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Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism. London: Macmillan, 2000. ISBN: 0-333-92992-6. Price: £45.00 (US$39.95).

  • Benjamin Colbert

…plus d’informations

  • Benjamin Colbert
    University of Wolverhampton

Corps de l’article

A survey of Romantic Period bestsellers in verse reveals that rural poetry (Burns, Bloomfield) and romance (Scott, Byron, Moore) competed in a literary marketplace saturated by satire (Wolcot, Gifford, Mathias, Crabbe, Byron, Hone, Moore, et al). With Satire and Romanticism, Steven E. Jones brings this neglected fact to bear upon the task of revising and reconstructing 'Romanticism' in the image of its others. In this genre-inflected literary history, the concept of Romanticism emerges in the mid and late nineteenth century as a complex of modes and themes—'sentimental, sincere, sublime, and imaginative'—all of which share a fundamental antipathy to the satiric with its 'public, worldly, aggressive' stances. Until the advent of revisionist historicist criticism, this unvoiced opposition persists in Romantic criticism, with satire's trace written into notions of Romantic irony. However, Jones's primary focus is not on this Victorian legacy to the Romantic ideology, but on the scene of Romanticism in the making, what he calls repeatedly 'emergent Romanticism', the battlefield in which canon-defining 'culture wars' are fought. Privileging satire as the 'dominant generic construct' in the Romantic Period, Jones describes satire as 'the modal anvil over and against which early-nineteenth-century literature gets clustered, hammered out, formed, and hardened into a recognizable poetic movement' (p. 5). 'Emergent Romanticism' becomes configured as 'countersatiric writing', defining itself against and within the terms of debate set by satiric modes. Yet Jones deftly avoids an oversimplified dialectic; his historicist methodology illustrates that 'the terms "Romantic" and "satiric" were constructed through processes of struggle and mutual definition' (p. 9). 'In the end', writes Jones with characteristic forthrightness, 'this book is about a dynamic process in literary history: the making of the "Romantic" in relation to the "satiric"' (p. 1).

This is what Jones calls a 'fractal' model of literary history. Local 'skirmishes over taste' (p. 7) between satiric authority and proto-Romantic challengers enact a struggle for dominance reiterated on a larger scale by the victory of Romanticism in the century as a whole. Local events, however, retain the 'dynamic relations' smoothed out by retrospective claims, and Jones proves especially adept at turning up the focus without losing the contours of his thesis. Structuring his chapters as case studies, he maintains a roughly chronological trajectory, beginning with Wordsworth's engagement with satire's representation of rusticity and ending with Carlyle's reconstruction of Ebenezer Elliot, the Corn-Law Rhymer, as a 'minor' Romantic, defanged of satiric power. Yet within his foci, Jones telescopes forward or backward at will when other fractalised moments manifest the tensions he is analysing. He begins with Wordsworth's rejection of Crabbe's Poems (1807) as 'the meanest kind of satire', an evaluative posture that helps solidify notions of imaginative poetry that were to become normative under 'Romanticism'. Cited by Francis Jeffrey, Hazlitt, and others, as the polar opposite of the Lake poets, Crabbe comes to stand for the satiric antithesis to the Romantic sensibility. Yet Wordsworth's own practice in Lyrical Ballads reveals how satiric response is integral to his rhetorical technique. His poetry embodies, rather than merely asserts, the conflict between sentimental and satiric 'modes'; the famous examples of reader harassment in 'The Idiot Boy' or 'Simon Lee' thus 'satirize their readers' predispositions for satire' (p. 30). Other works like 'Peter Bell' prove susceptible to parody and satire precisely because they express a generic repudiation of satiric judgement, a replacement of satire's 'sneer' with Romanticism's 'heart' (p. 40).

Subsequent chapters similarly uncover a countersatirical turn within 'emergent romantic' writing, strategically structured as a way of turning satiric coercion to advantage. Noting Coleridge's remark that 'parodies on new poems are read as satires[,] on old ones . . . as compliments', Jones reads Coleridge's 'revisionary strategies' of self-parody and self-satire—typified by the marginal glosses added to 'The Ancient Mariner' in Sibylline Leaves (1817)—as pre-emptive efforts to influence the terms by which his poetry is received and distinguished from its popular sources, such as gothic balladry. In this way, self-parody is not only self-protection, but also an intervention in canon-formation. Keats and Shelley enact complex countermeasures towards radical as well as Tory satire. Drawing on Bakhtinian notions of the carnivalesque materialised in the conditions of London fairs, Jones argues that the 'incendiary effects' of Thomas Wooler's Black Dwarf lay in a heteroglossic satura, or medley of satirical effects, rhetorics, and audiences. By contrast, Keats, Shelley and Hunt ('caught between the radical and romantic') strike a more ambivalent stance, asserting countersatiric sympathy with the radical cause while refusing to participate wholeheartedly in the demotic linguistic strategies of Wooler, Hone and their circles. Instead, Keats and Shelley exploit their status as satiric victims, 'collaborat[ing] in their own caricatures . . . in order to stake out an unsatiric higher ground' (p. 113). They thus participate in and manipulate 'a specific discourse, with a well-known public history', Gifford's attack on the Della Cruscan school in the 1790s (a touchstone for satiric attacks on new poetic 'schools' thereafter).

Jones devotes two chapters to Byron, the satirist who has always complicated unified field theories of Romanticism. Jones first relocates Byron in the mass marketplace with its institutions of tastemaking and canon formation. Byron's late satire, 'The Blues', joins a chorus of misogynist anti-bluestocking satires that tacitly acknowledge a formidable competitor to the reviews and the booksellers in this arbitration of public taste. While such powerful coteries began to form alliances with emergent romanticism, satire pre-emptively defends 'literary taste as a male preserve' (p. 146) (successfully, insofar as literary historians came to regard the bluestockings as followers rather than dictators of fashion). Yet Byron's ideal homosocial alternative to the female coterie sits uneasily with the realities of the marketplace and with 'his own tendency and the tendency of the age to produce and valorize sentimental and sublime Romanticism' (p. 164). With Don Juan, Byron's negotiation between the sentimental and the satiric recontextualises tensions already present in popular pantomime. Once these 'deeper generic family resemblance[s]' (p. 171) are lost or removed, Jones argues, Byron's satiric mode can be refashioned as Romantic irony, conforming to the idealist 'tradition' of 'high' Romanticism.

Jones concludes with an account of Ebenezer Elliot, whose power as a political satirist soon became at odds with a critical consensus that valued sentiment and sincerity over satiric wit. Demoted to 'minor' status, Elliot 'offers an especially compelling example of the kinds of writing left behind in this process' (p. 200). It is a particular strength of this book that marginalized writers (Crabbe, Wooler, Elliot), 'minor' works (Keats's 'The Jealousies', Byron's 'The Blues'), and neglected material contexts (carnival, pantomime, bluestocking salons) return to the centre of literary history and Romantic historiography. However, the proleptic nature of the argument betrays limitations of which Jones is by no means unaware. The emphasis on 'emergent Romanticism' inevitably centres discussion around the canonical male writers who came to signify the movement to generations of students, but it leaves fewer openings for the women writers who helped shape the genres or 'modes' associated with Romanticism. Jones does acknowledge the leadership of women collectively—as participants in Della Cruscan and bluestocking circles—but few significant individuals find their way into the story (Fanny Burney features as a pre-Coleridgean, pre-emptive countersatiric strategist, but Felicia Hemans appears only briefly in an 'unromantic and unsentimental' [p. 134] light, hardly characteristic of her work as a whole).

Jones's notion of 'genre' or 'mode' (terms often used interchangeably) takes in contextual and performative practices rather than conventional or transhistorical features, and will seem to some readers bewilderingly mercurial. Yet to my mind this usage also suggests that satire itself might be permeated by other 'modes' Jones does not consider. As my opening remarks suggest, satire may be a subset of the popular, as Jeffrey was well aware when he read Crabbe's work as poetry 'of a different and a higher character' that included satire, but whose success was measured by the general delight of the reading public. Wordsworth, for one, responded by claiming that poets (not the public) must create the taste by which they are appreciated (a claim that Jones remodulates in his many descriptions of 'pre-emptive' 'countersatiric' strikes). Nevertheless, the significance of Jones's historicist reconfiguration of the Romantic Period cannot be overestimated. Satire and Romanticism is less pre-emptive than collaborative in its approach, generously drawing on recent scholarship, and offering important vectors for further enquiry into the function of satire within and against the Romantic.