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Written on the Water

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

Samuel Baker
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Written on the Water
    Book Description:

    The very word "culture" has traditionally evoked the land. But when such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and, later, Matthew Arnold developed what would become the idea of modern culture, they modeled that idea on Britain's imperial command of the sea. Instead of locating the culture idea's beginnings in the dynamic between the country and the city, Samuel Baker insists on taking into account the significance of water for that idea's development. For the Romantics, figures of the island, the deluge, and the sundering tide often convey the insularity of cultures understood to stand apart from the whole; yet, Baker writes, the sea also stands in their poetry of culture as a reminder of the broader sphere of circulation in which the poet's work, if not the poet's subject, inheres.

    Although other books treat the history of the idea of culture, none synthesizes that history with the literary history of maritime empire. Written on the Water tracks an uncanny interrelationship between ocean imagery and culturalist rhetoric of culture forward from the late Augustans to the mid-Victorians. In so doing, it analyzes Wordsworth's pronounced ambivalence toward the sea, Coleridge's sojourn as an imperial functionary in Malta, Byron's cosmopolitan seafaring tales, and Arnold's dual identity as "poet of water" and prose arbiter of "culture." It also considers Romanticism's classical inheritance, arguing that the Lake Poets dissolved into the idea of culture the Virgilian system of pastoral, georgic, and epic modes of literature and life.

    This compelling new study will engage any reader interested in the intellectual and literary history of Britain and the lived experience of British Romanticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3043-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Introduction: Familiar with the Sea
    (pp. 1-20)

    “The ocean,” declares Thomas Churchill at the outset of his 1808Life of Lord Viscount Nelson,“affords not only the most ready and convenient medium of intercourse between remote parts of the globe, but the means of annoying an enemy with most facility, and at the same time the securest protection.” Yet while the ocean’s importance “is now obvious to every one,” Churchill remarks, “it was long before men were sensible of its value, which even now is but beginning to be justly appreciated.”¹ While Britain had been a maritime power for centuries, its command of the sea had taken...

  6. Part One Oceanic Fables of Culture

    • 1 Change Your Lakes for Ocean
      (pp. 23-55)

      Matthew Arnold wrote that “the world-river of poetry” consoles and affirms “the spirit of our race” with a “criticism of life.”¹ Word by word, the terms of Arnold’s claim have been disavowed. But while “race,” “spirit,” and for that matter “poetry” no longer signify as they once did in critical discourse, the Romantic notion that poetry ministers to a common spirit lingers in other terms, and chiefly in terms of what is still called “culture.” Evanescent like a spirit, “culture” can also, notoriously, be thought singular and substantive, as a race was supposed to be. It can be “aculture”...

    • 2 Imperial Solutions
      (pp. 56-80)

      The idea of culture is one of the main legacies of the Romantic period for our own time. It is central to contemporary life and thought, and it has come to seem an indispensable tool for describing human identity and social form.¹ Inevitably, therefore, it has also become a main subject for academic methodological reflection and a main target in the sights of critical theory.² Over the past several decades, while the culture concept consolidated its dominance over how societies and selves get depicted, it also became the object of diverse and often incisive critiques. In the main, these critiques...

  7. Part Two The Wordsworth Circle’s Modes of Insular Empire

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 81-82)

      William Hazlitt, in a witty passage fromOn the Living Poets,lampoons Wordsworth’s habitual use of island and castaway figures by caricaturing the author ofThe Excursionas a hapless Crusoe.The Excursion,Hazlitt writes, “is more than any thing in the world like Robinson Crusoe’s boat, which would have been an excellent good boat, and would have carried him to the other side of the globe, but that he could not get it out of the sand where it stuck fast” (Complete Works,5:362). While friendly enough, in the context of the spectacular critical failure of Wordsworth’s opus, Hazlitt’s...

    • 3 The Maritime Georgic
      (pp. 83-114)

      A simple question needs to be addressed by any genealogy of the culture idea. How did a concept so rooted in the objective world of earth, tools, and crops become a concept of individual and social subjectivity? How did it change from a concrete idea to a universal, abstract, and absolute one? When Cicero formulated his idea ofcultura animi,or when Francis Bacon wrote of “the culture of the mind”—reiterating with that phrase his more famous one, “the georgics of the mind”—they crafted metaphors based in work on the land.¹ The eighteenth-century rhetoric of cultivation remained...

    • 4 Britannia’s Pastorals
      (pp. 115-152)

      William Wordsworth’s Thanksgiving Ode of 1816 is a notoriously martial poem.¹ Presented as an effusion dating from the morning of the national festival celebrating Napoleon’s final defeat, it was mocked in its time for declaring to its addressee “Almighty God” that “thy most dreaded instrument, / In Working out a pure intent, / Is Man—arrayed for mutual slaughter,—/Yea, Carnage is thy daughter!” (SP188). Lord Byron would slyly observe of Wordsworth and “Carnage” that “ifhespeak truth, she is Christ’s sister” (PW5:367).² With this quip inDon Juan,Byron sought to deflate Wordsworth’s grandiloquent personification and,...

    • 5 The Dissolution of Epic
      (pp. 153-188)

      “We combated for victory in the empire of reason, for strongholds in the imagination” (PrW1:261 ). So declares Wordsworth of the pamphlet war that brought forth his impassioned 1809 tract theConvention of Cintra.The full title of this work isConcerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, To Each Other, and to the Common Enemy, At This Crisis; And Specifically as Affected by the Convention of Cintra: The Whole Brought to the Test of Those Principles, by Which Alone the Independence and Freedom of Nations can be Preserved or Recovered.As long-winded as its title suggests,...

  8. Part Three Culture’s Midland Waters:: Coleridge, Byron, Arnold, America

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 189-190)

      The previous chapters have followed the Lake poets as they adapted a maritime georgic mode for the Georgian age, engineered a mode of transported pastoral compatible with modern nautical enterprise, and sought an epic mode that could submerge deep political implications beneath a surface of romance motifs. We have also seen that as the Lake poets combined these initiatives into a broader cultural program for the British Empire, they drew on reports from, and actual travel to, the empire’s maritime theaters. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sojourn in Malta and Sicily, coinciding with the crafting of the 1805Prelude,was crucial for...

    • 6 Nautical Existence
      (pp. 191-221)

      During and after the crisis over Malta that precipitated the resumption of war in 1803, Mediterranean events became more of a British literary preoccupation than ever. As Romantic writers represented the Mediterranean in relation to Britain and its overseas ambitions, they at times intervened in domestic British political discourse, and at times (even at some of the same times) mooted domestic politics by predicating their Mediterranean representations on the idea that the world might best be moved from the fixed Archimedean base of a unified Britain. Whichever attitude they struck toward politics at home, however, and whatever mixture of imperialism,...

    • 7 Shipwreck for a Poet
      (pp. 222-250)

      To grasp just how the maritime imagination fostered the culture idea, it is important to see the story told thus far as the background to the portrait of one particular main theorist of culture: a theorist who, examined closely, turns out to be a figure in a seascape. This author’s genealogies, both literary and familial, tie him securely to the twin lineages of British Romanticism and British maritime empire. He grew into, or up into, an uncanny intimacy with the marine element. His grandfather, an official at the Isle of Wight at the end of the eighteenth century, patrolled the...

  9. Envoi: For Us Repeopled Were the Solitary Shore
    (pp. 251-254)

    A piece of writing isn’t always about what one thinks it is about, and it may even be getting about, in the sense of wandering off of its own volition. For a long time I insisted that this book was about the ocean, which it never really has been, except in the sense that the things that concern it are to be found in real, imaginary, or symbolic maritime space—which is to say around and about in a maritime state of fluidity. Later, I said the book was about the sea and the idea of culture, or just about...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 255-282)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 283-308)
  12. Index
    (pp. 309-320)