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Michael Mason

Michael Mason is the author of The Making of Victorian Sexuality.

A Little Pickle for the Husband

Michael Mason, 1 April 1999

Who needs a facsimile edition of Mrs Beeton, when you can buy a perfectly good modern edition? This sounds like a fair point, but it depends on a misconception: that the recipes in the modern books bearing the name ‘Mrs Beeton’ have some connection with the recipes in the book of 1861 entitled Beeton’s Book of Household Management. In fact there is no connection: something which was deplored even at the time of the centenary of publication 38 years ago, when Elizabeth David pointed out that the currently available Mrs Beeton didn’t contain a single recipe from the original. That this is an odd state of affairs does not of itself make a facsimile of the 1861 book an interesting object. People buy and use the modern Mrs Beeton with some feeling that the book enshrines venerable English cookery, but you don’t have to read Stalky and Co. in order to enjoy Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes.‘

Anti-Victorianism seems to have settled in as a permanent feature of our modern historical consciousness. What started as a mischievous or irritated gesture on the part of a small intellectual élite around the time of World War One has become the firm orthodoxy of the middle-brow mass. The Victorians have retained their demonised status despite the emergence of powerful rivals, as later periods slip back across the line marking off the historical past. Even the Sixties have come in for some hefty stigmatising, but that has not lightened the burden borne by the Victorians. Professional students of the period are more interested in analysis than judgment and see things differently – but they tend to be out of touch with general opinion. A collection of academic essays on the subject of ‘Victorian values’, first published in 1990, has just been reissued. It is revised and enlarged, explains the editor, because so much has happened to change our vision of the Victorians since 1990: the Tories are out, Princess Diana has died, and so on. These remarks will be baffling to many for whom the basic indictment of the Bloomsbury circle has never been revised.’‘

Larkin was right, more or less

Michael Mason, 5 June 1997

Historians prefer not to think about coincidence. It threatens their generalising if the resemblances between events are just accidental. Simon Szreter’s remarkable and very important book argues, in effect, that coincidence has deceived the historians of family sexuality in the period 1860-1960 – and moreover that sometimes the historians connived in their own deception. The birth-rate per family in England and Wales declined ever more steeply in this hundred-year period, and it declined with roughly the same timing and speed in most other European countries. One can see how historians would dearly love the whole story to be one unitary phenomenon – which is how it is normally understood. But Simon Szreter now argues that their cherished unitary fertility decline is riddled with coincidence. The appearance of one effect linking bedrooms of 1860 with those of 1960, and English bedrooms with those in Finland and Spain, is illusory, according to Szreter. If he is right, he has completely rewritten this tract of English social history, and created a model for enquiry into the subject.’

Downland Maniacs

Michael Mason, 5 October 1995

‘Acid rain’ was first identified, and deplored, almost 150 years ago. That is a disconcerting fact for our modern environmental awareness – which thus appears not to be modern at all, but almost as old as the manufacturing processes that have caused all the trouble. We have a triumphalist perception of human treatment of the environment: for a long time there was benighted callousness about it, then wisdom dawned, in isolated heroic acts such as Silent Spring, and now we are blessedly enlightened, like South Sea cannibal islanders converted to Christianity. Patrick Wright’s new book is all about not being triumphalist, or taking any simple view on the history of attitudes to human use of the natural world. This sounds like an implausibly large endeavour for a book whose subject is just one bit of England (Purbeck), in the years (1916 to the present) in which it has been used as a tank firing range by the British Army. Purbeck and the Army in the 20th century is an episode of tremendous resonance, however, and Wright is an author wonderfully adapted to do it justice.’

Coats of Every Cut

Michael Mason, 9 June 1994

Vladimir Nabokov said that it was ‘childish’ to read novels for information about society. In the same context (the Afterword to Lolita) he also wrote that ‘reality’ was ‘one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes’. Such scepticism about the capacity of fiction to report on the world is still very fashionable, and in that sense Norman Gash’s book on Robert Surtees goes against the grain of present-day literary analysis.

Questions of Chic

Michael Mason, 19 August 1993

This year is a minor jubilee in Victorian studies: in 1973 there appeared The Victorian City: Images and Realities. Somewhat against the odds this burly two-volume compilation of essays, brought together by Jim Dyos in England and Michael Wolff in America, became a classic. Against the odds, because these essays were, in origin, conference proceedings, and there were nearly forty of them. Conventional publishing wisdom would hope for only a modest success from such a formula, but The Victorian City did what compilations of expert essays should do and hardly ever manage. The editors had re-tuned almost all the contributions and they also added dozens of superb illustrations. The result was a book which is still full of important insights about 19th-century urban Britain that remain to be explored, and of ideas for factual enquiry that remain to be exploited.

Preventive Intercourse

Michael Mason, 22 October 1992

I had been aware of Miriam Benn for some years, because I kept coming across her trail in libraries: her borrower’s slips between the pages of books, her signature as a user of special collections, librarians’ memories of an Australian woman scholar spending her vacations researching in Britain. Unhappily for me, she was obviously investigating that enormously important, mysterious and unexplored Victorian figure: George Drysdale. She was certainly doing this as well as I was – perhaps much better. Worst of all, the spoor was old, the campfire ashes long extinguished. It appeared that any minute the world would hear, if not the whole truth about George Drysdale, then at least a great part of it.’

Oedipal Wrecks

Michael Mason, 26 March 1992

Kurt Vonnegut will be 70 this year. At this age he would indeed be a remarkable writer if his latest book – which is a collection of occasional pieces in the vein of the earlier Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons (1975) and Palm Sunday (1981) – had broken much new ground. In that sense his detractors and his admirers need not fall out on this occasion. The essential familiarity of the manner and matter of Fates Worse than Death should not give comfort to the former, or worry the latter (who will, rather, enjoy a pleasure like that of knowing that a valued friendship is still intact). But the accusation of repetition or stagnation, against Vonnegut, goes back a long way: to epochs in his career where the admirers probably do need to be able to locate novelty and growth if they are to make more than modest claims for his achievement.

Do women like sex?

Michael Mason, 8 November 1990

The other day I came across an article by Professor Laqueur, written some fourteen years ago, which makes a striking and dismaying contrast to the book he has just published. The contrast is fairly significant of the destructive potential of the New Historicism for the writing of history. Happily Professor Laqueur’s case is unusual, for the community which has shown by far the most susceptibility to this new and potent intellectual virus is the literary one, rather than the community of historians. And there is no great loss to culture if literary academics turn into New Historicists – to such lengths has the process of self-disablement as an intellectual enterprise been carried by literary studies in the last two decades.’

Denying Dolores

Michael Mason, 11 October 1990

As commonly happens when an emotionally charged issue is widely discussed, the controversy in Britain over child sex abuse (which I shall call CSA) is rife with embattled feeling. Everyone, whatever their point of view on the question, seems to imagine that those holding the opposite belief are in the majority, a necessarily dangerous majority. As far as I know, beliefs about CSA – on its prevalence, its gravity, and what society should do about it – have never been polled in Britain, but not everybody can be right to feel on the defensive (even though the arithmetic of opinions is complicated by people’s ability to hold inconsistent views: for example, as to whether local social services are insufficiently vigilant, or too quick to interfere, where parents and children are concerned). In particular, one or other of the books reviewed here must be wrong in its apprehensions about the state of public opinion – and to that extent attacking a straw man.’

Victorian Consumers

Michael Mason, 16 February 1989

Christianity, in a literal sense, is not true. And every adult citizen, of either sex, is entitled to a vote. In modern Britain both these views are very widely believed. Our society is a secular and democratic one, with secular and democratic ideas running so deep that it is impossible to imagine them being dislodged – impossible to imagine, for example, that any political group that wanted to restore a supreme authority to the Church and to abolish universal suffrage could make the slightest headway. But how can this be? Didn’t the Britain of only 150 years ago have a completely different set of values? How can a reversal of attitudes so extreme and apparently permanent have come about?’

Cleveland

Michael Mason, 10 November 1988

Among the people who almost certainly took comfort from the tone of the national discussion of events in Cleveland in the summer of 1987 were three middle-aged men from a housing estate in Congleton, Cheshire. As emerged in their trials earlier this year, these men had repeatedly been making sexual assaults of the most extreme sort on very young members of their families, sometimes in a spirit of revolting cruelty. One man had raped his sobbing five-year-old daughter, as she was held down by her mother, and buggered his three-year-old son. The other two had indecently assaulted and buggered children between the ages of five and nine. It is reasonable to suppose that these men would have applied the Cleveland affair to their own situation quite thoroughly. While sexual assaults on children are no doubt sometimes unpremeditated, the literature is full of cases where the activity is a highly conscious project, often the project of a lifetime, even when the behaviour that is planned is of the most cruel and selfish variety. Men do, in real life, get married in the spirit of Humbert Humbert – sometimes with much younger and more defenceless targets in view than Lolita. They do – pace the incredulity expressed about certain diagnoses of Dr Marietta Higgs – deliberately get themselves accredited as fit to foster children with the intention of abusing their charges. In the case of Congleton it appears that some fifteen other adults may also have been involved in child sex: it was a ‘sex ring’ – a vague expression which is nevertheless surely correct in its implication of group commitment to a particular sexual practice.’

Rogue Socialists

Michael Mason, 1 September 1988

Iain McCalman has written a major book on a minor subject. It would not be fair to the considerable achievement of Dudley Miles in his life of Francis Place simply to invert this formula: but Place’s life is a major subject, and this treatment of it – the first in almost a hundred years – does leave a sense of possibilities not explored. The enterprise in any form, of course, involved a crushing weight of primary research: there are more than two hundred and ninety volumes of Francis Place papers in the British Museum. Mr Miles found working through them ‘arduous’ if ‘fascinating’. Because of their great bulk he took ten years to finish his biography (having, in a manner worthy of Place himself, worked simultaneously as a night security guard – even now his main employment is said to be ‘as a computer manager and commercial researcher’).’

All Woman

Michael Mason, 23 May 1985

One may ask of Ms Ford’s book, rather as Alice asks of the White Knight’s poem: ‘What is it called?’ The title on the jacket is ‘Men’; the title on the title-page is Men. The jacket is the part of a book where publishers most candidly make known their views. Publishing contracts specifically reserve to the publisher the right to determine its appearance, unilaterally if necessary. Everything about the jacket of ‘Men’ or Men suggests that what Weidenfeld and Nicolson favour about this book – that is, what they find commercially promising – is its author rather than her text. It is not just that Ms Ford is given great emphasis in the bled-off photograph of her that fills the back cover: the jacket strives to personalise the text inside, implying it to be interesting only, or chiefly, because of who wrote it. The background is pure white, the lettering scarlet and black. Not the expected livery for a book subtitled ‘A Documentary’ (but, as it happens, exactly the jacket colours of a recent mass-paperback humorous compilation by a woman about men). That subtitle does make its way onto the jacket (insofar as authors compose titles, there is a limit to the publisher’s power to drive the appearance of a book and its content apart). But the MEN above it dominates in letters more than six times taller – and then those inverted commas are sneaked in to discredit further the suggestion of objectivity or factuality which the subtitle might regrettably have carried. The reduction of Anna Ford to the thinking man’s Jackie Collins is complete.’

Former Lovers

Michael Mason, 6 September 1984

Human cultures in the historical period are intimidatingly complex affairs, and it is usually very difficult for the cultural historian to achieve generalisations that are reliable and also interesting. But middle-class sex in the Victorian period, one might think, is an exception. Surely cultural history can say something definite, but not trivial, about this subject. Not only academic self-respect but, in a sense, the self-respect of 20th-century Western attitudes at large are tied up in the question. If ‘Victorian’ does not correctly connote a special point of view about sex, at least one prevailing among the Victorian middle class, an alarming instability starts to make itself felt. One of the most secure ideas, apparently, that we have about the recent past, which enters even very informal discourse on countless occasions, looks dubious.

Thought Control

Michael Mason, 15 March 1984

Germaine Greer has three main propositions to advance in her new book. These are, first, that genital, recreational sex is overvalued in our culture. Second, that birth-control programmes in the Third World are unnecessary, ineffectual and cruel. Third, that families which stress the procreative relationship are preferable to those which stress the conjugal relationship. These ideas are all plausible, and of great moment. They deserve an airing: they deserve the attention which a writer as well-known, energetic and fluent as Germaine Greer is likely to secure for them. The issue about Sex and Destiny is how much Ms Greer’s important case is likely to be damaged by the way in which she connects up her proposals, and the poor, even unprincipled quality of her arguments for them individually and as a cluster of ideas.

Taking Darwin in

Michael Mason, 16 February 1984

This is at once an impressive, even thrilling book, and quite a bad one. Its virtues and vices are connected. The author has a precisely-grounded exhilaration about The Origin of Species; perhaps more than any other literary writer on the work she communicates its exciting essence. Her exhilaration also leads her to claim far too much for the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on Victorian literature. Like others, she sees that The Origin – by virtue of its cultural situation and Darwin’s response to this – is one of the most interesting pieces of prose rhetoric ever penned. She has some brilliant things to say about Darwin’s style, but others that are unsatisfactory and ill-formulated: figments of her absorption with the text, or half-baked thoughts that too often scuttle to a modish vocabulary for refuge (it is undignified in a scholar of Mrs Beer’s seniority to use ‘deconstruct’ when she means ‘dismantle’, ‘recuperate’ when she means ‘recover’, and ‘fracture’ and ‘problematise’ when she means scarcely anything at all). She feels the nuclearity of The Origin, how you can go from it backwards, sideways, forwards into almost any phase of our culture, and her range and variety of reference are exceptional. She also writes, some of the time, with a fervid, self-indulgent miscellaneousness, in a kind of spray of allusions. There are too many one- and two-sentence paragraphs in this book: too many asides appropriate to a lecture, but making for jerky reading on the page.–

Vicarious Sages

Michael Mason, 3 November 1983

By a considerable coincidence there are now published within a short interval the first biographies of two substantial Victorian literary figures, over a hundred years after the death of either man. The coincidence is made more striking by the similarities between George Henry Lewes and John Forster. They were two of the stars of Victorian literary journalism: much in demand as editors, and absolutely reliable in their capacity to produce essays and reviews of first-rate quality on a huge range of topics at an intimidating speed. They both fulfilled unusual roles as advisers on the design and publication of work by more famous writers. Both strove for recognition as contributors in their own right to serious branches of study. Both made an adequate living at first by their prodigious writing efforts, but came to wealth at the end through their marriages, after they had more or less abandoned journalism. They were sociable men, fraternising widely and vigorously with the élite of the day. But no one was on a footing of unreserved friendship with either of them; both had enemies and detractors even among their close acquaintance.

O cruel!

Michael Mason, 16 June 1983

In W.H. Hudson’s autobiographical study, Far Away and Long Ago, there is a passage which it is hard to make oneself read. The subject is the gaucho method of slaughtering a cow or bullock.

Tons of Sums

Michael Mason, 16 September 1982

Most people know that Charles Babbage was a pioneer of the computer. This absorbing, though hagiographical, new life makes very clear how many other things he was as well: pure mathematician, economist, inventor, reformer of scientific institutions, craftsman, even salon host. But Anthony Hyman does not seek to displace the computers from centre-stage in Babbage’s life, and this seems correct. They provide the most sustained theme in his variegated career, and may be seen as a point of convergence for most of the tendencies of his mind. To consider the computers is to consider Babbage. Indeed his story falls under a triple rubric that belongs to computers from Babbage onwards: software, hardware, and applications.

Conservative Chic

Michael Mason, 6 May 1982

Should we use ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, or ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’? What about ‘hopefully’, and ‘whom’, and the present subjunctive? This is the stuff of innumerable dinner-party arguments, vehemently conducted, and generally leaving in the mind a nasty sense of muddle. It often happens with controversies of the vehement, intractable sort that separate issues have become mixed up with one another. If we approach them piecemeal, it turns out that there are answers after all, but diverse answers to the diverse problems that have composed the muddle. The American journalist John Simon has for some years been writing a column in Esquire in which he takes a conservative view of linguistic change in true dinner-party fashion: opposing almost every innovation in contemporary usage, and mixing up several independent considerations in the process. Pieces from that column published between 1977 and 1979, together with a few other items, were put out as a book in America, and the collection recently appeared in Britain.

George Eliot, Joyce and Cambridge

Michael Mason, 2 April 1981

For those outside Cambridge University who are curious about recent events in the English Faculty there, and who want to assess the ‘repulsiveness’ of either party, or of both, Colin MacCabe’s book on Joyce is among the few pieces of hard evidence available. One tendency of the stories coming out of Cambridge has been to represent MacCabe as an irenic figure, peaceably intent on exploring and teaching European culture and English grammar while bayed about by his attackers. To read the Joyce book is to be quickly disabused of at least this impression of what is going on at Cambridge. It is a tremendously aggressive piece of writing. Its aggression is directed both at current academic literary criticism, and at certain texts or traditions in English literature itself. For MacCabe, the two targets are connected: the literary criticism he attacks is that which makes the same assumptions about language and reality as the literature he dislikes.

Banality and Anxiety

Michael Mason, 19 March 1981

It is common knowledge that British publishing is in the doldrums. This is generally thought of as a temporary state of affairs, but it is conceivable that something irreversible is taking place. Today’s new wisdom about publishing may become as enduring, familiar and dispiriting as the truism of the decline of British cinema. That decline had much to do with television. Book publishing has seemed, hitherto, robust on this flank. The industry prospered in the 1960s, when television was completing its conquest of film in Britain. Books and television do not compete for the same ground, it might be said. In particular, there is a difference in respect of cultural quality between their undertakings. Books can be learned, beautiful, experimental, mentally searching, subversive and fanciful to an extent that television very seldom permits itself to be. Television is almost always banal.

MacInnes’s London

Michael Mason, 16 October 1980

With his three London novels Colin MacInnes hit on a marvellous subject-matter, into which he saw deeply. In other departments, however, he did not have the qualities to match. The books are consequently a frustrating experience – giving the sense of something thwarted, or half-realised. Taken as a group, indeed, they testify to the author’s unease about how best to convey his materials and vision. Each of them has its own distinct, extreme principle of style and/or organisation, while their subject-matter remains extraordinarily uniform. There is very little in common, for example, between the alternating first-person, colloquial narratives of City of Spades and the sententious, schematic narrative of Mr Love and Mr Justice. The theme of the pimp, however – one of MacInnes’s most idiosyncratic preoccupations – dominates both plots.

Two Visits to the Dentist

Michael Mason, 5 June 1980

A reader who has some acquaintance with Garcia Marquez is almost bound to approach a new novel by him with certain questions about connectedness in mind. There is first of all the issue of the connectedness of his career: which resolves itself at once into questions about the origins of, and successors to, the extraordinary One Hundred Years of Solitude. The commanding presence of this novel has inevitably given the earlier work something of the character of an overture (especially for the English reader, for whom this material has mostly become available since the novel’s appearance), while the more recent writing has generally been assessed for adequacy as a sequel. Then there is the matter of the internal connections in Garcia Marquez’s fiction. There are recurrences of certain characters, events and places: Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Jose Montiel, the Treaty of Neerlandia, Macondo, Manaure. What do these recurrences amount to? Should we even pay attention to them?

Why has the Blunt affair generated so much callous humbug? Two highly regarded spy novels of recent years – The Human Factor and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – are based on the idea of a ‘mole’ in the British Intelligence services. In neither book does any particular opprobrium attach to treachery. The emphasis is on personal ties rather than national ones (which are implied by both authors to be something of a fake). In Greene’s novel especially, the pains of being a spy, and above all the wretchedness of the separation from home and love which follows exposure, are memorably evoked. These books have been read by many people, and they are additionally famous in televised and filmed versions. Their reputation is certainly due in part to the sensible, convincing stand they take on treachery. But the British public has more humanity at its command for the phantoms of Greene’s and Le Carré’s imaginations than for the flesh-and-blood Anthony Blunt. In these days his name seems scarcely to be perceived as denoting a fellow human being. The letters BLUNT in the headlines have become a kind of mantra of hatred.

Vonnekit

Michael Mason, 7 February 1980

The publication of Jailbird in Britain is oddly well-timed. The hero of this novel, Walter F. Starbuck, joins the Communist Party before the war while still at Harvard. Later he becomes a civil servant, and in 1949 is investigated by a Congressional committee on Communism. After the hearing he is simply demoted, but in his testimony he mentions the Communist affiliations of a former friend who is now a prominent politician. This friend is eventually imprisoned. Both men are universally calumniated as ‘traitors’ – Starbuck because he testified against his friend, and the latter because he was un-American.

Philip Roth’s House of Fiction

Michael Mason, 6 December 1979

The Ghost Writer is Philip Roth’s best novel yet. Certainly it is his most ingenious. But this familiar way of putting things may contain a mistake, a mistake which is part of the subject-matter of Roth’s book. ‘Best novel yet’ implies a future of prosperous activity which may be barmecidal. The novelist-hero of Henry James’s story ‘The Middle Years’ is amused by the view that his latest novel is ‘the best thing he has done yet’: it ‘made such a grand avenue of the future’. This story is alluded to in detail in The Ghost Writer and is structurally as well as thematically related to it. James’s title is lightly parodic. It is meant to bring into question the habit of mind which goes on perceiving each of a novelist’s mature productions as belonging to an interim or provisional stage of his career. James’s hero dies soon after the publication of ‘the best thing he has done yet’. His middle years abruptly become his last period.

Letter
Ruth Parkin-Gounelas’s parody (Letters, 5 September) of the new academic conformism was amusing, but a little overdone. Young academics are not this close, yet, to being the Red Guards of our intellectual life.
Letter
If James Pierrepont Greaves’s community at Ham Common had been ‘far from Owenite’, as Jackie Letham alleges (Letters, 10 September), its appeal for such prominent Owenites as Thomas Frost, Robert Buchanan (or at least his wife) and Alexander Campbell would be inexplicable. The last of these actually lived in the community from 1842 for a couple of years, and promulgated Greavesian...
Letter

One Sex or Two

8 November 1990

Michael Mason writes: At no point in my review did I deny that the interplay of cognitive with ideological and political factors in the history of ideas about sexuality is, and is bound to be, horribly complex. I did say that Professor Laqueur seemed to have fallen back on a procedure in which complexity was exaggerated, rather than clarified as far as it truthfully could be. By contrast, it was he...
Letter

Anti-Wordsworthian

7 December 1989

What a preposterous piece by John Bayley on Wordsworth and Coleridge (LRB, 7 December)! This was meant to be a review of two books on Coleridge and one on Wordsworth. It hardly mentioned the last of these, but the discussion of Coleridge was filled with and disfigured by hostility towards Wordsworth. Sometimes this was frankly potty: as in the proposal that Wordsworth’s diction is in some way...
Letter

Child Abuse

10 November 1988

Michael Mason writes: By inexplicably ignoring the first part of my discussion of the Cleveland affair, Dr Donovan has very seriously distorted my views. The paragraphs from which he quotes were by way of an exploration of the attitudes that may underlie the bizarre hostility with which the pediatricians and social services at Cleveland have been regarded. The unfairness of the reaction was the subject...
Letter

Rogue Socialists

1 September 1988

I was interested by the points made in the three letters in your last issue concerning my review of Dudley Miles’s book on Francis Place. David Craig has made a wrong deduction about my attitude to Wallas’s classic biography. In writing of the faint record of Place’s activity which (in the absence of the British Museum material) the historian faces, I was thinking of primary sources....
Letter

Errata

16 April 1981

SIR: In the reprinting of Professor Christopher Ricks’s essay, ‘In Theory’ (LRB, 16 April 1981), in the recent anthology of pieces from the LRB (London Review of Books: Anthology One) some unfortunate errors occurred. Fifteen hundred words of Professor Ricks’s discussion of Stanley Fish’s Is there a text in this class? were omitted, and, amongst other printing errors,...
Letter
SIR: In his letter in your last issue, Yorick Wilks claims to believe that Anthony Blunt was motivated by ‘hatred for his fellows, or at least for a large proportion of them’. I cannot think that this is his considered opinion. Professor Wilks is a university teacher. He must respect evidence (although he reiterates a piece of gossip from Privite Eye), and the facts about Blunt’s...

Body Parts

Lawrence Stone, 24 November 1994

All my lifetime, until very recently, conventional wisdom has had it that there was something very peculiar about the ‘Victorian’ era. Since about 1910, its values and practices have...

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Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler, 6 August 1992

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to...

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