(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 9, Spring 1997, pp 55-66)
When, in Mansfield Park, Mr Rushworth thinks of removing some fine specimen trees to open up the prospect of his grounds, he discovers nothing to do with the landscape is straightforward. Some of his circle still hanker after the confined formality of the past, or simply feel a venerable, if unfashionable, landscape should be left alone; others encourage him to call in that ‘mercantile improver’, Humphry Repton, while yet more prod him to take the ‘disinterested’ advice of a Henry Crawford who seems dimly aware of some aspects of the more radical picturesque notions of Uvedale Price or Payne Knight. It is Crawford who, later in the novel, tries to impress Fanny that he, as a gentleman, pays proper regard to the needs of his tenants who also feature in the visible landscape.
Tim Fulford’s wide-ranging new book does an excellent job in
tracking down the social priorities, contentions and pitfalls which surrounded
the passion for landscape-improvement in the eighteenth century and the opening
decades of the nineteenth. It would certainly be helpful to anyone wishing to
brush up on the cultural background of a novel like
Fulford’s tour over his chosen terrain includes much to hold the interest, and a number of fine perceptions worth lingering over, but in the main his arguments are too forthright not to be broadly summarisable. He begins with Thomson: Thomson moulded the contradictions between natural and human worlds into a poetry which often turns upon a perception of power refigured as powerlessness in the face of the unpredictable elements. Such a reversal staged in the theatre of nature comes to be restaged within the theatre of society as the need for general submission before the unchangeable. The whole transaction is naturalised as part of the meaning of the landscape, concealing its status as a social construct. The values associated with the landscape become increasingly mobilised as part of the political programme of a ‘Country’ party generally opposed to court and ministry, to such an extent that any self-evident ‘natural’ source for the ideal of
benevolent ‘disinterest’ seems compromised. At his best, though, Thomson’s voice registers the predicament of British liberty retreating, in the face of court and commerce, to the wilder rural margins, as the cultivated plains cede more and more to the cult of profit and cease to represent a fertile ground of social well-being. As he drew more upon the uplands he was initiating a preference which the more radical Romantics would avidly follow.
In Cowper the ideal of ‘disinterest’ survives as a
bench-mark, but only from within the threatened and propertyless imagination of
a poet in retreat, one who retrenches his authority and rebuilds moral virtue
as a factor of anxious marginality rather than confident social inheritance.
But Cowper contrives to stage retirement to the country as an explicit critique
By the 1790’s writers like Uvedale Price and Payne Knight were distancing themselves from the open prospects, spreading lawns and hilltop tree-clumps of an earlier generation: for them these had become landscapes of despotic authority denuded of both natural variety and social and historical density. Nevertheless, the property-holder remained the effective arbiter of taste (though this could now be stretched to take in the affection of the cottager for his tiny domain). The uphill task was to show that good taste must apply across a wide social field and that aesthetic judgment (in its new breadth of definition) needed to retain its priority over the inroads of economic analysis as the preferred source of public value. When we come to Repton ( a writer before he became a gardener), we find the complex elements of a landscape can no longer simply be codified pictorially, however much he continues the broad strategy of ‘Capability’
Brown. Repton himself, whilst upholding the values of the traditional squire, operates from a newer world of commercial expertise whose values were subjecting the placid landscapes he promoted to considerable strain.
It was Gilpin who took the picturesque on tour, taking in mountain and forest as well as park. he was part of the cultural shift to the view that the tourist and reader were emerging as more reliable sources of aesthetic discrimination than the landed gentry per se. This was the world Wordsworth and Coleridge were to inherit, where a little mobility (often by means of the previously despised foot-travel) could purchase a wide variety of scenery and bring about a democratisation of taste. By now, the picturesque had acquired a distinct Jacobinical edge, and seemed infected by a more secular current hard put to it to confine itself to the stable, landed values it nevertheless still believed crucial. As Fulford observes, the desire to reform taste so as to reflect a more authentic wildness of the natural ( however aestheticised) contained within itself the shadowy figure of wildness as possibly uncontainability, or in political terms, ungovernability. The tourist was more likely to encounter the previously unrepresented voices of country people themselves, voices devoid of correct taste but hauntingly able to embody the local powers of nature. This is the tradition of Wordsworth rather than any broader and unattached Romanticism: these are his predecessors who mediate for him the dilemmas thrown up by war and revolution. Writery authority can only be realised through negotiation with the troubled fields of taste and property, together with a defiant restitution of the hitherto excluded voices of the poor. Fulford focusses on how Wordsworth aimed to relocate rural speech in his own writing, daring to render awe-inspiring to the tasteful reader what had always been assumed uncouth.
If Thomson’s. detachment was compromised by his political affiliation and the need for patronage, later writers were
vulnerable to the seductions of a
marketable style and the need to serve a broader, but also more commercial,
public. Within these pressures nostalgia for the virtuous landowner as the
bastion of a quiet and untrammelled civic liberty persisted. By the early
nineteenth century, however, such a figure scarcely existed beyond literature,
as the majority of estates sustained themselves from commercial or overseas
interests (like Sir Thomas Bertram in
My summary highlights the historicist dimensions of Fulford’s book, but he isn’t thereby disqualified from providing rich readings which fully register literary questions of voice and the problems of authorship, however complicit that latter term is taken to be with issues of cultural authority. Despite his informed rejection of any over-facile progressive model, Fulford’s treatment of Wordsworth and Coleridge strikes me as inevitably culminatory, and it is precisely here the critic contrives to live most dangerously.
As we encounter Wordsworth we sense a genuine critical endeavour is underway—and any ready-made hermeneutic, however sophisticated, is kept at a distance. Fulford refuses to read Lyrical Ballads as a naive retreat from politics back to nature (a view relished by some American New Historicists), but shows how a particular tradition of British radicalism is being used, one which employs rural themes as a way of arguing how the nation is governed. What Wordsworth is doing is to create a complex politics of landscape from within which to ponder his own authorship, showing it as unstable and only achievable at all at the cost of multiple usurpations. Wordsworth emerges not as the lost leader empowering a flight to the transcendent inner self, but as the poet who movingly examines the conflict between landscape loyalties, the possibilities of poetic articulation, and latent struggles for power. A sense of the precariously situated nature of his own voice heightens Wordsworth’s sensitivities to the voices of others. Fulford does not hesitate to admit that what Wordsworth has to come to terms with hearing in the shepherd’s voice is precisely what isn’t given to the shepherd to hear for himself: the poet is left negotiating the tricky ground between an inarticulate voice which nonetheless powerfully communicates (and so is a figure for nature itself) and the differential and socially discriminatory language of poetry into which the power of voice must be translated.
This predicament is never more acute than when the poet
encounters a rural speaker whose language he literally does not understand.
Some of the most enthralling sections of Fulford’s book examine this type of
cultural encounter within a wider British landscape including Gaelic as well as
English speakers. The way has been prepared by earlier discussion of Dr Johnson
the predicament of any language which comes to sound alien in the act of voicing nature. In a poem like ‘To a Highland Girl’ Wordsworth finds a way of skirting the picturesque so as to acknowledge the way in which an unknown language voices the scene’s ghostly energies rather than simply depicting a view of its prospects. Insights like these, sensitive to the suspension of voice within language, derive from the work of a critic of an older generation, Geoffrey Hartman, who is more fully acknowledged ( perhaps a little belatedly) when Fulford comes to offer his own reading of ‘Yew-Trees’, a poem much argued over in recent years. It is here that Fulford exposes his historicism to the phenomenological density of the poem, placing the text not just in a context of a period, but at a historical juncture which meditates its silences and reserves and is in turn chastened and subdued by them. Here is no simple, politically improving outcome for criticism, but a risky moment when Fulford allows his historicism its own share of precariousness, from which it must negotiate a passage through the negative hermeneutics of close reading. This leads him to suggest not only that ‘Yew-trees’ symbolizes an awareness of the betrayals and appropriations which no poetic self-empowerment can escape, but that the ghostly trees are the site of an imaginative predicament clothing itself in the words and deeds of the dead. A temptation to betray already existent words seems to point to the heart of nature itself. What Wordsworth finds here, Fulford finely speculates, is a Life-in-Death, a grounded ungroundedness, an original yet material self in which no domain, whether historic, geographic or literary, can be displaced: each element must dispute for priority within what the poem voices or withholds. This is the ‘political’ if you will, but it modifies the radical view of politics as the imperative and exclusive source of cultural meaning; rather, it reminds me of what the philosopher Gillian Rose has dubbed ‘the broken middle’, a space of interminable negotiation between horizons of competing consummation, which is, if anything, a space of law, not of
How to assess Tim Fulford’s subtle but insistent historicism? It is certainly left-leaning, as is most such criticism in the Romantic field, but it remains the more modest, professionally reserved British variety, eschewing any speculation on its own authority. Little of the introspective verve of an Alan Liu will be found here. It is left implicit that Fulford’s own rhetoric doesn’t address the disinterested or leisured general reader, but intends a professional audience concerned to legitimise the teaching of a poetry becoming ever more marginal, and anxious to bolster that teaching (and perhaps even the poetry) with solid public virtues. So far as one can tell, Fulford appears to be a ‘weak’ rather than a ‘strong’ historicist—which is to say he believes that in having to do with landscape we necessarily encounter power relations, but he rarely capitulates to the ‘strong’ view, more popular in America, that all cultural activity originates from within the political, whatever lengths it goes to disguise that fact. I certainly wouldn’t want to contest the value of a ‘weaker’ and, I believe, more fruitful variety of historicism, and I am grateful Fulford doesn’t hector the past from his own high ground. He notes, indeed, Coleridge’s awareness of how hugging that high ground to oneself leads to its own corruption. In this book the critic moves some way to share his sense of the ambivalence of social outcomes with actual historical subjects, in what amounts to a creative respect. He does countenance, though, the familiar slide of ‘authority’ into ‘ authoritarianism’ on most aspects of land-ownership, but is able to retrieve a non-pejorative connotation for authority in his curious phrase ‘local authorities’, which here refers to native or local (and usually unpropertied) voices. Fulford is for much of the time punctiliously ‘Marxisant’, suspicious of most claims to authority, whilst presumably committed to its inevitability within the public realm. He clearly does discover some uncorrupt forms of emergent social power when it comes to his ‘local authorities’, but nowhere does he offer any reflection, except by implication, on what would
constitute an acceptable model of authority. The thrust of any historicism must be to separate a social construct (any idea of value or obligation) from its predisposition to naturalise itself, to ally itself with the authority of nature. This presents two critical problems: how to legitimise the social forms which are to be preferred, and how to maintain some worthwhile relation to nature. Fulford, unsurprisingly, doesn’t always avoid himself the traps he sets for past writers. His identifying native voices with the turbulence of a natural world which resists ‘polite’ forms of understanding remains a process of naturalisation, however sophisticated. His nature is one which vitally communicates its power while undermining settled cultural distinctions, a characterisation which does succeed in embodying nature as more than just an abstraction, but is not itself free from questionable assumptions. Behind this vision there seems assumed a norm of the mass-urban as radical crucible, where turbulence, challenge and expansionist change are ideal figures for moral energy, however environmentally dubious. The inapplicability of an agrarian commonwealth ideal to the manufacturing towns doesn’t merely reveal the limits of the former, but also points to the intractable and self-defeating acceleration of the latter. It is here the lack of a broader eco-critical perspective on landscape seems most limiting. However much the cultural is the only mediator of the natural we have, human cultures do not thereby become autonomous or self-sufficient: on the contrary, they remain in large part defined by how they articulate their dependence on the natural world. The broader underlying harmonies of the natural may be just as potent sources for moral inspiration as the more sublime moments of elemental disruption or interruption, but this is to revert to the argument between the beautiful and the sublime which the picturesque itself tried to resolve. The temptation for historicism is to foreground social conflict in order to diminish any need to acknowledge that the priority of the natural is part of the human condition; however much that awareness is exploitable for selfish ends, to ‘police’ it by
suppressing it altogether is a greater ill. We may have to run the risk of some degree of cultural conservatism arising out of a nonetheless just appreciation of the more intransigent aspects of human life. So to read the concern for landscape during this period as the self-serving predilection of a propertied class would be a dangerous simplification, and it is a tribute to Fulford’s skill that he avoids this for so much of the time, despite the tug of his methodology towards it. He is able to show that landscape writing turns increasingly self-questioning and contradictory, though it fails to be transformatory, being unable to resolve the dilemma of positive forms of attachment and association remaining materially linked to less ideal habits of possession. It has, of course, a bias towards connection rather than radical structural change, an aspect Fulford is clearly haunted by but far from happy with.
The book does note the arrival of a modern eco-critical perspective (in the work of Jonathan Bate) in his chapter on Wordsworth. I agree with Fulford’s reservation that Wordsworth, remaining so deeply imbued with the eighteenth century landscape tradition, can’t simply be turned into an ecological guru, but some of the complexities of that tradition are themselves illuminated, I believe, by a more eco-critical approach. Take, for instance, Fulford’s sense of an emergent but ultimately fruitful ‘instability’ in the persona and rhetoric of the writer from Cowper to Coleridge. That such ‘instability’ is in fact a subtle literary transaction opening up new possibilities of relation between self and landscape Fulford makes clear, but the term’s connotations of vicariousness and confusion are not always helpful as a way of describing such technical accomplishment. The ecological notion of an ‘unstable equilibrium’ strikes me as a more exact equivalent for what is going on here, suggesting a configuration with distinct organising capacity of its own, open to a broad cross-section of currents lacking any definitive capacity for synthesis but constituting a moment of
adjustment not imposed from outside or above. The term comprehends precariousness and a measure of harmony, uninsulated from change but not reducible to a key interruption or privileged turbulence. Perilous as it is to map human societies onto natural formations, it is salutary to insist human cultural activity necessarily loops through the natural: it is the risk (and the opportunity) our values have to be open to. Though we have no access to a nature not at the same time cultural, no ideal detachment is available from which to view the supposed arbitrariness of ‘social constructs’ either. This predicament is evident in Fulford’s fine discussion of Coleridge’s self-release as a writer once the poet turns to private journals and letters. Here, as Fulford correctly perceives, is a writing unstable in its avoidance of formal rhetoric, but stable in integrating the self into a relationship with the natural so as to discover its own standing with the natural and with itself. This amounts to a poetics of risk (risk is more fashionable than engagement these days), one which straddles mobility (joyous ascent and headlong descent) and stasis (the moment of recollection amidst the landscape but threatened by the paralysis of becoming crag-fast). Fulford finds himself celebrating Coleridge’s release from public rhetoric on Scafell as the moment when Coleridge rediscovers his authority as a writer. This scenario leads to two possible critical options: one can either appropriate this renewed creative authority to an expanded idea of the public sphere, at the same time colonising the marginal instability of the writer, or acknowledge a much wider field of operations in which an untranscended personal domain connects human culture to the natural, without the natural landscape forfeiting its own inveterate promptings toward the moral and the communitarian. I feel this latter understanding is the one Fulford’s study is moving towards, but without declaring it as such. Rather, it makes respectful obeisance to the harder-line tradition of urban-derived radicalism, a tradition lately to be found alive and well in the work of John Barrell, Michael Rosenthal, Ann Bermingham, Roger Sales and others but more
recently challenged by Nigel Everitt’s The Tory View of Landscape (1994). Everitt finds much of this radicalism neglectful of the complexity of historical ideas, preferring as it does purist structural analysis (the rich are all tarred with the same brush) to an appreciation of the messy symbiosis of benevolence and dominance, individualism and connectedness, security and dependence, so amply found within the period itself. Fulford is certainly aware of the debate around the landowning classes, but rather unhelpfully sees it as undermining their claims to ‘disinterest’ (as they were squabbling so much among themselves), misreading ‘disinterest’ as naturalistic detachment and not conceding more willingly how it aspired to put aside divisive commercial advantage in favour of attachment to the connected interests of settlement in the wider landscape. It largely failed in this, or was counter-productive, but the fate of modern purist analysis may not be dissimilar. Everitt accuses the absolutism of radical thought in our own time of having impoverished the range of civic discourse, thereby creating a vacuum leading to the implosion of crude free-market ideas a decade or so ago, ideas which simply ignored inflexible forms of objection and confidently expected a dearth of resourceful challenge. There is a cultural politics to the cult of ‘politics’ then just as uncertain in outcome as landscape-writing itself, so it is a pity that Tim Fulford’s accomplished book doesn’t quite transcend its own academic ‘ stability’, and open the topic still further. It is a genuinely challenging book, however, and deserves to be widely and attentively read, not least for the many nuanced passages where Fulford tests his own premises more than we have a right to expect.