Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception
Lucy Newlyn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Reviewed by Robin Jarvis
Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 17, Summer 2001, pp.95-98
Byron's well-known satirical reference in Don Juan to Keats having been ‘snuffed out by an article’ (alluding to the notion that his death was caused by a hostile review of Endymion) caricatures a widespread mistrust and abhorrence of professional readers among Romantic authors which has received all too little attention; it is one aspect of a broader set of concerns which Lucy Newlyn’s splendid new book brings compulsively into view. In recent decades, critical interest in Romantic reading relations, including that of Newlyn herself (in her ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader), has focused chiefly on the burden of the past, but this important book amply demonstrates that Romantic writers were at least as anxious about modernity and futurity—about their contemporary reception, in the context of such factors as the growth of the reading public, the popularity of novel-reading, the empowerment of periodical criticism, and their treatment by posterity. It is a strength of the book, however, that Newlyn does not simply reverse the flow of attention but adopts a more synthetic position on the authorial subject as a multiply troubled creature who looks both ‘before and after’: that is, she does not neglect the fact that writers are also readers, indeed are acutely sensitive to what readers may do because they are such uncompromising readers themselves, but that their self-awareness as strong interpreters of past literature can also be a source of reassurance as they contemplate their own survival.
The magisterial first chapter of Reading, Writing, and Romanticism, a wide-ranging analysis of elements contributing to the ‘sense of an audience’ in the years 1789-1830, should by itself be required reading for any advanced student of this literary period. Surveying the development of a mass reading audience and the corollary emergence of a caste of professional critics, the commercialization of the press and changes in copyright law, the endurance of communal reading practices as a defence against alienated literary consumerism, the residual influence of patronage in such phenomena as the subscription system of publication, and the sheer proliferation of reading matter of all kinds that aroused fears curiously enwoven with the Malthusian dread of overpopulation, Newlyn provides a richly illustrated and radically transforming context for the growth of ‘high’ or ‘masculine’ Romanticism. Building on recent historical and materialist criticism, but based also on fresh research in the primary literature, this chapter models the approach taken in the book as a whole.
Readers of this Bulletin will naturally take particular interest in Newlyn’s
chapter on Coleridge, one of the strongest in the book. It is fascinating to hear Coleridge’s work reappraised with such an exclusive focus on his desires and expectations with respect to audience. For him, the modern reading public was always a negative entity, associated with ‘arbitrary dictators and unruly, faceless mobs’ (p. 56), and this contempt led him to favour small coterie audiences, or the imputed addressees of the conversation poems, to the anonymous caprice of the wider public. However, it is the paradoxes of Coleridge’s reader-relations that comes out most forcibly in this account. For instance, in the dual capacity of poet and critic he was led on the one hand to pioneer bold interpretive practices, and on the other to endeavour to constrain the reader’s activity. He expounded a ‘collaborative ideal of sociable diffusion’ (p. 64) in the Biographia, but fiercely resented Scott’s alleged plagiarism of ‘Christabel’, which he had heard pre-publication. He celebrated the power of sympathy (a major connecting thread in this study) between author and reader, but firmly resisted the collapsing of one identity into the other. It is around this latter distinction that Newlyn builds a narrative of Coleridge’s darkening vision of the power of speech. Whereas in the conversation poems he depends upon the sympathetic rapport of his interlocutors, in the supernatural poems the lure of magic utterance is apparent, and in ‘Christabel’ this verbal potency acquires a sinister inflection. It remained important for Coleridge that his audience should be ‘held’ or entranced in a way that did not connote passivity, and Newlyn’s arresting personification of his ideal reader is the wedding-guest in ‘The Ancient Mariner’, who resists yet ‘cannot chuse but hear’ the tale which leaves him ‘a sadder and a wiser man’.
The chapter on Wordsworth perhaps makes less of an impression, because aspects of its argument have been capably treated in earlier critical studies. It is nevertheless useful to see the various symptoms of his intense anxiety of reception—his disdain of the novel-reading public, his close interest in the material production of his poetry, his extraordinary defensiveness vis-a-vis reviews and informal feedback, his embrace of copyright reform as a way of husbanding his poetic identity after death, and so on—expertly reappraised, and good to have highlighted the sharp difference between Wordsworth’s critical prose, which all but makes the mental health of his readers conditional upon complying with his personal associations and preferences, and the greater generosity of the poetry, which encourages ‘more reflective readers’ and ‘more responsible witnesses’ (p. 111). The discussions of individual poems are the main delight of this chapter: reading ‘There was a Boy’ as an allegory of reception anxiety, for instance, is an inspired move. In the chapter on Anna Barbauld, the last of Newlyn’s extended case-studies, the tone noticeably softens, and the poetry is again the object of close and illuminating analysis. Barbauld’s confident adaptation to a range of media, each raising different reader expectations, her use of formal and informal registers, and her exploitation of sympathy for ethical and political purposes, are well established in a lively series of readings. Newlyn also discusses how the more
uncompromising Juvenalian manner of 1811 saw Barbauld trespassing too blatantly on male terrain and left her exposed to the savagery of Tory reviewers, who ‘snuffed out’ her literary career more efficiently than they could ever have done with Keats.
The second half of Reading, Writing, and Romanticism is more issue-based, each chapter trawling widely for exemplary ‘crossings on the creative-critical divide’. In a discussion of the periodical press, Newlyn focuses on the rapid elevation of the ‘secondary’ in a period when periodicals were serving a size of audience that most poets could only dream of. Here I find particularly interesting Newlyn’s study of the overlapping ironies of Lamb’s ‘Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading’, and of his application of negative capability to acts of reception—taking to the extreme ‘a theory of reading that is based in sympathetic identification by implying that the bindings of books, the places in which they are read, even the positions adopted while reading them, should reflect the creative spirit of the author by whom they are written’ (p. 213).
The public’s love affair with the novel, of which women were believed to be the most numerous producers and consumers, was a major source of concern to ‘high’ Romantic authors. It is therefore ironic that, as Newlyn reminds us, women writers continued to foreground their own anxiety of reception long after they were well established in the literary marketplace. Women were even more aware than men of the difference between a sympathetic circle of admirers at home and the hostile or indifferent world of publication, to which the reigning ideal of female character was distinctly maladapted. Newlyn toys with the relation between models of identity-formation and models of writing and reading, but rightly warns of the dangers of simplistic gendered oppositions between, say, cooperative and competitive strategies. Instead, through further close readings of poems like Helen Maria Williams’s ‘Address to Poetry’ and Mary Robinson’s ‘To the Poet Coleridge’, she shows that women were perfectly capable of contesting canonical imperatives and of making a virtue out of their unavoidable belatedness.
In a dense chapter on ideas of genius, originality, posterity and canonicity as defences against the ‘curse of time’, Newlyn underlines some of the complexities of Romanticism’s predilection for making it new. For example, perceived similarities between literary invention and invention in the field of science and technology (with copyright vested in authors for the first time, intellectual property enjoyed a measure of protection in both domains) fuelled the desire to distinguish literary originality from any other kind, and the most favoured strategy for this was to link it to durability rather than newness—thus bringing in the related issues of survival and canon-formation. The vigorous disagreement between those who wished to secure literary achievement ‘against plagiarism and piracy’ (p. 269), and those who believed that the highest art should transcend worldly concerns and be freely disseminated, is one of many points of interest in this rather too fast-paced
By this stage in the book, most of Newlyn’s themes have been well aired, and I get the feeling of having met some of the quotations on more than one occasion. Despite containing interesting new material, for instance on the Romantic counterfacing of Shakespeare and Milton as exemplars of open and closed minds and texts, the next chapter, which explores the temporal double-bind of the writing-reading subject in terms of reading-models (of identification, or differentiation, or ideally a marriage of the two) that were necessarily predictive as well as explanatory, begins to outstay its welcome. There are fresh ways of understanding the Romantic dilemma that ‘what applies in the case of the present’s relation to the past will apply also to the future’s relation to the present’ (p. 305), but the message has by now been thoroughly absorbed. However, any slight impatience is rapidly dispelled by the book’s superb concluding chapter. Here, Newlyn returns to Wordsworth and Coleridge and presents a riveting account of the literary and cultural significance of reading aloud. Hazlitt’s use of the word ‘chaunt’ to describe the two poets’ performance of their poetry is put in the context of eighteenth-century rhetorical and oratorical theory, much of it in the Dissenting tradition, which privileged the natural rhythms of the spoken language, guided by sense, over anything too ‘poetic’ or sing-song. Popular rhetoricians like Blair and Sheridan praised speech over writing for its expressivity, clarity, and persuasive power, though acknowledging writing’s greater permanence and accessibility. Despite his affiliation with the Dissenting tradition of plain-speaking orality, Hazlitt criticised Coleridge for not embracing the democratic possibilities of print culture; while his comments on his and Wordsworth’s chanting delivery tacitly accuse both poets ‘of an incipient political apostasy’ and encode their withdrawal ‘into a private and self-protective world of mutual enchantment’ (p. 370).
Naturally, this book is not sui generis. It builds on a range of earlier studies: Lee Erickson on the economics of literary form; Andrew Bennett on the culture of posterity; Mary Poovey and Margaret Homans on female literary identity, to name just a few. But Newlyn, through constructive engagement with these influences, has produced something valuable in its comprehensiveness and depth. It is perhaps surprising that a book which alludes so transparently to Harold Bloom’s influence theory in its title should make so little direct reference to Bloom; almost as surprising that the work of Geoffrey Hartman, generously noted in the Acknowledgements, is barely reflected in the text; but these cavils scarcely trouble the scales of evaluation. In short, Lucy Newlyn need have no anxiety about the reception of this career-defining book, which deserves a wide, sympathetic, and critically engaged audience.