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Anne Janowitz: Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-521-57259-2 (hbk). Price: £35/$59.95 (hbk).

  • Julia Saunders

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  • Julia Saunders
    Wolfson College, Oxford

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In her introduction to Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition, Anne Janowitz asks 'Can we extricate ourselves enough from romantic presuppositions to produce a history of romanticism?' The book which follows is an attempt to answer 'Yes' to this question. She does so by employing two main strategies: firstly, she re-examines the concept introduced by John Stuart Mill in 1833, and later influentially re-echoed by Bloom, that the development of Romantic poetry is essentially the story of the evolution of the lyric voice of the solitary self; secondly, she defamiliarises literary history by taking her history of romanticism away from canonical authors and traces its influence in lesser known figures of the Victorian labour movement.

The two strands are complimentary. Turning away from the high culture grandees of nineteenth-century poetry who exemplified the solitary lyric voice, she explores what lyric poetry meant for those who employed it as part of their expression of their communal identity and their inheritance from poetic predecessors. Thus Spencean, Chartist, Republican and Socialist poets take centre stage in her analysis. Though for the Victorian middle class readers of Tennyson and Browning, the lyric may have been understood to represent the voice of the solitary self, Janowitz makes the point that for the working classes, raised on methodistic hymn singing and the protest poetry of Burns and Shelley, the lyric form could be used as an engine to create a communal identity. She writes, for example, of the significance of poetry to the Chartist movement:

Poetry was both a flattering mirror to a movement-in-formation, offering conventions for group identity, and a social matrix within which people could discover themselves as belonging to an on-going set of traditions, goals, and expectations. The work of Chartist poetry was both to excavate and invent that sense of tradition.

Whilst Shelley and Byron were given an important place in this tradition by poets of the working classes, along with Shakespeare and Milton, Janowitz argues that Wordsworth too can be seen as part of the formation of a complex, multiple identity for the lyric 'I'.

She argues that '[w]hat we now miss in the peculiarity of the term "lyrical ballad" is the extent to which it sews together the popular and demotic activity of the ballad with a classical heritage: the voices and choral collectivity of Greek tragedy.' She describes the Wordsworth of the 1800 Preface as 'poised between two conceptions of creativity: one which grounds the work of the poet in a habit and soil; the other which describes the formation of modern interiority, in which an autonomous self locates value within his or her own consciousness.' Thus in her chapter, she highlights readings of Wordsworth which recover his communal impulse, an interpretation that has been lost beneath the dominant nineteenth-century version of Wordsworth as a poet of the print-culture individualist lyric voice.

Janowitz makes a link between political orientation and lyric stance. She explains Wordsworth's bifurcation into a poet with both individualist and communal tendancies as part and parcel of the complexities of his political position. On the one hand, he yearned to root himself in the customary culture associated with British radicalism: a culture which located its identity in the group and its shared locus. However, in Lyrical Ballads, he fractured the collective song-space of the ballad, taking the work in subsequent editions in a more subjective direction. He produced poems that have become the model for the unencumbered self that is the subject of liberal political thought. She contrasts Wordsworth theorizing of his poetical practice with that of a contemporary: George Dyer. Her study of Dyer centres on his 'Essay on Representative Poetry' (1802). Here the connection between politics and poetry arises directly from the work itself as Dyer concludes that the brilliancy of the poetry produced by a culture is an indication of the degree of freedom that society enjoys. She paraphrases his argument as '[g]ood poetry is lyrical poetry, lyrical poetry is liberal, and liberal poetry can only thrive in a free and liberal society.' Dyer's lyric voice, however, is not the unencumbered self, but the disarmed individual '"lift[ed]...above his ordinary material self."' She speculates that this passage may be one of the sources for Keats' letter on poetical character, a claim made more convincing by the fact that Keats attended the Enfield Academy with which Dyer was associated.

Turning from these high culture figures, Janowitz examines the poetry of working class poets from the 1790s to the 1890s. Beginning with Thomas Spence, the 1790s apostle of land reform, she examines the political implications of the communal lyric as a forger of a shared identity through the practice of group singing or in the shared space of the Chartist newspaper column. Particularly illuminating is her analysis of Thomas Cooper and Ernest Jones, both Chartist laureates, who played sophisticated games with the lyric 'I'. Cooper, a genuine autodidact, graduated from writing communal songs to using the convention of the self in solitude to claim a place in literary high culture. Jones, a refugee from the upper classes, used his prison poems to identify his 'I' with the cause he adopted, appealing to his brothers in the movement to recognize that he had passed through an important rite of passage and could now claim to share their experiences. The lyric for both was their chosen ground to express their social aspirations.

Janowitz's study complements the recent work of scholars such as John Mee, Iain McCalman and Malcolm Chase, who have all uncovered different aspects of a romantic radical history. She adds to their work by showing how unfamiliar material may be linked to well-known authors by taking new theoretical pathways through literature. What remains is for her to give some judgement as to the relative merit of the work she discusses. Are the poems of Allen Davenport, Thomas Cooper, Ernest Jones, W. J. Linton and William Morris merely interesting for their historical function or should we be reading them for pleasure? One fears the former is the case. She concludes that the vigorous interaction between the cultures of radical artisans and romanticism was only partially efficacious - an admission perhaps that the history of Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition is for committed literary and historical scholars alone.

Romantic Circles Review