A COMPANION TO ROMANTIC POETRY by Charles Mahoney, ed., Reviewed by Rowan Boyson
 

A COMPANION TO ROMANTIC POETRY
Ed. Charles Mahoney
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) xiii + 625 pp.
Reviewed by Rowan Boyson on 2011-09-07.

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This book arrived at my desk like the person who turns up at your party uninvited but who nevertheless charms you out of your potential frostiness by immediately making herself useful. Before I knew it, I was looking up terms and titles in the index, following the trails of cross-reference, and in general very happy to have this handsome volume to hand. Priced at £110 ($132), this book will probably not find many individual buyers, but I hope that many university and departmental libraries will purchase it, to the great benefit of students and faculty alike. Comprising 625 pages and very nicely produced, it represents good value, and I believe that many of these thirty-four excellent essays will be consulted for years to come.

Charles Mahoney's Introduction claims the volume is original in two ways: it covers a broader range of poets than the traditional Big Six, and it refocuses our attention on "form, metre and genre." To judge by the length of index entries, the first claim is only partly convincing, since the book effectively adds just one author to the canonical six-- John Clare. In the critical attention he receives, he stands last in a line headed by Wordsworth (by far the most discussed), then Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Blake, and Byron. Some less well-known authors turn up in Karen Weisman's fascinating discussion of the Anglo-Jewish poets Grace Aguilar and Emma Lyon, and in Simon Jarvis's account of how the couplets of Charles Churchill "escape" those of Pope. There are excellent discussions of Felicia Hemans, Leigh Hunt, Robert Burns and Letitia Elizabeth Landon. But contributors have little to say about Robert Southey, once of great cultural prominence, and few consider the reception and book-history questions provocatively raised by William St. Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004). Future attempts to address those questions within formalist work would be welcomed. The dogged persistence of the canon is noteworthy, and in this instance its slight reshuffling shows how much "new formalism" favors Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Clare. Essentially lyric poets, they seem to speak to the intellectual themes often preferred by twenty-first century critics, such as sensation and the environment.

But even if such topics are favorites of modern critics, it is refreshing to see that "themes" are not foregrounded in the book's organization. Instead of making form an afterthought to "The Nation" or "The Body," for example, the volume boldly begins with an outstanding set of essays under the rubric "Forms and Genres." And in the subsequent sections, formalism is everywhere apparent: in unembarrassed references to the beauty of the poetry; in complex considerations of the life and afterlife of genres like pastoral and the ode; and in the way many of the essays seek to understand a poet's distinctive achievement. After "Forms and Genres" come three (shorter) parts, respectively: "Production and Distribution, Schools and Movements," "Contemporary Contexts and Perspectives" and "Critical Issues and Current Debates." The distinction between the third and fourth parts is not entirely clear: "Contemporary Contexts" includes performance, sport, illustration, celebrity, science, Gnosticism and Milton; "Critical Issues" houses essays on the sublime, asceticism, environmentalism, modern reception, and so on. Mahoney admits in the Introduction that these two parts overlap considerably, and that Part IV is, essentially, a little more theoretical than the rest.

This volume does well to avoid reductive thematic labels as well as simplistic methodological divisions between theory and history. But its relatively loose categorization, and some long, allusive titles, might make it hard for students to locate relevant essays. For instance, Anne-Lise Francois's absorbing essay on pleasure and renunciation in the poetry of Keats is entitled, "The Feel of Not to Feel It: or the Pleasures of Enduring Form." In another book, this essay might be located under "The Senses" or "Gender"-- categories that may be called tedious and reductive but may still be useful. In both section headings and chapter titles a little more explicitness or just brevity would help direct the casual reader to relevant work without undermining the complexity and richness of the analysis. In other words, however much one aims to foreground forms and genres, one cannot avoid the question of what "ideas" are at stake in literature. While we may criticize the shorthand terms traditionally used to navigate the waters of Romanticism, we can't simply discard them.

Mahoney's contributors range from active, established university scholars to junior academics. But except for a handful of English and Scottish contributors, two from Canada, and one lone voice from a continental European institution, they are all American. On the other hand, the volume gains a pleasing freshness from the fact that its contributors are almost completely different from those of two recent authoritative collections -- The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry (2008) and the Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature (2009). Likewise, while the contributors often cite such well-established luminaries as M.H. Abrams, Geoffrey Hartman, Jerome McGann, John Barrell, and Marjorie Levinson, the book also points the way to new intellectual paths.

Sparkling with wit and verve, several of the essays remind us that even within the format of a handbook, literary critical writing can still be stylish. Mahoney's "The Temptations of Tercets" trips as quickly and alluringly as the stanzaic form it describes, which turns out to be surprisingly important for the Romantics even though it gets short shrift in such an august reference work as the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Timothy Bahti's essay on the sublime in Wordsworth's Prelude is also enjoyably and thought-provokingly elegant. It begins by asking us: "Imagine an Aeolian harp. Take a board with some strings on it and hang it in a tree. Let the wind blow through and make music" (483), and ends with the idea of Barnett Newman shopping for paint. Bahti thus frames his essay to make us think about how the sensual actually is "imagined."

Since the Blackwell Companions series is said by its publisher to be aimed at "the experienced undergraduate and new graduate," contributors have to strike a balance between accessibility and interest. And many of the essays in this volume achieve this very well, offering a suitably general view of a topic while rooted in the critic's individual interests and ideas. For instance, Gordon Teskey manages to make something fresh out of a topic he must know inside out -- Milton's legacy for the Romantics. Though he includes indispensable information for the first-time reader (e.g., that Blake's Urizen suggests both "your reason" and "horizon"), he also pushes home strong arguments of his own: that geographical accuracy and sensitivity are the first things the Romantics take from Milton, that they are wedded to rhyme in a way Milton never was, and that Blake is the only Romantic writer whose engagement with Milton could be considered "serious" on Milton's own (religious) terms. Most contributors place their work within the history of literary criticism without going into exhaustive, quickly dating detail. For instance, Jane Moore sketches the critical history of Celtic Romanticism from Matthew Arnold to Katie Trumpener and John Kerrigan, but doesn't delve so deeply into their disagreements that she blurs her focus on the poetry of Hemans and Burns. The useful cross-referencing system prompts us to "See Also" essays on ballads, satire, labouring-class poetry, and sexual politics, reminding us that the nation is only one context within which to see Romantic authors.

Given its stress on formalism, this volume also reminds us how much the Romantic poets draw from older poets: their "networks" are not just immediate and local but stretch back decades, even centuries, in a longue durée. Simon Jarvis's deep and bracing essay on the couplet insists that we not only recognize the melodic properties of each line, but also measure the work of individual poets against that of much earlier and later poets. "Crabbe's early verse," writes Jarvis, "is not only stiff but also packed, dense with stresses and markings. In falling short of or in relinquishing Pope's ease and brilliance, it develops other effects of its own" (33). Implicitly Jarvis urges us to respect the poets we lean upon, and he sounds a note of irritation about the modern professional imperative to "do a reading" (p.40) and to generate what he calls an "instant hermeneutical payoff" (p.42). Other essays, particularly those on genre, set Romanticism within an historical--and frequently classical-- context much longer than a decade or even a single year (such as 1798 or 1819) favoured by New Historicism. Metaphors of "long shadows" and "afterlives" recur in Christopher Miller's piece on "Pastoral Elegy." After promising to "stir up a few shades" at the beginning of her piece on the "The Romantic Ode and its Afterlives, " Esther Schor takes her story forward to the modern poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum. Indeed, several of the essays bring Romanticism into the present, not necessarily by asserting its supposed relevance for current affairs but by stressing its poetic offspring. Willard Spiegelman, for instance, documents the modern American absorption of Romanticism's ordinary and prosaic poetics. Guinn Batten's unusual, thought-provoking piece links Seamus Heaney and Jacques Lacan to Wordsworth. Both later authors, she shows, allude to Wordsworth and share with him overarching philosophical ideas (the impossibility of natural piety, violence, Sovereignty) as well as comparable political events (the French Revolution, May 1968 and the Troubles).

Batten's discussion of the political contexts and meanings of Romantic poetry is welcome, particularly in the context of what Michael O'Neill well terms the "long withdrawing roar of historicist or ideologically theorized reaction against aestheticism" (p.9). Though the book as a whole never utterly repudiates ideology critique, it might sometimes have paid more attention to the questions that previous critics have raised about class privilege, patriarchy, and global power. Eliciting the tensions between old ideology-critique and new formalism in his essay on labouring-class poets, Michael Scrivener argues that "the critical task now is to read the aesthetic ideologically and read the ideological aesthetically" (p.235). But though he closely reads two Luddite poems and two "Jew Songs," much of his essay is biographical rather than formal, revealing once more how difficult it is to take formalism outside of the canon. History is scaled down in this volume. In Parts II and III, it flows in narrow, albeit very interesting, channels: the history of sport (John Strachan), the Surrey Institution (Sarah M. Zimmerman), and experimental research on perception (Ross Hamilton). But the topics of old-fashioned, big-picture history-- Empire, War, Parliament, Philosophy of History-- are conspicuous by their absence from the volume as a whole. Will those topics re-enter a newly formalist or aesthetic criticism of Romanticism, and if so, how? Simon Jarvis affirms that the historical changes of verse style must "be related in some way to broader social and historical change," but admits that we are "still a very long way from being able to demonstrate how these relations might work" (p.41). Nevertheless, this volume represents a very fine beginning of a revitalized approach to what we still call Romantic poetry. It should interest a wide range of scholars and encourage them to find new ways of understanding, questioning, and celebrating its poetic legacy.

Rowan Boyson is a Research Fellow in English at King's College, Cambridge.


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