Romantic studies has for many years neglected war. The subject was understandably overshadowed by the apparently more exciting rise and fall of political radicalism in the Revolution debates of the 1790s. And yet the neglect was not just occasional but willful, as Philip Shaw rightly points out in this provocative and original book: it arose from a reluctance to engage closely with a wide swathe of Romantic period writing that is often disturbing in its effects and that accordingly could only safely be read in terms of a narrative about Romanticism’s retreat from the radical. That situation has now changed. There are now a number of excellent books on this subject (by Gillian Russell, Simon Bainbridge and J. R. Watson), and more to come, as well as new essays (see Philip Shaw’s collection, Romantic Wars, Ashgate, 2001, as well as a recent issue of the journal Romanticism, which Jackie Labbe and I edited). Shaw’s book is among the best of this recently published work: subtle, wide-ranging, and original, this book’s analysis of the representation of war in the period is fundamental to our re-assessment of the topic.
The book’s title refers not to the Battle of Waterloo but the Victory at Waterloo, that is, to the process by which a military event was transformed, by various hands, into a national myth of great power. Romanticism’s role in this act of myth-making remains continuously in Shaw’s sights – both how it performed this work, and why. The book’s agenda is, accordingly, one of de-mythologizing. This is wholly salutary. As historians generally agree, it was the disastrous defeat in Russia in 1812-13 that fundamentally weakened the Napoleonic empire, and newly raised armies and even victories during the 100 Days could not disguise this fact. By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was a nearly spent force, regardless of the numbers he could put in the field: France was exhausted and politically divided and the Allies, having finally agreed a strategy, simply needed to hold to their resolve. Waterloo was, though it appeared touch-and-go at times, an inevitable victory.
But Shaw is not interested in history as such. He has a healthy, one might almost say Romantic, skepticism of the facts. He is careful to avoid the fallacy (frequent enough in the work of some New Historicists, as Shaw argues in his Introduction) that we can know history independent of our representations of it and it is the series of representations of Waterloo as a victory that keep his attention. These are analyzed not in terms of their departure from what really happened (which, in a sense, goes without saying), but as symptoms of a certain cultural and political condition. More specifically, they are symptoms of a deep-seated, even unconscious fear in Regency culture that the British war effort, to all appearances united and powerful, was not based on solid consensus at all, but instead masked deep-seated social and political divisions and, even worse, torpor. So long as the war lasted, the fiction of consensus and purpose could be maintained, but with the advent of peace, after Waterloo, the divisions and insecurity would be undeniable, indeed, they would have to be addressed. In an instinctual (perhaps unconscious?) revulsion at such a prospect, the Romantic imagination sought to perpetuate the fiction of a political consensus and found the ablest means to do so by memorialising Waterloo.
This, then, is the reactionary political motivation behind many Romantic representations of Waterloo. It’s not difficult to see how this played into the hands of the state and its guardians, who naturally wished to see consensus rather than division. But it’s not the whole story. Representing Waterloo as part of a story of national unity is complicated by the fact that it is, after all, a bloody battle in which many thousands met brutal injury and death. This was obvious to all. And yet, this ‘price’ of victory would have to be acknowledged only with the greatest care, or else people will see through the fictional consensus (reinforced ad nauseum in all those victory poems) into the chaotic political reality beyond. Better not to mention it at all. For Shaw, then, a key indicator of the Romantic anxiety about postwar political trouble is the degree to which the representations of Waterloo were sanitized, their references to the actual experience of battle (bodily injury and violent death) so elaborately glossed by religious purpose and dressed up in nationalist sentiment that the horror and pity of war were, conveniently, lost to view. It’s precisely in this process of denial that the critic can discern the central preoccupations of writers in relation to their historical moment.
Standing behind this analysis is Elaine Scary’s justly famous, though hardly uncontroversial, book The Body in Pain (1985), as Shaw himself points out. Scary’s thesis is that the state takes the nation to war not to defend its territory or rights or commercial interests (though these reasons figure prominently in its own rhetoric and in the press) but to reassert an image of national cohesion at the moment when that cohesion is approaching non-existence. In return for its dead and wounded (the ‘price’ which cannot be avowed) the nation is substantiated, its raison d’être is affirmed, through its conflict with another. This is an alarming thesis, an antidote to the just war and realist theories of conflict which have dominated thinking about this subject since Augustine. It is also immediately attractive, for it not only, at a stroke, enables us to decode the historical reasons for so many wars, past and present, but it also appeals to a particularly modern suspicion, proved true on countless occasions, alas, that the state is not honest about its motives in going to war. But Scary’s thesis is too simple. It cannot allow for mixed motives, such as those which push a state into war not only to substantiate itself but also to defend a just cause (one thinks, inevitably, of the Allies in the Second World War); nor, having discredited all forms of justification, does Scarry’s thesis leave us with any standards by which we might discriminate between bad and, well, less bad conflicts (Britain’s declaration of war in 1793 against revolutionary France was far less justifiable than that in 1803, against imperial France, but this would be difficult to express in terms that Scary would approve of). Finally, it suggests that war is foundational to all modern states, which is difficult to substantiate in historical terms.
But in one important respect Shaw’s analysis far outperforms the model Scary has provided. Throughout The Body in Pain, as critics have noted, runs a deep suspicion of representation as such. If only the truth of war – the maimed and dead bodies of soldiers – was made apparent, untouched by the falsifying representational strategies of state-sponsored media and culture, if only this truth was unmediated, then we’d see things as they are and not put up with the nonsense of war any longer. Shaw knows that this is a utopian, and so falsifying, position, and never adopts it himself. Romantic representations of war deny more often than affirm the truth of war – his chapters on Southey and on battle tours and panoramas demonstrate this anew – but there’s no question of escaping representation. Nor, for that matter, can you escape what is denied. Shaw sees even in the most chauvinistic denials of the ‘cost’ of war an unself-conscious knowledge of bodily pain and death. After all, the fear of dissolution and torpor, repressed by the militarism and jingoism of Romantic war writing, must return, to break through the surface of the poem, play or novel in unguarded moments of self-awareness.
Shaw deftly analyses several such moments where the repressed returns: these readings are the high points of his study. In Walter Scott’s The Vision of Don Roderick (1811) and The Field of Waterloo (1815), poems obsessed with battlefield glory, we nevertheless catch a glimpses of an unsettled struggle between history and romance: in the poet’s uncertain sense of his poetic vocation, and in the half-hidden analogy between the defeated France of today and the defeated Scotland of the past. Or, more startlingly, in Wordsworth’s Thanksgiving Ode, which in the context of a national celebration nevertheless openly admits that the state is preserved only by the sacrifice of its fighting men, only by the ‘Carnage’ of battle. Shaw’s chapter on Wordsworth is a welcome corrective to recent readings of his later work which stress its predictable orthodoxy. In line with David Simpson, Shaw points out how Wordsworth’s poetry continues to put forward figures of solitude and disunion which suggest the failure of the state to achieve national unanimity in the postwar years. But only in Byron, in spite of a lingering fascination with war and its heroes, do we find a fully self-conscious de-mythologizing of the state’s dependence on war: in Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pigrimage Byron depicts Waterloo not as a military triumph but as political controversy by way of assiduous attention to the particularity of injury and death. He thus offers, says Shaw, ‘a clear, unalloyed picture of the relationship between individual suffering and national salvation’.
Coleridge remains difficult to place in this scheme, and Shaw’s chapter on his wartime writing does justice to the complexities of his political and aesthetic positions in this regard, perhaps more than anyone else who has yet written on the subject. On the one hand, following Jerome Christensen, Shaw sees Coleridge embracing war as an enabling condition of the state – without Napoleon, the English would be nowhere, though he can only ever half admit this in tortuous philosophical prose (The Friend) or passionate popular journalism (The Courier articles). On the other hand, Shaw finds, surely rightly, a strain in Coleridge’s political reflections stretching from The Watchman and ‘Fears in Solitude’ to Remorse and Zapolya which emphasises the self-defeating nature of military genius, and endorses instead reflective statesmanship. I’m not convinced that this can be entirely dismissed as bourgeois wishful thinking – and there’s a sense in this chapter that Shaw, too, hasn’t quite made up his mind.
I have touched on a few of the main themes of this book, but there is much more besides. The chapter on panoramas is excellent, a model of how visual culture might be included in studies devoted largely to the literary field. And there is a superb analysis of Hunt, whose thinking about war deserves wider currency. A profound meditation on violence and representation, this book is contributes in original and important ways to an expanding area within Romantic studies.