Published Humanitas, Volume VIII, No. 1, 1995
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
British Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, by Stephen Gurney. New York: Twayne, 1993. 341 pp. $26.95.
Critics sometimes come to resemble the writers they study, even when they are being critical. Stephen Gurney’s history of nineteenth-century British poetry, a doctrinally humanist study, owes a thing or two to a period that cut the legs out from under humanisim. Gurney surveys his subject in two period overviews (“The Romantic Ethos,” “The Victorian Ethos”), followed by sequences of chapters that attend to particular writers or movements. This way of arranging things subordinates narrative to a system of parallels and analogies that the historian reads into and out of the particular cases. This is the way of the “cultural” history that Hegel and his successors developed; romantic concepts of imagery, mood, and genius had much to do with its analogical methods. As Gurney puts it, “the Romantics saw themselves as healing the breach between the worlds of fact and fancy, imagination and reality’’ (11); just so, he draws parallels between social and intellectual history in his overviews, and explores their reflections in the lives and letters of his writers in the chapters that follow. Perhaps the immediate source for this kind of history is less Hegel than Thomas Campbell or William Hazlitt, whose public lectures on the British poets parallel the genius of the age with the genius of its leading voices. A lecturer would delineate the character of the age of Elizabeth, Anne, or George, and explicate its resonances in the verse of the era. The poets— Shakespeare, Pope, or Wordsworth— were called in as privileged witnesses (see-ers and seers) whose elevated points of view could be replicated through the medium of appreciation. When English studies were finally incorporated into the college curriculum at the end of the last century, this impressionistic way of presenting literary history became the staple of the survey course. Stephen Gurney’s book is a printed version of such a series of classroom lectures, and it will prove very useful to readers who elected out of Brit Lit, or, as sometimes happens, had their minds on other things.
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