Romantic Circles Reviews

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiv + 335pp. Illus.: 15 halftones. $31.50/£21.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-674-00168-0).

Reviewed by
James C. McKusick
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate ponders some fundamental questions about the purpose of literary criticism, and of imaginative literature itself, in a time of ever-increasing environmental crisis. He asks: "What are poets for?" (243). Is poetry the authentic representation of reality, or merely the decoration of life? Does it help us to remember our origins, or does it enable us to remain oblivious of the bleak future? Does poetry distract the reader with the soothing sound of Nero's fiddle while Rome burns?

These questions are squarely within the domain of poetics, as that discipline was conceived by Aristotle. In The Song of the Earth, Bate's extended meditation on these questions leads him to a new kind of poetics with an ecological inflection--an ecopoetics, as Bate terms it (thereby coining a useful term for contemporary literary production and critical analysis). In an era of impending ecological doom, the emerging discipline of ecopoetics is engaged in a vital re-vision of the fundamental task of poetry. At the present historical moment, ecocriticism has become more than just a marginal mode of literary analysis, because nature is more than just a passive backdrop or setting for the human drama of literature. Bate provocatively argues that the pastoral theme, because it raises the perennial question of the relationship between humankind and the natural world, "is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself" (74).

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

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.

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

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.

Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Edited by Judith Pascoe

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."

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

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.

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

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. 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.

Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity

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.

Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism

Susan J. Wolfson, Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford University Press 1997. xiv + 344pp. illus: 10 b&w. $39.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8047-2657-4).  $19.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8047-3662-6).

Reviewed by
Robert Kaufman
Stanford University

Maybe the best thing that ever could have happened to those contemporary literary criticisms passionately committed to history, material culture, and the sociopolitical in general—not to mention theory—was the challenge of a reinvigorated formalist criticism. Such a challenge is more than a speculative possibility or even a late development: there is a long if discontinuous narrative of the historical (or social, political, cultural), theoretical, and formal camps sharpening one another's critical instruments through amicable, cordial, or hostile joinings of debate. Just within the past few decades' Romanticism-focussed studies, contributions made through and across these categories have helped clarify and reconceptualize literature's relationships to its traditional Others. Yet questions have been raised about whether the players in these contests have already, against their own intentions, been caught in an antiquarian fiction. For this moment in criticism is often enough said to be the Jetztzeit of a fateful disciplinary drama, in which cultural studies ruthlessly analyzes new-just-yesterday versions of historically and theoretically oriented literary study, finding them effectively to have become the latest (last? parasitic? reliquary? finally transitional?) incarnations of a superannuated formalism whose few remaining drops have dripped into our exponentially postformalist era. Still, some contrary evidence suggests that reports of the demise of historically and theoretically inclined literary scholarship may be premature. And it would prove no small measure of poetic justice and post-Romantic irony if concerns for history and theory should in turn find themselves inextricably bound to the survival of form and formalism within literary studies. At any rate, questions about the formal's status vis-à-vis the material, sociopolitical, and historical may not be so moot after all.

Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change, 1700–1830

Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change, 1700–1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. x + 285pp. $41.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-5696-5).  $16.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8018-6284-1).

Reviewed by
Ian Balfour
York University

Writing sure is work. And if anyone were in doubt about it, she or he will be persuaded by Clifford Siskin's new and challenging book that probes the fact(s) and the idea of writing during a period when it was particularly transformed and transforming. Siskin's title has a double resonance: he is interested in the work writing does and, to a lesser degree, in writing about work. A book concerned with the former need not address the latter, work being only one among the almost infinite possible subjects or topics of writing. But the conjunction is fortuitous, and one of the numerous virtues of this book on the longish eighteenth century is its attention to the too often unexamined matter of labor (adding to the labors of Donna Landry, Anne Janowitz et al.).

Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle

Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xix + 313pp. illus. $29.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22731-0).

Reviewed by
Judith Thompson
Dalhousie University

The Romantic period, with its literary circles and coteries, its close collaborations and incestuous alliances, has long offered fertile ground for the development of a new form of literary biography, that would be more intersubjective, intertextual and historicized, taking into account recent research into plural nature of subjectivity and textuality as well as new historical understanding of the way the "lives of the poets" are interwoven with, and constructed in collaboration with, their others (readers, editors, publishers) and their material and economic circumstances. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the presence of such group biographies as William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys, or Nicholas Roe's carefully historicized and intertextual Wordsworth and Coleridge: the Radical Years, little has been done to break down prevailing and longstanding notions, originating in the Romantic period, of biography as the writing of a singular self. While the loosening of the canon and the rediscovery of women writers have, as it were, enlarged the optical field to take in ever more moons and satellites, the gravitational pull of the Romantic ideology is so powerful that our attention seems inevitably drawn to the center of any subjective universe.

Kathleen Jones's A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle exemplifies the difficulty of breaking prevailing paradigms. In choosing to write a group biography focused on the moons and satellites of planet Wordsworth, she makes an admirable effort to recenter and enlarge our perspective upon romantic subjectivity and life-writing. She moves the Great Men, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, to the margins, where they appear only relationally, weaving in and out of the lives of one another and of the women in their lives, the multiplicitous Saras, Marys, Ediths and Dorothys who are the real subject of this biography. Their wifely, sisterly, motherly and daughterly talents as emotional and domestic managers, building and navigating an intricate web of relationships, facilitated the creation of great romantic poetry (and greater romantic egos), but took an enormous emotional and physical toll. This book opens up rich territory, and it is to Jones's credit that she attempts to look at it whole, to interweave multiple stories and trace patterns of similarity and difference between generations, all the while drawing our attention to the ineluctable realities, economic, material, domestic and physiological, that underlie, underwrite and undercut the grand romantic story. In the end, however, her book does not succeed—not because of its plural topic, but because of its theoretical reductiveness. Relying upon limited and outdated sources, reflecting not at all upon its own methodology, paying scant attention to its subjects as writers, A Passionate Sisterhood, like its subjects, fails to live up to its own creative potential.