John Bugg - Five Long Winters: The Trials of British Romanticism. Review by Lauren Neefe
Georgia Institute of Technology
Just out from Oxford University Press is John Bugg’s edition of radical publisher Joseph Johnson’s correspondence. It’s the first such edition, and it secures Bugg’s status as a major critical voice on the Godwin circle. In this year of remembering Geoffrey Hartman’s modes of reading, however, Bugg’s first monograph calls to mind the late critic’s now-fifty-year-old claim about interpreting form: “There are many ways to transcend formalism, but the worst is not to study forms” (556). Five Long Winters is one of the best.
The allusion to Tintern Abbey in the title sounds like the village mastiff its author’s ambition. That sense of purpose resounds as loudly at the immediate assertion of his primary claim, followed by its consequence, in the first two sentences of the book:
Five Long Winters argues that the repressions of the government of William Pitt had a constitutive role in the formation of early Romantic-era writing. At stake in my argument is a reinvestigation of a model of the period’s literary history that might be called the excitement-to-apostasy arc. (1)
The story this reinvestigation yields testifies to the continued democratic commitment of the early Romantics, including those, such as Wordsworth, most often critiqued for their apostasy. It illuminates the formal, rhetorical, and public-relations strategies writers across the spectrum of print genres used, quite literally, to survive the constraints of Pitt’s juridical spasm, in particular the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Bills of 1795, known as the Gagging Acts. Until now, these writers’ contentious figures and figurations of silence have been taken for wholesale political acquiescence. Yet, Bugg observes in a characteristically pithy declarative flourish, “there are times and places in which people go to jail for what they write. The birth of British Romanticism was one” (14). In the turn-of-the-century “hush,” above the inherited topoi of retirement and retreat, amid the relentless topoi of imperialism and colonization, Bugg hears the distinct clamor of self-regulating paranoia.
The cast he assembles to assert the political register of Romanticism’s birth illustrates his methodological commitment to historical specificity. They represent the canonical (Godwin, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth) and the recently recovered (John Thelwall and Charlotte Smith) as well as the nearly unheard of (Benjamin Flower, editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer, one of the few provincial newspapers to survive for any time the legislative reprisal of 1795). The plot they discover winds through five chapters from the overtly political to (as Bugg would have it) the equivocally literary: that is, from the responses to the Gagging Acts in 1795 to Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads in 1798.
An introductory chapter establishes the mise-en-scène of the “repressive 1790s,” identifying the historical actors and events of the decade and its emergent print culture while weighing the merits of various critical scenarios of the period. These include Jürgen Habermas’s glorified “public sphere” and E.P. Thompson’s rage for “radical will,” as well as the historicist and deconstructionist interventions of the late twentieth century (7, 2). In addition, the opening chapter situates the period within the theoretical frameworks provided by studies of sensibility, censorship, and state power. The three subsequent chapters present the “atrox carcer discourse” of 1790s prison writing, in particular that of Thelwall, and its relation to the Greater Romantic Lyric; the curious case of Flower and his Cambridge Intelligencer; and a new subgenre of gothic fiction, the “Gagging Acts novel,” formally distinct from the Jacobin novel as established by Gary Kelly and refined by Pamela Clemit, Miriam L. Wallace, and others (52, 110). The final chapter rehistoricizes what Marjorie Levinson deemed Wordsworth’s “particularly constrained manner” in the late 1790s in light of the fact that “as the Wordsworths and Coleridge were walking and conversing and composing the poems that would make up Lyrical Ballads, Pitt’s spies were watching” (139, Levinson ctd. on 143). Against a Juvenalian fragment included in an “unusually explicit political letter to [Wordsworth’s] Cambridge friend Francis Wrangham,” written in 1795, Bugg reads the poet’s depictions of “troubled and arrested speech” in the Alfoxden poems of 1797–8 (155). Their historical moment, he argues, accounts for their contrast with the “discursive idyll” of the Preface, written just a few years later (155).
Bugg is at once precise and subtle as a reader of primary text and context and panoramic in his critical perspective. His readings of the Alfoxden poems’ silence and speech as an echo of specific language in the transcripts from the treason trials of 1794 is exemplary of the former skill (155–61). His documentation and dismantling of the tradition of “selective misreading” of Godwin’s Considerations on Lord Grenville’s and Mr. Pitt’s Bills in the first chapter exemplifies the latter (41–7). In so doing he demonstrates that a tract long taken for a betrayal of reform politics and a watershed in British political discourse is rather “a strategic discourse, one in which Godwin confects a slippery narrative persona” akin to that of his contemporaneous novel, Caleb Williams, and in which he “deftly manages loyalist rhetoric to court once-loyal but now uncertain supporters of Pitt” (43, 47). The conclusion of this revolutionary take on Godwin’s pamphlet also brings into focus the book’s methodological intervention. In Bugg’s words: “Considerations testifies to the force of the Gagging Acts in compelling authors to new, rhetorically complex modes of writing, and reveals the urgency for us to develop new modes of reading” (47).
Form is indeed a priority of the mode Bugg practices in Five Long Winters, yet his practice never turns away from history. In fact, his commitment to history is strongest when it challenges historicism’s critique. In that final chapter on Lyrical Ballads, Bugg pays tribute to the “silence critiqued by McGann, Levinson, and others” as well as the “poetics of silence” established by the “tradition of fine reading from David Ferry, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, and Frances Ferguson” (144). Then he eases his stake in the ground with archival assurance: “One may welcome attention to the historical contexts of Wordsworth’s work, yet still wonder why historicist readings of Lyrical Ballads rarely mention the severe restrictions on speech during the Pitt era” (143). His answer to his inquiry is nothing less than a reorientation of the field at its origin.
Hartman, Geoffrey. “Beyond Formalism.” Modern Language Notes 81.5 (1966): 542–56.