- Urbanization and English Romantic Poetry by Stephen Tedeschi
Western culture's discourse on urbanization has had moments of intensity, but none amounting to a greater reassessment of citified conditions than that of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This phenomenon is at least partly related to the industrial revolution, with its rapid increase in commercialization and migration, particularly in England, and has been studied in the social sciences at length. In literary studies, this era, dominated by the system of norms we call "Romanticism," is marked by a complicated and reticulated panoptic vision of reality, most often showing an obsessive engagement with the natural world. Nature is intensely alive, and for the poet likewise to be so, he or she must strive to be one with that dynamic, mysterious, and dangerous phenomenon. But along with this obsession comes a concern to understand the individual's interdependent relationship to society, often represented as involving a troubled rapport between urban and rural life.
Stephen Tedeschi's book is especially cogent and convincing in finding and sharply defining a particular urban ideology of the time, and it is no less trenchant in applying it to a new understanding of English Romantic poetry, particularly that of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Robinson, and Anna Letitia Barbauld. Noting that most literary scholars who have studied Romantic urbanization tend to "rely on a line of urban theorists who argue that the urban environment determines a typical mentality, set of behaviors, and values" (p. 24), Tedeschi rightly argues that such characteristics actually rise from the processes that determine the urban environment, not from urbanization itself. These processes shape an urban ideology encoded within English Romantic poetry that can be traced and described.
One early manifestation of the working of these processes is found in William Cowper's The Task (1785), where the "overwhelming flow of [urban] images [particularly in newspapers] obscures the presence of God in the world" (p. 39). For the religious Cowper, poetry should be a kind of mental and spiritual work that reflects the divine order of the universe. Retreating from the chaos and disorder of the new kind of city life he found in London during the 1790s, he poeticizes an ideology of rural life that, ironically, "depends on and cooperates with the world of urban commerce it explicitly rejects" (p. 39).
Another kind of urban encoding is set deeply within the second volume of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1800). For example, in "To Joanna," we find a profound sense of the gap between rural and urbans affects, highlighting the shifting ground of "endless regression and reproduction of signs" characteristic of the latter (p. 129). Wordsworth's conception of this difference represents a struggle to see sociolects everywhere and to fix the poet's affective consonance with landscapes as well as people.
In the case of Shelley, Tedeschi argues that urban patterns in the poet's [End Page 199] thought are centered on both the economic forces that continue the historically uneven distribution of British political authority as well as the new technological forces that make possible a greater speed and spread of communication over larger distances. Arguing that Shelley's thought presents urbanization as a new opportunity to participate in poetic acts of political engagement, Tedeschi shows how his images of ruin warn the urban public of how the inevitable end of civilization will ensue if modern urbanization proceeds without serious reform.
In Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), Barbauld shows a different poetic relationship to the concept of urbanization than that of other British Romantics, with the possible exception of Mary Robinson. Barbauld accepts the model of progress, including ideas of urbanization, inherited by English Enlightenment philosophers, and she "uses the civic humanist concept of luxury to mark how conditions fall short of that ideal" (p. 200), especially in limiting the role of women in the public sphere and in widening the distance between social classes.
Perhaps the most important discovery in Tedeschi's study is that deep questions about urban spaces undergird...