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The Limits of Literary History

English Literature, 1815-1832 (Volume X in The Oxford History of English Literature)

by Ian Jack
Oxford, 500 pp., $10.00

Who does not recall, as a student, having been assigned to read certain large sections in volumes of “literary history.” One opened those heavy tomes—their multiple authors running down along the spines like a series of professorial hiccoughs—with a sense of dread and read through them in a thickening twilight of stupefaction and intellectual melancholy. If this is what literature was, then why should anyone have an interest in it? But literature was not like this, one knew, and so one staggered on through David Hartley’s influence on The Prelude (it may have been larger than Wordsworth’s), tripped over a poem called Whistle-craft, which kept being proposed as the chief cause of Byron’s Don Juan, and in the end did one’s best both to remember that one had done this reading and to forget what one had read.

These commonplace reflections are called forth by the publication of the latest installment in The Oxford History of English Literature. Ian Jack’s volume covers just seventeen years of that history, and is much superior to the older kind of study I have been referring to. Mr. Jack has read just about everything there is to read, wears his considerable learning very lightly, writes with grace and dryness, and in the main regards his subject with sense and in depth. For all these virtues, Mr. Jack’s book is somehow unsatisfying; one finishes it without the complex sense of gratification that the experience of a mind which has achieved a true historical mastery of its subject can render in us. One wonders whether Mr. Jack has chosen to write the wrong kind of literary history for the period in question, or whether there is something in the nature of the literary-historical enterprise itself—at least at this moment in its historical development—which breeds contradiction and inconclusiveness. For although Mr. Jack has read everything and covers a vast amount of ground, his book leaves the impression of a radical intellectual inconclusiveness.

Mr. Jack is at his best in dealing with specific historical material. The first chapter of his book, “The Literary Scene in 1815,” is a virtuoso performance. In fifty pages it describes with clarity and in surpassing detail the growth, workings, and influence of the great reviews, the lesser magazines and periodical papers, the publishing or bookselling trade, along with changes in taste and in the composition of the reading public. That part of the last chapter, “The Literary Scene in 1832,” which deals with similar subjects is equally impressive. In those chapters which concern the minor poets of the period—Clare, Beddoes, Darley, et al.—and the minor writers of prose and prose fiction—Peacock, John Galt, Theodore Hook, Leigh Hunt, Landor, etc.—Mr. Jack writes with great assurance, authority, and wit. Here is a typical passage of commentary.

The most remarkable features of the Poems (1808) of Felicia Dorothea Browne (later Mrs. Hemans) are the precocity of the author (they were written between the ages of eight and thirteen) and the length of the list of subscribers, which begins with the Prince of Wales and includes a thousand names. In 1812 she published The Domestic Affections, while from 1816 another volume appeared almost every year until her death in 1835…. She took the pulse of her time, and helped to prevent it from quickening. Elaborate poems on the deaths of Princess Charlotte and of the King himself put her loyalty beyond question, while in Modern Greece (1817) she had succeeded in the remarkable undertaking of producing a sort of respectable Childe Harold…. Many of her better things, such as the line “Blend with the plaintive murmur of the deep,” might be the work of a poetical committee. For her, we feel, poetry was a feminine accomplishment more difficult than piano-playing and embroidery but no less respectable…What we miss in her work is poetic individuality. We read her, we commend, and we forget.

Such a passage almost makes the penance of having once had to read Mrs. Hemans worthwhile. In it we hear the cultivated voice of the author of the excellent Augustan Satire, as we do in the following comment on the very popular poet, Bernard Barton, “the worthlessness of [whose] work is no longer in dispute. Yet he also serves as a reminder—a reminder of the fact that the English, who have produced the greatest poetical literature in the world, have a deep instinctive preference for the third-rate.” Mr. Jack himself does not share this preference for the third-rate, although it must be added that the minor and the third-rate fit into the categories of literary history with supreme convenience. They are the figures who can be discussed as being wholly determined by the literary past, or whose work can be best understood as falling within the logic of the history of literary genres and so exhausted by that history. As long as he is dealing with such dependent sensibilities, the literary historian has it all his own way.

It is when he turns to the larger figures and issues of the age that Mr. Jack runs into trouble. His chapters on Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and on Hazlitt, Lamb, and De Quincey, are eminently disappointing; a discussion of Scott’s fiction is only slightly less so. And as for problems of intellectual history, alterations in consciousness, developments in philosophy, and the relations of all these to literature, Mr. Jack meets such matters by what has to be called a studied avoidance. This volume deals with what is usually thought of as the second half of the Romantic period; and if one did not know about this from other sources, one would never learn from Mr. Jack’s account that it was a time of enormous creative upheaval, or that during these years an astonishing congregation of major creative minds were suddenly thrust forth upon the world. No reader of Mr. Jack’s work will be able to discover from these pages that in such immense circumstances as the French Revolution and its train of consequences, the growth of German philosophy, and the outburst in all directions of English literature a permanent revolution in human experience and consciousness was taking place.

The fact is that Mr. Jack is a revisionist historian, and his revisionist distaste for generalizations is extended so far that it makes most of the figures whom he discusses less interesting, less important, less meaningful than they in truth are. For example, at various moments Mr. Jack indicates that this period saw a remarkable increase in autobiographical writings, that writers suddenly became engrossed in their own childhoods. And at this point he stops. That this change: a) should have been caused, determined, or influenced by some thing or things; b) should have some large, manifold significance both in and outside literature; and c) should have changed our conceptions of both creativity and literature—not to say childhood itself—is a matter he resolutely avoids. That is to say, the interesting part is left out. Similarly, in dealing with a group of writers whose personal lives and experience not merely suffused their works but in whom personal experience was in the course of becoming a conscious principle of creativity, Mr. Jack has clung to the sturdy expedient of dropping all biographical matter into an opening footnote and then going on to discuss their careers as writers without reference to that experience. As a result, his chapters on the major writers tend to be chronological summaries of abstract literary careers; new works of literature are essentially caused by the writer’s reading—that is, by other works of literature—and we find ourselves back again, though on a higher plane of intellectual competence, with our old friend, the history of literary genres. The major decisions in writing literary history have to do with contexts: how wide or narrow is the context in which you choose to regard a work of literature; how many influences are you willing to see playing on it simultaneously; how many relevant connections with the world outside literature are you willing to attribute and able to suggest. The revisionist historian, with his abhorrence of generalization, tends to choose the narrower, often the narrowest, context. For those figures or topics whose interest is purely “literary” and can be exhausted by purely technical and literary discussion, such a context is adequate, and, as I have suggested, Mr. Jack deals with them remarkably well. For those figures or topics whose interest transcends or goes beyond the purely literary, for those figures in whom we are interested by reason of what they have to say about their experience, or of how they engage the world about them, or of how they develop a vision or idea of the life of their own time—in other words, for the major writers—such a context is inadequate and indeed finally fails to make them either available or intelligible.

Such shortcomings are nowhere more evident than in those extended passages where Mr. Jack tries to dispute the idea that there was any substantial unity, coherence, or meaning in the period of English literature to which he has chosen to devote some years of his life. He attempts this by first declining to admit that there existed in England such a thing as the “Romantic Movement.” He is naturally thinking of the situation in Germany where certain writers discovered they had common ideas and goals, banded together and called themselves Romantics. In England by comparison there was less banding together and very little common ideology. But of course this sort of argument proves nothing. The absence of a consciously organized movement makes, in such matters, an interesting and important difference, but says nothing at all about the existence or non-existence of the large phenomenon under examination—Romanticism. Mr. Jack has very simply tried to solve his problem by denying that it exists; his answer to the question of whether anything of peculiar significance “happened to English literature in the early nineteenth century” is that it all “depends on the standpoint of the observer.” To which one can only reply, come off it, old boy, you know better than this.

In his excess of revisionist skepticism, Mr. Jack has emptied his subject of general importance. In his refusals and denials he becomes a parody-in-reverse of those German academicians who solemnly insisted that only writers who explicitly declared themselves as Romantics could be considered part of the movement, related to one another, or part of the same general tendency of mind. They characteristically fell victim to a definition, mistaking an idea for a real thing; Mr. Jack, in a manner equally characteristic (if less hallucinatory), cherishes the discrete objects and is skeptical of all efforts to relate them to an idea. The only relations he will allow are those that go back to specific sources in the particular English literary past; and he rounds off his discussion by stating that “to me at least sources have always been more interesting than analogues.” This is a bit of special pleading and doesn’t even pretend to the rigor of argument. The answer to it of course is that neither of these alternatives, in either practice or theory, is exclusive of the other.

But Mr. Jack has already cited a conclusive disproof of his assertions. In the preface to The Revolt of Islam Shelley writes, “But there must be a resemblance, which does not depend upon their own will, between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live.” The feebleness of Mr. Jack’s position is indicated by the fact that he makes no effort to deal with this statement. The feebleness is of a general intellectual kind and is, paradoxically, reminiscent of nothing so much as those older and antiquated literary histories which Mr. Jack’s volume and the companion volumes in this series are intended to supersede. Despite Mr. Jack’s genuine sophistication and critical intelligence, his unmistakable superiority as a critical mind to those older historians, his work is in the end less supersession than substitution. And in the end it is the narrowness of his idea of literary history that does the most damage to his undertaking; in this connection it seems reasonable to ask whether it is literary history as a mode of discourse or intellectual discipline that is most questionable, or the current state—in our culture at least—of the historical disciplines in general. To those of us who understand the study of literature—including literary history—to be inseparable from the study of man, society, and civilization, Mr. Jack’s book is a disappointment. It disappoints in the degree that we are led by its author’s knowledge, scholarship, and intelligence, by his critical gift and humane wit to expect a great deal—and in the degree that those expectations are violated.

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