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.’

It needs to be said that the book’s worth is not co-terminous with the cogency of its main argument. This argument, remarkable for its feats of synthesising, is to me highly persuasive. But even those who will challenge the political findings should acknowledge, for instance, that the book preserves a disciplined disinterestedness and a largeness of sympathy. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries is a good title because it may be speaking of three or two or one. The Romantic did not have to be either a rebel or a reactionary, and this indeed is how the story begins and ends. Some rebels, like Coleridge, became reactionaries; some reactionaries, like Burke, had never been rebels; many felt within themselves the struggle of rebel against reactionary; and all – once they reach the grateful attention of posterity – deserve the compliment of being granted rational positions and oppositions.

A second excellence in the book is the demonstration that it is still perfectly possible to write literary history, provided only that you know a great deal about history as well as about literature, and are sensitive to the ways in which, though distinguishable, they are not distinct.

A third is the imagination of the book’s ordering. No great writer or great kind of literature is neglected, or reduced to being of interest only as a contribution to the particular axis which Dr Butler has chosen, the idea of the world with which she begins in order not to be prevailed over by the multifariousness of the world of Romanticism. For there are enough aperçus to set up their own proper resistance to those general ideas which (as Yeats said of Shelley) hurry a man from life continually. On the Gothic novel: ‘It is a nightmare, and perhaps the reason for its potent appeal is that it enables the reader to live vicariously through nightmare. It is not so terrible as it would be if one were asleep. It is not nearly so terrible as it would be in life.’ On a difference of conservatisms: ‘Gillray’s portrait of society is as harsh as Godwin’s in the novel Things As They Are, or Caleb Williams (1794); unlike most conservatives, Gillray implies no commitment to Things As They Are, but simply a leery knowledge that they are unlikely to get better.’ On Coleridge’s play Osorio: ‘It is as though this is a critique of intellectualism and abstraction so total that ideas themselves have had to be omitted.’ On Jane Austen: ‘She is as critical of the current practice of her class as she is admiring of the ethical theory that sustains it.’ On Scott: ‘Revolution is more genuinely his subject than Scotland is.’ On Byron: ‘Byron now succeeded Scott as the most fashionable author of the day, and he did so because his appeal, which was superficially rebellious and hence exciting, remained at a deeper level bipartisan.’ On Hazlitt: ‘Stylistically the most admirable of qualities is energy or gusto, through which the author again conveys a sense of his presence and uniqueness. Hazlitt felt that he had this insight from Coleridge; he never forgave his mentor for not sharing it.’

Such unforced aphorisms show that Dr Butler shares in what she sees in the editor of the Edinburgh Review: ‘Jeffrey has a model reviewer’s style, clear, natural and forceful.’ Not that she sentimentalises reviewers: ‘The new journalistic air of sublime assurance is nicely pinpointed in Sydney Smith’s joke about the Edinburgh Review, that, given the solar system to assess, it would surely damn it – “bad light – planets too distant – pestered with comets – feeble contrivance – could make a better with great ease”.’ A reviewer of the present book would do well to grant, gratefully, that he could not make a better with great ease – or, come to that, with great difficulty.

Like all dedicated criticism, this book is among other things a manifesting of the function of criticism at the present time. Matthew Arnold’s supreme essay is everywhere relevant to the enterprise, not least because his are the reservations about Romanticism which have proved the most enduringly intelligent. Dr Butler would agree with him that ‘for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment.’ When she says of the focusing upon the single individual in Wordsworth, ‘Where the range is so rigorously localised, one man may be of immense moment,’ she is making a serious joke. Patently, though, she would disagree with Arnold about the size of Romanticism’s achievement. Her closing paragraph begins: ‘For it is, when all is said, a splendid and splendidly varied body of literature. The pressure of ideas upon the entire social fabric made it that: English literature is at its most glorious in two brief sequences of years, after the beginning and after the end of the war with revolutionary France, when controversy was at its most intense, and art became one of its outlets.’ For Arnold, ‘when all is said’ would here be too easily said. ‘It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it something premature.’ Yet it was Arnold who most memorably located the inaugurating energies: ‘The movement which went on in France under the old régime, from 1700 to 1789, was far more really akin than that of the Revolution itself to the movement of the Renascence; the France of Voltaire and Rousseau told far more powerfully upon the mind of Europe than the France of the Revolution. Goethe reproached this last expressly with having “thrown quiet culture back”.’

Two contemporary witnesses testify to Goethe’s truth, the more tellingly because their allegiances are so different. Dr Butler calls upon Coleridge, who swears that it was Spanish patriotism which restored us to ‘our characteristic enthusiasm for liberty ... presenting it in its genuine form, incapable of being confounded with its French counterfeit’. And she calls upon Keats, who said of the French Revolution:

That has had an unhappy termination. It put a stop to the rapid progress of free sentiments in England; and gave our Court hopes of turning back to the despotism of the 16th century. They made a handle of this event in every way to undermine our freedom. They spread a horrid superstition against all in[n]ovation and improvement. The present struggle in England of the people is to destroy this superstition.

For there was no such thing in these years as an unpolitical writer. There was no escaping ‘the alarmist years’, and even The Excursion was a political incursion. Romanticism was Alarmists and Excursions. The war with revolutionary France did it; Dr Butler has recently pointed out in the London Review of Books that there is nothing like a war against a left-wing enemy (as in Vietnam) for throwing an intellectual into perturbation of mind, and the whole revolutionary/counter-revolutionary double-take of the French Revolution and of Napoleon’s wars is happily (and accidentally) caught by the blurb of the book, which speaks of the literary works and ‘their relationship with the wider events of their time – the French Revolution –’: at which point, what looked like a dash turns out to be a hyphen, for round the corner the next line begins: ‘ary wars’. It was upon just this – the French Revolution turning out to be the French revolutionary wars – that the age stumbled.

There is one stumble in the running argument of the book. That the writers of the age were profoundly influenced by revolution and counter-revolution is massively and subtly established, and it might be added that the words ‘counter-revolutionist’, ‘-revolution’ and ‘-revolutionary’ arrive (according to the OED) in 1791,1793 and 1815. ‘It may be that the search for “Romanticism” is not so much the quest for a certain literary product, as for a type of producer.’ The search finds that at times Romanticism is a counter-product. But Dr Butler often writes, not just as if the controversies were an inevitable constituent of the literature, but as if the prevailing political conviction or mood were bound to prevail in literature too. Yet it is quite different to claim that there was an unignorable political awareness and to claim, for instance, that for political reasons (among others) ‘Medievalism became an irresistible vogue, in literature, painting and architecture, and as a social model.’ To call it a vogue is to deny that genius would find it irresistible, for although there are great writers who write out of some sort of yielding to the tide, there will be others for whom the tide is out of the question. No doubt many an artist ‘lost his place in the cultural mainstream’: but were there no tough pig-headed salmon?

‘Literature, like all art, like language, is a collective activity, powerfully conditioned by social forces, what needs to be and what may be said in a particular community at a given time.’ But what needs to be said may be at odds with what may be said; something may need to be said just because it apparently may not be said. This is not to deny the potency of these pressures, only their omnipotence. Dr Butler musters the right words for the pressures, from ‘vogue’, ‘fashion’, ‘mood’, ‘all the rage’, and so on, through to ‘giving offence’, the ‘unacceptable’, and the ‘virtually taboo’. But it is out of resistance to exactly such pressures that great literature is sometimes or often created. The fashionable, the popular, the acceptable, may be for some artists exactly what they must flee. Dr Butler would not deny this, and she has many acute discussions of mixed feelings within artists, but the pressure of her own intellectual world and of its terms is mostly to make us believe that, for Romanticism at least, literature came when writers yieldingly coincided with the ruling spirit of the age. So we are told of Scott that he ‘preached the right lesson for Europe in the years of restoration’: but a possible danger signal within ‘preached’ is not heeded. (Does great literature preach to the converted, which is what ‘preached’ often comes down to, within this sense of political pressures?) Coleridge’s ‘fears for the stability of the constitution were common to the propertied classes throughout the country, so that for once his sermonising strictures did not fall on deaf ears’. But this sounds a much less fecundating concurrence than it is on other occasions, without our being able clearly to differentiate by principle one occasion from another. There can be a fate worse than falling on deaf ears: namely, speaking to those who so much have ears to hear that they don’t need to listen.

It is salutary to be reminded by this book of how much for an artist may be rendered likely or unlikely by the pressures from an audience, since every literary form has to be related to ‘how the public at a given time is ready to read it’. But the readiness is not all.

So there is a creak in a word such as ‘ensured’: ‘Her background ensured that Maria Edgeworth began her writing life in 1795 as an enlightened woman and a moderate feminist.’ Or there is the quiet obduracy as to what constitutes seriousness in a writer: ‘As far as the novel proper went, the loss of prestige that turns away serious writers was sudden and decisive.’ The word ‘timely’ will pinpoint the matter. Dr Butler uses it to mean in tune with the times: when, for instance, Coleridge like others is found to have been timely, it is because he says what the times most want to hear. But there is the other, no less honourable application of the word – to mean salutary in its timing. Dr Butler’s book, provided that we resist its pressure on us to look back upon the reigning orthodoxies as irresistible, is truly timely: not because it says and does what is mostly said and done, but for the opposite reason. The historian-critic could effect a glorious counter-revolution.