Five Questions: Madeleine Callaghan on Eternity in British Romantic Poetry

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Madeleine Callaghan is a Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature at the University of Sheffield. Her work focuses on poetry, poetics, culture and philosophy, with a particular focus on Romantic-period writing. Her book-length publications include Shelley’s Living Artistry: Letters, Poems, Plays (Liverpool University Press, 2017), The Poet-Hero in the Work of Byron and Shelley (Anthem, 2019), Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry: Hardy to Mahon (co-edited with Michael O’Neill; Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and The Romantic Poetry Handbook (co-authored with Michael O’Neill; Wiley 2017). Her new monograph, Eternity in British Romantic Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2022), will be released on June 1st; we discuss this book below.

1) How did you first become interested in the relationship between the mortal and the eternal in Romantic poetry?

I think it’d always been there in the way I read poetry, and perhaps it explains my enduring love of Shelley, whose work is so often that of a poet balancing the claims of the visible and invisible world. I think it sharpened into an actual idea when the more I read Romantic period poetry, the more I saw that tension or negotiation between the mortal and the eternal playing out across the entire period. I decided to write an article on Shelley and eternity (published by Essays in Criticism in 2018), and then found that I wasn’t finished thinking about it! I miss writing this book because it was a fantastic opportunity to think about a question that animated all of these poets (and so many others that I just couldn’t fit into the parameters of the study) and seemed to unite them and yet reveal the very real differences between them. Now, to get my fix, I teach a module for our finalists, ‘Life After Death: Romantic Poets and Writing the Afterlife’, and the students sometimes get as obsessed as me!

2) To what extent would you see Romantic poets as engaging with older ideas regarding eternity, and to what extent did their practices represent a break with previous traditions?

Eternity and the relationship between poetry, theology, and religion, gained a new urgency in the Romantic period. Andrew Bowie writes that ‘between the end of the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth century the relationship between art and the rest of philosophy undergoes a radical transformation’, and I think poetry registers and even spearheads this transformation. I see Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Hemans as inheriting the philosophy, the theology, and the imaginative visions of their predecessors and then pushing them into new complexity in their demanding poetry. I also had to deal with how a philosopher that might be central for one poet hardly seemed to register for another. Bernard M. G. Reardon refers to the state of ideas in the period as ‘a treasure-house in disorder’, and I think that’s a great description, where each of these poets wants to discover a treasure, or perhaps more accurately, decide on whether their predecessors offer them trash or treasure. In the Romantic period, there is such a rich and multifaceted picture of religious belief, and these differences license serious poetic exploration.

3) For all the poets you examine, you write that eternity is ‘vitally important for providing a spur to the imagination, a source for their yearning, or as an inhuman abyss to avoid’.  However, you also stress that each poet has particular approaches of their own.  What for you are some of the most interesting commonalities and dissonances your analysis traces between its subjects?

I had hoped, as I always do, to find some sort of common thread that would make for a bold theory that would bring everything together perfectly (I was as optimistic as Edward Casaubon). But I quickly realised that would have meant a complete distortion of what each of these poets actually does. I found the commonalities lay in that each of the poets, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Hemans, felt that they had to deal with the question of eternity. For each of them, it wasn’t so simple that you could just ignore it completely. Even Byron, that grand scoffer, swithers between versions of eternity, and he tests and plays with new ideas in almost every poem. I loved how far Keats defied eternity, always remaining fascinated with that which is mortal and warm with human touch. Hemans, the quiet radical Romantic, scrutinises what it is to think about a female eternity. Writing about Records of Woman via the idea of eternity made me realise how innovative she is, where she takes up a stance so counter to but in touch with the work of her male peers. I see the way they write as a dialogue, or, to borrow from Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale’, they seem like ‘So many Nightingales’ (56) that ‘answer and provoke each other’s songs’ (58).

4) Which poems did you find it most rewarding to write about in the context of this book?

I was stunned by how much poetry seemed to be bound up with the question of eternity, so nothing felt like pulling teeth! Wordsworth’s The Excursion, Coleridge’s The Wanderings of Cain,along with Keats’s ‘This Living Hand’, were an absolute pleasure to write about, and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was another type of fun. I really enjoyed reading Byron’s Beppo through a new lens, and Hemans’s poetry, especially Properzia Rossi, was so rewarding in that her ambiguities and real mastery over her subject matter made me strive to do her as much justice as I could. Obviously, for me, Shelley was a delight throughout. I only wish I’d had more pages available to try to speak to the scope of his achievement. I always long for more words!

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m thinking about a few editing projects and articles, but also I’m at the very beginning of starting a new monograph, Such Liars: Romantic Period Poets and the Truth, which aims to work on a number of Anglophone poets working in America, Ireland, and England. The notion of truth was of particular philosophical and material significance in the Romantic period.  As if to spite Wordsworth, who calls himself and Coleridge ‘Prophets of Nature’, Byron laughingly, or snarlingly, calls poets ‘such liars’. But the insult suggests how the idea of truth nags at Romantic period poets, even as they might seem to thumb their noses at it. This project explores poetry’s engagement with truth and related ethical concepts in poetry in the Romantic period by tracing how poetry was a platform for debate around questions of aesthetics, politics, gender, and race. I want to challenge understandings of poetry’s relationship with truth, and think through poets as different as Thomas Moore and Phillis Wheatley and their approach to truth. It’ll take a while before I start writing, but so far, I’m enthralled with the poets I’m reading, and hope to be able to write something, anything, before too long!