- Romantic Misfits by Robert Miles
Originally published in 2008 but reissued here in paperback with a new preface, Robert Miles’s Romantic Misfits is a wide-ranging and scholarly reconsideration of a persistent and popular cliché of Romanticism: ‘Although all Romantics are misfits,’ he writes, ‘some misfits did not fit’. Miles’s bifurcated definition of ‘misfits’ encompasses writers who were canonically uncanonical: those who were excluded from the building of a Romantic canon, and those who were canonised by virtue of their misfit status and neglected by all but the minority of readers. The book critiques the notion of an institutionalised and canonical Romanticism, starting with the Victorian creation of the Romantic author, which Miles identifies as ‘the original moment of canon formation – of Romantic misfitting – in order to [analyse] what was excluded in the process’. Miles’s project pushes against the dictates of an institutionalised Romanticism and its shared themes, as laid out by a Victorian readership, and attempts to re-read and de-familiarise the period. ‘A radical Enlightenment and its reactionary counter’, coinciding with the breakdown of the public sphere, were the contextual forces which shaped the Victorian reception and construction of Romanticism. Victorian literary culture, according to Miles, valued the aesthetics of original genius regardless of commercial and material pressures of literary production. This was at the expense of a broader and more democratic engagement with literature. Drawing on the historicist scholarship of Kevin Gilmartin, Jon Klancher, and Iain McCalman, Miles’s five chapters test this idea to varying extents.
Miles’s first chapter analyses the forgeries of Shakespeare produced by William Henry Ireland from 1795 to 1796, positioning Shakespeare as a central ‘normative ideal’ of Romanticism, by which literary misfits could be measured and gauged. Ireland fashioned his literary identity as a trickster who was ‘self-propelled, through the force of his own genius’. Reading Ireland’s Confessions in light of Habermas, Miles contends that Ireland’s failure to pass off his plagiarisms was due to the changing nature of the public sphere. With the increasingly politicised and radicalised discourse of literary production and reviewing in the 1790s, Miles claims, poetic appreciation was an increasingly rarefied domain. No longer ‘a matter of the free exchange of rational opinions upon literary issues’, literary connoisseurship became ‘a matter of isolated worship’ of ‘authentic English originals’. Miles’s first chapter demonstrates a neat synthesis of literary genius, Romantic subjectivity, and national sentiment. It also sets the tone for a book which attempts an essentially conservative recuperation of Romanticism.
Chapter 2, on ‘Gothic Wordsworth’, again argues for the influence of the public sphere in shaping poetic reputation and style. Miles claims that Wordsworth’s ‘abandonment of the Gothic’ was a ‘decisive shift’ in ‘ideological outlook’ which was supposedly attributed to the changing tastes of the reading public. While Wordsworth began to create the taste by which he wished to be relished, his readers ‘in turn instructed Wordsworth in the taste by which he was to be successful’. In relinquishing the Gothic mode, Wordsworth withdrew from the public sphere and began to embrace the singular lyrical voice of poetic interiority. Miles argues that [End Page 73] this decisive shift was motivated by the tastes of a bourgeois and nationalist reading public unwilling to engage in the complexities of otherness inherent in the Gothic form. Although this line or argument is convincing, it would be interesting to complicate this narrative with a consideration of the nationalist discourses at play in the Gothic mode in this period.
Chapter 3 is particularly dense and focuses upon Carlyle, Coleridge, and Count Cagliostro, a triumvirate of canonical and non-canonical Romanticisms that tests periodisation and canonisation: ‘Romantic periodization was already in place at the very time it was supposed to have terminated’. The chapter focuses upon anti-materialist debates, in particular Coleridge’s break from Hartley’s associationist psychology and Carlyle’s anti-materialist transcendentalist aesthetics. Treating Carlyle as a transitional figure between the Romantic and Victorian periods, this chapter demonstrates Miles’s exceptional expertise in the Romantic treatment of philosophy, and the effect of...