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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