Romantic Circles Reviews

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.

Susan Cabell Djabri, with Annabelle F. Hughes and Jeremy Knight, The Shelleys of Field Place: The Story of the Family and their Estates & The Letters of Bysshe and Timothy Shelley and Other Documents from Horsham Museum & the West Sussex Record Office

Susan Cabell Djabri, with Annabelle F. Hughes and Jeremy Knight, The Shelleys of Field Place. The Story of the Family and their Estates. Horsham, West Sussex: Horsham Museum Society for Horsham, Museum, 2000. iv + 200pp., illus: 23 b&w (maps, tables, etc.) + 1 color. £10. (Pbk; ISBN: 1-902484-08-8).
The Letters of Bysshe and Timothy Shelley and Other Documents from Horsham Museum & the West Sussex Record Office. Transcribed and annotated by Susan C. Djabri and Jeremy Knight. Horsham, West Sussex. Horsham Museum Society for Horsham Museum, 2000. ii + 186pp., illus: 14 b&w + 1 color. £10. (Pbk; ISBN: 1-902484-09-6).

Reviewed by
Nora Crook
Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge

First, a brief preamble on the context of the production of the books under review. Horsham in Sussex, over the two past centuries, has been mostly luke-warm about its most famous son, but Shelley's bicentennial year (1992) and the growth of the British heritage enterprise business provided an occasion for a public shift. The dramatic and original Shelley Fountain (1996) now graces the Horsham Arts Centre; exhibitions have been mounted, including one on Mary Shelley (1997), complete with a small laboratory within which a fearsome Creature realistically heaved its bosom. Visitors can follow a Shelley trail, while in the last decade the attractive little local museum has nurtured its own archive and has built up, through bequests and local sponsorship, an impressive Shelley book collection, probably the largest open to the public in the UK outside universities and the British Library. Scholars are welcomed. Items may be studied with three working days' notice; a few printed holdings are unique, such as a copy of Medwin's 1847 Life of Shelley containing Richard Garnett's own transcription of Medwin's autograph corrections.

Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination

Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1998. 208pp. $18.95 (Pbk; ISBN: 0-940262-88-6).

Reviewed by
Sheila A. Spector
Independent Scholar

The task of reviewing for a scholarly journal a book intended for a popular audience invites a comparison between what are essentially two completely different genres—the trade book and the scholarly monograph—as well as some speculation about the gap that separates the two. When the book, like Paul Davies's Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination, deals with so-called New Age teachings, the problems are compounded because at least since the Enlightenment, the rationalists dominating intellectual matters in the West have relegated studies of the occult to the outer margins of what has, as a result, become commonly viewed as some sort of pseudo-scholarship. Yet, as the persistent appearance throughout the centuries of books like Davies's suggests, significant numbers of people, even in the rational West, have always been and continue to be attracted to areas of supposedly unenlightened thought, so the question for the reviewer is not whether or not to condemn a popular text for lacking scholarly rigor but, rather, to consider its implications for academics.

Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by
Charlotte Sussman
University of Colorado at Boulder

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

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. Ed. Iain McCalman

An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776–1832. General Editor, Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.  xiii + 780pp. illus: 110 halftones. $150/£85 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-19-812297-7).

Reviewed by
Alex Benchimol
University of Glasgow

It is the subtitle to An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age that signals its intended function as an introduction to the cultural history of the period from the American Declaration of Independence to the Great Reform Act. In the breadth of its investigations into all manner of cultural practice in the Romantic age, this new volume serves as a fitting culmination to the recent trend towards multidisciplinarity in Romantic period studies. Through general editor Iain McCalman's judicious assemblage of over forty major essays that bring together literary,cultural, social, economic, and art historians under one cover, this critical companion avoids offering a reductive definition of Romantic cultural practice, and thus the volume might be considered the first post-Romanticist scholarly companion for the Romantic age;that is, while taking up the material of the period we have called "romantic,"the volume moves beyond the Romantic ideology mapped by Jerome McGann and embraces the new inter- and multidisciplinary approaches to the field, beyond the standard Romanticist focus on textual issues in canonical poetry. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Agecaptures the conflicted intellectual spirit of the field, as recent work has unsettled the traditional sense of "Romanticism" as a privileged area of study focused on the canonical work of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Blake. By institutionalizing the pluralist trend in Romantic period studies, this volume marks a key moment in the struggle to redefine our understanding of the culture of the Romantic age.

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

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

Reviewed by
Christopher Braider
University of Colorado at Boulder

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

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease

Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Medicine and Culture Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xviii + 374pp. illus: 17 line drawings, 2 halftones. $45.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-6225-6).

Reviewed by
Timothy Morton
University of Colorado at Boulder

"As a study of the geographical dimension of disease during the Romantic period, Romanticism and Colonial Disease examines the role played in the making and unmaking of national identities by ideas about the geographical distribution of diseases and what kind of people were susceptible to them" (17). This is a modestly stated plan. But Alan Bewell's project, while posed as the recovery of empirical information, has a grander view than this: it is a strong work of ecocriticism.