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Lucy Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0198187106. Price: £35 (US$60).

  • Andrew Bennett

…plus d’informations

  • Andrew Bennett
    University of Bristol

Corps de l’article

Lucy Newlyn's important new book exploring the 'competitive-collaborative relationship' between poets and reviewers, critics and readers is both a culmination of and a departure from her work of the last fifteen years. In Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Language of Allusion (1986) Newlyn explored what we might call the 'inter-reading' and the mutual allusiveness of two central Romantic poets. In Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (1991), she broadened her scope to explore a range of responses to Milton by Romantic poets, considering ways in which Romantic writing 'reproduces, amplifies, and prolongs the ambiguities of Paradise Lost'. While both books concern questions of interpretation, they necessarily focus on relations between poets—on what Romantic poets make of each other and on what they do with Milton. Newlyn's new book builds on her Bloomian interest in interpretation and influence, in reading and in questions of hermeneutics. But it is concerned more with what readers make of Romantic poets and, more to the point, with what Romantic poets make of and think of their readers (both real and ideal) than with what they do with and to other poets.

This is a wide-ranging and intricately structured book in which Newlyn combines psychological with hermeneutic approaches while also paying careful attention to the literary- and cultural-historical contexts of her topic. Newlyn argues that an 'anxiety of reception' is not specific to the Romantic tradition or to early nineteenth-century poetry but that it 'takes on a special colouring' within that tradition and in that period (vii): the emergence of Romanticism, she suggests, can be considered as 'a species of reaction-formation against the new power of reading' (48). In chapter one Newlyn deftly outlines the emergence of this new dispensation, surveying issues of literacy, the growth in the reading public, the ideology of authorship, criticism and the role of the critic, contemporary neglect and posthumous reputation and the 'modern' anxiety of overpopulation in terms of both readers and texts. Three more chapters, taking as case-studies Coleridge, Wordsworth and Barbauld, complete the first part of the book. Coleridge's anxiety, Newlyn suggests, was 'acute' and presented itself as a tension between a certain contempt for the reading public on the one hand and a very high expectation of readerly competence on the other. The tension between the actual and the ideal is resolved in Coleridge's figuration of receptive 'coterie' audiences in the poems themselves. But the ingenuity of Coleridge's construction of audiences, or of Newlyn's reading of that construction, doesn't stop there, since this very construction of an ideal audience—designed as it is to protect the author from inappropriate judgement, from critical attack—itself allows for its own constructive resistance. According to Newlyn, there is a 'troubling oscillation between authoritarian and egalitarian rhetoric' which characterises Coleridge's 'engagement with audience' (87). By figuring the ideal reader in the passive role of mesmerised wedding guest, for example, Coleridge opens up certain possibilities for (non-passive) interpretation in that other ideal, the active reader. It is this kind of self-alarming, and to some extent self-defeating tension that Newlyn means to point to in her use of the term 'anxiety', and that her book is so alert to in all its permutations, all its disguises.

In Chapter Three Newlyn suggests that it is the vexed relationship between private and public—and in particular, the danger of a loss of personal identity produced by the poet's 'emergence into the public sphere' (91)—that governs Wordsworth's relationship with his audience. Newlyn suggests that there are, in particular, two ways in which Wordsworth manages to overcome this difficulty: on the one hand he appeals to posterity, to an audience of the future—an appeal which effectively disarms the threat of the public since the judgement of posterity is precisely not that of a contemporary audience. On the other hand, like Coleridge, Wordsworth constructs coterie audiences through which publication can be privatised, can be figured as an affair of a personalised, de-anonymised and empathetic act of reading. Wordsworth's hermeneutic defence—his defence against a certain kind of interpretation—is encapsulated for Newlyn in the poet's response (and indeed in the very act of responding) to Sara Hutchinson's daringly expressed criticisms of 'The Leech Gatherer': 'everything is tedious when one does not read with the feelings of the Author' (quoted on p.103). For Newlyn, Wordsworth's caustic comments to Sara are emblematic of his defence against interpretation such that his 'need for empathy on the part of his readers' leads to 'an erasure of difference' (104). Newlyn distinguishes between the expression of a coercive, 'authoritarian' anxiety in Wordsworth's letters and prose works and a more open, collaborative representation of the writer-reader relationship in his poetry. The poems are notable for their ability to 'unsettle that authoritative bond between author and reader' which is emphasised in the prose, and for their acknowledgement of the 'dependencies and anxieties' which the prose resists or suppresses (133). But once again Newlyn goes further in teasing out the intricate paradoxes that constitute the poet's figuration of audience. This very opposition, between the authoritarianism of prose and the unsettling of that authority in poetry is itself open to subversion, since the authority that characterises the prose can itself be read as expressive of a certain anxiety, while the more explicit anxieties of the poetry can be understood to reveal a desire for authorial control. In this way, as in the case of her reading of Coleridge, Newlyn suggests an unstable—and indeed ultimately productively pathological—relationship between poet and audience.

In the final case study of Part One, Newlyn argues that by contrast with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Anna Barbauld produces a 'sophisticated negotiation of the intermediate terrain between public and private' to shape a 'distinctive poetics of reception' (137)—a poetics which allows her almost life-long success as a poet. 'Through her exceptional alertness to audience', Newlyn suggests, Barbauld is able to 'effect subtle displacements of generic expectation by a mixing and crossing of private and public modes of address' (141). For Newlyn, Barbauld's amused distance from the contemporary ('high Romantic') culture of reception—determined, not least, by her gender and by the complex, uncertain representations of gender in her poems—allows her to construct a balance between sympathy and critique. 'Positioning herself ambiguously in relation to gender-oppositions', Newlyn argues, 'Barbauld demands from her own readers a response that is similarly androgynous and empathetic' (157). But in spite of Barbauld's successful negotiation of audience demand for much of her career, Newlyn has to admit to certain difficulties, and the chapter ends with a reading of Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven and its reception which suggests that the poem's negative contemporary reception was due to the misogyny 'engrained' within the contemporary 'reviewing-industry' (168).

The second part of the book includes five wide-ranging chapters which move away from the single-author focus of Part One to examine aspects of what Newlyn calls the 'creative-critical divide' from a number of different perspectives. In the opening chapter of Part Two, Newlyn examines the importance of periodical culture for the second generation of Romantic writers, suggesting that while poetry and criticism 'were apparently at war with each other' in fact 'complex mergings between them were taking place' (179). Paying particular attention to parody, Newlyn organises her chapter around discussions of Hunt's The Feast of Poets, Peacock's criticism and novels, and the prose of Hazlitt, Lamb, and Isaac D'Israeli. In these writers, Newlyn argues, 'Romantic irony succeeds in both supporting and unsettling the terms of high Romanticism' (223). The next chapter examines the anxiety of reception from the perspective of gender politics: as Newlyn remarks, it is difficult to distinguish such an anxiety from 'a culturally induced rhetoric of self-deprecation' (224) analysed by critics such as Mary Poovey: women writers of the period were, Newlyn suggest, 'intensely alive to the ways in which they might turn their own subordinate status to creative use; and they frequently collapsed the division between writing- and reading-subjects as a mode of self-empowerment' (232). Newlyn focuses on texts by Dorothy Wordsworth, Hannah More, Ann Radcliffe, Anna Barbauld, Mary Robinson, Helen Maria Williams, Maria Jane Jewsbury and others to challenge the idea that women writers of the period adopted passive and self-effacing positions in order to be passive and self-effacing: Newlyn suggests instead that such positions or performances of passivity allowed these writers to engage in a 'vigorous critical dialogue' with the 'dominant authoritative discourse, established by long tradition as poetic and male' (262).

Chapter Seven discusses a 'system of defences' employed by early nineteenth-century writers against their fear of audiences, including, especially, the interlinked appeals to notions of genius, originality, posterity and the 'transcendence of popularity'. In a wide-ranging chapter, Newlyn also discusses the economics and the law of copyright, the Burkean politics of tradition, and the question of canon-formation to argue that the 'system of defences' of Romantic writers ultimately concerned the idea of survival. The 'encroaching power of the reader', in other words, is resisted by situating the writer within an 'authoritative chain' in order to guarantee that 'survival in some form or other will occur beyond the grave' (297). Newlyn follows this with a chapter on 'The Terror of Futurity' where she addresses an issue which grounds her book as a whole, the anxiety of reading and being read as a question of hermeneutics. For Romantic hermeneutics, Newlyn argues, temporality is both necessary and problematic: it is necessary in allowing for the historical difference which the ideal reader must acknowledge, but problematic in as much as it may allow for a future difference in interpretation: 'what if posterity, instead of being a dependable haven, in which the writer's message was thankfully received, should itself prove indifferent both to the writing's intrinsic significance and to its lasting value?' (300). The chapter is central to the book's argument, concerned as it is to bring together reading and writing, and to do so in a way which both historicises and politicises that relation. For Newlyn, this 'difficulty in experiencing the present' is what 'characterised high Romanticism', involving as it does a 'compulsive turning back to the past and deferral to the future'. Citing Edmund Burke's talismanic statement that 'people will not look forward to posterity, who never look back to their ancestors' (303), Newlyn argues that the Romantics' 'concern with a heritable past, looking before and after, provided a conceptual method of bridging the duality of the writing-reading subject, while at the same time reconnecting selfhood and community. Romantic writers thus pre-empted the threat of extinction', Newlyn continues, 'by imagining readers as their "second selves"' (304). This concern is played out in the relationship between gender and genre, topics which are themselves threaded through her book but which here come together in the distinction between the 'hermeneutic of differentiation' (male, poetic) on the one hand and the 'hermeneutic of identification' (female, novelistic) on the other.

Newlyn's final chapter involves a development of the book's central concerns rather than a summing up, and addresses the theory and practice of reading aloud in the Romantic period. Beginning with an analysis of Hazlitt's report of the manner of both Wordsworth's and Coleridge's reading as 'chaunting'—which Newlyn reads as part of his ambivalent response to the two poets and as a pointed critique of their political apostasy—Newlyn examines Hazlitt's recognition of what she terms the 'politics of reading aloud' in the contexts of oratory, sermons, poetic recitation, and a resistance to print culture in a 'Romantic aesthetic grounded in orality': for Hazlitt, Newlyn suggests, the Coleridge-Wordsworth appeal to a poetics of orality involves a conservative, reactionary resistance to the 'public sphere' itself (361).

I suggested at the beginning of this review that Newlyn's book represents a culmination of her own concerns with reading and interpretation. But it also marks a culminating moment in Romantic studies more generally. One of the virtues of Newlyn's finely-honed analysis is that along with her intimate knowledge of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century texts and contexts, she produces a deft synthesis of recent work in the field of Romantic studies concerned with issues of reading and reception—work which includes Lee Erickson on publishing history, Jon Klancher on the politics of Romantics audiences, Tilottama Rajan's deconstructive readings of Romantic hermeneutics, as well as my own reading of the Romantic 'anxiety of audience'. At the same time, Newlyn is alert to the theoretical issues—from reader-response criticism to hermeneutics, from deconstruction to feminism—which necessarily frame any discussion of author-audience relations. In this respect, Newlyn's book marks an important remapping of Romantic-period writing which, while conscious of the importance of the predominantly historicist concerns of current Romantic criticism, is also wary of the potential dead-end of a certain historical determinism. What Newlyn's book makes clear is that the appeal to a certain future, to a readership which is yet to come, to an audience constituted and defined in relation to a certain reading of the text—that this appeal may be said to characterise, and finally to define Romantic poetry and poetics. This is historicism of a fine-grained, rigorous and precisely documented kind. But it is a historicism which allows for a certain contingency, for the aleatory, for a certain ungrounding of the historical determinism that so pervades contemporary criticism of Romantic poetry, and which allows for an opening—albeit an anxious, unstable and nonprogrammable opening—onto the future.