ROMANTICISM: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Michael Ferber, Reviewed by Richard Lansdown

By Michael Ferber
(Oxford University Press, 2010) xvi + 148 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Lansdown on 2011-07-12.

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When I read English at university in London -- in the days when all four Beatles were still alive -- there were many mug's guides and helpmeets available for the bewildered undergraduate in that discipline. Longman had a series of "Prefaces" to challenging works of literature, and in that format I remember seeking guidance from C. S. Lewis on Paradise Lost. Cambridge had a series of introductory critical studies on British and Irish authors, and there too I sought guidance from John Barnard on John Keats. Oliver and Boyd, then proudly of Edinburgh, later sold to Longman Pearson, and now defunct, had a long series called "Writers and Critics." (The best such primer I have ever read, S. L. Goldberg's on James Joyce, came from Oliver and Boyd. I never encountered it as an undergraduate, alas.) The British Council had an even longer series, "Writers and their Work," which was showing signs of age even in my day, and which has since descended more steadily into obscurity. Their custard-yellow covers seemed to come musty from the printers, which did not stop me trudging through T. S. Eliot's brochure on George Herbert -- more for the sake of Eliot than the of great metaphysical, it must be said. In those days, American and British publishing were more strictly sequestered, so I don't think we Britons saw much of Twayne's U.S. and English authors, of which there are battalions. Then there was "Past Masters" from Oxford, which boasted pixelated images of great thinkers on their covers, as I recall, and the somewhat more intimidating "Modern Masters" from Fontana, bristling with new and unfamiliar names -- though I remember reading Frank Kermode on D. H. Lawrence there, certainly. And there were some Penguin "Masterguides," stiffly irresolute as to whether they were for senior high-school students or junior undergraduates. And there were series like Macmillan's "Casebooks" or Routledge's "Critical Idiom," which summoned up the energy to re-invent themselves as New Casebooks or New Critical Idioms, as the times dictated.

Then the death of the author came along, and the idea of writing an introductory guide on a literary topic -- never mind a "canonical author," perish the thought -- went into the publisher's equivalent of the twilight zone. It took years for Macmillan and Routledge gingerly to reawaken the old series in their charge, and if introductory guides were needed, they were on the grand masters of grand theory: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, é tutti quanti. In the early 1990s, a friend and I approached Oxford with the idea of adding Lord Byron to the "Past Masters," and the series editor was politely sympathetic, but on the grounds of sales, he said, he had had to make the reluctant decision to keep imaginative authors out. Cambridge was sympathetic, too, but regretted it had no series in which to place such a project -- at which point it went into cryogenic storage.

But the whirligig of time has done what it normally does, and whether because of "the internet," or "gen. Y," or Wikipedia, or "dumbing down," -- though anyone dumber than I was as an undergraduate would be hard to imagine -- the mug's guide is back, red in tooth and claw. To its credit, Cambridge has decided to supplement its successful "Companions" series with one comprised of "Introductions" to plenty of canonical authors and literary topics beside. (So the Lord Byron project is being warmed up, though the commissioning editor tells me the Press undertakes new volumes with caution and care.) To its credit, too, Oxford has invested long and large in its "Very Short Introductions," of which Michael Ferber's on Romanticism is number 245, no less.

True, a series of that length could hardly sustain itself entirely on newly commissioned items, and some old friends from my university days get a second chance at new readers here. Since Oxford seems to have gained access to the "Modern Masters," Jonathan Culler's book on Barthes reappears as a VSI, though thoroughly refreshed. The Press retains its own "Past Masters," too -- though A. J. Ayer's book on Hume (1980) can hardly have had much refreshment since Ayer's death in 1989. Similarly, Oxford published Simon Blackburn's Being Good: A Short Guide to Ethics in 2001, and it reappeared as a VSI to ethics in 2009. OUP makes no particular bones about other similar excerptings and acts of literary cannibalization on its list; why should it? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if these items either retain their old purpose or can be put to new ones, well and good. So we have nearly three hundred little books, from Winston Fletcher on Advertising to Andrew Robinson on Writing and Script -- with tantalizing possibilities along the way, like Terry Eagleton on the Meaning of Life, and Frank Close on Nothing. (Imaginative authors remain where the "Past Masters" put them, it must be said: the only non-philosophical writers to merit a VSI are Kafka and Shakespeare.) To write such books well, and really illuminate the readership for which they are intended, is very difficult -- as I am sure anyone who has made the attempt will agree. But if such notorious undergraduate chokepears as Literary Theory (Jonathan Culler), Postmodernism (Christopher Butler), the Renaissance (Jerry Brotton), and Tragedy (Adrian Poole) can be put to rights by such means, the grande dame of British academic publishing can be proud of her endeavour.

Of such chokepears, Romanticism is certainly one: a movement (if that is what it was) that undergraduates find atrociously nebulous and diverse -- infuriatingly so, in fact, because for most Anglophone readers this is the first phase of English literature that does not put up the sort of semantic and attitudinal barriers they encounter, for example, in Augustan or Renaissance works. Wordsworth is a Dead White European Male, certainly, but the Lucy poems are by no means as intimidating as The Faerie Queene or The Rape of the Lock. The Romantic movement cannot be called simply nebulous, however; it was also more concentrated in certain respects than the Renaissance, less elusive than Postmodernism, and certainly less intellectually befuddling than Literary Theory. Yet many have sought to introduce it to readers at large, and few have succeeded.

In such an attempt -- especially when made with the undergraduate and general readerships in mind -- the opening steps are surely crucial. Readers must feel the subject actually exists. Michael Ferber's steps in Chapter One ("The Meaning of the Word") are well rehearsed, but I am not sure they are the right ones. On our side of the net we professors know about Lovejoy and "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms"; but is his Pyrrhonian (and in my view unduly pessimistic) reading of intellectual history the first thing that should be offered to readers, when a firm foothold might be preferable? Ferber says rightly that "readers of this book deserve an attempt to answer the harder question" as to what great "Romantic" writers had in common (xiii-xiv), but he remains nervous in his preliminary skirmishes. After Lovejoy he takes us on a not very short semantic cruise over the etymology of "Romance," in practically every language under the European sun. Then comes René Wellek, whose set of Romantic "norms" ("imagination for the view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, and symbol and myth for poetic style" [qtd. 9]) is nearly as disorienting as Lovejoy's refusal to entertain any. For good measure Ferber adds Harold Bloom's "internalization of quest romance" (10) before bundling up the whole lot into a definition of his own, only to admit that "Perhaps this will join the long list of deflated definitional balloons some day" (11).

Are readers feeling comfortable and confident by this stage? Ferber was on firmer ground, I think, when he stepped right around these definitional pitfalls and employed Wittgenstein's lucid but flexible idea of "family resemblances" among Romantic figures (9): a notion that allows us to explore any number of relevant and significant Romantic "markers" without requiring us to assimilate Wordsworth and Pushkin completely. The other traditional line open to Ferber, of course, was the more strictly historical one of the Romantic movement as a fundamentally diverse but ultimately coherent rejection of the Enlightenment -- a case made brilliantly by Isaiah Berlin in The Roots of Romanticism (Chatto and Windus, 1999), which Ferber lists in Further Reading but makes no further use of, though he quotes Herder pungently telling his compatriots at the close of the eighteenth century to "spit out the water of the Seine" (qtd. 102) containing the philosophes and all their works. But this historical line of exposition Ferber closes off -- illogically I think. "It is a mistake, above all," he writes, "to see Romanticism as simply succeeding classicism, or the Enlightenment, as if the 18th century were all of a piece" (15; emphasis added). But may not the Enlightenment have had "family resemblances," too, that may be usefully contrasted with those of the Romantic era? If not, why not? If fearless albeit risky generalization (14, xiv) is the life and soul of such very short discussions -- and I'm sure Ferber is right that they are -- why should we apply them to the Romantics but deny them to their intellectual forebears and antagonists?

So the opening dozen pages here do not quite establish that sense of confidence in what is being addressed that is so important for readers new to such topics. Old readers, too, might be struck by Ferber's mention of "strained efforts" to describe Jane Austen as a Romantic, or his view that Blake "is not altogether a Romantic anyway" (12). Those are truly questionable conclusions, and in a book demonstrating such a breadth of knowledge, Austen's role in it is peculiarly unsatisfactory: if Anne Elliott warns anybody "against reading Byron," for example, it is certainly not in Sense and Sensibility, as Ferber says (62), and if a "family resemblance" theory of Romanticism ends up excluding her or the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, then we need to revise the theory.

The remainder of the book is made up of five chapters: on "Sensibility," "The Poet," "Religion, Philosophy, and Science," "The Social Vision of Romanticism," and "The Arts." What informs them all is Ferber's pan-European and pan-historical knowledge of the literature -- to be expected from the editor of the immensely useful European Romantic Poetry (Pearson Longman, 2005). Ferber knows everything, from poets' surrogate existences as forms of bird-life (nightingales, swans, skylarks, eagles), to every last poetaster infected by Ossian, to potted histories of Idealism, to nineteenth-century artists and musicians without number. In this respect, it would be hard to imagine a book better suited to dispel the notion -- common among undergraduates -- that Romantic poetry was a phenomenon confined to the Lake District, Hampstead Heath, and the Pisan expatriates. Of these chapters the best, I am glad to report, is on "The Poet," where I very much envied a neat portrayal of the poéte maudit from Tasso through Ovid to Romantic exile; this reads like the summary of an inspiring lecture. "Dying Poets" fitted here, too, of course; but then the chapter somewhat lost its way in "Widening Meanings" and a ghettoizing of "Women Poets." A touch more conceptualization would surely have tied up such loose ends and left a more concentrated take home message. The breadth of quotation is extremely welcome here, as it is throughout the book; but from a reader's point of view, quoting large amounts of Romantic poetry in translation tends to be underwhelming.

While the other chapters are always helpful, the absence of a clear introduction entails a tendency towards drift and encyclopaedism, which will not help undergraduates find their feet. On many occasions I found myself noting, "too many names," as Ferber rattled through or piled up literary-historical instances which make sense to a professor like me but which might simply intimidate students. "Sensibility" reads that phenomenon as a movement in its own right (30), standing in evolutionary relation to Romanticism, which tends to undermine Ferber's closing comment to the effect that "Romanticism was a revolution" (131). Revolution, evolution, or both? The reader needs plenty of clarity on that point. "Religion, Philosophy, and Science" is excellent on Idealism, cursory on science, and weak on religion, with no real discussion of the religious revivals that powered the German and British movements in the mid to late eighteenth century, as compared with secularist France after 1789. "The Social Vision" has to cover a huge amount of ground (French and Industrial revolutions, nationalism, war, women, and "the exotic"), and does well in doing so. The final chapter, on "The Arts," is less authoritative. When Ferber starts, for example, by saying that "Romanticism was above all a movement of the arts" (121), some unreconstructed Marxist element in me wanted to say that above all, therefore, it must have been a movement of something else, which the arts reflected -- which in turn took me back to my craving for a firmer introduction to the discussion overall, as to where all this was revolutionary change was coming from.

This book will do nobody any harm -- and not just because it is short. There is a great deal of information here, and much to broaden the perspectives of readers new to the Romantic movement, especially in the parochial Anglophone world. Sometimes in these pages knowledge stands in the way of its own impartation, and generally speaking this is a survey, not an account; a discussion of themes, not of sequences. If, like me, you feel that the historical should be the default mode of such introductions, you may miss a sense of being carried along, accordingly; but if you know the "history" and want more texture, you will want to seek out this Very Short Introduction, and see for yourself exactly what student readers would gain from it.

My last comment takes me back to where I began. As far as I can see, most books in this series are available for Kindle -- but not this one. I would encourage the publisher to make them all available in that format; they are eminently suited to it. Steering round Kindle books is a somewhat clunky process at the moment, but it is easy to envisage a time when a VSI like this could nest within itself any number of hyperlinks, to Blake's illuminations, Delacroix's Moroccan journal, Continental poets read out in their native tongues, passages from the Pastoral Symphony -- and to its review on these "pages," too; why not? Vive la bagatelle!

Richard Lansdown is Associate Professor of English at James Cook University, Australia.

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