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Sarah M. Zimmerman, Romanticism, Lyricism, and History. New York: State University of New York Press, 1999. ISBN 0791441105. Price: US$19.95.

  • Michael O'Neill

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  • Michael O'Neill
    University of Durham

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Sarah Zimmerman argues in a timely study that the Romantic lyric needs to be re-conceived. Polemical reaction against M. H. Abrams's model of the greater Romantic lyric has been useful, in her opinion, to the degree that it alerts us to the fact that "political betrayal" can be "the underside of a desire for transcendence". But Zimmerman seeks to promote "A more circumspect view of Romantic lyricism", one able to acknowledge its double-sidedness, "its capacity for solipsism and sympathetic identification, privatization and historical consciousness" (3). In a well-argued opening chapter, she contends that there is a high and unnecessary critical price to pay for "equating Romantic lyricism with a politics of disengagement" (6), and favours approaching Romantic lyric poems without pre-established assumptions that identify, say, the "solitary" with the "asocial". Rather, she emphasizes "the information provided by the specific contexts of poems' production and consumption" (36).

This is not, then, a book that turns from new historicism towards the aesthetic or formalist. True, it finds fault with some notable new historicist practitioners (McGann, Liu, and Levinson) for attributing "abstract qualities to poetic form" (20). But Zimmerman wishes to advance a subtler form of historicism. In common with recent studies by Paul Magnuson and Jerome Christensen, her book conceives of the poetic career less as a trail blazed by original genius than "as a series of complex and unpredictable negotiations in the literary marketplace" (37). In exploring this conception, she offers thoughtful and carefully researched readings of Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and John Clare.

The chapter on Smith shrewdly notes the poet's "success in winning readers by seeming oblivious to them" (43). Zimmerman points out that Smith's poetry is artfully devised to enlist the reader's sympathetic identification; thus, representations of loneliness elicit acts of sympathy in "a theatrical dynamic that structures the poet's relationship to her audiences" (48). The poet creates such a "theatrical dynamic" not only through her words but also through the frontispiece portrait to Elegiac Sonnets, "which depicts Smith as a Shakespearean character" (49). Zimmerman is entirely persuasive here, and sheds light on the workings of individual sonnets, how they deploy and depend on "the conventions of sensibility" (55). Ultimately, her analysis has a bolder purpose, since she argues that Smith uses the readerly identification achieved by the Elegiac Sonnets to promote social awareness in her longer poems, The Emigrants and Beachy Head. These poems are read to show how "an internalizing impulse actually projects the poet into social scenes" (61); so, in The Emigrants, the poet writes, "Pensive I took my solitary way, / Lost in despondence, while contemplating / Not my own wayward destiny alone, / (Hard as it is, and difficult to bear!) / But in beholding the unhappy lot / Of the lorn Exiles". Smith's grammar is somewhat tricky, but her attempt to connect the personal and the social is clear. Throughout this instructive chapter, Zimmerman makes illuminating links between biographical details—Smith's attempt to earn money from her writings—and the poetry's strategies.

William Wordsworth's complex dealings with possible audiences underpin Zimmerman's sense of how his lyric poetry works. Especially in Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth uses lyrical devices to prompt thought, often of an implicitly political or social kind, in his reader, and Zimmerman offers an especially perceptive account of "Simon Lee". It is "lyricism", the process by which the reader is made to engage self-consciously in the poem, that prevents Simon Lee from being merely a character used for "narrative" entertainment. Possibly Zimmerman's scrupulous concern to relate her account to those of other critics blunts the edge of her insights; but her point that the poem's "turn to lyricism encourages a more immediate engagement with a person about to be turned into a ballad character" (93) is nicely attuned to the poem's own turns and counter-turns. The chapter also argues, with the patient care typical of the book, that "Tintern Abbey" uses its lyricism to communicate a covert mourning for a former radical self: "The poem", Zimmerman writes, "bears traces of the poet's attempts to overwrite his younger self" (107). She sees Wordsworth as assuming a posture of indifference to questions of audience in the Prospectus to The Excursion (1814) and the Essay, Supplementary to the Preface (1815); but this turning of the back, as in Smith's assertions of solitude, has its eye on the contemporary reading public, thus giving the poetry a "tangential relationship to a social world" (80). The argument is dexterous, but, perhaps, not as paradigm-shifting as Zimmerman appears to think it is. After all, Wordsworth's concern with an audience has long been recognised; Zimmerman's case has force mainly to the degree that her initial premise—that it is a widely held orthodoxy that Romantic lyric poetry turns away from social awareness—holds. Certainly, if one concedes this premise, her book argues cogently for a more complex outlook and is especially useful when it engages in close readings.

Such cogency is evident in the remaining two chapters. That on Dorothy Wordsworth sees her as an exception (in her refusal to publish her prose works) who confirms the rule (that Romantic writers seeking publication had to face "the dangers of [...] public visibility", p. 146). Zimmerman writes acutely on what she calls "the social sublime" (129) in Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, and on the journal-keeper's covert awareness of her role as a "writer in her local community" (134), as when an entry moves from describing a coffin to confessing the author's feelings: "I thought she was going to a quiet spot & I could not help weeping very much" (quoted 134). The discussion of Clare shifts attention from the poet as "a protoenvironmentalist" to articulate a "sense of the range of Clare's critiques and the lyric's potential as their poetic vehicle" (149). Zimmerman finds Clare to be an elegist of social as well as personal loss, and charts persuasive analogues between the personal and the social in his work. The later concern with "Self Identity" (quoted 175) parallels an earlier preoccupation with the vanishing of loved landscapes. As Zimmerman writes, "Clare's long-standing concern with enclosure's obliteration of natural entities closely parallels his anxieties about his own disappearance on the literary scene" (175). The chapter, like the book as a whole, brings familiar and less familiar Romantic works into vividly sure critical focus.