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  • The Institutional Overdetermination of the Concept of Romanticism
  • John Rieder (bio)

It is a commonplace gesture these days for studies of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century English literary history to criticize the period term “English Romanticism” as an anachronism or, worse, an outright mystification. Marilyn Butler, one of the most diligent critics of the generalizations often associated with the term Romanticism, puts the case succinctly in the opening sentences of a recent essay:

English Romanticism is impossible to define with historical precision because the term itself is historically unsound. It is now applied to English writers of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, who did not think of themselves as Romantics. Instead they divided themselves by literary precept and by ideology into several distinct groups, dubbed by their opponents “Lakeists,” “Cockneys,” Satanists,” Scotsmen. It was the middle of the nineteenth century before they were gathered into one band as the English Romantics, and the present tendency of textbooks to insist upon the resemblance to one another of (especially) six major poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—dates only from about 1940. 1

All of this places the title of Butler’s essay, “Romanticism in England,” into a curious situation. One has to attend now to the title’s deliberate ambiguity, since it gestures on the one hand to a critical concept which her own work seeks to undermine as “historically unsound,” and, on the other hand, repositions a revised but still viable Romanticism within a differently constructed historical field.

Butler’s ambiguous gesture is by no means idiosyncratic. Jerome McGann’s momentous attack in 1983 upon the “Romantic ideology” of modern critics as “an uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-representations,” 2 for instance, seems to perpetuate the theory of a coherent historical identity called “Romanticism” in the very terms of its attack upon contemporary criticism. McGann attributes René Wellek’s “triumph” over A. O. Lovejoy in the argument between Wellek’s broad, synthetic definition of Romanticism and Lovejoy’s “discrimination of Romanticisms” to the fact that “informed persons do generally agree on what is comprised under the terms Romantic and Romantic Movement” (18). Yet the point of departure for McGann’s exposition is precisely the use of a “secondary and critical metaphor” of Romanticism to [End Page 145] enforce a specious unity in the face of potent historical differences—in his example, the argument that including Jane Austen in discussions of English Romanticism has to proceed by isolating supposedly Romantic elements in her work, which reaches its “ne plus ultra” in a mistaken analogy drawn by Nina Auerbach between the theme of imprisonment in Sense and Sensibility and in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (19). The kind of historical unity projected in the term Romanticism has in this instance produced a critical error quite the opposite of seducing the critic into the “self-representation” of the writers in question. The status of the term Romanticism itself thus hovers uneasily between its critical usefulness and its obfuscation of historical complexity.

Both Butler and McGann reproduce, more or less in spite of themselves, the options offered in the famed Wellek-Lovejoy debate, which, as all advanced students of Romanticism know, involved Lovejoy’s argument that the complexities of literary history render the use of Romanticism as a singular noun meaningless, or at best an avoidable temptation to overly reductive generalizations, and Wellek’s counterargument that literary critics merely need to learn to use the term appropriately. A kind of solution to this dilemma has emerged in the past decade. Much current criticism affords English Romanticism a pseudo-definition which renders it innocent of any generalizing tendency. It becomes, for instance, in Mary Favret and Nicola Watson’s especially conscientious and articulate formulation, a field “composed of multiple (and currently shifting) tectonic plates, alternative generic territories, whose relation to each other is determined by their different modes of negotiating the same historical, political, and cultural anxieties particular to the period 1789 to 1832.” 3 This version of the period term, at the same moment as it advances the thesis that a common historical ground determines some kind of representable unity for the diverse materials comprised under the...

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pp. 145-163
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