The British Romantic writers pose a troubling dilemma for modern readers. On one hand, we wish to associate them with revolutionary optimism and populist aspirations. Many scholars follow E. P. Thompson in holding aloft the banner of unskeptical faith in the radicalism of the youthful Romantics, lauding the political activism sympathetic with the French Revolution, the assertion of changed sexual mores, the rupture of conventional theology. On the other hand, the political drift toward Toryism and social conservatism prominent among the aging Romantics was not unheralded by a troubling antifeminist streak in personal conduct, and a facile unconcern with revolution except as an allegory of individual and artistic rebellion. Thus, for other scholars, the Romantic poets have remained in disfavor for what has been perceived as a solipsistic concern with the independent writer, individual inspiration, and detached preoccupation with originality. Pierre Macherey implicitly indicts the Romantics when he declares that "all considerations of genius, of the subjectivity of the artist, of his soul, are on principle uninteresting."(1)
But unitary definitions of radicalism are not easily fixed, for the era or for the individual writer, as the self-contradictory polemics of figures such as Rousseau and Cobbett illustrate. Contrarieties abound in every corpus, including the familiar Romantic poets, and class resonances pervade even their ostensibly apolitical theoretical statements on the nature of poetry written during the years of youthful radicalism. The objective of this essay is not to offer reprimands, but rather to issue a reminder of the contradictions and difficulties which abound in trying to read the writers of this era, and any era, for whom familiarity has led to complacency and an assumption that the political history of Romantic writers has long been mapped. Such questionings have sometimes been misunderstood or feared as attempts to reduce respect for the poets, to deaestheticize them, or to disparage their influence; but their true purpose is to warn against the reductiveness of approving only those readings of Romantic texts--and only those texts--that conform to a limited vision of the period which substitutes adulation for accuracy and reverence for a real understanding of the complex and innovative intellectual confrontations of the major Romantic poets.
In this article I shall explore some of the tacit class implications of Romantic poetics, and in so doing, I hope to illuminate a key problem faced by the Romantics, and persisting even to the present day: that of the widespread perception of literature, especially poetry, as an elitist form. Despite the populist locutions sprinkled throughout Romantic criticism, and despite the revolutionary assertions of their use of genre and political theory, Romantic writers found themselves faced with unanticipated problems when it came to addressing the inconsistently educated middle-class audience that had replaced the traditional aristocratic sponsor of poetry and now formed the new magazine-reading and book-buying public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As Romantic writers attempted to formulate poetics (theories of reading and writing) to locate the new social role of the poet amid a shifting audience, they were compelled to confront questions of mass readership, the boundaries of high and low culture, and the changing institutions of art. Despite the very real innovations of Romantic writers such as Wordsworth in creating a literature of "common life," the Romantic poets and critics had difficulty articulating a poetics equal to their achievement, and indeed, they often fearfully sought to avoid association with working-class and even middle-class audiences and writers.
In this context, I am particularly interested in the frequent use of the term "common" in Romantic poetics--common man, common life, common speech, common sense, common feelings, common taste--expressions indebted to Johnson's exploration of the "common reader," a topic inherited from Theophilus Cibber's earlier Lives of the Poets, and later popularized by Virginia Woolf. Despite the prevalence of the prefix, it is, as Walter Benjamin wisely says in reference to common sense, "unquantifiable."(2) For the Romantics, however, as they sought to navigate the quicksands of the literary marketplace, its vagueness offered comforting populist reassurances without explicit liabilities. Such was the intellectual predicament of the Romantics: they tried to court a buying audience but feared the devaluating taint of mass culture; the temptation to enlist the common reader competed with nostalgia for the aristocratic fit-though-few.
De Quincey and Hazlitt, prose writers who styled themselves intellectuals yet dealt regularly with the popular periodical audience, present the most vivid exposition of the dilemma. Writing for the Magazines and Reviews gave them a visibility and recognition they viewed with the ambivalence of pleasure and disdain. De Quincey grumbled to Emerson that Tait's Magazine had "vulgarized" his works, and Hazlitt sniffed, "It is not everyone who can write third-rate books.... I attempted a more popular style, and succeeded." As the Romantics were aware, the "`poor forked animal,'" the unaccommodated author, had an increasingly diverse and therefore more difficult audience to please in the wake of wider literacy, improved middle-class standards of living, and advances in print technology that permitted the surge of periodical circulation.(3) The Reviews, with their standard practice of using lengthy excerpts, also provided an instrument of distribution that far exceeded previous mechanisms. But if the Romantics (like every other generation of authors), dreamed of an ideal appreciative audience, when they articulated their theories of poetry they more often depicted themselves victimized by a tyrannical, uninformed, or inconstant readership.(4)
De Quincey is an especially interesting figure, for as a prose writer who spoke in the tongues of allegory, he fancied himself bridging poetry and prose. His autobiographical Sketches used the Irish insurgency as an analogue of his social and intellectual rebellion, in imitation of Wordsworth's allegory of the revolutionary self in The Prelude. The chapter "Introduction to the World of Strife" set the account of boyhood tyranny and rebellion against a fierce subtext of class conflict, using a program of references to the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the British and Roman civil wars.(5) He recounts how his tyrannical and aristocratic older brother William carried out his despotism upon his younger siblings, and upon the "sansculottes" factory boys. William forced his brother into compliance with his "commands," and the young Thomas despaired under the kin to whom he "owed military allegiance," and the twice-daily war with the cotton factory boys: "I felt resting upon me always. . . a burden which I could not carry, and which yet I did not know how to throw off." He finds himself repeatedly drawn into "mutiny" and "rebellion," forming sympathetic alliances with his sisters and younger brothers (scorned by William with "Burke's phrase . . . `the swinish multitude'"), and when captured by the "plebeian" factory boys and girls, exchanging embraces in "treasonable collusion" (sharing "a personal Jacobinism . . . which is native to the heart of man, who is by natural impulse . . . impatient of inequality"). The persecutions end only with the death of the tyrant, William. In extending the Wordsworthian use of the French Revolution as a figure for artistic revolution, De Quincey's image of warring within the family becomes a figure for the artist's growing inclination to form new class alliances; like Shakespeare's dark lady luring him from aristocratic patronage to the stage, De Quincey found himself increasingly alienated from the artist's traditional assumption of aristocratic livery.
It was not without ambivalence. Although at times De Quincey fondly reminisced about the Elizabethan era of aristocratic patronage--"the word patron is a favourite word with me, from its association with those high and noble instances of patronage, about the age of Elizabeth"--he also avowed that the practice had irremediably decayed into corrupt forms, naming Wordsworth's Lord Lowther. Hazlitt also idealistically reified the classical past of patronage as a time when only those with "natural taste" would dare to write or judge, a golden age of critics and patrons in ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy--both historicizing the fit-though-few audience Wordsworth championed, and the bards Keats envisioned "on pleasant sward, / Leaving great verse unto a little clan."(6)
De Quincey, however, pragmatically observed: "Writers and readers must often act and react for reciprocal degradation." His essay on the professional career of Oliver Goldsmith directly addressed the ambivalence with which Romantic authors now faced the "new class of people" that had entered "our reading public."(7) He wrote, reminiscing about the elite readers of the past, "To be a very popular author is no longer that honorary distinction which once it might have been amongst a more elevated, because more select, body of readers": "To have missed, therefore, this enormous expansion of the reading public, however unfortunate for Goldsmith's purse, was a great escape for his intellectual purity. Every man has two-edged tendencies lurking within himself, pointing in one direction to what will expand the elevating principles of nature, pointing in another to what will tempt him to its degradation." Like many of his contemporaries, De Quincey was skeptical of the expanding mass readership, "the new influx of readers in our times": "A mob is a dreadful audience for chafing and irritating the latent vulgarisms of the human heart." He referred ambiguously to "the great reading public," the new economic force in the marketplace, as "that true and equitable patron, as some fancy," but which had in Goldsmith's time "not yet matured its means of effectual action upon literature." Of course, De Quincey, like Wordsworth in his various prefaces, exempted his own readers as an estimable vox populi. Using the same language of fear associated with Jacobin disruption so common among the Romantic poets, "A popular writer," he explains, "speaks to what is least permanent in human sensibilities" and must depend on "his canaille of an audience." Hack novelists were particularly responsible for encouraging this situation. "To be popular in the most extensive walk of popularity. . . a writer must generally be in a very considerable degree self-degraded by sycophancy to the lowest order of minds"--a cringing follower rather than the inspiriting leader idealized by Shelley and Wordsworth.
Even as he gave new status to landscape painting, Thomas Gainsborough heeded the highly patronized portraiture market: "a Man may do great things and starve in a …