Reflection by Jacob Henry Leveton

As an art historian, I am accustomed to think about poetry as a temporal medium, associating the visual arts with space. From the time of G.E. Lessing’s Laocoön, aesthetic theory dictated that the analysis of the sister arts draw a sharp distinction between verbal and visual forms of expression. Poetry was defined by the use of articulate sound in time, while the visual arts were understood to occupy domains of spatiality.

Yet as scholars like Dana Arnold and Nicole Anderson have shown, the fields of English Romantic literature in general, and poetry, in particular, were infinitely and meaningfully impacted by the physical spaces within which the work of figures ranging from Mary Robinson to John Keats was produced.[1] Ian Newman’s The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality (Cambridge, 2019) is a brilliant, fascinating, and vital intervention that continues such a trajectory of thought, mobilizing a critical architecturally-oriented materialism towards the rich cultural field of the tavern and the ends of (often radical) politics.

The Romantic Tavern establishes the shifting coordinates of the spaces of drink, conversation, and song underlying of much of romantic-period literary production according to concrete sites and specific social practices. The materials Newman mines are immensely insightful as he thinks across aporetic, deferred, or undated visual representations of specific taverns—a site plan of the Covent Garden Piazza from the London Metropolitan Archives, a Victorian wood-engraving of the London Tavern from the Illustrated London News, architectural drawings from the Arundel Castle Archives with street views of where the Crown and Anchor was located and named. Constellating these sites constitutes a rich means of reconstructing the spaces of romantic textualities, becoming what Newman excitingly terms “zones of possibility” (11). I’m particularly interested in seeing the ways in which this mode of inquiry might be expanded in regards to additional cultural spheres associated with romanticism. I’m especially thinking§ of working-class writers whose work represented the initial forms of engagement with the start to industrial modernity, and for whom the space of the tavern likely impacted the formation of a shared consciousness contributing to what E.P. Thompson locates as the making the English working class. In short, how the space of the tavern connects to the space of the early factory.

In this way, taverns comprised the means in urban space of establishing critical zones of “conviviality,” domains of intellectual exchange defined by humor, sentiment, in terms of connection, and mutuality as a basis of interchange of ideas. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Newman’s work is the rich and variegated media landscape he fascinatingly and adeptly traverses to examine fields of romantic literary production in light of newly intensive political contexts that took shape within the tavern. For instance, in Gillray’s reactionary etching, The Hopes of the Party, Newman finds the satirical image granting a powerful form of agency to the Crown and Anchor tavern as a building to structure English Jacobin politics. In Gilray’s paratextual element of the print’s subtitle, “Crown & Anchor-dreams,” Newman analyzes the iconographical suggestion “that the tavern is the dreamer, endowed with a malevolent subjectivity” (87). At its strongest, Newman’s work inspires a desire in the reader to locate the concrete material spaces that configure literary production in the romantic period, and understand how they contributed to the formation of new collectivities towards and against new political ends in the age of revolution.

[1] See Arnold, Re-Presenting the Metropolis: Architecture, Urban Experience, and Social Life in London (Ashgate, 2000) and Anderson, Building Romanticism: Literature and Architecture in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Michigan, 2010).

Back to Forum

Michael Gamer responds

Elizabeth Oldfather responds

%d bloggers like this: