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…

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