Session 10B: Romanticism and the Transformation of the 'New'

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10B. Romanticism and the Transformation of the 'New'

Special Session: Gavin Budge (Central England)
Conrad Brunstrom (National University of Ireland): "William Cowper and the Infant Horatian: Retirements, Old and New"
Alex Dick (Western Ontario): "The New Aristocracy: Romanticism, Money and the Performance of 'Novelty'"
Gavin Budge (Central England): "'Creating Taste': Coleridge's Justification to Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria and the appeal to 'common sense'"

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General aim of the session

Modern Romantic criticism has generally portrayed the empiricist philosophical milieu by which the British Romantics were surrounded as stifling and oppressive, a dead weight which the Romantics threw off with the aid of German Idealism. This view presents serious historical difficulties: as David Simpson has noted in the introduction to the German Idealist anthology "The Origins of Modern Critical Thought" (Cambridge University Press 1988), in most cases the evidence for the direct influence of German Idealism on British Romanticism is so slight that the resemblances between Romanticism and German Idealism must be explained in terms of parallel evolution from a common set of philosophical influences.

Starting from the premise that the innovations of Romanticism cannot be explained in terms of Idealist "influence", this panel session will set out to explore the role played by empiricist philosophy in the evolution of Romantic thinking. Romanticism is marked by a series of transformations in concepts of the "new": whereas words such as "novelty" and "innovation" had largely negative connotations in eighteenth century discourse (especially in political contexts), Romantic thought effects a transvaluation of the category of the "new" together with the related notions of "originality" and "individuality". The aim of this panel will be to examine different ways in which the Romantics engage with empiricist thought in pursuit of their project of legitimizing the "new".

This perspective promises to resolve an important contradiction in recent historicist approaches to Romanticism: as long as the Romantics were regarded as transplanted German Idealists, relating Romantic thought to its historical context presented severe difficulties, due to the general lack of influence of German thought in Britain until the 1830s. These difficulties have made Jerome J McGann's concept of a "Romantic ideology" of withdrawal and disengagement from the immediate political context seem very persuasive to many critics. Once the Romantics are regarded as a group attempting to modify an empiricist position from within, however, it becomes much easier to identify the relevance of Romantic thought to other intellectual tendencies contemporary with it.

Accordingly, an important aspect of the papers in this panel will be their attempt to situate Romanticism in relationship to other intellectual tendencies of the period. A particularly important strand in their arguments will be the role played by Common Sense philosophy in the formation of Romanticism. Although little known today, Common Sense philosophy was the dominant philosophical position in late eighteen and early nineteenth century Britain, and in post-Napoleonic France, and is responsible for many of the similarities critics have observed between Romanticism and German Idealism. This topic has been touched on in an incidental manner by Paul Hamilton (in "Coleridge's Poetics") and by David Simpson, but has never been treated at length. These papers will demonstrate the relevance, and historical influence, of the Common Sense philosophical perspective to and on Romanticism's relationships with arguments about the nature of taste, economics, and religious and educational thought in the period.

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"William Cowper and the Infant Horatian: Retirements, Old and New"
Conrad Brunstrom
National University of Ireland

William Cowper is recognised (when he is recognised) as a religious eccentric, as a psychological case, as a victim of religious fundamentalism, and (finally and most generously) as an influential proto-romantic. As a result of such a teleology he is often treated in terms of inhibition and incompleteness, estranged from one aesthetic tradition, and unable or unwilling to embrace another. I argue (here and elsewhere) that Cowper's very liminality is both valuable in itself and indicative and expressive of larger, less focused liminal conditions to be found amid a rich variety of 'vaguely' religious texts in the eighteenth century.

The privatising of religious experience from the end of the seventeenth century has been acknowledged since Max Weber (1904-5). Less familiar is the trajectory of religious abstractionism that accompanies this growth of individualism. Given the distaste for religious war and the not inconsequent threat of deism by the end of the seventeenth century, theologians become increasingly driven to aesthetics to try and vindicate a spiritual experience that transcends the verbal: the ineffable unites where the doctrinal divided. When Tillotson meets Locke, I argue, religious toleration becomes not merely a capitalist, but a sublime experience.

The importance of Cowper as a major player within the poetic exploration of empiricism has never been properly recognised. He was a defender (like the Common Sense philosophers) of naïve experience and inarticulate fideism, and an enemy of ingenuity in service of verbal hypotheses. Cowper's most ambitious original poem The Task (1785) is an attempt to re-organise the cognitive faculties so as to cultivate pious and reflective sentiment. Cowper's religious empiricism is a slow holistic conception. A number of critics (Newey, 1982; Priestman, 1983) have examined the slow, sometimes circular procedures of this poem's ethical progress, but no one has yet constructed a detailed poetic map of his shifts of empirical emphasis and direction.

My paper will give special attention to Cowper's poem on practical pedagogy 'Tirocinium' originally published with the first edition of The Task. 'Tirocinium' argues that both public schooling and parental tutoring have dangerous moral consequences and that the surest way of preserving a Christian child is to commit him to a tutor who will guard him in rural retirement. Children ought to be taught (in other words) to renounce the world before they can enter it. A strangely romantic conception of spiritual education as 'unlearning' and emotional retrieval co-exists in this poem alongside a far more familiar and generic celebration of 'moderation' in retirement. Cowper's celebration of the infant Horatian is expressive of a deep pessimism regarding the capacity of adults to read the book of Nature with sufficient pious penetration.

Rather than try to reconstruct Cowper as a 'pre' or 'proto' romantic, I intend to show how it is Cowper's idiosyncratic but viable synthesis of Augustan perspectives on holistic education that make him such a creative spokesman for a 'new' sensibility of educative development. Understanding Cowper's 'new' poetic empiricism must be the key to understanding the most persistently popular poet of the romantic era.

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"The New Aristocracy: Romanticism, Money and the Performance of 'Novelty'"
Alex Dick
University of Western Ontario

There is nothing really "new" about the question of money in the Romantic period. As Marc Shell, Peter de Bolla, James Thompson, and others have shown, controversies over the relative fiscal merit of credit and specie, paper and metal, date back at least to Aristotle. These debates came to a head between 1797 and 1821, when the British government suspended bank payments in gold bullion, and legalized, for the first time, the "paper pound." No wonder unheard-of horrors like ghosts and incest (images used to derogate paper credit), desire and creativity, imagination and dissolution, obsessed the cash-strapped poets, teachers, and novelists. The Romantic century overall marks a momentous shift in the British economy: the growth of industry, commerce, and empire made imported "novelty" and, correspondingly, "luxury" commodities accessible to vast numbers of newly-credited consumers. A consequence of the rise of these novelty-seeking consumers was a massive increase in the circulation of credit and paper money. What is new about money in the Romantic period, then, is "novelty" itself.

But rather than dwell on historical contexts, this paper examines the overlapping ways Romantic writers and political economists theorized monetary manifestations of "novelty" as essentially performative: promissory notes "create" money, and commercial development depends on the imaginative creation of the demand for "new" goods. Adapting as a critical framework Austin and Searle's examinations of money to illustrate the function of speech acts and Bourdieu's use of speech-act theory to calibrate the field of cultural production in terms of a dynamic interlacing of symbolic exchange, this paper traces both monetary theory and speech-act theory to their common root: the Common Sense school of philosophy, particularly its leading advocate Thomas Reid's essays on language and lectures on economics. In contrast to the Lockean account of language, common sense philosophers claimed that language could legitimately be performative; Reid argued further that economic exchange is governed by this performativity. The paper then shows how Reid's performative approach provides an interpretive bridge between Adam Smith's anxious account of money in "Wealth of Nations" and David Ricardo's justification of consumerism. Smith worried that paper and credit were unreliable modes of exchange, as opposed to the "real" value of labour and trade, though he also demonstrated that the growth of commerce was dependent on the demand for the production of "novelty" goods by the rich.* Writing during the Bullion crisis, Ricardo argued for the "real" value of consumer demand, over and above the value of gold and paper. He thus entrenched the underlying implications of Common Sense philosophy into political economy.

In the economic writings of the Romantics, however, the performative dynamic of money manifests itself most clearly. Defending the gold restriction in his 1812 letters to "The Morning Post," Coleridge argued, against claims for the natural value of precious metal, that a paper currency is not only the best means of sustaining economic progress, but also that credit realizes the "linguistic," and therefore real and material, foundation of human imagination. By contrast, in his 1819 pamphlet "A Philosophical View of Reform," Shelley argued that the circulating power of "empty promises" which make up the credit economy had led to the emergence of a "new aristocracy" of middle-class trade interests who, by controlling consumer desire, tyrannized the economy. A gold standard would, Shelley argued, provide a fixed material value for money, halting the unequal distribution of power effected by the credit system. * Reid succeeded Smith as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, where he was a mentor for the philosopher and economist Dugald Stewart, the leading disseminator of Common Sense into England in the early nineteenth century. Stewart in turn taught James Mill and Francis Place and, through them, influenced Ricardo, still regarded as one of the most important economic thinkers of his day.

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"'Creating Taste': Coleridge's Justification to Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria and the appeal to 'common sense'"
Gavin Budge
Central England

The question of what kind of intellectual unity Coleridge's Biographia Literaria might be said to possess has always raised problems for critics. Kathleen Wheeler's study, Sources, Processes and Methods in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (Cambridge University Press 1980), in which she argues that the Biographia is a massively sustained exercise in Romantic Irony, has probably been the most influential attempt to argue for its intellectual unity. However, as Nigel Leask has pointed out, in his The Politics of Imagination in Coleridge's Critical Thought (Macmillan 1989), the problem with Wheeler's argument is that it proves too much, since any text, no matter how chaotic, could be argued to be intellectually coherent if reconstructed according to Wheeler's intricate hermeneutic. In this paper, I would like to suggest that the coherence of many of Coleridge's preoccupations in the Biographia Literaria can be appreciated if we view it as a text centrally concerned with the issue of how novelty (and in particular the novelty of Wordsworth's poetry) can be intellectually and aesthetically legitimate. My argument would be that the concept of "novelty" poses serious intellectual difficulties in the context of British thought of this period , difficulties which are reflected in the largely hostile reviews of Wordsworth's poetry written by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review. In engaging with these reviews in his comments on Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria, and with the whole issue of the "principles" according to which a Review should be run, Coleridge is also questioning the shortcomings of the dominant British philosophical tradition of his time, as evidenced in Jeffrey's failure adequately to respond to the novelty of Wordsworth's poetry. Jeffrey and many of the other original Edinburgh Reviewers had been students of Dugald Stewart, a representative of the Scottish Common Sense school of philosophy which, though little known now (it is mentioned briefly in David Simpson's The Resistance to Theory and in Paul Hamilton's Coleridge's Poetics (Blackwell 1983, but not treated in depth), had become by 1815 the dominant tradition in British philosophy, partly as a result of conservative reaction to the French Revolution. That Coleridge has Common Sense philosophy in his sights in the Biographia Literaria is shown by various references to "common sense" (an easily recognised shibboleth of these philosophers' intuitionist mode of argument, from which they derive their name). The most telling of these references is Coleridge's sideswipe, in the philosophical Chapter 12 of the Biographia Literaria, at "the amiable Beattie [ie James Beattie, author of a widely known work of common sense philosophy, the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, though better known today as a poet], and other less eloquent and not more profound inaugurators of common sense on the throne of philosophy". The basic criticism of Jeffrey and the Edinburgh Reviewers (and by extension, of Common Sense philosophy itself) that runs through the Biographia Literaria, is that to appeal to "common sense" as a standard of intellectual judgement is to assume that novelty in poetry (or in any other field) must always be intellectually illegitimate. Against this, Coleridge sets a developmental model which aims fundamentally to redefine the basis on which we can appeal to "common sense" in intellectual matters. One prominent feature of philosophical argument in the Common Sense tradition is an appeal to the "ordinary" non-philosophical meanings of words, as a standard which represents the universal authority of common sense. Coleridge in the Biographia, however, suggests that "common sense" meanings of words change over time: the example he gives is that the "sophisms of Hobbes" are now ones "that can be exploded by every school boy" because of the development in the meanings we commonly attach to words that has occurred since Hobbes' time - a development Coleridge suggests has been brought about, and anticipated, by the writings of "men of genius". I would argue that Coleridge intends this developmental model of linguistic "common sense" as a radical undermining of Jeffrey's "common sense" criticisms of Wordsworth's poetry. The radical newness which Coleridge suggests Wordsworth manages to impart to the language of his poetry, would in this view have the capacity to become the "common sense" of the age, a development which, it is implied, Jeffrey is incapable of appreciating by the very nature of his intellectual position.

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Last updated July 4, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell


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