Andrew Franta. Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. ISBN: 0521868874. Price: US$106[Record]

  • Jonathan Sachs

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  • Jonathan Sachs
    Concordia University

In his Defence of Poetry, Shelley famously describes the poet as “a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer his own solitude with sweet sounds.” The image accords with Mill’s description of poetry as that which is “overheard” and numerous other accounts of what we take to be a “Romantic” poetics, all of which emphasize poetry as self-expression and which might be seen to underwrite both Romantic writers’ sense of their practice and contemporary critical methods that take such self-expression as their object of analysis. In Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public Andrew Franta challenges this expressivist view of poetry by turning our attention to changes in what he describes, after Bentham, as a “regime of publicity.” Whereas “public” constitutes a space, “publicity” represents a process, one that conceives of the public as a “feedback loop which has a potentially transformative effect on the ideas it receives” (2) and consequently one that can help us to understand the rise of a mass public, the prominence of periodical reviews, political opposition, and the law of libel. This range of cultural developments associated with publicity mediates between poets and their readers and therefore has important implications for how we think of literary form and the nature of textuality more broadly—implications that Franta traces in this carefully-organized, meticulous study that will surely be essential reading for those interested in print culture, Romantic poetics, and, more broadly, the relationship between literary and political modernity. Any account of the Romantic reading audience and the changing dynamics of reception must necessarily reckon with William St. Clair’s landmark recent study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge, 2004). St. Clair offers scrupulous, painstaking attention to the empirical fact of Romantic period reading, to the material and institutional conditions that surrounded the production, distribution, and sales of books. In response to St. Clair’s empiricism, Franta argues that the very misperceptions that St. Clair seeks to correct have value because “the impact of the mass public on Romantic poetry has to do with just this kind of gap between accurate, quantitative assessment and the perceptions that influence the writing of poetry” (9). What matters, in other words, is not the actual audience, but how the Romantic writer imagines that audience. While St. Clair offers an economically-determined argument that the law of copyright shaped the reception of Romantic texts, Franta contests understandings of modern authorship that focus on the development of copyright and attends instead to libel, which emphasizes not the author but rather the effects that texts have out of the author’s hands. Indeed, one of the most compelling and insightful claims in Franta’s book concerns a shift from treason to libel in the crackdown on post-Waterloo political activity that reveals the interrelationship between legal and literary practice. Franta’s emphasis on reception and effect over expression and intention underwrites subtle and provocative readings of Romantic writers’ engagement with this new mass public, sometimes as a problem to be solved and other times as an opportunity integrated into the very form of poetry itself. His study is further distinguished by the rigor and clear-sightedness with which Franta articulates the critical implications of his arguments in relation to other scholars and critical orthodoxies. The first chapter sets the historical frame for Franta’s argument. It offers us the rather unlikely pairing of Burke and Byron in order to suggest that both objected to the manner in which corporate groups attempt to pass off an agglomeration of individual positions as “public opinion.” Both Burke’s attack on corresponding societies in the Reflections and Byron’s repeated dismissal …