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Summarily I could say that instead of climbing Parnassus (and then falling off, as one essay is titled) it felt more like I was crossing the Sahara... Overall, the essays are very readable from a non-semantic point of view. The length of the essays is very reader-friendly and the editing has certainly been done with great care.

The main issue discussed in the critical essays under scrutiny seems a very sensible one:

[...]At the Limits of Romanticism puts in question one of the limits that the romantic tradition has consistently defined and negated: the line between the material and the theoretical.


There certainly is a need for a more amalgamated approach to using the tools that literary research offers. But the question remains whether At the Limits of Romanticism is this side or beyond these limitations.

After reading the collection of essays by John Rieder, Peter T. Murphy, Mary A. Favret, Anne Janowitz, Kurt Heinzelman, Sonia Hofkosh, Lucinda Cole and Richard G. Swartz, Nanora Sweet, Nicola J. Watson, Mark L. Schoenfield, Andrea Henderson, Jan B. Gordon, and Marjorie Levinson, I was left with a sense of fortified frontiers that the approaches applied to Romantic issues and texts had not transgressed. On the contrary, I had a feeling of issues being reiterated beyond their usefulness.

One of the more striking shortcomings is the general tendency not to be intending to bridge the gap between American and British research. Unlike Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780 - 1832 , ed. by Stephen Copley and John Whale (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), At the Limits of Romanticism (mark the ironically similar titles) insists on an American critical school:

Between these (mostly American) proponents of what is now loosely called new historicism and the practitioners and borrowers of the distinctively British variant, cultural materialism, stretches a symptomatic gulf: the difference between those who continue to privilege the centrality of Wordsworth, however de-centered and harassed, and those who wish to expand the view across a wider field altogether. [...] In this way these [the latter] critics effectively de-center the privileged term "romanticism" with a more capacious notion of the romantic period. [Marilyn] Butler's method in Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1982), for example, is largely to lay out other territories and representational decisions [...].

p. 9

Today, when boundaries within a literary period are revealing themselves to be more than weakened (see for example above, romanticism versus Romantic period) it seems counterproductive to insist on American vs. British critical school, when one has been exported to the other and then returned, slightly altered, and when progress is halted by unnecessarily nationalistic insistence. (Marilyn Butler is British, Paul de Man Belgian, Michel Foucault French, Jerome McGann American and so on and so forth.)

Despite its tour de force introductory sentence the collection of essays in At the Limits of Romanticism remains true to the pessimistic forecast in its title:

This volume of essays situates itself "at the limits" of romanticism with a feeling of optimism about the possibilities available to romantic [sic] studies in the contemporary academic environment.

p. 1

Indeed, what these limits may be is unclear. After reading the introduction, one is not left with a feeling of optimism but rather with a feeling of despair, as for example after reading 'A Home for Art' by Mary Favret. One might also ask what is the point of writing an essay if the author himself concludes:

In the end, his [Samuel Rogers] lesson is simply that we have forgotten him, and that we have forgotten him because we want to, even now.

Peter Murphy, 'Climbing Parnassus, & Falling Off', p. 55

This is not to spurn its generally high style of writing and the meticulous and interesting research that went into some of the essays, as for example into Kurt Heinzelman's 'The Uneducated Imagination: Romantic Representations of Labor,' a seductively convincing illustration of a Poet Laureate's (Southey's, also Wordsworth's) mind on matters of labour. Still, and fortunately so, it raises points of contention, and not only about matters of scholarly detail, but about the Romantic period itself.

Heinzelman expands on the concept of what he describes as artisanal writing, based on Southey's essay Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836). A detailed consideration of the Latin text Southey takes issue from (the Georgics ) illustrates the case in romanticism and contrasts it somewhat with the Roman period. (One minor detail which may lead to further discussion: the Romans only considered themselves or anybody else as a civitas if they possessed slaves, their term cultura receives its main meaning precisely from the colonus, arator and agricola. etc.)

The main point of contention throughout all the essays is a tendency towards a biased, non-factual interpretation of the texts discussed. Without specifying the authors of the respective article I would like to quote at great length one passage which, it seems to me, illustrates my objection satisfactorily. The authors quote from Dorothy Wordsworth's Highland Journal (I: 286):

[...]While we were walking forward, the road leading us over the top of a brow, we stopped suddenly at the sound of a half-articulate Gaelic hooting from the field close to us. It came from a little boy, whom we could see on the hill between us and the lake, wrapped up in a grey plaid. He was probably calling home the cattle for the night. His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination: mists were on the hillsides, darkness shutting in upon the huge avenue of mountains, torrents roaring, no house in sight to which the child might belong; his dress, cry, and appearance all different from anything we had been accustomed to. It was a text, as William since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life - his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unwordliness of nature.

p. 154

The authors now give their vision of this passage:

Dorothy, in this view, seems simply to embellish and reinforce the more poetic vision of her brother for whom, she reports, the boy represents "the whole history of the Highlander's life," where the unfortunate signs of "his superstition" are presented in dynamic counterpoint with the signs of his "visionariness" and "communion with the unwordliness of nature".

[my italics] p. 155

Surely Dorothy meant the whole description to climax rather than to be a complicated musical composition. My misunderstanding of the passage might lie in the fact that I do not understand the semantics of "above all", which follows "his superstitions" and precedes the "visionariness". Why should "his superstitions" be unfortunate ? This qualifying adjective puts a spin on Dorothy Wordsworth's interpretation of the image before her which is precisely not there. Especially for Wordsworth superstition is not straightforwardly bad or to be dismissed. [1] On the contrary, the D. Wordsworth passage quoted illustrates her and William's fascination with the relationship the Highlanders have with the nature that surrounds them. Even more: Dorothy uses the term "avenue" to describe the range of mountains, she describes the path they chose as "road" and she looks for a "house" for the child, the child gives a "half-articulate Gaelic hooting". Nature is associated with city dwelling, the child gives half-animal sounds: the two oxymorons complement each other, there is a reversal of content to increase the intensity of the image observed as "unworldly". "Unworldly" implies both supernatural and removed from the self-interest of civilisation. Dorothy and William are struck by suddenly finding themselves part of a vision of the whole history of the Highlander's life, yet not wanting to dissect it with reason. There is no mention of them interfering with the child in any form.

In the essay appropriately titled 'Butchering James Hogg' a critic interprets Hogg's passage:

[I]t was their custom, on each visit, to sit up a [sic] night in the same apartment, for the sake of sweet spiritual converse;[...]


The pun on "converse", at once a symmetrical exchange of words and an asymmetrical transfer of semen,[...]

p. 210

Hogg specifies "converse" as "spiritual". He indicates that they customarily "sit up at night in the same apartment". But, on one occasion,

in the heat of his zeal, [the minister] sprung from his seat, paced the floor, and maintained his point with such ardor [...] that Martha [in the other room ] [my italics] was alarmed....

A "point" held with "such ardour" does provoke associations of a sexual kind. But the art of Hogg's writing in this instance, lies in creating a tension between what the imagination, both of the reader and possibly the protagonists, perceives, and what he actually describes. The "asymmetrical transfer of semen" does not take place, not even metaphorically. The text stops short of it, which makes it all the more interesting.

Mary A. Favret's 'A Home for Art' raises some interesting points, although they seem, at times, too narrowly focused on modern concepts of perception which are applied backwards (see her analysis of the criticism of Peter Bull , reducing a witty and ironic observation to culinary consumption, p. 67, indicating more today's obsession with food than what the critic at the time intended to state: the critic observes the look of the curry, and not its taste). The inserted pictures are of bad quality (in terms of reproduction), without colour, and, it seems, randomly bound into the article. The curry comment by the nineteenth century critic reproduces a much more effective image in the mind than twentieth century publishing technology.

Marjorie Levinson begins the book's final essay, 'Romantic Criticism: The State of the Art,' by offering to apologise for the "pretentiousness" of her title, but there is no need to do so. "Having found out the barbarism in those high-romantic texts," she writes, "we must submit to their civilizing hints or else worsen our own barbarism." (p. 280) Her profound knowledge of modern physics, in particular quantum physics, is particularly impressive:

Of the philosophers bearing on the romantic [sic] period, only Spinoza frames his conundrum, one that may remind those in the know of some aspects of quantum theory: such as its view of entities as artifacts or effects of fields which have no existence outside those effects.

p. 279

However, a material scientist, to whom I turned to explain her description of quantum physics, queried it and suggested that the last "effects" should possibly be changed to "fields", but he entertained the possibility that he might not be quite as up-to-date as she was on these matters.

In short, although the superficial aspects were pleasing (writing style in general, typeface, though ghastly cover), reading through the book was a serious plod, bits that taught me something were far and few between, fata morganas were more frequent than I wanted to cope with, and I was most relieved that I got to the end cover of the book.