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This review is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

LESSER FIGURES A. D. Harvey, English Poetry in a Changing Society 1780-1825 (Allison & Busby) £12.00

'The major Romantic poets', writes A. D. Harvey, 'were not culturally isolated figures, but were working in the context of changing literary fashions.' His book is a straightforward attempt to map those fashions and show to what extent the great Romantics were subject to the pressures of the literary climate they helped to create-how, in Arthur Miller's phrase, 'the fish is in the water and the water is in the fish'.

Following this principle, the first two chapters-on the precursors of Romanticism-are a predictable enough start, a panacea to the general belief that early Romantic poetry was the literary equivalent to the fall of the Bastille, that it marked a break with all existing forms. There's little new in this argument, or in that of the following chapter, which demonstrates the indebtedness of Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads of 1798 to an already flourishing ballad tradition.

Less pedestrian is Dr Harvey's discussion of the history of critical response to the 1800 'Preface' to the Ballads; and his division of its critics into two camps-those who judge the 'Preface' to be more important than the poems as against those who value the poems more highly-is useful. Wordsworth, however, is conspicuously absent from a later chapter of the book which discusses the rise of lyric poetry in the period. The author ignores the fact that the Lyrical Ballads were lyrical ballads, and that their combination of static lyric-suitable for the expression of visionary experience-with traditional ballad form was an ...


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