Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


Richard Cronin, ed. 1798: The Year of the Lyrical Ballads. Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan and St Martin's Press, 1998. ISBN: 0312215584. Price: £45 (US$65).

  • Tim Fulford

…plus d’informations

  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

Corps de l’article

This collections of essays is not a bicentenary reading of Lyrical Ballads, but an exploration of their context, of the other texts and issues that shaped public debate two hundred years ago, and that make it a worthwhile subject of enquiry today. It is a timely exploration for, as Richard Cronin points out in his introduction, other texts, about which we still know too little, were more successful at the time. Some, like Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, were more influential too. Many were anonymous, as writers avoided unwelcome scrutiny of their private lives in the wake of the politicisation of all areas of public debate under the threat of French invasion. 1798, Cronin shows, was a year in which such pressure 'prompted many writers . . . to think hard about what it was that made them human' (p. 7). Political repression and a prying press were, it seems, good for literature.

It is in restoring a nuanced understanding of the politicisation of culture in the wake of the French Revolution that this collection is most impressive. Nicola Trott reveals with precision some of the ways in which literature and politics were gendered in the year in which the Anti-Jacobin attacked Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, she shows, became, after the publication of Godwin's Memoir, both 'amazon and whore' (p. 40), and even conservative women writers were advised, in the misogynist climate epitomised by Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females, to pretend to be men. Trott also has valuable insights to make about the anti-Jacobin novel: she demonstrates that its plot is typically a kind of parody of Godwin's Memoir, a deliberate reduction of his disinterested radical theories to the improper practices of promiscuous sexuality and unlicensed thieving. Godwin, the novels, revealed, had scored a telling own goal.

Where Trott illuminates a wide range of neglected writers, Dorothy Macmillan focuses on one, Joanna Baillie. But she also restores to our attention a little-known literary context, that of medical and surgical discourse. Macmillan shows that Baillie was formed in a family of doctors, of whom the most famous were William and John Hunter, the pioneering anatomists. Baillie, she shows, may have been responding to the Hunters' example in her own work. Not only did she embrace the instructive aims of William, but relied on the 'experimental method' to exhibit nature, just as John had done when revolutionising the profession of surgery. Her interest in the body/mind relationship may also have emerged from the family profession.

The body/mind relationship is the undeclared subject of Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, which Marilyn Gaull discusses in relation to developments in science as well as in the context of Wordsworth's poetry. Gaull's fascinating survey of contemporary attitudes to sex casts new light on The Ruined Cottage. She makes an important argument too when she shows that James Hutton's Theory of the Earth, in which the geologist sees 'no sign of a beginning—- no prospect of an end,' 'shifted the focus of historians, scientists and social philosophers such as Malthus from origins to processes, from utopian futures to contemporary events' (p. 102).

Richard Cronin examines the history of 1798, illuminating W. S. Landor's Gebir and Southey's Joan of Arc as Jacobin poems targeted by the Pittite satire of Gillray and the Anti-Jacobin. Cronin is perceptive about the confusion within these poems, showing how they espouse peace but admire warrior heroes. He is sensitive also to issues of form: he implies that it was Wordsworth's distance from the rhetoric of radicals and Tories, a distance produced by his trip to Germany, that allowed him to escape the constrictions of Virgilian epic; constrictions that still hampered Southey and Landor. The result of this freedom was The Prelude.

By the end of Alice Jenkins and Nicholas Roe's essays, the purpose of this book has been triumphantly accomplished. 1798 has been revealed as a year in which a rich variety of discourses shaped what later generations were to single out as 'literature'. Jenkins reveals the cross-currents that flowed between Humphry Davy's chemical theories and the poetry of Southey and Wordsworth. She reveals a common vocabulary: chemistry gave poets a vocabulary of symbols which seemed to be founded on the dynamic forces which created life.

Life is the subject of Roe's characteristically well-researched contribution. Using the archive at Guy's Hospital, he explores the medical basis of John Thelwall's materialism. In the process, he throws new light on the vitalism debate that occupied natural philosophers and he opens new lines of enquiry into the symbolism of 'Tintern Abbey'. Wordsworth's verses, Roe suggests, 'read as if they were a recollection of and a response to' Thelwall's discussion of 'animal vitality' (p. 190). Discussing Thelwall's poetry of retirement too, Roe gives a new perspective on the issue that preoccupied critics in the 1980s, the issue of whether Wordsworth's and Coleridge's nature poetry constituted an evasion and denial of politics.

Four other fine essays complete the volume. Stephen Prickett explores the connections between Coleridge, Schleiermacher and narratives of exploration. Peter Jimack surveys French political thought and its influence in England. James A. W, Heffernan reconsiders the politics of Lyrical Ballads in the context of Coleridge's Fears in Solitude collection. Jane Stabler finds a common methodology in the verse of the lyrical balladeers and contemporary satirists—both emphasised the vital importance of social connection. Though Wordsworth and Coleridge were radical and the Anti-Jacobin Tory, both sides were opposed to the utilitarian and commercialist developments of the Britain of 1798, a Britain that this volume lets us know in greater detail than before. All those concerned with the question of how Romanticism came into being in the culture of the 1790s should read it.