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

  • Michael O'Neill

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  • Michael O'Neill
    University of Durham

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 ...