'Authors are not the solitaries of the Romantic myth, but citizens.' The spirit of Marilyn Butler's excellent book on the Romantics is itself that of citizenship: of belonging to a civilised community, cultural and intellectual, which one helps to sustain and is sustained by, and which makes possible the truest duties, rights and privileges. Rewards, too, and the rewards of this radiating and radiant book are great. For if from one point of view Marilyn Butler is the citizen of a smallish community within a community - those within universities who speak of English literature - from another she is importantly and not self-importantly a citizen of the world. The term naturally has its good-natured comedy, and she describes it - when conferred by Goldsmith on his visiting Chinaman, a penetrating watcher of 18th-century English civilisation - as 'a phrase both levelling and universal'. (One, incidentally, which itself helps to sustain a community of the like-minded, since Goldsmith shares the right to it with his fellow citizens Caxton and Bacon.) Dr Butler is a citizen of the world not only in that she does not - cannot, in pursuit of her essential questions - limit herself to English Romanticism; and not only in that she writes with a witty clarity, humane and free, such as makes her book uncondescendingly open to a much larger world than the academic one; but also in that her preoccupation is the pressure of the great world upon Romantic literature - the pressure, in particular, of national and international affairs.
LRB 19 November 1981 | PDF Download