Stephanie Kuduk Weiner. Republican Politics and English Poetry, 1789-1874. New York: Palgrave, 2005. ISBN: 978-1403993359. Price: US$65.00/£49.00[Notice]

  • Jason R. Rudy

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  • Jason R. Rudy
    University of Maryland

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 …

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