Urbanization and English Romantic Poetry, by Stephen Tedeschi

How did mushrooming cities influence verse and vice versa? Shahidha Bari on a bold study

January 11, 2018
Westminster, 1878, by Giuseppe de Nittis (1846-1884)
Source: Getty
Smoke on the water: the beauty of the urban landscape inspired poets such as Wordsworth and, later, artists such as Giuseppe de Nittis

Earth has not anything to show more fair,” the poet William Wordsworth famously proclaimed of the view from Westminster Bridge in 1802. A golden London at dawn, he conceded, could claim a beauty to match that of any sunlit “valley, rock, or hill”. Wordsworth’s sonnet is an elegant and good-tempered paean to the city, written by a poet more usually concerned with rural people and country life. But Stephen Tedeschi’s book Urbanization 
and English Romantic Poetry seeks precisely to resituate Romantic writing in the different context of an urbanised social geography. The city, he proposes, is another site of Romantic reflection, equal to the mountainous sublime and the English Lakes.

William Blake, who lived in Lambeth, and John Keats, who a reviewer in Blackwood’s ­Magazine once unkindly assigned to a “Cockney School of Poetry”, might seem the obvious representatives of this Romantic city. But Tedeschi is agile and resourceful with his materials, managing to argue for the place of urban life in the work of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge too, while drawing into the study a wider constellation of writers, including John Gay and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.

Commerce and industry are the obvious drivers behind the increasing urbanisation of 18th-century Britain, and Tedeschi extends his view beyond London to include major ports such as Liverpool and manufacturing cities such as Manchester. In one regard, this is a study that follows in the honourable tradition of Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (1973) and E. P. Thompson’s Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (1991). What distinguishes Tedeschi’s efforts here is his insistent attention to the varied historical forms that urbanisation takes in Romantic culture. This allows him to discreetly evade the more generalised Marxist critique of the industrial city, exploring instead alternative models of urbanisation, differently imagined by the different Romantic writers presented in the book.

Most striking, though, is the larger argument to which the readings in this study tend: the proposition that if poets were influenced by the increasing urbanisation of their environs, then perhaps poetry, in turn, might exercise a “potential influence on urbanisation” as well. It’s a bold hypothesis, clarified in Tedeschi’s claim that literature could be both “a record and instrument of urban ideology”. A new kind of city-dwelling consciousness might find expression in poetry, just as the public discourse of urbanisation might emerge in the form of speeches delivered to Parliament, radical journalism and popular print culture.

Tedeschi makes the case for this gradually, beginning with a sensitive reading of Gay’s Trivia and William Cowper’s The Task. He is strongest in his account of Blake’s “diagnosis of the modern urban mentality”, finding in his poetry the expression of an “alternative urban experience”. Wordsworth, who so repeatedly lamented the loosened social ties of city life, is the trickiest to fit into this project, although Tedeschi makes a valiant effort. More persuasive is his argument about how the city provided crucial print markets for Coleridge and invigorating networks of commerce for Barbauld, thereby enabling new and important forms of social and civic interaction. And ultimately, Romantic writing acts, he suggests, as an “imaginative intimation” of the new forms of social life.

Shahidha Bari is senior lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

Urbanization and English Romantic Poetry
By Stephen Tedeschi
Cambridge University Press, 294pp, £75.00
ISBN 9781108416092
Published 19 October 2017


Print headline: Romancing the Smoke

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