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Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History
Kevis Goodman
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
$45.00, 244 pages, ISBN 0521831687 (hardback).

Sylvie Crinquand
Université de Bourgogne


This is an ambitious book, which tries to follow Georgic verse from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and to show how this verse reveals a concern with mediation as an expression of history. It is ambitious because it begins with Addison to end with Wordsworth's Excursion, after studying Thomson's Seasons and Cowper's Task, and because the approach the author has chosen uses recent theories in relation to these works. The historical span thus covers the "long eighteenth century," although, curiously enough, the sense of history is not clearly felt in the book. One has the feeling that Wordsworth belongs to the same world as Addison or Thomson, the sense of history being—ironically—blurred by the amount of critical discourse. The reader occasionally tends to become confused by Goodman's numerous references, and thus to lose track of her argument. In other words, this book suffers from its own richness.

Goodman starts with a theoretical introduction, in which she presents her basic thesis: instead of burying history under the representation of nature, Georgic verse exposes history as unpleasant sensation. This tendency can be traced through the long eighteenth century, with variations in the medium expressing this unpleasantness. She uses—and questions—Raymond Williams's thoughts on "historical presentness," but also draws on Walter Benjamin and many other more recent critics. Her aim is to reread texts in which the Georgic influence may be felt, so as to reassess them in the light of modern theories of history and sense—a challenging subject, especially since in her introduction Goodman is careful to distinguish herself from new historicist views of romantic poetry. Her point is to find the history where it has not been analysed before, as a failure of mediation, as avoidance, and this is highly elusive material.

Four chapters will follow, the last three referring to a single poem, whereas the first focuses on Addison's "Essay on The Georgics." In each case, one medium is selected as representative of the flux of history, and we thus move from Addison's "by-ways" to Thomson and the "microscopic eye," then to Cowper's "loophole," before reaching Wordsworth's "aural histories." Each work is confronted with methods of analysis or concepts drawn from recent thought and literary theory, and is then made to fit into the overall theory of the book. This is an interesting perspective, and the theoretical standpoint is often stimulating.

Chapter One opens with an overview of the use of the concept of medium as "in-between," going back to Chapman's translations of Aristotle, and relating the study of media theory to the development of optics (and of the language of optics) triggered by Newton's work. Goodman reminds her readers of the status of the Georgics as a "textual touchstone" towards the end of the seventeenth century, and then proceeds to show how the new science created a paradoxical relation to mediation, by focusing on sense-immediacy (made possible by the development of optics) while multiplying the techniques of mediation (and thereby focusing on distance). This is studied in relation to Robert Hooke's 1665 Preface to his Micrographia and to his mention of "the adding of artificial Organs to the natural," as a means of supplying their shortcomings: the microscope is obviously a case in point.

This in turn leads Goodman to a study of the Georgics itself as "artificial organ," the same paradox being revealed in Virgil's text, which only finds relevance in the real when the real has been consciously enhanced, and thus made artificial. The final part of the chapter turns to Addison, starting with his 1693 "Essay on The Georgics" and the tension between the technical and the poetical that he established. He is shown to fit into the historical background previously analysed, because of his concern with poetry as a detouring form of speech. Indeed, a discussion of Addison's praise of indirectness shows how his analysis of the differences between prose and poetry, with his preference for the "by-ways" of poetry, leads to another manner of showing concern for the medium, and also to an emphasis on pleasure as indirectness. This chapter concludes a discussion of what lies beyond the pleasure principle, i.e., a questioning of what will in the next age prove hard to reconcile with Addison's thought.

Chapter Two turns to Thomson's Seasons, seen from two angles, "the microscopic eye" and "the noise of history," or space and time. The introduction focuses on the definition of the microscopic eye and on the evolution of the phrase in the course of the eighteenth century, taking up the arguments developed in the previous chapter. Goodman argues that this concept betrays an awareness of the present as history. To prove her point, she turns back to Locke and to the "genealogy" of the microscopic eye. The paradox explored in Chapter One is here seen from a new angle, since the microscopic eye also creates the same ambiguity, both making perception clearer and adding distance between the perceiver and the object perceived. This is where Locke's theory of perception is discussed, with a focus on his conception of language and of the relation between language and experiment. If we follow Goodman, Locke's conception of language is to be considered as another expression of the same mediation, because language will supply the failure of sense-perception. Addison is then briefly revisited, his "by-ways" now being considered as an alternative to avoid the dilemma of the microscopic eye: indeed, if, as Addison argues, the idea comes to the mind through indirect association through language, then the magnifying of the scope induced by the microscope will be avoided, since information will be processed in time, not in space.

The last part of the chapter turns to Thomson's Seasons, and to a close reading of lines 287-316 of "Summer," in which Thomson gives his version of the "microscopic eye." Goodman comments at length on the phrase "Nameless nations," showing how closely the poetic phrase is related to the historical context, and to the concern with naming already present in Locke's Essay. Her commentary concludes by looking at the last lines of the passage, and by analysing the notion of "Noise" in line 316. The unpleasant sound of Thomson's poetry, mentioned by his contemporaries (Samuel Johnson is quoted here), is considered as expressing the noise of history, history as it is happening in the present, and thus seen as a form of mediation again related to Locke's conception of the idea.

Chapter Three then addresses Cowper and provides a detailed analysis of the development of newspapers, of news as opposed to history. The thread here follows logically from Thomson's noise, and the chapter directly opens with the line from The Task in which Cooper mentions "the loop-holes of retreat." This will be the emblematic phrase in the chapter, studied like the "microscopic eye" and "noise" as a symbol of mediation. Goodman starts by reminding her readers that Cooper loved reading the newspaper, and then shows how the poet converted daily news into poetry, which she considers to be a perfect manifestation of the Georgic vision of history, that she calls "Georgic of the news."

The chapter starts with an outline of the growth of newspapers in the eighteenth century; Goodman states the changes this new medium brought about in terms of the perception of history. Cooper's way of adapting news into his verse is first seen as another version of Thomson's "Noise," with an analysis of an excerpt from The Task. Cowper's letter to Unwin on the familiar style in verse writing is then referred to, so as to show that Cowper's emphasis is on making poetry speak, i.e., make a sound. Cowper's conception of conversation is thus naturally introduced and discussed before moving onto the failure of conversation, i.e., what Goodman calls "the unconversable world," with a renewed reference to Locke's Essay and a study of Omai, the South Sea visitor first brought to England in 1774, present as a figure in The Task, and abundantly portrayed in the contemporary newspapers. This character allows Goodman to concentrate once more on history as mediation, in this case on a contemporary occurrence and its expression in verse. She interprets the representation of Omai in the poem with the help of post-colonial and Freudian theory as being both friend and stranger. She then shows that when confronted with the danger of such presence in history, one attitude consists in indulging in what Cowper calls "indolent vacuity of thought," as a form of pre-emptive emptiness. The chapter thus ends with a discussion of indolence, which acts as a transition with the next chapter, and the romantic era.

The final chapter is devoted to Wordsworth's Excursion. This time the chapter begins with a quote from the poem, taken from Book V, when the Solitary expresses his fear of being confronted with what the earth could say, were it able to speak. This introduces a chapter in which Goodman will turn to the perception and transmission of the past. She argues that if history can be considered as transmitted knowledge of the past, the faithfulness of the representation may be questioned, and once again the medium draws attention to its own existence as medium, thereby blurring the picture. Instead of studying this perversion in space, though, the final chapter turns to time and to the representation of the past. Wordsworth is indeed a good example, especially since Goodman chooses to use his Essays on Epitaths as pointers, and the poet's concern with loss and mourning is then seen from a new standpoint, as a form of response to the feelings induced by the past.

Goodman then reminds her readers of former readings of Wordsworth's Excursion as a Georgic poem, to show how this concern with the past may be seen as history. This leads to a discussion of Wordsworth's conception of sympathy ("the open heart"), and of what Goodman calls an "economy of sympathy," that is, the need to preserve oneself from suffering through sympathy. She again puts this discussion into the broader perspective of her overall argument, which she now expresses as the following dilemma: how can the past be expressed in such a way as to give rise to feeling, a feeling remaining moderate enough so as not to overwhelm the receiver, who would then reject the experience?

Goodman finally turns to the phrase "Passages of Life" [The Excursion, line 294] and reminds her reader of the various meanings of "passage," both an event and a text, before arguing that the phrase would have reminded contemporary readers of the anecdote, which, according to Johnson's dictionary, was considered as "a minute passage of private life." She considers The Excursion as an experiment in anecdotal histories, and turns to late eighteenth-century statements about the anecdote, whose pleasantness is shown as an echo of Addison's byways. Goodman then addresses the question of the orality of The Excursion, quoting Coleridge's famous lines about the Pedlar's language. She considers that in this poem Wordsworth is less interested in rendering simple language than in the mediation of his characters' language through understatement. Goodman's book concludes by seeing The Excursion as a "mute register" [The Excursion, line 208], thus trying to make the "mute earth" discussed at the beginning of the chapter more audible, and once more emblematic of the ambiguity of the status of mediation, showing that history lies in the mediation between the object perceived and its representation in language.

The last lines of Kevis Goodman's book offer a form of conclusion to her study of The Excursion, but none to her study of mediation. Even though conclusions are not my favourite parts in books, I have the feeling that the absence of any global conclusion in this case confirms the feeling to which I alluded earlier: although this book is concerned with the mediation of history, history is not felt as such in the book. Each text studied, although related to its context, becomes lost in Goodman's wealth of references.

This book thrives on cross-references, and once again one may wonder whether the mediation of contemporary (and less contemporary) theories of literary criticism is not here so obtrusive as to blur the overall picture. While some of the theories referred to provide stimulating perspectives on the works studied, other arguments do not really clarify the works studied in the book. Indeed, constantly shifting from one angle to the other also confuses issues, because ultimately the feeling is that any kind of theory is here up for discussion, provided it may offer some (at times tenuous) connexion with mediation and The Georgics.


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