Maureen N. McLane, Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-521-77348-2. Price: £35.00 (US$54.95).[Notice]

  • Alan Bewell

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  • Alan Bewell
    University of Toronto

Maureen N. McLane's Romanticism and the Human Sciences is a thought-provoking reflection on the value of Romantic literature at a time when literature has become increasingly marginalized in society. Though this situation has been visible most recently, as universities, businesses, and governmental agencies have supported the funding of the sciences and social sciences while allowing the fiscal erosion of the arts and humanities, McLane sees the beginnings of this shift in the Romantic period, which saw the emergence of the human sciences and their rapid rise to cultural authority. As M. H. Abrams noted, many years ago: "In an age increasingly science-minded, what assurance is there that poetry will even endure?". McLane's book is about the Romantic literary response to this situation, the reconceptualization of poetry that led to its oscillation "between transcendentalizing claims and a recognition of its contradictory situation in a world whose values are derived by a utilitarian, scientistic, and economic calculus" (p. 20). That the Romantic period produced a remarkable number of important "defences of poetry" is well known, the most notable of these being Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Shelley's Defence of Poetry, and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. McLane shrewdly recognizes that these are not necessarily signs of the importance of poetry to the age. Instead, they suggest that writers were forced to reconsider what poetry is and does in light of the rising star of moral philosophy, which at this time encompassed the social sciences and economics. Even the strongest of the proponents of the philosophical importance of poetry, Percy Shelley, appears at times to have accepted the subordination of literature to moral philosophy. In an 1819 letter to Peacock, he declares: "I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science, and if I were well, certainly I would aspire to the latter, for I can conceive a great work embodying the discoveries of all ages and harmonizing the contended creeds by which mankind have been ruled" (p. 41). In contrast to the expansive claims that he would later make in his Defence, Shelley here sees poetry as the consolation of those who cannot, for various reasons, aspire to higher goals. Shelley's doubts and uncertainties about the relevance of poetry to his age can be found elsewhere too, and it is certainly possible to read the sweeping generalizations of the Defence of Poetry as being an exaggerated form of defensiveness (offence being the best defense). Furthermore, Shelley was also even forced to resort to the language of moral philosophy in order to make them. My own view is that in spite of his ongoing uncertainties, Shelley continued to see poetry as a higher form of moral argument, an activity well suited to laying the foundations of political change, but even so, he did see the latter as representing a substantial challenge to the claims traditionally made by poets. Similar points could be made about Wordsworth's attempt to write a poetry that adopts and undercuts moral philosophical methods, as I also earlier indicated in my Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. His famous literary debate with Hazlitt, dramatized in "Expostulation and Reply" and "Tables Turned," indicates the degree to which Romantic literature established an ongoing, productive, critical dialogue with moral philosophy. Coleridge's life-long effort to differentiate poetic discourse from the languages of empirical or mechanical philosophy is similarly structured by an engagement with moral philosophy, and both he and Wordsworth sought to write the epic poetic equivalents of a moral philosophical treatise. In "Dejection: An Ode," Coleridge explores the psychic costs of moral philosophy—"my sole resource, my only plan," "by abstruse research …

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