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Samuel Baker. Written on the Water: British Romanticism and the Maritime Empire of Culture.

Samuel Baker. Written on the Water: British Romanticism and the Maritime Empire of Culture. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Pp. 344. $49.50.

In our contemporary age of jet travel and bullet trains--to say nothing of email and Skype--it is easy to forget that, less than two centuries ago, when Britons wanted to travel beyond their country's borders, voyage by sea was inevitable. Fortunately, we now have Samuel Baker's Written on the Water to remind us. With its strong (but not exclusive) focus on the poetry anal prose of the Lake Poets, Baker's dense but readable study brilliantly reconstructs the central roles of maritime and nautical cultures in Romanticera British literature. In the process, Baker not only puts forward new ideas about the relations between genre, mode, and politics in the period, but also points toward a new critical paradigm for understanding British Romanticism that should nuance and complicate, if not entirely displace, the influential "Romantic imperialism" thesis popularized in the late 1990s.

As Written on the Water persuasively demonstrates, the sea plays a variety of roles in Romantic poetry and culture. One of its greatest strengths is the way it repeatedly manages to schematize large patterns of thought without oversimplifying them. Early in the book, for example, Baker establishes that "the sea" operated for the Romantics in at least two spheres simultaneously: the worldly (the domain of commerce and imperial expansion) and the allegorical (the domain of life and death, late, and uncertainty). Thus, the sea was alternately "the avenue of British geopolitical power, the ultimate arena of commerce and war and thus of modern social transformation, and the medium of any possible universal society" (41). The final phrase of this last clause, moreover, is important: as opposed to the paradigm of "universal empire" (and here I refer of course to the subtitle of Saree Makdisi's now-classic 1998 study), which polemically claimed that most outward-looking Romantic-era literature tacitly or explicitly supported Britain's imperial ambitions in the period, Baker's phrase "universal society" stakes a new--and, to my mind, ultimately more persuasive-claim: what the Romantics were truly interested in establishing was an empire, neither of territory nor of peoples, but of culture.

To this end, and drawing on Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy's terminology in The Literary Absolute, Baker posits a catachrestical duality that alternately inspired and vexed the Lake Poets and their contemporaries: absolute culture ("culture intellectualized as a complete hierarchy of kinds of human life") and the cultural absolute ("culture experienced ... as a nonhierarchical multiplicity of incommensurate kinds") (72). In other words, for every attempt to establish or discover a uniquely British "culture"--especially one based on Britain's geopolitical situation as an island nation embodying an ideal combination of trade, liberty, and Protestantism--that could in theory be exported to the rest of the world, the Romantics just as frequently found themselves confronting the "ontological quandary" of "cultures" in the plural: "the idea ... that culture can be analyzed into elements that must, at its most essential components, be universal" (58). Absolute culture and the cultural absolute, in other words, have a disconcerting tendency to resolve into each other--an instability that Baker demonstrates was especially vexing, albeit for somewhat different reasons, to both Wordsworth and Coleridge throughout their careers.

In addition to this avowedly unstable dichotomy, Written on the Water uses a second, perhaps even more productive framework through which to interpret the Romantics' joint obsessions with the concept of culture and the ocean that both surrounded them literally and immersed their imaginations. If Part One, "Oceanic Fables of Culture," unpacks the abovementioned "absolute culture-cultural absolute" paradigm in absorbing detail, then Part Two, "The Wordsworth Circle's Modes of Insular Empire," lays out a three-tiered system for understanding the various ways in which the Lake Poets pursued their projects to disseminate their versions of British culture throughout their country and beyond. The term "insular empire" in Baker's subtitle here derives specifically from the writings of Gould Francis Leckie, a fascinating and too-little-remembered writer whose influential 1808 treatise, On the Foreign Affairs of Great Britain, laid out a plan for Britain's geopolitical expansion that abjured attempting to beat Napoleon at his own game of territorial conquest in favor of establishing "a system of sea-surrounded fortresses from the Mediterranean to the Baltic" (193). A1though Baker does not make his full case for Leckie's influence on the Lakers until Part Three, in the middle section of the book he considers how their uses of the period's most important poetic modes--georgic, pastoral, and epic--can be seen to correspond to three distinct (albeit interrelated) ways of thinking about how absolute culture might be promoted and disseminated, both at home and abroad. Baker proposes, in short, to link these modes to the "triad of modalities of power" theorized by Michel Foucault over the course of his career: the georgic with discipline, the pastoral with pastoral care, and the epic with governmentality (82). To Baker's credit, be deploys these articulations with an admirable mix of historical precision and theoretical fluency, neither forcing his model to do more work than it is capable of, nor overlooking the many moments of overlap or excess in the texts he cogently unpacks with its help.

Chapter Three, "The Maritime Georgic," considers how the concept of culture, understood in its most literal manifestation as "the material work of cultivating growth," transitioned from its traditional basis in the soil to a new locus in the ocean, site of the greatest focus of British expansionism in the Romantic era (83). Wordsworth, of course, has not traditionally been associated with the georgic mode, yet Baker--drawing especially on the recent work of Kevis Goodman--effectively demonstrates that a georgic sensibility pervades much of his work, from "Nuns fret not" (the "Prefatory Sonnet" to the 1807 sequences), to The Prelude and The Excursion, the latter of which receives one of several close readings that Baker productively undertakes throughout the book. (Written on the Water's introductory chapter, for example, opens with an illuminating reading of Coleridge's Time of the Ancient Mariner.) It is cultivation, at least as much as colonization, that Wordsworth has the Wanderer praise, and thus an industrious "georgic productivity" is the ultimate mode and lesson of the poem (91). After a brief tour through the now-obscure (but once highly respected) ideas of Jonas Hanway concerning the necessity of constructing a series of naval schools for "the most salutary polic[ing]" of poor, rural boys (100), the chapter concludes with another of Baker's characteristically compelling reinterpretations of a canonical classic. Viewing "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison" through several nautical optics--including the use of geometrical triangulation for oceanic orientation, and the British Admiralty's 1795 decree that lime juice was to be used to prevent onboard scurvy--Baker helps us see this well-known poem anew: "what Coleridge actually offers us is not a seascape or a sea picture; rather, it is a metapicture of the joyous mental life possible for a seafaring people, for island people such as those who made up his circle" (111).

In Chapter Four, "Brittania's Pastorals," Baker turns his attention to the Lakers' uses of another traditional British mode, reading their pastoral poetics through Foucault's notion of governmentality, and linking both to their often-ambivalent relationship to the surging, wartime nationalism of the period. This ambivalence is even more explicitly on display in Chapter Five, "The Dissolution of Epic," where Baker traces several (markedly unsuccessful) attempts by Wordsworth and Coleridge to compose the kind of epic poetry that, especially later in their careers, seemed appropriate for a triumphant, increasingly global nation. To Baker's credit, he does not attempt to argue that Romantic poetry develops or progresses from one of these modes to the next; rather, he repeatedly demonstrates that all three consistently inform the strivings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and (to a lesser extent) Southey. Discussions of the georgic do not drop out after the third chapter, in other words, but are folded into successive interpretations. The result is frequently revelatory: canonical poems like "Michael" take on new connotations ("In 'Michael,' local pastoral culture is shown in flux, undergoing, as it were, a sea change: it is being reorganized on a new, global scale by a mode of production understood already to take its character from the total scope of its circulation" [150]), while less well-regarded works like Wordsworth's "September, 1802" sonnet come to seem newly significant ("At bottom, as it were, this sonnet captures the consubstantiality of subject and nation that is fundamental to Wordsworth's shaping of a practice of national culture" [168]). Chapter Five ends, fittingly, with a consideration of Wordworth's most sustained attempt at epic, The Prelude, wherein Baker convincingly proposes that previous interpretations (of both the 1805 and 1850 versions) arguing that the poem cements Wordsworth's conservative turn have overlooked how it consistently deploys religious imagery to contrast the poet's positions to those of the Pitt administration. In Baker's reading, Wordsworth becomes the hero of his own national epic, "alienated from the national congregation not as an apostate but as a Protestant and a would-be reformer who wishes to steer a middle course between the atheism of Revolution and the false creeds of British reaction and Napoleonic empire" (187).

As this quotation suggests, by the end of the fifth chapter Baker has come a long way from the nautical themes and tropes that originally underpinned his argument. The book's final two chapters, however, tack back toward the maritime by focusing, successively, on the ways that Byron and then Matthew Arnold responded to the Lakers' negotiations of the cultural absolute in their quest for absolute culture. Byron's antipathy towards Wordsworth et al. is of course a matter of public record (see the cutting introduction to Don Juan). Baker demonstrates, however, that under his cosmopolitan surface Byron in fact shared much of the Lakers' program for establishing a maritime empire of culture: "Hence the series of crucial nautical passages articulating the Byronic mission, from the second canto of Childe Harold's celebration of British navigation, to the pirate hymn that opens The Corsair, to the apostrophe to the ocean that closes the fourth and last canto of Childe Harold, to the evocation of sailing close to the wind in Canto 10 of Don Juan, to The Island's tale of the mutineers of The Bounty" (217). Moreover, like Wordsworth, Byron struggled repeatedly (and frequently unsuccessfully) not to let "his supposedly oppositional oceanic romances ... become epics of personal imperialism" (216). Arnold, by contrast, had no such problem; inheriting from his father as well as from his Romantic predecessors a poetic and metaphorical attraction to marine imagery, Arnold seems simply to have embraced his role as exemplar of the cultural rectitude he wished to teach. His famous turn away from poetry in favor of criticism, however, suggests the cost of this pedagogical embrace, as Baker's redeployment of an aphorism from Saint-Beuve aptly suggests: "It means shipwreck for a poet to turn critic" (228).

In sum, Written on the Water ably establishes the hitherto-overlooked centrality of maritime and nautical imagery in the poetry and prose of the Lake Poets and their direct inheritors. Baker's study, moreover, goes far beyond these immediate aims, ultimately forcing us to rethink our assumptions about the Romantics' investments (or lack thereof) in the work of British cultural imperialism, both directed outward toward the wider world, and inward toward the self. The book has several other strengths as well; I believe many readers will join me, for example, in appreciating Baker's repeated engagements, not just with the work of contemporary critics, but also and especially with the foundational ideas of earlier scholars, including Lionel Trilling, Raymond Williams, and M. H. Abrams.

In our era of a shrinking market for scholarly monographs, Written on the Water bears some unfortunate traces of disinvestment by the University of Virginia Press: it is marred by too many typographical errors, and the index does not always do justice to the richness of the text itself. Nevertheless, Baker's book entirely deserves its place next to those classic studies of Romantic culture--and the culture of Romanticism--upon which it builds so intelligently and generously.

Evan Gottlieb

Oregon State University

(1.) Leah Price, "Introduction: Reading Matter," The History of the Book and the Idea of Literature, a special topic issue of PMLA 121 (January 2006): 9-16; Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, "What Is Digital Humanities and What's It Doing in English Departments?," ADE Bulletin no. 150 (2010): 55-61; Jeffrey J. Williams, "The Statistical Turn in Literary Studies," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 January 2011 : B 14-15.
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Author:Gottlieb, Evan
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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