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Charles Mahoney, Romantics and Renegades: The Poetics of Political Reaction

Sunday, March 20, 2005 - 06:10
Charles Mahoney, Romantics and Renegades: The Poetics of Political Reaction.  New York:
Palgrave, 2003.  x + 266pp. $90.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-96849-2).

Reviewed by
Robert K. Lapp
Mount Allison University

Skip over the title of this book to glance at the table of contents, where the key terms "Hazlitt" and "Apostasy" point directly toward its major strengths. "Repeatedly taking its bearings from Hazlitt's critical interventions of the 1810s" (2), this book makes a substantial contribution to Hazlitt studies by reinforcing a trend toward the positive revaluation of his Regency writings, in particular his relentless exposure of the political tergiversations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. More than this, Mahoney advances our understanding of the intersection of literary and political discourse during the Regency by focussing on Hazlitt's master-term "apostasy," discerning in it a far more resonant figure than its negative connotations might suggest. By "pressuring" the term's "obliquely impacted etymological resonances" (3), and by applying these to a series of nuanced and illuminating close readings, Mahoney discovers that apostasy, in the writings of romantic authors, comes to name something more than a mere "standing-off" or a "standing-away" from a previously held political or religious principle. Instead, "it repeatedly figures a standing so precarious as finally to be indistinguishable from a falling--and not an isolated fall at that, but an always-falling which can be seen to occur with reference not merely to political principle, but, more unpredictably, literary language" (2). Readers alert to the deconstructive turn will detect in this "always-falling" the familiar vertigo of "an uncontainable falling characteristic of figurative language" in general, and thus an inevitable swerve away from historical particularity toward the risky claim that "romantic apostasy designates less a postrevolutionary historical phenomenon than an abiding crisis in literary signification" (12). For now, however, let us set this point aside, and instead hasten to note that Mahoney balances his figural analysis with "detailed historical assessments of English literary and political culture from the revolutionary decade of the 1790s through the reactionary years of the Regency" (4). In this context, "romantic apostasy" comes more convincingly to name "a particularly romantic anxiety concerning the precarious relation between literary language and ideology," especially "those features of [such] language which seemingly precipitate a falling in with power" (5).

This analysis enables Mahoney to juxtapose meticulously constructed re-readings of such familiar texts as Coleridge's 1790s odes and Wordsworth's sonnets with such defining episodes in Regency culture as the appointment of Southey to the Laureateship in 1813, Kemble's 1816 production of Coriolanus, and the entertaining twists and turns of the "Wat Tyler affair" of 1817. Along the way we encounter not just Hazlitt but also Leigh Hunt, not just The Examiner and The Courier but also The Yellow Dwarf, and not just Abrams, Bate, and E. P. Thompson, but also Christensen, Curran, Erdman, and Liu.

To illustrate Mahoney's approach at its best, let us pause for a moment over Chapter 3, "'Lawless Sway,' Pendulous Politics," which focuses primarily on Wordsworth's "Sonnets, dedicated to Liberty." The phrase "Lawless Sway" is taken from Wordsworth's "Sonnet on Milton," an indication that Mahoney is willing (and able) to take on the huge topic areas of Milton's iconic status for the Romantics in general, and Wordsworth's self-construction as Milton's poetic heir in particular. Yet it also introduces a previously unexamined key term from Wordsworth's sonnets ("Sway"), which Mahoney is able to read in Wordsworth's primary sense of "dominion" and in its usefully submerged secondary meaning of "the action of swinging (pendulously)" (101)--the figure that will most efficiently encode Wordsworth's form of apostasy. The chapter then proceeds to shed new light on the massive Wordsworth-Milton nexus by taking its bearings from one of Hazlitt's most apparently egregious attacks on Wordsworth--a brief paragraph and footnote at the end of a theatre review of Comus in The Examiner that contrasts Milton's consistency of principle with Wordsworth's shifting politics, as evidenced in the latter's recently collected Poems (1815). These, of course, Hazlitt has read with typical vigilance, and discovered that not only has Wordsworth included a newly sycophantic "Sonnet to the King" ("November, 1813"), "complimenting him on 'his royal fortitude'" in the war with Napoleon, but he has "struck out of the collection" some key lines from his 1790s "story of the Female Vagrant, which very beautifully and affectingly describes the miseries brought on the lower classes by war" (80).

Mahoney then puts Hazlitt's incisive observation to work in a number of usefully illuminating ways. He shows, for example, how it makes Hazlitt (from Wordsworth's point of view) one of the poet's most "politically unfit readers" (122), thus contesting the traditional view of Hazlitt as one of Wordsworth's most ideal readers (a view dating back to Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism and based on selective quotation of Hazlitt's remarks on the "revolutionary" poetics of the Lyrical Ballads). But Hazlitt's comments in the essay on Comus also show how he participates in the larger tendency at the time to think of Wordsworth and Milton in terms of one another. Mahoney treats Wordsworth's own promotion of this identity in a detailed analysis of his sonnets, supplementing Liu with Hazlitt in order to show that "the vaunting 'sway' of Wordsworth's sonnets is not merely the dominion which the poet would check (Napoleon's) or, later, celebrate (Wellington's), but also the vacillation of the poet who, in educating power (clarifying the constitution of 'true Sway' for the imperial governor), falls under its sway" (104). Finally, he is able to juxtapose Hazlitt's attack on the 1815 Poems with Leigh Hunt's striking retraction of it one week later in The Examiner. Hunt, it seems, had fallen under Wordsworth's "sway" during the latter's promotional visit to Hampstead, and Mahoney uses the details of this visit, and the division of opinion it created between Hunt and Hazlitt, to determine that "the most potent political implications of romantic criticisms of Wordsworth . . . can be read in the conflicted constructions of Wordsworth as cultural property" (119). In a brilliant coda to the chapter, he aligns this idea of "property" with the patronage of Sir George Beaumont, as well as with Wordsworth's own enclosure of his growing literary estate in the 1815 Poems, and finally with some of the lines from the suppressed portion of the "The Female Vagrant" that depict "the expulsion of the narrator and her father from their land" when they fall under the "sway" of "a mansion proud" (122). As Mahoney makes clear in his introduction, "the point of such a critique is not to expose the apostasies of the Lake poets . . .  but to analyse the formal and rhetorical structures of their writings . . . which seemingly precipitate a falling in with power" (5).

Though this brief summary does no justice to the intricate surface of Mahoney's argument, it will give some sense of its range and structure. And the other chapters contain similar feats of reading, whether it be to unpack the implications of Coleridge's fascination with his own adage "Once a Jacobin always a Jacobin," Hazlitt's witty inversion of this into "Once an Apostate and always an Apostate," the epithet "renegado" flung at Southey in the context of the "Wat Tyler affair," or the way Kemble's Coriolanus turns the sheer tenacity of standing--his refusal to "bend"--into tragic falling. Mahoney's innovation in each case is to place emphasis less on the "political construction of apostasy (as an ethical dereliction or betrayal)" and more on "its rhetorical status (as an uncontainable falling characteristic of figurative language)" (5). As suggested at the outset, this emphasis constitutes one of the strengths of the book, but also a point of vulnerability. One promising feature of this approach, for example, is the inevitability that Hazlitt himself--that hero of unflinching consistency of principle--will also be subject to the figurative "sway" of romantic apostasy, that he will turn out to be, in Mahoney's suggestive phrase, a "closeted Coriolanus" (146).

This is precisely the aim of the final, climactic chapter, "Criticism on the Verge," and yet this turns out to be the least satisfying dimension of Mahoney's argument. Having been warned in the introduction to the book that "the critic cannot but fail in any attempt to arrest the fall of apostasy," and that "[s]uch fallings-off constitute the irony of romantic apostasy" (3), it is therefore ironic that when it comes to Hazlitt, Mahoney's approach is precisely "to arrest the fall of apostasy" by claiming that "apostasy emerges in Hazlitt's writing not as a matter of political opinion, but rhetorically, as a product of the irrepressible vehemence--that is to say, of the force--of language" (168). In other words, in this one case, Mahoney will turn away completely from any attention to a "political construction of apostasy," in effect taking Hazlitt at his own word that he never once flinched or bent or swayed from his adherence to the "good cause" of "civil and religious liberty."1 And what Mahoney adduces in support of his purely rhetorical reading of Hazlitt's apostasy is certainly true as far as its goes: that Hazlitt's fascination with the sublime force of Burke's style, for example, and his efforts to produce an answerable equivalent, bring him to a sort of fractal "verge" at which "the language of power is no longer distinguishable from the language of power" (188). But why save Hazlitt from pitching over this verge into political apostasy as well? Why prevent the "uncontainable falling," "the seeming inevitability of indicting oneself in the exposure of another's apostasy"? (5, 3). After all, this is where the deconstructive logic of the figure would take us, setting loose a truly "vertiginous,"2 ahistorical collapse of all language into an "abiding crisis of literary signification" (12), a seeming black hole of "romantic apostasy" that will quickly obliterate any frail verge "between poetry and prose, politics and literature, gravity and levity" (185) and ensure that Hazlitt's writing--and Mahoney's too (not to mention that of this review)--will always already be indicted in some discernible form of "always-falling," ideological as well as discursive, ideological because discursive.

At the risk of further irony, let us arrest this fall and return instead to historical particularity in order to suggest some of the ways we may indeed track Hazlitt's fall over the verge into political as well as rhetorical apostasy. Klancher has shown that the "Reading Public" addressed by Hazlitt in the periodical press is not uniform but plural, and therefore Hazlitt's political opinions will discernibly "sway" when he is performing (at sixteen guineas a sheet) for Francis Jeffrey of the Whig Edinburgh Review as opposed to writing sharp copy for the "querulous" Leigh Hunt of The Examiner (116). This synchronic swaying can in fact be measured by comparing his two reviews of Coleridge's Statesman's Manual in the Examiner and The Edinburgh.3 Can his principles be said to shift diachronically as well? What might it mean, for example, for Hazlitt to invoke the nostalgic mode in his essays for Scott's London Magazine during the prosperous 1820s (that "age of talkers, and not of doers"4), a nostalgia that can be shared across former postrevolutionary political divisions by all (middling-class) "men of letters," but not, for example, by laboring-class readers sent underground by the Six Acts?

Such questions, of course, are meant to supplement rather than undermine Mahoney's achievement, and to keep those discussions going that he has both launched and refined. To this end, all readers interested in Hazlitt and in the intricate conjugations of the political and the rhetorical during the Regency are encouraged to consult this book, and to add "romantic apostasy," as Mahoney has freshly redefined it, to the lexicon of critical terms at our collective disposal.

1. William Hazlitt, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P.P. Howe, Vol. 17 (London: J.M. Dent, 1930-4), 107, 110. (Back)
2. The word "vertiginous" is used countless times throughout the book (35, 42, 44, 48, 49, 57, 68, 127, 136, 145 [2x], etc.), along with cognates of "precipitous" (8, 12, 29, 32, 35, 53, 78, etc.) and the word "economy," as in "economy of falling" (8, 29, 77, 136, etc.) or the "economy of Coleridgean apostasy" (38, 48, 54, 79). This repetitiousness of usage might be overlooked if it were not also for the repetition of entire passages (on pages 4 and 11, 29 and 102, 165 and 166, 180 and 183). Some readers may also be put off by Mahoney's indulgence in dubious etymologies ("the seeming necessity of falling which lurks in falloir" [29]) and outrageous puns (as when "the tantalizing figure of the 'eddy'" in Talfourd's description of Hazlitt's prose suddenly becomes "that other Eddie," Edmund Burke, thus creating "the eddy of Eddie" [190]). I suspect even Derrida would cringe at some of these stylistic moves, and Hazlitt would call them "cant." (Back)
3. See Contest for Cultural Authority: Hazlitt, Coleridge, and the Distresses of the Regency (Wayne State UP, 1999), chapter 4 passim. (Back)
4. Hazlitt, Complete Works, Vol. 11, 28. (Back)