Mesmerised by the Mariner

Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau
March 1, 1996

Writing about Coleridge in The Spirit of the Age, William Hazlitt was compelled to conclude that "the present is an age of talkers, and not of doers". Coleridge, who mesmerised his listeners in the London coffee-houses with his Ancient Mariner-like eyes and his idiosyncratic ideas, was in fact unable to write very much and certainly nothing which matched the promise of his conversation. According to Hazlitt, he "delights in nothing but episodes and digressions, neglects whatever he undertakes to perform, and can act only on spontaneous impulses".

Just as owners may proverbially become like their pets, Tom McFarland is growing to resemble in many respects his favourite author of study. After years devoted to reading Coleridge and producing some scholarly works - Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition and Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin - McFarland is seemingly mesmerised himself. Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau is Coleridgean in its chattiness, its eccentricity, its striking imagery and its digressions. Like Coleridge's writing, it reveals as much about the author as its proposed subject. Like Coleridge too, it promises much and delivers very little.

McFarland aims to forge a new approach to romanticism, to stem what he sees as the threatening tide of new historicism and deconstruction. Critics concentrate too much upon the arguments and historical detail of Romantic texts, he insists. Instead, they should focus on a more evaluative form of criticism, one which prefers an emotional response to literature to a more intellectual approach. In a memorable extended image, McFarland describes his literary criticism as the sensuous touching of the rich tapestry of romanticism rather then the more conventional narration of the scenes depicted upon it. Rousseau becomes the hero of the book with his emotional directness and his avoidance of moral commentary.

Despite the ambitious project of the introduction, however, the subsequent chapters, which amount to a series of loosely connected essays, offer very few insights that are new. Often gossipy about other critics and including long, undigested quotations from secondary criticism, the essays reiterate established notions about writing in the romantic period. Shelley once again appears as Andre Maurois's Ariel, too weak and effeminate to cope with harsh political reality. Coleridge was never a Jacobin, it is argued, because his peaceful nature could not tolerate the Jacobin celebration of political violence.

But in the true spirit of conversation, McFarland interjects the occasional outrageous opinion or anecdote, usually wildly unsubstantiated, which ensures that the book is both entertaining and painful to read. Most dramatic is his sudden digression, during the chapter on Shelley, into the cause of the poet's death. Shelley committed suicide, he alleges, after being propositioned by a drunken Byron at a dinner party in Pisa. This attempted seduction accounts for the coolness between the poets in the months after March 1822 and the recklessness with which Shelley treated his sailing trips.

There is little evidence for the assertion, and in any case Byron and Shelley were in communication right up to the time of Shelley's death, preparing for the arrival of Leigh Hunt and the launch of the new Indicator magazine. But that is unimportant. The desire to shock and to test our moral certainties is stronger in McFarland's work than the regard for accuracy. Rousseau's Confessions may be the subtext for the book; the author wishes to challenge our moral responses as Rousseau challenged his readers. Like Keats's embarrassment, McFarland's homosexual anecdotes are designed to overwhelm us with their frankness. But the frankness is lost in his rambling argument, his digressions, his allusiveness. Rather than the heritage of Rousseau, the heritage of Coleridge has prevailed.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau

Author - Thomas McFarland
ISBN - 0 19 818287 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 331

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