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 of poetic schools in the Pope Controversy, Don Juan, and elsewhere locate a threat in unrepresentative groups who articulate what they project as representative opinions. Such groups exploit new conditions of publicity made possible by the rise of the mass public and suggest that “what was coming to be known as ‘public opinion’ might merely represent the opinions held by those most adept at making their opinions public, rather than the aggregate of people’s opinions” (21).
From here, Franta provides three case studies, each of which focuses on a traditional, canonical Romantic poet. The first of these argues that Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads” cultivates an intimacy with its reader in response to the problem of the mass reading public. Wordsworth’s anxiety about his reception and the failure to find an adequate solution in the Preface then motivates a renewed attempt to solve the problem of audience in the subsequent “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface.” The importance of the Essay, Franta insists, “has to do with its move away from the expressivism of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, which emphasizes the expression of powerful feelings and attempts to establish a reciprocity between writer and reader, toward a new recognition of the centrality of the effects that poems have on their readers” (59). Franta emphasizes that the Essay’s widely-discussed claim that the poet creates the taste by which he is to be enjoyed is more complicated than previous critics have recognized. While the Essay imagines the poet empowering the reader’s judgment, it also implies the further possibility that this empowered reader can then form her own opinion about the poet, one which encompasses a range of possible responses including negative dismissal. Wordsworth, according to Franta, recognizes that “the poet who works to create the taste by which he will be enjoyed might discover, after the fact and in opposition to his intentions, that he has created the taste by which he is ignored, neglected, or abhorred” (74). The distinguishing feature, then, of Franta’s reading of the Essay is that in his hands it shows not Wordsworth’s attempt to shape and ultimately master his readers, but rather the recognition that the reader might have authority over the poet, that “posterity’s claim on the poet might finally outweigh the poet’s claim on posterity” (60). This is Wordsworth’s audience problem.
Keats, who wrote to Reynolds describing the public as “a thing I cannot help looking upon as an Enemy” (77), might be understood to share Wordsworth’s audience problem. Like Wordsworth, Keats certainly recognized the power that readers possessed, but in Franta’s reading Keats’s initial anxiety about the public becomes an opportunity to position himself in relation to a mass audience. Franta considers Keats’s understanding of the place of the review in literary culture in his prefaces and in a series of early sonnets that take as their subject aesthetic works like the Elgin Marbles, Hunt’s Rimini, King Lear, and Chapman’s Homer, which Franta characterizes collectively as “review poems.” Franta positions himself against such new historicist critics as McGann, Levinson, and Klancher who suggest that poets who try to create taste do so in competition with reviews, and for whom “publication and reviewing function as a kind of shorthand for the claim that audience reception determines a poem’s meaning” (92). In contrast, Franta insists that what distinguishes Keats is an emphasis on reception “not simply as the justification or disqualification of the work of art but as fundamentally constitutive of it” (84). Keats must be understood, then, not as part of the inward turn of Romantic aesthetics but rather as one aware of the increasing power of a mass audience to define the role of poetry. Franta continues to interrogate the relationship between Romantic poetics and the unpredictability of audience response through a reading of Shelley’s political poetry. While critics have consistently disputed how one might read a positive political program in Shelley’s poetry, Franta asserts that to ask this is to miss the point, for “the interest of Shelley’s politics has less to do with the content of his beliefs than the formal constitution of his poetics” (112). Claims like this, with their insistence on the historical and political work done by literary form, suggest that Franta’s argument shares an emphasis with certain neo-formalist critics, who recognize the ideological work of form and who attempt to restore form as an important component of historical reading. Shelley, according to Franta, recognizes poetry’s instrumentality in the same contingency that Wordsworth struggles against. If Shelley’s poetry is instrumental, it operates on a different, future-directed time horizon. This comes through most powerfully in Franta’s reading of the Mask of Anarchy. Unlike Susan Wolfson, who argues that the Mask seeks to make political action from visionary poetry, Franta insists that the purpose of the poem is not to incite action, but rather to produce a textual effect, one whose implications can only be recognized by the future. The Mask thus becomes prophecy in reverse: “rather than predict a future for the present, it imagines a future that will see the present for what it was” (127).
The book’s most exciting and complex chapter, “The Art of Printing and the Law of Libel,” is also framed around Shelley, but it traces what Franta describes as a much broader shift between conditions of publicity in the 1790s and the early nineteenth century. Franta notes that in the 1790s attempts to censor radical activity took the form of prosecutions for treason, which, as John Barrell has shown in astonishing detail, were located in intent, whereas after Waterloo, such censorship was achieved through prosecutions for libel, which were anchored in a publication’s effect. The conjoint shift from intention to effect within the legal and literary fields then underscores Franta’s argument that both literature and the law are responding to the rise of the mass reading public. Recognition of this shift produces a powerful intervention into David Saunders and Ian Hunter’s influential account of authorship. The most compelling payoff of Franta’s understanding of libel, however, is his reading of the Promethean curse in Prometheus Unbound. The law of libel and the impossibility of retraction become figures for Shelley’s understanding of authorial effects as trumping intention: “If libel seeks to police a work’s potentially dangerous effects by making those who are responsible for its publication accountable for its ‘malicious tendency,’ the recall of the Promethean curse insists that while Prometheus can change his mind, he cannot undo what he has done”(159). Shelley yields control to the reader and makes these contingent effects the basis of his poetics. Franta then closes his argument with a coda that considers how later poet’s transform Romantic negotiation with the mass public. Reading Tennyson in conjunction with Hemans reveals how “the identification of poetry with privacy appeals to readers by refiguring the mass audience as a coterie” (167).
Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public is a dense and challenging study, but the clarity with which Franta articulates the stakes and novelty of his argument mean that its density comes without obfuscation. The result is a fantastic book, one that commands attention for its novel interpretation of how Romantic print culture and developments in publicity change our understanding of the idea of the public in the period, but also—and especially—for its inspired close readings of Romantic poetry that force us to rethink critical orthodoxies about Romanticism and that show how literary form itself must be understood in relation to the rise of the mass public.
Jonathan Sachs teaches English literature in Montreal. His first book, Romantic Antiquity: Rome in the British Imagination, 1789-1832 is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.