“Núns frét nót,” and Neither Should You: Using Technology to Master Prosody

In my research, I stumbled upon an 1807 letter by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s letter to his third son, Derwent. In the letter, the poet expresses great delight that young Derwent is studying Greek and offers the following lines, known as “Metrical Feet,” to explain and model some of the common types of metrical feet. The poem is commonly anthologized and probably lurking in one of your editions of Coleridge’s poetry.

Metrical Feet

Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks; strong foot!, yet ill able
Ever to come up with Dactyl’s trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride; –
First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred Racer.
If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
WIth sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet, –
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his Father above.
           My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Coleridge.


Encountering this masterful work inspired me to return to my scansion-loving roots. I, like young Derwent, have been brushing up on my spondees and dactyls. If you too would like to examine meter and rhythm, NYURRG strongly recommends visiting http://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/ . The site offers useful tips, a very thorough glossary of terms, and poems to practice scanning. You can choose how you approach the practice poems. Young Derwents can arrange the poems by difficulty, author, or type (sonnet, ballad, etc).


Yours in the infinite iamb,

Randall Sessler

William Hazlitt: Romantic Lecturer

In my own research, I have come across many instances of Romantic writers attempting to qualify, mask, or obscure their participation in certain genres and media. One medium that is gaining increasing and worthwhile attention is the public lecture. Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture (2009), a collection of worthwhile and timely essays edited by Alexander Dick and Angela Esterhammer, opens with a provocative claim by Judith Thompson: “Romanticism has come down to us as an imaginative rather than a performative movement, a movement of mind rather than mouth, as it were; and, like other Romantic ideologies, this bias against speech has coloured not only literary history but the study of language” (1). This claim functions as a type of mission statement for the volume.

In this post, I will attempt to respond to this call and build on the insightful pieces in the collection, most notably Judith Thompson’s essay, by examining William Hazlitt’s attempt to distance himself from his own career as a lecturer.

In his essay, “On the Difference between Writing and Speaking,” which was first published in London Magazine in July 1820 and then again in 1826 in a collection of essays titled The Plain Speaker, Hazlitt claims that “different faculties are required for, and different objects attained by” writing and speaking (140). Hazlitt associates writing with time, re-reading, completion, and comprehensiveness. Speaking, in contrast, demands “bustle,” “animation,” and “a lively flow of animal spirits” (142). The effects of each are different as well. For Hazlitt, speaking “must be done offhand” and its impact is “a single blow” (141). Writing allows the author more time to prepare his work and the reader the chance to return to and “go over the page again, whenever anything new or questionable ‘gives us pause’” (146). Therefore, according to Hazlitt, it should come as no surprise that good orators are not good writers. With the Jacobin orator John Thelwall being the likely target, Hazlitt writes, “The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read. In speaking, he was like a volcano vomiting out lava; in writing, he is like a volcano burnt out” (142). Although he is critical of the “dashing orator,” Hazlitt admits to engaging with his work as a listener and a reader.

Unlike the allusion to Thelwall in the “dashing orator” passage, Hazlitt addresses him by name when he discusses “Mr Thelwall’s Tribune” (143). Thelwall started The Tribune in 1795 and it lasted less than a year. There, as Hazlitt points out, Thelwall published many of his speeches. According to Hazlitt, what the “dashing orator” hands “over to the compositor is tame, trite, and tedious” (143). Without the “bustle” and animation of the orator behind them, the speeches, which “appeared so fine,” are seen for what they really are: “worthless” (143). After linking Thelwall with his radical past, Hazlitt addresses, implicitly at least, Thelwall’s elocutionary theories. Immediately after mentioning Thelwall’s Tribune, Hazlitt claims, “What we read is the same: what we hear and see is different – ‘the self-same words, but not to the self-same tune’” (143). For Hazlitt, writing allows for a certain uniformity, a sameness that speaking cannot. Hazlitt makes his case by modifying the exchange between Banquo and Macbeth after the witches’ prophesy that Macbeth will become king. Macbeth asks Banquo whether he heard the same prophecy and Banquo replies, “To the selfsame tune and words” (I.iii.89). Hazlitt, then, claims that through the “vehemence of gesture” and “loudness of voice,” speakers like Thelwall are able to change the “tune” of the words they speak (143). Hazlitt draws Shakespearean comparisons throughout his essay and even compares orators and actors. According to Hazlitt, for speakers like Thelwall, “an impassioned theatrical disclaimer” takes “the place of argument and wit” (143-4).  Ultimately, for Hazlitt, “A popular speaker (such as I have been here describing) is like a vulgar actor off the stage – take away his cue, and he has nothing to say for himself” (144). Without the trappings of delivery and the “intoxication of popular applause,” the orator is “fairly cleared out” (144).

“On the Difference Between Writing and Speaking” reveals Hazlitt’s strong preference for writing, reading, and print. As Thompson points out, Hazlitt associates speech with “bombastic superficiality, immediate but transient gratification, and expedient mob sympathy, in stark contrast to the intellectual depth” and “permanent truth” of writing (22). His comments are especially interesting in light of his own career as a public lecturer. Hazlitt was, arguably, known primarily as a lecturer. An anecdote from his first lecture proves especially illuminating. Unable to find a publisher for his History of English Philosophy, Hazlitt turned to public speaking to reach an audience. In January of 1812, Hazlitt began his speaking career with a series of lectures on English philosophy at the Russel Institution in Great Coran Street, Bloomsbury. Hazlitt lectured on Tuesdays and, although Coleridge was speaking on Mondays and Thursdays, had to compete with the poet’s lectures on Shakespeare and Milton at the London Philosophical Society. Competing with Coleridge for an audience and in dire need of money only added to the pressure Hazlitt felt. Furthermore, right before he was about to begin his first lecture, Hazlitt was given a firm time limit. George Hack, the secretary of the Russel Institution, told his speaker, “You will limit yourself to an hour, won’t you? There’s a good chap. Our lectures never go on longer” (Wu 141). With Charles Lamb and Thelwall in attendance, a nervous Hazlitt quickly read through his prepared notes for what he thought would be a three hour lecture. Many in the audience were unable to hear him at all and wondered whether the lecture series would continue next Tuesday as scheduled.

Therefore, Hazlitt learned much of what he would later claim in “The Difference Between Writing and Speaking” firsthand. Lectures required a different type of skill set than writing and had to be given within time limits dictated by someone else. In a journal entry, his friend Thomas Robinson draws attention to the fact that Hazlitt initially did not understand these differences: “He [Hazlitt] read ill a very sensible book, and, as he seems to have no conception of the difference between a lecture and a book, his lectures cannot possibly be popular, hardly tolerable” (Wu 141). Disappointed by his first performance and aware of the validity of criticisms such as Robinson’s, Hazlitt edited his second lecture and, in the words of Duncan Wu, held a “dress rehearsal” at his friend Basil Montagu’s home (142). Those who attended his second lecture were greeted by a new, confident, and lively speaker. A reviewer for The Times claims the new Hazlitt was “audible, distinct and animated; and the felicity of his expressions very frequently excited applause” (Wu 142). Furthermore, the young Hazlitt cut quite the figure. Handsome and well-dressed, Hazlitt was much “easier on the eyes” than his fellow lecturer Coleridge, who was struggling with an opium addiction and had gained a considerable amount of weight (Wu 237).

Although he was never a showman and considered himself, as a title of a collection of essays suggests, a plain speaker, Hazlitt the lecturer was not as far removed from the “dashing” and animated Thelwall as he claims. Furthermore, shortly after his lecture series concluded, Hazlitt accepted a job as a reporter of parliamentary speeches for the Morning Chronicle. He transcribed speeches in shorthand for publication later the same day. In other words, Hazlitt assumed the very “compositor” role he mentions when discussing Thelwall’s Tribune. Thompson rightly points out that “By distancing good (that is, written) language from the tawdry and turbulent, politicized and commercialized culture of public speech,” Hazlitt and Coleridge “mask their own investment in that culture” and “obscure English Romanticism’s” participation in it (22). As the anecdote and Hazlitt’s own lecture career show, despite this attempt at “distancing,” both he and Coleridge become part of the “culture of public speech.” In fact, the success of Hazlitt’s written works was directly connected to his career as a lecturer. Towards the end of his lectures on philosophy, Hazlitt, with the help of Basil Montagu, printed a “Table of Philosophical Opinions” and distributed them to his lecture subscribers. The short document served both to gauge and ignite interest in the possible publication of the lectures in the form of his History of English Philosophy. Even though he did not find a willing publisher, Hazlitt had learned public lectures could be “a good publicity vehicle” for subsequent publications (Wu 138).

This account of Hazlitt’s lecturing career is far from exhaustive but it does begin to show that scholars should not follow Hazlitt’s lead and attempt to separate his writing and speaking careers.


Works Cited:

Hazlitt, William. “The Difference Between Writing and Speaking.” The Plain Speaker. Ed. Duncan Wu. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998. 140-160. Print.

Thompson, Judith. “John Thelwall and the Science and Practice of Elocution.” Spheres of Action:Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture. Ed. Alexander Dick and Angela Esterhammer. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009. 21-45. Print.

Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.Print.

Yours in Romanticism,
Randall Sessler

Review of Almeida’s Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780-1890 (2011)

The following book review appeared in the most recent British Association of Romantic Studies (BARS) Bulletin. For more information about the association, including how to become a member and receive their bi-annual publication, please visit: http://www.bars.ac.uk

Joselyn M. Almeida, Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780–1890. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. 294. £66.00. ISBN 9780754669678.

In recent years, the field of transatlantic studies has gained significant momentum. It received special currency, in particular, when it challenged rigid linguistic and political divisions in the academy. It has also remained strong because of its capacious theoretical space for transnational and transcultural critical work. When the term ‘circum-Atlantic’ was introduced thereafter, the term ‘trans-Atlantic’ suddenly seemed delimiting and not altogether inclusive of the Atlantic world’s tri-continental scope. In Reimagining the Transatlantic, 1780-1890, Joselyn M. Almeida returns her readers to this discussion by critiquing the shortcomings of both these terms, in fact. In the process, however, she offers us a new approach. She proposes the pan-Atlantic as a multivalent framework that comprises both the Anglophone and non-Anglophone worlds and disrupts ‘monolingual transatlanticism’ (5). Her work captures the authentic portrayal of the interpenetrating intellectual, cultural, and social forces from 1780-1890.

This is not the first time that Almeida offers an influential and groundbreaking study. In 2010, she edited a collection of essays, Romanticism and the Anglo-Hispanic Imaginary, which considers the multiple political, social, and literary connections between Romantic-era Britain and Spanish America. Underscoring the lack of attention that has been given to this relationship, the book also provides a rich interdisciplinary foundation for what has become an emerging branch of scholarship. Rebecca Cole Heinowitz’s Spanish America and British Romanticism, 1777-1826: Rewriting Conquest, published shortly afterwards, provides an admirable extension of the work begun by the scholars who contributed to Almeida’s collection.

Almeida’s book is equally important and innovative. By reflecting the age’s cross-cultural, fluid interactions, the pan-Atlantic theoretical framework helps us refigure Romantic and Victorian Britain’s relations with Africa and the Americas. It encompasses various discourses and realities, including the practice of slavery and the rhetoric of liberation during the ‘reconfiguration of British power in light of the decline of the Spanish empire’ (11). Almeida helpfully integrates the contributions of translation, as well as movement and transmission, as they intersect with history and literature.

The book’s chapters advance chronologically and span a broad range of authors describing the ‘hybrid networks of culture that arise from multiple encounters across the longitudes of the Atlantic’ (237). Almeida draws from a generic array that includes histories, abolitionist poems, travel narratives, and a novel. Her first chapter begins with a comparison of Robertson’s History of America (1777) with Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments (1787) and Francisco Javier Clavijero’s Storia antica del Messico (1780). By including Native American and African slave voices, she considers how imperial critiques brought about discursive reflections on global justice through ‘Pan-Atlantic relationality’ (14). Her second chapter analyzes the distinct liberation movements of abolitionism and Latin American independence through the cases of Toussaint Louverture and Francisco de Miranda, whose efforts helped create an expansive nexus across imperial centers (London and Paris) and ‘peripheries’ (Caracas and St. Domingue) alike. Analyzing the works of José Blanco White and Richard Robert Madden, the third chapter examines the role of translation as a powerful link between British abolitionism and reformist projects in Spanish America. Almeida then examines Charles Darwin’s ‘discovery’ voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle in the fourth chapter, and considers his writings as a transformative contribution for Anglo-Hispanic relations. Darwin’s contributions, she explains, resulted in South America’s transition into a tangible, real phenomenon for the British. Finally, in her concluding chapter, she analyzes the paradoxes of later Victorian Britain’s commercial investments in Latin American slave-holding states.

With this publication, Almeida has offered an elegantly written and important piece of ‘recovery’ criticism. It not only captures the broad and boundary-less space of the Atlantic and the interconnectedness between politics and writing, whether fictional or non-fictional. The book also reconceives, as she explains, the ‘monolingual genealogy of culture’ through the various ethnic, racial, social, and cultural connections provided by her compelling pan-Atlantic conceptualization (238).

Omar F. Miranda
New York University

Jane Taylor’s didactic poetry

Jane Taylor, most famously the author of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” wrote several collections of verse for young children, often in collaboration with her sister Ann. Since little else of her work is widely known, we offer today, for your delectation, a selection from Original Poems for Infant Minds (1806):

“The Pigs”
“Do look at those pigs as they lie in the straw,”
Said Dick to his father, one day:
“They keep eating longer than ever I saw,
What nasty fat gluttons are they

“I see they are feasting,” his father reply’d,
They eat a great deal I allow;
But let us remember, before we deride,
‘Tis the nature, my dear, of a sow.

“But when a great boy, such as you, my dear Dick,
Does nothing but eat all the day,
And keeps sucking good things till he makes himself sick,
What a glutton! indeed, we may say.

“When plumcake and sugar for ever he picks,
And sweetmeats, and comfits, and figs;
Pray let him get rid of his own nasty tricks,
And then he may laugh at the pigs.”

While this poem has an obvious didactic purpose, I find it a strong example of the type of teaching poetry employed not only by the Taylors, but by Anna Barbauld, Hannah More, Charlotte Nooth, and other writers, primarily women, who interested themselves in childhood education. The Romantic period saw the development not only of institutionalized education for the poor, but the development of new systems of education for children, worked out in new primers and collections of poetry and stories aimed at children, with child protagonists, designed for children to read themselves, with larger type and more than the usual white space on the page. In this poem, the child reader is invited to identify with the protagonist, young Dick, as he judges the pigs, and is gently corrected by his father, inviting the child reader to partake of the instruction to Dick. the moral and lesson are made clearly for the child reader. While this type of poetry will never replace Wordsworth’s Prelude in literature classrooms, it does grant us valuable insight into the reading and teaching habits of early nineteenth-century Britain, as well as changes in educational practices of the period.

Veronica Goosey

Coming this fall . . . YOU tell us!

Although it feels like Prometheus Unbound graced the stage only yesterday, it is actually getting near time for NYURRG to select another work of Romantic drama to produce with Red Bull Theater.

In 2012, Lord Byron’s Sardanapalus proved to be an entertaining and, in the words of the director G. T. Upchurch, highly “stageable” piece of drama. Last fall, we set ourselves the very difficult task of putting on a staged reading of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Thank to Red Bull Theater and Craig Baldwin’s unwavering enthusiasm and insight, Prometheus was reunited with Asia in wonderful fashion. Furies, spirits, echoes, and other celestial bodies lined the hallways and offered audience members a rare experience.

We write today to solicit suggestions for what we should perform this year. John Keats’s Otho the Great? One of Joanna Baillie’s Plays of the Passions (Count Basil being one of our favorites)? At the moment, we have received requests for Byron’s The Deformed Transformed and William Wordsworth’s The Borderers.

Let us know what you would like to see! Leave your suggestions in the comments for this post!

Support Romanticism at MLA 2014

There will be four panels sponsored or co-sponsored by the Division on the English Romantic Period at the upcoming MLA: mark your calendars and support Romanticism!

As some of you may know, the MLA, in a burst of consolidating energy (as they saw it), floated the idea of “absorbing” our division either into an 18th C. or 19th C. division, which proposal the Divisional Committee roundly resisted, apparently successfully thus far. But it’s all the more important that scholars of Romanticism demonstrate the ongoing vitality, unpredictability, and generativity of “romanticism” in all its modalities.


Cash Bar Arranged by the Division on the Victorian Period and the Division on the English Romantic Period: Saturday, 11 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., Los Angeles–Miami, Chicago Marriott

35. The Romantic Now
Thursday, 9 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Chicago D, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
“In this session, we offer and invite discussion of that temporality – the present –which cannot be spoken, only enacted, and we consider “enactment” from the perspectives of politics and poetic form”
Presiding: Marjorie Levinson, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
1. “‘Now with Treble Soft,’” Jonathan Culler, Cornell Univ.
2. “What’s in a Name? Romanticism and Terror,” David E. Simpson, Univ. of California, Davis
3. “Taunting with Gavroche: Activist Deployments of Poetry,” Lyn Hejinian, Univ. of California, Berkeley

348. Nature: Meta-physics
Friday, 10 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Chicago C, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. “String Theory and Sideways Growth: The Ecology of Romantic Poetics,” Sean Dempsey, Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville
2. “Miss Bates and the Nomadic Space of Emma,” Yoon-Sun Lee, Wellesley Coll.
3. “Keats and the Country Green,” Jonathan D. Mulrooney, Coll. of the Holy Cross

470. Nature
Saturday, 11 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Belmont, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on the English Romantic Period
Presiding: Miranda Jane Burgess, Univ. of British Columbia
1. “Now No More,” Jacques Khalip, Brown Univ.
2. “Romantic Posthumanism: The Horror of Interspecies Community in Romantic England,” Ted Geier, Univ. of California, Davis
3. “Goya’s Scarcity,” David L. Clark, McMaster Univ.

SPECIAL SESSION with the Late-18th C Division:

235. Life: Before and after 1800
Friday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Addison, Chicago Marriott
Program arranged by the Division on Late-Eighteenth-Century English Literature and the Division on the English Romantic Period
“Until the end of the eighteenth century . . . life does not exist: only living beings.” Our two divisions will revisit Foucault’s still influential, periodizing thesis to question its validity in the light of recent work in the field and to think about what we do and do not share.
Presiding: Kevis Goodman, Univ. of California, Berkeley
Speakers: Amanda Jo Goldstein, Cornell Univ.; Heather Keenleyside, Univ. of Chicago; Catherine Packham, Univ. of Sussex; Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.

Thanks to Dr. Maureen N. McLane for this reminder!

Keats-Shelley Association of America Review of Prometheus Unbound Dramatic Reading

Thanks to Suzanne L. Barnett from Manhattan College for her wonderful review of our recent collaborative production of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Her piece was published by the Keats-Shelley Association of America.

Here’s the link to her review.

We are very grateful to Suzanne as well as all of our supporters–including our readers, theater attendees, and more–throughout the years!

If any of you has suggestions about which play you’d like to experience next year for our annual dramatic reading with Red Bull Theater, please let us know: nyurrg@gmail.com

Prometheus Unbound: The Staged Reading of a Lyrical Drama

Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound provides perhaps the most difficult of Romantic-era test cases for the benefits of staging plays we’ve been critically trained to classify as unstageable poetry. Shelley himself classifies the play as a “lyrical drama,” emphasizing its non-dramatic elements. Like the lyrical drama, the staged reading is a hybrid form, not quite of either genre, but containing elements of both. Trained actors brought emotional depth and unforeseen humor from the text. They also, unlike last year’s reading of Byron’s Sardanapalus, focused audience attention on the play’s language.
This isn’t terribly surprising; were one to imagine a sliding scale representing a text’s ease of performance, with lyric poetry at one end and drama reliant on visual representation (for example, pantomime) at the other, Sardanapalus would be considerably closer to the mean of dramatic performance than would be Prometheus Unbound. Red Bull’s staged reading on November 18 demonstrated the difficulties in performing a text which relies so heavily on lyric poetry and philosophic contemplation at the expense of dramatic action. Much of the play consists of characters seeing something, then remarking on and recounting it to another character, often one who is standing nearby and seeing the same thing, particularly in act four and the second half of act three. The director, Craig Baldwin, worked with the actors to make these long speeches as emotionally present and exciting as possible, and the actors, did amazing work to make it so. Personally, I was rather astounded at how interesting Mahira Kakkar and Susannah Flood, as Ione and Panthea, managed to make their characters’ descriptions of the revitalized earth and moon in act four. It’s one of the play’s long passages of poetry lacking any action, yet they rendered it emotionally interesting. The play also has several chorus sections. Baldwin chose to focus on the sound of the language, the rhythm of it, to convey interest. Angel Desai, as the lead fury, among other chorus roles, managed to give each chorus group–furies, hours, nature spirits–a distinct flavor. After only a five hour rehearsal, the actors handled this dense material beautifully. Baldwin encouraged the chorus to risk mistakes in pursuit of strong, rhythmic delivery; chorus passages were read fiercely, one voice quickly following another, to culminate in lines read in unison. The aural power of these passages was remarked several times in the talk back session following the performance.
The actors recognized the literary density of the material, and its difficulty in staging. In act two, the scene shifts from Prometheus on his mountain to Asia, played by Jennifer Ikeda, in India, and she carries the play’s dramatic tension through several long speeches on the slim thread of awaiting her sister’s news. John Douglas Thomas and Myra Lucretia Taylor, playing Prometheus and the Earth, noted not only that the play’s language is dense, but that it is difficult for actors to activate that density. Thomas said all dramas need tension, and the series of metaphors make it hard to maintain that tension in this play. Mark H. Dold, playing Demogorgon, suggested that while the play is difficult and often dramatically passive, it could be a good film; the text is heavily visual, and Dold’s words, “cinematic.”
Baldwin, however, celebrates the play’s deferral of action, suggesting that when Shelley chooses not to represent paradise but instead just keep talking about it, he creates dramatic tension out of the deferral of satisfaction, using imagery and metaphor to suspend time and action on stage. By choosing not to write for the stage, Shelley frees himself from dramatic convention, writing something that seems to work very well as a radio play or staged reading, where trained voices enliven a densely poetic text.

Veronica Goosey

Prometheus Unbound and On Stage


Before we begin this post, we must first thank many people for making this past Monday’s staged reading of Percy Shelley’s “lyrical drama” Prometheus Unbound possible. NYURRG is indebted to everyone at Red Bull Theater, especially their enterprising artistic director Jesse Berger and Associate Artistic Producer Craig Baldwin, the brave soul who took on Shelley’s play with an insightful enthusiasm that made for an incredible night of Romantic theater. We are also incredibly grateful to the English Department at NYU for their intellectual, moral, and financial support.

Now that Prometheus has been freed and reunited with Asia, NYURRG will begin a series of blog posts that will offer observations and unpack the implications of our collaboration with Red Bull Theater. For this first post, I will provide an outline of our methodology as well as a set of terms that will reemerge in the coming weeks.

On Saturday November 9th, we discussed the then upcoming performance at the Midwest Modern Language Association (M/MLA) Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, we made the case that staged reading is, possibly, the ideal medium for works like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. After all, the Romantic period witnessed new theorizations of and a supposed retreat from the theater in favor of the print publication of dramas. For example, Charles Lamb’s 1811 essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation” argues that Shakespeare’s tragedies are better read than staged. Similarly, when Romantic authors wrote dramas themselves, many claimed their work was never intended for the stage. In an 1817 letter to his publisher John Murray, Lord Byron asserts that his new drama Manfred was composed “with a horror of the stage, and with a view to render the thought of it impracticable.”

Dramas written by the Romantic poets have come to be seen primarily as specimens of closet drama, plays that were written to be read rather than performed, or as “mental theater.” The phrase “mental theater” first appears in Byron’s letters and has since been appropriated by scholars to describe the dramatic efforts of the Romantic poets. In his landmark critical work A Mental Theater: Poetic Drama and Consciousness in the Romantic Age, Alan Richardson argues that the Romantic poets were not interested in reaching the stage and their plays should be understood as “the invention of a fundamentally new poetic form” (3).

At M/MLA, NYURRG presented a chart that we believe provides a visual summary of scholarship on Romantic drama. Placing drama and poetry on the x-axis represents how in formulations like Lamb and Richardson’s, the dramatic qualities of a given work take away from their poetic counterparts. In other words, staging Hamlet may create an enjoyable evening’s experience, but it does so at the expense of the play’s poetry. On the y-axis, we see the manner in which an individual experiences a given work.

The Romantic Chart

 So, starting with the upper left hand corner and going counter-clockwise, we notice an interesting trend. CLOSET DRAMA is drama that is read. STAGED DRAMA refers to the works that were actually being staged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century, including melodrama and pantomime. Poetry that you watch is RECITATION. It is also important to note that many Romantic writers describe performances of Shakespeare during the Renaissance as being recitations. The pay off, in part, lies in the upper right hand quadrant. Literary scholars like Richardson are not comfortable with works like Prometheus Unbound being labeled closet drama. Instead, the works of “mental theater” by poets such as Shelley, Byron, and William Wordsworth are a type of poetry that is meant to be read.

Our project with Red Bull asks what happens when a group of performers READ a DRAMATIC POEM in front of a group of SPECTATORS. Or, as we claim in the program for Prometheus Unbound:

“Tonight’s dramatic reading by Red Bull Theater introduces a medium that strikes a balance between the lyric and the drama as professional actors transform the stage into a reading performance of Shelley’s “beautiful idealisms.” Tonight the private act of reading becomes part of the public space of theater, creating a hybrid medium for an equally hybrid genre.”


Much more to follow soon!


Randall A. Sessler

Red Bull Theater and New York University’s Department of English Present Prometheus Unbound

Monday November 18, 7:30pm



by Percy Bysshe Shelley







directed by


The titan Prometheus has been doomed to eternal punishment for defying Jupiter and giving the gift of wisdom to humankind.  Chained to a rock, pelted with wind and ice, exiled from his dearest love and visited by Furies, his passionate defiance never dims.  But Jupiter’s punishments are about to get much worse.  An epic journey across oceans, through forests – and even to the center of the earth – may change everything.  Shelley’s celebrated dramatic poem is a thrilling re-imagining of the myth as a tale of revolution and a new utopian vision for the world.


Presented in collaboration with the NYU Department of English


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