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Five Long Winters

The Trials of British Romanticism


John Bugg


Stanford: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xii+246 p. ISBN 978-0804785105. $60.00/£51.95


Reviewed by Sylvie Crinquand

Université de Bourgogne (Dijon)


What John Bugg offers is a reassessment of a few well-known literary works composed in the last decade of the 18th century, including poems by Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as a study of other works, not always as well known, seen as a (muted) reaction to William Pitt’s repressive policies. Bugg clearly positions his work as a continuation of such studies on the Romantics as Nicholas Roe’s, or John Barrell’s, to whom he pays specific homage, which focus on the influence of the historical context on Romantic poetry; he wishes to enhance the potentially political dimension of literary works which, according to him, are still too often only read as works of art entirely cut off from circumstance.

With its quotation from “Tintern Abbey”, the title of the book stresses from the start that the five years under scrutiny felt long and wintry because of the pain created by Pitt’s repressive laws against freedom. The book then proceeds to analyse what Bugg calls a “poetics of gagging”, first by reminding his readers of a few historical facts (such as the laws passed by Pitt’s government, or the reality of surveillance) before turning to literary expression reacting to the facts he has outlined. In other words, Bugg wishes to reassess Romantic expressions of silence less as the evidence of mystical communion with transcendent nature than as what he calls “socially embedded silence”, brought about by the fear of reprisal. The perspective adopted is quite convincing, and leads to some stimulating suggestions, especially about the value of silence and the internalised effects of repression.

Five long winters, then, and five chapters for Bugg to make his argument clear. He points out that the digitisation of many newspaper sources has made this new development of romantic studies possible, thanks to the easy availability of new sources, and to the renewed awareness of the richness of newspaper culture at the time. The book provides five angles from which to approach the effects of repression on expression, like the consequences of the Gagging Acts or the prominence of prison metaphors in contemporaneous poetry. The book not only considers literary discourse, but also stresses how close writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth were to radical figures; its method thus associates literary history with literary criticism.

In his introduction, entitled “The Repressive 1790’s”, which outlines the laws passed in the last decade of the 18th century to restrict public expression, Bugg argues that he understands “literary form as a site not just of historical registration but of political engagement” [20]. Thus he considers what he calls the “poetics of silence” as a political gesture meant to comment on the repression. This hypothesis is very stimulating, and it is made conclusive by several analyses in the book, as we shall see in more detail.

The first chapter centres on the Gagging Acts and on their influence on Godwin and Coleridge. The texts under study are Godwin’s Considerations and Coleridge’s The Plot Discovered. The chapter opens with a reminder of the existence of Pitt’s secret service of spies, which Bugg qualifies several times as “gothic”, before mentioning Peter Pindar’s satires as one of the manners of fighting against oppression. Bugg’s reading of The Plot Discovered stresses the sacred value of language for Coleridge, and reads this as a comment on the Gagging Acts, which can be equated with sin because they do not respect what is sacred. He then moves on to Godwin’s essay, which he analyses closely to show that contrary to most critics’ interpretation of the text, it is specifically constructed to subtly question the Gagging Acts. These readings act as a good introduction to what follows, although, contrary to the global argument of the book, they do not focus on works of literature, but on essays, which are here read from a literary angle, in very convincing terms.

This opening chapter sets the stage for the next one, which focuses on imprisoned writers, and on prison as a trope in contemporary literary writing. Bugg begins by reminding his readers that British jails were as notorious as the Bastille, stressing the correlation between the birth of “prison literature” and the birth of Romanticism. He then comments on the concept of felix carcer, and on poems by Wordsworth (“The Convict”) and Hannah More, to show how they position themselves regarding the role and the dangers of prison. This leads Bugg to focus on prison poetry, and to revisit Abrams’ definition of the romantic poem as enacting an “out-in-out process” as a comment particularly well suited to prison poetry, in which the speaker is confined and can only take imagined trips thanks to an object present in his cell. Poets like John Augustus Bonney and James Montgomery are here evoked before turning to John Thelwall’s Llyswen Lyrics, in which the poet demonstrates that he felt himself to be under constant surveillance. The chapter concludes with Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, in which the vocabulary relating to real – as opposed to symbolic – imprisonment is closely studied. The chapter thus tries to argue that being confined in jail not only acted as the theme of some pieces of poetry, but also became transmuted by literature to take on a more metaphorical status.

The next chapter is entirely devoted to the journalist Benjamin Flower, a Cambridge journalist sent to Newgate for libel, whom Coleridge knew personally. Bugg starts by stressing how aware of his case both Wordsworth and Coleridge were. He also stresses that many of the early Romantic writers regularly contributed to the newspaper culture, which made them sensitive to the restrictions on free speech. This explains why Bugg devotes part of his chapter to an assessment of the state of newspapers in the 18th century, by comparing country newspapers to London ones, in order to introduce The Cambridge Intelligencer, Flower’s newspaper, and to retrace the journalist’s career. Here again we find minute readings of newspaper articles, where Bugg convincingly shows how the text is creatively fashioned in order to try and avoid repression. Although interesting, this chapter, which promotes a reassessment of the culture of newspapers, is not as convincing as the rest of the book, as the interaction between literature and the context is not as thoroughly studied here.

The last two chapters return to literature, however, with subtle readings of Godwin, Smith, and Wollstonecraft, to start with, and with an analysis of what Bugg calls the “Gagging Acts Novel”. Here again, he uses his interpretative skills to demonstrate how the three novels he has chosen enact the dangers of repression through a narratological use of reticence and displacement. He begins with Caleb Williams, where he analyses the failure of speech and the repetitive narrative pattern based on the main character’s declarations of ignorance. Likewise, Smith’s Marchmont is read as a novel whose very plot is shaped by the knowledge of repression, with imprisonment and persecution acting as diegetic devices, through the choice of characters, but also of narrative devices, such as interruption. Finally, the chapter ends with Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman, considered by Bugg as “an anthology of Gagging Acts form”. He pays close attention to crossings out, broken sentences, as manifestations of difficult communication.

The book then concludes with a chapter devoted to Wordsworth. After quoting the lines from Book 10 of The Prelude, in which the poet describes the effect on him of Britain’s war against France, Bugg reminds his readers that Wordsworth and Coleridge had been the target of government surveillance when they were living in Alfoxden. By commenting on an unpublished fragment written by Wordsworth and Francis Wrangham, in imitation of Juvenal, he argues that Wordsworth was not only fully aware of the shortcomings of the British political system, but also ready to denounce them, although not publicly. He then revisits some of Wordsworth’s poems, like “Old Man Travelling” or “Simon Lee”, to demonstrate that the poet stages “silent thought” as a hint for his readers to decipher his political meaning, and “to supply the political thinking” [149(]). This leads Bugg to Lyrical Ballads, and to a study of silence in the collection, to finally reach “Tintern Abbey”, where he argues that the poem’s uncertainty is due to the fact that Wordsworth lets the reader supply the political thoughts he himself dare not utter for fear of repression. Bugg interprets the words of the poem as hints that a contemporary reader would have deciphered easily. His interpretations are, as always, stimulating, even though it is not easy to see Wordsworth as a closeted radical.

This final chapter is a good conclusion to the whole book, which constantly uses the historical and political background of the 1790s to re-interpret works of literature. It thus provides new insights into well-known texts, and brings to light the close relationship between these works and others, which are still considered as minor. The only regret left at the end of the book is to have comparatively few analyses of very famous poems, like “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” or “Tintern Abbey”, in which Bugg’s thesis is brilliantly demonstrated. However, that is one of the drawbacks of ground-breaking analyses, which pave the way for later studies. For this reason I would strongly recommend Bugg’s book to anyone interested in Romantic thought.


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