Romantic writers remained in the public eye not because the “sincerity and strength” that Swinburne and Arnold found in Byron’s poetry enabled them to endure the vicissitudes of time, but because their writing was continually appropriated and iterated in new ways. Texts continue to speak because they are perpetually being made to speak anew in the web of reception, in ways that address local, specific needs within several distinct traditions. Each iteration allows a text (or the discursive field surrounding a person) from the past to “resonate,” in Wai Chee Dimock’s terms, with its new context. [130]

Decorated initial I

n What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, Tom Mole’s excellent study of the various ways various nineteenth-century forms of media constructed their own versions of Byron, Shelley, and other major Romantic poets, he begins by arguing that Victorians saw their own age as essentially new, as essentially different from all that came before. This rupture with past ages, which he traces to the French Revolution, destroyed old deeply felt assumptions that “time flows smoothly from past to present” (12). From this comes Victorian attempts to preserve and domesticate and reshape Romantic poetry. The fifteen chapters that explore what happened to the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Scott draw upon an usually wide range of scholarship (all of which is generously noted) as What the Victorians Made of Romanticism provides a large number of brilliant brief histories of everything from changes in printing technology, attempts to Create a “National pantheon”, the political dimensions of secularization, and the effect of poetic anthologies in shaping Victorian readers’ ideas of Romantic poetry. I found especially interesting chapter thirteen’s argument that Victorian anthologies of poetry conveyed a very limited and much distorted version of Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and others to generations of readers when “anthologies became the delivery system for literary leisure in capitalist modernity, injecting bite-sized chunks of culture into the intervals of a life of labor” (186).

The theoretical underpinnings of Mole’s project derive from Neil Postman’s Technopoly and its valuable, if limited, notion of media ecology, Fredrich A. Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media. Mole mentions digital technology and rhizomes but could certainly have deployed a greater knowledge of digital media, particularly hypermedia, because there networked connections are literal rather than metaphorical. In particular, the related notions of virtual and virtuality, whether from computer science or Baudrillard, seems crucial to all his complex subjects, especially that of attempts to create a national pantheon first from individual sculptures, then from groups of statues, and finally from two-dimensional simulacra of them in the form of photographs and postcards. Another opportunity to examine the role of virtuality appears in Mole’s particularly interesting point that for buyers of Edward and William Finden’s Illustrations of the Life and Work of Lord Byron (1833-34) the book’s plates functioned as “souvenirs of tours they had never made. The volumes offered a fantasy of travel, made glamorous by Byronic associations and yet rendered affordable and accessible at home” (70). The same point applies to Victorian (and modern) collectors of tourist patches, postcards, and refrigerator magnets.

Mole helpfully cites William McKelvy’s reminder that “the nineteenth-century clergy ‘was distinguished by its profound involvement with varieties of textual production.’ The church was the main profession for authors who did not live by the pen, and clergymen had the leisure and education to read literature, the rhetorical training and practice to write about it, and the status and connections to publish what they wrote.” (93). It's also certainly true that “many of those who pioneered English literature as a subject of serious study in its own right were ordained,” but in a reception history that places major emphasis upon non-canonical works and quantification it's more than a bit odd that Mole never mentions that until very recently books of sermons far outnumbered literary works. Exactly what percentage of clergymen’s writings are here relevant?

Like the critical theorists who introduced structuralism and poststructuralism to Anglo-American literary critics several decades ago, Mole takes literary scholarship and criticism to be a zero sum game in which there’s only one winner. My major reservation with What the Victorians Made of Romanticism involves not any of its many valuable comments about cultural, economic, technological, and religious history but his unneeded and ineffective criticism of other ways of reading the Romantics. According to Mole,

a central aim of punctual historicism, and its editorial cousin “textual primitivism,” is to help us read a text like its first readers. It aims to reveal what Nicholas Roe calls “aspects of [... ] poems apparent to [their] first readers,” and Marilyn Butler calls “the probable meaning for the informed first reader.” Editorially, as in Jerome McGann’s New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, it aims “to print the texts that had been made available to the poets’ original audiences,” or, as in Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “the texts that PBS intended his first reader(s) to see” (23). Privileging the first reader in this way can give the impression that literary works are events that happen once only. It can make it harder to see how they function in later contexts for other readers. In this way, punctual historicism neglects the important historicist insight that all present readings of a text are shaped by the history of past readings. In this respect, punctual historicism is not historicist enough. [23]

I see two issues or problems or issues here, the first being that Mole seems unaware of the textual theory that holds that every version of a text printed in an author’s lifetime is a valid text. Without this recognition, one would fall prey to the blunder of a famous critic who proclaimed that Henry James’s style remained the same throughout his career, because he did not know that late in life the novelist heavily revised his earlier works. More important, however, is Mole’s notion that close reading, historicism, biographical and other criticism impoverishes a text. Attacking historicism and earlier criticism based historical contexts, he charges that they have a “tendency to stitch texts so tightly to their context of writing” that other approaches are ignored. According to Mole, every critical approach other than the one in his book

ignores part of the special power of literary texts, which can speak to periods beyond their own in ways that are not determined by the context(s) of their pro-duction and first reception. Rita Felski explains that “historical criticism enriches our understanding of the provenance of a work of art, but it can also inspire a stunted view of texts as governed entirely by the conditions of their origin, leaving us hard-pressed to explain the continuing timeliness of texts, their potential ability to speak across centuries.” [23]

Mole and Felski perform a bait and switch here by starting with “can” and then implying methods other than their own always “inspire a stunted view of texts.” Of course, that’s true of all critical and scholarly approaches when done poorly, so the question becomes, “All things being equal, would you rather that readers, say, your undergraduate students, read Byron’s poems for their irony, imagery, metrics, meaning, and relation to other texts or that they know many portrait busts of him exist but nothing about the major poetry?” To be clear: my point is that Mole’s study of the way Victorians sterilized and fragmented Romantic poetry until they ended up with photographs of monuments is an interesting, informative, and perfectly acceptable scholarly and critical approach; but there's no need to attack other methodologies.

Mole argues convincingly that “Expanding our horizons to include popular commodified, remediated, and material forms of reception brings us into contact with other traditions of reception, which may be alien to our own historically and institutionally constructed protocols of reading. Understanding these different strands of reception history and the relations among them, then, requires us to think about what a tradition is, how multiple traditions intersect, and where we stand among them.” I don’t disagree with Mole here, but I also believe one has to pause and ask exactly what are these benefits for a student, instructor, other reader, or poet wanting to understand and experience the poetry of, say, Shelley, that atheist turned into a proto-Christian by some Victorian clergymen and critics? What does knowing that later nineteenth-century readers encountered books without Shelley’s major, most typical, and most important poems to the twenty-first-century reader of those poems? Similarly, reading about the sanitized memorializations of both Byron and Scott tells us important points about the Victorians perhaps, but how important to someone reading the poems of Byron and Scott today is the fact that sculptural portraits of both became popular and that photographs of their monuments became commodified? What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers valuable, always fascinating, insights into cultural history, particularly reception history, but it rarely touches upon literary criticism of the great Romantic poets it mentions, but there’s no reason that it should. Mole’s book offers a cultural history of the afterlife of the Romantics, or at least some of them, and it would be as unfair to evaluate it by the standards of explication de texte as to claim such reception histories are the best, or only proper way, to read about the Romantic poets.

Related material: Excerpted Sample Texts and Discussions


Bolter, and Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Kittler, Fredrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteet. with Christ Cullens. Stanford" Stanford University Press, 1990.

Mole, Tom. What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History. Princeton: Princeton University press, 2018.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Last modified 1 September 2018