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Kevis Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History

Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 09:05
Kevis Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 244 pp (Cloth; ISBN: 0521831687; £45.00).

Reviewed by
Seamus Perry
Balliol College, Oxford

Readers have often noticed that something odd keeps happening in Thomson’s The Seasons. A poem supposedly devoted to the Newtonian excellences of order and proportion keeps surprising itself with the counter-experience of disorderliness and unruly profusion. These glimpses of covert chaos prove no less absorbing for their being so obviously troublesome to the poem’s tidy-minded Deist agenda:

Nor undelighted by the boundless Spring
Are the broad monsters of the foaming deep:
From the deep ooze and gelid cavern roused,
They flounce and tumble in unwieldy joy.
Dire were the strain and dissonant to sing
The cruel raputures of the savage kind …

In his excellent English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, David Fairer describes very well the odd power that attends such moments of lost ‘poise’: with an inspired sort of waywardness, the poetry fleetingly includes within its ambit just the sort of bewildering scenario that it was originally devised to redeem. Kevis Goodman is evidently fascinated by such moments too, and her clever and tenacious book builds upon her sense that they represent a crisis of genre: the genre in question is georgic. That the Augustans had a long puzzling love affair with Virgil’s Georgics is a staple of literary history, the grounds for their attraction usually said to be the astonishing directness with which georgic poetry could represent the banal paraphernalia of workaday reality (dung-heaps and so on) which lay excitingly beyond the pale of good judgment. Goodman maintains here something like the opposite: what really matters about georgic, she says, is not its unassuming ordinariness but its intense and bookish self-consciousness, the self-advertising verbalism by which it conjures – she would say ‘mediates’ – humdrum things into the stuff of art, so as to ‘beautifie the vilest dirt’ (as she nicely quotes one commentator) and ‘enliven the deadest Lump’. What charms us is not so much the dung-heap that is being portrayed, Addison says, as the beauty of its portrayal. When Thomson loses his georgic poise, the improving virtue of his art fails: an alternative kind of perception gets into the poetry, as though to reveal a complicating life beneath the surface calm. Goodman calls this effect a ‘clash between rival mediations of the social field’, and the example which strikes her with special force occurs when Thomson makes a tentative descent to the world of the microscopic:

                                      Where the pool
Stands mantled o’er with green, invisible,
Amid the floating verdure millions stray.
Each liquid too, whether it pierces, soothes,
Inflames, refreshes, or exalts the taste,
With various forms abounds. Nor is the stream
Of purest crystal, nor the lucid air,
Though one transparent vacancy it seems,
Void of their unseen people. These, conceal’d
By the kind art of forming Heaven, escape
The grosser eye of man: for, if the worlds
In worlds inclosed should on his senses burst,
From cates ambrosial, and the nectar’d bowl,
He would abhorrent turn; and in dead night,
When silence sleeps o’er all, be stunn’d with noise.

Goodman plausibly connects the animation of that passage with a lively debate within empiricist writings of the period about magnification: concealed beneath the normal range of human perception, but suddenly discovered by the new science, lurked a giddy plurality of worlds, diversely scaled. Thomson is responding to that kind of troubling new awareness as surely as does Swift in the first two books of Gulliver’s Travels.

Now, you could follow the magnificent sweep of Lovejoy (The Great Chain of Being) and identify in Thomson’s lapses signs of a momentous and encompassing confrontation between two concepts of nature – the one, unified, lawful, divinely regulated, the other, diverse, individualistic, anarchically self-governing. But Goodman, as befits the historicist credentials of the Cambridge series in which her book appears, doesn’t go along with that – or, anyway, wants to join that good old argument about plurality to a newer one about history: ‘this act of poetic seeing’, she says, ‘working as microscopic eye, reverses direction and opens out to an influx of the historical world’. The world in question here is the world of food production in an imperial age: mentioning ‘unseen people’, for example, is said to imply a whole obscured background of human relations. I suppose you could hardly say that The Seasons was a poem about the empire; but you might well agree that it is a poem with the empire behind it: stylishly, Goodman calls that background awareness ‘the noise of history’.

This intricate reading of Thomson – in which generic complication is interpreted as a symptom of oblique historical awareness – goes on to serve as a model for accounts of both Cowper and Wordsworth. Cowper liked newspapers, and The Task is, partly, the task of turning the news into poetry: ‘a “georgic of the news”’, says Goodman. Adopting newsprint as a sort of paradigm for his work makes Cowper’s poem fruitfully open to all kinds of heterogeneous experience, like a page of The Morning Chronicle. So the chatty, digressive, inclusive Task becomes ‘a medium – a loophole – through which the world’s strangeness enters’. (The particular example of strangeness dwelt upon here is Omai, a Tahitian who visited England in 1774 and returned home a couple of years later: with warm fellow feeling, Cowper imagines him wandering forlornly about his island, feeling a stranger though at home.) Wordsworth’s Excursion – like The Task, if not a georgic exactly, then at least ‘written under the sign of the georgic mode’ – also works as ‘an aperture or lodging for a reality that lies beyond it’; but here the obscured reality is more local and intimate. The discussion of Wordsworth’s memorial poetry here is very striking, I think, and the best thing in the book: there is common ground with David Bromwich’s dark and powerful study, Disowned by Memory. To speak, as Goodman does, of Wordsworth’s ‘refusal to gratify the desire for the immediacy of the past, or intimacy with the dead’ is to get at something central about the place of reticence and tact in Wordsworth’s poetry of loss and absence, and to speak shrewdly to the way his poetry often bases itself on the hope of consolation while yet maintaining a quite undeluded scepticism about the plausibility or sureness of any solace it might find.

Whether, by the time we reach Wordsworth, the argument is very obviously about either history or the georgic is debatable, I suppose, though it would be graceless to complain when what is said about Wordsworth is so stirring. Anyway, Goodman’s invitation to think more about the eighteenth century’s re-imagining of georgic habits is very welcome. My own sense is that heterogeneity is not a failure of georgic mediation, but one of its hallmarks, which was why the genre appealed in the first place: Thomson wanted to write a big poem about how confusing and rich the world was, and the country evidently wanted to read it, even if everyone needed to soothe their consciences by pausing from time to time to protest the Deist excellences. (If we are on the look-out for generic clashes, the face-off which shapes a lot of the best poetry of the period is one between georgic and pastoral, as Fairer argues in his excellent chapter on the subject: that would certainly promise to fit Wordsworth well.) Goodman writes with great flair and purchase about the ways in which poetry registers kinds of experience that do not lie squarely within its purlieu: it is a terrific subject and Goodman repeatedly does it justice, though I am not sure that the catch-word ‘history’ really repays her sensitivity in pursuing it. Occasionally, ‘georgic’ in this study feels a bit like ‘aesthetic’ as it has featured in some recent historicist criticism, as a kind of purposeful and interested mediation of the world, within which the insistent but unacknowledged presence of ‘history’ nevertheless makes itself felt, like dark childhood secrets mishaping the adult ego. But it is a rum sort of metaphysics that attributes ‘history’ to plantation workers while denying it to someone writing about Spring in the home counties: Goodman quotes Jameson early in her study saying that history ‘is what hurts’, which, in its way, is hardly less objectionable than saying that history is a succession of gemlike moments.