News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Posts filed under Romantic Reimaginings

Romantic Reimaginings: The Ecstasy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email

Today on the blog, Adam Neikirk provides a personal account of his work on poetical biographies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Seamus Perry, author of Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford English Monographs, 1999) once commented to me that his task of writing his contribution for the Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford UP, 2009), on ‘Coleridge’s Literary Influence’, felt “a bit like trying to describe an alp”. “The achievement is so various,” writes Perry at the beginning of the article, and the literary influence so diverse, that no generalization here can be useful: there is no single distinctive ‘Coleridgean’ idiom or manner for later poets to appropriate or reject … Neither are the lines of influence always clearly defined: no subsequent ballad can hope to escape the example of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ … (661).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Perry’s alp remark, while more compact, is perhaps even more illuminating of our general attitude to STC: there is something vast and yet indistinct which we attempt to reckon; so much so, that sometimes it is tidier to compare him (or his literary achievements) to an inanimate object, even if it be a stream or what Coleridge himself once called a “spring with the little tiny cone of loose sand ever rising and sinking at the bottom, but its surface without a wrinkle” (CN I, 980).

Virginia Woolf famously did this in her enraptured essay “The Man at the Gate,” in which she described “an immense mass of quivering matter” (getting right at the protean source), a “great swarm” of words, and “pendent drops” which roll down across a pane smeared by weakness, emblematic of the clarity of Coleridge’s mind struggling with its capaciousness to settle upon just one subject, to articulate just one idea. Whenever anyone, be they a critic,[1] another poet,[2] or prose writer,[3] has tried to do more than paint a mere caricature of Coleridge, there is almost always an attendant metaphysical confusion, as if by thinking hard about him, we summon up some kind of meddling or muddling arch-spirit to haunt the willed homology of our thoughts.

We seem to innately turn to poetry or to the possible beginnings of poetry (“describe an alp”) in order to imagine what we consider to be his full fullness. STC is almost himself a kind of writing prompt (“write about the edge of the universe; now write about Coleridge standing at the edge of the universe, scribbling away at what he sees”). My dissertation takes this tendency to veer into the poetic more literally by purporting to offer a “poetical biography” of Coleridge (that is, a series of poems which, taken as a whole, will give the reader the same sense of his life and person as a prose biography). Thus, I have found that Coleridge himself seems to have a poeticizing influence that cannot be ignored and, in fact, should probably be explored. The challenge lies in asking how we can write about Coleridge without reducing him to an image, either of our own values, or to some other set of interlinked values which we think we recognize (we might be tempted to do the same thing with the Alps or some other ‘natural’ object); in other words: how can we articulate him in such a way that he can evolve beyond what he has been seen as, as this or that apostate or champion, and become more like a process of inquiry, “[thriving] on the dynamic of contraries and contradictions, never finding any one church, political party, social theory, or philosophical creed to satisfy his sense of the subtleties of the human condition” (Richards 1962, xviii).

Although this quote is taken from I.A. Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination, it is Kathleen Coburn’s conviction that shines through, an image of a pluralistic Coleridge and a kind of intellectual world citizen who is also a wanderer. It is my conviction that, try as some have, it is not possible to communicate the whole of Coleridge from a critical position only, due to the fact that by the very act of assessing Coleridge, we must occupy a position outside of his life and work and his times, and render our judgment (as he often says) ab extra. Of course, I do not believe in time travel or telepathy, exactly; but believe there is more involved in the uses of poetry as a form of writing than merely versification (and there is a lot to versification as well). This is where the notion of ecstasy as ‘standing outside oneself’ derives from: in reimagining Coleridge through verse, we not only must in some measure put ourselves aside, and step out of ourselves and our times, but we also open ourselves up to Coleridge’s world. His world is the virtual space that is connected to all his writings, as well as to all of the writings about him. It is like the mansion in Bleak House, filled with chambers and twisting hallways, a bit of narcissism in this one, a German hexameter here, a travelogue here, the Lowesian origins[4] of Kubla Khan in a chandelier, the legacy of the “Opus Maximum”[5] leaking into the kitchen sink. The goal is to take the poetic tendencies of prose writings about Coleridge—which I have argued are always there in force—to their logical conclusion: the esemplastic power of poetry itself.

Works Cited:
Beer, John. Coleridge’s Play of Mind. Oxford UP, 2010.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Notebooks I. Princeton UP, 1957.
Perry, Seamus. Coleridge and the Uses of Division. Oxford English Monographs, 1999.
Richards, I.A. Coleridge on Imagination. Routledge & Paul, 1962.
Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Heritage Books, 2019.
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Longman, 1815.

[1] John Beer said of Coleridge (in response to Thomas Carlyle’s description of him as “a mass of richest spices putrefied into a dunghill”) that he was the embodiment of “an aporia, a deadlock between equally demanding, yet essentially irreconcilable, forces”—in the case of Coleridge, these forces are the competing discourses of science and the humanities. See John Beer, Coleridge’s Play of Mind, Chapter 16 (“Questioning Closure”).
[2] Wordsworth’s “Castle of Indolence” stanzas come to mind, wherein STC is described simultaneously as an overgrown child, and as a kind of sage to whom “many did … repair” because “he had inventions rare” (ln. 53-54).
[3] Aside from Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Henry James (both cited in Woolf’s essay) also attempted portraits of Coleridge in Bleak House and the short story “The Coxon Fund” respectively.
[4] John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1930).
[5] See, for example, Coleridge’s Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum (2006).

Adam Neikirk is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. His dissertation is entitled “Your Very Own Ecstasy.”


Romantic Reimaginings: Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email

Today on the blog, Tess Somervell explores the resonance of Luke Howard’s writings on clouds.

A contender for the best English Heritage blue plaque in London is that commemorating the chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (1772-1864), at 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham. Howard is listed simply as ‘Namer of Clouds’.

In December 1802, Howard gave a lecture to the Askesian Society called the ‘Essay on Clouds’, published the following year as an essay ‘On the Modification of Clouds’. Previously most meteorologists had held that clouds were too transient and variable to classify. But Howard argued that clouds shifted between a limited number of fundamental forms or ‘modifications’, for which he proposed the Latin nomenclature that we still use today: cumulus, cirrus, stratus, nimbus, and their various combinations.

Luke Howard blue plaque. Photo by Acabashi.

Howard’s theory of cloud formation immediately caught the imaginations of Romantic poets and artists: its influence can be seen in Percy Shelley’s 1820 poem ‘The Cloud’ and in the landscape paintings of John Constable. Howard’s cloud terminology has become so familiar that most people who are familiar with the cloud names aren’t aware that they are Romantic inventions. Over the last century, as well as providing titles for paintings, sculptures, and musical and literary compositions, Howard’s cloud names have been repurposed in product branding: you can buy Cumulus and Nimbus running shoes, or a Cirrus Ironing Board.

Portrait of Howard by John Opie

Howard’s essay on clouds, then, is a Romantic text that has been reimagined in varied ways. But from the first, readers were intrigued as much by the figure of Howard himself as by his work. In 1815, Goethe read a German translation of ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ and was stirred by Howard’s method of giving form and order to formless, boundless nature. He wrote a poem ‘In Honour of Howard’ which, before describing the cloud types themselves, begins with lines celebrating the namer of clouds: ‘Howard gives us with his clearer mind / The gain of lessons new to all mankind… As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall, / Let the world think of thee who taught it all.’ (trans. George Soane and Sir John Bowring). Goethe wanted to know more about the man behind the science. He wrote to the British Foreign Office, requesting ‘even the barest outline of Howard’s life… Thus I could see how such a mind took form, and how it was led to view nature in a natural way, give itself over to her, recognize her laws…’ (trans. Douglas Miller) He was delighted when this request was met with a letter from Howard himself, containing a brief autobiography, which Goethe then translated into German and had published.

In recent decades, artists and writers have continued to reimagine Howard as a figure and a personality. Many are just as if not more romanticising in their depiction of Howard as is Goethe’s poem. In his excellent book, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Richard Hamblyn (also Howard’s biographer) lists several works of art that have taken Howard the man, rather than the clouds-as-understood-by-Howard, for their theme. These include Lavinia Greenlaw’s poem ‘What We Can See of the Sky Has Fallen’ (from A World Where News Travelled Slowly) and Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Luke Howard, Namer of Clouds’ (from The Bees). It is telling that both Greenlaw’s and Duffy’s poems draw more from Howard’s memoir letter to Goethe (and also, in Greenlaw’s case, an account of him written by his granddaughter), than from the essay on clouds. In his letter, Howard recalls watching the weather from his bedroom at school, especially the strange weather of 1783 and a dramatic meteor: ‘We were roused from our beds by the intense light it afforded’. Greenlaw echoes but reworks this as ‘A childhood of freak weather – roused from your bed / To see the night lit by a meteor’. Duffy’s account is even more Romantic: ‘Smitten / he stared up evermore; saw / a meteor’s fiery spurt’.

One of the most recent reimaginings of Howard is ‘Namer of Clouds’, the title song of the debut album by folk singer-songwriter Kitty Macfarlane. The song begins with that same image of Howard as a child: ‘A small boy stands / Face pressed to the glass…’ The first half of ‘Namer of Clouds’ celebrates, as did Goethe, Howard’s ability to name and give meaning to an elusive sky. However, in the second half, a note of disturbance enters. ‘How did we become so bold,’ Macfarlane asks, to ‘seize the heavens, claim control’? These lines reverberate to the song’s close, so that the refrain ‘namer of clouds’ assumes an ambivalence. Is naming an act of inspired imagination, as for Goethe, an expression of love, as for Duffy, or is it, as Macfarlane suggests, a way of claiming ownership that may be arrogant, even violent?

It is amusing that Howard has been reimagined so often as a Romantic lone visionary, more closely resembling Wordsworth’s image of Newton as ‘a mind forever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’ than Howard’s portrait of himself in the letter to Goethe: ‘a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends’. But romanticising Howard at least reminds us of the human creativity, and the emotional and cultural currents, that underlie seemingly objective scientific theories and terms, in the Romantic period and in any age. Imagining and reimagining the ‘Namer of Clouds’ is a way into thinking about the ethics of observing, analysing, and labelling the natural world.

Works Cited:
– Duffy, Carol Ann. The Bees. Picador, 2011.
– Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Scientific Studies. Ed. and trans. Douglas Miller. Vol. 12 of Collected Works. Princeton University Press, 1996.
– Greenlaw, Lavinia. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. Faber and Faber, 1997.
– Hamblyn, Richard. Clouds: Nature and Culture. Reaktion Books, 2017.
– Macfarlane, Kitty. Namer of Clouds. Navigator Records, 2018.
– Scott, Douglas. Luke Howard (1772-1864): His Correspondence with Goethe and His Continental Journey of 1816. William Sessions Ltd, 1976.

Tess Somervell is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leeds. Her current project is titled ‘Georgic Climates: Writing the Weather in Eighteenth-Century Poetry’.

Romantic Reimaginings: Beatrice Hastings and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email

Today on the blog, Daisy Ferris explores Keats’s Romantic influence in the age of Modernism through the writings of Beatrice Hastings.

A lot of people assume that the Modernists defined themselves against the Romantics: flying in the face of tradition in their ardent attempts to ‘Make it New’. In fact, a clear Romantic influence can be seen in much Modernist work—an influence which is even more prevalent in the work of authors who fall outside of the canon of straight, white, upper-middle class ‘Men of 1914’. One example of a lesser-known Modernist figure whose work is heavily influenced by Romanticism is Beatrice Hastings, who wrote for and co-edited British magazine The New Age from 1908-1916. The New Age played an important role in both the political and artistic developments of the Modernist era: introducing British readers to authors such as Ezra Pound and Katherine Mansfield. Hastings, however, reviled what she termed ‘poetical Picassoism’ (NA, 10.10, p.238), instead advocating for a return to more traditional forms of literature. Hastings’ experiments in parody and pseudonym reveal a curious mixture of styles: seamlessly combining Keatsian elements with a Modernist experiment into the multiplicity of self.

In a letter dated October 27th 1818, Keats described the poet as a chameleon-like figure, who takes on the various identities of his subjects but does not possess an identity of his own. He writes: ‘A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women […].’ (Letters: John Keats I, 387).  Keats goes on to explain that the poetic figure transcends all facets of identity, including gender: Keats uses the pronoun ‘it’ to describe the ‘camelion [sic] poet’, and claims that ‘It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.’ (Letters, 387) It is not hard to see how this understanding of identity maps onto Hastings with her chameleonesque use of pseudonyms and parody. During her time at The New Age, Hastings wrote under more than twenty different pseudonyms. Some of these were not just pen-names, but were given fully-fledged identities of their own, ranging from the radical feminist ‘Beatrice Tina’ to the outrageously misogynist ‘Edward Stafford’. Hastings used her pseudonyms to explore different identities and reject the notion of singular perspective. Rather than limit herself to a single persona, she opted to occupy multiple selves and speak with multiple voices, often at the same time: something she achieves in her parody of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.

The New Age, Vol. 13, No. 25, October 16th 1913

Hastings’ version of the poem, entitled ‘La Belle Dame Sans Beaute’ appeared in the 16th October 1913 issue of The New Age, under the pseudonym ‘G. Whiz’. In this parody the terrifying femme fatale of Keats’s original is replaced with a real life figure: London-based socialist and suffragist Dora Montefiore. The poem refers to a specific incident that took place in the week prior to its publication: Montefiore’s suggestion of a ‘kiddies’ scheme’ which would involve the transportation of children from Dublin to England as a solution to the heightened levels of poverty brought about by the 1913 Dublin Lockout. This suggestion garnered Montefiore a fair amount of criticism, not least from the speakers of this poem. The poem subjects Montefiore to a number of slurs based on her age, appearance and perceived status as sexual predator, though we are never sure if it is Hastings herself, or her cipher ‘G.Whiz’ who sees Montefiore in this way. This poem is one of many examples of Hastings’ works that, owing to its specificity, has been forgotten about or overlooked. However, in addition to addressing a very literal and specific instance of political history, this poem is both an exploration into multiple voiced poetics and the elusive nature of the self.

The choice of Keats’s ‘Belle Dame’ as a source text for this poem is no coincidence. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ plays a number of tricks with narrative voice, which contribute to the dream-like and fantastical nature of the poem. The knight-at-arms, from whose perspective we hear the story of the ‘Belle Dame’ is feverish and seems to conflate dream and reality. We as readers struggle to tell from the dialogue which takes place in the poem which of its many speakers are real, and which are unreal. We cannot know, in fact, whether we are witnessing a dialogue or the interior monologue of a single confused mind. The ambiguity of Keats’s original poem, brought about by its shifting unreliable speakers, is mirrored in Hastings’ parody. We are confronted in this poem with a cacophony of nameless, fragmented voices, presented in a free-verse form which feels distinctly Modernist. The poem shifts in register from archaic terms such as ‘Wretched hag of the nobility’ and ‘Bad Fairy’ to a more colloquial, modern mode of speech, using phrases such as ‘War’s war, old lady!’ and ‘Don’t you think you’d better/Hook it?’ (NA 13.25, 737). We are never sure how many different voices we hear in this poem, nor whose voices we are hearing at any given time, although crucially we never hear the voice of Montefiore herself.

Hastings’ parody of ‘La Belle Dame’, then, shows an instance in which the tenets of Modernism and Romanticism are not diametrically opposed, but rather work together in tandem. Hastings was deeply influenced by Keats, drawing on his poetics as well as his notion of the ‘camelion poet’ in her own Modernist quest towards understanding the complexities and multiplicities of identity. Her under-appreciated ‘Belle Dame’ parody is testament to Keats’s ongoing legacy and the ways in which his work continued to resonate in the Modernist era.

Works Cited:
– G. Whiz [Beatrice Hastings], ‘La Belle Dame Sans Beaute’, New Age 13.25 (October 16th, 1913), p.737.
– Beatrice Hastings, ‘Runes’ [Letter in Correspondence Section], New Age 10.10, (January 4th, 1912), p.238.
– John Keats, Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27th 1818 in Hyder Edward Rollins, ed. The Letters of John Keats Vol. 1 (1814-1818), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.386-388.

Daisy Ferris is a Midlands 3 Cities Funded PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University. Her research looks at women’s use of parody and humour in Modernist periodical culture.

Romantic Reimaginings: Frankenstein for Young Readers

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email

Today on the blog, Lauren Christie explores the ways in which Frankenstein has been reimagined for young readers. 

“And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”[1]

Two hundred years ago, a monstrous nightmare was crafted into one of the most influential novels ever written. With the multitude of references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) across literature and popular culture, Shelley, Frankenstein and the Creature have become household names. The popularity and diverse nature of this novel lends itself well to literary adaptations for a young audience. The tormented narrative of both Victor Frankenstein and the Creature mirrors similarly turbulent issues that children experience throughout childhood and adolescence. This article will pay close attention to literary adaptations of Frankenstein for young readers, and the ways to ensure that the novel remains alive and relevant for future generations. Applying this message of monstrous diversity to twenty-first century literature, this article will note novels which have prominently drawn inspiration from Shelley’s original text

One of the best ways to ensure the longevity of a literary figure, particularly for a younger audience, is to demonstrate ways in which the novel is connected to them. Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote this novel. It is important to break through the fictional presence of a literary classic in order to incorporate the tale into reality. If children are made aware of Shelley’s young age when she created Frankenstein, then this encourages a sense of achievability for their own writing.

In order to continue promoting a traditional Gothic text to a contemporary audience, it is vital to consider the numerous ways in which tropes, themes and figures central to the novel have continued to adapt and survive: ‘Its central narrative… became a kind of independent trope or “myth” that invaded other art forms—plays, cartoons, advertisements, comic books, conversations, films. Frankenstein (the name) became a kind of all-purpose watchword for creativity gone wrong and monstrosity gone wild.’[2] The brand and figure of Frankenstein has been absorbed into popular culture. Stephen King refers to the ‘millions of Americans that are aware of the tale of Frankenstein, as it has become as common a household name as “Ronald McDonald”, and yet they are unaware of the difference between Victor Frankenstein and the Creature […] A fact which enhances the idea that the book has become a part of Hatlen’s American myth-pool.’[3] Two hundred years of film, literary and comic adaptations later, Frankenstein remains recognisable to any audience, regardless of country, culture, age or language.

Guy Bass, Stitch Head, (2011).

In response to the Creature and Shelley’s famous creation scene, the first literary adaptation that this article will highlight is Guy Bass’s Stitch Head (2011). This novel is a light-hearted tale of junior fiction from the point of view of a creature, the long forgotten original creation of a mad scientist. Destined to live his young life in the confines of Castle Grotteskew, similarities in the novel most notably include: a vulnerable and isolated narrative and a young character setting out on a voyage on which to find a companion. Furthering the relationship between this novel and Frankenstein, one chapter lists the ingredients required to create a “Truly Monstrous Creation”. These include: ‘3 Parts Human, 2 parts “Other”, 1 quart Monstrousness and just a pinch of impossibility.’[4] In this section the authors humour is portrayed as children realise there is no way to define a monstrous being. Therefore what remains is the fun surrounding monstrous tropes and creatures.

Image result for frankenweenie

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012).

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012) was the stop-motion animated adaptation of a short film he created in 1984. The film details the tragic heartache of a young boy (named Victor Frankenstein) whose beloved pet dog “Sparky” is killed by traffic. As with Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein is influenced by the effect of galvanism on inanimate creatures, and one stormy night, he attempts to reanimate his dead pet. This story is littered with references to not only Shelley’s novel, but also to contemporary understandings of monsters in general (including a Godzilla creature and a monstrous sea monkeys scene). The film carries a deeper meaning as it urges children to consider the ethical consequences involved in bringing a beloved pet back from the dead. As much as every child that experiences the death of a loved one has surely at one point wished they could bring them back to life, this film (as with the novel) explores, in a child-friendly context, the consequences of doing so.

Maurice Sendak, Mommy? (2006).

Finally, considering adaptations for a much younger audience, Maurice Sendak’s Mommy? (2006) is a Gothic themed picturebook that encourages early development in young children. As demonstrated in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), his literary monsters capture the heart and imagination of young children all over the world. Mommy? is the tale of a baby who is searching for its mother. On each page the baby encounters characters such as a mad scientist, Dracula, Frankenstein (with his Creature) and, eventually, its mother. The journey throughout this short book offers vibrant colours and a pop-up format to reveal different Gothic figures on each page. However, at no point is the baby fearful of these monsters which questions whether or not children are truly fearful of childhood monsters, or whether this is a projection from adults.

The inclusion of an ambiguous and controversial character in the form of the Creature allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about issues of humanity. Contemporary horror has transitioned away from traditional monsters that are visibly identifiable, into the anonymous figure of a contemporary monster in society. Despite possessing a visibly monstrous appearance, the Creature maintains a level of innocence, exiled through the cruelty of mankind─ a journey which can often be read as a transitional reflection of childhood into adolescence. It is vital to maintain a combined study of literary adaptations in conjunction with the original text for new and younger generations. By doing so, we can ensure that the text will remain alive and relevant for future generations.

Works cited:

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 10.

[2] Paul Hunter, Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition, (New York: Norton, 2012), p.ix.

[3] Stephen King, Danse Macabre, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991), p. 67.

[4] Guy Bass, Stitch Head, (London: Stripes Publishing, 2011), p. 35.

Lauren Christie is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, studying the gothic tradition in modern education. Lauren’s publication record covers a diverse range of areas, including contemporary horror, children’s literature, curriculum studies and the gothic tradition. Lauren has taught both gothic and contemporary horror literature and has designed modules in children’s literature and children’s gothic. Lauren intends to create core advisory material for teaching Gothic literature in secondary schools. This will encompass Gothic and contemporary horror, Gothic adaptations, and children’s fiction.

Romantic Reimaginings: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email

Today on the blog, David Sigler explores the reimagining of Romanticism in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem

Jerusalem, NHB Modern Plays book cover (2009).

Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem does not hide its debts to British Romantic poetry. It takes its title from William Blake’s Milton: A Poem (by way of Hubert Parry), and attempts to update for modern England the fantasy of England that Blake conjures. The play opens with a prologue that recites Blake’s prologue, and ends, as if in a revelation of a divine truth, with the character Ginger acknowledging Blake’s authorship. The protagonist, a distinctly Byronic figure and local cock-of-the-walk, is, in a subtle stroke, called Johnny “Rooster” Byron. The play premiered in 2009 at Royal Court Theatre in London and has since been frequently staged across the UK, the US, and Canada, most recently, through June 2019, in Vancouver.

As a play about nostalgia for bygone times and national myths, and as a play committed to bringing plain speech, and even crass speech, into the realm of literary high art, Jerusalem is a thoroughly Romantic play: it is both romantic, if ugly and unsentimental, and Romantic, in its eagerness to confer the dignity of literary classics upon a gang of self-described “educationally subnormal outcasts” (p.53). Rooster, a forcibly retired daredevil encamped illegally for decades on public land, spends his days drinking, getting banned from pubs, causing public disturbances, selling drugs to teenagers, and luring them into exploitative non-consensual sex. His squatter’s rights are being challenged by his wealthier, more respectable neighbours, and Rooster, dreaming of a “Flintock rebellion” (p.53), maintains staunch opposition to Kennet and Avon Council and its enforcement officers. As the drama unfolds, Butterworth effectively reactivates the ethos of Lyrical Ballads: Rooster, like Wordsworth’s Simon Lee, is a man once central to his local community who is forced to confront his own uselessness in the modern world, but whose act of living on as the last of his kind can be seen as a meaningful form of political resistance to the neoliberal powers that have dismantled the community. His capacity for tall tales (reminiscent of “The Thorn”) exposes the modern world to the realm of the mythological and supernatural (as in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and highlights his allegiances with literature. It is as if Lord Byron were inserted into the world of Lyrical Ballads and tasked with enacting Blake’s vision of divine political renovation. To see or read Jerusalem as a Romanticist, then, is to encounter something deeply familiar.

Jerusalem at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 2018. Photograph by Philip Tull.

The play’s populist politics have not aged well in the decade since its debut. It is clear, though, that Butterworth saw the urgency with which white, poor, and sometimes xenophobic people, feeling abandoned by the official national eye and encroached upon by outsiders, and enamoured especially of ludicrous bullshit, were set to become the focal point of national politics in Britain and worldwide. There is a nativist strand in the play, according to which supposedly real Britons, through “lines of ancient energy” (p.72), can claim an ancestral connection to Stonehenge, May Day, and the woods. Hence Rooster delights in his fantasy of having urinated on the car of the traffic wardens in Marlborough town, whom he supposes to be “big Nigerians,” and of having escaped their clutches by refusing their “Nigerian delicacies” (p.68). Rooster deems himself authentically British by virtue of his bloodlines—what Rooster boasts of as Romany “Byron blood”—even when those bloodlines mark him as a perpetual outsider and subject him to racialized violence. His marginalization, legally and socially, are all the more a sign that he belongs in “Rooster’s Wood,” whatever the Rules of County Court would say. Jerusalem uses Romantic poetry as a signifier for these nativist bona fides, and to justify the squatters’ battle against the respectable New Estate. This all seems problematic and over-familiar in 2019. Yet, as Rooster and Ginger become more desperate in Act 3, their Romantic myths begin to turn against them with the brutality of a gang and with the administrative violence of the law. The myths are nevertheless all they’ve got, and so the play begins to undercut its characters’ propensity to valorize their own social and economic marginalization. The irony that results is, I think, part of the play’s Byronic and Blakean ethos.

Jerusalem is a complex and challenging contemporary response to British Romanticism. It re-activates the Romantic era’s debates over enclosure and the commons, its revolutionary impulses, its class warfare over respectability, its commitment to the “real language of men,” its affection for the supernatural, its consolidation of nationalist and racial ideologies, and its valorizations of drug addiction and sexual exploitation; it persuasively implies that these Romantic inheritances have laid the groundwork for contemporary British politics. It then suggests—with recourse to a magical golden drum—that Romanticism might offer a solution to Britain’s current political impasses, such as Brexit, which the play very much anticipates. Yet it does so by refusing to wish away the fault lines that have come to a crisis since 2009, especially during the Brexit referendum but also in the U.S. and around the world. Jerusalem, like a CNN pundit from 2016, demands that we learn to respect the values and prejudices of the rural poor—lest these forgotten people vow to exact their cosmic revenge. It invites us to think of “England” as a “green and pleasant land” belonging to the people, and redeemed by its miniature oases of authenticity, in which, ironically, self-aggrandizing lies are the coin of the realm. And it stresses the living presence of activist poetry as part of a national counterpublic that, even when it is ignored or forcibly suppressed, still simmers, by many undetected, in British politics. In that sense it is prescient and quite thoughtful—even revolutionary.

In doing so, however, Jerusalem takes a narrow and stereotyped view of British Romanticism and its legacy. Its vision of Romanticism is nearly a cult of masculinity that worships solitary men of extraordinary vision, who, through the force of their irrepressible personalities, are clearly better than the regular folks around them. These men, Butterworth suggests, won’t be constrained by society’s rules. This is the most conservative possible vision of British Romanticism, and one that the field of Romantic studies has been working to undo for several decades now.


Work cited: Butterworth, Jez. Jerusalem. Nick Hern Books, 2009.

David Sigler is Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary (Canada). He is the author of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2015) and co-editor of Lacan and Romanticism (SUNY Press, 2019).