Romantics steeped in rhythmic rebellion

Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition
March 19, 1999

Why, Anne Janowitz asks, has William Wordsworth rather than Robert Burns become the presiding voice of the Romantic age? Poetry in the Romantic tradition is now virtually synonymous with the "Tintern Abbey" school: poetry that, in John Stuart Mill's words, embodies the quintessential lyric quality of "feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude". And yet the emphasis on inwardness, solitude and individualism has not only occluded a rich and voluminous body of poetry by other 19th-century radical and plebeian writers, but has also distorted the very basis of Romantic aesthetics. For embedded in Wordsworthian poetics is a communitarian strain, ostensibly at odds with the liberal-individualist inflections of the poetry of solitude and meditation.

In a searching and elegantly articulated account, Janowitz describes the multitudinous ways in which the competing trajectories of individualism and communitarianism were worked out in poetry by figures as chronologically disparate as Wordsworth and William Morris.

She begins with the Lyrical Ballads , describing how Wordsworth's experiment with oral and plebeian poetic forms contributed to his construction of the figure of the poet as a mediator between the language of the commoner and that of high culture. Lyrical Ballads thereby established a model that would be utterly central, as well as a source of tension, to plebeian and radical poets of the 19th century who desired to make poetry that would serve the collectivity but also fulfil their poetic vocations.

This is an important, ground-breaking study in its reconceptualisation of Romantic poetics and in the long overdue critical and historical attention it pays to a fertile corpus of poetry published in radical newspapers and periodicals from the 1830s to the 1890s. Central to the book is an account of Chartist press poetry. Over 70 poets contributed to the Northern Star alone, revealing the importance of literary culture to the identity of the Chartist movement, an identity radically at odds with Carlyle's notorious description of the Chartists as "wild, inarticulate souls". It is arguably Ernest Jones (1819-69), an outlaw from the gentry, who emerges as the major poet of the Chartists. Jones was able to infuse the developing genres of Chartist poetry - the hymn, the prison poem, the marching song - with an intense sense of the subjectivity of experience, producing a poetic of collective lyricism in poems such as "Our summons" and "The factory town".

This is a paradigm-breaking study that rewrites traditional accounts of Romantic poetics and also re-maps the literary-poetic landscape of the 19th century.

Sally Ledger is lecturer in English, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition

Author - Anne Janowitz
ISBN - 0 521 57259 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 8

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