Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Person from Porlock” memorably knocked on his door, breaking a fabulous opium-induced vision. Afterwards, Coleridge could salvage only a fragment, Kubla Khan, the magical poem about an imaginary poem, still more magical, but for ever lost to us. Was Coleridge telling the truth? Probably not. But it remains a suggestive myth about the elusiveness of such glimpses of the sublime.
Duncan Wu, in a spirit of common sense, is determined to slay this and 29 other myths about the Romantics. Given Wu’s immense knowledge of the period, we might expect him to challenge the myth of the Big Six Romantic poets. His best-selling anthology Romanticism gives ample space to previously marginalised writers. But you wouldn’t know it from this book: only two chapters, for example, concern female writers.
Many of Wu’s myths are biographical cruxes: was Blake mad? Keats gay? Wordsworth a Tory? De Quincey a drug addict? Leaving aside the question “says who?” and the absence of Roland Barthes’ indictment of the practice of reading authors through their biographies, can we let pass Wu’s insistence that there is one incontrovertible biographical truth?
This truth is Wu’s stated quarry. For him, it is to be found by undermining misleading endorsements of the best-known Romantics’ celebrity status. Forget the Byronic hero, for example: the “real Lord Byron” was a “flabby, effeminate man who liked wigs, jewellery, and adolescent boys”. Perhaps. But it doesn’t explain the enduring appeal of the Byronic myth (an appeal that must explain the jaunty image of Byron on the front cover of this book).
The brio with which Wu attacks his targets certainly makes for entertaining reading. What a great Regency reviewer he would have made. He is a latter-day Lockhart – the feisty lampooner of the “Cockney School” of Keats. This is Lockhart lamenting the “melancholy effect” of ex-ploughman Burns’ celebrity, in turning the heads of endless “farm-servants and unmarried ladies”: “our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box.”
Wu’s main target, however, is the good old ivory tower. Critics are responsible for truths about Romantic writers being “displaced by a dog’s breakfast of conjecture and surmise”. Editors fuss over Blake’s punctuation “like underemployed waiters”. Myths about Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads are perpetuated in a “petrified forest of Readers, Companions, student texts, anthologies, and other instruments of indoctrination”. Literary scholars who sully the chaste brother-sister relationship of Wordsworth and Dorothy are “Incest advocates” who “should reflect on whether this shambling, self-serving conceit is worth the steroids they pump into it”. Blake’s Jerusalem does not champion the “self-befouling cause” of “mean, exclusionary, ruddy-faced nationalism”.
So much for his targets. But who is Wu writing for? Will students of Romanticism buy the book because it promises to reveal exactly what happened to Shelley’s heart (a story that “demands to be told”)? Current scholars of Romanticism may feel unnerved by his acerbic dismissal of contrary viewpoints, or by finding their work ignored. He’s certainly not out to win new hearts. And surely Romantic myths have more to tell us than is suggested by labelling Coleridge’s Porlock tale a “shaggy dog story so ensnarled in its own essential shagginess it transcends the genre”.
Jane Darcy is teaching fellow in English, University College London, and author of Melancholy and Literary Biography, 1640-1816 (2013).
30 Great Myths about the Romantics
By Duncan Wu
Wiley Blackwell, 336pp, £50.00, £14.99 and £10.99
ISBN 9781118843260, 43192 and 43185 (e-book)
Published 1 May 2015