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Michael Ferber, Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction

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Michael Ferber, Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction
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  1 MICHAEL FERBER ROMANTICISM: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION  (Oxford University Press, 2010) xvi + 148 Reviewed by Richard Lansdown When I read English at university in London  —   in the days when all four Beatles were still alive  —    there were many mug’s  guides and helpmeets available for the  bewildered undergraduate in that discip line. Longman had a series of “Prefaces” to challenging works of literature, and in that format I remember seeking guidance from C. S. Lewis on  Paradise Lost  . Cambridge had a series of introductory critical studies on British and Irish authors, and there too I sought guidance from John Barnard on John Keats. Oliver and Boyd, then proudly of Edinburgh, later sold to Longman Pearson, and now defunct, had a long series called “Writers and Critics . ”  (The best such primer I have ever read, S. L. Goldberg’s on James Joyce, came from Oliver and Boyd. I never encountered it as an undergraduate, alas.) The British Council had an even longer series, “Writers and their Work,”  which was showing signs of age even in my day, and which has descended more steadily into obscurity since. Their custard-yellow covers seemed to come musty from the printers, which did not stop me trudging through T. S. Eli ot’s brochure on George Herbert —   more for Eliot’s  sake than the great metaphysical’s, it must be said . In those days, American and British  publishing were more strictly sequestered, so I don’t think we Britons saw much of Twayne’ s U.S. and English authors, of which there are battalions. Then there was “Past Masters” from Oxford, which boasted pixelated images of great thinkers on their covers, as I recall, and the somewhat more intimidating “Modern Masters” from  2 Fontana, bristling with new and unfamiliar names  —   though I remember reading Frank Kermode on D. H. Lawrence there, certainly. And there were some Penguin “M asterguides ,”  stiffly irresolute as to whether they were for senior high-school students or junior undergraduates. And there were series like Macmillan’s “Casebooks” or Routledge’s “Critical Idiom , ” which summoned up the energy to re -invent themselves as New Casebooks or New Critical Idioms, as the times dictated. Then the death of the author came along, and the idea of writing an introductory guide on a literary topic  —    never mind a “canonical author,”  perish the thought  —    went into the publisher’s equivalent of the twilight zone. It took years for Macmillan and Routledge gingerly to reawaken the old series in their charge, and if introductory guides were needed, they were on the grand masters of grand theory: Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, é tutti quanti . In the early 1990s, a friend and I approached Oxford with the idea of adding Lord Byron to the “Past Masters,”  and the series editor was politely sympathetic, but on the grounds of sales, he said, he had had to make the reluctant decision to keep imaginative authors out. Cambridge was sympathetic, too,  but regretted it had no series in which to place such a project  —   at which point it went into cryogenic storage. But the whirligig of time has done what it normally does, and whether because of “the internet , ” or “ gen. Y, ”  or Wikipedia, or “dumbing down , ” —   though anyone dumber than I was as an undergraduate would be hard to imagine  —    the mug’s guide is back, red in tooth and claw. To its credit, Cambridge has decided to supplement its successful “Companions” series with one comprised of “Introductions” to plenty of canonical authors and literary topics beside. (So the Lord Byron project is being warmed up, though the commissioning editor tells me the Press undertakes new volumes with caution and care.) To its credit, too, Oxford has invested long and large  3 in its “Very Short Introductions,” of which Michael Ferber’s on Roma nticism is number 245, no less. True, a series of that length could hardly sustain itself entirely on newly commissioned items, and some old friends from my university days get a second chance at new readers here. Since Oxford seems to have gained access to the “Modern Masters ,”   Jonathan Culler’s book on Barthes reappears as a VSI, though thoroughly refreshed. The Press reta ins its own “Past Masters,”  too  —   though A. J. Ayer’s book on Hume (1980) can hardly have had much refreshment since Ayer’s death in 1989. Similarly, Oxford published Simon Blackburn’s  Being Good: A Short Guide to Ethics  in 2001, and it reappeared as a VSI to ethics in 2009. OUP makes no particular bones about other similar excerptings and acts of literary cannibalization on its list; why should it? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if these items either retain their old purpose or can be put to new ones, well and good. So we have nearly three hundred little books, from Winston Fletcher on Advertising to Andrew Robinson on Writing and Script  —   with tantalizing possibilities along the way, like Terry Eagleton on the Meaning of Life, and Frank Close on Nothing. (Imaginative authors remain where the “Past Masters”  put them, it must be said: the only non-philosophical writers to merit a VSI are Kafka and Shakespeare.) To write such books well, and really illuminate the readership for which they are intended, is very difficult  —  as I am sure anyone who has made the attempt will agree. But if such notorious undergraduate chokepears as Literary Theory (Jonathan Culler), Postmodernism (Christopher Butler), the Renaissance (Jerry Brotton), and Tragedy (Adrian Poole) can be put to rights by such means, the  grande dame  of British academic publishing can be proud of her endeavour.  4 Of such chokepears, Romanticism is certainly one: a movement (if that is what it was) that undergraduates find atrociously nebulous and diverse  —   infuriatingly so, in fact, because for most Anglophone readers this is the first phase of English literature that does not put up the sort of semantic and attitudinal barriers they encounter, for example, in Augustan or Renaissance works. Wordsworth is a Dead White European Male, certainly, but the Lucy poems are by no means as intimidating as The Faerie Queene  or The Rape of the Lock  . The Romantic movement cannot be called simply nebulous, however; it was also more concentrated in certain respects than the Renaissance, less elusive than Postmodernism, and certainly less intellectually befuddling than Literary Theory. Yet many have sought to introduce it to readers at large, and few have succeeded. In making such an attempt  —   especially with the undergraduate and general readerships in mind  —   the opening steps are surely crucial. Readers must feel the subject actually exists. Michael Ferber’s steps (in Chapter One, “The Meaning of the Word”) are well rehearsed, but I am not sure they are the right ones. On our side of the net we professors know about Lo vejoy and “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms”; but is his Pyr  rhonian (and in my view unduly pessimistic) reading of intellectual history the  first   thing that should be offered to readers (1), when a firm foothold might be preferable? Ferber says rightly that “readers of this book deserve an attempt to answer the harder question” as to what great “Romantic” writers had in common (xiii-xiv), but he remains nervous in his preliminary skirmishes. After Lovejoy we are embarked on a not very short semantic cruise over the etymology of “ Romance, ”  in practically every language under the European sun. Then comes René Wellek, whose set of Romantic “norms” (“imagination for the view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, and symbol and myth for poetic s tyle” [qtd. 9]) is nearly as  5 disorienting as Lovejoy’s refusal to entertain any. For good measure Ferber adds Harold Bloom’s “internalization of quest romance” (10) before bundling up the whole lot into a definition of his own, only to admit that “Perhaps this will join the long list of deflated definitional balloons some day ” ( 11). Are readers feeling comfortable and confident by this stage? Ferber was on firmer ground, I think, when he stepped right around these definitional pitfalls and employed Wittgen stein’s lucid  but flexible idea of “family resemblances” among Romantic figures (9): a notion that allows us to explore any number of relevant and significant Romantic “markers” without requiring us to assimilate Wordsworth and Pushkin completely. The other traditional line open to Ferber, of course, was the more strictly historical one of the Romantic movement as a fundamentally diverse but ultimately coherent rejection of the Enlightenment  —   a case made brilliantly by Isaiah Berlin in The Roots of Romanticism  (Chatto and Windus, 1999), which Ferber lists in Further Reading but makes no further use of, though he quotes Herder telling his compatriots at the close of the eighteenth century , wonderfully, to “spit out the water of the Seine” ( qtd. 102) containing the  philosophes  and all their works. But this historical line of exposition Ferber closes off  —   illogically I think. “It is a mistake,  above all, ” he writes , “to see Romanticism as simply succeeding classicism, or the Enlightenment, as if the 18th century were all of a piece ” ( 15; emphasis added). But m ay not the Enlightenment have had “family resemblances,” too, that may be usefully contrasted with those of the Romantic era? If not, why not? If fearless albeit risky generalization (14, xiv) is the life and soul of such very short discussions  —    and I’m sure Ferber is right that they are  —   why should we apply them to the Romantics but deny them to their intellectual forebears and antagonists?
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