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British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason

, 296 pages
November 2015



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British Romanticism and the Critique of Political Reason

What role should reason play in the creation of a free and just society? Can we claim to know anything in a field as complex as politics? And how can the cause of political rationalism be advanced when it is seen as having blood on its hands? These are the questions that occupied a group of British poets, philosophers, and polemicists in the years following the French Revolution.

Timothy Michael argues that much literature of the period is a trial, or a critique, of reason in its political capacities and a test of the kinds of knowledge available to it. For Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Burke, Wollstonecraft, and Godwin, the historical sequence of revolution, counter-revolution, and terror in France—and radicalism and repression in Britain—occasioned a dramatic reassessment of how best to advance the project of enlightenment. The political thought of these figures must be understood, Michael contends, in the context of their philosophical thought. Major poems of the period, including The Prelude, The Excursion, and Prometheus Unbound, are in this reading an adjudication of competing political and epistemological claims.

This book bridges for the first time two traditional pillars of Romantic studies: the period’s politics and its theories of the mind and knowledge. Combining literary and intellectual history, it provides an account of British Romanticism in which high rhetoric, political prose, poetry, and poetics converge in a discourse of enlightenment and emancipation.

Timothy Michael is a Fellow of Lincoln College and an associate professor of English at the University of Oxford.

"Ambitious, well executed, and timely, this book provides valuable insight into some of the most abiding questions of Romantic studies."

"It is received wisdom that the Romantics were critics of reason. What is not so well-known, and what this book shows, is that they undertook its critique in the radical Kantian sense. They did so in hopes of renewing reason as a means for generating political knowledge, a task which brought together writers whose apparent political affiliations were very different. Michael has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political–philosophical ambitions of a generation too often remembered only for its poetry."

"In this trailblazing study, Timothy Michael proves to be in absolute, sovereign command of his multifarious material. He is, in the best sense, himself a political thinker and a discerning critical mind. Michael displays what was once defined as the only secret of style: have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. This is a landmark publication."

"Michael offers extraordinary insights into many other matters, including the philosophy of Shelley, Coleridge and Kant... Deserve[s] a place on the bookshelf on anyone interested in British politics, American history, the history of India, philosophy (both ancient and 18th/19th century), poetry, the development of ideas and much else."

"This is a thoughtful, rigorous book written in a pleasingly clear manner."

"Michael’s book effectively shows how, during the Enlightenment, the political was not a fixed point or concept."

"This is a thoughtful, rigorous book written in a pleasing clear manner."

"Not the least of the strengths of this work is the lucidity of its author’s style: the clarity with which he presents and prosecutes his thesis, summarizes or elaborates particular intellectual positions and debates as he sets out their bearings on his discussion, adds considerably to the force of his insights."

"Overall, this is an ambitious and illuminating book that will undoubtedly help shape the future course of Romantic studies. And, given the current political climate in the United States and around the globe, the questions it asks are immensely relevant to discourse beyond literary criticism."

"Overall, there is a lot here for both literary critics and specialists in other disciplines to appreciate and admire. One can't help but suspect that the audience for this book is still very niche, but the engaging authority and clarity wtih which Michael explains complex ideas and problems while presenting his own thoughtful and original argument makes it rewarding."

"Romanticists, intellectual historians, and philosophers will benefit immensely from Michael's work."

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