CFP Romantic Ethics and the ‘Woke’ Romantics

Anglistik & Englischunterricht (2022)

Guest Editors: Marie Hologa, Sophia Möllers

The works of Romantic writers and political philosophers served a morally instructive purpose for the audiences and readerships of their time. In their pamphlets, speeches, plays and poetry, as well as narrative texts, dominant discourses on, e.g., socio-economic questions, child-rearing, self-management, interactions with marginalised individuals, and visions of democratised states and communities stabilised, commented on and potentially subverted what is now considered a Romantic belief system. The implicit hierarchy of authors of such instructive texts and their recommended moral regulations open a window into the social inequalities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because these texts “appeared to have no political bias, these rules took on the power of natural law, and as a result, they presented readers with ideology in its most powerful form” (Armstrong 60). At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Romanticism as such “did create a great revolution in consciousness” (Berlin 20) insofar as Britain’s marginalised groups often became the central focus of Romantic works. Despite their normative character, these texts still left room to create counter-hegemonic discourses, allowed for alternative readings and subversive re-writings, and incited (sub-cultural) agency as a challenge to prevalent ideologies of the Long 18th Century. This emerging Romantic inclusiveness “signalled the beginnings of the aesthetic and ideological acceptance of previously marginalized ‘Others’, social, racial, cultural, and aesthetic” (Athanassoglou-Kallmyer 19) – an awareness that would nowadays be considered ‘woke’.

For this volume on Romantic ethics and ‘wokeness’, we seek to shed light on the period of Romanticism from a distinctively cultural-studies point of view.  By choosing an interdisciplinary approach, contributions should focus on, for example, the economic discourse, education and pedagogics, childhood and human perfectibility, slavery and colonialism, Bildung, female conduct books, the poetics of conscience, aesthetics, or crime and punishment, to uncover the morally instructive implementations of the works.

At the same time, we also invite contributors to consider the ongoing and undisputed relevance of Romantic discourses for the socio-cultural and political challenges of the 21st century. More often than not it appears that Romantic ideas echo into contemporary controversies surrounding questions of white privilege (Black Lives Matter), gender and sexual inequalities (#MeToo, LGBTQIA+), human rights, and the intensification of marginalisation in the face of global crises (financial crisis, migration, climate change, pandemics). In consequence, this volume will also address didactic questions immediately related to topics that have been stirring debates for more than 250 years:

  • How did Romantic literature and education serve as communicators of virtue, morals, and values?
  • How are ideals, belief systems and the ‘wokeness’ of Romanticism intertwined with contemporary social and cultural concerns?
  • Can Romantic ideas possibly be re-discovered as innovative approaches to modern teaching and (self-)instruction?
  • How can Romanticism therefore contribute to extend the canon for teaching literature (both in high schools and higher education) to incite politically active thinking in learners?

This Call for Contributions invites topics including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Female Education and Women’s Rights       
  • Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement       
  • Political Criticism and the Birth of Human Rights  
  • Schooling in the Long 18th Century  
  • Post-Nationalism and Global Community   
  • Romantic Childhood and Human Perfectibility      
  • The Affluent vs. The Poor: Charitable Acts vs. Social Hierarchy  
  • Artistic Sensibility and the Woke Romantic Genius
  • Romantic Imagination and Re-definitions of Aesthetic Concepts

Please submit abstracts (400-500 words) accompanied by a short bio note to both guest editors for this issue: Marie Hologa (marie.hologa@tu-dortmund.de) and sophia.moellers@tu-dortmund.de) by 20 November 2020. Finished articles (ca. 6,000 -7,000 words) will be due by 31 August 2021.

Dr. Marie Hologa and M.A. Sophia Möllers
TU Dortmund, British Cultural Studies

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Romanticism: Breaking the Canon.” Art Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, Summer 1993 (Romanticism), pp. 18-21.

Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism, ed. Henry Hardy, Princeton University Press, 1999.

Five Questions: Elizabeth Neiman on Minerva’s Gothics

Elizabeth Neiman is an Associate Professor in both English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine. Her research interests include British Romanticism, genre, the history of the novel, feminist theory and the digital humanities, and she has published on these areas in European Romantic Review and Women’s Writing. She has recently co-edited (with Christina Morin) a journal special issue on ‘The Minerva Press and the Literary Marketplace’, which will be published shortly by Romantic Textualities. Her first monograph, Minerva’s Gothics: The Politics and Poetics of Romantic Exchange, 1780-1820, which we discuss below, was published in 2019 by the University of Wales Press.

1) How did you first become interested in the Minerva Press?

I love this question because it allows for a backstory that is as much “personal” as it is about the larger field of Romantic studies. I first learned of the Minerva Press when studying for my preliminary exam as a doctoral student in 2007. I was not yet a student of Romantic studies. Rather, I had been studying feminist theory as well as “genre” as defined and understood by what is called “composition studies” here in the States. Composition studies (or writing studies as it sometimes is called) defines genre as a situation that involves a dynamic interaction between readers and writers. Genres impact what can be said and by whom. Compositionists push back on the idea that to teach first-year writing is a sort of bottom-dweller activity, the price almost any graduate student has to pay to “get” to teach more advanced courses, especially courses in literature. Composition theory suggests instead that student writing can itself be worth analyzing closely, being a site where students (especially those from marginalized backgrounds) engage and negotiate academic conventions. In my preliminary exams, I was studying genre theory alongside scholarship on women’s gothic novels. Emma Clery’s The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995) introduced me to the Minerva Press and also the idea that its novels were pretty much all the same—derivative and socially and politically conservative.

While I knew I had a lot to learn about Romantic studies, I felt that coming into the field backwards so it was, with questions and insights from composition pedagogy and feminist theory, provided me with different vantage point to assess the novels. Rather than approach genre fiction with the presumption that it limits what can be said, I wondered what genre conventions of popular fiction might allow marginalized writers to say. This question was at the heart of my dissertation, “Novels Begetting novel(ists): Minerva Press Formula and Romantic-Era Literary Production.” At the 2011 ASECS meeting in Vancouver, just months before defending my dissertation, I attended a session that caused me no small degree of consternation. Someone else was also writing a dissertation on Minerva novels! I listened to Hannah Doherty Hudson’s presentation, my only consolation being that at least I would defend my dissertation first. Several years later (NASSR 2014), Hannah and I confessed to each other how alarmed we had both been at the discovery that we were not the only one reassessing Minerva’s collectively shared formulas. It’s hard not to smile at the irony—what a Romantic idea, that contribution to a field is independent, springing up out of nowhere. By the time I was proofing my book in 2019, I had come to see how my own perspective on Minerva was very much of the moment. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Romanticists like Clery and Michael Gamer drew attention to Minerva’s role in inciting Romantic “anxiety”—those canonically Romantic attitudes about authorship and literature that still persist today. Their attention to the Press’s role in shaping the literary market brought Minerva novels back into view. In writing Minerva’s Gothics as a new assistant professor in the mid-2010s, my sense that Minerva was of the moment—a sign of the field’s broadening investments—only grew as I came into conversation with others (Jennie Batchelor, Hannah Hudson, Anthony Mandal, Tina Morin, Megan Peiser, Yael Shapira) who also were looking more closely at Minerva novels themselves.

2) Works published under the Minerva Press imprint have often been lumped together as an undifferentiated mass, as in Charles Lamb’s description of ‘Lane’s novels’ as ‘those scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public’.  What are the main ways your book corrects such views by tracing the changing contents and contexts of Minerva’s productions?

Here, Emma Clery’s work on Minerva was an important starting point. Clery described Minerva’s prolific production of formulaic novels as precipitating modern-day divisions between “high” and “low” literature. What did it mean then to think of Minerva novels as predating (and yet also helping to incite) that division? I began to think about Minerva circulation in the broader sense that the novels’ shared conventions and formulas were not theirs alone but rather part of a larger cultural legacy. Minerva novelists participate in contemporary debates by and through borrowing the same conventions and turns of phrase popularized by better-known writers. These conventions changed over time and in use, from the sentimental novel’s lovers’ vows to the gothic novel’s endorsement of poetic genius. I map the exchange among Minerva novelists, but also between obscure and now-canonical authors. Minerva becomes a touchpoint for canonical Romantic writers to denounce cliché, but perhaps more interestingly, Minerva authors recycle the language and conventions of “genius” so to envision themselves as collaborators.

In order to show how Minerva authors collectively revised and added new emphasis to popular conventions, I read as many of their novels as I could (this included novels from the mid-to late-1780s, when William Lane began to publish novels with some frequency but before the Press was christened Minerva). I paired close reading with analysis of publishing records to see what Minerva was actually publishing and when. I wanted to know when (and, indeed, if) women novelists started flocking to Minerva and if they did so in the numbers that the contemporary reviews suggest; I also wanted to know if Minerva novelists had different publishing profiles than other period novelists—such as publishing anonymously, publishing more frequently, or publishing only with Minerva. To answer these and other related questions I created a database of publishing records for all British Romantic era novels—records are drawn from James Raven’s and Peter Garside’s bibliographic study, The English Novel, which provides information on all published novels in the period, such as the author’s name, if known, and the publisher. Statistical analysis led me to confirm that there was indeed a “Minerva” effect on the market, though this effect differs across Minerva’s thirty-year run. I also found it necessary to define Minerva author broadly so to include any author who published any of their work with the Press.

3) Your book juxtaposes Minerva Press novels with well-known Romantic-period texts by writers including William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley.  What are the most important things these writers reveal about the influence of the Minerva Press, and how does bringing Minerva into the picture help us better understand these canonical figures?

In one sense, my attention to these canonical writers confirms what we already knew from the work of Clery and Gamer—canonical Romanticism is underwritten in part by “anxiety” about the prolific print culture. Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft in particular are vexed by popular novels, seeing them as sort of the dark side of Enlightenment print culture. The dissemination of ideas does not necessarily mean fresh insights, disinterested inquiry, genuine feelings. Rather, it can mean indoctrination, cliché (many of us are certainly drawing similar conclusions about the role of social media in an increasingly polarized political climate). I pay particular attention to Wordsworth to map out how his 1800/1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads sets originality in opposition to cliché, laying the groundwork for Minerva’s erasure from literary history. But over the course of the book, I also show that there is a contrary undercurrent in canonical Romantic poetics, or perhaps a conflicting set of ideas. By placing William Godwin’s Caleb Williams in the larger context of what I call Minerva’s “Providential” novels (novels that like Godwin’s rely heavily on fatalistic language and conventions) I could detect an alternative attitude towards literary formula to Wordsworth’s. In borrowing from this Providential network of conventions, Godwin reassesses cliché, seeing it as a site for powerful emotions and as an opportunity to reach rather than alienate readers when saying something new. I then suggest that Percy Shelley shares Godwin’s sense of the power of popular conventions even while being drawn simultaneously to the competing idea of the Poet’s break from stale associations—his originality.

4) Which Minerva Press novels would you recommend to scholars seeking to expand their knowledge, and which do you think might most fruitfully be added to Romantic Studies syllabi?

These are both great questions—as for the first, Minerva novels are often long and quite tedious if read individually, but there is so much more to be learned from Minerva novels when read in concert with each other and with other Romantic-era texts. Tina Morin and I just made the point in our introduction to a special issue on Minerva and the Romantic market (in Romantic Textualities) that the true test of Minerva’s lasting impact on Romantic-studies is whether or not they continue to be read. As for the second question, Jonathan Sadow and I have recently proposed a Broadview edition of the 1801 novel, What Has Been. This two-volume novel is unusual in being a fast read that would not overburden students. A “spin-off” of Radcliffe’s gothics, it is an excellent example of how Minerva’s “formulaic” novels can add new perspectives to Romantic studies, in this case, debates about authorship, the Romantic imagination, and revolutionary feminism.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am working on two interrelated book projects—the second, a memoir, was unanticipated. I drafted But not so, little boys: writing to and of a sister between March and July of this year, following the unexpected death in February of my sister’s not-quite three year old little boy. The first project is on Romantic autobiographical expression, paying particular attention to how women writers wrote about love, loss, and grief in ways that might not seem “personal.” I had begun this research following my Mom’s death of pancreatic cancer in 2015 when it was not lost on me that in standing at her deathbed, I occupied a similar space as so many Minerva heroines. In some of my newest work, I weigh how some of the best-known women writers of the period, like Wollstonecraft, Hays, and Shelley, participate in the Romantic turn inwards in their novels. What happens to the conventional turns of, say, gothic romance, when infused by self—from meditative lyricism to feminist self-analysis?  As I continue with this project, I intend to ask this same question of more obscure novels by authors we know little or nothing about, such as the anonymous epistolary novel The Woman of Colour (1808). With this novel in mind, I began my post-tenure sabbatical this past spring bent on understanding how scholars presently understand Romanticism as it intersects with race. Ian Baucom’s 2005 reflections on the limits of the Romantic imagination were on my mind in February as I flew out to Iowa City with my own two-year old, Simon, in tow. In those weeks by my sister’s side I never felt so agonized and yet I was also always keenly aware that I was not my sister. On March 1st I returned home to Bangor and to my life, my two children by my side. In the memoir I explore the limits but also the potential of empathy, questions that seem especially timely given the inequities exposed during the pandemic and also the recent call for racial justice. I ask, might “empathy” keep us in our own heads, our own lives—so that a momentary sting of sadness or even a more prolonged despair is soon to fade again in the drama of day-to-day life?

The memoir has been a reminder of how central Romanticism can be now—politically (writers of color are presently mapping out the limits of empathy in news articles) but also personally. I find myself turning towards but also away from writers like Wordsworth in thinking about what it means to write about another person’s suffering. How might Romantic era writers express grief, love and loss through shared conventions and with what implications for how we understand and assess empathy and the Romantic imagination? This question brings me back to Minerva novels with the sense that there is far more to be said.

On This Day in 1820: The Visionary Heads and William Blake’s attitude towards Death (Part II)

Yesterday, we marked 200 years since William Blake drew ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ on 18 September 1820.

Today, Dr Sibylle Erle (Bishop Grosseteste University) continues her reflection on Blake’s Visionary Heads…

Portrait of William Blake (c.1802-03), Tate.

On This Day in 1820: The Visionary Heads and William Blake’s attitude towards Death

This Blog post has 2 parts. Click here to view part 1.

This blog discusses Blake’s Visionary Heads not as a spiritual phenomenon[1] but as an expression of continuing bonds and Blake’s attitude towards death. If we think of the drawing sessions not as séances but as contacts with the spiritual world, Blake’s vision about life after death will come into focus. While the early heads were created in a séance-like ambience, as noted by Bentley (2004 363, 366), the later ones are different. By 1820, the wild, mad and eccentric Blake had calmed down; his new-found serenity, according to Bentley, is reflected in the faces of the later Visionary Heads (2002, 184).[2]

Blake’s first biographer Benjamin Heath Malkin notes that Blake resented drawing from life and spoke of it ‘as looking more like death’ (quoted in Bentley 2004, 564). Many will agree that in Blake’s sketches it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the living and the dead, though there are some differences for knowledgeable viewers, for example it is the dead who float and disobey the laws of gravity in Blake’s paintings. Blake was deeply interested in the relationship between life and death. For him, they weren’t opposites; they were connected as two states of being. Blake is known to have talked to his ‘dead’, younger brother Robert all his life. He never forgot the dead; the dead were never far away. To console William Hayley, who had lost his son Thomas Alphonso at the age of 19, Blake wrote a letter of condolence (6 May 1800), telling the distraught father about the afterlife: 

I am very sorry for your immense loss […] I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago. I lost a brother & with his spirit I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit […] Forgive me for expressing to you my Enthusiasm which I wish all to partake of Since it is to me a Source of Immortal Joy even in this world by it I am the companion of Angels. (E705) 

John Linnell, ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams’ (after William Blake), Tate.

Maybe it was less about seeing than talking to the dead for Blake. When in Felpham, a little village on the south coast, and working for William Hayley, to escape from the mundane drudgery, Blake went to the shore to talk with the dead from lives past: ‘Here he forgot the present moment and lived in the past; he conceived, verily, that he had loved in other days, and had formed friendships with Homer and Moses; with Pindar and Virgil; with Dante and Milton.’ (BR2 640)

Often associated with Blake’s Visionary Heads and dating from around the same time is Blake’s ‘A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet’ (c.1819-20), another drawing in the Tate Collection. It is also referred to as ‘Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall’ (Heppner 1991-92). 

William Blake, ‘A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall’), Tate.

In Butlin, the image is listed among the Visionary Heads and just after ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Drawing in His Dreams’, although style and spatial organisation of this drawing are completely different (1981, #756). Heppner’s motivation for suggesting a new title, moves the image closer to the Visionary Heads. Heppner, associating the scene with 2 Kings and the story of Elisha and the woman of Shunem, argues that the image represents the setting in which Elisha prophecies that the woman will bear a son. This story about a miracle, within the reach of an Old Testament Prophet, already contains the kernel for another miracle; this son will die, and Elisha will resurrect him from the dead. Blake’s juxtaposition of life and death, through a story from the Bible, is also captured in the design as this chamber looks like a tabernacle, which is a secure box designed to hold consecrated bread from the Eucharist, in a Catholic Church. The consecrated bread is believed to contain the real presence of Christ and the fact that the tabernacle contains the consecrated element is indicated by a perpetually burning candle, often suspended above the tabernacle. The drawing was given by Catherine Blake to Frederick Tatham who also owned a head which could be Christ (Butlin 1981, #758). 

When Blake died in 1827 he was cheerful. He had been poorly for some time; his health was failing and we could say that he had accepted the inevitable. I think that Blake’s death is consistent with his life. There is something trusting, if not child-like, in the description of the final hours as reported in Gilchrist’s biography.

William Blake, ‘The Ghost of a Flea’, Tate.


Sibylle Erle, FRSA, FHEA, is Reader in English Literature at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. She is the author of Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (Legenda, 2010) and chapters and articles on Blake, Fuseli, Lavater, Tennyson, Ludwig Meidner and Frankenstein. She co-curated with Philippa Simpson the display ‘Blake and Physiognomy’ (2010-11) at Tate Britain, co-edited with Laurie Garrison (and contributed to) the special issue Science, Technology and the Senses (RaVoN, 2008) and co-edited with Laurie Garrison (general editor), Verity Hunt, Phoebe Putnam and Peter West Panoramas, 1787-1900: Texts and Contexts, 5 vols (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). She co-edited with Morton D. Paley The Reception of William Blake in Europe (Bloomsbury, 2019) and with Helen Hendry Monsters: Interdisciplinary Explorations in Monstrosity (special collection for Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 2019-2020). Apart from reception, her current research projects are on monsters and death (Academic and Creative Reponses to Death and Dying: How do we tell the Children?) as well as conceptualisations of ‘character’ in the Romantic period.


[1] Blake’s Visionary Heads have been discarded as an example of eccentric or explained as a practical joke (Keynes 1971; Bindman 1977; Butlin 1981). With regard to influence, the drawings are testimony for Blake’s awareness of European art. Bentley (2009), moreover, identified The Newgate Calendar and Celebrated Trials as sources for the portraits of the murderesses. 

[2] Gilchrist, who thought of the drawings as moral statements, noted that it was easy to tell the bad from the good ([1907] 1998, 273).  Anne Mellor (1978) read Blake’s Visionary Heads through the artistic and pseudo-scientific practices of physiognomy (Lavater) and phrenology (Spurzheim) and raised awareness of ‘The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams’. Tom Hayes (2004) discusses this Visionary Head and Portrait of William Blake (c.1802-03) as self-searching, androgynous self-portraits.

Bibliography

Bentley, G.E., Jr., ‘Blake’s Murderesses: Visionary Heads of Wickedness.’ Huntington Library Quarterly, 72.1 (2009): 69-105.

—, Blake Records, second edition (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2004). Abbreviated to BR2. 

—, ‘Blake’s Visionary Heads: Lost Drawings and a Lost Book.’ In Tim Fulford (ed.), Romanticism and Millenarianism(New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 183-206.

Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon 2977).

Butlin, Martin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1988).

Curry, Patrick, A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology (London: Collins & Brown 1992).

Erle, Sibylle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252.

Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake edited and with an Introduction by W. Graham Robertson (New York: Dover [1907] 1998).

Heppner, Christopher, ‘The Chamber of Prophecy: Blake’s “A Vision” (Butlin #756) Interpreted.’ Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 25.3 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 127-31.

Hayes, Tom, ‘William Blake’s Androgynous Ego-Ideal.’ ELH, 71.1 (Spring 2004), pp. 141-165.

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1971. ‘Bake’s Visionary Heads and The Ghost of a Flea.’ In Blake Studies, Essays on his Life and Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 130-136.

Mellor, Anne, ‘Physiognomy, Phrenology, and Blake’s Visionary Heads.’ In Robert Essick and Donald Ross Pearce (eds.), Blake in His Time (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 53-74.

Story, Alfred T., James Holmes and John Varley (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1894).

Five Questions: Jane Spencer on Writing About Animals in the Age of Revolution

Jane Spencer is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Exeter. Her numerous publications include the monographs The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), Elizabeth Gaskell (1993), Aphra Behn’s Afterlife (2000) and Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon, 1660-1830 (2005); the edited collection Political Gender (1994; with Josephine McDonagh and Sally Ledger); The Rover and Other Plays (1995); and essays ranging across fiction, poetry, drama and periodicals from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Her essay collection Reading Literary Animals: Medieval to Modern, co-edited with Karen Edwards and Derek Ryan, came out with Routledge in 2019. Her most recent book, Writing about Animals in the Age of Revolution, which we discuss below, was published in June 2020 by Oxford University Press.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book about Romantic-period perspectives on animals?

A number of impulses started to come together. I’d been thinking a lot about kinship for my previous book, Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon, 1660-1800, and I realised, too late for that book, that it’s vital to extend our concept of kinship beyond the human. Besides, much of my past research has been concerned with questions of women and feminism in the Romantic period and earlier, and I was interested in the way women were animalised by being so closely associated with our sexual and reproductive bodies; it seemed an obvious next step to go from writing about women to writing about animals. But more fundamentally, the subject answered a need in me to bring nonhuman animals, always an important part of my personal life, into my academic and intellectual existence. At the time my younger daughter was just discovering the world of wildlife conservation, and in exploring it with her I reconnected with my own childhood love of all animals, and knew that they needed to come to the centre of my research and writing. Up till then I hadn’t worked in critical animal studies, so I had a lot of catching up to do, and the book has been a long time coming.

2) What would you identify as the main factors that led to an increasingly politicised interest in the welfare and rights of animals during the late eighteenth century?

A number of long-term cultural trends starting in the early modern period, from the growth of pet-keeping to the development of a critical attitude to everyday violence, brought the welfare of animals into public view, and the eighteenth-century philosophy of sympathy provided legitimation and a vocabulary for concern about animal suffering. Then the political earthquakes of the late eighteenth century made real change seem possible. Talk of the rights of man, and even of the rights of woman, led to the idea that there could be rights for nonhuman animals. For many conservatives that kind of extension just proved that all rights discourse was ridiculous, while some of the most radical thinkers, those like Joseph Ritson and John Oswald at the fringe of the fringe, actually began to question the idea of human supremacy at the same time as they were trying to establish the concept of universal human rights.

So concern for animal welfare shifted from being the province of kindly clergymen and moral educationalists to being a hot political topic, and one that was full of quite troubling implications for many members of subordinated human groups, especially for people of colour, who were having to fight for their own rights against those who used animalised terms to define them as inferior. Those tensions within radical and progressive thought created by the notion of rights for animals particularly drew my attention, because they showed people grappling with questions we still haven’t solved: do rights for some only work by excluding others? Can we show respect for the nonhuman? Can we stop considering it an insult to be called, ourselves, animals?

3) In your introduction, you write that in the Romantic period ‘A new literature of animals emerged, flowering especially in poetry and children’s fiction.’ Why did those two forms prove to be particularly fertile ground, and how did developments in poetry and children’s fiction interact with developments in other discourses?

Poetry was understood as the place for feeling, including both compassion for suffering and a sense of connection with the natural world, and citing poetry gave people licence to introduce compassion into arenas supposedly ruled by reason. David Perkins in Romanticism and Animal Rights, and Tobias Menely more recently in The Animal Claim, showed how animal poetry fed into the campaign for welfare laws. There’s something of a time lag: it’s often slightly earlier, rather than contemporary Romantic poets, who are obviously influential. Thomson’s Spring, with its vision of the nightingale mourning the loss of her chicks, and Cowper’s Task with its recommendation of Christian stewardship of nonhuman life were quoted again and again by pamphleteers and MPs seeking to change the law.

Children’s literature centred on animals for partly similar reasons — children, like poets, were licensed to be feeling creatures — but in addition, children were considered to be like animals because of their undeveloped reasoning powers, so it was thought natural that they would identify with them. A number of children’s stories explored the world from a nonhuman viewpoint, and the use of free indirect discourse to enter into the imagined mind of a nonhuman animal is pioneered here. There isn’t the same easy transfer from children’s fiction into political discourse that we find with poetry. Romantic children’s literature about animals had a slow-burning influence, passing on its innovations to later adult literature. Writers like Jack London and Virginia Woolf follow early children’s stories when they write from the point of view of a dog.

4) Did you discover particular works on animals during the course of your research that you feel should be better known? Are there any texts that you’d particularly recommend to scholars seeking to bring Romantic-period animal studies into their syllabi?

Lots of them! Looking at the Romantic period through an animal-studies lens transforms it completely. Diana Donald, whose Picturing Animals in Britain has been an inspiration, told me about the little-known Scottish novelist Margaret Cullen, author of Mornton (1814). She’s Jane Austen as animal-rights activist. Drawing-room conversation centres on the merits and limitations of Erskine’s failed bill against cruelty to animals, and the heroine defends a donkey from a group of attackers. Other delights include Richard Porson’s A New Catechism for the Swinish Multitude, in which a pig explains the mechanisms of British class oppression, and John Oswald’s The Cry of Nature, perhaps the period’s most uncompromising expression of animal rights. I’d recommend all of these.

Equally, there are some already well-known works that read very differently when you take notice of the animals or the animal questions at their centre. What seems like a quaint old question – do animals have immortal souls? – turns out to be a troubling and productive one for Wollstonecraft in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I’d never thought much about Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, assuming that Shelley and Leigh Hunt and practically everyone since were right to dismiss it, but reading it afresh in the context of a tradition of ass literature I began to see that Wordsworth’s donkey, like some other literary donkeys, is the sign of a radical revision of humanity’s place in the world.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m hoping to edit Mornton for the Chawton House Library Series – it really deserves to be read again. And I’m beginning work on an essay for Michael Demson and Chris Clason’s new volume on Romantic Beasts. My contribution will be about birds in Romantic-period literature: the birds of the new ornithological studies as well as the nightingales, skylarks and green linnets of the poets.

On This Day in 1820: William Blake draws Pindar the Greek Poet and Lais the Courtesan (Visionary Heads) for John Varley (Part I)

2020 presents yet another exciting year for Romantic bicentenaries. We’ve already shared ‘On This Day’ posts about Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Today we are delighted to present a reflection on William Blake in September 1820 by Dr Sibylle Erle (Bishop Grosseteste University).

Would you like to contribute to a future post about literary and/or historical events from 200 years ago? Get in touch!

On This Day in 1820: 18 September, William Blake draws Pindar the Greek Poet and Lais the Courtesan (Visionary Heads) for John Varley

This Blog post has two parts. Click here to read part II.

According to its inscription, which was written by John Linnell (1792-1882), William Blake (1757-1827) drew ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ on 18 September 1820 (Butlin 1981, #711).[1] Blake drew for an audience but only Blake could see who he was drawing.

Pindar (died c. 439BC) was a well-known, now canonical, lyric poet in Ancient Greece. Blake, who mentions ‘Pindar’ in passing in An Island in the Moon (1784), would have deepened his knowledge when illustrating Thomas Gray’s poems (c.1797-98). He would have been familiar with the apocryphal stories that include Corinna, a serious rival, and possibly one-time teacher, of Pindar. The work of this obscure poet survives in fragments and her life-story is tied to Pindar’s. Lais the courtesan, however, bears no connection to Pindar and her life-dates are even more uncertain as she left no trace in history. Like Corinna, Lais was a confident woman; she interrupted Blake’s drawing session and, according to Allan Cunningham, forced Blake to draw her rather than Corinna.[2]

Blake drew his Visionary Heads in the middle of the night and for the watercolour artist and astrologer John Varley (1778-1842).[3] Linnell, who had introduced them, became involved towards the end when he did the engravings for Varley’s Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828) but, as the inscription to ‘Pindar and Lais’ suggests, Linnell may have been present when Blake drew their portraits on 18 September 1820. 

Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s Victorian biographer, describes the drawing sessions as follows:

At Varley’s house, and under his own eye, were drawn those Visionary Heads, or Spiritual Portraits of remarkable characters […]. The Visionary faculty was so much under control, that […] he could summon before his abstracted gaze any of the familiar forms and faces he was asked for. ([1907] 1998, 271-272) 

Most of the Visionary Heads were done between 1819 and 1820, but very few have dates on them; most are from October 1819 and at least two date from 1820.[4]

The Visionary Heads are pencil drawings, originating from the Blake-Varley Sketchbooks. These sketchbooks technically belonged to Varley who had begun to fill them with his own drawings.

William Blake, ‘Pindar and Lais’.

Varley showed Allan Cunningham Blake’s Visionary Heads in 1830 and Cunningham, in Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptures, and Architects (1830), mentions six of them, among them Pindar, Corinna and Lais. (Cunningham was clearly uncomfortable with the claims about Blake’s vision, talking about ‘visionary fits’ (BR2 647), and could not decide if he was telling the ‘the story of a madman’ or ‘the life of a genius’ (BR2 651-52).)  Varley said: 

Observe the poetic fervour of the face – it is Pindar as he stood a conqueror in the Olympic games. And this lovely creature is Corinna, who conquered in poetry in the same place. That lady is Lais, the courtesan – with the impudence which is part of her profession, she stept in between Blake and Corinna, and he was obliged to paint her to get her away. [… ]. (BR2 650) 

Towards the end of their conversation,  Varley reached for the most famous of all: Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20).[5] Varley, perhaps sensing Cunningham’s scepticism, got confused about who was who and in what order Blake had drawn the heads. Cunningham’s account, however, reveals the drama of what happened deep on 18 September. There is competition between Pindar and Corinna and the old story acquires an unexpected twist due to Lais who just won’t go away. Rather than interpret their encounter, I would like to suggest, that the story tells us more about Blake than his sitters. Blake treated Lais with respect and thus elevated her status and admittedly so at the expense of another woman who – going by her portrait – was just as beautiful. 

We can never know Blake’s thinking behind his decisions for the portraits of Pindar, Corinna and Lais. It seems that Lais was not supposed to ‘appear’ on the same sheet as Corinna. It is impossible to say in which order Blake made these drawings, but their provenance and inscriptions suggest that there is a connection. What is Blake’s story – did Pindar and Corinna finally make up? We will never know. 

Sibylle Erle, FRSA, FHEA, is Reader in English Literature at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. She is the author of Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy (Legenda, 2010) and chapters and articles on Blake, Fuseli, Lavater, Tennyson, Ludwig Meidner and Frankenstein. She co-curated with Philippa Simpson the display ‘Blake and Physiognomy’ (2010-11) at Tate Britain, co-edited with Laurie Garrison (and contributed to) the special issue Science, Technology and the Senses (RaVoN, 2008) and co-edited with Laurie Garrison (general editor), Verity Hunt, Phoebe Putnam and Peter West Panoramas, 1787-1900: Texts and Contexts, 5 vols (Pickering & Chatto, 2012). She co-edited with Morton D. Paley The Reception of William Blake in Europe (Bloomsbury, 2019) and with Helen Hendry Monsters: Interdisciplinary Explorations in Monstrosity (special collection for Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 2019-2020). Apart from reception, her current research projects are on monsters and death (Academic and Creative Reponses to Death and Dying: How do we tell the Children?) as well as conceptualisations of ‘character’ in the Romantic period.


[1] ‘Pindar and Lais the Courtesan’ comes from the Folio Sketchbook; the disbanding started in the C19th and the drawings are inscribed by Varley, Linnell and subsequent owners.

[2] Butlin, speculating about the untitled heads, suggests that Pindar and Corinna paid several visits. (Butlin 1981, #692 80, #708, #709., #710.) Lais, the courtesan, appeared only once.

[3] In astrology twelve types are superimposed on human nature to explain contradictions in human nature, working from the time (ascendant) and day (constellation) of birth.  Varley, who was a successful astrologer (Story 1894), believed in Blake’s visions (Curry 1992). Fred Getting’s The Hidden Art (1979) includes a chapter on Blake and Varley but Getting cannot explain the figures with no historical precursors. 

[4] ‘Old Parr When Young’ (1820) is inscribed ‘Aug 1820 W. Blake fec.’ (Butlin 1981, #748).

[5] Sibylle Erle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252. 

Bibliography

Bentley, G.E., Jr., ‘Blake’s Murderesses: Visionary Heads of Wickedness.’ Huntington Library Quarterly, 72.1 (2009): 69-105.

—, Blake Records, second edition (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2004). Abbreviated to BR2. 

—, ‘Blake’s Visionary Heads: Lost Drawings and a Lost Book.’ In Tim Fulford (ed.), Romanticism and Millenarianism (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 183-206.

Bindman, David, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon 2977).

Butlin, Martin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1988).

Curry, Patrick, A Confusion of Prophets: Victorian and Edwardian Astrology (London: Collins & Brown 1992).

Erle, Sibylle, ‘From Vampire to Apollo: William Blake’s Ghosts of the Flea c. 1819-1820.’ In Bruder, Helen, P., Connolly, Tristanne (eds.), Beastly Blake, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 225-252.

Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake edited and with an Introduction by W. Graham Robertson (New York: Dover [1907] 1998).

Heppner, Christopher, ‘The Chamber of Prophecy: Blake’s “A Vision” (Butlin #756) Interpreted.’ Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, 25.3 (Winter 1991-92), pp. 127-31.

Hayes, Tom, ‘William Blake’s Androgynous Ego-Ideal.’ ELH, 71.1 (Spring 2004), pp. 141-165.

Keynes, Geoffrey. 1971. ‘Bake’s Visionary Heads and The Ghost of a Flea.’ In Blake Studies, Essays on his Life and Work (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 130-136.

Mellor, Anne, ‘Physiognomy, Phrenology, and Blake’s Visionary Heads.’ In Robert Essick and Donald Ross Pearce (eds.), Blake in His Time (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 53-74.

Story, Alfred T., James Holmes and John Varley (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1894).

Five Questions: Justin Tonra on Thomas Moore

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Justin Tonra is a Lecturer in English in the School of English & Creative Arts at the National University of Ireland Galway. His research publications include work on digital humanities, stylometry, network analysis, the poems of Ossian, Jeremy Bentham, book history and textual editing. He has a particular interest in Thomas Moore, who is the subject of his first monograph, Write My Name: Authorship in the Poetry of Thomas Moore, which was published in August 2020 by Routledge and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Thomas Moore?

Lalla Rookh was the gateway. When I first learned about the poem I struggled to understand why it was so neglected in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Not because of its quality, necessarily—parts are good, other parts are bad—but because it was such a popular phenomenon when it was published in 1817 and for much of the nineteenth century. It also seemed to me to be such an interesting anomaly within Irish literature of that period—a lavish poetic epic set in western and central Asia—and that explains, in part, its absence from the Irish literary canon. But certain modish elements that disqualified it from canonical consideration were among those that appealed to me: it was calculated to satisfy the demands of a growing popular audience for Romantic Orientalist poetry and it pushed Moore outside of his authorial comfort zone. He deliberately tried to write in a more Byronic mode in order to emulate the success of Byron’s Oriental poetic tales, and this was his first attempt at writing a long verse narrative. Both caused him problems: the latter in particular. During my doctorate, I worked on Lalla Rookh from the perspective of textual criticism and manuscript studies, but my interest later broadened into book history and publishing history approaches to studying the work. I found these to be more fruitful and interesting, and they are the perspectives that are reflected in the Lalla Rookh chapter of Write My Name.

2) How did you come to select authorship as the main frame through which your book examines Moore’s poetry?

After that initial interest in Lalla Rookh, I began to encounter more and more of Moore’s writings and was struck by the sheer breadth and diversity of his oeuvre. He wrote in so many different forms and modes, even within the broad categories of poetry and prose. He is best known for writing lyrics to accompany music—the Irish Melodies and similar works—and for biographies of figures like Byron and Sheridan, but those two forms just scratch the surface of the formal and generic variety of his writing. He also wrote lyric, satiric, and epic poetry; history, travel, theology, and fictional prose; and even drama and operatic libretto. I always thought the task of approaching his oeuvre was a formidable challenge (though Ronan Kelly’s biography, Bard of Erin, does this with impressive style and insight) and, over time, I began to view the theme of authorship as one which represented a potential path through the thicket. In adopting those different modes of writing, Moore often assumes different authorial attitudes and personae: from the very literal use of pseudonyms to more nuanced modes of style, address, and paratextual framing. I examine some of these deliberate aesthetic strategies in the book alongside other authorial formulations that are influenced by external forces and agents: authorised and unauthorised printers, and legal constraints on blasphemous writing, for example. The unifying framework of authorship allowed me to use a number of critical lenses through which Moore is rarely viewed and to expand the range of questions that we pose to evaluate his importance as a literary and cultural figure.

3) Your book takes a wide range of approaches to Moore, bringing to bear toolkits including ‘digital humanities, book history, legal history, and textual theory.’  How has employing these perspectives allowed you to challenge or nuance existing impressions of Moore?

However they differ methodologically, these different approaches enabled me to maintain a consistent focus on the question of authorship across the range of different works that I examine in the book. That was the primary motivation for employing this diversity of perspectives. Authorship is an expansive phenomenon which has invited a host of different critical approaches: from the theoretical and the biographical to assessments of its broader material and cultural formulation. I analyse a number of different cases along a continuum that runs between the author and nonauthorial sources of agency and meaning in order to assess their contribution to different formulations of Moore’s authorial persona in their own time and as they have descended to us today. For example, my first chapter considers Moore’s strategic use of the Thomas Little pseudonym to position his early amorous poetry within distinct literary, historical, and generic contexts. A later chapter moves outwards from this close authorial focus to examine the influence of legal regulation of blasphemous literature on Moore’s decision to make radical revisions to the fifth edition of The Loves of the Angels (1823). Shifting between these different states of magnification helped me to understand the meaningful interaction of these different authorial forces and to build a more nuanced picture of Moore the poet. Many of the existing critical impressions of Moore are tied closely to questions of history and nation. I don’t set out to explicitly challenge those modes of approach but to argue for the appeal and importance of views of Moore that emerge when we set some of those recurrent questions aside or reorient their priority. Lots of critical work on Lalla Rookh has focused on its allegorical references to Ireland while neglecting its staggering commercial and popular success. I take the latter as my starting point for demonstrating how its publication across the nineteenth century reflects notable shifts in Moore’s authorial stock and status—and, in the process, hopefully enhance our understanding of the critical significance of the work.

4) While your book is both part of and attests to a major revival of scholarly interest in Moore, he’s still a fairly unfamiliar inclusion on syllabi.  Which Moore works do you think would bring the most to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and how might instructors best approach them?

You are right to remark Moore’s absence from university syllabi. I remember my astonishment, some years ago, when Jim Mays told me that he had taught Lalla Rookh to undergrads—I thought I was the only one! I have used it in an Irish Literature survey course where it teaches well in the context of what I describe above: its allegorical echoes of prominent Irish issues of the nineteenth century such as independence and Catholic emancipation. I have also used Moore’s clandestine elegy for Robert Emmet, “Oh! Breathe Not His Name” to teach close reading of poetry, since it’s a very tightly controlled piece of writing—formally precise and thematically linked to its mode of expressive restraint. It’s a really wonderful lyric. I largely ignore its musical accompaniment in my classes, but that’s an obvious area where Moore supports interdisciplinary teaching: on the reciprocal influences of musical phrasing and prosody in his works. Coleridge spoke appreciatively about their union; Harry White has written perceptively about the phenomenon; and it offers scope for the teacher of Romantic music and literature—my tin ear, alas, prevents me from taking that approach.  It’s difficult to give a simple answer to your question, however. My initial response was, “it depends on what you’re teaching,” and that remains an important consideration, I think. It’s no great surprise that Moore rarely figures in standard literature survey modules of Romanticism, but if the module adopts a broader social or cultural perspective on the Romantic period then Moore becomes a more useful and interesting figure, as James Chandler argued in England in 1819. In such a module satirical works like Intercepted Letters; or, The Twopenny Post-Bag (1813)—which would struggle to hold the attention of a survey module—become wonderfully rich historical and cultural sources.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

In my research, one of the areas I’m interested in is the intersection of literature and technology. I take a methodological approach to this topic in the final chapter of Write My Name by using computational stylistic analysis of Moore’s writing to investigate the effects of the generic diversity of his poetry on his stylistic consistency. In this sense, computational methods are integral to the mode of inquiry, but I also study the ways in which different technologies form and influence authors’ writing. I have been working on an article about contemporary poets that write on Twitter and on the specific influence of the tweet on the poetic line. Twitter’s expansion of the size of the tweet a few years ago diluted the constraint which made 140 characters a fruitful space for writing lines of poetry, so my focus is largely on the platform’s prelapsarian period. Another ongoing project expands my interest in poetic constraint by exploring historic and present-day examples of machine-made poetry. The major nineteenth-century poetry machine was the Eureka, which generated lines of Latin hexameter, and computational examples—like Theo Lutz’s Stochastic Texts (1959)proliferate after the digital age of the mid-twentieth century. I am interested in how these machines and algorithmic systems were built in order to generate verse and in what those processes can teach us about writing and reading poetry. Many poetry machines are successful at implementing the formal prosodic requirements of verse but stumble at convincing expression, while more recent AI-based systems have the opposite problem. This tension between poetic formalism and authenticity goes right to the heart of Romanticism and it’s impossible to read a line of linguistically-garbled yet metrically-precise machine poetry without recalling Wordsworth’s complaints about “the gaudiness and inane phraseology” of Augustan poetic diction. The project is in its very early stages (with thanks to the Irish Research Council for their support) and I’m not yet sure where it will go, but the research to date has been enjoyable and enlightening.

Dreaming Romantic Europe, Workshop 3 “Romantic Media”

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Conference Report by Alice Rhodes, University of York. 

On Sunday 28th June 2020 members of European Romanticisms in Association came together for the third meeting of the AHRC-funded Dreaming Romantic Europe network, led by PI Professor Nicola J Watson (Open University) and Co-I Professor Catriona Seth (University of Oxford). While the workshop was due to have been hosted by Jeff Cowton at Dove Cottage in Grasmere in honour of the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that some changes had to be made to this original plan. Not to be deterred however, the organising committee reimagined the workshop as a digital conference, which was held over Zoom, hosted by Cowton and Wordsworth Grasmere

While the workshop may not have taken the form originally envisaged, the virtual format was a resounding success. In addition to allowing us to open up registration to auditors from across the world who may not otherwise have been able to attend, the digital nature of the meeting spoke well to the workshop theme of “Romantic Media” and, in keeping with RÊVE, the virtual exhibition at the centre of the project, provided an exciting glimpse into the potential which digital projects hold for connecting scholars of Romanticism working in universities and heritage organisations around the globe. 

Dove Cottage, Grasmere. The conference featured a virtual tour of the cottage delivered by Jeff Cowton.

Although we couldn’t physically be at Dove Cottage, the Wordsworths’ home came to us as we kicked off the first day of the workshop with a video tour of the house and garden, so expertly delivered by Jeff Cowton, that we felt we might have actually been there. This was followed by a warm welcome from Watson and Seth who introduced the project, RÊVE, and the central question of the workshop: “Which media served to materialise and/or transmit Romantic ideas and sentiments across Europe?” Next up our panels got underway with the first of three sessions composed of ten minute talks on a single object, suitable to be exhibited in the virtual exhibition. Session one, chaired by Professor Barbara Schaff, addressed the theme of “Paper,” with speakers considering how objects such as letters and manuscripts transmitted Romanticism not only through their content but through the materiality of their form. After a short break, and a chance for our speakers to respond to the wealth of questions and join in with the lively conversations taking place in Zoom’s chat pane, we returned for the second part of the afternoon. Session two, chaired by Professor Nicola Watson, looked at Romantic “Views,” from mountains and buildings, to scenes glimpsed in mirrors and captured on wallpaper. Sunday concluded with virtual cocktails, accompanied by a viewing of three artworks: Louise Ann Wilson’s “Dorothy’s Room”, Ellen Harvey’s “The Disappointed Tourist”, and Edward Wates’s calligraphy of Wordsworth’s ‘The world is too much with us’ with a reading from Jeff Cowton. 

The workshop resumed on Monday with our third panel, which was chaired by Professor Caroline Bertonèche. Speakers in Session three turned to Romantic science with papers on the topic of “Stars, stones and other bodies,” which explored bodies celestial and anatomical, animate and inanimate. Our penultimate session consisted of a roundtable, led by Dr Sally Blackburn-Daniels with Jeff Cowton (Wordsworth Grasmere) and Dr Anna Mercer (Keats House) on RÊVE in the museum. Cowton and Mercer reflected on the impact which the project has had on their curatorial and outreach practice and how the RÊVE might offer new ways of thinking about the museums in the future. To bring the day to a close, Catriona Seth led the final discussion of the workshop, opening the floor to invite speakers and auditors to reflect on the workshop, RÊVE, and Romantic Media, old and new. 

Overall, the workshop stood as testament to the potential of media, material and immaterial, physical and virtual, to transmit ideas both in the Romantic era and now, and to offer a suggestion as to how Romanticists across the continent and further afield can still gather, engage, and collaborate in the age of Covid-19 and climate emergency. Last but not least, we’d like offer our thanks to Jeff Cowton and Wordsworth Grasmere for a warm virtual welcome, to everyone who worked so hard put the conference together and to move it online, and to all our speakers and attendees from around world who braved technology and time differences to contribute such fascinating, rich, and productive papers, questions, and discussion.

You can find details of the full programme here and you can revisit some of the workshop’s highlights on Twitter under the hashtag #RomanticMedia.

You can also find reports on Workshop 1 “Consuming Romanticism” and Workshop 2 “Romantic Authorship” here and here

Follow ERA on Twitter here.

Five Questions: Ian Newman on The Romantic Tavern

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Ian Newman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His research encompasses, among other things, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and song; politics; aesthetics; urban space; John Keats; Charles Macklin; and the transmission and circulation of popular culture. He is the co-editor, with Oskar Cox Jensen and David Kennerley, of Charles Dibdin & Late Georgian Culture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and was recently the guest editor of a special issue of Studies in Romanticism on “Song and the City” (Winter 2019), to which he also contributed an introduction co-written with Gillian Russell. His first monograph, The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality in the Age of Revolution, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.

1) How did you first become interested in Romantic-period taverns?

There are really two answers to this question, once personal and sentimental, and one more intellectual, although they may in fact turn out to be the same thing.

The personal first: I grew up in England in a family of enthusiastic drinkers. Most of my childhood holidays involved camping in the back gardens of pubs, or hiking in the Welsh mountains and stopping off at a pub (usually in the beer garden) for lunch. So long before I reached drinking age, I had a strong emotional connection to the institution of the pub as a source of pleasure, which only increased when I was old enough to actually go inside. As an undergrad I spent more hours in the Hat and Feathers in Cambridge than I’m comfortable admitting here. Then, in 2002 I moved to Los Angeles and the thing I missed about England more than anything was the pub. Not the drinking, so much as the forms and rituals of pub culture: the architecture, the hand pumps that frothed the beer into the glass, the clocks on the barbacks, the mirror decorations and elegant tiling, even the smell of piss on a urinal cake, and of course, the forms of talk.

When I first moved I just didn’t understand how young Americans spent their spare time. Where did people go to discuss politics, or TV, or events in the news? Where did students go to talk about the books they were reading or discuss their ideas about a lecture or grumble about the poor behaviour of a classmate? Where did they go to form friendships, to meet people, to flirt and to argue? Where, in short, was the glue that held the culture together? (Brief answer: America affords plenty of ways for these things to happen; they just don’t all happen in the one-stop shop we have in the pub). So, my interest in taverns was really a result of recognizing the value of something that I had taken for granted only when it was no longer available. And in its absence I understood that there was something important about British pub culture that needed to be understood better and explained – especially, I thought, to Americans.

When I started graduate school – and here I’m moving into the more intellectual answer to your question — I grew fascinated by the London Corresponding Society, and in the way politically disenfranchised artisans gathered together in alehouses to read Paine’s The Rights of Man, to talk about their own stake in political discussion and in general to give themselves a political education. (I should say that recent work on the LCS has vastly complicated this narrative, but this, broadly speaking, was the story I’d inherited from E.P. Thompson). I had been tracking the alehouses that the LCS met in, largely just out of a sense of curiosity about what they were like, and wondering if any still existed that I could go and visit.

So I knew that I wanted to write about pubs and the politics of the early Romantic period –- this powerful moment when new political ideas were permeating culture in a tremendously exciting but also potentially frightening way. But the penny really dropped when I was sitting in the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and I saw an image of the interior space of the London Tavern for the first time. I remembered that the London Tavern was a place that Edmund Burke referred to in the Reflections, and was immediately struck that this was a colossal space, far bigger than the little pub I’d been imagining when I read the word “tavern” on the pages of Burke’s treatise.  It was truly colossal with magnificent decorations and classical pillars and pilasters, and could accommodate up to two thousand people in just one of its several rooms. And I had an immediate, palpable sense that many critics, myself included, had been referring to “taverns” for a long time without really understanding at all what they were talking about, certainly without recognizing the importance of the distinction between taverns and alehouses. That really opened the door for the book, as I realized that rather than trying to explain pub culture to an American audience – which was a dreadful, patronizing idea anyway – I needed to recover the history of the pub for a British audience too, as we had lost sight of these extraordinary institutions which were right at the center of culture of all kinds, literary and extra-literary, shaping all those energetic political disputes out of which modern democracy was born.  

2) In the course of your research, what emerged as the key touchstones for tavern sociability, and in what ways did these shift over the course of the later eighteenth century?

One of the central claims of the book is that in the second half of the eighteenth century there developed a distinctive form of sociability that was associated with, though not confined to, the tavern that went by the name “conviviality.” This is a form of sociability that had important links with earlier models of eighteenth-century sociability discussed by the likes of Addison and Hume and theorized by Habermas, but which distinguished itself by an assumption of inclusivity. The model for thinking about eighteenth-century sociable conversation is largely antagonistic and improving, with conversation and argument helping to shape opinion. The default assumption of conviviality, on the other hand, is that everyone is already in agreement, and so a variety of forms develop – toasts, drinking songs, speeches – to help articulate what are assumed to be shared values. This shift, from sociability as something that shapes opinion, to conviviality as something that affirms shared belief is one of the defining changes in conceptions of sociability in the second half of the eighteenth century, and there develops a series of key concepts that helped to articulate this change. These include “humour,” meaning both funniness and good humouredness; “sentiment,” a familiar idea from the late eighteenth century but that has a particular convivial inflection because a sentiment was a kind of toast; and “mutuality” a word frequently used to mean the shared desires and affections of an entire room. Together these terms emphasized collectivity, and the confirmation of ideas that had already been settled, rather than ones that might be open to change.

Of course, these were just aspirational models, and in no way reflect the lived reality of any particular meeting, but these ideas had conceptual weight and influenced the way people perceived the successes or failures of the social occasion.

3) To what extent was the nature of tavern conviviality determined by the particular architecture of tavern spaces?

Well, provisionally I’d say that tavern conviviality wasn’t really determined by the physical space, but I do think the architecture and the practice evolved together along mutually reinforcing lines. So, for example, if you design a pub with a series of little cozy nooks and snugs, it reveals something about the assumed use of the space – it suggests small gatherings of a few people in intimate conversation, which itself might reveal something about the desire for privacy and discretion. But if, as with eighteenth-century taverns, you create a massive space that can accommodate hundreds, or sometimes thousands of people – a space that can be used as a banqueting hall, ball room or an assembly room – then that suggests something quite different about the sorts of gathering you have in mind, and the sorts of conversation that might be possible. So both the forms of sociability and the architecture are motivated by underlying ideas about sociability’s relationship to privacy and publicness.

But to complicate that a little, one of the interesting things about late eighteenth-century taverns was that a change in architecture coincided with the explosion of new forms of sociability, especially ones that included women. Gillian Russell is of course the authority here, but anyone who’s read Burney’s Evelina will have a good sense of the giddy excitement that surrounded these novel forms of urban entertainment. The tavern, a traditionally masculine space, attempted to cater to the rage for mixed gender socializing, and huge rooms were added on to older taverns, and built as part of the new ones, to accommodate balls, concerts, and assemblies, on a large scale.

Of course, architects didn’t have crystal balls and didn’t know how the spaces they designed were going to be used. And one use of these assembly rooms that became extremely common was large-scale meetings organized to gather support for a political cause, whether that was Charles Fox campaigning for an election, or the Society for Constitutional Information campaigning for universal suffrage. These large meetings, with hundreds of attendees were almost exclusively male gatherings, but they had been enabled by the development of these large rooms that had been designed to accommodate mixed gender sociability.

So while initially I would suggest that architectural space can’t determine behavior, it can certainly influence it. It seems likely that the idea of conviviality as inclusive and consensual rather than antagonistic that I talked about in my answer to your last question, was necessitated to a degree by the sheer scale of these vast meetings, the size of which was made possible by the architecture.

4) Four of your chapters focus on particular genres: political ballads, Anacreontic odes, bawdy and lyrical ballads, and the toast.  How can situating these genres in their tavern contexts help to reanimate texts most commonly encountered by Romanticists in often-chastened collected forms?

In general terms, part of my aim was to point out that lyric poetry is only one verse form among many, and that several other forms are best understood in performance rather than as printed texts. And while we have access to these forms only through their textual traces, we can reanimate the world of late eighteenth-century verse by attempting to imagine the social occasion in which performances happened. One of my larger claims then is that we can only really understand these often-chastened collected forms when we see them in the context of the competition between different verse forms. So for example, it’s really hard to understand what’s going on in Keats’s “Ode to A Nightingale” with its references to draughts of vintage and Bacchus if you don’t understand the culture of convivial Anacreontic poetry it was responding to, and suggesting it could supplant. Nor do I think it’s possible to recognize what is distinctive about Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, unless you set it in the context of a robust culture of ballad singing, which is inherently performative and not (as the Lyrical Ballads are) purely textual. Part of what’s getting worked out in these canonical moments is the claiming of the lyric’s special relationship to print rather than performance, and especially the lyric’s relationship to the codex form of the book, which can lend longevity to verse. And this often is opposed to more ephemeral verse forms like the performed drinking song, or political verse, or the broadside ballad, or any of the other myriad forms of poetry that made a virtue of spontaneity, immediacy and embodied presence rather than timelessness. What thinking about taverns and tavern performance can do then is to raise the question of the temporalities of verse, asking us to reconsider the value systems that made a virtue of the now, which have been obscured a little by the Romantic lyric’s idea that the value of the present lies in its ability to provide life and food for future years. Admittedly, an extremely powerful idea, just not the only one available.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’ve been acutely aware that the research I did on ballads for The Romantic Tavern barely scratched the surface of what is a vast world of verse in performance – or what you might, I suppose, call “song”. This work has been spinning out in various directions, one of which is an interest in the role of song in the theatre, and in particular trying to think carefully about what it means when a performer or the audience begins to sing in the middle of a play. What does that performance suggest about the affective bonds between audience, actor, and character, and what exactly is the status of the song in the context of the dramatic action? Some of this thinking will appear in an edited volume I’m working on with David O’Shaughnessy on the Irish actor Charles Macklin called Charles Macklin and the Practice of Enlightenment, for which I’m contributing a chapter called ‘Macklin and Song’. I’m also working on a monograph about the idea of the ballad as a narrative poem called Song Stories. I’m interested here in the kinds of narratives that ballads (by which I mean performed songs, not just printed ballads) provide, attending in particular to the narrators of ballads (who are often curious characters) and the interplay between words and music in providing narrative satisfaction.

And obviously, I remain very interested in drinking songs.

The Bigger 6 Collective: New Website

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The Bigger 6 Collective was formed in 2017 to challenge structural racism in the academic study of Romanticism.

The Bigger 6 Collective is a group of literary and cultural critics whose commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial politics grounds their study of the global 18th and 19th centuries and their long (after)lives. They endeavor to effect structural changes in our discipline and institutions by promoting scholarly and creative work by historically marginalized people, those excluded from the Romantic canon, and those excluded from the field of Romanticism. In so doing, they undiscipline Romanticism, build from it rather than within it, and establish lines of radical inquiry that lead, they hope, to politically urgent thought and insurgent actions.

The Bigger 6 Collective has launched a new website. Click here to visit it.

Additional resources are available here.

Angels and Armed Women: Lectures in Literature via Durham University

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Free Public Lectures on Zoom, 17:30 BST Wednesday 9 September 2020

17:30 BST Wednesday 9th September 2020

Dr Sarah Burdett (University of Warwick)
The Actress’s Body in the Audience’s Mind: Receptions of Armed Women in the British Theatre, 1789-1815
In the period of the French Revolution, the arms-bearing woman came to stand in Britain as a representative of extreme political and social disruption. Magnifying heroines who appear on stage brandishing daggers, and even firing explosives, this lecture makes a case for viewing the British theatre as an arena in which the significance of the armed woman is constantly re-modelled and re-appropriated to fulfil diverse ideological functions.

Caitlin Rankin-McCabe (Durham University)
‘Banish the body from your mind’: Bodiless Angels in the Early Modern Imagination
The existence of angels in early modern England was undisputed. However, people’s understanding of angels was certainly not clear or uniform. As idolatrous images of the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels were taken down and removed from churches across England, how were writers responding to this removal of visual representation?

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