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Dustin Griffin, Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain & David Morse, The Age of Virtue: British Culture from the Restoration to Romanticism

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 08:11
Dustin Griffin, Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. x + 316pp.  Illus.: 7 halftones.  $60.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-81118-X).
David Morse, The Age of Virtue: British Culture from the Restoration to Romanticism. New York: Palgrave, 2000.  viii + 330pp.  $69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22353-6).

Reviewed by
George Justice
University of Missouri-Columbia

Both of these books take seriously affective identifications that are commonly depreciated as "ideology" in much recent critical study. Dustin Griffin's Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain examines well-known poets during the century in the context of various understandings of "patriotism"; David Morse's The Age of Virtue surveys a broad swath of writing during the century in relation to "virtue." A strength of both books is the flexibility with which they address their topics. Patriotism and virtue emerge from these studies as crucial ways through which writers understood themselves and their culture. The authors' takes on their subjects result in refreshing works of scholarship (in the case of Griffin's book) and criticism (in the case of Morse's sometimes maddening book). Some readers may rush through the pages of these books looking for a central argument, but the absence of artificially unifying theses emerges, finally, as a strength rather than a weakness.

Griffin's book contains impeccable scholarship that draws readers' attention back to the merits of the poets under primary discussion: Thomson, Akenside, Collins, Gray, Dyer, Goldsmith, Smart, Cowper, and Yearsley. Griffin situates his study in the context of post-9/11 America, but his poets' engagement with their nation and its times is far more subtle than the packaged and produced patriotism that has turned tragedy into a marketing opportunity in the past two years. There is, Griffin argues, no single "patriotism" to which his poets adhere. Instead, the poets of the period engage an extended range of events and public characters in their love and concern for their country. Thus, John Dyer's triumphant celebration of the British wool trade in The Fleece is not necessarily any more "patriotic," in the historical terms that Griffin recovers, than Oliver Goldsmith's nostalgic lament for the lost countryside in The Deserted Village. Following the ambivalence of Pope's relationship with his country--which Griffin discusses in his first couple of chapters--the poets of the eighteenth century respond to the great national events of war, politics, and the economy with a mixture of criticism and celebration.

Griffin's book is thoroughly researched. Much of the argumentation is focused on long-standing debates within the scholarship on the particular poets the study addresses. The broader analysis follows, perhaps too closely, Linda Colley's magisterial study, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale Univ. Press, 1992). Griffin takes from Colley a central interest in the "forging" of a new British nation in the century through means of communication, including poetry. Patriotic poetry about the new nation, Griffin suggests, replaces the older form of the epic. The book is interesting throughout, but I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Dyer, Goldsmith, Cowper and Smart, and Yearsley (the latter also including a broad analysis of female poets throughout the century, from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anna Barbauld). More on the women poets would have been welcome, but the book is long already. Griffin's book is a useful corrective to studies, often of a single author, that make broad claims about the relationship between poetry and the state in the early modern era. Readers interested in these large issues and more specialized readers interested in particular figures will alike find Patriotism and Poetry a worthwhile read. These poets--often celebrated for a "preromantic" turn inward--not only addressed matters of national import, but they also tried to forge for themselves, and for poetry generally, a new public role as critic, celebrant, and prophet.

Both Griffin and David Morse see John Brown's Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757) as a central work for their purposes. Brown's dark vision of mid-century Britain serves for Morse's many authors as a spur to a continued defense of "virtue" against the onslaught of material history and its attendant philosophies, most particularly Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714). Whereas Griffin's broad understanding of patriotism in the period proves to be an effectively loose organizing structure for his analysis of poetry's public role, Morse's similarly broad understanding of virtue ends up detracting from the value of his study. Morse begins by saying that virtue in the period is nearly indefinable. Although he alludes at many points to the period's classical associations, reference to philosophical texts is minimal. More problematically, Morse's text seems to assume that there is a coherent notion of virtue that underlies both his authors' perceptions and his own critical analysis.

Like Griffin, Morse wants a flexible definition for his thematic subject. Unlike Griffin, however, Morse is unable to focus his thoughts into a unified argument beyond locating a "discourse of virtue" throughout eighteenth-century literature. Morse organizes his book thematically. Virtue is located on the outside for most of the century: in political opposition ("Virtue Excluded"), class and gender ("Virtue from Below"), the countryside and geographical periphery ("Provincial Virtue"), and innovative literary form ("The Romantics and Virtue"). Morse complicates things by breaking down the oppositions that structure his chapters, but the broad framework allows him ample space to expatiate, usually in five- to ten-page chunks, upon authors and their works. Morse's book is encyclopedic: he tries to cover nearly every major author and work in the century. This range is as often a weakness as a strength. The book reads like a series of lecture notes for a year-long survey of eighteenth-century literature strung together with connecting passages. Morse is a lively writer with much of interest to say about the books he discusses, but the lack of engagement with contemporary scholarship will diminish the book's usefulness to professionals: there is no mention of Michael McKeon's analysis of "questions of virtue" in the century, perhaps because Morse dismisses J. G. A. Pocock's influential argument on civic virtue in two brief paragraphs concerning Cato's Letters. Similarly, the breezily confident analysis of the literature made by Morse overrules the subtlety of the responses to virtue that the book's thesis describes.

The Age of Virtue will perhaps be most useful to graduate students preparing for exams and wishing for a refresher course in the period and a hook to organize their thoughts. Those graduate students should be warned, though, not to emulate the terrible job of proofreading done either by the author and/or Macmillan/St. Martin's. There are misspellings, incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and other mistakes on practically every page. The author apparently does not know how to use commas. Morse is a lively thinker, but the lack of a strong structure, minimal engagement with other scholars, and the poor presentation make this book seem like a rough draft or outline rather than a book published by a reputable press.

It is good to see scholars interested in recovering what crucial terms like patriotism and virtue meant to writers in the time they were writing. Dustin Griffin's Patriotism and Poetry is an important recuperation of the public role that many eighteenth-century poets aspired to, and the close readings made in conjunction with historical scholarship will make this an important work for readers interested in eighteenth-century poetry. It is too bad that Griffin's book appeared after David Morse's: Morse might have used Patriotism and Poetry as a model for the careful attention to detail that his The Age of Virtue unfortunately lacks.