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Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity

Wednesday, July 4, 2001 - 01:58
Andrew Bennett, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Cambridge Studies in
Romanticism Series, no. 35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 268pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-64144-6).

Reviewed by
James Najarian
Boston College

Andrew Bennett, the author of Keats, Narrative and Audience (Cambridge, 1994), returns to the topic of the poet's audience in his second book, Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity. Bennett argues that Romantic writers were not only concerned with their posthumous reception—like authors of earlier eras—but they began to frame their reception in terms of an ideal audience, so that posthumous reception became the imagined ideal or precondition of poethood: "Posterity is not so much what comes after poetry as its necessary prerequisite—the judgement of future generations becomes the necessary condition of the art of writing itself" (4). Writers not only imagine their poetry surviving them, but surviving them in a peculiar way. The death or dissolution of the poet becomes an imagined necessity for the timelessness of his poetry. Neglect during the poet's lifetime is written into this narrative. Neglect actually adds to the cachet of posthumous fame. The reclamation of the writing of the neglected-but-rehabilitated poet finally redeems his life. The idea of "genius" is crucial here, as neglect seems to authenticate genius; Isaac D'Israeli and William Ireland equated the two. A brief poetic life like Keats's—or Chatterton's or Shelley's—both takes part in and sustains this imagined trajectory.

Bennett connects the construction of this narrative to changes in the economy of literary publishing. As the audience for poetry fragments in the first decades of the nineteenth century provided huge profits for some authors—like Campbell, Byron, Scott, and for none others—authors began to construct an ideal audience in and of the future. Shifts in copyright law that assured authors of the "possession" of their work so that even after their deaths (the proceeds would go to their heirs) also placed poets' emphasis on the future. This posthumous consolation offers a "life and death" different from a Chrisitian kind, consoling not only during the present, but also in the future. Bennett is clear to show that this formulation differs from Renaissance or eighteenth-century fame, for Romantic authors do not only hope their works will survive, they also hope their poems will be revived. Time, they assure themselves, will preserve their neglected works.

Bennett, however, is careful not to shrink his notion into a reductive axiom. In his examination of Romantic authors, Bennett stresses the variety of responses to the conundrum of posterity. Posterity becomes an ideal poets are ever challenging, ironizing, working with or working through. Expressions of this concern with posterity do exist in women's writing, he notes, but are far rarer than in men's. For Bennett, women often ironize the masculine obsession with posterity—in Felicia Hemans's case, opposing maternal love to monumentalization, in Letitia Elizabeth Landon's, emphasizing the poet's future obscurity. Maybe this attitude, Bennett writes, accounts for their exclusion from the canon as much or more than their sex. In the end, even arguments about canonicity are inherently Romantic, and writers like Hemans and Landon questioned these ideas before they even came down to us.

The second movement of the book investigates five of the canonical poets' reactions to the ideal of posterity. Wordsworth's anxiety about the survival of his poetry is caught up, Bennett argues, with the fret about not being survived by his literal progeny—his family. Unlike other poets, Wordsworth does not seem to have worried about his poetry being obscured, but his work is fascinated by the idea of remains and ruins, which amount to what Bennett calls "a performance of memory, the paradoxical achievement in the present of a future remembrance" (106). What disturbs Wordsworth's fantasy or belief in his own "remains" is the death of his children, as Bennett shows in a sensitive reading of "Surprised by Joy." For Wordsworth, the culture of posterity conflicts with the ideal of personal, biological survival in his progeny.

Coleridge is also at cross-purposes with the idea of poetic survival. Bennett examines Coleridge's obsessive love of talk, that most transitory of media, and how his poetry seems to want to approach the level of talk or even of mere noise. Everyone who met Coleridge was impressed or depressed by his torrent of talk. ("Zounds!" exclaimed one auditor of Coleridge's monologues, "I was never so bethumped with words.") Bennett notes Coleridge's fascination with elements that destabilize his poetry's survival: "For Coleridge, writing acts as an inadequate substitute, a degraded supplement for the noise of talk" (123). Bennett goes on to argue that Coleridge's poetry aspires to inarticulacy, to talk, noise, murmurs, and sheer sound. In readings of "Frost at Midnight" and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Bennett interprets this aspiration to Coleridge's resistance to the idea of posterity; even as he withheld "Kubla Khan" and Christabel from publication, he foregrounded the sound of poetry—that element of poetry which can least survive the page.

These discussions of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who lived long lives—living into and even through their fame—might seem less than relevant to Bennett's thesis, but the second generation, who died young, only enforce it. Keats is obviously still of central importance to Bennett, since of all the poets he is so preceded by the story of his dying, 25-and-a-half-year-old body. Yet Keats, as Bennett points out, is not only the object (or victim?) of the Romantic culture of posterity: Keats himself imagined it as he was still living. Bennett interrogates Keats's interest in Chatterton as imagining himself already famous and dead. He notes how Keats often figures himself as sick (in "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles," for example) long before he actually had any symptoms of the illness that killed him. For Bennett, Keats's self-construction of illness inscribes his death and posthumous reception. "Keats's poetry," Bennett writes, "is the first fully to integrate this sense of the necessary deferral of recognition in the poetry itself" (151).

Shelley would seem to be culmination of the idea of Romantic posterity. Adonais and A Defence of Poetry are obviously concerned with future and posthumous fame. In many ways Shelley puts the poet forward as existing primarily in the future. His statement that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" makes it clear that a poet's most important audience is proleptic; poets for Shelley can only really write for the future. Shelley was deeply concerned about his reputation, made himself knowledgeable about changes in the print trade, and was certainly recognized while he was alive—though he never achieved the popular recognition (that is, the sales) during his lifetime that he thought he deserved. Instead, he created "fictions of posthumous writing" (169) where the poet not only writes for the audience after his death but also figures the poet as already dead—both speaking and creating the future. This concern animates Shelley's fascination with ghosts and survivals beyond death as ghostly presences.

Of all these poets (Hemans excepted), Byron actually experienced fame and monetary success while he was still living, yet even his success took place after a kind of death—of his reputation, certainly. His exile was also a kind of death. Like a dead poet, Byron was famous authorially while absent physically. Byron was ambivalent both about his success and about the culture of posterity that his success might have seemed to question. He expressed aristocratic disdain for authors who depended on their works for income. Yet Byron learned the ways of the market; though he originally gave away his copyrights to a cousin, by the 1820s he was bargaining with his publishers for more and more payment. Bennett examines "Churchill's Grave" for evidence of Byron's ambiguous attitudes; for Bennett, the poem questions many of the Romantic assumptions about the role of posthumous fame. Churchill does not fit into the character of the once-neglected-but-now-famous poet comfortably, at least as Byron presents him; he is at once known and obscure, his grave abandoned and visited. For Bennett, Byron deconstructs and questions the idea of Romantic posterity. In "Churchill's Grave" and Don Juan, Byron questions the culture of posterity even as these poems seem to enforce it.

The strength of this book is its comprehensiveness. Bennett not only reads the expected poets and those, like Landon and Hemans, recently decanted into the canon; we also read about Henry Kirke White (a protégé of Southey's) and Isabella Lickbarrow. Its discussions are convincing, always aware of their larger implications for literary study and quite readable. Bennett is attuned to the ways in which his own—and our—reading is still caught up in the fantasy of posthumous fame.