Christopher Ricks

  • Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 by Marilyn Butler
    Oxford, 213 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 19 219144 6

‘Authors are not the solitaries of the Romantic myth, but citizens.’ The spirit of Marilyn Butler’s excellent book on the Romantics is itself that of citizenship: of belonging to a civilised community, cultural and intellectual, which one helps to sustain and is sustained by, and which makes possible the truest duties, rights and privileges. Rewards, too, and the rewards of this radiating and radiant book are great. For if from one point of view Marilyn Butler is the citizen of a smallish community within a community – those within universities who speak of English literature – from another she is importantly and not self-importantly a citizen of the world. The term naturally has its good-natured comedy, and she describes it – when conferred by Goldsmith on his visiting Chinaman, a penetrating watcher of 18th-century English civilisation – as ‘a phrase both levelling and universal’. (One, incidentally, which itself helps to sustain a community of the like-minded, since Goldsmith shares the right to it with his fellow citizens Caxton and Bacon.) Dr Butler is a citizen of the world not only in that she does not – cannot, in pursuit of her essential questions – limit herself to English Romanticism; and not only in that she writes with a witty clarity, humane and free, such as makes her book uncondescendingly open to a much larger world than the academic one; but also in that her preoccupation is the pressure of the great world upon Romantic literature – the pressure, in particular, of national and international affairs.

It suited some of the Romantics, during one phase of their fortunes, to enunciate, or even to live, the myth of the recluse. It suited them, this phase, for political reasons, since too many fingers had been burnt in the revolutionary fires. It likewise suits the modern literary critic of Romanticism to set snug limits to what is germane, and to make literature itself more solitary and reclusive, and less open to the active public world, than it truly is. Dr Butler’s point is a general one, about criticism now, but its cutting edge is its particular application to the distortions of critical introversion which parallel one, but only one, phase or impulse within Romanticism.

The argument is that the period of Romanticism, 1760-1830, manifests an intensity of political consciousness which is everywhere alive in its great and diverse literature, and that this consciousness can best be understood as phases and reactions. A strongly reformist Neo-Classical phase, the last decades of an increasingly enlightened Ancien Régime, is succeeded by the euphoria of revolutionary hope, in the early days of the French Revolution, and then by the counter-revolution, as the Terror and then the military megalomania of Napoleon thrust England back into warring against French imperialism and against French revolutionary ideas. Whereupon, since every aftermath is itself mown down, the impulse of the 1820s must be seen as a reaffirmation of a new Neo-Classicism, liberal again and in flight from excesses revolutionary and counter-revolutionary.

Neither the essential history nor the application of it to literature is new. What is new is the tenacity and freshness with which the interrelationship is revealed. The historian-critic’s responses are here as flexible as her argument is responsible, and you might say of her enterprise what she says of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: ‘His phrasing implies that while he expects informed readers to grant most of his premisses, he knows that they may find it hard to adjust to a rigorous enforcement of them, at least where they affect style.’

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