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Reviews

Paul Magnuson, Reading Public Romanticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-691-05794-X. Price: $47.50.

  • Samantha Webb

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  • Samantha Webb
    University of Montevallo

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Are aesthetics and materialist criticisms antithetical to one another? Paul Magnuson's Reading Public Romanticism redefines the parameters of the aesthetic and the political by employing a methodology he calls 'historical close reading' (p. 3). While his sympathies lie primarily with the historical and political, Magnuson's work offers a lucid and careful attempt to view the literary text as both linguistic system and as discursive effect of larger cultural forces. Such a methodology productively illuminates how some of the most well known Romantic poems emerged from and responded to a specifically public discourse. Distinct from Habermas' 'bourgeois public sphere,' Magnuson's 'public discourse' is located in pamphlets on the French Revolution, periodical literature, and published versions of parliamentary debates, sermons, lectures and theatrical performances. The benefits of his method emerge in his readings of the individual poems, Coleridge's 'This Lime-Tree Bower,' 'Frost at Midnight,' 'The Ancient Mariner,' the Dedication to Byron's Don Juan, and Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' Magnuson defends these poets from the New Historicist charge that they denied or ignored history while simultaneously expanding what we might call the formal readability of the poems, keeping in view the allusive and figurative nature of all written discourse.

According to Magnuson, 'a work has public significance only if it is responsive and answerable; the public discourse is significant only if it is traceable; and the rhetoric of individual works is significant only if it receives a response' (p. 38). Magnuson's insistence on 'answerability' is what makes his readings rich as well as convincing. He remains grounded in textual evidence and his readings are highly nuanced in the way they work with that evidence. Magnuson works his way through an impressive array of texts to trace this 'answerability,' and in so doing, recovers the political, public meanings of the most intractably meditative Romantic poems. The primary published materials form what Magnuson terms, borrowing from Gérard Genette, 'the paratext,' the formal boundaries that locate the poems in a public culture, and which a thorough reading—he insists—must take into account.

Thus, Reading Public Romanticism offers not so much new readings as relocated readings. Coleridge gets the most attention. In Magnuson's view, the poet's most evasive, meditative work constitutes a response to very public attacks on his political position. Magnuson's excavation of the precise contexts of these poems' publication and reception bears this out. Fears in Solitude—'Frost at Midnight''s original site of publication—contained two other explicitly political poems, the title poem and 'France: An Ode,' which had appeared in the Morning Post as 'The Recantation: An Ode.' As Magnuson reads them, these poems are not so much political recantations as redefinitions of patriotism. With these poems as a backdrop, 'Frost at Midnight' seeks to undermine the terms by which the public Coleridge had come under attack by appealing to a different set of values. Seen in its paratextual location, this highly personal poem shows Coleridge as a man who loves his son, his family as well as his country, and not as the seditious malcontent the conservative press had portrayed him to be. Similarly, Magnuson uncovers the political resonance of the tropes of vagrancy and tempest that dominate the Lyrical Ballads by revealing how the received definition of the word 'German' (often invoked in the reception of 'The Ancient Mariner') was equated with 'Jacobin.' The terms, as published reviews show, were figuratively linked in the minds of readers with 'violated boundaries and errant wandering' (p. 109). In this way, 'The Ancient Mariner' stands with 'The Female Vagrant,' 'The Convict,' and even 'Tintern Abbey' as a political statement about the private sufferings of individuals as a result of social evils beyond their control. By reading the Lyrical Ballads poems as responsive to one another and to the public field into which the authors expected to be received, Magnuson significantly recasts the entire project into a discourse of dissent.

The chapters on the second-generation poets similarly relocate the works to reinscribe their public significance. The Dedication to Southey in Don Juan—which Magnuson insists be read as the paratext for the entire poem—becomes Byron's way of affirming his poetic legitimacy. Byron claims primacy of place because of his own dexterity with Regency language, specifically the talky, bantering idiom of Tory satire, which he deploys allusively to displace his laureate rival. Perhaps Magnuson's most radical reading is his relocation of Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' As published in the anti-Royal Academy Annals of the Fine Arts, 'On a Grecian Urn' (the 'ode' was not marked in the original site) articulates a resistance to the idealizing tendencies for which the poem itself has been the standard.

What Magnuson does best is read closely. By keeping a clear focus on the published records—generically varied by always literary and figurative—Reading Public Romanticism goes a long way towards reconciling materialist and formal criticism. The book is an even-handed intervention into that debate, and productively opens up numerous areas for further investigation. Another notable virtue of this book is its usefulness for the classroom. It is accessibly written without being conceptually reductive, and thus would serve well as secondary reading for upper-level classes in Romanticism. Every poem has a story, and Magnuson tells those stories with detail and clarity.