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Written on the Water

British Romanticism and the Maritime Empire of Culture

Samuel Baker

Publication Year: 2010

The very word "culture" has traditionally evoked the land. But when such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and, later, Matthew Arnold developed what would become the idea of modern culture, they modeled that idea on Britain's imperial command of the sea. Instead of locating the culture idea’s beginnings in the dynamic between the country and the city, Samuel Baker insists on taking into account the significance of water for that idea’s development. For the Romantics, figures of the island, the deluge, and the sundering tide often convey the insularity of cultures understood to stand apart from the whole; yet, Baker writes, the sea also stands in their poetry of culture as a reminder of the broader sphere of circulation in which the poet's work, if not the poet's subject, inheres.

Published by: University of Virginia Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-xvii

Since we’ve developed the continental interiors and compressed global space with new technologies of rapid travel, we postmoderns — most of us, anyway — needn’t think so much about the sea. But even if we can dwell far from it and fly over it, the ocean remains humanity’s largest common denominator. Nothing in the world is bigger, broader...

List of Abbreviations

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p. xix

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Introduction: Familiar with the Sea

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pp. 1-20

“The ocean,” declares Thomas Churchill at the outset of his 1808 Life of Lord Viscount Nelson, “affords not only the most ready and convenient medium of intercourse between remote parts of the globe, but the means of annoying an enemy with most facility, and at the same time the securest protection.” Yet while the ocean’s importance “is now obvious to every one,” Churchill remarks, “it was...

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PART ONE: Oceanic Fables of Culture

In a chapter of her book Fables of Modernity, Laura Brown presents one of the best studies of the British tradition of what she calls “cultural fables” of the ocean. In the two chapters grouped here I pay Brown the tribute of standing her formulation on its head, laying out for my reader some of what I consider the crucial...

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1. Change Your Lakes for Ocean

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pp. 23-55

Matthew Arnold wrote that “the world-river of poetry” consoles and affirms “the spirit of our race” with a “criticism of life.”1 Word by word, the terms of Arnold’s claim have been disavowed. But while “race,” “spirit,” and for that matter “poetry” no longer signify as they once did in critical discourse, the Romantic notion that poetry ministers to a common spirit lingers in other terms, and chiefly in terms of what...

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2. Imperial Solutions

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pp. 56-80

The idea of culture is one of the main legacies of the Romantic period for our own time. It is central to contemporary life and thought, and it has come to seem an indispensable tool for describing human identity and social form.1 Inevitably, therefore, it has also become a main subject for academic methodological reflection...

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PART TWO: The Wordsworth Circle's Modes of Insular Empire

William Hazlitt, in a witty passage from On the Living Poets, lampoons Wordsworth’s habitual use of island and castaway figures by caricaturing the author of The Excursion as a hapless Crusoe. The Excursion, Hazlitt writes, “is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe’s boat, which would have been an excellent...

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3. The Maritime Georgic

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pp. 83-114

A simple question needs to be addressed by any genealogy of the culture idea. How did a concept so rooted in the objective world of earth, tools, and crops become a concept of individual and social subjectivity? How did it change from a concrete idea to a universal, abstract, and absolute one? When Cicero formulated his...

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4. Britannia's Pastorals

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pp. 115-152

William Wordsworth’s Thanksgiving Ode of 1816 is a notoriously martial poem.1 Presented as an effusion dating from the morning of the national festival celebrating Napoleon’s final defeat, it was mocked in its time for declaring to its addressee “Almighty God” that “thy most dreaded instrument, / In Working...

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5. The Dissolution of Epic

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pp. 153-188

“We combated for victory in the empire of reason, for strongholds in the imagination” (PrW 1:261). So declares Wordsworth of the pamphlet war that brought forth his impassioned 1809 tract the Convention of Cintra. The full title of this work is Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, To Each Other, and...

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PART THREE: Culture's Midland Waters: Coleridge, Byron, Arnold, America

The previous chapters have followed the Lake poets as they adapted a maritime georgic mode for the Georgian age, engineered a mode of transported pastoral compatible with modern nautical enterprise, and sought an epic mode that could submerge deep political implications beneath a surface of romance motifs. We have...

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6. Nautical Existence

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pp. 191-221

During and after the crisis over Malta that precipitated the resumption of war in 1803, Mediterranean events became more of a British literary preoccupation than ever. As Romantic writers represented the Mediterranean in relation to Britain and its overseas ambitions, they at times intervened in domestic British political discourse, and...

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7. Shipwreck for a Poet

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pp. 222-249

To grasp just how the maritime imagination fostered the culture idea, it is important to see the story told thus far as the background to the portrait of one particular main theorist of culture: a theorist who, examined closely, turns out to be a figure in a seascape. This author’s genealogies, both literary and familial, tie him securely to the twin...

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Envoi: For Us Repeopled Were the Solitary Shore

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pp. 251-254

A piece of writing isn’t always about what one thinks it is about, and it may even be getting about, in the sense of wandering off of its own volition. For a long time I insisted that this book was about the ocean, which it never really has been, except in the sense that the things that concern it are to be found in real, imaginary, or symbolic...


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pp. 255-282

Works Cited

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pp. 283-307


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pp. 309-320

E-ISBN-13: 9780813930435
E-ISBN-10: 081393043X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813927954
Print-ISBN-10: 0813927951

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 5 halftones (5 redacted)
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 830023658
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Written on the Water

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • Water in literature.
  • Sea in literature.
  • English poetry -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Romanticism -- Great Britain.
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