds!" exclaimed one auditor of Coleridge's monologues, "I was never so bethumped with words.") Bennett notes Coleridge's fascination with elements that destabilize his poetry's survival: "For Coleridge, writing acts as an inadequate substitute, a degraded supplement for the noise of talk" (123). Bennett goes on to argue that Coleridge's poetry aspires to inarticulacy, to talk, noise, murmurs, and sheer sound. In readings of "Frost at Midnight" and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Bennett interprets this aspiration to Coleridge's resistance to the idea of posterity; even as he withheld "Kubla Khan" and Christabel from publication, he foregrounded the sound of poetry—that element of poetry which can least survive the page.

These discussions of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who lived long lives—living into and even through their fame—might seem less than relevant to Bennett's thesis, but the second generation, who died young, only enforce it. Keats is obviously still of central importance to Bennett, since of all the poets he is so preceded by the story of his dying, 25-and-a-half-year-old body. Yet Keats, as Bennett points out, is not only the object (or victim?) of the Romantic culture of posterity: Keats himself imagined it as he was still living. Bennett interrogates Keats's interest in Chatterton as imagining himself already famous and dead. He notes how Keats often figures himself as sick (in "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles," for example) long before he actually had any symptoms of the illness that killed him. For Bennett, Keats's self-construction of illness inscribes his death and posthumous reception. "Keats's poetry," Bennett writes, "is the first fully to integrate this sense of the necessary deferral of recognition in the poetry itself" (151).

Shelley would seem to be culmination of the idea of Romantic posterity. Adonais and A Defence of Poetry are obviously concerned with future and posthumous fame. In many ways Shelley puts the poet forward as existing primarily in the future. His statement that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" makes it clear that a poet's most important audience is proleptic; poets for Shelley can only really write for the future. Shelley was deeply concerned about his reputation, made himself knowledgeable about changes in the print trade, and was certainly recognized while he was alive—though he never achieved the popular recognition (that is, the sales) during his lifetime that he thought he deserved. Instead, he created "fictions of posthumous writing" (169) where the poet not only writes for the audience after his death but also figures the poet as already dead—both speaking and creating the future. This concern animates Shelley's fascination with ghosts and survivals beyond death as ghostly presences.

Of all these poets (Hemans excepted), Byron actually experienced fame and monetary success while he was still living, yet even his success took place after a kind of death—of his reputation, certainly. His exile was also a kind of death. Like a dead poet, Byron was famous authorially while absent physically. Byron was ambivalent both about his success and about the culture of posterity that his success might have seemed to question. He expressed aristocratic disdain for authors who depended on their works for income. Yet Byron learned the ways of the market; though he originally gave away his copyrights to a cousin, by the 1820s he was bargaining with his publishers for more and more payment. Bennett examines "Churchill's Grave" for evidence of Byron's ambiguous attitudes; for Bennett, the poem questions many of the Romantic assumptions about the role of posthumous fame. Churchill does not fit into the character of the once-neglected-but-now-famous poet comfortably, at least as Byron presents him; he is at once known and obscure, his grave abandoned and visited. For Bennett, Byron deconstructs and questions the idea of Romantic posterity. In "Churchill's Grave" and Don Juan, Byron questions the culture of posterity even as these poems seem to enforce it.

The strength of this book is its comprehensiveness. Bennett not only reads the expected poets and those, like Landon and Hemans, recently decanted into the canon; we also read about Henry Kirke White (a protégé of Southey's) and Isabella Lickbarrow. Its discussions are convincing, always aware of their larger implications for literary study and quite readable. Bennett is attuned to the ways in which his own—and our—reading is still caught up in the fantasy of posthumous fame.

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Richard Cronin, The Politics of Romantic Poetry: In Search of the Pure Commonwealth

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Richard Cronin, The Politics of Romantic Poetry: In Search of the Pure Commonwealth. Romanticism in Perspective Series.  London: Macmillan, 2000. viii + 225pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22749-3).

Reviewed by
Mark Canuel
The University of Illinois at Chicago

In recent years, the historical study of Romantic writing has led more or less seamlessly to a study of reading audiences or the "reading public." For many critics, that is, taking an interest in the "politics" of Romantic literature, or Romantic "ideology," entails an attempt to account—from a genetic point of view—for precisely where politics or ideology come from. Whether the object of study is a public or multiple publics (or counterpublics), the point of these explorations is that publics have ideologies and ideologies provide the conditions under which works are written and received; the reading public is thus said to "influence" or "inform" canonical and non-canonical Romantic writing in a way that has been unappreciated by critics before this time.1 The Romantic writer, it might be said, becomes an audience for his or her audience, and the difficulty of determining the meaning of literary utterances has been solved, somewhat surprisingly, by suggesting that the utterances of publishers, reviewers, and participants in the popular "press" are more stable or easier to read than the utterances of poets and novelists.

Richard Cronin's The Politics of Romantic Poetry does something different because it does not merely take a view of literary works as if they needed to be untangled by the pre-adjudicating utterances of an audience. His subject, in fact, is not the politics of poetry (as the title would suggest) as much as it is the poetry of politics; he sees the works he studies—from the Jacobin poets of the 1790s to Byron, Shelley, and Keats—as more directly engaging the beliefs and assumptions of an audience in order to secure poetic authority. If historicism's familiar gesture is to see the audience as determining the "historical and cultural context" for the meaning of literary works, Cronin sees those works, by contrast, as interpretations and determinations of their audiences.2

This is not by any means to say that this book removes itself from the trends of historicist criticism; it instead purports to engage those trends with a revisionary spirit. The introduction thus carefully positions the argument in relation to work of other historicist critics; it is here that Cronin states his aim to avoid the "untheoretical humanism" of Jerome McGann's Romantic Ideology on the one hand and the "distressingly blunt" and "terse" analyses of poetry's political alliances in Marilyn Butler's Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (4, 8). The object of this book is neither merely to identify poetry's political alliances nor to criticize them; it is to show poetry's more constructive relation to politics: how poetry "speaks to a divided society in an attempt to constitute its readers as citizens of what [Geoffrey] Hill calls . . . the just kingdom, and . . . the pure commonwealth" (13).

That the author of this book opts for the words of a contemporary poet in order to explain Romantic poetry—a poet, moreover, explaining the transhistorical work of poetry rather than the work of poetry localized within a specific period—is revealing. For as much as the argument at first appears to offer a pointed revison of historical readings, its own terms occasionally seem less committed to this polemical footing. Cronin's emphasis on the word "commonwealth," for instance, is slightly misleading for those who approach his book with their expectations fashioned by historical scholarship of Caroline Robbins and others.3 There is more than one suggestion here that the subject of the analysis will be the "commonwealth" as it was articulated within a certain region of radical, freethinking Whig discourse; Cronin does indeed nod towards the work of the political heirs of the "Commonwealthmen" and fleetingly refers to Commonwealth ideology (114, 124ff). But it's more often the case that the discussions of poetry actually have very little invested in proving that "commonwealth" means a specific kind of political organization.

Instead, Cronin is interested far more generally in the way that poetry strives to shape a language that would unite "all of humanity," "mankind," or the "nation" (16–17), and the series of chapters that follow concentrates on the ways in which writers from Erasmus Darwin to Byron either successfully or unsuccessfully appeal to those generalized audiences. This vantage point brings The Politics of Romantic Poetry to feature Sir Walter Scott, discussed in chapter 4, as one of its heroes. In Marmion and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott writes historical poetry—before turning to historical novels—not merely as a way of escaping political conflicts but as a way of addressing and reformulating them. In Marmion, for example, Cronin finds Scott paradoxically taking scenes of armed conflict as a way of demonstrating "mutual attachment" and mutual "admiration" of Scottish and English forces for each other. This way of privileging aristocratic codes of honor over political conflict—a strategy continued later in his novels—is proof of Scott's "calm and disinterested tolerance," "the smiling wisdom that [the nation's] divisions are the source of its strength, and the mark of its broad humanity" (105, 109).

In the other chapters (divided into three sections entitled "The Revolutionary Years," "The Wars Against Napoleon," and "England in 1819"), the author goes on to show how other writers of the period were seldom able to achieve this level of inclusiveness with "equal success" (109). The radical figures analyzed in the first part of this book—including Coleridge, Erasmus Darwin, and Blake—search for universal poetic languages that are either exclusive or arcane. Coleridge emerges here, for example, as a figure who responds to the repressive apparatuses of the state by writing a poem like Religious Musings (discussed in the "Introduction" to Part 1): a work that at first appears committed to "social and political renovation" by appealing to the "shared concerns of the wide radical community," but that finds itself reduced to a "private vision," drained of any confidence of its abilities to do more than retreat into philosophical obscurity (24, 27).

Some readers may approach this move in the argument (and others like it running throughout the book) with more than a little skepticism about the suggestion that Romantic poetry generally adopts the primary aim of appealing to the widest possible audience—and that they fail at this aim according to Scott's yardstick. It is not entirely clear, for instance, that Coleridge, or any one else holding strong religious beliefs, would actually aim to speak to "all of humanity." Although Coleridge may indeed aim to assume a "commanding position" from which he can "survey the political turmoil" throughout the nation (28), the desire to command or survey humans is not the same as the desire to agree with them. In fact, it might even be said that the very ability to state truths about society's corruptions in Religious Musings would seem to demand that it abandon conventional attempts to gain an audience within it. It is not by any means obvious that a poet who writes that he "can accept no place in state, church, or dissenting meeting" is a poet hoping to appeal to all of humanity.4 To put it another way, the entire notion of poetic success derived from Scott may not be Coleridge's notion of success at all.

It must be emphasized at this point that Coleridge's esoteric religious community, just like Erasmus Darwin's scientific "brotherhood of man" discussed in chapter 1, is not analyzed here as an actual, empirically identifiable audience of readers. In general, that is, Cronin's readings are not interested in a reception history that would judge the successful appeal to "humanity" or "nation" based upon any verifiable human consumption of a work. Instead, the argument tends to discuss a poetic attempt to "constitute" its readers based on the internal evidence supplied by the poems themselves, and—in different ways—it infers an audience's relation to the poem based upon this evidence. In his chapter 5 on "Wordsworth at War," Cronin discerns a fairly straightforward mimetic relationship between poem and audience. Because Wordsworth's 1807 Poems reduces the scope of poetic subjects to examples of domestic virtue that are the supposed grounds for building national solidarity, this restriction seems to entail a corresponding curb on his poetry's popularity with his audience. Wordsworth's "Elegaic Stanzas" or his "Ode to Duty" are poems that prize an exclusionary human virtue and express disappointment at the contemporary adherence to the shallow demands of the market.

If this account might make it seem as if a text provides virtuous role models for its audience, a somewhat different view of how poems relate to their audiences emerges when Cronin accounts for poems as more abstract advocates of ideologies. This is quite obviously the case in the discussion of Coleridge and Darwin, and when Cronin suggests that Darwin's scientific abstractions were at odds with actually existing "social distinctions" or "popular energies" (40, 47), we hear him working with a familiar historicist logic that the book in other cases eschews. Elsewhere, though, Cronin moves the analysis in yet another slightly different direction by seeing poetry frustrating an audience's sympathetic identification for reasons that are best described as purely formal, neither (it seems) personal nor ideological. Chapter 2, on Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, suggests that Blake is "intent on arranging a wedding between the radical intellectuals and the radical enthusiasts, between, as it were, Tom Paine and Richard Brothers" (59). But it also turns out that Blake can "succeed only in writing the manifesto of a party of which he is the only member," and this is because of the formal eccentricity of the author's work—its "fierceness of . . . humour, its hysterical wildness" (60). In chapter 3 ("The English Jacobins"), the work of Jacobin writers stifles their own attempts at achieving a radical following because "their epic parodies" are "from the first divided against themselves," serving "only to perpetuate the epic values that they were attempting to disclaim" (82). And in his chapter on Marino Faliero and The Mask of Anarchy (chapter 7, "Asleep in Italy: Byron and Shelley in 1819"), Cronin suggests that Byron and Shelley take lines of argument in their works that are frustrated expressions because the forms of verse (Byron's classical style, Shelley's appropriation of the ballad) frustrate the clear expression of authorial "voice": "Both Shelley and Byron are impelled by the events of 1819 into acts of ventriloquism, into speaking in a voice not their own" (180).

Now this last set of claims—implying a correlation between the tensions within poems and the frustrated attempts to secure the attentions of readers—is the most intriguing one in the book.5 It is essentially an unacknowledged reversal of the New Critical assumption ("every real poem is a complex poem" writes Wimsatt) that tensions and paradoxes—and ventriloquisms—are the very foundation for poetry's relation to its public. Cronin suggests that complexity—or a certain kind of complexity, anyway—makes poetry lose its audience rather than gain it. The divergence in logic in fact helps us to see the stakes of Cronin's account of the "pure commonwealth" more clearly. Poetic form, just like characters within poems or ideologies adopted by poems, seems capable of being read outward from the poem onto the audience: tensions at the level of form can be read as if they were allegorical representations of the feelings, beliefs, or personality traits of audiences.

This is not to express a general opposition to Cronin's very nuanced and often insightful readings of individual poems, or his thoroughly salutary attention to Scott's poetry. It is, however, to assess precisely what kind of impact his opposition to many current new historical readings of poems and audiences can have. On the one hand, when critics view the Romantic reading public as if it gave a clear insight into the poetry that the audience read, they do not necessarily derive a better account of objects (literary or nonliterary); they shift attention on to different objects. It is hard to see how such an approach can ultimately focus on poetry, since there is no reason why we shouldn't assume that all audiences have further audiences that need to be consulted in order to be understood. On the other hand, Cronin's opposing impulse to see literary works as mere determinations of their audiences in advance makes it difficult to see how anyone could become interested in audiences, since the value of a literary work is derived by assuming that an audience could be read off of a poem whose meaning is to be derived in primarily formal terms. Perhaps the first option neglects the extent to which audiences, in order to be audiences, might need an object like a poem in order to get their bearings; perhaps the second neglects the extent to which a poem, in order to be a poem, might need an audience to read it.


1. Stephen C. Behrendt, "Introduction" to Romanticism, Radicalism, and the Press (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 14, 20. (Back)

2. Behrendt, 20. ( HREF="#REF2">Back)

3. Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century
Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English
Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961). ( HREF="#REF3">Back)

4. Coleridge to Thomas Poole, 12 December 1796,
Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, 2 vols. (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1895), 2:190. (Back)

5. W. K. Wimsatt, "The Concrete
Universal," in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington:
University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 81. (Back)

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Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality

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Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality. Romanticism in Perspective Series. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000. ix + 220pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22671-3).

Reviewed by
Alan Bewell
University of Toronto

In this book, Mark S. Lussier announces "physical criticism," a theoretical perspective that seeks to illuminate the productive interchange between literature and science, particularly the ways in which physical theory and poetic expression share similar models in their representation of the mind and physical world. Lussier's goal is to take criticism beyond the mechanistic and dualistic models of mind and universe that continue to influence contemporary thought—the world of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Newton—toward a theoretical perspective that responds to the far more complex and dynamic models of the mind in relation to the physical world that emerged with Romanticism and are now being renewed in contemporary science, especially in biology, ecology, and theoretical physics. Quantum theory has undercut the Newtonian absolutes of space and time. The stabilities of matter in the Newtonian cosmos have been replaced by indeterminacies and relativity, and the meaning of time, always a flexible concept, has been transformed. Since Heisenberg it has been difficult for scientists to employ naively the Lockean model of experience, in which the mind passively registers the sensory data supplied to it by the outside world. Scientists can no longer be said to be removed what from they observe, something that has not been lost on social constructivists. Ecological criticism has insisted even more powerfully upon the crucial necessity for human beings to recognize that they exist in nature and that they need to develop new, less destructive ways of interacting with it. Lussier's "physical criticism" synthesizes ecology and physics in order to provide an alternative to the cultural legacy of mechanistic philosophy. He uses the term "dynamics" to describe this more complex and holistic conception of the interaction of the mind and the physical world. In his view, Romantic poetry not only anticipates these developments, but has played an important role in providing "physical criticism" with the language and metaphors needed for representing this new world.

Romantic Dynamics does not seek to establish Romantic sources for contemporary science, nor to draw out influences or suggest causal relationships. Instead, Lussier wants to establish deep connections and to open up a dialogic interchange between science and literature. In contrast to more analytical methods that divide and differentiate their subject matters, Lussier is interested in the interplay of thought across disciplines. This is a book about seeing connections, about establishing unities built upon exchange and interdependency, and about synthesizing wholes by drawing out the vital relations between the mind and the physical world. The extraordinary range of this book is indicated by the epigraphs that introduce each chapter. Highlighting an important commitment of Lussier to the confluence of Buddhism and contemporary science, the first is by the fifteenth-century Tibetan Buddhist Tsongkapa: "Make efforts in ways then to perceive interdependence." The next chapter has an epigraph from the Dalai Lama that appeared in Mind/Science: "Buddhist thinkers . . . find it extremely beneficial to incorporate into their thinking the insights of various scientific fields such as quantum mechanics and neurobiology, where there are also equally strong elements of uncertainty and essencelessness" (13). The third chapter provides a comment on the social and ecological dimensions of Buddhism by the scholar and social activist Chatsumam Kabilsingh, and another from a collection on ecology edited by John Seed et al: "Deep ecology recognizes that nothing short of a total revolution in consciousness will be of lasting use in preserving the life-support systems of our planet" (47). These are followed by epigraphs from the Compassionate Buddha; the quantum theorist Max Planck; the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington; the physicist Henryk Skolimowski; the historian of science Arthur Zajonc; Paul de Man; Blake; and Shelley. The epigraphs give only a slight idea of Lussier's range of citation. In keeping with a methodology that seeks to synthesize thought across disciplines, he also generously cites the work of others.

Since the medium is the message, it may not be surprising that Lussier does not follow in lock step the conventional procedures of an academic study, in which primary and secondary evidence are rigorously marshaled in support of a thesis. Instead of a preface, he writes a "preludium," emphasizing both its Blakean sources and its etymology, which means "to play beforehand." Science, however, is never very far off, for Lussier also cites Johan Huizinga, who argued that "the advance guard of Science" is a kind of "intellectual play" (2). Theory requires position statements, and Lussier provides one. In an introductory discussion of the importance of "synchronicity" in the recognition of "a deeper structure of experience based on wholeness" that eludes "rational dissection" (11), it turns out that the book itself is the product of a series of intellectual coincidences whose meaning Lussier has sought to make clear. "Each chapter in this book," he notes, "either resulted or benefited from some synchronistic event or moment—for example, an acausal coincidence of reading materials—with such events and moments seemingly woven out of random connections of diverse threads of experience and perception rather than emerging from a purely rational research agenda (although one was in place)" (10). Each chapter is conceived as a "thought experiment," a creative interplay across disciplines, aimed at clarifying ideas. Lussier draws this notion partly from the "thought experiments" (Gedankenexperiments) of Einstein who tried as a child to imagine "what the world would look like if he could travel astride a speeding light beam" (120). Yet it is typical of the interdisciplinary range of Lussier's work and its continual movement between science and literature, that he also links the "thought experiment" to the imaginative process at work in the Lyrical Ballads, which were advertised "as experiments," and later described by Coleridge as an exploration from different perspectives of the relationship between the "supernatural" and "ordinary life."

Lussier seeks to revise a prevailing opinion that the Romantics were anti-scientific by demonstrating that their criticism was aimed at the limitations of mechanistic science—its reduction of the world to a machine and of human beings to outside observers of the natural world: "The disinterest of Romantic poets is not to science per se, but towards a science incapable of envisioning the type of events they perceive recurring in the mind's engagement with and emergence within material reality" (18). The case is nicely made in a chapter on Blake as a "deep ecologist." Revising the conventional view that Blake was hostile to nature, Lussier brings out how much Blake's criticism of Newton was a form of ecocriticism, based on a dialogical conception of nature: "Everything that lives is Holy." In the subsequent chapter, Lussier makes good use of recent interpretations of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a narrative that has undergone multiple redactions over time in order to suggest that it is a "quantum text," which "fragments into as many 'worlds' as those that observe it" (80). Instead of seeing the elements of chance, indeterminacy, and uncertainty that pervade the poem and warp its narrative line as aspects of its ballad structure or its supernaturalism, Lussier reads them as an effort to question the absolutes of mechanistic philosophy and to recover a more participatory model of the relationship of mind to nature. The Ancient Mariner's ability to bless the water snakes reflects an extraordinary transformation in his understanding of his relation to the universe, a change partly produced by the narrative's quantum uncertainties, which illuminate the world not as a "uni-verse" but as "a multi-verse of potentiality" (79). Lussier's chapter on Blake's Milton nicely complements Donald Ault's arguments in Visionary Physics. He reads the poem as Blake's attempt to provide an alternative to Newtonian and Cartesian cosmology, a new synthesis that anticipates the "new physics" in its rethinking of time and space, "a cosmology of contraction and expansion where one must tunnel through density in moving from one 'infinite' plane to another while avoiding collapse into singularity" (91). The subsequent chapter returns to some of the ground developed in the Coleridge chapter, suggesting how time and memory are fractured in Byron's Giaour.

New ways of understanding the world require new languages, and Lussier stresses the important role that Romantic poets have played in providing science and "physical criticism" with the metaphors, images, and forms of this new synthesis. A chapter on the "spatiality of thought" in Percy Shelley is outstanding in its recognition that metaphor and rhythm are the fundamental means by which Romantic poets sought to articulate a fully interactive relationship to the universe. Developing Amittai Aviram's theory in Telling Rhythm that "in poetry, music, and dance, the physical sensation of rhythm is an insistent manifestation of the physical world" (20), Lussier suggests that "Shelley's best poetry describes a universal cohesion created through waves, a vast network of matter woven from energy, and the particular individual, in this case Shelley as poet, functions as the discrete particle, the complementary node of consciousness that interacts with the waves of the world at the boundaries of knowledge, an interference within and without through which 'rhythm or order' emerges" (142). A similar point could be made about Wordsworth's insistence on the rhythm that structures all thoughts and all things ("A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" ["Tintern Abbey"]), or the role of music in Coleridge's apprehension of the

                      one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every  where
                                      ("The Eolian Harp")

Passages such as these have been read as displaced religion or "natural supernaturalism," but one might just as easily see "pantheism" as a popular catchword that has obscured the Romantic tendency to dress deep ecology in sacramental garments, a "supernatural naturalism." Interestingly, one sign of Lussier's willingness to think across established disciplinary norms is that he does not conform to the secularist bias of contemporary criticism and scientific thought, but also, like the Romantics, draws upon religion, in this case, Buddhism, in order to convey the ecological idea of a deep order that is both "within us and abroad."

This is a very fine book, indeed, which makes a real contribution to our understanding of Romanticism, science, and ecological thought. Lussier's focus is on reading Romanticism across contemporary science, so it is somewhat unfair to complain that he does not attend enough to Romantic science. However, some aspects of his argument would have benefited from some attention to this work. Though it is true that Romantic poetry has been seen as having an irrational, anti-scientific bias, much of this viewpoint emerged later, during the Victorian period, when more positivistic, mathematical, and empirical modes of scientific inquiry were displacing the ambitions of earlier Romantic science. The thoroughgoing dynamism of Romantic science, particularly German Naturphilosophie, is well-known, and the naturphilosophen were explicit about poetry, and aesthetics as a whole, being the ideal medium for the representation of a dynamic universe, constantly undergoing change and transformation. They too sought to link the mind to nature, often by materializing mind or by seeing nature as having its own teleology. Many, in fact, turned to Eastern philosophy as an alternative to the dualisms of Western science and Christianity. The appeal to organic metaphors, in an attempt to establish continuities between human beings, plants, animals, and minerals, has recently been broadly attacked, particularly by Marxist critics, yet this kind of metaphoric would seem to have much in common with Lussier's goals. An attempt to position himself in regard to an earlier attempt at producing a "physical criticism" would have added a further dimension to this book. Even more importantly, it might have provided a historical vantage point on the difficulties that this conjunction of science and poetry has faced, perhaps with a view to elucidating the difficulties that "physical criticism" faces in the present.

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Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Edited by Judith Pascoe

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Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Edited by Judith Pascoe. Petersborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.  444pp. illus: 16 halftones. (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-55111-3171). CAN$21.95/US$15.95 (Pap; ISBN: 1-55111-201-9).

Reviewed by
Terence Alan Hoagwood
Texas A&M University

Not only for the importance of Mary Robinson's poetry, much of which it makes readily available for the first time, but also for the sake of the high quality of scholarship which it represents, this book is one of the more valuable contributions to Romantic-period studies in many years. The judiciously edited poetic contents are supplemented valuably (consistent with other volumes in the series, Broadview Literary Texts) by editions of ancillary primary material (letters and early reviews), increasing the scholarly utility of this important book. The learned editor's graceful, unobtrusive, but outstanding critical judgment, which is expressed in the substantial introduction, for example, is another sort of supplement which also contributes to the book's value. The volume is aptly and handsomely illustrated with four portraits of Mary Robinson (the editor's introduction makes plain how Robinson's intellectual integrity always suffered from the popular and pictorial tendency to substitute her pretty face for the substance of her trenchant and often bitter writings) and twelve illustrations which are engravings by Caroline Watson after Maria Cosway's drawings illustrating Robinson's poem "The Wintry Day."

After the introductory essay by Pascoe (forty-four pages), the volume includes three poems from the volume entitled Poems which first appeared when Robinson (then Mary Darby) was seventeen years old. Eleven poems are reprinted from the 1791 volume entitled Poems, the most important of which is Ainsi Va le Monde, a poem in joyous celebration of the French Revolution and the relation of poetic art to political change. Eight poems from the 1793 volume entitled Poems include "A Fragment, Supposed to be Written Near the Temple, at Paris, on the Night Before the Execution of Louis XVI," in which, in contrast to the glad tones of Ainsi Va le Monde, Robinson describes the populace as "Blood-stain'd Myriads" and the revolutionaries as "The troops of PANDIMONIUM [sic]" and "The barb'rous Sons of ANARCHY" who "Drench their unnatural hands in regal blood." That volume contains (and this edition reprints) "Marie Antoinette's Lamentation": "OH, FELL BARBARITY! yet spare a while / The sacred treasures of my throbbing breast," and "My darling INFANTS, sleep, . . . sweet CHERUBS ON THEIR FUNERAL BED!" The "Ode to Rapture," also from the 1793 volume, presents a personification of NATURE who begins to adore and to depict apparently beautiful RAPTURE, whereupon "the FLEETING FORM DECAY'D." Those three themes—revolutionary politics, Burkean revulsion from revolutionary politics, and the unreality of artificial beauty and its manufactured "rapture"—are among the most important of the conceptual preoccupations of Robinson's work, and they are well represented in Pascoe's selection from the early volumes.

Sappho and Phaon (1796) is a unified narrative work consisting of forty-four sonnets preceded by three polemical essays, and this new edition reproduces the entire text of the original volume. The preface to Sappho and Phaon is an argument about the "MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE" of women; the essay "To the Reader" offers "moral reflections . . . against the dangers of indulging a too luxuriant fancy"; an essay entitled "Accounts of Sappho" represents that ancient poet as "a supremely enlightened soul, labouring to subdue a fatal enchantment." Robinson's table of contents states "The Subject of Each Sonnet" in a way that outlines the moral purport of the volume, proceeding from "The Temple of Chastity" through "The Tyranny of Love" to the "Sonnet Conclusive" in which "Reflection" sighs and the "wreaths of Fame" are "Bespangled o'er with sorrow's chilling tear." What the reprinting of the entire volume of sonnets makes visible, therefore, as a selection of the sonnets could not, is the fact that Robinson's sonnet sequence (which has perhaps been misunderstood as a sequence of love poems) is precisely an anti-love sonnet sequence. Like the 1793 "Ode to Rapture," Sappho and Phaon repudiates the artificial sentiments that her work may sometimes have been thought to represent. The volume Lyrical Tales (1800) is also reprinted entire, its twenty-two poems including "The Poor, Singing Dame" (an anapestic, song-like poem in which class conflict produces a mutually assured destruction) and "The Haunted Beach," which de-metaphorizes the assassination plot of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In this new edition, there follow six "Uncollected poems from newspapers and magazines" including "Sonnet to Mrs. Charlotte Smith, on Hearing That Her Son Was Wounded at the Siege of Dunkirk"; ten "poems that were incorporated into [a planned volume to be entitled] The Progress of Liberty," including "The Horrors of Anarchy" and "The Dungeon." Then, Pascoe reproduces seventeen poems that first appeared in the posthumous collection Poetical Works (1806). Ancillary materials include three of Robinson's letters (to John Taylor, William Godwin, and Jane Porter), three poems in which Coleridge responds to poems by Robinson, and four reviews of Robinson's poetry (1791, 1796, 1800, 1806).

A valuable addition to the edited works is a thirty-eight page list entitled "Publication histories of Robinson's poems." A short bibliography, a four-page list of emendations, and two indexes (titles and first lines) conclude the volume.

Texts "are drawn from the last edition over which the author exercised editorial control, with very occasional emendations" (15). The editor has not normalized accidentals except that she has removed the long s, the repeated quotation marks at each line of verse, and the long bracket that marks triplets. It may seem odd to assert that these practices "are followed in order to preserve the poems' original appearances" (15), because deleting the long s or the long bracket does not preserve appearances. Even the correction of apparent printers' errors is an abridgement of the principle of honoring the original document. Pascoe's editing is, however, light, conventional, and evidently free of idiosyncratic intrusions, and, furthermore, her editorial work honors the integrity of the original volumes (including Sappho and Phaon and Lyrical Tales) more completely and effectively than anthologies or, for that matter, some available editions devoted to the poetry of single authors; some of which still organize poems without adequate respect for the integrity of the volumes which the poet assembled.

Pascoe's introduction adds scholarly depth and sound judgment to the very sad story of Robinson's life and makes clear the historical disfiguration of her truths by often malevolent reception history wrought for her works. When she was nine, she and her mother were abandoned by her father. When she was fourteen she was married (for money which proved not to exist) to an adulterer. She was seduced by the Prince of Wales and his promises of riches, and then abandoned by him in the year her second child died in infancy. She was permanently disabled at the age of twenty-five, and she spent the rest of her life an almost-solitary cripple, cared for by her daughter and visited by William Godwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Among its other achievements, Pascoe's introduction illustrates the slander, libel, caricatures, and other abuse which substituted a sentimental fiction of passion for the critical and intellectual integrity which somehow emerged from that lifetime of disillusionments. The critical reception of Robinson's work may have been too often marred by an interest in her putative love life, in whole or in part the creation of gossip, to the expense of the hard and hard-won feminism voiced in her polemical prose (A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination [1799] and Thoughts on the Condition of Women [undated] are attributed to Robinson). The literatures of sentiment and artificial sensibility (including her own brief and almost juvenile "Della Cruscan" rhymes) gave way in Robinson's works to an antithetical project—to celebrate and facilitate the "mental pre-eminence of women" and to "find in friendship's balm sick passion's cure." That last phrase appears in Robinson's poem "Laura to Petrarch" (printed in the posthumous Poetical Works but not included in the edition here under review), whose title and whose argument express the anti-sentimental project of the serious work of Robinson's anti-sentimental life. Pascoe's learned and informative introduction and this volume's valuable selection of Robinson's poetry help considerably to make that literary and intellectual achievement as readily and widely available as they richly deserve to be.

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Orrin N. C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory

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Orrin N.C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. x + 232pp. (Hdbk; 0-8018-5220-X).  $17.95 (Pap, 2000; ISBN: 0-8018-6525-5).

Reviewed by
Adam Carter
University of Lethbridge

"Il faut etre absolument moderne."
–Arthur Rimbaud

In "Literary History and Literary Modernity," Paul de Man theorized an "inherent conflict" between the concepts announced in his title--concepts which, he suggested, might even constitute "logical absurdities."1 "The continuous appeal of modernity," de Man wrote, "the desire to break out of literature toward the reality of the moment, prevails and, in its turn, folding back upon itself, engenders the repetition and continuation of literature. Thus modernity, which is fundamentally a falling away from literature and a rejection of history, also acts as the principle that gives literature duration and historical existence" (162). This inherent conflict, de Man contends, determines both literary history and the structure of literary language. However, the manner in which it does so, de Man concedes, "cannot be treated within the limits of this essay" (162). Although inevitably reductive, it would not be wrong to conceive of Orrin Wang's Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory as an attempt to think through this inherent conflict and certain of its implications within the broader horizons of a book-length study.

Fantastic Modernity concerns itself, as announced succinctly in its opening sentence, with "the construction of knowledge, specifically the knowledge of Romanticism and postmodern literary theory" and with "explor[ing] the political, cultural, and theoretical consequences" of such constructions (1, 2). "Postmodern literary theory," in this context, refers both specifically to the theoretical/critical discourse on Romanticism in the American academy from the 1960s through to the mid-1990s, and more broadly to theorizations of postmodernity in such works as Fredric Jameson's which, Wang argues, while ostensibly not concerned with Romanticism, are engaged in a parallel effort to define the modernity of a particular cultural moment and which construe this moment in a manner strikingly similar to recent understandings of the Romantic period.

Wang's work, as he notes, is one of several recent studies that have concerned themselves with the relation between the Romantic and the postmodern. One such study to which Wang does not refer--David Simpson's The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge, which appeared three years prior to Fantastic Modernity--makes a particularly interesting contrast to the latter study. Simpson argues that Postmodernism is in essence a repetition of Romanticism in viewing knowledge as a local, poetic and narrative construct. Simpson then mobilizes this identity in order to critique postmodern academic discourse as derivative and conservative--a position which also entails a parallel critique, along the lines of Jerome McGann's, of the conservatism of the mainstream of Romantic discourse. Wang's study, by contrast, locates itself at the meta-theoretical level where arguments over the identity and/or difference of various cultural moments are an inevitable part of the writing of history and the production of knowledge. As such, it is a timely intervention in such debates over the derivativeness of postmodernism (or modernism), one which demonstrates that they have a lengthily history.

The book is organized around three terms: "fantastic modernity," "the representative figure," and "dialectical reading." The titular concept of "fantastic modernity" receives several articulations which resist easy paraphrase. It refers broadly, however, to the sorts of tensions between the concepts of history and modernity which are outlined by de Man. The various theorizations of Romanticism, Wang argues, share a stake in defining Romanticism's modernity: both in terms of defining how it represented a break from the past, and in terms of defining how it might have inaugurated an historical moment that is still our own. These theorizations of Romanticism's modernity, however, (or modernism's or postmodernism's for that matter) are constitutively indeterminate, unstable and hence mobile and phantasmatic; Romanticism's modernity appears, disappears and reappears in different, and similar, forms and guises giving rise to multiple narratives and agendas. Romanticism and postmodern theory, Wang asserts, "correctly structure themselves around the trope of 'fantastic modernity,' in which the possibility of historical difference operates as an aporia of historical thought, a condition that testifies to the radical indeterminacy of historical difference as a stable form of human truth" (3). Such aporias of historical thought adhere, for example, in the idea that both Romanticism and postmodernism are reactions to, and critiques of, an Enlightenment reason. If the modernity of postmodernism--what separates postmodernism from what it construes to be the past--shares an identity with Romanticism in this respect, then wherein lies the historical difference between them? And what is left of postmodernism's claim to historical difference? Furthermore, literary modernism of the early to mid-twentieth century understood itself as a break with what it construed as Romanticism--a sentimental, expressive literature of the individual which exhibited the "disassociation of sensibility" rather than an organically unified form and content. But the resuscitation of Romantic studies in the post-war decades, most centrally in the work of M. H. Abrams, consisted in showing the identity modernism shared with Romanticism (or the modernity of Romanticism) in that modernism's central assumptions about literature and organic form derived from the writings of the Romantic period. When one adds to these shifting articulations of historical identity and difference the influential understanding of Romanticism that de Man begins to articulate in the 1960s which posits Romanticism's modernity to lie in its radical critique of the very possibility of historical knowledge and of being modern (an idea which itself parallels Jameson's theorization of the modernity of postmodernism), and de Man's contention that in this respect the Romantics had a more profound (and thus, perhaps, more modern?) understanding of historicity than later realists and modernists, then the "aporia[s] of historical thought" become, indeed, vertiginous.

Such "obstructions" (12) to historical knowledge as a stable form of human truth are not, however, an impasse which defeats or renders meaningless historical inquiry. Rather, the shifting identities and differences of one historical moment and another, and indeed the non-identity of an historical moment with itself, constitutes the openings within which history and historical thought become possible. Potentially it is a space of freedom. It is one of the virtues of Wang's study to lay particular emphasis on this point and to work through what such a constitutive indeterminacy has meant, and could potentially mean, not simply for the academic study of Romanticism, but for a revolutionary tradition that must always be associated with Romanticism. In this respect the concept of "fantastic modernity" takes on yet another resonance in keeping with Derrida's more recent vocabulary, with respect to Marx and a revolutionary socialism, of spectrality--of being haunted by the ghosts of those dead and unborn to whom one owes a responsibility for modernity's unfinished projects.

Wang approaches the critical discourse on Romanticism through what he terms "the representative figure," a concept that has at least a double signification. In successive chapters a key, or representative, figure for an influential contemporary understanding of Romanticism is read in conjunction with a Romantic writer whose works have been key, or representative, in the working through of the theory. Thus, chapters two and three are devoted, respectively, to how Romanticism has been variously articulated, or disarticulated, within deconstruction through de Man and Shelley, and New Historicism through McGann and Heine. Chapter four turns to the constructions of Romanticism within Feminist studies which does not, Wang argues, present a "representative figure" on either side of the historical dialectic. (However, one might suggest that Anne Mellor and Mary Shelley would have been as convincing a pairing as any of the others in the book.) The absence of the representative figure in Feminist studies is, rather, taken to be significant insofar as the concept of the representative individual is part of the Romantic and masculine tropings of culture, genetics and paternity which feminist studies have detected and critiqued in the canonical work of the period and its reception. This chapter is devoted to an engaging reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and aimed at recuperating Wollstonecraft's stature for contemporary Feminist studies. Against Wollstonecraft's relative dismissal within Feminist studies of the period where she is interpreted as a proponent of a masculine Enlightenment rationality, Wang argues that her work provides a theoretically complex, non-essentialist view of gender and politics. The final chapter is devoted to the construction of Romanticism within the writings of Harold Bloom--who is at once the most idiosyncratic and traditional of Romantic theorists, giving rise to no identifiable school--and Emerson, Bloom's own representative figure of American Romanticism.

It has become commonplace in a postmodern academic milieu to maintain that knowledge is constructed within discourses, discourses which are indelibly marked by their historical, political and institutional contexts. It is one of the many virtues of Fantastic Modernity that while it works out of such assumptions and concretely demonstrates precisely what such a process entails with respect to the discourse on Romanticism--most fascinatingly in an early half-chapter devoted to A. O. Lovejoy's and Leo Spitzer's long-forgotten debate, in the pressing context of the Second World War, over the continuity or discontinuity between German Romanticism and National Socialism--the book largely avoids the predictable topoi that could be expected to derive from such informing premises. This is achieved in some measure by a refreshingly untimely turn out of the fashionable neighborhood of Michel Foucault toward the down-market property of Paul de Man.

While de Man is, on the one hand, one figure amongst others in this "institutional fable" of the (dis)articulations of Romanticism over the last three decades and the theoretical and political implications of these (dis)articulations, de Man's kind of deconstructive reading, particularly his reading of contemporary theory and criticism itself in the essays collected in Blindness and Insight and The Resistance to Theory, is more broadly characteristic of Wang's approach. Like de Man, Wang, in a method of reading which he properly terms dialectical, is consistently committed to working through how the texts of the Romantic period resist the kinds of meanings (or critiques of meaning) that have been attributed to them within the various influential (de)constructions of the period, and not merely to demonstrating how these texts might be read otherwise, but to demonstrating how they might even be ahead (in the sorts of temporal aporias with which this work is concerned) of their interlocutors with respect to the sorts of theoretical and political questions that have engaged Romantic studies, and theory more generally, in recent decades. Yet if de Man could pronounce on the "dead end of formalist criticism,"2 his own insistence, with respect to the self-consciousness of aporia, of the "impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world,"3 would likewise seem to represent a dead end, one particularly troubling for a theorist like Wang who wishes to explore the relevance of Romanticism to global political events such as Tiananmen Square. Fantastic Modernity, then, can be understood on one level as a demonstration of the continued relevance of deconstructive reading in an era in which such readings must answer for their perceived ahistorical, apolitical character. Wang traverses a considerable distance in convincing the reader of this relevance and in convincing us, in a time which often looks impatiently and pragmatically to the beyond of theory, of the continued necessity to meet, as Wang writes, the "aporetic challenge of ruthless critique" (106).

If this an accurate characterization of Fantastic Modernity and the stakes involved in the work, then the chapter devoted to de Man lies at its heart. Here Wang dialectically juxtaposes de Man's infamous "Shelley Disfigured" with the poem it deconstructs--Shelley's The Triumph of Life. In a characteristically lucid fashion, Wang summarizes de Man's difficult argument: "Thus, de Man uses the 'questions of origin, of direction and identity' which punctuate Shelley's text to show how 'The Triumph of Life' makes itself unreadable and, in effect, history impossible. The continual imposition on and erasure of one question by another dispel 'any illusion of dialectical progress or regress'" (49). Against this impasse Wang argues that "'Shelley Disfigured,' deconstructs its own assault against history," (23) that the process of monumentalization and disfigurement that both de Man and Shelley theorize is the very opening which makes history possible. Furthermore, in one of the many compelling re-readings of Romantic texts that Fantastic Modernity provides, Wang draws upon historical research on the creation of post-revolutionary monuments in honor of Rousseau to argue that monumentalization and hence its disfigurement are self-consciously political acts in this period and that Shelley's poem must be understood within this historical context as a political critique of certain monumentalized versions of Romanticism and the Revolution (56–57). Thus, here Wang demonstrates how historical understanding itself challenges a reading of the poem that had seen the poem as challenging the possibility of historical understanding. For Wang the point is not that this dialectical moment of the reading is superior to the other, but that both must be kept in a certain tension so that the meaning of historical events (such as the French Revolution) or periods (such a Romanticism) is neither hypostatized nor dismissed as unanswerable but kept open to new appropriations, new strategies. The chapter on de Man is a sensitive, compelling and important consideration of the future of deconstruction from within, and beyond, its own terms--a refreshing rejoinder to the polemical discussions of the politics of deconstruction of a decade ago.

The complexities of Wang's detailed dialectical readings have been inadequately dealt with in the above paragraph, and I will not exacerbate the situation by attempting similar overviews of the pairings of McGann and Heine, Feminism and Wollstonecraft, or Bloom and Emerson, all of which are edifying and engaging. In each case Wang argues for a certain resistance in the Romantic texts against their representation within the contemporary theory. The underlying assumption is that there is a political potentiality in these resistances and in the openings to which they give rise. But as the work repeatedly pries open the gaps between Postmodern discourse on Romanticism and Romantic texts in a multitude of different directions which are each very localized--that is, dependent upon the particular texts being read and the dialectical relationship between them--one wonders at points just where one is going, what political potentiality such dispersions of meaning really do possess and whether they might not just as easily represent an impasse to political strategies. And while one might be largely sympathetic with a work which so resolutely refuses to bypass theoretical complexity, when Wang asserts that "Romanticism's relevance to the world will depend on its ability to stress the complicated series of discursive mediations, appropriations, and revisions that already define its presence in the North American university" (187), one is lead, in good dialectical fashion, to see the moment of truth in the pragmatist's critique of the hubris of theory. Nonetheless, Romanticism's relevance, if not to the world, then at least to a broad swath of the history of theory and criticism, has been convincingly demonstrated by a demanding and rewarding study of admirable breadth, patience and insight.

1. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Rev. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 142. (Back)
2. Ibid., 229. (Back)
3. Ibid., 222. (Back)

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John Whale, ed., Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays

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John Whale, ed., Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Texts in Culture Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. xii + 228pp. £40.00/$69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7190-5786-8).   £13.99/$24.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-7190-5787-6).

Reviewed by
Steven Blakemore
Florida Atlantic University

John Whale's collection of interdisciplinary essays is important given the rich variety of Burke's language and thought, which often embrace a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives--historical, literary, sociological, and cultural. In the first chapter, Whale traces the historical reception the Reflections has met, stressing the ways in which the text has been appropriated by a variety of writers and hence has taken on a kind of secondary afterlife. Aware that the contributors to his volume are also involved in these appropriations, Whale emphasizes the complex negotiations that occur whenever the Reflections is read.

F. P. Lock, who may be Burke's definitive biographer, endeavors to bring modern readers back to a historical understanding and reading of the Reflections in the context of how it was read and understood by his contemporaries. Dealing with modern readings that stress the emotional and theatrical elements of the Reflections, Lock makes the fundamental point that the Reflections is a work of rhetoric--a work that endeavors to persuade--and hence the historical accuracy of its representations was central to Burke's contemporary readers. Lock highlights the discrepancy between modern readings of the Reflections as a work of theater and fiction as well as a work of rhetoric by focusing on the tendency of modern critics to employ Burke's aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), to explain the theatrical essence of the Reflections. Indeed, the Enquiry has emerged as a kind of fetish text which supposedly explains Burke's political writings. Lock shows that such a reading is problematic since more than thirty years separated the Enquiry from the Reflections and that Burke's ideas "about persuasion had changed significantly by the time he wrote the Reflections" (20). Burke, in fact, considered the Enquiry a juvenile work and had no interest in revising it. The appeal of connecting the two works, however, resides in its simplicity, since Burke's complicated and complex thought can be reduced to a facile binary by which the sublime and beautiful reductively explain everything, or, in another modern strategy, Burke's Reflections can be deconstructed by supposedly exploiting the contradictions between the work of theory and the work of revolution. Lock is thus concerned with returning us to a historical understanding of the Reflections' primary genre--a rhetorical rather than a theatrical or aesthetic one. Indeed, while he acknowledges that a theatrical or aesthetic response can be part of the rhetorical gesture, he insists that the rhetorical is the dominant mode by which the Reflections was read by Burke's contemporaries. What emerges in modern interpretations is a kind of interdisciplinary hybrid (an aesthetic interpretation imposed on Burke's reading of the Revolution based on a kind of post hoc fallacy) that has been yoked together conveniently--a hybrid that is reductively unhistorical. Lock needs to consider, however, that this modern reading of the Reflections was first utilized by his contemporary enemies. Consequently, there is an interesting genealogy between Burke's eighteenth-century enemies and his modern critics.

Gregory Claeys provides an overview of the reception of Burke's Reflections, emphasizing how it was received and read by Burke's contemporaries. Starting with those who were favorable to Burke (both publicly and privately), most of the examples are well known to even casual students of Burke, including the comments of his ambivalent correspondent Philip Francis. Most of Burke's admirers, not surprisingly, thought the Reflections was one of the most significant political documents ever published. Likewise, the critics of Burke that Claeys cites initially are fairly well known. The rest of the review, however, is important as Claeys crystallizes the principal arguments of Burke's opponents, quoting from the first four volumes of his own very important eight-volume edition of The Political Writings of the 1790s: The French Revolution Debate in Britain (Pickering & Chatto, 1995). Summarizing a series of criticisms common to Burke's opponents--inter alia Burke was inconsistent and had betrayed his own principles as well as the revolutionary principles of 1688--Claeys argues that this collective assault on Burke and his Reflections turned the tide, at least in print, in favor of the Revolution until the exponential events of the late 1792-93 period silenced Burke's critics via government or public pressure. Claeys makes several minute errors in the section devoted to Burke's critics, quoting, for instance, Burke's dismissal of James Mackintosh's Vindicae Gallicae as "Paine at bottom," when Burke, who did not read Vindicae, was actually quoting his son, Richard, who had. Claeys, however, establishes the central themes of Burke's opponents and hence illustrates, even though he does not say so, that these arguments have constituted the core indictments of Burke ever since the 1790s. The citations of Burke's admirers and antagonists underscore that in fundamental ways the terms of the revolutionary debate have remained the same.

W. J. McCormack is interested in the strange "Burke-shaped silence of 1797-1800" (79), in Ireland, in a period actually covering 1790-1800. Burke, in effect, ceased to be quoted during the climactic debate over Ireland's union with Britain, consummated in 1801. Noting that editions of the Reflections failed to appear after 1791, McCormack argues that Burke's "presence" was nevertheless palpable. After reviewing Burke's position on Ireland in the period just before his death in 1797--Burke feared that France would inspire rebellion in Ireland, but he had categorical contempt for Dublin Castle and a Protestant Ascendancy that he believed would ironically expedite a French Revolution in Ireland--McCormack argues that there was a secret policy of the administration to bribe and suborn book publishers and newspapers to support the Union, and thus to ignore Burke, and he supports this by citing a record (CO 904/2) in the account books preserved in the Public Records Office during this period. McCormick formulates a hypothesis from this particular record suggesting that the strange silence from the establishment, not only regarding Burke as a tacit supporter of Union, which Burke, had he been alive, would probably have embraced, but the strange silence regarding the "Jacobin" Revolution of 1798, which Burke certainly could have been quoted to have predicted--and to have opposed--had he lived. That the Burke of the Reflections would obviously not be a sympathetic figure for the Irish revolutionaries of 1798 is commonsensical, but why wouldn't the Protestant establishment have used Burke in context of both the 1798 Revolution and the 1801 Union? McCormack suggests that Burke's well-known hostility to the Protestant Ascendancy made him an unsympathetic figure and, more interestingly, that Burke's descriptions of the practices of the revolutionaries in France and their sympathizers in England (inter alia engaging in ideological and mutual quotation of each other) was too close to the practices of the establishment in Dublin for comfort. Burke's Reflections, in this context, would have perhaps have reminded readers of the radical change--the Union--that Dublin Castle was promoting. McCormack imaginatively evokes a historical explanation for this silence which may not convince all readers but which nevertheless makes palpable the problem of Burke's absence in the Irish debate over the rebellion of 1798 and the Union of 1801.

Claire Connolly is also interested in Burke in context of the Act of Union (1800), and she explores Burke's much discussed prescience (his apparent prediction of the Terror, for instance) in his tendency to read the future out of the past and not vice versa, as many commentators have maintained. She sees Burke as anticipating a nineteenth-century understanding of history in which a historian writing about the past endeavors to calculate its meaning for both the present and future. Viewed this way, Burke emerges as a historical figure on the cusp of a more self-reflective understanding of history in which effects precede causes because historical events necessarily have their significance imputed to them retrospectively. History is necessarily anachronistic. Connolly herself engages in such a retrospective reading of the Reflections in context of his view of the complex Anglo-Irish relationship. Quoting Burke's view of this relationship in the 1790s, she argues that Burke supported a closer union with Ireland but that he mistrusted legislative acts that compelled unnatural unions--that Burke wanted a radical change in men's minds and hearts, especially the dominant Protestant Ascendancy--and would, therefore, have opposed the Act as coercive legislation having no relation to the practical realities of Ireland. Both McCormack and Connolly engage in a new and ongoing rethinking of Burke by Irish intellectuals and writers in which Burke is beginning to be seen as a crucial figure in context of Irish modernity and the past.

Kevin Gilmartin revives the conventional idea that Burke was an elitist writer opposed to "the swinish multitude," identifying himself with the nobility, and in an idea embellished from Hazlitt, the monarchy, after George III complimented him on the Reflections and recommended it to all "gentlemen." Consequently, Burke was irrelevant to the political forces that were emerging, specifically a conservative "plebeian counter-public sphere in Britain" that was less respectful of the dominant aristocratic order that Burke favored (100, 111). That Burke had contempt for people in any class (not just the lower class) pronouncing on public policy by way of connecting themselves to revolutionary movements outside their own country is correct, but to suggest that he had a general contempt for the lower class is questionable to anyone who considers Burke's life and thought outside of selected quotations. In addition, the conservative plebeian counter-movement which Burke supposedly missed was not ostensibly present when the Reflections was published, and the writers and organizers who did appeal to that public such as Hannah More and John Reeve's Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property (95) were not in operation until later in the revolutionary debate. Moreover, Gilmartin fails to consider the context in which Burke was writing: he was trying to convince those who had power or influence in England because only they could affect English foreign policy with regard to revolutionary France. The audience that he supposedly missed was simply not the object of his rhetorical strategies.

Tom Furniss, in his essay, argues convincingly that Burke, in the Reflections, crystallized a nationalist ideology in response to both the Revolution and radical British discourse--specifically Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789). In the Discourse, Price had criticized the Glorious Revolution for not having gone far enough with its reforms and had argued for a civic nationalism in which people saw themselves as citizens of the world rather than people of a particular country. Burke was indeed responding to a concept of citizenship that was so elastic and expanding as to have none of the concrete peculiarities that he believed connected us to both our "littlest platoon" and our country. In this context, Burke's response to Price was even more extensive than the excellent examples that Furniss discusses, but Furniss is mistaken that Burke's distinction between the national characters of the English and that of French was a way of "coaxing the English people into reimagining who they are" (125). In Furniss's reading, Burke reinvents the English character as a way of making the English identify themselves with his traditional terms. But the terms Burke uses--the Englishman as a slow, steady, and traditional man of filiopietistic sensibility--were cultural commonplaces about "John Bull" that Burke crystallized into a recognizable national portrait with which his countrymen could re-identify. Furniss's essay, in general, is replete with a variety of fruitful commentaries, although his conclusion that Burke radically "refashions, reinvents, the national character . . . in response to an emergency which is largely of his own imagining" (141) has the snug security of two centuries and belies the reality of 1790 when practically everyone was reacting towards a "revolutionary" or "counterrevolutionary" emergency that, read it as you will, convulsed Europe throughout the next decade.

While Susan Manly has interesting things to say about anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in context of Burke's position on Dissenters and his personal experience in the Gordon Riots of 1780, she is more interested in Maria Edgeworth's novel Harrington (1817) than Burke's Reflections. She sets up two intertextual interchanges which lead to the novel, starting with Burke's emphasis on the centrality of both family and prejudice and his apparent allusive, hostile response, in the Reflections, to John Toland's attack on family prejudice in Letters to Serena (1704). Later, she considers Maria Edgeworth who is responding to Burke's familial ideology and his supposed anti-Semitism in the Reflections. In this context, Manly contends that she will consider "the insidious anti-Jewishness of his attacks on men of speculation and their role in Revolution" (158), but the evidence for such a large statement is conspicuously missing. She refers to one passage in which Burke makes an anti-Semitic remark referring to Jewish stock jobbers which she couples with another reference to "literary caballers" and argues that the latter is a snide anti-Semitic smear since "caballers" has Jewish associations with "'cabbala,' the rabbinical oral tradition of mystical interpretations from the scriptures" (157-58). Burke's reference to Jewish stock jobbers is, in fact, anti-Semitic, but hardly startling in context of the eighteenth-century in which a whole series of really vicious anti-Semitic statements could be easily culled from innumerable writers on both sides of the revolutionary controversy. With regard to "caballers" (a word originally associated with Jewish oral tradition as it came down from Moses and later, pejoratively, with pretensions to mysticism), one would think that the centrality of "Cabal"--in the sense of a conspiratorial association--in the eighteenth-century vocabulary--would be another semantic candidate for something other than anti-Semitism. For instance, Dr. Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, has one definition for "Caballer": "He that engages in close designs; an intriguer." Manly's two exiguous examples make a fragile case for such a sweeping statement. Likewise, Maria Edgeworth might be responding to Burke in her novel Harrington--she does allusively refer to, at one point, Burke's "little platoon" in the Reflections--and the novel does deal with virulent family prejudice in context of anti-Semitism. However, even granting the tenuousness of Manly's thesis, it would say more about Maria Edgeworth than Edmund Burke.

Angela Keane engages in a new-left reading in which she proposes to deconstruct "the connection between the poetics and politics of Burke's letter in a historically particular way" (194). Concerned initially with the Reflections as a familiar letter, Keane ranges through a variety of topics as she ostensibly shows how Burke is "haunted" by a variety of contradictions. Focusing on Burke's belief in correspondences in which signifier and signified (in politics and society) supposedly reflect each other, she argues that ultimately this unifying fiction falls apart and is "haunted by things which do not correspond" (194). Burke, she maintains, forces correspondences that do not cohere. But this belief in correspondence, which is not as neat as she contends, was a belief that Burke's respondents from the Left also believed as they presented their reciprocal fictions of reality in politics, language, and host of other phenomena. Similarly, she writes about Burke's preoccupation with the new monied-interest, reminding us that speculating in paper money and fictions have no correspondence to reality without apparently realizing that this was also a standard argument of the Left in the 1790s and had a history stretching back to the 1690s. This argument, in fact, had been the formalized language of critics of the Whig oligarchy--on both the Left and Right. Likewise, her discussion of Burke's preoccupation with "luxury"--a preoccupation that both the Left and Right shared and which also has a long history--illustrates the absence of the very historical "base" from which the Marxist critic apparently works. Keane, in effect, continually privileges by assertion one term over another and hence replicates an ideology that is similar to the one that she is allegedly exposing. Not surprisingly, Burke's Enquiry becomes the ghost text through which she conjures up all the contradictions in his "correspondences" by extrapolating onto the Reflections categories from his earlier aesthetic treatise as a way of explaining Burke's discrepancies. Later, in a strange misreading of a passage in the Reflections--where Burke argues very specifically that old evils take new shapes (but have in reality the same essence), and that the new embodied "spirit" continues its "ravages" while people are "terrifying" themselves "with ghosts and apparitions" and that, consequently, their houses become the haunts of real robbers--Keane contends that actually the "re-embodied spirit" does not "correspond" with the past, "with what has gone before" (212). But this is a case of saying makes it so, just as her subsequent connection of Burke's "haunted" language with the image of a "vast, tremendous, unformed specter" that rises at the beginning of the First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796) apparently reappears as Burke's "revenant"--the previously quoted "ghosts and apparitions" of the Reflections--but which does not, to use Keane's own haunted language, "correspond with what has gone before" (212). In the Regicide Peace citation, Burke had radically changed his thinking on the Revolution and was arguing that the Revolution, in fact, resembles nothing in the past. But resemblances, in Manly's essay, become correspondences ipse dixit. In the end, the progressive exorcist engages in forced correspondences that ironically replicate the contradictions and disparities that she contends exist in Burke's Reflections and which return to haunt her own text.

Like most collections of essays, Whale's edition is uneven. It possesses numerous strong, suggestive, and luminous insights into the form and substance of Burke's Reflections, and it illustrates the appropriations of Burke's text in ways that sometimes tell us more about the writers than Burke and the late eighteenth century.

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