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Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 06:33
Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.  xii + 278pp. illus. $64.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-57259-2).

Reviewed by
Michael Scrivener
Wayne State University

The question with which Janowitz begins her very stimulating consideration of Romantic literature—"Can we extricate ourselves enough from romantic presuppositions to produce a history of romanticism?"—does not lead her to an epistemologically oriented inquiry under the sign of either Derrida or Althusser or Foucault. Her study is neither a self-conscious performance of a Romantic and futile attempt to escape a Romantic logic (deconstruction), nor a strenuous act of intellectual disciplining whereby the wheat of scientific knowledge can be separated from the chaff of ideology (ideological critique). Rather, she draws a new map of Romanticism that includes these—and other—recent approaches within a "unified field" whose coordinates are determined ultimately by "debate" and "unrelieved tension" (1).

The particular debate her book highlights is the one provoked by the literary form of the lyric as it became the most prestigious genre in nineteenth-century constructions of the canon. As defined by John Stuart Mill and Harold Bloom, the Romantic lyric has a deeply subjective, "unencumbered lyric speaker" who aspires to transcendence (7). Janowitz points to the concurrent existence of a communitarian lyric informed by "collective, embedded experience" (7). The latter has been woefully neglected until recently, but Janowitz's book does more than make a huge contribution to one of the recent trends in Romantic studies that has been called "plebeian studies," that is, the recovery and revaluation of the mostly ignored popular literature, especially its radical varieties, of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century London (4). Janowitz dialectically situates the communitarian lyric in conversation with the individualistic lyric, carrying the dialogue between "the rhetorics of custom and reason" into the twentieth century with the Anglo-Communist poetry of Auden and the English miners' poetry of 1984–85.

The book's first part, "A Dialectic of Romanticism," deploys the familiar ideological dichotomy of Burkean custom and Painite reason to develop a nuanced contrast between individualistic and communitarian lyrics in the Romantic period. Using the well-known example of individualistic lyricism, "Tintern Abbey," and drawing upon the feminist and New Historicist critiques of its strategies of transcendence, Janowitz contrasts this instance of self-possession with contemporaneous lyrics that have socially embedded speakers, such as Wordsworth's own "We Are Seven," Joanna Baillie's "A Summer's Day," and Anna Barbauld's "Washing Day." She rescues the "customary consciousness" in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads from a totalizing critique of Wordsworth's bad individualism. The extended discussion of Wordsworth in terms of the conflicting logics of individualistic and customary tendencies in the Lyrical Ballads is one of the finest things in the book. Janowitz is able to cite—and in the second part discuss in detail—Chartists who appropriated a strain of Wordsworth's poetry that was deemed "democratic" (43). Wordsworth is "a carrier of customary tradition of the common life, the narrator of a tradition, as well as the model of the unencumbered individual" (45–46). Of course in this particular instance she is following the interpretive path marked by E. P. Thompson in his commentary on Wordsworth.

Another fine feature of the first part is a recovery of radical writers such as Thomas Spence, George Dyer (whose 1802 essays that linked poetry's energies with political freedom are saved from oblivion), and John Thelwall in order to describe the distinctively Romantic interaction between popular and polite kinds of literature. Chapter three is especially innovative in its discussion of plebeian writers like Spence, Allen Davenport, Robert Fair, and E. J. Blandford. The tension that is Romanticism at this time is between the "interventionist poetics" of writers such as Spence and the "private individual voice" celebrated by Mill. Spence, an agrarian radical anticipating socialism, plays a rightfully central role in her discussion of Romantic lyricism for his mediating role between customary oral culture and rational print culture, and his sense of the land as principally the instrument by which people's bodies will be fed, not a backdrop for the meditations of a solitary consciousness. Appropriately inserted into the discussion of communitarian lyricism is Shelley's Mask of Anarchy, whose ideological affiliations are more with plebeian rather than Godwinian forms of radicalism; her reading of the Mask highlights the communitarian aspects of the poem in an unprecedented way.

The book's second part, "The Interventionist Poetics in the Tradition of Romanticism," goes from Allen Davenport and Chartist poetry to W. J. Linton and William Morris. Romanticism, then, is not just a period concept for Janowitz but a "persistent" literary tendency (2). Chapters four and six on Davenport, which are unaware of my "Shelley and Radical Artisan Poetry" (Keats-Shelley Journal 42 [1993]: 22–36), highlight a radical poet who was active in the Regency and well into the Chartist period as well. I would have liked a more detailed discussion of Davenport's ambitious volume, The Muse's Wreath (1827), but the analysis of the political satire Kings (1819) handles the issue of poetic form expertly in its comparison with Blake's Jerusalem (123–24). Davenport's poetic ambition as it was stimulated by exposure to Cooke's Pocket Edition of Select English Poets (London, 1794–1804, 46 vols.) is not occasion for ideological dismissal of a naïf deluded by bourgeois individualism. Rather, Janowitz claims that the "idea that poetic vocation merely emulates the literary elite rather than being part of an important discourse of self-actualisation within the radical movement underestimates both the practical and the utopian power of lyric intervention" (122).

In chapter five Janowitz shows how poetry for the Chartists was not ornamental but integral to the movement's awareness of itself and its possibilities. She illustrates the absurdity of the middle-class depiction by Carlyle, Gaskell, and Disraeli of Chartists as culturally mute. In the poetry columns of the Northern Star and elsewhere, Chartists were energetically expressive as they fashioned a lyricism that appropriated the Romantic meditative mode without individualistic isolation.

The discussion in chapter six of the conflicting models of poetry written by the Chartists Thomas Cooper—"aspiring autodidact"—and Ernest Jones—"déclassé gentleman"—is fascinating for revealing ultimate triumph of the "hegemony of liberalism" (190). Liberal individualism also shadowed the efforts of W. J. Linton, a remarkable latter-day Blakean discussed in chapter seven. The hero of Janowitz's study is William Morris, who carries into Marxist self-awareness the prior examples of the communitarian and Chartist writers. Her analysis of The Pilgrims of Hope (1885–86) explicitly echoes E. P. Thompson's study of Morris, in which he linked Romanticism with Morris's Marxism, but departs from Thompson in finding the poem successful. Thompson's reading saw only a liberal individualism in the poem's Romantic effects, but Janowitz convincingly demonstrates the communitarian Romantic elements of the poem.

Janowitz's book is valuable for a number of reasons: as a contribution to plebeian studies, especially highlighting Thomas Spence and Allen Davenport; as a description of the radical legacy in Chartist and working-class writing of Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth, who were available for cultural appropriation; as an extended discussion of the social problematic of individualism and left-wing communitarianism as it works itself out in poetry and poetics; as a rescue of Wordsworth's communitarianism (Shelley's was not really in need of rescuing); as a creative use of E.P. Thompson's historiography and writing on Romanticism; as an innovative treatment of "Romanticism" in relation to the most current theoretical and research developments; and finally as an act of politically committed scholarship that is respectful but appropriately critical of the radical tradition with which she is in deep sympathy. There is throughout the study a careful and sensitive attention to poetic form as it is related to political and social agency. I found, however, her use of the contrast between the communitarian "four-beat" measure of oral culture with the print-culture and individualistic iambic pentameter sometimes mechanistic. John Clare's poetry undoubtedly is close to oral culture but the four-beat norm does not characterize the bulk of his poetry. The conceptual category, "interventionist," is both provocatively stimulating and heavy with discredited notions of artistic conformity. In her interpretive hands, the interventionist poetics are capacious, but one still wonders how far the injunction against liberal individualism goes. Oscar Wilde's Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) discriminated between economic individualism, which it repudiated absolutely, and artistic individualism, which it celebrated, yet one cannot characterize Wilde's oeuvre accurately as self-possessing and transcendent; it is rather radically contingent and socially embedded. So where does that leave us? Wilde needs to be put in dialogue with Morris, and to do such a thing would be in the spirit of Janowitz's book.