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Landor, Shelley, and the Design of History

  • Regina Hewitt

…plus d’informations

  • Regina Hewitt
    University of South Florida

Corps de l’article

Though the work of Walter Savage Landor no longer figures prominently in Romantic Era anthologies and bibliographies, the rising interest in the politics of the period has brought renewed attention to his early poem Gebir, which reflects in its different editions his changing attitudes toward Napoleon.  [1] In addition, Titus Bicknell has directed attention to Landor's Latin works, arguing that Landor's very choice of language reveals his disdain for British authority. Moreover, he maintains, our neglect of the Latin works implies an anglophone bias we would do well to correct.  [2] These efforts to revalue Landor participate in widespread endeavours to reposition marginal writers within the English Romantic Canon, endeavours that have given us a new understanding of Southey, De Quincey, and many women writers. If we are to recover Landor, however, our efforts should extend to the Imaginary Conversations he began drafting during the 1820s. Eventually numbering more than a hundred, these primarily political discussions afford remarkable insights into the republican principles at issue for Romantic and Victorian reformers. But they are even more remarkable as examples of the social construction of history, for they create a republican past as a precedent for a republican future.

My purpose in this essay is to examine the design of the Imaginary Conversations, considering how and why they use interaction with the past to chart a course for the future. Because Landor's work, which is not well known, has numerous affinities with the more familiar works of Percy Shelley, I compare them throughout when doing so allows one to shed light on the other. I treat Shelley as a 'cognitive reference point' for Romanticists—a figure within the canon that we use, as Alan Richardson has shown, to define the place of 'other' writers.  [3]

In approaching the Imaginary Conversations, I bring to bear postmodern assumptions about the congruity of fiction and history that allow the work to be studied in a way not possible in the modern academy. When scholarship prized distinctions between history and literature, fact and fiction, Landor's blurring of these categories made the Imaginary Conversations difficult to evaluate. They were usually deemed unintelligible to readers who could not tell where Landor invents and where he 'accurately' represents himself and his historical characters. Annotated editions were undertaken with the goal of providing detailed glosses on every personal and historical reference so that readers could make the crucial distinctions.  [4] Now that most of us question such distinctions, we can approach Landor in a different way.

If we see history as socially constructed, verifying which elements in a given version are 'accurate' or 'true' according to other sources is less important than discovering what a given version is designed to do. Such an approach is well illustrated by Stanford Lyman's Postmodernism and a Sociology of the Absurd, which calls for attention to the effects of histories (or theories or ideologies) on people's attitudes and actions. Instead of worrying about the validity of Marx's historical dialectic, for example, Lyman would ask what responses it provokes:

Does the communist cell member believe that the party must undertake actions to overthrow the government by force and violence now, before the word about the death of the Marxist discourse becomes public knowledge? Or does he or she believe that all is lost and the party should cease and desist from any and all insurrectionary activity?  [5]

I posit that the Imaginary Conversations were designed to valorise the habitual questioning of authority, a crucial habit for the maintenance of the kind of republican government Landor advocated. To promote this orientation, the Conversations break the authoritative narrative of history into episodes of political discussion, foregrounding in the past the behaviour Landor would have readers carry out in the future. They thus challenge the authority of the past to determine the future while they model the practice of republican citizenship.

That Landor intended the Imaginary Conversations to stimulate political discussion in England is evident from his correspondence and publication plans. A letter he wrote to his friend Walter Birch indicates that the Conversations were meant to expose 'the conspiracy of kings, first against republics, now openly against all constitutions.'  [6] His resolve to write the pieces in English and seek an English publisher is itself significant, for it departs from the preference for European languages and publishers he had shown since moving abroad in 1814. By the 1820s, Landor was beginning to wish to return to his own country (which he did in 1835) and to take a new interest in English affairs. He supported Catholic Emancipation, despite his personal prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church, and Parliamentary Reform, which he believed should have occurred long before the 1830s.  [7] Under the circumstances, the Imaginary Conversations appear designed to intervene in English politics at a crucial time in the nation's history.

However clear Landor's intentions may be, questions remain about why he would see the writing of imaginary conversations as a suitable means to reach his goal. I suggest that two cultural conditions make the connection likely. First, the instrumentality of imaginative literature was widely assumed in Landor's time. As more and more studies in our own time are revealing, Romantic Era writing, reading, publishing, and reviewing were politically charged activities.  [8] Landor, like Shelley, could reasonably expect his works to be interpreted with reference to major public controversies and could reasonably hope to sway public opinion through his writing. Though such influence remains difficult to document or quantify, the partisanship of reviews, the real threat of prosecution for seditious or blasphemous libel, and the stratagems by which authors and publishers simultaneously concealed and revealed their agendas, all testify to the high level of political engagement we are learning to recognise in the writing and reading practices of the period.

The second condition making it likely that the Imaginary Conversations have some connection with Parliamentary Reform involves the centrality of contentiousness to both Landor's text and to participatory government. In Landor's use, conversation models politically contentious behaviour: speakers assert their own claims, test those of others, and check each other's authority. Such behaviour has been identified by Charles Tilly as prominent in early nineteenth-century British politics and interpreted as a factor contributing both to the reforms of the 1820s and 1830s and to the ongoing maintenance of parliamentary government.  [9] If we are to pursue studies of Romantic Era texts in political contexts, we should look further into their representations of a behaviour that is associated with parliamentary or republican principles and opposed to the deferential conduct expected in more hierarchical systems. Landor's interest in conversation, along with Shelley's in verbal resistance, should be considered as part of the rise of 'popular contention' that Tilly has identified.

For Tilly, a correlation exists between the extent to which citizens can make verbal or symbolic claims on government and the extent to which their given government succeeds as a representative system. By examining newspaper accounts of more than 8000 'contentious gatherings'—defined as meetings in which at least ten people 'outside the government gathered in a publicly accessible place and made visible collective claims bearing on the interests of at least one person outside their own number'—in England from 1758 to 1834, Tilly discovered that violent gatherings decreased while non-violent gatherings increased during the period.  [10] According to Tilly, the increase in non-violent assemblies corresponds to the increasing importance of Parliament in national affairs. Violent gatherings were more common when people sought justice through local squires or patronage systems. The justice available from such systems was personal and uneven. When collective claims could not be even fully articulated much less satisfied, frustration erupted in violence. Non-violent gatherings became more common when people directed their concerns to larger governing bodies with expectations of more uniform treatment. Confident that government would eventually respond to them, people could turn frustration into the verbal and symbolic activities of petitioning, electioneering, or organising social movements. Popular contention gradually pressured Parliament into recognising citizens' claims, and by recognising them, Parliament legitimised popular contention. Popular contention became a norm of government during the nineteenth century.  [11]

A heightened awareness of popular contention should affect our assessment of Romantic writers' claims for verbal agency. For example, Shelley should seem less idealistic when, in The Mask of Anarchy, he posits non-violent resistance as an effective response to Peterloo. What Shelley projects is the triumph of claims-making on behalf of the oppressed: a 'vast assembly [will] . . . [d]eclare with measured words' the freedom of the populace; its words will serve as weapons against tyrants and shields for their 'mute' victims (ll. 295-335).  [12] Though the words appear at first to be useless, since they do not prevent the slaughter of the protesters, they ultimately prevail against the authorities who allow such acts. Turning popular opinion against such displays of power, the words 'become/ Like oppression's thundered doom/ Ringing through each heart and brain,/ Heard again—again—again' (ll. 364-67). The Mask of Anarchy leaves open the question of whether the words achieve a lasting or a temporary victory over tyranny, a question with which Shelley grappled in other works, but the poem need not analyse the dynamics of social change to make a political statement. In the context of increasingly successful contention, it encourages reformers to persist in non-violent claims-making despite the aberration of Peterloo. While the poem may have idealistic implications, it nevertheless describes a course of action that was realistic for its time.

The rise of contention also helps to explain the political implications of Landor's Imaginary Conversations, but to educe them, we must grant his work more sophistication than it has been traditionally afforded. Traditionally, the characters have been taken as mere 'mouthpieces' for Landor's opinions, which were to be distilled from the work.  [13] This correspondence, however, does not hold true in all cases. Even if we hesitate to follow Landor's directions, which warn against 'attributing to the writer any opinion in this book but what are spoke under his own name,'  [14] we should note that the characters include monarchs and despots who do not speak for Landor. Moreover, different speakers in a given conversation will sometimes each take positions compatible with those Landor took in other contexts but will nevertheless be at odds with each other in their discussion. The Conversations are not simply reducible to stated precepts: the fact that the characters are carrying on a discussion is at least as important as what they say. Indeed, James Chandler, in England in 1819, has raised the possibility that the Imaginary Conversations may evidence 'a new, culturally exemplary role given to conversation in this period.'  [15] However wide-ranging the cultural significance of the Conversations might be, the political value of the works lies above all in their staging inquiries into the nature of authority, which demonstrates the contentious behaviour that was crucial to Parliamentary Reform.

This generalisation holds true even when a conversation seems to ramble over many unrelated and unpolitical topics, as a few examples will show. Two conversations between Landor and Southey on the subject of Milton offer particularly good illustrations of Landor's designs. Not only do these pieces show two people contending with each other over the authority of a prominent figure in their culture, they show the construction of an historical precedent to authorise contemporary action. Concomitantly, they amount to something of a Defence of Poetry that invites reference to Shelley's work. Landor and Southey begin discussing Milton because they wish for a better understanding of the poet they both admire. Each makes claims about the value of Milton's work, and each must defend his claims to the other. Paradoxically, they concentrate on finding faults in Milton's work because intelligent admiration depends on awareness of shortcomings, or, in Landor's words, 'it is not by concealing what is wrong that anything right can be accomplished' (2: 74).  [16] This exercise significantly shows an active evaluation of the past for present purposes. The speakers try to see failings because they want to know what successes might be. Nothing in the past, not even Milton, receives blind veneration; rather, past examples challenge present thinkers to an ongoing assessment of 'what right can be accomplished.' The purposeful contention that Landor and Southey practice here with respect to Milton models the attitude that the Imaginary Conversations on the whole display and encourage.

To identify faults in Milton, Landor and Southey read through his poetry (Paradise Lost in their first conversation, many of the shorter ones in their second), stopping at passages that confuse and annoy them. They thus begin with their own reactions and try to work out an explanation for their puzzlement based on criteria from their own value systems. Their criteria include matters of versification and genre of technical concern to them as poets, but political principles clearly guide some of Landor's observations: he sometimes finds the republican Milton insufficiently republican. For instance, he objects to the implied approval of earthly kingship he reads into a reference to God as 'anointed king,' and he regrets that Milton did not revise the convention of describing bishops as shepherds, which gives the clerics an aura of innocence they did not have in Landor's eyes (2: 66, 163). Probably out of respect for his friendship with Southey, Landor did not use the conversations with him to stage the argument about Milton's politics they might have had. He reserves explicit treatment of Milton's politics for a conversation between Andrew Marvell and Bishop Parker, but he makes politics conspicuous by its absence from the discussion with Southey. He has Southey admit that he does not like Milton's prose as much as Landor does, giving Landor the opportunity to explain that that is 'because you dissent more widely from the opinions it conveys' (2: 59). For his part, Landor confesses his 'avers[ion]' to the theology in the epic he otherwise treasures for its 'eloquence, harmony, and genius' (2: 74). Views of Milton, like views of other past figures and events in the Imaginary Conversations, emerge as inevitably value-laden. Careful readers learn to look for the values informing the given positions.

As the poets continue their discussion, Landor gets caught up in the subject, sometimes addressing Milton directly, asking him why he wrote such-and-such and speculating about how he might have written it differently. Not only does Landor give Milton a place in the conversation, questioning him as if he could answer, he also puts himself in Milton's place, supplying a possible response. As Southey joins in, the revision of Milton grows lively, with Southey saying, 'I would lop off the whole from 'Spirits of purest light'' or 'I wish he had had the courage to resist this pedantic quibbling Latinism,' and Landor replying, 'I have struck it out, you see, and torn the paper in doing so' (2: 67, 68). They are rewriting Milton as they talk, producing a version that is meaningful to them.

Insofar as Landor destabilises Milton's text, his activity might be theorised in the terms of 'agonistic' communication that Lyotard posits in The Postmodern Condition.  [17] In those terms, Landor's revisions would be 'countermoves' in a language game played for control of knowledge. The countermoves disrupt the story of 'right order' represented through Milton's work, interfering with its use as an epistemic ground for the Established Church and State. Making unexpected claims for other readings and readers of Milton, they destabilise the metanarrative that powerful readers would impose on all. Such resistance to the metanarrative of the given system would promote the cause of Reform.

For postmodern readers, the resistance may be the reform, repeated disruption the end in itself.  [18] Landor's efforts, however, are constructive as well as destructive. For that reason, even though the postmodern vocabulary expresses an important aspect of Landor's work, its emphasis on disruption and discontinuity misses the equally important constructive part. Before we reject attention to continuity as outdated or naïve, we should realise that it still influences many of our goals and procedures. For example, it arguably guides the revision of the canon, if we seek to incorporate unfamiliar works by comparing them to familiar ones, in the manner Richardson has theorised. Even if we wish to repudiate the traditional canon, we continue to use it as a negative reference point. The concept of continuity—or, as Lyman would put it, what the concept of continuity allows us to do—remains relevant to an understanding of the social construction of history.

To look further at what Landor accomplishes, I would enlist George Herbert Mead's ideas about how we create and use continuity—specifically how actions in the present depend on a sense of continuity with the past, even when they depart from familiar precedents. A pioneer challenger of many authoritarian and essentialist theories, Mead nevertheless argued that continuity is as important as discontinuity in moving from past to future.  [19] According to Mead, activity in the present depends on a sense of continuity: people assume that what they are doing at any given time follows logically from something that occurred at some previous time. The past is a notion they create in the present to establish meaningful connections between succeeding events. All notions of the past 'exten[d] . . . present demand': they result from our 'spreading backward what is going on so that the steps we are taking may . . . [appear to] advance [us toward our] goals.'  [20] We treat this past as a valid 'working hypothesis' about previous events until something unexpected occurs. The 'novel event' breaks the sense of continuity and halts present action. People 'repair' the break in the present by incorporating the novel event into the past where its satisfactory location re-establishes continuity and makes activity possible again. The result is a 'new past' that becomes acceptable or valid if and for so long as it gives meaning to present pursuits.  [21] In short, the construction of the past is a problem-solving exercise.  [22] It is the removal of some obstacle to forward motion in the path from present to future.

In rewriting Milton, Landor and Southey engage in just such a problem-solving exercise. They 'spread backward' the concerns that make Milton troubling for them. Both desire a sense of continuity between their work and Milton's, but to establish it, they must overcome the obstacle of Milton's belief system, a combination of hierarchical theology and republican philosophy that neither can wholly accept. For Southey, the problem lies in Milton's republicanism. For Landor, as for Shelley, it lies in Milton's God, the anointed and tyrannical King of Heaven. Landor and Southey solve the present problem by rewriting the past, positing new versions of Milton: Southey's is a poet of Church and State whose prose attacking kings, bishops, and censors can be ignored; Landor's is a Commonwealth writer whose republicanism marginalizes his theology. Given that view, Landor can continue Milton's work by carrying forward his political ideals without the theological constraints. Landor's and Southey's interaction with Milton has produced a continuity between past and present that authorises a present course of action. To put the outcome in terms borrowed from Lucy Newlyn's revisionist study of the Romantics' complex relationship with Milton, Landor might be said to have assimilated Milton's revolutionary potential.  [23]

Landor's creation of a secular Milton brings to mind Shelley's invention of a Milton who refuted his own belief system in Paradise Lost. Indeed, their constructions have much in common. The Defence of Poetry includes the creation of an alternative past—figured as a 'great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world'  [24]—that establishes continuity between Shelley's work and the work of predecessors whose religion or morality Shelley rejected. There are, of course, differences between Shelley's and Landor's approaches to the past and, more importantly, between what their designs allowed them to do in their present. Ultimately, Shelley's allowed him to theorise social change, a goal that subsumed political activism for him. In contrast, Landor's enabled him to encourage political activism, which was his primary goal.

Instead of revising the past along one line as Landor does, Shelley describes two pasts: one is the conventional past marked by the notions of right and wrong that poets 'would do ill to embody' in their works; the other is the alternative past figured as a poem that I cite above. Readers have often believed that Shelley's alternative exists only as an ideal beyond human reach, but Shelley does not necessarily separate the ideal from the human. To borrow the argument Karl Kroeber has advanced concerning the problem of inspiration in the Defence, Shelley's idealisations reflect his confidence in the power of the human imagination to transform the world: approaching the ideal does not require us to transcend the human but to realise its potential.  [25] What separates one past from the other, then, is not ontology but effect. Each past provides continuity for a certain kind of future. Shelley wanted people to chart the future by the alternative course.

The conventional past, with ethical systems that have allowed some individuals or groups to dominate others, sets precedents for continued tyrannies. The alternative past, a record of 'the before unapprehended relations of things' that poets have envisioned,  [26] sets precedents for sympathetic connections among people. The conventional past seems 'real' while the alternative past seems ideal or fanciful because people have assumed the validity of the former and acted on their assumption, but for Shelley, that assumption represents a by no means inevitable or irremediable failure of imagination. When he credits poetry with 'purg[ing] from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being,'  [27] he is raising the possibility of legitimating an alternative course of history.

The concept of the 'mythical past' extrapolated from Mead by later theorists is useful in explaining the imaginative correction that Shelley envisioned. A 'mythical past' is a fictitious history designed to give some group an advantage over others. For example, highly placed bureaucrats may mythologize precedents and traditions to make workers follow set procedures and to insulate themselves from challenge and innovation; activists may mythologize previous victories over authorities to make their efforts for some present cause seem likely to succeed.  [28] If all pasts are constructed, however, the line between mythical and legitimate pasts is quite faint. Recourse to accuracy or to an 'implied objective dimension'—i.e., the presence within a history of material widely accepted as 'fact'  [29]—does little to sharpen it. A more satisfactory separation may be made through recourse to ethics. Mythical pasts are deceptive; they are constructed and deployed solely to promote the interest of one group over others.  [30] Whether or not we deem the use of mythical pasts an inevitable event 'in the maintenance of social and political order,'  [31] judge some deceptive manoeuvrings acceptable but reject others, or condemn them all, we can recognise mythical pasts by intentions. The meaning and value of a given past emerges through interaction: they depend on what the given past allows the actors to do. Shelley's Defence exposes the authoritarian intentions of the generally accepted course of history. It reduces the conventional or 'real' past to mythical status, making way for the legitimisation of a past that will allow more sympathetic human relations.

Shelley's preoccupation with multiple pasts and the process of endorsing one over another reflects his larger interest in theorising social change. It foregrounds the imaginative leap necessary to disrupt the course of history—a disruption that figures prominently in Shelley's other late works. Prometheus Unbound and Hellas, for example, explore the cyclical pattern in which revolution turns back into tyranny and seek a way to keep tyranny from recurring. In the words of the chorus from Hellas, 'the world is weary of the past' (ll. 1096-1100). Shelley's solution calls for a disruption of the cycle of history or, in other words, an imaginative leap from one past to another that is compatible with a more humane future.

Shelley's leap from history in the past should also be seen as a leap from politics in the present.  [32] Despite his republican sympathies, Shelley did not expect the privileging of a given political organisation, platform, or practice to bring about lasting social change. On the contrary, he treated change at the structural level as contingent upon a change in people's attitudes toward social relations. Antagonism, however well justified, must give way to forgiveness and love: Prometheus must no longer curse Jupiter; Beatrice must not seek revenge on the Count.

Shelley's sense of the oppositional stance as provisional and inadequate, along with his efforts to move beyond politics to a more comprehensive view of human relations, sets his designs on history apart from Landor's. Landor finds the political realm and the oppositional mode adequate for reforming society. His solution to the recurrence of tyranny is more frequent questioning of authority within the familiar course of history. The habit of continual contention checks the power of potential tyrants as soon as they begin to assert themselves. Unlike Shelley, Landor did not oppose the violent overthrow of a dictator if other means failed,  [33] but he did believe that the political ground, once cleared, could be kept free of future tyrants by the non-violent contentions of vigilant citizens. For Landor, the fundamental republican act remains tyrannicide, not forgiveness, but the physical act gives way to a figurative version that traces the path of Parliamentary Reform: non-violent opposition to unwarranted claims replaces violent opposition; claims-making on behalf of others supplants the mere vindication of self. Landor's republican future is a lively whirl of discussion that tests the merits of every statement as soon as it is made.

The Imaginary Conversations set a precedent for such a future by depicting the habit of contention as a prominent, normal feature of the past. Thus incorporated into the past, the contentiousness in Landor's present is not a 'novel event' disrupting the otherwise authoritarian course of history. Rather, it becomes the norm itself, with authoritarian episodes reduced to novel aberrations against which it has always, albeit not always quickly or easily, prevailed. Landor's rewriting of a single course of history, in contrast to Shelley's manoeuvring among several, shows Landor's activism: he is more concerned with using the past to validate practices he wishes to encourage in his own time than in using it to understand the theoretical basis for social change.

In addition to assisting the cause of reform by setting precedent, the Imaginary Conversations help readers cultivate the skills needed for republican government. Because the episodic structure of the conversations offers little narrative guidance, readers must take the speakers' words, as Landor took Milton's passages, as gestures requiring interpretation and response. They thus practice the contentious behaviour conducive to representative government—behaviour that involves evaluating the impact of each claim on the whole, separating those with selfish or tyrannical implications from those consistent with a larger good.

A random sampling of the Imaginary Conversations could evidence their contentious design, for their significance lies more in the repetitiveness of their challenge to authority than in the variations in their topics and scenes. Instead of selecting entirely at random, however, I examine below a sampling of the conversations involving the Commonwealth and Restoration. Their treatment of regicide, justice, and mercy bears comparison with Shelley's most direct confrontation of the problem of tyranny, The Cenci.  [34]

Landor devotes a conversation between 'Oliver Cromwell and Walter Noble' to the topic of the execution of Charles I. Noble, a member of Parliament, begs Cromwell to spare the deposed king's life. He thus dares to challenge the decision of a leader who was beginning to assume dictatorial powers that would replicate pre-revolutionary authoritarianism in the post-revolutionary government. Noble wants Cromwell to set a new standard of justice for the Commonwealth. Old justice was 'one-eyed,' seeing only the need for retribution. New justice should open the other eye to rewards and rehabilitation: it should 'not condemn to death him who has done, or is likely to do, more service than injury to society.' Making a case for the former king's previous and potential service, Noble pleads, 'abolish the power of Charles, extinguish not his virtues' (1: 21-22).

Cromwell rejects Nobel's argument. In his view, the former king's existence constitutes a threat to the Commonwealth: Charles would always plot against it, just as 'he would sign [Noble's] death-warrant the day after' Noble set him free (1: 22). Cromwell's argument, however, does not depend solely on his own assessment of the former king; it also involves his perception of himself as an instrument of the new order. Even if he agreed with Noble, he could not act on individual conviction: 'my authority is null,' he maintains; I am the servant of the Commonwealth: I will not, dare not, betray it' (1: 21). Cromwell extends the consequences of his dereliction of duty beyond the immediate possibility of a royalist coup. His example would license others to shirk their duties and hence to fail to hold the government together: 'Men, like nails,' he generalises, 'lose their usefulness when they lose their direction and begin to bend: such nails are then thrown into the dust or into the furnace' (1: 23).

The conversation ends at an impasse. Nobel says that Cromwell is cruel; Cromwell admits that may be so but rebukes Noble for not leaving such judgements to God (1:23). Typically, such an ending would leave readers to respond to the two positions, but Landor seems to provide some resolution through a note in his own voice. The technique may have affinities with Shelley's habit of prefacing his works with interpretive guides, but the position taken could hardly be more different. Whereas Shelley argues that even Beatrice Cenci 'would have been wiser and better' if she had realised that 'revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes,'  [35] Landor endorses exacting measures. According to Landor,

Cromwell was not cruel. Had he been less sparing of the worst blood in the three kingdoms, the best would never have been spilt on the scaffold; and England would have been exempt from the ignominy of Sidney's death, Milton's proscription, the sale of the nation to the second Charles, and the transfer of both Louis.

1: 23

At one level, the note decides the argument in Cromwell's favour. The vindication of Cromwell may be a blind spot in Landor's republican vision. Landor could never bring himself to look directly at Cromwell's tyrannies, so here he emphasises Cromwell's responsibility to the Commonwealth. Perhaps because he always saw Cromwell in contrast to Napoleon, he always defended Cromwell's integrity.  [36] At another level, the conversation still leaves room for a good deal of interpretation and response. The note vindicates only Cromwell's motives, confirming the speaker's perception (or rationalisation) of himself as an instrument of the people, while actually introducing criticism of his actions: had Cromwell been even more unbending than Parliament authorised him to be, he might have done greater good for the Commonwealth. The question of whether a change of heart ought to accompany a change in government remains open. The value of the conversation lies in Noble's having called Cromwell to account, a value consistent with Landor's emphasis on republicanism as the limiting of individual authority.

Though the conversation between Cromwell and Noble raises Shelleyan pleas for forgiveness as a claim for readers to evaluate, Landor does little to accent its merits. In general, he neither expected nor wished for fundamental changes of heart. His goal was to valorise verbal opposition, not to depart from the oppositional mode. While this goal does not preclude the development of sympathy, it does entail additional responses. As demonstrated by Landor's conversation with Southey about Milton and as theorised by Mead, sympathy is necessarily involved with interaction. Responding to another begins by putting oneself in the place of the other so as to imagine the other's motives and meanings.  [37] The procedure bears some resemblance to the identification with others by which Shelley recognises the operation of the imagination. Shelley and Landor diverge over the implications of sympathising. Shelley became preoccupied with its capacity to bring about reconciliation and redemption. Landor remained open to a wider range of responses, including the response of opposition. When Landor does portray forgiving characters, as in, for example, 'Lady Lisle and Elizabeth Gaunt,' he does so in critical terms.

Lisle and Gaunt converse in a Restoration Era prison, where they are awaiting execution for harbouring republican fugitives. Their motives for doing so, however, were religious, not political: they believed they should minister to anyone in need of food or shelter. Lisle absolves the jury from blame for condemning her because she did indeed harbour fugitives. Gaunt voices no criticism of her accuser, a fugitive who repaid her kindness by turning her in to the authorities for a reward; instead, she worries about how difficult it must be for him to have his act of betrayal on his conscience (1: 386). The value of their non-judgmental stance is questionable, for it accepts and reinforces the power of the restored monarchy over them. Their statements, however, are not offered for imitation but for evaluation. Lady Lisle's words, which reveal how the judge threatened to convict the jury of treason if they did not find her guilty (1: 386), are calculated to provoke in readers the outrage she will not express. The effect of the conversation is to excite oppositional force on behalf of those who will not or cannot speak for themselves.

In identifying a need for claims-making on behalf of others, the conversation between Lisle and Gaunt parallels both The Mask of Anarchy and the banquet scene in The Cenci, which points out that Count Cenci's power is so great because it is unopposed. Though the guests begin to speak against him, they are easily cowed by his gesture; thereafter, each waits to 'second' the motion that no one dares to make (I.iii.90-95, 141-44). Beatrice alone speaks out against the Count, but her effectiveness is compromised by others' failure to support her claims. The play then follows a course consistent with Tilly's findings on contention in eighteenth-century England: violence erupts when people's claims cannot be otherwise expressed.

I would like to examine further the importance of articulating claims in The Cenci, for that aspect of the play links it with the rise of contention and the context of Parliamentary Reform. Ginger Strand and Sarah Zimmerman precede me in stressing the importance of public claims-making in the play, though they do not make the connection I propose. Regarding the banquet scene I treat above, Strand and Zimmerman argue that the Count's 'power is based on his ability to control public discourse by determining who will and will not speak in important public forums.'  [38] Since Beatrice is not authorised to speak, her words are ineffective in moving an audience to action. The goal of the play is to put Beatrice on a platform from which she will be heard and heeded. In Strand and Zimmerman's innovative reading, the murder becomes a means to that end. The resultant trial gives Beatrice the public forum in which she can tell the story of 'her family's victimization' and 'win sympathy from her listeners.' Despite questions about the morality of her conduct, Beatrice 'becomes a model for Shelley' insofar as she commands attention for the victims of tyrants.  [39]

Strand and Zimmerman attribute Shelley's preoccupation with public forums to his efforts to assert his own claims for legal custody of his children as well as his desire to speak for the victims of Peterloo, and they identify the theatre as the forum in which Shelley could give voice to those who are silenced elsewhere.  [40] I would add that Shelley's preoccupation is also very likely conditioned by the rise of contention and his interest in Parliamentary Reform. For Shelley, arousing sympathy in the theatre was a step toward arousing sympathy in Parliament.

Though Shelley's and Landor's views seem to converge in a belief that someone should speak for Beatrice and all the victims she represents, they remain apart in their senses of what those words should do. Maintaining in the Preface to The Cenci that even Beatrice erred by taking revenge, Shelley would have Beatrice's story show that true reform must find an alternative to opposition. In contrast, Landor presents opposition as an appropriate response to victimisation. His Imaginary Conversations explore ways to make non-violent opposition more effective than violent means. For Landor, effective claims-making is the responsibility of educated, thoughtful citizens. Despite his republican convictions, Landor was sceptical about people's ability to govern themselves. In fact, his scepticism led him to define his own political position in opposition to democracy. As he explains in his Letter to Emerson:

I was always a Conservative; but I would eradicate any species of evil, political moral, or religious, as soon as it springs up. . . .I would not alter or greatly modify the English Constitution. . . . Democracy, such as yours in America is my abhorrence. Republicanism far from it; but there are few nations capable of receiving, fewer of retaining, this pure and efficient form. Democracy is lax and disjointed; and whatever is loose wears out the machine.  [41]

Not surprisingly, given Landor's position, numerous Imaginary Conversations deal with the responsibilities of educated citizens. Several featuring colonial American speakers ('Washington and Franklin,' 'Bishop Shipley and Benjamin Franklin') allude to education as the key to making the new nation different from the old world, and several involving Milton, which are more topical to this essay, address intellectual leadership.

One such conversation occurs when Milton visits Galileo after the latter was arrested by the Inquisition. According to Milton, those who support the Inquisition's power over the astronomer are as 'criminal' as those who were detaining him. In a speech suggesting a younger writer's version of 'I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue,' Milton wishes that 'the learned and intelligent in all regions of Europe' would stop coming out of their collegiate kennels . . . [to] hunt only for their masters' and instead unite in a disinterested effort to enlighten the world. Then, he predicts, would 'the ignorant and oppressive, now at the summit of power, resign their offices' (2: 234). Galileo has less confidence in intellectual revolution. Looking ahead to the Commonwealth, he warns:

The spirit of liberty, now rising up in your country, will excite a blind enthusiasm, and leave behind a bitter disappointment. Vicious men will grow popular, and the interests of the nation will be intrusted to them, because they descend from their station, or order, as they say, to serve you.

2: 235

Young and idealistic, Milton is sure that 'truth will prevail against' the outcome Galileo predicts, but the older thinker warns again about the corrupting influence of power (2: 235).

Galileo and Milton do not resolve this debate because a guard forbids them to speak further (2: 235). The lack of resolution, however, makes the conversation more compelling than any solution Landor might have devised. Readers must consider both Milton's call for intellectual revolution, which is never retracted, and Galileo's warning that revolutionaries often become versions of the oppressors they overthrew. The need to evaluate each speaker's claims suggests that readers should neither dream with young Milton of the triumph of sincerity over interest nor resign themselves like Galileo to finding justice only in heaven; instead, they can work continually in the present to rein in the acts of authorities who will repeatedly strain the limits of popular control.

In a Conversation primarily about Milton, Andrew Marvell proposes a system in which the role of the wise citizen as counsellor would be recognised. Meritocracy would replace aristocracy as those 'who have corrected the hearts and enlarged the intellects' of others would receive 'higher distinction' than those who have 'devised the ruin of cities and societies' (2: 105). Chief among the leaders Marvell would recognise is Milton, whose integrity Marvell has just defended to Bishop Samuel Parker, a supporter of the Restoration government. Here, as in other Conversations, Landor juxtaposes Marvell and Milton in ways that make Milton emerge as the better role model. Though Marvell is right, by Landor's principles, to correct the Bishop when he accuses Milton of hypocrisy, Marvell's defence is too impassioned. He indulges in rabid denunciations of monarchy that, at the given moment, can only harm the republican cause. Even when, at another time, Marvell discusses drama with Milton, he vociferously protests conventions that Milton patiently explains.  [42] Bringing both judgement and passion to intellectual struggle, the mature Milton models responsible contention.

Even these few examples show how the Imaginary Conversations design a 'new past' suitable for a present age of reform. They break open the narratives of history that have made meaningful stories out of the 'facts' of civil war, regicide, and restoration, and they present the separate episodes as laden with the value of contention. History becomes the story of citizens' repeated adjustments to each other. Contention is no longer a problem to be solved by narrative management, an obstacle in the path of monarchical authority or republican consensus. It is the vital and normal characteristic of political behaviour. It calls rivals to account and helps allies formulate reasonable claims. Incorporated into the past, contention can be carried on into the future. The challenge to the nineteenth-century republicans was to continue claims-making in the voice of reason rather than in the clamour of revolution, to emulate Milton instead of Marvell.

In effect, Landor assumes the identity of a Milton for his own time—a writer who questions, and leads others to question, authority. Because he positions the writer as leader, Landor might be accused of constructing a 'mythical past,' one that gives him an advantage over others, but the accusation does not stand up well under scrutiny. Landor made no attempt to deceive others about his designs; moreover, the questioning of authority he encouraged would inevitably rebound to his own. If Landor does construct a metanarrative for a republican system, it gives him—and any leader—only contingent authority within it. To believe in a republican metanarrative, one must be willing to trust citizens collectively while doubting them individually. At two centuries remove, we might be tempted to pronounce belief in any construct as naïve, but we should concede that the effects of that particular belief were often liberating.

Landor's positioning of the writer as leader also participates in what we have come to call the 'Romantic Ideology'—i.e., the belief that poetry or, given the broadness of that category in Romantic discourse, any imaginative writing, adequately prepares or even substitutes for social change.  [43] For scholars who follow McGann's lead on the topic, the belief amounts to a false consciousness that should be repudiated. Since the Imaginary Conversations make writers prophets of political change, Landor might be said to exemplify the Romantic Ideology more than the canonical Romantics, but his confidence in the intellectual basis for practical action is well justified in light of Tilly's research. If Tilly is correct, the reforms that made Parliament a more representative and influential body and simultaneously checked aristocratic interests were indeed partly prepared by intellectual means. The impetus for change came from a cultural and immaterial source: it came from the imaginary, or at least imaginative, conversations of citizens who questioned 'things as they are.' The impact of words on Parliamentary Reform suggests that Landor—and Shelley—may be unacknowledged legislators after all.

Since my own argument for casting Landor and Shelley as participants in reformist contention may be charged with mythologizing the past, I would defend it on the ground of its effects. I do not offer it as a new metanarrative of literary history but as part of the story now unfolding in our writing of contextual studies. What matters about these studies is what they enable us to do: they enable us to theorise writing and reading as culturally engaged, rather than as aesthetically disengaged, practices. This clearly fulfils a need in our time, and if the engagement is our own construct, we need not repudiate it for that reason. Even Lyotard allows for local and temporary assent to the narratives that constitute our knowledge.  [44]

If we pay as much attention to Landor's design(s) of(on) history as we have to Shelley's, we may enrich our understanding of the complexity and variety of political engagements during the Romantic Era. In addition, we may enrich our understanding of our design(s) of(on) that Era itself. In our own recent past, we would probably have explained the differences between Landor and Shelley—i.e., Landor's pragmatic approach to change within history and Shelley's 'idealistic' creation of alternative histories—as due to Landor's survival into the Victorian Age. Since the Imaginary Conversations were first published in the 1820s and enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1840s, they might be classified as 'Victorian' works, and that classification might then be used to explain their difference from 'Romantic' works. Such classification, however, fosters a view of Landor as someone who did not quite fit into his time and place. In fact, Proudfit blames classification, in part, for the dearth of scholarship on Landor: 'scholars and critics tend to be compulsive categorizers and Landor is not easily categorised.'  [45] Now that we have become self-conscious about the problems of categorisation, it behoves us to re-examine Landor's place. Considering the value of contention during the nineteenth-century, we can see Landor as crucially involved in the republican discourse of his time. The Romantic Era publication and Victorian Era republication of the Imaginary Conversations asserts the ongoing value of contention, for the success of reforms won by the 1830s depended on the continued success of contention and claims-making. That the reforms of the 1830s led almost immediately to movements for further reform, including the movement of Chartists who invoked Shelley's work, testifies to the need to sustain that mode of behaviour. Reading Landor's Imaginary Conversations in terms of Romantic Era achievements allows us to see connections formerly sacrificed to categorisation.

In Meadian terms, the recovery of such a figure as Landor gives the study of Romanticism a 'new past.' It 'spreads backward' current interests in what does not fit into the privileged canon and allows scholarship to move forward toward a contextual understanding of previously isolated and ranked individuals.

Parties annexes