Book Review – The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism
The University of Cambridge, the second oldest institution in the English speaking world, has always been known as one of the prime centers of literary scholarship. Their publishing arm, the Cambridge University Press, is the oldest publisher in the world and is known for its high standards in editing and publishing. Because of this it comes as no surprise that books published by Cambridge University Press hold to the highest standards of academic scholarship. The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, edited by Stuart Curran, is no exception.
Surprisingly enough, the Cambridge Companion is made up of eleven essays about the English Romantic period. With topics ranging from theory and criticism and Romantic poetry to women writers and the Romantic sister arts, the Cambridge Companion has an adequate selection of essays written by some of the world’s most prominent Romantic scholars to give the Romantic literature student a few starting points for their studies.
The first essay, Romanticism, Criticism, and Theory, outlines a history of the theory used to ‘read’ Romantic text. Including theorists from all periods – from Matthew Arnold to Michael Foccault – the essay offers a wide choice of theory available for students to research. The second essay, Romanticism and The Enlightenment, supports the view that Romanticism is too broad a concept to be defined under a single umbrella term, and that the best way to look at Romanticism is to look at it as a bridge between the Enlightenment and the Victorian era. Poetry in the Age of Revolution focuses on the direct influences that the French Revolution had on Romantic writing, and how the Romantics themselves were revolutionaries standing against the formal structuralization of thought invoked in France and against the preconceived notions of good poetry based on metric from the Enlightenment. The essay on German Romanticism seems to be a summary of the ideas exposed by Khant, Hume, Locke, and other writers of the time, and proposes that said ideas were influenced by German thought. The essay on language and Romanticism focuses on linguistic analysis of the Romantic texts. The essay focuses on Locke’s language theory, and makes a brief mention of Chomsky and other linguists from different eras. The following two essays – The Role of the Review and Romantic Hellenism – outline the history of the review during the Romantic period and trace the influences of Greek arts in romantic writing. The essay Women Readers Women Writers focus of the historical aspects of female Romantic writers, excellent writers of merit who are often not covered in Romantic courses, and the essay on Romantic Prose exposes certain points about how Romantic culture saw written prose. The essay on Romantic Poetry – which I feel is the main piece of the book – talks about how the Romantic period came to focus solely on poetry, what poetry meant to the Romantics, and the various interpretations for said poetry. The book concludes with a wonderful essay on the marriage, or “successful rape”, as stated by the author, of two different arts – painting and writing. The essay focuses on William Blake, engraver, painter, and poet, and how he successfully melded together imagery and words.
Regretably, none of the ideas presented in the book are original or of a groundbreaking nature. Being intended as a starting point for the Romantic student, the Cambridge Companion focuses more on the historical connotations, the theory, and the various approaches that can be taken to analyze the literature than in the literature itself. However, this approach to scholarship is in itself the biggest flaw of the book. All of the authors make references to Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly, Byron, Coleridge, and – to a lesser extent – Blake, and elucidate for pages on end about the merits and qualities of one poem or another. However, the actual poem is nowhere to be found. It is safe to say that the Cambridge Companion presupposes certain knowledge of Romantic literature and of the Romantic period. Students engaging with this book should at least be familiar with the works of the six major Romantics and a few of the minor ones and know about the historical events transpiring during this era. Once the students have reached a crossroad where they know ‘enough’ about Romanticism, this book offers them several possibilities for specialized scholarship.
Certainly, it is not expected that students agree with all of the essays written, and while it is expected that a fair portion of readers will find something of interest in all of the essays, it is also expected that some will think some of the essays to be irrelevant or useless, depending on the particular approach they take to the poetry.
In the end, the Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism is the ideal volume for someone who has read the poetry and is seeking to learn ways of how to approach it critically. However, for someone who has already had experience with literary criticism, the book might prove to be a refresher on concepts one already is familiar with.