The cover-picture of this book is an eloquent one. Dating from 1816, the aquatint engraving shows the Marquis of Anglesey’s estate of Beaudesert, Staffordshire. In the distance is the hall commanding a view across romantic wooded hills; but occupying the foreground are Repton’s proposed pleasure grounds (for this is half of one of his before-and-after scenes), with a boating lake having flooded the extensive green valley, and behind the landing-stage is a walled kitchen garden, its compact terraces mounting the slope where an open meadow had been. Rachel Crawford’s intriguing book, which relates developments in the English landscape between 1700 and 1830 to the history of poetry during that period, explores the tensions that underlie this dual vision of distant prospect and enclosed space. It is the latter image of productive containment that in her reading becomes the more dominant cultural idea during the Romantic period. It is alike evident in the popularity of the kitchen garden and in the revival of the sonnet and other ‘minor’ lyric forms (she speaks of “the unceasing exchange between garden manuals, literary criticism, and poetry,” 171). The eroticised poetry of the bower, the greenhouse cultivation of cucumbers, and the compressed sublimities of the sonnet, are all part of what Crawford terms “a realignment between productivity and enclosure along a continuum of aesthetic, functional, and sexual forms” (223).
The book does not explore specific political contexts (after all, Repton’s 1816 plans for a kitchen-garden at Beaudesert were drawn up in a year of bad harvest and food riots), but works on a much broader historical canvas, arguing that the turning-point occurred during the 1770s with the crisis over Britain’s American colonies and her defeat in the War of Independence. What emerged through these critical pressures was a “vernacular” landscape of Englishness, to replace a more expansive Britishness that had been stretched too thinly. In line with what she sees as “the trend towards containment after the American War” (225), the nation needed to be re-grown from within, and during the Romantic period, according to Crawford, the poetic scene reflected this refocusing of values, in which “craftsmanship, ingenuity, and contrivance produced a space that could be construed as the seminary of true English virtue” (255). In both garden design and poetry, ‘England becomes a system of enclosed, productive plots’ (12).
The move is traced in generic terms as the abandonment of “the sprawling form of English georgic poetry” (5) in favour of the compressed lyric; but it also has a strong social element, marking a shift away from georgic’s aristocratic, expansionist, didactic, authoritative and public discourse (“the dominant, expansive aesthetic associated with the gentry for most of the eighteenth century”, 171) towards “the economy of lyric vision,” a poetry expressive of subjectivity and “the encapsulated moment” (255) in which the sublime is released in brief and radiant form (188). This is directly linked to the recovery of “a norm and ideal of Englishness” (27) centred on containment, privacy, “concentration, intensity, and immediacy” (254). It is a “sea change” in topographical and poetic forms in England’s long eighteenth century that is Crawford’s declared subject. The period sweep is considerable, and all developments, agricultural and poetic, are drawn into a bold epochal episteme.
This is an ambitious and honest book that is true to the values it announces: Crawford is not afraid to stake out her specific territory within a very wide field (although this means ignoring some major poets and significant texts), and she sometimes compresses her own thematic connections into sublime lyric moments: “These spaces form a bedrock that was jolted to the surface by a seismic shift in public perception that took place during the final quarter of the century” (4-5). The locating of this remarkably sustained “jolt” becomes a problem in the book, and the reader longs for a more carefully delineated account of the literary history that is being invoked at moments like this. On the basis of her selected materials the assertions Crawford makes are plausible; but once the reader’s mind takes a wider view then questions arise. To what extent should the poetry of the 1770-1830 period be characterized by its sonnets and “minor lyrics”? Is the poetry of the previous sixty years really more “expansive,” or does it also exploit compression in positive and virtuous ways? Would a different picture emerge by tracing, alongside her move from georgic to lyric, one from (say) the epistle to the narrative poem? (Pope’s Epistle to Burlington expresses loathing for the Whiggish expansiveness of Timon’s estate.) Is it right to focus on the sonnets of Keats and Hunt (which beautifully fit the book’s argument about sublime containment) while saying nothing of Endymion or The Story of Rimini? Is not the more extended space of romance, the world of discovery beyond the magic casement or the silent peak, as much part of the character of that period’s poetry?
At the heart of the book is the issue of enclosure, and here Crawford is at her best. It is clear from the material she draws together that the enclosing of land was a complex affair that had local, regional, national, and European dimensions, and her discussion exposes the intricacies and ambivalences of “enclosure” as a movement with many different motives and results. She views the debate in terms of two competing models of Englishness, one symbolised by the idea of the open fields, the other by compact hedgerows: the former “views England through the filter of history and memory,” stressing the labourer’s liberty and independence, while the other “views England through a progressive future” of realised potential, productivity and prosperity (12). Neither image is inherently conservative or radical: the open fields could be a sign of the peasant’s feudal contract with the landowner, just as a hedge or fence might enclose a cottager’s personal plot to be cultivated freely in support of himself and his family. Crawford, however, recovers the radical potential of this latter idea. When the radical minister, Richard Price, in his Observations on Reversionary Payments, called for every rural cottage to have land attached to it, he wished for a return to Roman practice and Tudor legislation which had stipulated exactly that. Price’s 1771 pamphlet is a fascinating gloss on (and perhaps response to?) Goldsmith’s controversial Deserted Village (1770), which looks back nostalgically to an earlier time, “ere England’s griefs began, / When every rood of ground maintained its man.” Crawford comments convincingly that ‘the agricultural system to which Goldsmith alludes is not the scene of pastoral idealism but a cottage system’ (40).
Open spaces and uninterrupted prospects tend to be presented negatively in this book, and Crawford quotes with approval Repton’s condemnation of the ha-ha, the concealed ditch that created an imperious illusion of ownership across open fields. She sees a similar dubious authority, and a similar cheat, in the nature of the georgic poem (the book’s pivotal concept), which in this study is made to represent the unsustainable claims of that pre-1770 expansiveness. It expresses an “anti-progressive impulse,” a “backward-looking vision” (103). Georgic becomes the false consciousness at the heart of “British” culture, the poetic equivalent of “the indifferent gaze over the wide prospect” that characterized the “georgic decades” before the American crisis. The negative term “sprawling georgic” is used repeatedly, as if to exemplify the genre’s inability to articulate its materials (or Britain to manage its American colonies). Georgic’s factual basis is also seen as spurious, and a couple of examples of inaccuracy are made to be generic, so that “error may therefore be viewed as a convention” of the genre, allowing Crawford to speak of “georgic error” and “georgic misinformation” (154). The genre did not aim to instruct, but to create merely “an illusion of instruction” (157) as part of its illegitimate claim to authority.
Crawford’s negative characterization of georgic has to carry a lot of argumentative weight in the book, so it is a pity that a greater range of poems is not discussed. All the attention falls on just two examples, from the beginning and the end of the tradition, John Philips’s Cyder (1708) and Richard Jago’s Edge-Hill (1767). The former’s Edenic Royalist myth is highlighted, as is Jago’s obsession with aristocratic estates, which is seen as essential to the genre, while his fascination with coal mines and iron forges is “decidedly non-georgic terrain” (142). The contrary would be truer to georgic’s interest in productive work and economic management of resources, and the “industrial georgic” was part of its development around mid-century. But then Crawford has it both ways: Jago’s excitement over Birmingham’s trade in buckles and buttons is made symptomatic of georgic’s concern for superficial “ornament,” and the city’s manufacture of “inferior” plated goods is linked to Jago’s “simulation” of georgic conventions – it marks, she says, “the presence of simulation at the heart of georgic poetry” (158). This is very hard indeed on a poetic genre which, more than any other, dealt with new advances in science and technology. There is no mention of the description (in Dyer’s The Fleece) of Lewis Paul’s newly invented spinning machine; there is no Hop-Garden (Smart) with its account of the latest ventilating-fans, no Sugar-Cane (Grainger) with its detailed reports, supported by lengthy footnotes, on improving soil quality, curing illnesses, tackling vermin, and the practical management of every phase of sugar manufacture. Armstrong’s two georgics of the human body, The Oeconomy of Love and The Art of Preserving Health certainly aimed to instruct, as did John Dalton in his poem about the Whitehaven coal-mines, to which his friend Dr Brownrigg appended technical notes ‘as a sort of circumstantial proof of the truth of your descriptions’ (27). Many other examples could be given.
In a study of landscape and poetry in the eighteenth century it is odd not to include some discussion of either The Seasons or Windsor-Forest (the book makes no reference to Pope). Both were hugely influential in spatial thinking, and the latter in particular established a model for tracing how a virtuous, circumscribed English space might sustain Britain’s increasing expansion abroad. This could have made a significant contribution to the book’s argument. In fact, a more generous and representative analysis of georgic would fit Crawford’s thesis very well indeed, though on the other side of the equation. The georgic is about managed spaces and harnessing of energies; it is aware of what is circumstantially appropriate, of local knowledge, the proper tools and skills, or the right manure; it is concerned with economy, the effective use of resources, and what methods are needed in different circumstances (georgic “variety” is not ornamental, but essential to its business). Georgic “space” is worked, and is located east of Eden. It is concerned not with the placing of a ha-ha but with the qualities of the soil. To speak of a “georgic Eden,” which celebrated “happy labor” and the life of the “happy swain”’ (101) is to miss the degree to which the genre is distinct from pastoral. Since its founding text, Hesiod’s Works and Days (not mentioned in this book), georgic has been firmly placed in the fallen world of time and change, in which a recalcitrant nature has to be worked, and human energies channelled and directed.
In fact georgic is very much at home in the kitchen garden, whether in Thomson’s Autumn or Book Three of Cowper’s Task. It speaks about the nation as a whole, but it never loses sight of the fact that Britain is made up of individual regions and localities, each with something to contribute; and its stress on managing resources became, if anything, more relevant during 1790-1820, under the mounting pressure of wartime shortages and the continental blockade. Colin Winborn has recently argued that during this economic stringency Britain was made to recognise the moral virtue of putting the resources of space “to the best possible account,” and that this informs the commitment to “boundaries, pressure, and containment” both in the poetry of Crabbe (a writer who would fit Crawford’s thesis well) and in Austen’s novels. A text like Cobbett’s Cottage Economy (1821), well used by Winborn, tends to confirm Crawford’s unerring sense that the national landscape within which the poetry of the Romantic period was written, was in many ways a frugal and challenging one. Her bold and provocative book deserves to arouse debate about the reconceptualization of space during the long eighteenth century.
- Beck, Rudolph. “From Industrial Georgic to Industrial Sublime: English Poetry and the Early Stages of the Industrial Revolution.” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 27 (2004): 17-36.
- Dalton, John. A Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven. To which are added, Some Thoughts on Building and Planting. London: n. pub., 1755.
- Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
- Winborn, Colin. The Literary Economy of Jane Austen and George Crabbe. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.