Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry

January 20, 2011

During the latter part of the 20th century and the early 21st century, Romantic studies as a subject has increasingly shifted its focus away from Nature, with a capital "N", towards place, with a small "p". Where earlier studies had focused on the various ways in which a subjective/objective divide could be overcome through the transcendent powers of the poet, more recent ones (implicitly or explicitly influenced by phenomenology) explore the complex and contradictory ways in which poetic being is a located one, with identity vitally bound up with ideas of place (or placelessness).

Recent approaches have tended to be theorised by means of cultural geography or spatial theory, but Fiona Stafford's book, with its emphasis on the "local" - the meaning of a specific place for the Romantic poet and for poetry - explores in a largely untheorised way the "quiet power" of place that nonetheless pulses through the veins of Romanticism. This is a book about the particularity of poetry - the kinds of truth inherent in writing about the familiar, in a known place.

Stafford's primary focus is on Romanticism as the historical period in which a shift to particularity occurs, a position that she connects to the present largely through the filter of Seamus Heaney.

Local Attachments argues for the "vital significance of local attachment for art", stating its terms clearly: "to consider the place of poetry it is (therefore) necessary to consider the poetry of place". To explore such ideas, Stafford draws heavily upon William Wordsworth (the first three chapters are largely concerned with his poetics of place in 1800-02) as well as writers she is highly familiar with - Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns - and finally John Keats.

The Wordsworth chapters engage in a number of close readings of key texts to raise central concerns for the whole study, such as the value of community and of a shared landscape, as well as issues of a doubled readership for such poetry. For Scott and Burns, local and national identities compete, while Keats is drawn upon as a counter-example - a writer with no particular attachment to place, for whom this is potentially a problem. A final chapter draws upon Charles Lamb and Charles Dickens in interesting ways to consider how a "Romantic literature of local attachments" filters into prose and the Victorian novel.

While its claims are unarguable, the study does suffer slightly from the lack of a clear initial rationale or larger contextualisation in relation to other studies. So, a case could be made for the kinds of "localised" close readings the book offers, or for the use of the walking tour as a structure through which to organise readings, but any such principles remain implicit. Core issues are not always pursued as far as a specialist reader might wish. So, in discussion of Wordsworth's poem Michael, Stafford argues that "there has never been a need to visit Grasmere or Ennerdale in order to be moved by Michael" - concluding that this is "because poetry invites readers to participate in its local truth". But what happens if we do visit Ennerdale? What different kinds of "truth" are experienced by insiders and outsiders of the particular place? Exactly how does the grounded actuality of a specific physical location relate to its poetic counterpart? These kinds of question circulate within the study but are not fully explored.

On the other hand, one of the strengths of this book is its light touch; ideas unfold in an unhurried, almost anecdotal, style. There is admirable ease and clarity in the way Stafford summarises larger historical and philosophical shifts in order to contextualise poetic positions, making the book highly accessible. I can imagine Local Attachments being very popular with the general public or with undergraduates, for whom it provides a clear, thorough and highly readable account of the value of familiar places for major Romantic writers.

Local Attachments: The Province of Poetry

By Fiona Stafford. Oxford University Press 368pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780199558162. Published 30 September 2010

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