THE ROMANTICS AND THEIR CONTEMPORARIES by David Damrosch, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning, eds., Reviewed by Stephen Prickett

Eds. David Damrosch, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning
VOL. 2A OF THE LONGMAN ANTHOLOGY OF BRITISH LITERATURE, FIFTH EDITION paperback (Pearson, 2012) xxxviii + 1221 pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Prickett on 2015-03-07.

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As this reviewer knows very well from personal experience, anthologies are by their nature both complex and controversial. There is no such thing as impartial selection. The mere act of choosing and assembling contents involves a myriad of factors by which, consciously or unconsciously, editors bend any given volume to a particular bias. One solution is to make the personality of the editor a virtue in itself -- as when Oxford University Press invited W.B. Yeats to edit the 1936 edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse; another is to try to eliminate bias by creating an editorial team. On all occasions some kind of theoretical statement usually helps to clarify the aims and objectives of the selection.

In this volume Longmans goes for the team in a big way, with no less than eleven editors -- seven men and four women. (Besides the four listed above, they include Christopher Baswell, Clare Carroll, Andrew Hadfield, Heather Henderson, Anne Schotter, William Sharpe, and Stuart Sherman.) In turn, the editors have taken pains to explain exactly what they hope to achieve with this volume, and how they hope to do it: by highlighting the social context of their selections. Admirable as this general principle is, however, it has inevitably shaped the method of selection itself. Thus, in addition to material on the ever-dominant French Revolution and its "reverberations" (a particularly well-chosen word), together with the various concepts of the imagination (both traditional anthology staples), we have excerpts on a series of much more targeted historical controversies, which are given the rather strange heading of "Perspectives."

These cover a good deal of ground. For Americans, a section on the often misunderstood British monarchy -- both reviled and, more rarely, defended in Britain at this time -- is most helpful. Other useful "perspectives" include the "never-resting labour'" of industrial England, Slavery, the Abolition campaign, the Rights of Man, and the very different case of the rights of women. The literary theory of the Romantic period is covered by "perspectives" on "the Sublime, the Beautiful, and the Picturesque," and, at the very end, on "Popular Prose and the Problems of Authorship." Predictable authors are accompanied by less predictable ones. On one hand, more than half of this substantial volume presents what are rather quaintly called "Literary Ballads" -- better known as the conventional canon of Romantic poetry. But besides all the usual suspects -- Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats (with guest appearances from Macpherson, Moore, Clare and Scott) -- we have substantial contributions from Barbauld, Smith, Robinson, Wollstonecraft, Ballie, Hemans, and, of course, Dorothy Wordsworth. Less well represented is Mary Shelley, who gets a mere three entries. But besides a very short extract from Frankenstein, the other two are pleasantly unusual: her poetic response to Wordsworth's "Peele Castle" and, by far the longest and most unusual, her complete short story, "The Swiss Peasant."

The result is mostly admirable in both its range and clarity of objectives. Every attempt has been made to introduce Romantic literature in an interdisciplinary mode, showing all the complexity of its relation to the society of the time. As we have seen, few works that would have been familiar to a reader of a century ago have been omitted. What such a reader would have missed, of course, is the material by women writers, and what one might call the "literary synapses" -- the connections and interconnections that show how this mass of material is linked to and grew from British society at this particular moment in time. If there is originality in this selection, it is here. Whether or not modern American students really are as ill-informed as Allan Bloom has claimed in The Closing of the American Mind (1986), which has not been my admittedly limited experience, this volume is at least self-explanatory. The major social and intellectual controversies of the period are first editorially outlined and then substantially exemplified by the words of contemporary observers. There is also an excellent editorial section on the economics of early nineteenth-century Britain, which was undergoing the fastest changes in world history even while disrupted by twenty five years of seemingly interminable war with France.

One of the more attractive aspects of this anthology is the illustrations, which are sometimes given a full page in color. The cover picture, Turner's Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1835), is effectively explained as both an exercise in Romantic sublimity and a piece of (inadvertent) political symbolism illuminated by an extract from Charles Dickens's typically wry comment on the whole affair. Then, to sketch a larger picture of Romantic-era Britain as a whole, four pages of "at-a-glance" statistics, covering population growth, incomes, cost of goods, food and drink, clothing, and a timeline of principal events from 1760 to 1834. This information is suitably enlivened by black and white marginalia, with portraits of leading figures, an engraving of the Gordon Riots, and political cartoons. Other small black and white pictures appear at intervals throughout the text. The color plates are both splendid and various (though arranged in an unusual, unexplained order), with the significance of each specified. They include history (John Martin's The Bard, 1817) and contemporary portraits such as Gainsborough's Mary Robinson (1781), the actress, poet, and royal mistress; Thomas Phillips's Lord Byron (1814); and an anonymous painting of the former slave, Olaudah Equiano, as a British gentleman. The color plates also include Turner's The Slave Ship (1840), some of Blake's illustrations to The Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), and finally, Joseph Wright of Derby's Iron Forge Viewed from Without (1773).

Yet for all this welter of easily-digested information, there are still important gaps. The most glaring is undoubtedly religion. The period covered by this volume was one of the most controversial in the religious history of the United Kingdom. Even as the perennial suppression of Irish Catholicism by the Protestant Ascendency helped to provoke the attempted French invasions of Ireland in 1796/7 and 1798, the Established Church of England was in worse decline at the end of the century than at any time since. Its services drew almost no one. On Easter Day 1800, the day when all Anglicans were conventionally expected to attend church and take communion, St Paul's Cathedral in London, then the largest Christian church in the largest Christian city in the world, hosted a mere six communicants. In 1807, the first year for which we have any figures, they tell a grim tale: out of some 10,000 odd benefices, no fewer than 6145 clergy (61 % --nearly two thirds) were non resident, which meant, in effect, that probably at least half the churches in the country had no regular services.

From this low religion rose again. One of the most dramatic records of the whole Romantic period is the story of how the Anglican Church clawed its way back from the brink of extinction to the high point of Victorian religiosity marked in the census of 1851, when just over 50% of the English population claimed some form of Church allegiance. Central to this story and to many of the debates of the period are Coleridge's later writings, the rise and influence of the "Clapham Sect," and opposition to it. Nor should we overlook what this extraordinary revival gained from the dissenting churches -- Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians -- which collectively contributed to what is sometimes called the "nonconformist conscience." Meanwhile the Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Wiseman (Browning's Bishop Blougram), and later by renegade Anglicans such as Manning and Newman, began to emerge as a major influence on public opinion. Unlike today's clerical leaders, Catholics such as Manning and Newman and Anglicans such as Charles Kingsley and F.D. Maurice were also well regarded novelists and even poets. In some ways, even more remarkable in this period is the growth and influence of numerically minor groups--Quakers and Unitarians. Without the drive and reforming zeal of these denominations, the great reforms of the 1830s -- with changes in the suffrage, abolition of slavery, factory reform acts, and attempts to relieve poverty -- would have come to nothing. Romanticism and religion were two aspects of the same force, and to ignore the latter is to distort the former.

Even stranger in some ways is the editors' silence on the history of the key word of this anthology, "Romanticism" itself. While the opening essay ("Romance, Romanticism, and the Powers of the Imagination") excellently examines the origins and uses of the English word "romance" at this time, this essay nowhere explains why the word "Romantic" is now applied to English and European writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Having little to do with the traditional meaning of "romance," the meaning of "Romantic" as a period term chiefly derives from Hyppolite Taine, the French literary historian who borrowed the German name from the group of self-styled "Romantics" in Jena. After first applying it to French writers of the same period, Taine later used it of English writers in his widely acclaimed History of English Literature (1862-7: translated 1871-2). Consequently, as a descriptive term for the literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "Romantic" is a very late nineteenth-century invention. It is surely a truism that none of the writers anthologized in this collection would have understood the term "Romantic" as applied to themselves, or could have seen themselves as in any way constituting a common movement. The Lake Poets-- Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth -- would have been astonished to find themselves classified with louche aristocrats such as Byron and Shelley, let alone with urban working-class eccentrics such as Blake.

In many ways, this is one of the best anthologies of the period yet produced. The selection of literature well represents the period and many of its concerns, and the illustrations are excellent. But it is a pity that even such an outstanding team of editors should have missed something as vital as the vast spiritual re-awakening which was to charge so many of the other concerns of the period, or should not have explained the origins of their own key critical term.

Stephen Prickett, Regius Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Glasgow and an Honorary Professor of the University of Kent, is the editor of European Romanticism: A Reader, reviewed elsewhere on this site.

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