The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   36

The Romantics

England in a Revolutionary Age

by E. P. Thompson, edited by Dorothy Thompson

New York: The New Press, 1997
The late E. P. Thompson was a brilliant social historian and an equally brilliant writer; it is enough to name The Making of the English Working Class and The Poverty of Theory, his marvelous polemic against Althusser and ``structural Marxism.'' For many years, since the '60s, he had made illustrative use of the Romantic movement in England in his writings and lectures, and been promising a major study of the movement, a work which could hardly be too eagerly anticipated.

The Romantics is not that book, which was never written. Rather it is a collection of essays, mostly published as book reviews been 1968 and 1993, the year of his death, containing material which would have been used in that study. There's a good deal of interest here, about the English Romantics of the generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge and their times, as well as more general reflections on the difference between disenchantment and apostasy (the former to be much preferred for writing poetry, the latter perhaps for criticism), paternalism (but not patriarchy), and the nature of revolutionary and utopian intellectual movements. Moreover, all of it is written with Thompson's characteristic felicity of style and generous sensibility (though he seems to have read a very different book titled The God that Failed than I did).

All of these merits must, alas, merely serve to increase our regret and disappointment that the promised study of the Romantics was never completed, since this book can hardly serve as a substitute. To begin with, the connection between the social situation of the Romantics and the form and products of the movement is merely hinted at or even implicit, an omission Thompson, of all people, would have remedied had he the chance. There is not above five pages on feminism and ``the woman question,'' though Thompson avers its importance; and nothing on the relationship of the English Romantics to their Enlightenment predecessors, or to their fellow Romantic on the Continent, or even to the later generation of Byron and Shelley. Because they were published in many different venues over a span of two and a half decades, each of these pieces is entirely self-contained; the result is a high degree of repetition in an already slim book, even to the point of repeating jokes. Finally, the production not exactly all that could be desired --- the writer of the dust-jacket blurb was obviously hallucinating, and not only is there no index, there is no table of contents.

Doubtless, it is better to have Thompson's essays on the Romantics collected and published together than mouldering in obscure conference proceedings and old numbers of the Times Literary Supplement, and university libraries and scholars of the period will doubtless want copies, but there is little here for the rest of us. It would take a peculiar sort of scholarly ingratitude and greed to wish that Thompson had spent the last few decades researching a literary movement two centuries dead, instead of being part of a somewhat quixotic campaign to keep the human race from blowing itself up: but putting down this book, I find quite a bit of such greed in me.

225 pp., bibliographic end-notes
Europe / Literature, Literary Criticism / Modern History / Poetry
Currently in print, US$25.00, ISBN 1-56584-360-6, LoC PR447 T56