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Robert Miles, Romantic Misfits

Friday, October 1, 2010 - 09:55
Robert Miles, Romantic Misfits (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). 256pp (Hdbk., $75.00; ISBN: 9781403989932).

Reviewed by
Celestine Woo
SUNY Empire State College

Robert Miles’s Romantic Misfits is an erudite, far-ranging reconsideration of Romanticism that cleverly fuses both old and new conceptualizations of the period. Miles recuperates a more conservative (in more than one sense) reading of Romanticism, returning to older sites of scholarly interest in order to defamiliarize them with recent work on theatre, science, and hitherto unrecognized writers and genres. Miles writes for an advanced audience familiar with major theorists, scholars, and arguments within Romantic studies. Even graduate students may find portions of Romantic Misfits difficult to parse without aid, especially the discussion of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and its political context (which arrives with minimal explanation), or the ongoing presumption that the reader has internalized the thought of Jürgen Habermas as fully as Miles. This is not to say, however, that Romantic Misfits is an abstruse, arcane book—at its best, the prose is lucid, even lyrical.

A few years ago, I taught a course entitled “The Romantic Outsider,” in which I used the trope of the outsider to interrogate both canonical and non-canonical romanticisms, beginning with the Wordsworthian poet of Nature as figural outsider, then proceeding to the “outsiders” of genre (especially theatre) and gender. What Miles has done in his excellent monograph is analogous to these experiments, though Romantic Misfits develops its arguments far more thoroughly. Its opening sentence cuts to the core of the paradox of the canonically noncanonical: “Although all Romantics are misfits some misfits did not fit” (1). Miles delineates his project as a critique of institutionalized Romanticism, beginning with an examination of the Victorian reception (and creation) of the Romantic, as the “original moment of canon formation—of Romantic misfitting—in order to [… analyze] what was excluded in the process” (5). In answer to Jerome McGann’s “Romantic Ideology”, Miles proposes to re-read Romanticism not as an institution of shared themes or commitments, but rather as a period characterized by the emergence of two formations in dialectical opposition: a radical Enlightenment and its reactionary counter, the latter ultimately privileged by the Victorians (8).

Romantic Misfits is well grounded in historicist scholarship, particularly the work done by Jon Klancher, Kevin Gilmartin and Iain McCalman. Supplementing these historicisms with the theoretical work of Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu, Miles situates the “normative ideal” of Romanticism in the trope of the misfit, selecting indicative case studies as exemplary targets. The first chapter analyzes the famous “Shakespearian” forgeries of William Henry Ireland, contending that Shakespeare constituted a central normative ideal within Romantic discourse, and thus, a fitting lens through which to view misfitted notions. Miles reads Ireland’s Confessions in light of the Habermasian public sphere, in order to reveal a privileged moment for the construction of romantic forms of subjectivity, illusion, and national sentiment, as the debate over Ireland’s forgeries merged the political and literary, casting the figure of the injured Bard as a metonym for the nation. Following Linda Colley, Miles punningly analogizes the outrage over Ireland’s temerity at forging Shakespeare with the nation’s growing concern with forging English nationalism. The analysis is innovative, and usefully synthesizing—regrettably missing, though, is any engagement with the substantial work of Jeffrey Kahan, who has published two monographs on Ireland and forgery, as well as a collection of Ireland’s poetry.1

In his second chapter, Miles effects a revaluation of the Gothic, drawing it from its beleaguered position on the margins, back into the center of Romanticism. Beginning by contesting Wordsworth’s claim in the “Preface” to be rejecting popular Gothic in favor of the internalized lyric, Miles asserts that Adventures on Salisbury Plain and The Borderers are in fact deeply Gothic works. As he keenly puts it, “The second edition of the Lyrical Ballads may be a cornerstone of English Romanticism, but it was set amid Gothic ruins” (62). Miles’s argument excels here at clearly describing how Wordsworth’s ideas—a “position,” in Bourdieu’s terms—fits into the interplay among various familiar and unfamiliar discourses. Relating Wordsworth’s ideas to constructions of ideal presence, the political, and Gothic tropes, Miles smoothly knits together canonical interpretations of Romanticism (Wordsworth as compassionate celebrator of the downtrodden) with newer revisionist notions (the Gothic Wordsworth). An example of Miles’s skill at synthesis appears in his lengthy analysis of “The Thorn”: “If the narrator unknowingly Gothicizes Martha, burying her alive in gossip, the reader certainly ought not to. To read the poem well is thus to enlarge one’s views on the question of otherness … while remaining alert to the complexities of language and power” (82). The chapter includes a sterling presentation of the body and evolution of Romantic criticism, and an astute (though difficult) discussion of critical and reception histories.

Chapter Three engages the “Romantic Abject,” discussing Cagliostro, Carlyle, and Coleridge, once again mixing the centrally canonical with the self-consciously marginal. Aiming to “analyse how one of the founding texts of English Romanticism—Coleridge’s Biographia—internalized and codified an anti-material reflex … with profound consequences for the kinds of writing that were deemed to fit, or not fit, Romanticism”, Miles argues that “Romantic periodization was already in place at the very time it was supposed to have terminated (1833), a periodization constructed out of the anti-materialism in question” (100). His focus upon the misfitting and misconstru(ct)ed provides an intelligent and important corrective to the standard narrative of the origin of periodization. His facility with the best sort of close reading, moving seamlessly between minute analysis of the word or phrase and a holistic grasp of larger discourses, manifests itself in delightfully eloquent observations: “Coleridge’s transcendental brio has detumesced into bathetic quackery” (107). Miles uses his analysis of Coleridge to explore the ironies of Carlyle’s reluctance in acknowledging the former’s influence. The chapter overviews Coleridge’s break from Hartley and associationism, and discusses Kantian phenomenology and ideal presence in depth, culminating in an argument that Coleridge laid down the philosophical foundation for Romanticism at the expense of his vocation as a poet, thus becoming “his own misfit” (121).

This chapter is perhaps the densest, and seems incomplete: characterizing Coleridge in such a fashion surely raises fascinating and powerfully ironic implications for canonical Romanticism. Here, Miles seems to reach the core of his project to centralize the misfitted abject as a deconstructive pressure in the heart of Romantic theory; it struck this reader that the consequences could have been spelled out more forcefully. Miles is vastly well read in Romantic scholarship treating philosophical issues, but in this case, some attention to Romantic theatrical scholarship may have helped concretize his argument. For instance, when he discusses “a significant theme among the first generation Romantics: revulsion, indeed horror, at materialism in general, but the body in particular” (99), he references Julia Kristeva, but not Julie A. Carlson’s seminal In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women (2007), which has since ignited so much productive discussion on theatrical matters—though perhaps this work appeared too close to publication for Miles to engage with it.

In his fourth chapter, Miles discusses the novel, contrasting the styles of Austen and Scott, and presenting Austen’s narrative style as a paradigm-setting revolution in its probabilistic approach to realism. Accounts of Austen’s trademark free indirect discourse are not new, but Miles once again adds to the conversation a sense of the development of Romantic periodization in terms of dialectic. He situates his analysis of Austen and Scott within the context of the novel and sociability, the latter being the reason for the marginalization of the former. Miles figures Austen as a misfit due to her investment in the quotidian, a discursive concern at odds with male Romanticism’s institutionalization of the transcendental.

Miles next argues that Austen caused Scott to reevaluate his own formulation of the novel, or more precisely, the philosophical romance. Discussing ideal presence and novelistic interiority, Miles contends that Austen’s innovation lay in her decisive move away from a Kantian aesthetic. He then considers other novelists, including Radcliffe, Walpole, and Maturin, in light of the transformations each effected upon the genre of romance. The chapter provides an excellent, readable synthesis of the developing landscape of the novel, delineating a useful taxonomy and genealogy of the subgenres that evolved through the era. Miles’s eventual claim is that the philosophical romance constitutes the essential Romantic novel, “because it is the subgenre … that most explicitly explores, and questions, the underpinnings of the nationalist ideologies that did so much to shape the literature of the Romantic period” (164).

The final chapter discusses Dissent and Anna Letitia Barbauld, again addressing a well-informed scholarly audience familiar with the political terrain of the period. Positioning Dissenting culture as the final misfit of his schema, Miles quips, “In Abrams’s terms, the Dissenters were stuck in the mirror stage of Romantic development” (173). Synthesizing the interaction of strands of thought inspired by Locke and Hartley, Miles provides an ambitious discussion of Hazlitt’s gusto, Utilitarianism, associationism and Edmund Burke in order to present Dissenting thought as “the thesis against which the Romantic antithesis defined itself—the career of Anna Letitia Barbauld being a case in point” (181). Adroitly reassessing critical history in light of Habermas and Bourdieu, Miles argues that Barbauld’s innovation lay in her sense of sociability and the public. For Barbauld, he asserts, “devotion is inherently social” (186); he reads her social devotion as enabling and guarding against the abject, and as offering an empowering alternative to the Burkean sublime.

His closing gambit weighs the marginalization of Barbauld against the dual schools (historicist and subjectivist) interpreting Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”, using his dialectical approach to argue that Coleridge’s poem is one of the few to rework Barbauld’s trope of the inner stranger (199). Ultimately, Miles explicates the “radical indetermina[cy]” (206) of what has systematically been excluded from the institutionalized vision of Romanticism. The thread of his argument is easy to lose in this chapter, often buried in the middle of lengthy paragraphs. Yet Romantic Misfits remains an outstanding, learned and deeply thoughtful achievement, presenting an updated narrative of Romantic critical history that will solidify the reader’s grasp of the interplay and progress of seminal modes of thought.

1See Jeffrey Kahan, Shakespeare Imitations, Parodies and Forgeries (Subcultures and Subversions: 1750-1850) (2004); Reforging Shakespeare: The Story of a Theatrical Scandal (1998); and The Poetry Of W.H. Ireland (1801-1815): Including The Poet's Imitations, Satires, Romantic Verses, And Commentaries On Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, And Others (2004). Also, my Romantic Actors and Bardolatry: Performing Shakespeare from Garrick to Kean (2008) provides a parallel reading of the Shakespearean political and theatrical during the Romantic period.