Back to Issue Six Contents

David Duff and Catherine Jones, eds, Scotland, Ireland and the Romantic Aesthetic

Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2007

296 pp., ISBN: 0838756188, £49

Murray Pittock, Scottish and Irish Romanticism

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008

296pp., ISBN: 0199232792. £62


Reviewed by Katie Trumpener


The last decade has seen a sudden flourishing of comparative Irish-Scottish studies, reflecting factors both geo-political and institutional: Scottish devolution; Northern Ireland’s peace process; the growing influence of postcolonial studies, world systems theory, the ‘new British history’ and ambient globalisation discourse; universities’ efforts to establish new transnational partnerships and a new emphasis on team-based humanities work. Twenty years ago, the fields of Irish and Scottish Studies were parallel but separate, and comparison between them felt speculative, risky; now it is literally institutionalised, visible in scholarly careers (as established scholars of Scotland have begun to write about Ireland—and to a lesser degree vice versa), in the establishment of collaborating Centers for Irish and Scottish Studies at institutions in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland, in their scholarly conferences, and finally in the kinds of volumes under review here.

David Duff and Catherine Jones’ essay collection and Murray Pittock’s monograph reexamine the literary phenomena of Romanticism (both as a period designation and as a literary-historical movement) as it plays itself out within Irish and Scottish literary cultures, and in relationship to some putative British ‘mainstream’. There are obvious reasons to dig in just here. Despite differences of historical and political situation, Scotland and Ireland each began to manifest a new kind of cultural self-consciousness and confidence during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a moment, in both literary cultures, of antiquarian/nationalist revival and literary renaissance.

Yet the works thereby produced don’t easily fit the old literary-historical understanding of Romanticism (whether as a literary movement loosely centered on five major English poets and Byron, or, as in Marilyn Butler’s 1982 Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, as a diffuse literary period which anticipates, then reacts against the French Revolution). Duff, Jones and Pittock thus ask what ‘Romanticism’ would look like if the co-existence of alternative and competing literary traditions were fully acknowledged.

Duff and Jones’ collection, based on a conference held at Aberdeen University’s Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, addresses itself to fellow specialists, already immersed in the study of British Romanticism, Scottish and/or Irish literature. A strong introduction lays out the recent history of attempts to theorise the intersection of these fields. The essays that follow are all well-argued, erudite and of high conceptual density. They vary considerably in their attention to overlapping national perspectives.

Several essays reexamine familiar English Romantics with sharpened attention to the question of Ireland and Scotland. Timothy Webb tracks a fascinating trail of references to Ireland and Scotland in the works, letters, and diaries of major English Romantic poets and essayists, noting who traveled to Ireland or Scotland (and what they thought of them); in such writings, he shows, Ireland and Scotland often appear as linked but contrasting cases. Fiona Stafford examines Wordsworth’s journey to Scotland as an aesthetic turning point, given his perception of the Highlands as a visionary landscape. Kevin Barry discusses Coleridge’s poetry as an instance of the aesthetics of paper, read against period banking crises (a context including Scottish Enlightenment economic theory and Irish political unrest).

Several essays address facets of Romanticism in Scotland. Hamish Mathison discusses Burns’ song collecting in relationship to problems of national identity—and Scottish governance; Nancy Moore Goslee explores Scottish literary evocations of Wallace; Caroline Franklin untangles Scott and Byron’s vexed relationship to the Scottish Enlightenment and the Edinburgh Review, to track the emergence of a new Scottish literary establishment; Kenneth McNeil describes Anne Grant’s shifting descriptions of Highland life from a Lowland perspective (including her observations on the politics of language); Catherine Jones examines David Wilkie’s genre painting in relationship to Scott’s historical novels, yet ends with Wilkie’s attempts to depict scenes of Irish life.

Jane Moore’s essay, conversely, provides Irish political context for Thomas Moore’s pamphlets. Claire Connolly uses the well-publicised Irish reception of a continental miracle-worker to theorise the shape and limitations of the Irish public sphere—especially given the ways the Scottish Enlightenment and Scott’s novels framed contemporary discourse about ‘miracles’. Two essays go further in elaborating transnational contexts for literary works and genres. Clíona Ó Gallchoir juxtaposes Irish antiquarian rebuttals of James Macpherson’s Ossian with Sydney Owenson’s influential adaptation of Ossianic primitivism to portray Celtic Ireland in The Wild Irish Girl. Ian Duncan (in an argument elaborated in his 2008 monograph Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh [also reviewed in this issue of IJSL]) looks at the national tale as a genre forged largely in Ireland yet working through a kind of dialectic of the Scottish Enlightenment—and repeatedly concerned with Scottish-Irish comparison. Such essays successfully develop a binocular or multi-faceted mode of reading and writing literary history, illuminating new dimensions of familiar texts. Duncan’s essay makes a particularly fitting finale, counterpoising key interpretive paradigms from Scottish studies with those which have emerged in Irish studies (and which he finds generally more theoretically developed), particularly around the key question of how (and whether) to develop or sustain national identity in the absence of a sovereign state.

As a whole, Scotland, Ireland, and the Romantic Aesthetic showcases the range of Romantic studies in recent decades, as it has moved away from a small, poetry-centered, male-authored, philosophically and aesthetically oriented ‘canon’ towards a much more inclusive investigation of literary, political, intellectual and visual culture. The field now gives sustained attention to the novel (and, although not represented in this volume, to drama); to a host of previously-forgotten women authors, and to debates outside and within literary texts about feminism, Jacobinism, abolition and empire; to para-literary texts and non-literary discourses; and to the institutional framework of literary life (including copyright law, publishing houses, literary reviews, and the shape of literary careers).

Scottish and Irish Romanticism, conversely, opens with a long rebuttal of mainstream Romanticism scholarship, which Pittock criticises as still overly centered on English poets; later chapters trace the gradual effacement of Scottish literary figures like Robert Burns from the postwar Romantic canon. Unlike Duff and Jones’ authors, Pittock addresses his account to students as well as to scholars of Romanticism, one reason to revisit older but still generally-held conceptions of the period’s literature. Pittock himself both proposes a Benjaminian approach to literary history (with ‘fossilized elements’ persisting into later paradigms), and provides an incisive introduction to recent historians’ work advancing an ‘archipelagic’ view of British culture and literature. Yet he also underscores the obvious pitfall that the archipelagic might still presupposes a de facto English ‘center.’ Perhaps in reaction, his own account only rarely attempts to collate its own narratives of national and nationalist literary culture in Scotland and Ireland with developments in England. Even the final chapter does not return to the questions with which it began. Instead, he turns to Scots’ (and to a much lesser degree, Irish) understandings of the British Empire, as a space from which both to recognise and find parallels to their own domestic situation. This underdeveloped coda remains the book’s most problematic aspect. Pittock’s chapter rests on a wealth of recent historiographical work on the role of Scottish and Irish officers, merchants, and colonists—and quickly advances theirs as a ‘fratriotic’ vision of other cultures. Yet it fails to address the bigger problems of what it meant, politically and ethically, to serve as agents of empire—or what it was like to inhabit the empire as an Irish convict or outlawed ‘Fenian’ rather than a Scottish major.

Pittock’s monograph, ambitious as a work of synthesis, advances a series of contrasting studies of Scottish and Irish figures, some (Burns, Macpherson, Edgeworth, Scott) also central to Duff and Jones’ volume, alongside others (Allan Ramsay, Robert Ferguson, James Hogg, Charles Maturin) not treated there. In its move back and forth between Scottish and Irish figures, Pittock weaves an increasingly complex web of associations, parallels, comparisons, and distinctions. Yet the book lists heavily towards Scotland. Scottish authors not only occupy twice as many chapters as their Irish counterparts, but become the book’s implicit paradigms. Pittock’s account begins not with the Conquest of Ireland (nor even with the eighteenth-century Jacobite uprisings, the subject of Pittock’s earlier books), not with Anglo-Irish writing from Spenser to Swift to Frances Sheridan or Oliver Goldsmith, not with the indignities of Irish disenfranchisement and Scotland’s forced Union… but with Ramsay, here read sensitively both in his own right and as a point of origin for Moore and Irish bardic poetry. Pittock’s account of Macpherson’s Ossian forgery is very good on its clear links to (and borrowings from) Irish Gaelic tradition as well as classical and neoclassical sources, yet mainly on the way to treating it as a key source text for later Irish writing. Maria Edgeworth feeds Walter Scott—but her later texts reflect back the influence of his subsequent fiction.

This Scottish emphasis (and implicit Scottish origin narrative) has political consequences. W.J. McCormack’s Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland, Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, David Lloyd’s Anomolous States, Ina Ferris’ Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland have meditated influentially on eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish literature as encoding the violence of post-Conquest Irish history, arguing that this writing laid the foundations for a wider body of Anglophone anti-colonial and post-colonial literature. An even longer tradition of Scottish cultural commentary, conversely, has seen Scottish writing as caught, from the Enlightenment onwards, in self-hatred, political compromise or accommodation, the colonisation of self and others. If Irish writing has recently been understood as laying foundations for a wider body of Anglophone anti-colonial and post-colonial literature, Scottish commentators have repeatedly read modern Scottish literature as a exemplary colonial and colonising literature, stoking only to check nationalist aspirations. In Pittock’s account, however, Irish literature remains in the shadow of Scottish literature—and Scottish literature somehow emerges as the preeminent proto-post-colonial literature. In repeated references to Frantz Fanon, Pittock even implicitly aligns Anglo-Scottish writing with the liberation struggles of the Algerian War—a comparison which would quickly collapse under closer scrutiny.

Pittock is on firmer ground in his deployment of Soviet (dissident) sociolinguist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theories of polyglossia help Pittock explicate the coexistence and opposition of different linguistic registers in Scottish writing. Pittock is at his best, indeed, when he analyzes linguistic texture and the politics of form. The highpoints of the book are excellent parsings of Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ as of Hogg and Scott’s textured, striated language, of the narrative compact in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent and the nature of Gothic imagining in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. Yet other, hastier readings can seem strained, sometimes literally efforts to decode isolated words as conveying buried, conspiratorial messages. Pittock references a vast range of scholarship, yet seldom engages at length with preceding interpretive paradigms. Joep Leerssen and Luke Gibbons provide key coordinates, but Pittock does little to acknowledge the revisionist macro-narratives of Tom Nairn, Cairns Craig, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Literature, the fine-grained literary histories of Robert Crawford, Ian Duncan, Joe Cleary, even important prior interpretations of major figures (Marilyn Butler’s recent work on Edgeworth, Norman Vance and Luke Gibbon on Moore, Robert Crawford on Ferguson, Ina Ferris on Maturin). On the local level, Pittock often pauses to offer complex (if occasionally abstruse or opaque) theorisations of particular texts’ stakes. Yet his own theoretical neologisms (‘anglopetal’, ‘anglofugal’, ‘altermentalities’, ‘fratriotic’), awkward on the tongue and page, seem unlikely to pass into general usage. Overall, he offers helpful readings of key Irish texts, and a thoughtful account of the paradoxes of Scottish experience. Yet in its recurrent attention to the divided self, linguistic doubleness, and the tension between aesthetic autonomy and political engagement, the book finally issues in fairly familiar (if newly nuanced) ways of characterising Scottish literature. Moreover, Pittock’s account is finally somewhat inconclusive about just what kind of bigger picture emerges from its framing Scottish-Irish contrast. Like Webb, Connolly, Duncan and Ó Gallchoir, Pittock remains most suggestive in motion, linking Irish and Scottish coordinates and reestablishing long-standing intellectual and literary channels between them.