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Book Reviews John Bugg. Five Long Winters: The Trials of British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. xii+246. $60. Historicist criticism on the Romantic age from the 1980s to our present moment often appears to split into two different camps. There is the historicism that understands Romantic writing primarily in terms ofwhat it sees, and the historicism that understands Romantic writing in terms of what it doesn’t see (or refuses to see). Nicholas Roe’s Keats and the Culture ofDissent provides a compelling instance of the first kind, for it shows how even images of classical culture in Keats’s writing indicate his radical sym­ pathies; Marjorie Levinson’s work on Wordsworth provides a compelling instance of the second kind, for it shows how the poet’s transcendent pow­ ers ofimagination are achieved only by eliding or erasing features ofa land­ scape that were present and visible in the poet’s moment. The first kind of historicism, particularly when it claims that literary conventions are really political positions, occasionally looks like a resolute repudiation of literary form, or at least the formal work of literature is understood as a coding (even ifcovert and artful) ofpolitical affiliations or beliefs. The second kind of historicism might seem like a more open acknowledgment of literary form as an imaginative construction, although form is considered as a failed attempt to transcend the material circumstances of the author’s moment. Thus what might seem like an acknowledgment of the work of imagina­ tion works out to be a more complete undermining of formalism than the first, since literary texts are not even considered as echoes of material con­ texts; they are re-established more firmly in that context (thanks to the critic’s endeavor) than an author would willingly acknowledge. I mention this distinction in strategies to point out that in some ways John Bugg’s exciting new book appears to be arguing against the second kind of historicism in order to embrace the first kind: a historicism that ac­ counts for the way that literary works react to, and in a sense encode, spe­ cific historical conditions of the moment (Roe’s work on Wordsworth and Coleridge is approvingly acknowledged throughout). Like other recent historicist critics like Daniel O’Quinn and E. J. Clery, who participate in something like a second wave of historicism, his work so carefully re­ searches and synthesizes archival evidence that it changes our sense ofwhat the historical conditions for writing actually were in the Romantic age. His SiR, 55 (Spring 2016) 119 120 BOOK REVIEWS book argues that the infamous laws known as the “Gagging Acts” (The Seditious Meetings Act and the Treason Act, both of 1795) exerted a pow­ erful effect on Romantic poetry. The acts need to be taken into account not because they simply stifled speech, writing, and publication, but be­ cause they provoked a range of creative reactions that have yet to be reck­ oned with completely in our critical commentary. The “Ode to Liberty” by the political prisonerJohn Augustus Bonney provides an opening exam­ ple ofBugg’s point in the introduction: the poem is spoken in the voice of a bird whose broken heart and silenced song reflect the atmosphere of the “repressive 1790s” examined throughout the book (3-4). Neither entirely inhibited nor uninhibited in its utterance, the poem (like the bird) per­ forms its constraint. The example of Bonney also shows how Bugg is actu­ ally producing an account that flexibly locates itselfbetween the two domi­ nant historicist methodologies: political engagement like Bonney’s is not always explicit and requires a careful attention to literary figures and ge­ neric manipulations. When disguised, muffled, or even reduced to “si­ lence,” that silence is spoken through the poem: it is “expressive” of the existence and persistence of repressive legislation. In his introduction and opening chapter, Bugg does for the Gagging Acts what John Barrell did for the treason trials of the 1790s in Imagining the King’s Death. Other critics (including Roe) have discussed the Gagging Acts; Bugg’s book stands out, though, for its sustained focus and revi­ sionary spirit. He gives a beautifully detailed and utterly terrifying account of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 119-123
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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