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Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism

Monday, January 7, 2002 - 08:58
Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism.  New York: St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000. x + 262pp. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22879-1).

Reviewed by
Donelle R. Ruwe
Fitchburg State College

Steven E. Jones poses two self-reflexive questions that are increasingly vital to today's scholars of British Romanticism: how has the canon of Romantic texts been created, and what is the critical history of the concept of Romanticism? Through New Historicist readings of specific productions of satire, which are then inflected through Pierre Bourdieu's analyses of the workings of cultural capital, Jones examines Romantic-era satire in its immediate context in order to understand the ways in which the concept of "Romanticism" evolved into a dominant aesthetic. Jones contends that Romanticism emerged through a struggle with satire, which he sees as Romanticism's other, with Romanticism and satire now defined by mutual exclusion, now by interpenetration. As Jones states, "If Romantic poetry is defined as vatic or prophetic, inward-turning, sentimental, idealizing, sublime and reaching for transcendence--even in its ironies--then satire, with its socially encoded, public, profane, and tendentious rhetoric is bound to be cast in the role of generic other" (3). In the contested space between the two modes, Romanticism and satire gradually defined each other. As Bourdieu writes, distinction is a serious game played for dominance in the field of legitimate taste, and these distinctions are made through rhetorical competitions and symbolic violence. The friction between satiric and sentimental/sincere modes subtly rearranged reputations, aesthetic assumptions, standards of taste, and a distribution of symbolic and cultural capital. These rearrangements paved the way for the Victorian and modern construct of English Romanticism as excluding satire. Even our more recent constructions of the aesthetic mode of Romantic irony, Jones suggests, are a way for criticism to allow Romanticism to reabsorb its traditional opposites and recognize its darker sides while still turning them into Romantic forms. Jerome McGann, Stuart Curran, and Marilyn Butler have variously commented on how criticism of Romantic writing has tended "to replicate Romantic ideological formations, to ignore or underplay the importance of satire in the period" (Jones 4). Prior to Jones, recent studies of Romantic satire focused generally on recovery of satiric and radical writings: Gary Dyer's British Satire and the Politics of Style 1789-1832 (Cambridge University Press, 1997) offers an essential survey of satirical writings; and Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture, 1790-1822 (Oxford University Press, 1994) presents an historically rich--though not primarily literary--reading of the range of activities and satirical publications (from wooden coins to parodic cartoons and courtroom battles) undertaken by British radicals during the Romantic era. Jones, by contrast, is interested in exploring how the canonically peripheral genre of Romantic era satire was essential in shaping the contours of canonical Romantic aesthetics.

Rather than replicate Romantic ideological formations, Jones shows how this ideology is shaped through local performances: for example, Jones examines the ways in which one author might read and react to another author, with reactions sometimes resulting in textual confrontations, frequently in the form of parodies. Jones wisely begins his book by showing how three hallmark Romantic aesthetic categories, nature writing, sincerity, and sympathetic imagination, can be traced to a series of satirical and anti-satirical publications in which Stephen Duck, George Crabbe, and William Wordsworth jockey to represent the zeitgeist of the age by distinguishing themselves from the projects of their predecessors. As each author attempts to master the poetic field through representations and misrepresentations of others, the ground is cleared for Wordsworth's eventual success in claiming that imaginative sympathy best expresses the gravity of universal nature. Jones reveals the following satiric and counter-satiric moves: in patronizing and praising the antipastoral, nature poetry of the thresher poet Stephen Duck, Crabbe cleared space for his own powerful anti-pastoral and superior poetry, which debunked/satirized idealizations of nature. In his turn Wordsworth would present Crabbe as a realist, one who claims moral authority by reporting versified facts rather than deeper truths. And so, Wordsworth's poems of nature are revealed to be countersatirical pastorals.

Satire and Romanticism is most engaging in moments like these in which familiar authors are defamiliarized, or familiar texts are placed in new contexts within a realigned narrative of how Romanticism came to be. For example, Jones connects the satirical mode of Don Juan to the conventions of popular pantomime theater, showing that Byron's Romantic irony is dependent upon satirical wit--Don Juan's material performance of illusion is not unlike pantomime trickwork in which stage technology (e.g., the magic of the harlequin's wires) is visible to the audience. Jones's study of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner likewise explores its performance of satiric and countersatiric modes. Initially a complimentary parody of popular German-style Gothic ballads, the poem is further complicated by the fact that Coleridge's own supernatural works were so deliberately extreme they often seemed to be self-parodic. When Coleridge distanced himself from popular romance forms and tried to recast the poem as more metaphysical (and as more philosophically coherent within the canon), he rewrote and parodied his own poem. Later critics enthroned Rime of the Ancient Mariner as the quintessentially Romantic poem. To do so, critics interpreted Coleridge's satirical elements as elements of Romantic irony, asserting that Coleridge's gloss, which itself is a parody of academic or "monkish interpretation" (52), is actually Coleridge's own ironic perspective on the main text of the ballad. Of particular pleasure in this section is Jones's reading of a contemporary satire of The Ancient Mariner from Hunt Emerson's 1989 comic-book version.

In other chapters of Satire and Romanticism, Jones studies satirical modes in works by less canonical figures than Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron. He examines the ephemeral publications of the radical press, particularly the weekly The Black Dwarf, which, in 1817 after Habeas Corpus was suspended, became the leading radical social organ. Its editor, Thomas J. Wooler, used theatrical and melodramatic modes of satire in his publication, and Jones suggests that Percy Bysshe Shelley attempted to use similar modes in his poetry. Works like The Triumph of Life are full of the scrappy political satire of the reform movement, including its grotesque comic allegories and public caricatures.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, gender differentiation became particularly important in the culture wars which helped to define Romanticism. Jones looks at the volatile, fashionable, and potentially humiliating literary force of late eighteenth-century salon culture. The salons were a modern form of patronage with the power to silence the works of others in the name of taste. In the era of the Napoleonic wars, the public reception of the salons was further complicated by connections between feminine power, the cult of sensibility, and anti-Jacobinism, for "femmes savants seemed to represent a frightening combination of old-regime social power and new fashioned intellectual aspirations" (140). Salons influenced public reputations, cultural capital, and book sales. They competed with critical reviews and mediated between the public and private--at a time when literature was becoming professionalized.

In Jones's discussion of gender and satire, secondary figures such as William Gifford and Leigh Hunt suddenly become keystone figures in the creation of Romanticism, for their public quarrel over aesthetics clarified and publicized the tenets of Romantic aesthetics and Romantic literary history. The hostile reviews of Romantic-style poetry, such as Gifford's attacks on the Della Cruscans, used scathing satire to critique what was seen as unsatirical, merely sentimental work. In turn, by defending the victims of satire, in particular the women Della Cruscans, who were savaged by the reviews, writers such as Hunt positioned themselves as the chivalric protectors of women and defenders of women's "natural" mode of sincerity. In doing so, Hunt ultimately separated out women poets from male poets and relegated women to a second-class authorial status. Gifford's hostility toward the perceived effeminacy of the male Della Cruscans and licentiousness of female Della Cruscans is a type of misogyny, and misogyny is a conventional satiric theme.

Jones's Satire and Romanticism adds to the work of other scholars who, since the publication of Jerome McGann's Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (University of Chicago Press, 1983), have been examining the evolution of Romantic ideology--its modes, its canonical texts, and its aesthetic claims. An important precursor to Jones's work is Marlon Ross's landmark work The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1989). Ross demonstrates how canonical (i.e., masculine) Romantic aesthetics was shaped in a closing-of-the-ranks response by male writers against a perceived feminization of poetry and the literary marketplace. For example, Ross examines the career of Keats, from his early identification with the poetry of Mary Tighe and the flowery-bowery style of Hunt, to his later struggles to distance himself from feminine modes. Jones, too, traces how the writers who became canonical or who influenced the canon did so through antagonistic or patronizing responses to what they perceived as threats to their own works' modes and themes. Like Ross, Jones sees these struggles, or force relations, that occur within the actual practice of literature as that which creates the terms of Romanticism itself. Whereas Ross focuses on gender dichotomies within Romantic ideologies, Jones is interested in generic dichotomies: satiric vs. sincere (i.e., Romantic) modes. However, as Jones's work with the Della Cruscans and the Bluestocking circles proves, gender dichotomies feed into genre dichotomies.

On a final note, as an indication of the sea change in literary criticism in recent years, it is significant that, in Jones's well-researched and historically nuanced narrative about the creation of the concept of British Romanticism, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads is not cited. In earlier generations of scholarship, it would be unthinkable to write a history of the rise of British Romanticism without reference to the Preface. For today's scholars, as demonstrated in Jones's decentered history of Romanticism, there are no ur-texts, only complex processes of competing narrations and constantly evolving concepts.