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Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth

Tuesday, March 10, 1998 - 10:14
Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Thought, 30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xiii + 251pp. $57.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-55455-1)

Reviewed by
Gary Harrison
University of New Mexico

In Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth, Tim Fulford revisits territory made familiar by Raymond Williams's The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), John Barrell's The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and most recently Elizabeth Helsinger's Rural Scenes and National Representation: Britain, 1815-1850 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Like Williams, Fulford attends to the opposition between the Country and the City, focusing in particular upon the works of Thomson, Cowper, Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as upon the picturesque theories of Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight, Humphry Repton, and William Gilpin. Like Barrell and Helsinger, Fulford examines in fine detail the complex web of relations among landscape aesthetics, poetry, rural poverty, and politics. More carefully attending to the particularities of party politics than these writers, Fulford traces a genealogy of transformations in the political inflection of landscape poetry from The Seasons to Home at Grasmere. In so doing, this remarkable book offers an implicit critique of the new historicism, while detailing the relationships among party politics, agrarian change, landscape poetry, and each poet's unique attempt—stylistically and thematically—to claim some moral, political and personal authority for his poetic voice.

As Fulford demonstrates with fine detail and with a stylistic grace all too uncommon to much contemporary critical discourse, landscape poetry, at least since the time of Thomson, was always fully imbricated in the changing social, political, and moral debates of its day. Eschewing the monolithic view of history as a succession of grand events, the sort of history that folds literary texts back into a Glorious, or American, or French Revolution writ large, Fulford focuses upon the local and contemporary, especially the agrarian, politics in which each poet was intimately involved. Fulford takes pains to describe how each poet's particular version of landscape poetry is shaped by the way private concerns and local incidents intersect with national issues and party politics regarding the changing status and social function of the landed gentry. Beginning with Thomson's landscape poetry of the 1730s and 1740s, Fulford argues, the erosion of moral authority and social responsibility of the landed gentry made increasingly problematic the British poet's ability to "represent an uncontroversial ground of liberty in which a providentially arranged natural order could be observed at leisure, thus perpetuating the taste and disinterest by which the gentry might reproduce that liberty and independence in wise government" (8). As the moral authority, political integrity, and social stability of the landed gentry gave way to the encroachment of the market economy into rural England, and as the landscapes of rural England increasingly became the sites of political contest between landed and commercial interests, British landscape poetry, as it were, lost its pastoral innocence. Because the virtual landscape was now fraught with the troublesome contradictions over land and landed interest permeating the actual landscape, the universalizing strategies and tropes of earlier pastoral and georgic poetry rung increasingly hollow. The prospect view, by means of which "the propertied classes were able to present their political dominance as confirmed by the natural scene" (3), began to lose its universal appeal as the "independence and disinterest on which depended the gentry's and nobility's legitimacy as the people's representatives in parliament was being undermined" by "a system of placement, pensioners and patronage" (8).

In their struggle to recover poetic authority and to preserve, or restore, the idea of liberty within a landscape poetry destabilized by its own politicization, British poets drew upon, modified, and sometimes challenged the landscape aesthetics of their precursors. Fulford shows that Thomson, Johnson, Cowper, the picturesque theorists, Wordsworth, and Coleridge engaged in a dialogical exchange that modified landscape poetry to meet the particular ideological problems faced by each writer as he engaged in his own version of pastoral politics. As Fulford explains in the introduction: "The representation of landscape was never simply a disguised ideology presenting gentlemanly aesthetic judgment as naturally, and by implication socially and politically, valid. It was also a discourse in which that judgment could be redefined, challenged, and even undermined . . ." (5). As these writers invoked the discourse on landscape to negotiate their own conflicted relation to the politics of the country and the city, they were also faced with the task of finding new ways to figure personal and public liberty and authority in a society that no longer would sustain the pastoral-georgic ideal of an earlier era.

Landscape, Liberty and Authority is divided into five chapters, each focusing upon key figures who transformed the "discourse on landscape," which Fulford defines as "writing which uses the motifs and scenes of landscape-description in the course of critical and political arguments" (1). Chapter 1, "Thomson and Cowper: the 'stubborn Country tam'd'?," sets up the framework for the other chapters by carefully documenting the way Thomson's and Cowper's poetry attempts to contain the political tensions between the country and city within scenes of national landscape. Thomson's The Seasons, Fulford explains, was the first work to combine the prospect view and the sublime in order "to transform the georgic and the Miltonic epic into a celebration of an order observable in the fields of Britain" (13). Thomson's landscapes, like those of Cowper, Johnson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, dramatize the power relations within rural society. Fulford describes the rural scenes in The Seasons as theatrical tableaus, which effectively enact an Aristotelian catharsis for his mostly gentlemanly readers by placing them at a safe distance from the natural catastrophes afflicting the rustic poor, such as the shepherd in "Winter." As symbols of human vulnerability in general, Thomson's rustic victims of disaster invite pity from the gentleman reader; yet, because the poetry assures the reader that the suffering of the rural poor stems from God's providence and wisdom, it leaves him complacent about his comfortable distance from, superiority to, and control over, the rural poor. In Fulford's words, Thomson's poetry "reassures the reader of his virtue whilst he enjoys the dramatization of destructive power" (19).

The landscape poetry of The Seasons, then, effectively naturalizes the suffering of the poor as a part of nature's—and God's—indomitable order, an order that reaffirms the law of subordination in the English countryside that was itself on the brink of disaster. Or so it would seem. For the naturalizing tropes and topoi of Thomson's landscape poetry lose their power as they become increasingly mired in the political controversies over land, liberty, and authority in England. Aligning himself with what Fulford calls the "Patriot" group—centered around Bolingbroke, Chesterfield, and Lyttelton and upholding an ideal of a national governed by "disinterested and patriotic gentlemen" landholders—Thomson grew more aware of, and in his poetry more overtly opposed to, the encroachment of the financial interests affiliated with the City into the natural independence affiliated with the Country. Yet this Patriot opposition was itself divided, and some of its proponents, especially Chesterfield, were themselves accused of pandering to political favor. As his poetry becomes more overtly political, adorned with tributes to Chesterfield, Thomson's patron, and other Whig politicians, Thomson's later poems become tainted by their own love of Country. Revised versions of The Seasons and later works such as Liberty and Alfred, which "speak of a British liberty retreating to rural margins" (35) and which overtly criticize the corrupting influence of the City, present a rural landscape compromised by the contest for political power and subject to the charge of insincerity. The consequences for Thomson's own authority and the authority of landscape poetry are devastating: "And so Thomson's natural scenes became ambivalent, his poem indeterminate, posing the question for readers of his revised work (and for landscape poetry in the eighteenth century) of how poetry can be a discourse of moral instruction by means of the natural sublime when it reveals its own partiality, its own manipulation for political effect of a landscape in which disorder and contradiction are apparently signs of nature's and God's law" (37)? Thomson provided no answer to this nagging and persistent question, which he left hanging for those who came after him.

In the remainder of the first and in the next four chapters of Landscape, Liberty and Authority, Fulford details different versions of essentially this same story for later writers: these writers turn to the discourse on landscape to figure a rural social order—an apparently natural hierarchy—that with each passing decade had become increasingly contested, increasingly threatened, and so increasingly imaginary; moreover, freighted with the politics of land and landscape, the claims for universality and authority found in that discourse were suspect, forcing each writer to seek new grounds upon which to found his own claims to power. In the landscape poetry and picturesque theory of these writers, natural scenes, writes Fulford, "stand in conflict with the apparently unpolitical representation of natural power that occurs elsewhere in the text, leaving it divided as the readership detects the writer imposing a partisan political argument on the landscape as well as deriving a moral pattern from it. Explicitly political scenes threaten to undermine the hidden politics of apparently purely natural scenes by suggesting that landscape-description is not an observation of a natural order but an imposition of a party line" (6). Using landscape poetry to negotiate questions about independence and authority—political, literary and personal—Cowper, Johnson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge sought a more legitimate site, a less contested ground, upon which to recuperate apparently universal values.

Although Fulford cautions that his is not a tale of development, he does show that the illusion of landed authority that was shaken in Thomson's poetry steadily weakened its hold in Cowper, Johnson, and the picturesque theorists, and finally met its demise in Wordsworth and Coleridge whose "Romanticism brought about the destruction of the poetry of the prospect-view in so far as that poetry was aligned with the taste and power of the landed interest" (16). Indeed, these writers extended and deepened "the politicization of the landscape view as a mode of criticism" begun in Thomson (16), and so doing ultimately rendered landscape poetry impotent as a mode of naturalizing the political ideology of the gentry and nobility. In the process of these changes, the grounds for moral authority and liberty necessarily shifted from the landscape to other figural grounds. Cowper, for example, "unable to base a vision of shared moral or social order in the fields he surveyed, . . . refigured the landscape poet's authority as an anxious marginality and vulnerability" (38). On the other hand, Johnson, the subject of Chapter 2 "Johnson: the usurpations of virility," rested his claim to authority on his mastery of the English language. Although Johnson was a staunch proponent of political subordination to the landed aristocracy, his strong sense of independence and self-reliance and his keen awareness that he did not share in the ownership of property that conferred legitimate power compelled him to increase his purchase on words. This conflict between the penury of independence and the embarrassment of patronage led Johnson to legitimate his authority in the possession of language. If Johnson did not own property, Fulford argues, "he owned the history and properly derived lineage of words" (83). Thus, Johnson invokes the discourse on landscape to figure the works of others as natural scenes subject to his critical improvement. In a brilliant analysis of Johnson's rhetoric, Fulford shows that Johnson figured Shakespeare's unruliness, Milton's sublimity, and Scotland's wildness as natural landscapes to contain and purge excesses "by imposing a fixed, established and improved language" upon them (107). Johnson, thus, was able to affirm "his own power as master of order and right in language" (107), taming the wilderness of discourse and even his own tendencies toward excess by means of his Dictionary and his criticism.

Chapter 3, "Unreliable authorities? Squires, tourists and the picturesque," turns to the question of "taste for a cultivated order designed into and then read out of the owned landscape," the possession of which (both taste and the landscape itself) was construed as a sign of legitimacy for gentlemen landowners (116). Focusing upon Price, Knight, Repton, and Gilpin, Fulford notes an inherent conflict within picturesque theory between those who were both property owners and arbiters of taste in landscape, like Price and Knight, and those, like Repton and Gilpin, who were not landowners and who tended to uproot taste from ownership and make it available to unpropertied professionals and tourists. For Fulford, the debate between these two groups "reveals the gradually dying voice of eighteenth-century Country arguments about the constitution, as the landed gentry found other groups—middle-class town dwellers, professional men—claiming a greater reliability of disinterested judgment than that which a distant view of one's estate conferred on the squire" (119). The contradictions and tensions within picturesque theory registered the intensified contradictions and tensions within the countryside, which was threatened from above and below by a gentry abdicating its paternal responsibility, by arriviste landowners bent on "improvement," by a rural poor more openly defiant, and by middle-class tourists (in part a product of picturesque writings) keen to take a view of prospects hitherto reserved for the propertied few. Whereas many previous critics have reified the term "picturesque" under a set of aesthetic principles largely gleaned from Gilpin, Price, and Knight, Fulford draws out the crucial and complex political differences that motivate the discourse on the picturesque. As landowners themselves, Price and Knight, sought to amend the taste of a gentry gone astray; correcting the taste in landscape for property owners, they believed, would restore the "natural" order of rural society, characterized by "landed independence and personal patronage" (124) and still the rustle of protest among the rural poor. As such, "Price's picturesque was . . . an attempt to renew through aesthetics an ideology that was rapidly giving way in . . . late eighteenth-century England" (124). Knight, on the other hand, though the owner of an estate at Downton in Herefordshire, took a playful, even erotic, approach to the picturesque, for which Anna Seward, among others, accused him of a "Jacobinism of taste." Rather like William Morris a century later, "Knight's politics are essentially backward-looking," for to smooth over the political divisions that would otherwise compromise his landscape aesthetic, Knight "increasingly places liberty in a landscape of the past, a lost scenic idyll in which a disinterested observer . . . can view a society whose order reflects nature's own hierarchical liberty" (133). Repton and Gilpin, on the other hand, took taste on the road, as it were: Repton, as a professional landscape gardener with disappointed ambitions to occupy the places of his wealthy patrons; Gilpin, as an entrepreneur of taste who transformed landscape views into commodities for the consumption of middle-class tourists. Consequently, Repton and Gilpin led the way to "a bourgeois democratization of land and taste" (142), about which both were ambivalent since both writers were divided between sympathies for the traditional paternal order, the demise of which enabled their own writing and independence, and for the rural poor, who were victims of the changes wrought in the countryside. Fulford's superb treatment of the picturesque here convincingly shows how fully private and public concerns motivated each writer and how fully the discourse on the picturesque was fraught with contradictions stemming from political and social tensions. This chapter should be studied carefully by anyone interested in the picturesque or in the politics of landscape in the late eighteenth century, for Fulford's attention to local detail portrays the picturesque as a discourse much more contradictory, complex, and conflicted than most critics have suggested. It will be difficult after this book to think of the picturesque as a uniform aesthetic movement; Fulford shows that we must think of the picturesque in the plural, not in the singular.

The final chapters of Landscape, Liberty and Authority, "Wordsworth: the politics of landscape" and "Coleridge: fields of liberty," turn to the two poets with whom the tradition of landscape poetry—as a poetry of the landed gentry—comes to an end. Carrying further the radical critique that was begun, somewhat unintentionally in Knight, Repton, and Gilpin, Wordsworth and Coleridge, at least before 1815, reorient the political authority of the landscape from the gentry to the rural poor. As readers of David Simpson's Wordsworth's Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacment (New York: Methuen, 1987), Nicholas Roe's Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988) and if I may be so brazen, my own Wordsworth's Vagrant Muse: Poetry, Poverty and Power (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994) will recognize, Fulford's argument further corroborates a growing view that Wordsworth, in particular, and Coleridge did indeed participate in a fully politicized, critical discourse that challenged the taste, authority, and politics of the gentry: "When Country opposition to the corruption and commercialization of the gentry was also taken up by radicals, speaking for the urban middle classes and for the small farmers and labourers disadvantaged by the gentry's commercial improvements of their land, then the authority of taste and of its representation in disinterested views was challenged from below" (16). Linking Wordsworth and Coleridge to radical dissenting positions on language and biblical exegesis articulated in Bishop Robert Lowth, Horne Tooke, and Joseph Priestley and aligning them with a radical version of Commonwealth ideology going back to James Harrington, Fulford argues that Wordsworth and Coleridge found in the language and community of the rural poor (albeit somewhat idealized) a radical alternative to the politics of commercialization as well as the politics of benevolent paternalism. Both poets identified to varying degrees with the disenfranchised poor; both poets, like Johnson before them, valued independence even as they to varying degrees relied upon patronage; and both poets drew upon a discourse on landscape fitted to an aristocracy against which their work protested. Like Johnson and Cowper, both Wordsworth and Coleridge had to anchor their claims to poetic authority in a figural ground free from the tensions of landscape. Thus, Wordsworth sought and found his authority in the voice of nature, "on his privileged hearing and understanding of an inarticulate communication, an original and single voice apparently as primal and ungoverned as the wind" (173). Wordsworth claimed to hear the voice of nature itself—in the real language of rustic men and women, in the inscrutable utterance of the Highland girl—a language that would be "immune to the betrayals of meaning experienced in the discourses" of a community charged with political strife (174). Coleridge, on the other hand, found his new ground of personal, social, and political authority in a radical and critical understanding of biblical poetry, the language of which allowed him to "present the English landscape unmarked by social exclusion and political repression" (218). Sensitive to the pulse of contradiction in these writers, Fulford offers compelling readings of Wordsworth's Home at Grasmere, "Yew Trees," the Scotland poems, and Coleridge's "This Lime Tree Bower My Prison," "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement," and "Fears in Solitude," among other poems. Fulford teases out the radical leanings of these poems, while showing in them a latent sympathy for benevolent paternalism that eventually won the day as both Wordsworth and Coleridge turned in their later works to a feudal model as a "reactionary, though deeply human ideal" against which to protest the forces of commercialization and the disintegration of community (242).

Fulford differentiates his work from New Historicism, which emphasizes the denial of history or the displacement of political conflict onto nature. In Wordsworth Fulford sees not a denial of history, but rather a "redirection of history" (212). Nonetheless, some of the conclusions Fulford reaches seem to corroborate rather than contradict the notion of displacement, especially as elaborated in Alan Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989) and in Simpson's Wordsworth's Historical Imagination. One of the major premises of Fulford's argument, for example, is that these writers eventually recognized their own inability to effect significant change in the political and social movements of their time or to survive without depending to some degree on the political authority challenged in their works. To compensate, each of them found ways to derive power from their powerlessness, a sense of independence from their dependence. Despite Cowper's recognition that the once heroic landscape is shot through with political turmoil, in The Task he takes up a prospect view that affords him "a brief and fragile vision" that the landscape upon which he gazes affirms "for a moment an order in nature that reassures him of the benevolence of God" (61, 60). Johnson's "rhetorical sleight of hands" allowed him "to argue what he did not fully believe" and to tame his desire to challenge established authorities, for example King George III, by "appropriat[ing] the basis of their power and thereby refashion[ing] his relationship to them" (85). Moreover, Price's picturesque, for Fulford, was "an attempt to renew through aesthetics an ideology that was rapidly giving way" to the commercial and technological transformation of the landscape (124). Wordsworth, who could not demonstrate how his ideal community of freeholders could effectively take root in actual social and political practice, "could, however, envisage a symbolic, if not an actual, redistribution [of property] through the medium of poetry" (164). And finally, despite his "Commonwealth radicalism," Coleridge achieves only an ideal vision of authority: in "Reflections on Leaving a Place of Retirement, for example, Coleridge transforms a picturesque scene into a sublime vision of God's infinite power, thereby developing "from retirement a language which allows him an authority which he is unable to attain in a world requiring political and social action" (227).

These substitutions of ideal authority and power and imagined independence for their equivalents in actual practice, however humane and however driven by political contingencies, suggest a romantic ideology at play in these demesnes. A more explicit and sustained engagement with New Historicism would perhaps clarify better Fulford's disagreement with it. Nonetheless, these conclusions neither detract from, nor do they necessarily contradict Fulford's argument, which does not set out to demonstrate the political or historical efficacy of the discourse on landscape but to show how extensively that discourse was interfused with the politics of its moment. Moreover, unlike some New Historicists, Fulford rightly affiliates these strategies of displacement—and I do believe they are strategies of displacement—with a dissenting and radical tradition that challenges the view that landscape poetry is necessarily complicit with reactionary and conservative agendas. As Fulford's book shows, these poems, these writers, and these political disputes were much too snarled in complexity and contradiction to unravel completely in one political direction.

Among the many virtues of Landscape, Liberty and Authority is that it invites us to revisit the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge and their eighteenth-century predecessors, whose work these two romantic poets extensively adapted to their own purposes and with whom they shared the desire to gain "authority over the British reading public by locating social and political order in the landscape" (15). Like Robert Griffin's Wordsworth's Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Fulford's effort to reconnect Wordsworth and Coleridge with their eighteenth-century predecessors goes far to extend the study of romanticism into a longer century and convincingly shows that there is much to profit from extending our critical view back beyond the more familiar threshold dates of 1798 or 1789. Indeed, Fulford's book gives us reason to reconsider the history of the romantic landscape tradition; after Landscape, Liberty and Authority, readers of eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry will find the genealogy of the landscape tradition to be more engaged in political and historical processes, more nuanced, and more richly rewarding than before. Fulford's achievement here should be applauded, and his historically informed analysis should generate much further discussion about the relationship between landscape poetry, politics, and history in the near future.