Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 521 55455 1 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$54.95).[Notice]

  • Conrad Brunstrom

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  • Conrad Brunstrom
    St Patrick's College

The rhetoric of liberty in the long eighteenth century is so versatile and elastic that it is easy to dismiss the libertarian apostrophe in verse as a mere phatic convention. Tim Fulford treats Romantic versions of liberty critically but seriously, showing how variously utopian yearnings can be applied and appropriated by poets whose own political agendas are continually evolving. This book is about poetic and political uses of landscape and about the shift, announced by Cowper and achieved by Wordsworth, from a metaphorical reading of the natural world to a more fluid, contradictory, experiential relationship with Nature as a repository of wisdom(s). John Barrell and Jerome McGann stand clearly behind this book, but their achievement is both extended and challenged by Fulford's impressive close reading. Anxious to exploit a satisfyingly expansive and enabling version of cultural materialist criticism, the author succeeds in applying Jerome McGann's methods of historicising romanticism, in a refreshingly flexible and creative way. Fulford is scrupulous in maintaining both the opportunities and the limitations of the Romantic radicalism, without suggesting that Romantic ideas of liberty can ever be securely tethered or plotted. The limitations of romantic radicalism can (and often do) appear painfully obvious to the modern reader, but Fulford is crucially interested not only in the extent to which 'freedom-loving' poets could be misinterpreted as revolutionaries (despite inhabiting a deeply traditional political mind-set) but also in the extent to which any attempted resolution of 'Liberty' and 'Authority' can be represented and yet deferred within the same poetic moment. The reach of the book is impressive, stretching from Thomson to Coleridge, and covering a period of some ninety years. This reach is justified as Fulford crisply outlines the long history of political constructions of landscape, and more especially of what it can mean to 'command a prospect'. Fulford's recognition of the importance of Cowper is welcome, although his argument is slightly injured by a few distortions. (Like many before him, Fulford overstates John Newton's formative influence on Cowper, whose portentous evangelical mindset was established long before the poet ever met Newton.) Although Fulford is finally perhaps too comfortable with the idea of Cowper as a secure upholder of 'gentlemanly' values, Cowper emerges convincingly as a pragmatic and flexible manipulator of pastoral convention, oscillating between idealism and realism, creating and then testing emblems of order and of freedom in a suggestively incomplete way. Fulford's discussion of the theorists of the 'picturesque' is also penetrating and plausible. Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and William Gilpin are invoked to illustrate the tense negotiations between freedom and discipline that horticultural praxis perennially seems to demand. Gardening, both in practice and in theory, has always invited political readings and misreadings and controlling the balance between natural luxuriance and human authority cannot help but be a metaphor and more than a metaphor for constitutional deliberation. The tourist's 'gaze' and the landscaper's 'prospect' reflect an appreciation and command of organised labour as well as of organised landscape. The politicisation of the 'picturesque' is therefore implicit in the concept's original construction. In the 1790s the rhetoric of horticultural freedom sponsored eager or alarmist misreadings that enabled Knight in particular to offer unintentionally revolutionary possibilities. Fulford is at his best writing on Wordsworth. The detailed and imaginative research he brings to bear on Wordsworth gives focus to what might be considered as a somewhat meandering text (although certain themes are strategically revisited chapter by chapter, most notably the experience of touring Scotland). Rather than merely plotting the intransigent ideological parameters of Wordsworth's political thought, Fulford sees Wordsworthian radicalism and subsequent reaction as unresolved instincts that help …