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Reading Romantic Poetry


 Fiona Stafford


 Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012

Cloth. ix+235 pp. ISBN 9781405191555. £50.00


Reviewed by Samuel Baudry

Université Lumière (Lyon 2)



The latest volume in the “Reading Poetry” series is motivated, like the previous ones, “by an increasing reluctance to study poetry amongst undergraduate students, born out of feelings of alienation from the genre, and even intimidation” [ii]. Indeed, the book is clearly addressed to undergraduate students: Professor Fiona Stafford unceasingly endeavours to stimulate the curiosity of uniformed readers and systematically underlines the contextual differences between their world and that of the romantic poets.

“Romanticism” is not strictly defined, nor theoretically questioned; it is here uncontroversially situated in the “Romantic period”, “around 1785 to 1830” [vii], and loosely anchored by a set of recurrent narrative and stylistic devices variously called “key images” [66], “telling metaphors’ [79], or “defining principles” [116]: revolutionary engagements (the abolition of slavery [68-79], being a specific example on which the book focuses); scientific, religious and emotional rainbows [79-92]; eolian instruments [107]; the “fall from innocence and desire to regain paradise” [116]; M.H. Abrams’ “correspondent breeze” [118]; song birds [164-185].

Each chapter is built around the dialectic tension between two literary, social or historical notions. In chapter 1 (“The Pleasures of Poetry”), between the obvious pleasure in the telling of a past story or of an anticipated moment, and the experience itself, often painful or disappointing. In chapter 2 (“Solitude and Sociability”), between voluntary isolation or forced exclusion, and the intense interaction of authors with other poets, with friends, family, journalists and publishers. Chapter 3 (“Common Concerns and Cultural Connections”) stages the conflict between, on the one hand, the poets’ aspiration to talk to, for, and like the common man, to share his culture, and, on the other hand, their ambition to speak with the voice of an original genius, to open up new artistic and political ground. A connected issue is tackled in chapter 4 (“Traditions and Transformation”): the poets’ contradictory appeal to tradition and innovation, to patriotic pride and foreign influences. The next two chapters deal with more theoretical debates. Chapters 5 (“Reading or Listening?”) with the problematic relation between the heard, the imagined or the potential poem, and its actual and concrete realisation on the page; chapter 6 (“Sweet sounds”) with the ever-shifting resolution of sounds—the fabric, the texture of the poems—into sense—the motif, the meaning(s) of the poems. The final chapter (“Poems on Pages”) is a warning against confusing the original reception of the poems in periodicals, anthologies, or letters, and our thoroughly different reading practices and possibilities, leading to micro-debates on canonical authors, the role of the publishers, the responsibility of the critics, and the process of revision.

Each chapter concludes with a list of “further reading”, books and articles, classic and recent, suggesting directions of reflexion on the main themes, texts and authors previously covered. All the primary and the few secondary sources cited are grouped in the “References” section at the end of the volume, freeing the main text from footnotes. The index exhaustively lists the authors and the poems; the notions are not so coherently served (“Celtic”, for instance, has an entry, but not “Orient(al)”).

Throughout, the pedagogical emphasis is uppermost and uniformly successful. Rather than defining concepts and imposing definitions, the book interrogates the texts, uncovers the dilemmas, recalls the unresolved disputes, goads students on to reading and questioning the poetry. Professor Stafford lets the poems do most of the talking; she quotes far more than she lectures, and her quotations are well-chosen, repeated in varying contexts, connected to other poems and poets—linking together, for example, Byron’s power of sound to “bring back on the heart the weight which it would fling aside for ever” and Felicia Hemans’ sweet sounds that waken “Vague yearnings, like sailor’s for the shore” [163]. The range of poems from which she draws is spectacularly wide but retains a reasonable balance between the well-trodden (the big six and their canonical—that is, often self-reflexive—poems) and the seldom read (Thomas Campbell’s The Pleasures of Hope—“ ‘Tis distance lends enchantment to the view” (part I, l.7)—, rural and dialectal verse, women). A slight Scottish bias (or is it a due sense of historical justice?) shows in the recurrence of Burns and Macpherson in nearly each chapter. Novels (Frankenstein [43], Mansfield Park [73]), notebooks (Coleridge’s, [59]) and letters (Keats’s, [41]) are sparingly but judiciously quoted, so as to remind the reader that poetry was not the only means of expression available.

21st-century undergraduate students are reminded that “in an age before film, television or radio, the discovery of private, individual experience beyond that of immediate friends and family could only come through literature” [18], and that in a world without “recorded music” spoken words and melodic language were paramount [136]. The “feelings of alienation” they are bound to experience is not downplayed but everywhere frankly addressed as a means to reconstruct an unfamiliar, but stimulating context. Tourism and European influences (the role of Italy in the sonnet revival receives a thorough treatment, but German philosophy and literature are regrettably discreet), international conflicts restricting personal freedom, the French and American revolutions, the Act of Union and the question of Britishness, the Regency crisis, provincial publishing, the opening of the divide between “Two Nations”, are all more or less extensively covered—not as a ponderous heap of facts fossilising the poems, but as a revitalising background, breeding new meanings out of dead texts. The ethical bearing of these questions and their echoes in the 21st century are always clearly pointed out. Professor Stafford will have the students of Romantic poetry think about questions of social injustice, racism, slavery, freedom of speech, dictatorship, the dangers of scientific progress, atheism, and the snobbishness of editors (Clares’, for example [152]). The transformation of moral standards is examined with a careful sense of perspective: in the case of Abolitionist poems, for example, the poets’ Eurocentric smugness, their sense of superiority over “dark and savage, ignorant and blind” Africans [69], is read in the light of the contemporary Rousseauist theories of human evolution, where the stage of “savagery” was commonly understood as the “innocent beginning of human society”, far preferable to that of “barbarism” which precedes the emergence of civilised society [70].

The desire to retain the readers’ attention—a fear, perhaps, that his attention span should not be too much relied on—and the necessity to pack as much information as possible in a reasonable amount of pages, make for a brisk, sometimes torrential, flow of ideas: in just under three pages Professor Stafford manages to move from Shelley’s depiction of “sheer physical enjoyment” to the “soul expanding” sublime of Wordsworth, from Byron and continental tourism after the war with France to Southey and the fashion for Orientalism, from Mary Robinson’s “noisy London” to Cowper’s “plain language” [2-4].

As a tool for undergraduate students, despite its many qualities—among which, its incentive to be on the lookout for disharmonies and tensions rather than for some elusive and celebratory “beauty” is not the least—, its usefulness is limited by its method of citation: it is meant to be used in conjunction with one of the Wiley-Blackwell anthologies (O’Neil & Mahoney, Romantic Poetry, 2008, or Wu, Romanticism, 2008). It nevertheless is an inspirational starting point for the teacher of the period. It points out pleasurable passages and difficult notions. Its historicist approach is also a powerful reminder that every formula or cliché that still clings to Romanticism was born long before Romanticism (in the mid-18th century, for most of them); the romantics were aware of them, they openly addressed them, they explored and analysed them, and they were struggling to go beyond them: Ossianic melancholy, the pleasure of painful memories, turned into Coleridge’s “unimpassioned grief” [16]; Werther’s and Chatterton’s suicides were ambiguously commemorated in Adonais and Charlotte Smith’s sonnets [34-36]; Pope’s, Johnson’s, and Wharton’s reverential or anxious examination of earlier literatures gave way to powerful readings within the poems [98-99]. Here the series’ title, “Reading Poetry”, takes on a particularly apt resonance, as romantic poetry questions—probably more than any other genre—the role, creative power and tragic limits of readers: Coleridge corrects Virgil and Milton in the “Nightingale” [166-168]; Keats pits Shakespeare against Dante in “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again” [95-96]; Blake, Byron and Wordsworth all challenge Paradise Lost [110-122]. These engagements with the nature of poetry are no mystical celebration of a mysterious power—on the contrary: by focusing on specific attempts, such as the transcription of bird songs in verse (“Hidden Birds that Sing”, 174-184), Professor Stafford underlines the demystifying facet of these poems which lay bare their own artifice to their readers.


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