Tim Fulford, ed. Romanticism and Millenarianism. New York: Palgrave, 2002. xviii + 248 pp. $59.95/£40.00, hardcover.
If you don’t know Morton Paley’s work you have probably picked up this copy of Blake by accident. If you are a regular reader there is a fair chance that you know Morton Paley himself—may have heard him lecture, seen him at a conference, or may think of him as a friend. The prolific, indefatigable and much-travelled Paley is surely one of the best-known scholars of Romanticism we have. This volume is dedicated to him in honor of “his outstanding contribution to the study of Romanticism,” and aims to build on his groundbreaking work.
In a brisk introduction, Tim Fulford explains that Paley puts millenarianism at the center of English Romanticism, as the focus for the hopes and fears of a turbulent period. Paley shows that repression, industrialization and war made it increasingly hard for writers to imagine the age of peace and happiness that should follow an age of apocalyptic destruction. “Romanticism, on this model, becomes a struggle not just to envision a new age but to retain the capacity for vision at all,” a struggle that produces ambivalence and pathos. This collection of essays aims to build on Paley’s example, offering a “historically contextualized examination of genres, styles and figures in literary and artistic works.” As is often the case in such collections, the volume is actually a mixture of occasional essays and reports of ongoing research. Some items relate closely to the title of the book, while some make only cursory gestures towards it. Some extend well-established lines of enquiry, some break genuinely new ground. But all have something useful to say.
As we might expect, the volume gives much emphasis to the 1790s, but it spreads its attention widely to bring into the foreground works and figures who would once have been barely mentioned in this context. In an illuminating essay on “Cowper’s Ends,” for example, Adam Rounce argues persuasively that Cowper’s projection of endings makes him a more central figure in the end of the eighteenth century than is usually recognized. Rounce finds recurrent millennial and apocalyptic anxieties in Cowper’s work—including “Yardley Oak” and “On the Ice Islands”—shaped by his relationship with the poetry begin page 44 | and artistic model of John Milton. Cowper lacked Milton’s rootedness and certainty, and was inclined to retreat from the evils of the present into an unreachable mythic past. His sense of personal guilt led him to identify himself with Satan the reprobate—not the glorious rebel of Blake and Shelley, but a figure with something of the ruined grandeur of Milton’s character, and sharing his sense of absolute alienation from any scheme of eternal reward. His work as a poet offered no restoration, since Cowper saw postlapsarian writing as a corrupt form of communication, and was therefore perpetually inscribing his own failure as he wrote. In Rounce’s attentive reading, Cowper emerges less as “a man out of time” than a figure sharing with other writers of the 1790s a vision of “history as a cyclic mutable force that is finally unknowable.”
Milton is a presiding presence in Peter J. Kitson’s essay, which argues that “the survival of a Miltonic political sublime has not received the attention it merits.” As Kitson defines it, Milton’s political sublime is an idiosyncratic blending of apocalyptic and millenarian rhetoric, as found in some prose works of the 1640s (Eikonoklastes and Areopagitica) as well as in book 12 of Paradise Lost. Kitson reminds us that although Burke depoliticized Milton’s writings while establishing him as the sublime poet for the Romantic age, Milton remained a fully political presence to a number of writers. Kitson identifies a protean “Unitarian Political Sublime” that is informed in various ways by Milton’s example. In the case of Joseph Priestley, Milton seems to offer a general precedent rather than a stylistic model, since “Priestley does not himself write in the sublime style.” But Milton is more clearly a model for Gilbert Wakefield’s “The Spirit of Christianity Compared with the Spirit of the Times in Great Britain,” as Kitson convincingly demonstrates. The essay ends with a brief examination of Coleridge’s “The Destiny of Nations” and “Religious Musings,” and suggests that the Miltonic political sublime was soon rendered obsolete by the “failure of the Revolution.” The discussion makes some useful connections between writers, and solves some of the problems entailed in the difficult task of isolating a discursive mode from a web of intersecting discourses, by defining that mode in terms broad enough to accommodate a diverse range of practices.
The starting point of John Beer’s discussion of “Romantic Apocalypses” is Morton Paley’s observation that ideas of apocalypse and millennium tended to go together while remaining separable, so that at certain times people would concentrate on one or the other. The rapidly moving events of the 1790s prompted equally rapid shifts in interpretation (in the case of Blake and Coleridge, Beer suggests, interpretation might change month by month). But a clear pattern emerged from the first Romantics’ varying experiences of history: they underwent a change comparable to that attributed to the early Christians by twentieth-century theologians. That is, they came to believe the apocalypse had already happened in their own consciousness. Beer outlines this movement towards “‘internalized apocalypse’” in Blake (from the revolutionary apocalypse of The Four Zoas to that centered on the Poetic Genius in Milton) and in Wordsworth (as recorded in The Prelude), seeing both as a kind of “self-emptying.” He concludes with a discussion of “The Ancient Mariner,” a poem that can be seen as a symptom of a soured revolution (or “failed apocalypse”), but which also indicates the nature of Coleridge’s own internal revelation—that a poem could be “fraught with contradictions” and yet still unified. The premises of Beer’s essay seem common enough, but by establishing unexpected connections, he succeeds in rendering the familiar engagingly unfamiliar.
Michael Simpson’s highly sophisticated, historically informed close reading of Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude” begins with the question, “How can the poem denigrate newspapers in 1798 and then fall into one in 1802?” Simpson’s answer is that the poem was from the outset “constitutively uncomfortable with itself.” In its first printed version it had to engineer a symbolic escape not only from the mire of national rhetoric, but also from its own hypocritical polemic against that rhetoric. The move that eventually “re-situates the poem in the landscape of the dell” allows a positive version of the nation, constituted in “a language growing authentically out of nature into culture.” The subsequent selling of (part of) the poem in the context of the Treaty of Amiens can be read, Simpson argues, “as a moment of participation in a newly recharged matrix of commerce,” a moment that allows “a historical defusing of the poem’s topical anxiety.” Simpson leaves us with the image of the text “selling itself within a new dispensation of international commerce while haunted by its corona of exalted national poetry.” Within this complex and provocative reading, apocalypse assumes an unexpected form:
And what if all-avenging Providence,Simpson observes that the question concerning “our words” “bring[s] the apocalypse much closer to home than do comparable passages representing the war as apocalypse in either ‘Religious Musings’ or ‘The Destiny of Nations.’” The essay shows that an acute historicizing suspicion can coexist with a fine sensitivity to the affective power of poetic language.
Strong and retributive, should make us know
The meaning of our words?
Nicholas Roe’s essay on Pantisocracy has a delightfully witty opening, which imagines a female reader in Cottle’s bookshop encountering Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects, glancing at a copy of The Watchman and reading “something at random about contributions welcomed from ‘Disciples of Paley.’” Part of the interest of the essay itself is its movement from the realm of ideals to “life as it was actually lived” by Coleridge and Southey from the later 1790s onwards. Roe sets out to investigate how Pantisocracy enabled the young writers “to move from the millennial prospect of a ‘blest future’ to the homely, domesticated scene of life in a rural cottage.” He focuses on the material side of the Pantisocratic venture—including the geographical location, the tools, equipment and supplies that would be needed (an account fleshed out with the help of Paul Muldoon’s Madoc: A Mystery and Coleridge’s own catalogue of domestic items drawn up as he began married life). The financial begin page 45 | side of the enterprise is examined with reference to Adam Smith and to a land agent’s advice (recounted by Coleridge) which allows a glimpse of “colonizing as big business.” Roe considers how Pantisocracy would look (a circular layout, with its center a Unitarian meeting house) and provides a roll call of would-be Pantisocrats. The cumulative effect of such detail is to make the plan seem at once more and less realizable—on the one hand, just another proposed settlement among many others that were actually established in this period; on the other, a venture requiring a quite different kind of settler to bring it off. Roe sees one realization of the ideal closer to home, in the typical modern suburban lifestyle. The essay concludes with some brief but illuminating comments on Southey’s Poems of 1797, a collection in which “‘home’ seems to be mentioned only because it has been left behind, lost, or is out of reach.” If Pantisocracy was a practical scheme for domesticating the millenarian impulse, this collection, Roe argues, derives some of its coherence from “a faltering millenarianism for which Southey substitutes a domesticated sociable endeavor.” It is refreshing to read a discussion of Southey’s poems that does not condescend to the poet.
Tim Fulford’s essay considers the relationship between orientalism and millenarianism in Southey’s work and in contemporary opinion. It is partly focused on Southey’s response to the MP Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, an orientalist scholar who became a follower of the popular prophet Richard Brothers, and who defended Brothers in Parliament when the Privy Council placed him in an asylum. In this lively account, Southey the writer of oriental epics recognized Halhed as his alter ego, accusing him of everything he had been accused of himself, and seeing him as the embodiment of a dangerous combination of orientalism and Jacobinism—all the more dangerous because of Halhed’s scholarly and political credentials. Southey’s fear is characteristically expressed as a fear of infection, a fear that leads him to think of fanaticism as “a disease of British India that might leave the educated unfit to govern the uneducated.” The second part of the essay focuses on Southey’s poetic use of female figures to image all that seemed dangerous to him in oriental beliefs. Fulford cites the case of the enchantress and witch Khawla in Thalaba, who represents Southey’s ambivalence to the power of religious belief to infect people—his attraction to, and fear of, “the millenarianism that . . . he wanted to extirpate from Britain.” From here it is a short step to Joanna Southcott, whom Halhed followed, and who was seen by Southey as witch-like and infectious, and the source of a superstition “like” the oriental disease of fanaticism. The essay offers a vivid episode in a larger story, in which anti-Jacobinism was rewritten as anti-Indianism, in a way that justified war in France and India, and the repression of those Irish who revealed an “Oriental” tendency to support radical politics.
One of the strengths of Gary Harrison’s fine essay on “Ecological Apocalypse” is the way it draws out relationships between utopian dreams of improvement and dystopian nightmares in the Romantic period, and also relates them directly to our own era. Harrison notes that recent warnings about the consequences of human actions on a fragile environment (such as Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, 1962, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, 1989) tend to deploy a “‘rhetoric of apocalypticism’” to enforce their message, and mostly rest on a fear of scarcity. In this they resemble the apocalyptic thinking of the era of Malthus, who saw the sublime specter of scarcity as an immutable law of nature. On the other hand, “our contemporary ideologues of progress,” like their earlier counterparts, “tend to overestimate the benefits of agricultural improvement, as well as the capacity of the earth to sustain agricultural growth.” Harrison shows that the Malthusian myth of ending and the myth of progress as promoted by Arthur Young and his followers both worked to “stigmatize the laboring poor as a subaltern presence that threaten[ed] the body politic with disorder, disease and ecological disaster.” Moreover, radicals such as Spence (whose vision of egalitarian plenty drew on Young’s optimistic projections) and Godwin (who countered Malthus by insisting on the earth’s infinite capacity to sustain life) “promoted an ideology of production that downplayed the limits of human technology and underestimated the biophysical limits of the earth.” Harrison suggests at one point that the myth of Malthus may serve to moderate the myth of progress that legitimates the domination of nature today. But he concludes, more tellingly, that we must “move beyond the dyad of famine and cornucopia and recognize the political limitations, as well as the rhetorical excesses, of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideologues of progress and apocalypse.” There is some circling and repetition in this essay—but its powerful argument establishes important continuities between the Romantic period and our own age.
After a brief review of the male preoccupation with apocalypse in the Romantic period, Anne K. Mellor, in “Blake, the Apocalypse and Romantic Women Writers,” asks “why was the female imagination . . . on the whole not inspired by millenarian, apocalyptic thinking?” She argues that the sudden complete rupture between one cultural system and another (Foucault’s “epistemic break”) is antithetical to the “‘feminine mode of thought.’” She defines this mode—in terms developed by female epistemologists such as Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding—as “inter-relational and communitarian,” and seeks to ground it ultimately in biological differences. The biological grounding seems to me deeply problematic, since it depends on a severely reductive account of physiological processes, but Mellor frankly admits her explanations may be too simple. The important point is that women’s writing of the period “consistently represents time as continuous, as sustaining the production and reproduction of human communities.” She considers what appear to be three exceptions to the general rule, in order to show that they are not exceptional after all: Mary Anne Browne’s “A World without Water” (which “explicitly rejects as mere nightmarish fantasy the apocalyptic thinking that her male peers embraced,” since “her vision is only a dream”); Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (which tells not so much of the end of the world as the possibility of alternative beginnings, and warns of the dangers of a male-dominated world); and Joanna begin page 46 | Southcott (who could conceptualize the Second Coming of Christ only as a literal pregnancy and birth, only as an event in time). The essay contributes significantly to our developing sense of what is at stake in women’s writing of the period.
Philip W. Martin argues that Byron’s Heaven and Earth and Moore’s The Loves of the Angels (both published in 1822) “can be read as liberal texts that set out to challenge the strong presence of Christian Evangelical criticism in the culture of the 1820s.” Both works require their readers to imagine an “impossible sexual act,” namely the copulation of angels with human women, which is the scandalous revelation of the newly rediscovered Book of Enoch (translated in a new version in 1821). Martin locates both works formally in the “literature of encounter,” representing the meeting between two separate kinds or species (a literature that ranges from historical encounters with the new world, to encounters with alien new worlds, and receives its power “by way of the uncanny”). His essay notes some literary antecedents in Donne and Milton, alludes to other orthodox, broadly moral versions, and offers some tantalizingly brief comments on the language of each work (noting that racial purity figures large in the language of Byron’s drama, while “Moore’s women are occasionally figured in the terminology of the promiscuous botany that Linnaeus and Darwin produced between them”). He concludes with a reference to Lamb’s essay “The Child Angel: A Dream,” a response to Moore’s poem, which imagines the offspring of the transgressive union to be an angelic child not a monster, or rather two children, locked into permanent childhood (and therefore beyond Buffon’s proof of species—the offspring’s capacity to reproduce). This figuring of unfulfilled potential provides a fitting endpoint for an essay that teasingly opens up more lines of inquiry than it has time to pursue.
David Worrall’s “Robert Hawes and the Millenium Press: A Political Micro-Culture of Late Eighteenth-Century Spitalfields” delivers exactly what it promises. Worrall offers his account of a “micro-culture” in contrast to the “wider master narratives” (like those of Linda Colley and James Chandler) that promote an “imperial view of history that is not much help at the level of ground-zero local contemporary culture.” Working with modern bibliographical guides, contemporary pamphlets, materials from the Public Records Office and British Library Manuscripts Room, Worrall is able to reconstruct a vividly solid picture of the career and milieu of “the obscure Spitalfields pamphleteer, type-founder and printer Robert Hawes” which shows that “ideas of natural rights and resistive politics were dispersed into one of London’s most impoverished communities many years before the French Revolution.” The essay builds on material evidence of links between groups and individuals, supplemented by intelligent surmises. Worrall notes, for example, that the Swedenborgian Freemason Benedict Chastanier, whose project for a translated edition of Swedenborg claimed the support of the Duchess of Devonshire and William Pitt’s wife, included Hawes in the imprint of the first volume of the project. Hawes sold another Swedenborg volume on behalf of a “‘society of gentlemen,’” who “presumably” had links with the illuminist “Society of Avignon.” These links, proven and presumed, are “suggestive of the extreme social mobility of visionary religious discourses and how, in this instance, they were effortlessly co-opted into radical political agendas.” Worrall traces Hawes’s fascinating excursion into acrostics, the Home Office’s surveillance of him (predating the oppressive measures of the 1790s), his printing on tobacco papers for distribution in taverns—“No doubt the idea was to burn (or even ‘smoke’) the papers if spies were discovered in the room”—his response to Paine “the new Marvell”), his use of prophecy, his visits to Lord George Gordon in Newgate, and his connections with an embryonic workers’ cooperative in Spitalfields. In tracing such links, the essay brings into view the outlines of an intricate social fabric and a view of politics grounded in quotidian actions and events. In this area Worrall has located a rich vein of material evidence that he mines with great skill and enthusiasm, and that others will be able to make use of in the future. The essay ends with a coda concerning attempts to set up and regulate charitable food depots in Spitalfields in response to the immediate threat of starvation, attempts involving a kind of discourse that is, Worrall insists, remote from “the sort of reflexive ‘casuistry’ of events Chandler elaborates.” But the does not exactly cross swords with Chandler—they are standing too far apart for that.
In a discussion of Blake’s Visionary Heads, G. E. Bentley, Jr., notes that most accounts of these drawings after 1820 take them either as evidence of madness or as something to be explained away. “Scarcely anyone allows for the possibility that Blake drew what he really saw and that what he saw was really there, an extraordinary or spiritual phenomenon.” Moreover, Blake’s art has often been taken as evidence of madness precisely because he represented the spiritual world “in forms disconcertingly like those of the material, tangible world.” Does Blake challenge or merely confirm our skepticism? Bentley reviews contemporary reactions to the artist, as well as to his work, noting how often those who met Blake concluded there was a touch of madness about him. By 1820, though, those who knew him found nothing wild about him, and “were struck by his serenity.” The Visionary Heads, produced around 1819-20, may therefore be seen as products of this serenity. Bentley is not concerned to judge or interpret these works, but to produce a comprehensive list of them. He identifies parts of “the Folio Blake-Varley sketchbook,” a work that has yet to be located, but that is mentioned in Allan Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830). Three Visionary Heads survive from the work (Pindar, Corinna and Lais), and three other titles are known. Bentley lists these, and also provides a list of all of the other Visionary Heads. The listing effectively provides a supplement to that in Martin Butlin’s two volume catalogue.1↤ 1. Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981).begin page 47 |
In “Word as Image in William Blake” Martin Butlin casts his net wide in order to encompass the larger traditions to which Blake’s distinctive use of lettering can be related. He briefly reviews “the problem of the representation of God and the relationship of word and image that permeates the whole of Jewish, Christian and Islamic culture.” He suggests that Islam offers the most “extreme” solution, the exclusion of the human figure, and that in Islamic tradition iconography and decoration become literally the Word of God. He considers the shifting attitudes to figurative art in the Byzantine Church, in whose art lettering becomes an integral part of decoration, and notes that lettering also has an important part in the art of the churches of Rome. Having outlined these traditions, Butlin then traces the development of Blake’s interest in lettering, from the descriptive labeling of the scroll in “The Making of Magna Charta” (c. 1779) to the use of inscriptions in later works such as the epitome of James Hervey’s Meditations among the Tombs (c. 1820), the Job series, and the Laocoön. This is a careful, descriptive survey, which directs attention to connections and developments, while leaving us to ponder their significance for ourselves. Butlin concludes tentatively, and unexceptionally, that Blake perhaps unconsciously recreated in his own work “the emphasis on two rather than three dimensions and the combination of word and pictorial image found in early Christian and medieval religious art.”
Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi, in “The William Blake Archive: The Medium When the Millennium Is the Message,” describe the origin and rationale of the most important recent development in the publication of Blake’s works. When in the 1920s the pioneering editors D. J. Sloss (based in Rangoon) and J. P. R. Wallis (in Pretoria) published their landmark edition of Blake’s prophetic books, they lamented their disabling remoteness from each other and from “the centre of things.”2↤ 2. D. J. Sloss and J. P. R. Wallis, eds., William Blake’s Prophetic Writings, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926) I: vii. Now the medium itself is becoming the center of things, allowing scholars who live and work far apart to collaborate with ease. The Blake Archive brings together the formidable expertise of three major scholars, and, most remarkable, makes available, free to all who have the means of access, not only a large and growing range of Blake’s works, but also valuable contextual information, and the ability to “search” both text and images. Ten years ago we could hardly dream of such riches. This essay, another example of seamless collaboration (how, I wonder, does the writing actually happen?), explains the principles of inclusion and editing, and defines the larger aims of the project. The illuminated books are the core of the Archive, which will expand outwards “giving priority to significant interrelated clusters . . . such as the large color prints of 1795” and will eventually include Blake’s typographical works and his manuscripts. The authors note the severe limitations of printed editions of Blake, which have so far reproduced “a remarkably small subset of the books—not even a useful cross-section.” They rightly claim that “the dominant tradition of Blake editing has been overwhelmingly literary, ruthlessly discarding visual information,” and they may well be right to assume that “many students and even professional scholars know either the textual or visual side of Blake’s work but not both.” There will be no excuse for such neglect in future, since users of the Blake Archive “are positioned primarily not as readers but as viewers of a visual field.” When presented in such terms, the case for the Blake Archive seems overwhelming. However, readers might want to reflect upon the following sentence:
If we are going to contribute as we claim to the preservation of fragile originals that are easily damaged by handling, we must supply reproductions that scholars can depend upon in their research.At this point I have a vision of conservators nodding vigorously in agreement, and I begin to feel distinctly uneasy. In the British Library special applications are now needed to see Blake manuscripts that were once available on request, and applicants are likely to be offered a facsimile in the first instance. The same restrictions could conceivably be applied to Blake’s illuminated books in future. Reproductions of those books will certainly be enormously useful to scholars in their research, but only up to a point. No art historians worthy of the name would be content to base their work on reproductions rather than originals. Tucked away in the notes of Martin Butlin’s essay is this brief statement:
I support [Michael] Phillips’s idea that color-printing involved two printings although [Joseph] Viscomi, supported by Robert N. Essick, believes that it was all done in one process.Readers who have followed the debate between Viscomi/Essick on the one side, and Michael Phillips and Martin Butlin on the other, will know what is at stake here.3↤ 3. See Essick and Viscomi, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 35.3 (winter 2001-02): 74-103; articles by Michael Phillips, Martin Butlin, and Essick and Viscomi, Blake 36.2 (fall 2002): 44-45; 45-49; 49-64; and Martin Butlin, “William Blake, S. W. Hayter, and Color Printing” and Essick and Viscomi, “Response” at <http://www.blakequarterly.org>. For the arguments about printing processes turn on such material particulars as the presence or absence of pinholes, on the fine texture of colored surfaces, on precisely those aspects of the physical object that are most difficult to register on the screen. Here, as in some other aspects of interpretation, there is no adequate substitute for the material object, however finely produced, useful, and pleasurable the virtual equivalent may be. Conservators take note.
This collection of essays is intended to honor Morton Paley for his forty years of pioneering study of the culture of the Romantic period. It is an appropriate tribute, giving in its range a sense of the many-sidedness of Paley’s own work, which has been, in more than one sense, foundational.