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Simon Bainbridge, Napoleon and English Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 47336 5 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$49.95)

  • Paul Wayne Rodney

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  • Paul Wayne Rodney
    University of Michigan

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The main thrust of Simon Bainbridge's book controverts much of the best recent scholarship in Romantic studies. Readings by New Historicists, such as by Liu, Jerome McGann, and Marjorie Levinson, have skillfully interpreted texts by way of historical omissions or elisions. Bainbridge, on the other hand, reads works as unequivocally concerned with history. His thesis is immediately clear: "it is astonishing that so little critical attention has been focused on the ways in which Napoleon was represented during the Romantic period" (p. 17). Bainbridge argues that Napoleon was a "site of cultural contestation, used to legitimize ideological power and institutional practices" (p. 6). This book focuses mostly on ideological power rather than institutional practices, by exploring widely divergent representations of and reactions to Napoleon by British Romantic writers. Bainbridge proceeds in a chronological, surveylike manner, starting around 1797 and proceeding to the years immediately following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

In Chapter 1, Bainbridge begins his survey of English reaction to Napoleon with an initial consideration of Coleridge (who makes "guest appearances" throughout the book) and Southey, but he lingers mostly on Walter Savage Landor. The material here that seems most fresh is that concerning Landor's historical mock epic of 1798, Gebir . Bainbridge is at his best when bringing somewhat neglected texts to the foreground, as he does with Gebir , a poem unabashedly pro-Revolution in its historical analogy. Departing from readings of the poem by Brian Wilkie and Stuart Curran, Bainbridge relies on his knowledge of Napoleon's life to interpret Landor's observations on the progress of the Revolution, praise of Napoleon (which the poet would later recant), and the vulnerability of Britain's George III to political attack.

Chapter 2 begins what is the real heart of this book (and the book's longest, best-sustained chapter), a treatment of Wordsworth's well-documented intellectual relationship with Napoleon. Here Bainbridge lays emphasis on the battleground of the "imagination," where Wordsworth fought against and appropriated Napoleon. We are quite familiar with the way Wordsworth has been characterized as abandoning his early liberalism for an increasingly conservative political outlook; Bainbridge supports such an understanding of the poet by tracking the metamorphosis of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution into a loathing of France's belligerent imperialism. Bainbridge employs the sonnets to lay out the context of Wordsworth's "obsession" with Napoleon as of 1802 or so (p. 55). Here he most explicitly argues against New Historicist readings of Wordsworth's repression of history; while he credits such readings as provocative, Bainbridge implies they miss the historical references embedded in the poetry. Wordsworth's sonnets prove Napoleon was very much in his mind in 1805, when he was working on The Prelude , according to Bainbridge, so that reading the France books as an elision of history is too hasty.

Bainbridge most explicitly combats the vision of Wordsworth in Alan Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989). For instance, rather than positing the Simplon Pass episode as a prime moment of historical repression, Bainbridge shifts emphasis to the previous disappointment in Book VI of The Prelude , when Wordsworth first sees Mount Blanc:

That day we first

Beheld the summit of Mount Blanc, and grieved

To have a soulless image on the eye

Which had usurped upon a living thought

That never more could be.

1805 Prelude, VI.453-7

Bainbridge reads the "military speed" of Wordsworth's march across the Alps into Italy as a specific invocation of Napoleon's military activities of the previous years. "Does it seem reasonable to expect," Bainbridge asks us, "a poet who had spent two years writing numerous sonnets on the specific historical circumstances of his time, and his own position in them, to forget these matters when he resumes work on his autobiography?" (p. 56). The suggestion here is powerful, yet Bainbridge does not address a fundamental question we must return to him: why does Wordsworth shift from explicit references to Napoleon in the sonnets to vague allusions or what are often best characterized as innuendoes in The Prelude ? The moment is representative of Bainbridge's book; he raises excellent questions and often pushes the context of previous readings, but he does not often enough anticipate the ostensible rebuttal to his own argument.

In Chapter 3, Bainbridge continues to pursue Wordsworth's intellectual battle with Napoleon, now via The Convention of Cintra , in which the poet attacks Napoleon's power as being "imaginary"—based primarily in the minds of others. While Bainbridge occasionally acknowledges the effects of Napoleon's very real political power, we sometimes lose the sense in which Wordsworth and Coleridge credit Napoleon's ability to act far beyond the imagination. The main emphasis of this chapter, though, is the way Wordsworth and Coleridge began depicting Napoleon as a Miltonic character, quintessentially evil and on par with Milton's Satan. Bainbridge deftly shows how Napoleon's attack on Spain forfeited support from the British left; while other French campaigns in Europe could be viewed as a liberation of various peoples from corrupt monarchies, the Peninsula War was seen in Britain as an attack on the Spanish people. Wordsworth and Coleridge (in his lectures and essays) cast Napoleon as Satan precisely because of the latter's imaginary role as liberator of Europe from monarchy; at the same time, however, depicting Napoleon in the Miltonic role lends him an ironically heroic position even as it attacks him. Bainbridge also is does well in showing Wordsworth's subtle ambivalence toward all of the various stands he assumes against Napoleon. In the case of the Peninsula War, for example, Wordsworth concurs with the general sentiment that Napoleon has finally shown his true nature by attacking a people rather than a government; at the same time, Wordsworth is hardly sympathetic with the Spanish monarchy and its Catholic connections. A key part of the imagination that is at stake, we soon learn, is how to best position oneself ideologically and poetically amidst a field of undesirable positions.

The focus in Chapter 4 shifts to Byron, whose ambivalent admiration of Napoleon has been well documented. Bainbridge relies most on Don Juan , Childe Harold's Pilgrimage , and letters to illustrate Byron's attempts at self-aggrandizement by retaining Napoleonic values even after Waterloo. In Don Juan , Byron identifies himself with Napoleon in no uncertain terms:

Even I—albeit I'm sure I did not know it,

Nor sought of foolscap subjects to be king,—

Was reckoned, a considerable time,

The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme.

Don Juan, X.55.5-8

Bainbridge skillfully draws out the extent to which Byron actively promoted the association between himself and Napoleon. Byron held no illusions about the downfalls of the Emperor, and to some degree we see that Byron considered himself a suitable counterpart of Napoleon if only because his verse could not inflict the same kind of damage—even though it could inflame the imagination, as could Napoleon's conquests. Unlike with the Lake Poets, however, there is no sense that Byron encouraged the association with Napoleon for specific political purposes, especially in terms of the British political landscape.

Continuing to follow the Napoleon's career, Chapter 5 traces the literary response to Waterloo, which elicited an outpouring of verse that even Wellington observed: "I am really disgusted with and ashamed of all I have seen of the battle. The number of writings upon it would lead the world to believe that the British Army had never fought a battle before" (p. 154). Bainbridge deals with several of these responses: Walter Scott's The Field of Waterloo, Southey's The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo, Wordsworth's "Thanksgiving Ode," and sections of Byron's Childe Harold. Perhaps the most fascinating material in this chapter is Bainbridge's articulation of the way Waterloo almost instantaneously became an institutionalized tourist destination. As Poet Laureate, Southey felt himself obliged to travel to the battle field for the specific purpose of composing a poem upon the battle since so many poets of less official station had already done so. Bainbridge does a good job of showing how the "Waterloo Poem" became a genre unto itself in the years following the battle. At the same time, he shows how Waterloo provided writers like Wordsworth (who did not hurry to the battlefield) a fitting culmination to their Miltonic analogies for Napoleon. The Lake Poets now had the fulfillment of their poetic prophecy, as Napoleon's defeat confirmed their estimation of him as an egotistical Satan whose failure was inevitable. This was both a politically and poetically expedient stance.

The book's final chapter turns to William Hazlitt, who like Byron defended Napoleon long after his fall at Waterloo. If the chapter on Byron does not go far enough to demonstrate the value in supporting Napoleonic ideas after the defeat, the chapter on Hazlitt compensates for it in showing that Napoleon offered not a valuable political model but rather a core for opposition, an ideal of resistance to the ancien regime . Like Byron, Hazlitt could not help but acknowledge the flawed way Napoleon represented the French Revolution. Hazlitt's intentions in writing of Napoleon's greatness were opportunistic; Napoleon offered a locus of opposition to the status quo of the British establishment. Bainbridge brings us full circle in this chapter. In the early chapters on Wordsworth, he showed how "Napoleon" was always a construct in England; the notion of the French leader depended entirely on the imagination depicting him at a given moment. Here, Bainbridge shows that in The Life of Napoleon , Hazlitt takes the same liberties for the opposite purpose. Hazlitt "makes Napoleon stand as a symbol of democratic meritocracy and, as a political and aesthetic hero, of an art open to the people" (p. 195). Hazlitt elevates Napoleon well after Waterloo in spite of what some could easily call Napoleon's obvious tyranny as a means of constructing an ideal political hero of the French Revolution.

While Bainbridge does an excellent job at demonstrating the significantly different ways Napoleon could be appropriated and represented by various agendas, it is often left up to the reader to make such contrasts dynamic. Because he dedicates so much attention to these writers' responses to Napoleon, we do not receive a full-bodied picture of how these writers responded to one another. The ultimate importance of the battle against Napoleon in the "imagination," it would seem, is the way this battle affected the British political and poetical landscapes. At times, it feels as these writers were isolated from one another's representations of the events in France. The exceptions are in Bainbridge's discussion of Southey, when we get the occasional glimpse into Southey's refutation of the "Lakers," and in the discussion of the aftermath of Waterloo, for it is clear there were distinct expectations for the poetic community to meet.

Bainbridge also emphasizes the way Napoleon has been mis-read by literary historians over the years. For example, he shows how a mis-attribution of the French campaign in Egypt in 1798 to Napoleon's control has led to misreadings of poetic reactions. Simply put, we have gotten the history wrong more often than not, he says. Given that, one would expect a more fully fleshed out vision of a Napoleonic timeline; this is absent in the book. Considering the weight Bainbridge correctly puts upon knowing the precise historical context of poetic composition, it is surprising that our views into Napoleon's life are but brief and occasional.

Bainbridge supports his argument about the influence of Napoleon upon British Romantic literature beyond a doubt. After reading this often thought-provoking book, one cannot help but acknowledge the imaginative force Napoleon commanded, coming on the heels of the Revolution. While Napoleon and English Romanticism will not revolutionize our notions about the reactions to events in France, it provides very useful context and insight to complex imaginings of Napoleon.