Rachel Crawford. Poetry, Enclosure, and the Vernacular Landscape, 1700-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. ISBN: 0521815312. Price: £45.[Record]

  • David Fairer

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  • David Fairer
    University of Leeds

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 …