Robert J. Griffin, Wordsworth's Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 48171 6 (hardback). Price: £30 (US$49.95).[Record]

  • Seamus Perry

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  • Seamus Perry
    Lincoln College, Oxford

This is a short book (145 pages of text) with very big ambitions, which makes it a lively ride, but rather a reckless one. Like Lovejoy, and many others who have turned to the subject, Griffin hopes to dissuade us from using the term 'Romanticism' because of its wrong-headed 'powerful associations' and 'stock responses', which, 'second nature to us and thus never questioned', give us a 'significantly distorted' view of 'Romantic [sic] literary history'. Particularly distorting is its belittling of Pope, who, quite as much as Milton, was a decisive influence on the English 'Romantics' (for want of a better word) and especially on Wordsworth, so much so that, for example, Pope haunts 'Tintern Abbey' as '"father," or former self'. This misleading marginalisation of Pope, in turn, is the result of our inheriting 'Romantic' preconceptions: when we try to think about Pope, we keep thinking about 'Pope', that hateful alterity constructed by the 'Romantic' authors, and pre-eminently by Wordsworth: 'the "Pope" depicted in Wordsworth's polemics, has become our Pope'. This is a serious 'misrecognition': we need to 'get beyond the insistent antithesis of Wordsworth to Pope', because 'the Romantic attack on Pope masks how much they have in common, how much "Pope" is an aspect of themselves'. Seeking to break this mind set, Griffin writes a 'defamiliarized history' which portrays literary history 'horizontally' and not 'vertically', that is to say, without the 'metaphysical dimension of a teleological master narrative', the teleology in question being 'From Classic to Romantic'. And, finally, this re-jigging of the concepts involves a redefinition of Romantic Ideology, or 'Romanticism' - the word kept within the safety cordon of inverted commas - as something extending back to the Wartons. Indeed this book claims not only that 'Romantic ideology' is 'an intensified, or extreme form of Wartonianism', nor merely that Wordsworth's opinions are 'intensifications of the Wartonian view', but that, in our own day, M.H. Abrams is also 'essentially Wartonian', to much continuing confusion. One imagines the surprised ghost of Warton blinking in this unaccustomed limelight; but his startling celebrity is Griffin's point: his is 'an odd claim', he says, 'strange, if not perverse'. The Warton brothers are not 'pre-Romantic' (a term full of the teleology he wants to drop) but 'the first, earliest Romantics', because they reject Pope, and yet are secretly indebted to him: this pattern Griffin holds to be exemplary of the 'Romantic' poets, who 'can do nothing with Pope, but also nothing without him'. The notion of 'an anxiety about Pope' certainly fits Thomas Warton's 'Pleasures of Melancholy' very well. The poem carries several clear allusions to Pope's poetry, and makes explicit, dismissive reference to Pope himself, and Griffin discerns a pattern. Effectively, Warton splits Pope into two: a rational, Good Sense, 'Belinda' (from The Rape of the Lock) side, which is then identified with Pope and disowned; and a more emotive, Gothic, 'Eloisa' (from Eloisa to Abelard) side, which is identified, deceptively, as the sublimity of 'Spenser' or 'Milton'. A similar pattern of indebtedness and rejection occurs in Joseph Warton, who 'turn[s] away from his Popean origins' to write an almost parodically ambivalent Essay on Pope; Griffin gives a good account of this. Pope is belittled in the first part of the Essay as 'Le Poete de la Raison' (Warton can't bring himself to say so in English) and seems set to occupy a minor rank; but when the second part of the Essay emerges, years later, Pope is judged very highly, 'next to Milton, and just above Dryden'. Wartonian ambivalence about Pope can be …