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Steven E. Jones, Satire and Romanticism. London: Macmillan, 2000. ISBN: 0-333-92992-6. Price: £45.00 (US$39.95).[Record]

  • Benjamin Colbert

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  • Benjamin Colbert
    University of Wolverhampton

A survey of Romantic Period bestsellers in verse reveals that rural poetry (Burns, Bloomfield) and romance (Scott, Byron, Moore) competed in a literary marketplace saturated by satire (Wolcot, Gifford, Mathias, Crabbe, Byron, Hone, Moore, et al). With Satire and Romanticism, Steven E. Jones brings this neglected fact to bear upon the task of revising and reconstructing 'Romanticism' in the image of its others. In this genre-inflected literary history, the concept of Romanticism emerges in the mid and late nineteenth century as a complex of modes and themes—'sentimental, sincere, sublime, and imaginative'—all of which share a fundamental antipathy to the satiric with its 'public, worldly, aggressive' stances. Until the advent of revisionist historicist criticism, this unvoiced opposition persists in Romantic criticism, with satire's trace written into notions of Romantic irony. However, Jones's primary focus is not on this Victorian legacy to the Romantic ideology, but on the scene of Romanticism in the making, what he calls repeatedly 'emergent Romanticism', the battlefield in which canon-defining 'culture wars' are fought. Privileging satire as the 'dominant generic construct' in the Romantic Period, Jones describes satire as 'the modal anvil over and against which early-nineteenth-century literature gets clustered, hammered out, formed, and hardened into a recognizable poetic movement' (p. 5). 'Emergent Romanticism' becomes configured as 'countersatiric writing', defining itself against and within the terms of debate set by satiric modes. Yet Jones deftly avoids an oversimplified dialectic; his historicist methodology illustrates that 'the terms "Romantic" and "satiric" were constructed through processes of struggle and mutual definition' (p. 9). 'In the end', writes Jones with characteristic forthrightness, 'this book is about a dynamic process in literary history: the making of the "Romantic" in relation to the "satiric"' (p. 1). This is what Jones calls a 'fractal' model of literary history. Local 'skirmishes over taste' (p. 7) between satiric authority and proto-Romantic challengers enact a struggle for dominance reiterated on a larger scale by the victory of Romanticism in the century as a whole. Local events, however, retain the 'dynamic relations' smoothed out by retrospective claims, and Jones proves especially adept at turning up the focus without losing the contours of his thesis. Structuring his chapters as case studies, he maintains a roughly chronological trajectory, beginning with Wordsworth's engagement with satire's representation of rusticity and ending with Carlyle's reconstruction of Ebenezer Elliot, the Corn-Law Rhymer, as a 'minor' Romantic, defanged of satiric power. Yet within his foci, Jones telescopes forward or backward at will when other fractalised moments manifest the tensions he is analysing. He begins with Wordsworth's rejection of Crabbe's Poems (1807) as 'the meanest kind of satire', an evaluative posture that helps solidify notions of imaginative poetry that were to become normative under 'Romanticism'. Cited by Francis Jeffrey, Hazlitt, and others, as the polar opposite of the Lake poets, Crabbe comes to stand for the satiric antithesis to the Romantic sensibility. Yet Wordsworth's own practice in Lyrical Ballads reveals how satiric response is integral to his rhetorical technique. His poetry embodies, rather than merely asserts, the conflict between sentimental and satiric 'modes'; the famous examples of reader harassment in 'The Idiot Boy' or 'Simon Lee' thus 'satirize their readers' predispositions for satire' (p. 30). Other works like 'Peter Bell' prove susceptible to parody and satire precisely because they express a generic repudiation of satiric judgement, a replacement of satire's 'sneer' with Romanticism's 'heart' (p. 40). Subsequent chapters similarly uncover a countersatirical turn within 'emergent romantic' writing, strategically structured as a way of turning satiric coercion to advantage. Noting Coleridge's remark that 'parodies on new poems are read as satires[,] on old ones . …