News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: David Stewart on The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s

David Stewart is Senior Lecturer in Romanticism at Northumbria University.  He has published widely on figures including Lord Byron, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb and on topics including short fiction, ephemerality, paradox, commerce, mass culture and the politics of style.  His first monograph, Romantic Magazines and Metropolitan Literary Culture, was published in 2011 and considered the qualities of the extraordinary wave of periodicals that burgeoned in the period after the Napoleonic wars.  His new book, The Form of Poetry in the 1820s and 1830s: A Period of Doubt, which we discuss below, has just been published by Palgrave.

1) When do you first remember encountering the poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, and what led you to want to write a monograph about it?

For a long time I didn’t know that I was writing a book about it.  I’d been teaching Leigh Hunt’s Story of Rimini for a few years and kept having fascinating discussions with students who loved it, and yet found it oddly unstable, almost, but not quite, laughable.  There are some kinds of poetry that we don’t quite know how to read: do we look for a deep and serious philosophy or a buried political context beneath the surface, or do we delight in its seemingly superficial charms?  I found some other poets who provoked the same reaction in me, and I realised what linked them was that they fell somewhere between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Victorian’ poetry.  A poem like Rimini might be the beginning of a poetic history that never quite took shape.  The usual story is that the poetry market collapsed in the mid-1820s, and the few poets who did produce poetry were not very good.  The fact that neither part of this is true (the market did not collapse, and these poets are just joyous to read) was something I wanted to correct.  Equally, though, I kept coming back to my own unstable reactions to these poets: the wavering uncertainty with which we view this hinterland might be its most valuable feature.  I wanted to bring the period’s poetic scene to a fuller attention, but without giving it the firm outlines of a clearly demarcated ‘literary period’.

2) Your subtitle characterises the two decades as ‘a period of doubt’, a doubt manifested both in poets’ responses to their contexts and in later critics’ attempts to frame their achievements.  How can working to understand the doubts that poets struggled with help us to gain a better understanding of their cultural moment?

I find doubt a fascinating state of mind.  Doubt can be active, even aggressive, but it can also be comic, a matter of being baffled; it might even produce wonder.  It is not a fixed state; instead, when we are in doubt we can test things out, we can speculate on what things are, or how things might be.  Byron writes so well about doubt in Don Juan, and I like especially these lines in Canto 1: ‘What is the end of Fame? ‘tis but to fill / A certain portion of uncertain paper: / Some liken it to climbing up a hill, / Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour’.  The poets of this period are remarkable partly because they thought so often, and so playfully, about the possibility that critics like me might come along and sift and sort them into a period.  The form that that writing takes – the fact that it is on ‘uncertain paper’ – is the means by which it can be transmitted to future readers, but equally is itself a matter that prompts doubts.  Are some ways of ‘filling’ that paper (some metrical techniques) more ‘certain’ of Fame than others?  Are some kinds of paper (some methods of publishing) more ephemeral, more ‘uncertain’, than others?  The lesson that I hope I’ve taken from these poets is that doubt can be a pleasure.  To ‘gain a better understanding’ of this ‘cultural moment’ means, I think, accepting that we’ll always be groping around in vapour.

3) Introducing the book, you stress the divide between emergent formalist and commercial aesthetics, and also discuss the prominence of light verse during the period, but you stress that these three strands have more in common than the discourses surrounding them often admitted.  How would you characterise the defining qualities of these three modes, and what are the main things that unite them?

One of the real pleasures of writing this book has been getting back to reading poetry attentively.  We tend to associate this kind of ‘formalist’ close reading with a detached idealism, and also with only particular kinds of poet.  One group of poets might seem to fit that model.  I discuss the young Browning and Tennyson, but also poets like Hartley Coleridge, George Darley, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes who have always found ‘fit audience, though few’, admirers who pride themselves on hearing the delicate modulations of their metre.  We can place these poets as the first buds of a Victorian aestheticism that comes into full bloom with Walter Pater.  They are opposed to another group associated especially with the material form of their commercial books: the poets of the literary annuals, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Landon.  These poets use metres, of course, but metre is deemed an irrelevance in books that are merely objects for display in the drawing room.  A final group – Thomas Hood, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, John Hamilton Reynolds, for example – provide something like what Kingsley Amis calls ‘light verse’: punning, bright-eyed wit that skims over the surface of society, valuable for the very perfection of the metrical surface they create and polish.  The attempt to create oppositions between kinds of poet is important, most particularly the role that gender plays in that process.  But they all share a curiously enabling doubt about categorisation.  Landon, for example, plays brilliantly with verse form and its relation to the books in which she appears; that tactic is mirrored by George Darley who, when he was not writing poems about fairies, was busy writing abusive articles about Landon.  The fact that Darley, Hood, and Hemans are all bound up in the green silk covers of the annual The Amulet in 1828 suggests some of the possibilities and perplexities this culture presents.  All of them think carefully, and with a disarming self-consciousness, about the place their poetry might have in culture, and how their poetry might form itself (metrically and materially) for readers in their own time and in an unguessable future.  It’s a conversation that is worth tuning in to, particularly in our own critical moment as we attempt to rethink critical methods like ‘formalism’, ‘historicism’ and ‘book history’.

4) If you were selecting a few key poems as standard-bearers for the poetry of this period (for a MA seminar, say), which would these be?

This feels like a slightly mischievous question: I feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘standard bearers’, poets marching under the banner of a territory that I would prefer to remain bewitchingly vague!  But no MA seminar can try to cover everything.  Some of these poets are well known: Hemans, Landon and Clare need no introduction for Romanticists.  There’s been excellent recent work on poets I look at like Hartley Coleridge and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.  Others will, I hope, prove more interesting than they have hitherto: George Darley and Winthrop Mackworth Praed especially.  I end with a section on the young Tennyson, who hardly needs my help to find fame, and consider how his work starts to change when we place him alongside Clare, Landon, Praed, Hood, Hunt and others.  I think we might learn the lesson from the editors of annuals like The Amulet and Friendship’s Offering: place a diverse selection of poems together, and see what chance lights are thrown out.  If I had to choose one poem, though, that gives a glimpse of what I love about this period, it’d be Praed’s ‘The Fancy Ball’ from the New Monthly Magazine of 1828.

5) What new projects are you currently at work on?

I’m working on place and fiction in the Romantic period.  My focus is on the Anglo-Scottish borderlands, and on writers including Walter Scott, Allan Cunningham and James Hogg.  There’s a relationship between humour, lies, fiction, and the experience of movement that I want to track.  I’ve been approaching it from a longstanding interest in this ‘region’ and these writers, but also via theories of place and mobility in geography and anthropology.  The anthropologist Tim Ingold’s work has been a revelation for me, as has work that sits between the creative and the critical by Rebecca Solnit and Kapka Kassabova.  I have an article on James Hogg that is the first fruit of this work: it should be coming out in The Yearbook of English Studies in a special issue on the 1830s.  I’ve also got a piece about Wordsworth and parody coming out this year in European Romantic Review.  I secretly want to write something about V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, but don’t tell anybody, least of all my research lead.

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