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Reviews

Michael O'Neill, ed., Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. ISBN: 0198711204 (hardback); 0198711204 (paperback). Price: £40 / US$79 (hardback); £14.99 / US$24.95 (paperback).

  • Michael John Kooy

…plus d’informations

  • Michael John Kooy
    University of Warwick

Corps de l’article

This is an excellent bibliography of mostly post-1970 criticism of romantic period writing. It is also a necessary one. As our understanding of romanticism (and romanticisms) has undergone one revolution after another, the need for a reliable guide to the variety and volume of new work being published has never been felt more keenly. This book fills that role: with 18 separate chapters on diverse subjects ('Wordsworth', 'Clare', 'Romantic Gothic' and so on), each offering an assessment of current criticism and a full listing of relevant works, this book will be an indispensable tool for anyone working in the period.

'Tool' is the operative word. Bibliographies, unlike, say, novels or even monographs, are not the sort of book one actually reads. They are not after all about literature, even in the widest sense of the term, but about what has been written about literature (which, incidentally, puts this review at an alarming four removes from reality). Bibliographies sit idly on the shelf day after day until the moment when suddenly they are required to perform one vital task, easily, reliably, authoritatively. The point is functionality. We come with specific questions and we look for specific paths to the answers: the latest opinion, the most authoritative account or the current state of debate, all of which lie outside the bibliography proper.

On all these practical matters, Literature of the Romantic Period ably delivers. There is comprehensive coverage of the best writing on the period along with detailed summaries and commentaries by leading scholars. The novice is quickly guided to the most lucid and most influential work on a given topic. Though not of course up to date—for material published after 1998 one will have to refer to The Year's Work in English Studies or to the new Annotated Bibliography of English StudiesLiterature of the Romantic Period does spot trends and anticipate new shifts in critical interests. What is particularly interesting about the book, in fact, is how far it exceeds its own functionalist aims. The summaries and commentaries themselves implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) pass judgement on current opinion and, taken together, they provide a revealing snapshot of contemporary critical discourse about romantic period literature.

The first thing that strikes one about the book is the range. Fifteen years ago, the big six male poets enjoyed lavish attention in the fourth edition of Frank Jordan's volume The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, taking up most of the book's 600 or so pages. In O'Neill's volume, they are dispatched in six neat chapters at the beginning, which together make up only one third of whole. This leaves plenty of room for the others. There are chapters on general studies of the period, Clare, women poets, Scott, Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Romantic fiction, the gothic, and the essayists—in the main much more generous than one would have seen even ten years ago. In addition, less predictably perhaps, there are chapters for the minor male poets, Peacock, and political prose.

Each of these chapters is written by a different specialist who offers a brief overview of the subject, discusses the standard primary texts, surveys the best criticism and then lists references. All of the contributions are useful in this respect, but a number stand out for offering something more than just summary. The chapters on Clare (P.M.S. Dawson), the minor male poets (Michael Rossington), Scott (Fiona Robertson) and Austen (Fiona Stafford) go beyond the call of duty by including excellent accounts of reception history for the writers concerned. Their accounts are interesting even for the non-specialist. Other chapters are particularly well organised. Coleridge (Nichola Trott), a spirited and unapologetic contribution, is usefully divided up into poetry and prose, with subheadings like 'Ancient Mariner' and 'Conversation Poems', or 'Imagination and Fancy' and 'Politics and Society', helpfully steering the newcomer through a bewildering mass of material. Shelley (Jerrold E. Hogle) is also cleverly sub-divided, this time according to different lines of interpretation ('Neoplatonism', 'Scepticism', 'Psychoanalysis', etc). The Shelley chapter is particularly good not only at listing the best books to read but putting them in the order in which they should be taken.

The best contributions to this book convey a lively sense of advocacy for the subject at hand. While not necessarily winning assent, such commitment at least offers a foothold for the newcomer which a laboured objectivity could never provide. David Fuller's eloquent chapter on Blake is alert to all trends in Blake criticism since the 1950s, but each must in turn pass through his evaluative gaze. (The student of Blake would do well to start here.) Fiona Robertson on Scott is even more bold in her advocacy, weighing critical innovation according to utility ('New historicism in its various inflections has had much to offer Scott'). Thus, too, the unapologetic tone of Susan Matthews in her chapter on fiction of the period, which as she reports is now being treated with 'a new seriousness', and the forward looking attitude of Pamela Clemit on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Clemit anticipates significant shifts in perspectives on the subject as new research continues to be published.

While a robust sense of advocacy clearly accompanies many of these new members of the canon, the same cannot be said unequivocally for the women poets and novelists in the volume. This lack of partisan argument comes as something of a surprise. Compared to the confidence of the chapters on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Gothic, the chapter on female poets of the period (Jennifer Breen) seems mildly apologetic (their poetry is 'competent and interesting'). The chapter resists readings that challenge inherited notions of literary value and it fails to mention Duncan Wu's 1997 anthology and various names normally associated with the wider subject of female writing, like Mary Jacobus, Gary Kelly and Mary Poovey. While one might welcome this chapter's conciliatory tone and the common sense suggestion that criticism of women romantic poets be integrated 'within the traditional literary histories of Romanticism', there is no getting around the fact that it is only ten pages long. Considering that the minor male poets in the next chapter get nearly three times that much (a full 28 pages), with separate sub-sections on individual poets, it is hard not to feel that a sense of balance has been lost. And why the innocuous, anonymous title 'Women Poets of the Romantic Period' in one chapter and the more fulsome 'Poetry by Burns, Cowper, Crabbe, Southey, and Other Male Authors' in the next? How seriously are we to take the distinction between 'Women Poets' and 'Male Authors'? Surely if any class of writers wrote both poetry and prose, it was the female poets of the romantic period. The cover of my paperback edition promises 'a separate chapter … devoted to women novelists' but it is not to be found. The trouble with this book—and it is the only one—is that for Wordsworth and Coleridge, even for Cowper, Maturin and Cobbett, you need to go only to one place for guidance, neatly marked by a subheading; for the likes of Helen Maria Williams and Hannah More, Letitia Landon and Charlotte Smith, you have to skip from one chapter to the next, from 'Women Poets' to 'Romantic Gothic' to 'Fiction of the Romantic Period' to 'Political Prose', in order to find your woman, hidden in unmarked passages. For all its recent innovations, Romantic studies today still has not found a comfortable place for its female writers.

While for the most part alive to the new romanticisms—particularly in the breadth of its coverage and in its sensitivity to the plurality of perspectives—this collection does suggest stirrings of another sort, which are welcome signs of things to come. There is, for one, a new self-conscious respect for tradition. In his survey of general studies of the period, O'Neill pays homage to M.H. Abrams; Greg Kucich, on Keats, stresses the dependence of current historical research on the achievements of older scholarship. There is also a feeling that criticism, while still broadly historical, is moving away from the perceived orthodoxies of new historicism (see Fuller on Blake or Nicholas Roe on Wordsworth). O'Neill himself, in a rather round about way, imagines the possibility of reading Romantic literature 'on its own terms'. But we will have to wait for the next edition of this bibliographic guide to find out what such a reading might look like.