Imagining Insular Empire in Samuel Baker’s Written on the Water

Emily M. Kugler
Colby College

Samuel Baker’s Written on the Water: British Romanticism and the Maritime Empire of Culture (Virginia, 2010) charts the “tergiversation of the Lake poets” from maritime-minded revolutionaries to imperialists (198). “Tergiversation” holds the negative connotation for the conservative Lake poets of turning or abandoning a previously held ambiguous or equivocating idea. Concurrently it illuminates Baker’s stylistic and organizational choices composed of a series of shifting temporal currents and twisting arguments. Baker constructs his book’s structure and language with extraordinary care so that each moment of textual analysis also speaks to the larger, more implicit claims made about the relationship of scholars to their intellectual pasts.

It is difficult to discuss Written on the Water without resorting to water imagery because Baker writes with a sense of fluidity that swirls and reverses around the idea of Romantic maritime culture like an eddy. And like an eddy, this book does not intend to settle onto a set object, but explores the space surrounding it. Understanding this book as an analysis of the transference of ideas surrounding a concept rather than of the concept itself allows for a better appreciation of the scholarly self-reflection Baker models for his readers. Divided into three sections, the book’s main analytical thread is chronologically linear. Part One, “Oceanic Fables of Culture” (a brief nod to Laura Brown’s Fables of Modernity),[1] charts Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth’s transformation of Classical georgic and pastoral models through a “representational strategy that the aquatic imagination of the Romantics proffered [as] an imperial solution for the newly felt problem of how to best render culture” (59). The “maritime form” of their historical moment in the British Empire differs significantly from earlier eras, thereby requiring a new system of poetic representation. Central to this understanding, Baker contends, is their contemporary Johann Gottfried Herder’s implicitly pluralist concept of Kultur, which reflects “instances of cultural isolation, diffusion, and organization, some of which are said to be shaped directly by the sea and some of which are only likened to islands, currents, and other such marine forms” (74). This plural conception of culture provides Baker an entry to the Lake poets’ importation of maritime imagery into traditionally land-based genres and concepts of empire.

Part Two, “The Wordsworth Circle’s Modes of Insular Empire,” continues this examination of the Romantic reinvention of the pastoral and georgic and adds to this a more radical argument about their reworking of the epic form. In the most intriguing part of this section, Baker succeeds in the tricky analytical task of locating generic texts previously unassociated with that genre. The georgic, for instance, “could be widely adopted [by the Lake poets]—albeit not under that name—without attracting much notice” (86). Likewise, the epic appears unlabeled in early Romantic works. Unlike the pastoral and georgic, however, it ultimately does not fit the modern maritime moment, and is dissolved as they “fractured epic scenes and scenarios into more intimate lyrics, or when they adopted an epic mode, whether when writing in forms (like the ode) agreeable to it, or in forms (like the sonnet) where its unexpected appearance created dizzying tonal effects” (162–63). In Written on the Water, the Lake poets’ epic experiments result in a conflict between their wish to live in an epic moment and the failure of that moment to meet those desires. Baker notes, for example, that although “the culture of military command is what the poet wishes to celebrate, what he must rise to when called on to do so, and what he cannot practice,” the reality Wordsworth describes in his 1809 tract Convention of Cintra is that of “watching British officers who lack the genius of liberty fail to enact the epic he [Wordsworth] expects” (155). Similarly, Wordsworth’s 1807 Poems are interpreted as searching for and eventually rejecting figures such as Whig leader Charles James Fox as the “hero of some possible national epic” (157).

Baker does occasionally include works by other writers from Wordsworth’s circle, but whereas some recent scholarship would delve into more detail on these less studied figures, here, they serve mainly to illuminate the more influential Wordsworth and Coleridge. Not only are they presented as more central to this argument, they are also often viewed as explicitly superior to their contemporaries. Baker, for instance, commends Wordsworth for not requiring the length of an epic to evoke its scale: “Wordsworth could, and did, compress a whole patriotic trajectory in one stanza,” whereas “[fellow Lake poet Robert] Southey, by contrast, worked out his romances across the many pages it took for Thalaba to destroy the wizard’s lair at the bottom of the ocean, or Madoc to muster his colonial expedition to Mexico” (163). Alongside Dorothy Wordsworth and Oliver Goldsmith, Southey is included in this book to function primarily as a foil to the better-known poets’ greatness.

Yet this focus on traditionally canonical figures serves the larger purpose of this book: to trace the flow of ideas surrounding culture and imperialism as it centers on these two writers. And this emphasis on the canonical pays off in Part Three, “Culture’s Midland Waters: Coleridge, Byron, Arnold, America,” which of the book’s three categories of “real, imaginary, or symbolic maritime space” focuses more than the earlier sections on the “real” (251). Mirroring the first section’s use of Herder, Baker contrasts and eventually connects the “geopolitical fantasies” held by the Lake poets and Lord Byron through his evocation of British strategist Gould Francis Leckie (19). Believing Britain could defeat Napoleon through “a system of sea-surrounded fortresses from the Mediterranean to the Baltic—[that] provided a model for state geopolitical enterprise as Wordsworth would imagine it in his writings on policy” (193), Leckie advocated an imperial model he referred to as “insular empire,” in which Britain would expand its holdings “island by island, around the coasts of Europe and the world” (19). Arguably the most original part of Baker’s argument, this section contextualizes the Lake poets’ exchange of revolutionary values for imperial ones within the way they “positioned themselves vis-à-vis the international balance of power” (192), with particular attention paid to Malta and Sicily. Through their use of maritime images, Baker connects the seemingly disparate politics of Byron and his predecessors, Coleridge and Wordsworth. His exploration of Byron ends with a tantalizing drawing of Byron’s yacht The Bolivar, on whose verso is a transcribed advertisement with “G. F. Leckie” as the contact (221). Having already connected Leckie with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Baker holds out the possibility that Leckie’s theories may have also influenced Byron’s Circle.

This summary of a chronological movement from the early careers of the Lake poets through their conservative turn to finally a younger generation represented by Byron and Matthew Arnold does not fully capture the complex temporality of Written on the Water. Focusing the last chapter on Arnold’s readings of Wordsworth, Baker connects back to the fluid temporality in his opening chapter: “Matthew Arnold wrote that ‘the world-river of poetry’ consoles and affirms ‘the spirit of our race’ with a ‘criticism of life.’ 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’” (23).

Baker’s key point is that to understand the way in which the Lake poets pushed ideas of culture and poetic genre forward, one must look backwards. Though on the surface, Arnold’s “marine sensibilities … derive from the oceanic vision that Byron celebrates in Childe Harold and elsewhere,” Baker points to a “less obvious but at least revealing” aspect to all of Arnold’s work that originates from a “Wordsworthian inheritance” (223). This legacy becomes visible through a backwards glance “not only to Wordsworth’s maritime imagination but also to that of Arnold’s father, Wordsworth’s younger contemporary and friend Thomas Arnold” (223).

The retrospective and fluid structure of Baker’s literary analysis underpins the work as a whole. Though Fredric Jameson’s work is only briefly mentioned, Written on the Water expresses the Jamesonian edict to always historicize.[2] Wordsworth’s use of classical genres owes much to his reading of classical authors such as Virgil (91). Similarly, it is still key to look back to oft-studied figures such as Coleridge and Wordsworth because their “idea of culture is one of the main legacies of the Romantic period for our own time” (56). Baker emphasizes this point by linking the Lake poets’ evolving ideas of culture, nation, and empire to the less historically distant Cold War. Focusing on twentieth-century literary critic Lionel Trilling’s readings of Wordsworth, Baker ends his final chapter by maintaining that “Trilling continues Wordsworth’s way of dissolving national cultural epic into an endlessly deferred intellectual adventure that evokes a more cosmopolitan romance mode of action in which conservative principles might be reconciled with a liberal world picture” (242–43).

Yet, a bit disappointingly, the specter of the Cold War looming throughout the book is not really explored beyond Trilling’s responses to it. It is an event with which the book assumes (perhaps correctly) the reader is familiar, appearing only as a means of influencing the reader’s frame of mind when reading Baker’s analysis of the Lake poets, and is not a subject in itself. Similarly, the book frequently references Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the reader’s knowledge of the many Robinsonades that followed as a touchstone throughout the book. Ironically, the most frustrating and rewarding trait of Written on the Water is what remains unspoken, implicit, the things around which Baker’s book constantly circles. Intentionally or not, Baker requires the reader to be self-aware of one’s own scholarly reading of history. The book regularly references the academic tradition surrounding both the Lake poets and Baker’s own work. He reminds us of “a lecture series published over a half-century ago” by W. H. Auden (24), the way “vitalism connects Coleridge with latter-day theorists of culture, such as [Raymond] Williams” (65), the way Samuel Johnson’s description of disciplining institutions as like “being in a ship …, with the chance of being drowned” anticipates Michel Foucault’s ideas (97), or how Trilling, too, “cites how John Stuart Mill urged liberals to read Coleridge” (243). Baker constantly reminds readers of recent scholastic lineages that shape present readings of the past, or that figures such as Coleridge and Johnson were also scholarly critics, not just textual objects to be analyzed.

Written on the Water constantly raises awareness of its subjects as readers; it prompts readers to reflect upon their own academic lineages in relation to the Romantics and to the larger cultural project of literary study. This is neither a holistic exploration of material maritime culture nor an assessment of Britain’s empire in a non-abstract sense. This is not an attempt to link the literary to historical realities of colonialism.[3] Nor is it is an effort to link widespread popular beliefs, politics, and environment, any more than it is an attempt to describe literal ocean explorations.[4] Instead, Baker confides to his reader in the final pages that “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 or about in a maritime state of fluidity” (251).

Throughout the book, Baker hews closely to the work of Raymond Williams. This starts with his structuring of the introduction through the definition of “keywords” in an explicit homage to Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.[5] In his conclusion, Baker introduces a belated—but most important—keyword: “aboutness.” This is “not [aboutness] as we know it when we know what we are about, but as it hides from us in the corner of our peripheral vision, away from us or anyone else, but nevertheless lurking at the behest of something … that has a mind of its own, but by rights shouldn’t” (251). This aboutness captures the impossibility of containing maritime culture—and by extension, all culture—into a definable “total system of social explanation” (254). Although it takes an arguably traditional approach in its almost exclusive focus on Wordsworth and Coleridge and its heavy reliance on the still relevant but solidly established work of Williams, Written on the Water is a well-written, competent analysis that offers some new thoughts on well-trodden ground. Baker’s method of writing around subjects allows him to trace some important links both within Romantic circles as well as beyond them into both the classical and quite recent past. It also provides another much welcome, if brief, exploration into the role of the Mediterranean in shaping British imperialism as well as the way imperial power operated in informal and unofficial colonial actions. I believe this work would perhaps be of the most use to those studying the land-based genres of georgic and pastoral than to those interested in literal maritime empires. It would be exciting to see some of the ideas Baker introduces here pursued in more depth in future works.


[1]  Laura Brown, Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century (Ithaca, 2001).

[2]  Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, 1981).

[3]  See Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804 (Durham, 1999).

[4]  See Vladimir Jankovic, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago, 2001); and Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, and Kären Wigen, eds., Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges (Honolulu, 2007).

[5]  See Raymond Williams, Keywords, rev. ed. (New York, 1985).