Reflection by Elizabeth Oldfather
There is a haunted moment midway through Ian Newman’s The Romantic Tavern when, through the verse of Anacreontic poet Charles Morris, he reflects on the “ghostliness that results when a space that has once been energized by conviviality lies empty” (141). The space in question is a newly demolished tavern, the Star and Garter; and the particular late-1700’s milieu such taverns had housed, which Newman names the “regime of conviviality,” is in his analysis similarly evanescent: not only brief in duration, but also historically fragile, its living forms of toasting, song, and sociability lacking the durability of print. Such vanishment could be considered an apt fate for certain elements of tavern sociability, most notably the Anacreontics themselves, whose hedonism was notably conscious of the transience of pleasure. Newman makes a compelling case, however, for restoring the specific implications and practices of both taverns and their “regime” to the cultural map of Romanticism. By recovering the particularity of tavern culture, Newman at times dramatically alters its significance for Romantic politics and literature. For example, in a chapter on Burke, Newman notes the strong association between the London Tavern and merchants of the East India Company, with whose colonial abuses the statesman was all too familiar — an association that opens a provocative anti-commercial critique in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads is also recontextualized, this time in light of the more disreputable alehouse, as a careful negotiation between potentially radical alcohol-fueled spontaneity and conservative morality; furthermore, the whole notion of ballads outside a convivial context emerges as perhaps the signal oddity of the Lyrical Ballads as a whole.
Chapters like these ably fulfill Newman’s introductory promise that the tavern could “provide access to different configurations of [literary and social] forms” (5), uncovering lost networks of association, reputation, and thence signification. But what I found more remarkable was the book’s ability to summon the tavern world itself — a phenomenon aided by Newman’s inclusion of numerous building plans and documents, but also, I suspect, by the decision to center his analysis on a material place. I am thinking particularly here of the work of Simon Schama’s monumental Landscape and Memory, which explores the especially potent power of places to connect us with imagined pasts: like Captain Morris contemplating the empty space where the Star and Garter used to be, we buy into an illusion that shared place can somehow transcend time. That fantasy emerges overtly at several points of Newman’s text: the anecdote about Morris; a conclusion that gently mocks the tourist industry devoted to purportedly “literary taverns”; and, most substantively, the account of the Anacreontic Society, which stoked its wine-fueled conviviality with both songs and tavern architecture draped in references to classical antiquity. The Society was not seeking a simplistic escape into antiquity, but its neoclassical dressing was no less marshaled against synchronic existence; as Newman writes, it helped the assembled company to fancifully “suspend the troubles associated with everyday reality, and… inhabit a world where time had no meaning” (151). Quite conversely, restoring the contemporaneity of the Romantic tavern occupies much of Newman’s effort; but less acknowledged is the way our own more fanciful tendencies to imaginatively inhabit places, to try to map associations onto particular sites and spatial schemas, may be fortifying the historical network he constructs. In the Romantic Tavern, he gives us both a culture and its memorable locus.
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