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One has much to be grateful for in Stephanie Kuduk Weiner’s fine study, Republican Politics and English Poetry, 1789-1874. With her intermingling of the literary and the historical, canonical and non-canonical, high and low, Kuduk Weiner offers a compelling revision of the nineteenth-century intellectual and political scene. That poetry falls at the center of this scene makes her story all the more interesting–and, no doubt for many, more surprising. “What was at stake” through these decades, she writes, “was not only the particular dilemmas poets sought to think through in their verse but the power of poetry to perform this intellectual and imaginative work” (178). This is the burden of Kuduk Weiner’s study, and one tackled with great aplomb: to demonstrate not only the often overlooked political valences undergirding English poetry through the Romantic and Victorian periods, but also how that poetry actively participated in the political, and specifically republican, exchanges of the day.
Part of Kuduk Weiner’s work necessarily involves recontextualizing literary works that, over time, have been detached from their historical specificity. As republican political philosophy moved from the radical peripheries (in the late-eighteenth century) to the middle of the political spectrum (by the 1860s), its communitarian impulses altered both the period’s poetry and its poetic theory. Through journals like The Examiner, the Reasoner, and The Fortnightly Review, and by way of both poetry and prose, republican thinkers promoted the ideals of popular sovereignty, universal suffrage, and participatory citizenship. Kuduk Weiner argues for the importance of poetry in these journals, which was not only read, but publicly “debat[ed], s[ung], and recit[ed]” alongside “excerpts of political theory, news reports, editorials… and serialized novels” (9). It was thus in part because of poetry that republicanism approached the mainstream by the mid-Victorian period. And whereas scholars regularly associate figures like Thomas Cooper, W. J. Linton, and Walter Savage Landor with nineteenth-century political poetry, Kuduk Weiner includes in her constellation of writers Arthur Hugh Clough, George Meredith, James Thomson, and Algernon Swinburne: poets known to have had political motivations, but generally not read as central to the political movements of the day.
Even a text as politically explicit as Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry emerges in a new light through this study. Kuduk Weiner positions Shelley’s Defence as part of a larger conversation running through the 1820s about poetry’s political use-value. Whereas writers in the republican Newgate Monthly Magazine “assert[ed]... the superior didactic power of verse” (48), Shelley “repudiat[ed]... didacticism.... [in] an attempt to preserve what is most poetic about poetry and to proclaim it as the source of poetry’s power to transform the world” (52). Shelley believed, almost counter-intuitively, that poetry’s ineffable qualities make it most useful politically. The work of “demystification” central to Shelley’s poetic practice thus comes about not through direct, hortatory pronouncements, but “by the renewal of language and perception”: by endowing each reader, in true republican spirit, with the ability to see and to understand on his or her own (57).
Kuduk Weiner also lifts a veil or two of familiarity from our view of the nineteenth-century canon. I was delighted to read about George Meredith’s contributions to The Fortnightly Review, poems easily dismissed as “topical” that in fact reveal much about Meredith as a thinker and a poet. Works like “France – 1870” and “Lines to a Friend Visiting America” may never receive the attention given Modern Love, but they have much to offer the reader who wants to understand Meredith’s political thought, and specifically his “attempt to harness republican poetry for the cause of advanced liberalism” (145). Kuduk Weiner similarly refocuses our attention on Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise, arguing that the poet’s “experimental formalism of aestheticism” must be understood as connected always to his “commitment to republican political thought”: “To understand Swinburne’s republican aesthetics is to grasp the political content of his formal experiments, his attempt not only to harness great art for a republican crusade but also to read democratic ideas into poetic forms” (158). Those scholars who ignore the explicitly topical in Swinburne’s work – poems such as “Dedication to Joseph Mazzini,” “The Eve of Revolution,” and the “Hymn of Man”–risk overlooking the political thought present, though less explicit, throughout the poet’s other writings.
In curious and important ways, Kuduk Weiner finds republican ideals filtered through a wide range of nineteenth-century thought. James Thomson’s atheism, for example, and Swinburne’s aestheticism, both edge up against and inflect their poetry’s political registers. The republican attention to “demystification” compliments Thomson’s critique of religious belief, whereas Swinburne’s innovations in style augment the visionary dynamic at the heart of republicanism. For Landor and Clough, who were instrumental in bringing republican thought closer to the mainstream, republicanism was necessarily connected to the questions foremost in the minds of Victorian intellectuals:
the nature of nationality, liberty, and equality; the tension between individualism and service to others; the course of a civilization’s movement through history; the search for meaningful work in an industrialized and commercialized economy; the significance of new ideas in science, archeology, religion, and philosophy; and the tragic, ubiquitous juxtaposition of hunger and plenty.98
Because republicanism was so imbricated in Victorian culture, one would have difficulty arguing against Kuduk Weiner’s call for renewed attention to its place in literary culture, and poetry in particular.
But there’s more at stake in republican poetics than simply thematic or intellectual motifs. As with Shelley’s Defense, significant political questions circle around issues of poetic representation and communication. How does a poem reach its audience? How do the ideas of a poem penetrate the minds of readers and auditors? In tracking through nineteenth-century poetry a tradition of republican political thought, Kuduk Weiner demonstrates the many permutations and strategic shifts practiced by successive generations of English poets. Whereas Shelley struggled in the post-Peterloo years with a radical culture relegated to the world of print, W. J. Linton in the 1830s and ’40s celebrated the literariness of republicanism, grounding his political thought in “definitional” poems–poems that literally define the meaning of different words–that he believed would enable communal understanding. Linton’s work participates in a long republican tradition of “demystification” that stretches back to Blake and the songs of protest popular in the 1790s (the subjects of Kuduk Weiner’s first chapter), even as it moves toward the formal experimentations practiced by later republican poets like Clough and Swinburne. In all these poetic works, “intellectual and imaginative negotiation[s]” transpire at the formal level, in the decisions poets make in structuring words on the page (178).
Even as one appreciates the focused, streamlined elegance of Kuduk Weiner’s book, studies as provocative as this one inevitably leave one wanting more. In particular I wished some attention had been given to women poets, who might have had more to do with republican thinking than this book allows. Mathilde Blind, for example, a good friend of Swinburne’s and a powerful reviewer and poet, regularly integrates republican ideals into her writing (her hero was Mazzini, and she consistently framed her commitment to women’s rights with a broader dedication to human rights). And yet, as women poets like Blind achieved their political voices toward the end of the nineteenth century, including them would have required extending the time range of this study beyond 1874–a move perhaps best left for another project, eager as I would have been to see it here. Kuduk Weiner’s study also leaves me eager to learn how the republican modes of poetic thought and representation she describes might be situated alongside or against other political and ideological models, such as those examined in Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (1993) and Anne Janowitz’ Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (1998). These studies make appearances in Kuduk Weiner’s book, but more might have been done to distinguish– or connect–their different ways of thinking about the intersections of poetry and politics.
But one always has one’s wish-lists, and the bottom line remains that this study offers its readers an abundance of wealth. For its innovations in formal studies, its opening up of the canon, and its insights into the important interdependence of literary and political life in the nineteenth century, Republican Politics and English Poetry is a book that ought to be read, taught, and discussed. I have little doubt that it will inspire future work in the field, and push other scholars in new and important directions.
Jason R. Rudy is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has published essays in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Studies in Romanticism. His book, Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics, is currently in press with Ohio University Press.