Says one Romanticist: “What about the crucial, enigmatic word, “unremembered”?”
Says the other: “That’s what’s floating in the dog dish.”
Tonya Moutray. “Remodeling Catholic Ruins in William Wordsworth’s Poetry.” European Romantic Review 22.6 (2011): 819-831.
Moutray examines some of Wordsworth’s lesser-known religious poetry, including “Tuft of Primroses” (1808), Ecclesiastical Sketches, (1822), “St. Bees, Suggested in a Steam-Boat Off Saint Bee’s Heads” (1835), and “At Furness Abbey” (1845) to argue that Wordsworth’s focus on monastic culture indicates his approval of the institution and its mission of service to local needs. Moutray argues that these poems and the Prelude (1850) indicate the poet’s interest in and support of social practices which “have the potential to revitalize local communities and their natural resources” (819). The article links Wordsworth’s treatment of monastic ruins and religious practices with ecological concerns. Moutray claims, “In placing the monastery within a mutually accommodating natural landscape” in “Tuft of Primroses” Wordsworth argues that “with proper care, nature becomes an ongoing source of spiritual and material replenishment,” a source which, like the institution of the monastery, is endangered in an industrial, secular society (822). The monastery functions as an example of communal practice which integrates social and natural realms; Moutray argues that these poems demonstrate Wordsworth’s support of the development of similar social institutions, such as the Anglican Sisterhoods.
I find this argument fairly compelling, but I’m most interested in the connection between Romantic eco-criticism and religious poetry. Moutray claims that Wordsworth’s depiction of the Catholic monastery functions as a model for ecological preservation. This claim dovetails convincingly with Wordsworth’s position on the role of the Anglican Church in a parish-based approach to social problems in the nineteenth century. Few critics have produced recent work on the religious issues of Romanticism. This article engages the politics of developing religious orders in the Anglican Church, and Michael Tomko explores the ramifications of the movement for Catholic Emancipation in British Romanticism and the Catholic Question: religion, history, and national identity, 1778-1829 (2011). These texts demonstrate some useful approaches to the subject of religion. Religion is as hotly contested and conflicted an issue in the Romantic period as in earlier centuries, though specific issues changed; nevertheless, critics seem content to bypass religious objects of study. Why is that? What might be gained by closer attention to the period’s religious movements and debates? Or to texts like sermons, primers, and hymns, as well as devotional poetry and religious conduct tracts? What might these genres add to our understanding of, for instance, Ecclesiastical Sketches, and thus to our understanding of Wordsworth’s oeuvre and Romantic poetry more generally?
As this semester winds down, we’d like to recap some of our accomplishments from the past few months:
As we look ahead to next semester, we will naturally continue working on our “Kubla Khan”/”Tintern Abbey” paper, solidify our plans with Red Bull Theatre for the staged reading of Byron’s Sardanapalus (did we mention professional actors?), and set a date for Mark Phillipson’s talk on MediaThread for the faculty and grad students of our English Department.
However, we are hoping to organize some additional events. Ideally, we’d expand the ideas we considered with the visionary and visual from our inaugural event by looking into notions of prophecy and futurity. We are thinking about having a faculty panel focusing specifically on this rich and complex material; perhaps the structure would include one main talk and one faculty respondent.
We are also considering hosting one broader NYC-wide Romanticist event featuring some local scholars chatting about some cool Romantic-specific topics. We’ve only just begun thinking about this, but please stay tuned for more info soon!
On a final note (for now), we couldn’t be more pleased with the results this blog medium has helped produce; it has not only served as a record of our many conversations but has also helped generate additional thoughts and ideas. Moreover, we’re grateful to our many followers that we’ve been able to gather in such a short time. Excited for the new and multiple possibilities ahead, we hope you’ll continue to follow along, and, as ever, we encourage your contributions, responses, and attendance at our events!
Veronica Goosey, Omar F. Miranda, and Randie Sessler
Because of our recent interest in exploring the vast connections between Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, I came upon this article by Nigel Leask that I found quite fascinating. Below I summarize the text briefly and offer the hyperlink to Romanticism online where it can be found.
In “Kubla Khan and Orientalism: The Road to Xanadu Revisited,” Nigel Leask urges a new reading of Coleridge’s poem free from the 1816 preface that he believes distances the reader from its geo-political significance. To read Kubla Khan free from the modifications (sans preface) invites a view of “literary orientalism,” not focused entirely on the poem’s specific imagery, structural properties, or narrative voices but on its larger geo-political structure. Instead of the opiate-inspired dream vision to which the 1816 version alludes, Leask wishes to “restore” and “recover” the lost cultural narrative of Coleridge’s “geopolitical specificity” and the unexplored travel narratives (Staunton and Bruce’s writings specifically) that inspired him.
Agreeing with Marilyn Butler, Leask links Coleridge’s poem to Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer because it celebrates oriental exoticism, the return of an “ideal republican simplicity,” and a parallel transition between Cathay and Abyssinia. He sees a loose connection between the third stanza’s “vision” and Southey’s assassins who “yearn to be readmitted to the paradise of false consciousness.” Leask believes, however, that Coleridge seems to be advancing a more hedonistic participation in the pleasure-dome rather than the poetics that the “brutal revolutionary idol-smasher Thalaba”inspire.
Leask wishes to extend Butler’s fruitful argument by drawing attention to the contemporary writings on Chinese gardens and their introduction to Europe–proposing that “Kubla Khan, despite a vast amount of criticism, is a poem about an emperor’s garden” (jardin anglo-chinois). He discusses the importance of Sir William Chambers’ Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), a text describing the garden’s division into three categories or qualities: 1. pleasing (the fragrant shrubs, blossoming trees, winding waterways, etc.), 2. terrible (deep valleys inaccessible to the sun, impetuous cataracts, blasted and shattered trees, deep caverns in the rocks), and 3. surprising (quaking garden tourist in deep gloomy valleys, sepulchral monuments, colossal figures, sudden violent gusts of wind, trembling earth, noises of war). Chambers’ text ultimately connects England to his description of the Chinese garden where George III represents the western version of Emperor Qianlong.
Next, Leask explores Sir George Staunton’s Authentic Account . . . of the Earl of Mccartney as its author describes Emperor Qianlong’s gardens in detail. In his examination, those gardens “betrayed a regularity of design” and, though commanded and created for the pleasure of Qianlong, were made by the labor of thousands–expressing the political and class tensions inherent in oriental despotism. According to Leask, Staunton’s writings are expanded by Sir John Barrow, whose Travels in China reveal that the Earl of Mccartney was a landscape gardener; he recounts how the eastern and western parts of the garden recall the beautiful and sublime elements that Chambers witnessed.
Leask concludes his essay by focusing on Coleridge’s shift from the “Thalaban programme of destruction” in Kubla’s “decree” (the first stanza) to an alternative, positive vision of the Abyssinian maid’s “symphony and song,” a transition from “idolatrous Tartary” or Xanadu to “an ancient Christian culture” or Abyssinia. The religious allusion works as an “antistrophic rebuke” to the Khan’s aesthetic idolatry because of its untainted, “pure” perception in Europe. Despite Purchas’ links to “Mount Amara” as an ancient seat of pagan worship, the poem’s greater significance lies in its conversion to a pure form of Christianity that opposes both pagan and contemporary Christian culture.
-Omar F. Miranda
Citation Information. Romanticism. Volume 4, Page 1-21 DOI 10.3366/rom.19184.108.40.206, ISSN 1354-991x, Available Online 1998.
Some time ago, we posted some thoughts on the staging of unstaged Romantic-era plays and on the phenomenon described by critics as mental theater. I’d like to return to the subject of Romantic-era drama. When was the last time your English department offered a course examining the dramatic material of the Romantic period as drama? While staging is acknowledged to play an important role in understanding a Shakespearean tragedy and what’s being staged is a political issue in the early eighteenth century, Romantic drama is not widely viewed as dramatic, and the drama being staged in the period is not often made an object of study.
Romantic drama, and particularly the dramatic works of the “big six” Romantic poets, is generally viewed as poetry rather than as drama. For one thing, the drama of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron is lyrical, often employing long soliloquys and other marks of interiority. For another, few of these plays were ever staged, and in some cases the authors claim that they are not intended for the stage. However, there is evidence that the writers sought to have their plays staged without theatrical success, or in several cases, without acceptance by the managers. Wordsworth could find no one
to take The Borderers. Coleridge’s early Osorio was revised into Remorse before it took to the stage. Although The Cenci was the only work of Shelley’s to go into a second edition in his lifetime, no public performance made it onto a London stage until well into the nineteenth century. The vexed relationship between Byron’s dramas and their staging I’ll leave to my esteemed colleague Randall Sessler to discuss at another time. Joanna Baillie, one of the most esteemed dramatists of the period both critically and popularly, published multiple editions of her Plays on the Passions, and had several of her plays staged, but none achieved commercial success on the stage. Baillie, like the Romantic poets, was more concerned with tracing a character’s psychology than with spectacular stage effect. Critics have suggested that this focus on interiority and lyric
expression may have made the plays difficult to stage.
Some of the poets themselves suggest that they lack stage success because the stage is degenerate. As Jane Moody indicates in Illegitimate Theatre in London 1770-1840, Romantic poets dismissed the theaters as “places of noise, dirt, spectacle and unbridled sexual commerce, where Shakespeare was being mangled into opera, and ignorant audiences preferred performing dogs to the pleasures of Sheridan and John Gay” (2-3). Nor are these criticisms without basis. In addition to physical and moral contributions to “illegitimacy” to which Moody refers, the stage was subject to censorship and supervision unmatched by any other medium in the period, thanks to the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which, although relaxed by the Theatrical Representations Act of 1788 and the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843, was not repealed until the passage of the Theatres Act of 1968. Plays intended for performance had to be approved by the Licenser, a position in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and could be censored by him. The Act particularly censored political commentary and satire. Although political statements would generally be excised from performance texts, the published versions of plays were not often censored. So although drama remained a legitimate form for political commentary, dramatic compositions approved by the Licenser could be viewed with suspicion.
Moreover, the plays being staged emphasized sentimentality and spectacle. The gothic dramas of Matthew Lewis and others, the Orientalism of, for instance, George Colman the younger’s Blue-Beard, the spectacle of trained animals as in The Quadrupeds of
Quedlinburgh, and the popularity of pantomime are only a few examples of what poets and other critics denounced as the degeneracy of the stage. Additionally, changing stage practices and public taste made adaptations of Shakespeare more popular than the original works—Nahum Tate’s happy-ending version of King Lear was rather popular throughout the nineteenth century. Yet despite condemnations of the theater from poets rejected by the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, at various points Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Baillie all sought to have their plays staged as a way of legitimizing their dramatic efforts.
We can contextualize and historicize the retreat from the stage of the Romantics and other major poets working in dramatic genres during this period. But if, as argued in our earlier post Romantic Drama: Experiments, Mental Theater, and Media, the retreat from the stage of some of the period’s most talented dramatists led to the invention of a new dramatic form, and a new dramatic space, what does that do to our study of the Romantic-era stage and the drama performed there? How ought we to approach a dramatic performance? As scholars and critics of English literature, we are trained, at least primarily, to study texts. Text and performance are significantly different objects of study, and should be treated differently, but in what ways? How can we, as textual scholars, contribute to a reading of the staging of Byron’s Marino Faliero or Baillie’s
De Montfort, in addition to the texts?
In the introduction to the Cornell edition of The Borderers, Robert Osborne claims that William Wordsworth’s inability to find a theater manager willing to stage the 1797 early version of his play makes the poet’s dramatic effort a failure. Osborne notes that Wordsworth “justifiably attributed his failure ‘to the depraved State of the Stage at present,’ and was ‘underdetemin’d’ whether to wait for a change in theatrical taste ‘or publish it immediately’” (5). It is important to recognize that publication of the text of the play was not Wordsworth’s original intention. Only after his drama was rejected by the managers of both Covent Garden and Drury Lane did Wordsworth consider seeing whether his “experiment” was “adopted for the closet” (Letters 6). Wordsworth’s own classification of his play along with the fact that he originally wrote with an eye towards the stage has led many critics to dismiss The Borderers as a dramatic experiment that ultimately failed. The success of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, a collection that Wordsworth again called an “experiment,” therefore presents critics with a convenient transition from experimental failure to experimental success. However, such critical narratives depend upon the manner in which one defines success as well as where one locates Wordsworth’s experimentation. Is contemporaneous stage production or publication of a drama necessary for one to label it a success? Is Lyrical Ballads more successful than The Borderers because it made it to the press and thus reached a contemporary audience?
The Borderers begins to show the complex position Romantic dramas occupy in modern scholarly discourse. Wordsworth and Coleridge famously looked to the staged drama as the first vehicle that would help them create the taste by which they would be received. If, as I have proposed above, we define contemporary staging as the marker of success of a given Romantic drama, then only the 1813 production of Coleridge’s Remorse and the 1821 staging of Lord Byron’s Marino Faliero would qualify for such distinction. Alan Richardson’s landmark study A Mental Theater argues for a new understanding of the Romantics’ foray into drama. According to Richardson, “Whether condemned for his elitist pose and disdain for the public, or defended as a well-meaning but anachronistic reformer, the Romantic poet as dramatist is judged against his alleged “retreat” from the theater, rather than for the invention of a fundamentally new poetic form” (3). While Richardson’s work does a tremendous amount of valuable work to resuscitate the dramatic efforts of the second generation Romantics, his book, as the preceding passage makes clear, places Romantic dramas in the larger genre of poetry. The mental drama, a phrase that first appears in Byron’s letters, or closet drama becomes part of a greater poetic history. Building on Richardson’s foundational work, Daniel P. Watkins’s A Materialist Critique English Romantic Drama attempts to implement a materialist methodology that will allow scholars to more accurately engage with the dramas of Byron, Shelley, and other prominent Romantic figures. Watkins creates what he calls the “drama – theater distinctions” (4). That is, the text of a play is a drama while its staged production is an entirely different object of study.
Together, the work of Richardson and Watkins shows the rich areas of inquiry that demand further examination. Watkins is right to recognize the medial distinction between a staged production and a text of that production. If we follow his formulation, studying Coleridge’s Remorse involves much more than simply looking at the text of the play. Scholars should ask where does each iteration of the play occur – in what can it be found? In order to examine Coleridge’s drama fully, we need to look at the original 1797 written version of the drama, titled Osorio, the excerpts that appear as poems and are retitled in the 1798 and 1800 editions of Lyrical Ballads, the context and response to the 1813 production of Remorse at Drury Lane, and the publication of the text of that production.
The example of Remorse raises a series of crucial questions: What is the relationship between media and meaning? Where did major Romantic dramas originally appear? What role did the poet himself play in the appearance/placement/presentation of a particular drama? What we can learn from that placement? And, how do we negotiate artistic intent?
At our meeting on September 29, the Romanticist Reading Group discussed visionary poetry. Our discussion encompassed the works of Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth as we threshed out the concepts of vision and the visionary as they apply to Romantic poetry, starting with a set of questions: how do we begin to define vision and the visionary? Do these definitions vary from poet to poet and from poem to poem? How are we as critics to negotiate the fact that vision serves as a central trope as well as a generic classification during the period? While Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere or Kubla Khan, Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion—or any of his prophecies—or even Byron’s apocalyptic masterpiece Darkness may seem more appropriate to the topic, we found ourselves preoccupied with Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798.” More particularly, we found the similarities between the framing of the “Tintern Abbey” poem and the framing of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” intriguing. In both cases, the writer increasingly distances himself from the visionary portions of the poem.
In “Kubla Khan,” the poet says he had a vision of “A damsel with a dulcimer” but he cannot describe or even recall the vision; he says, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song,” acknowledging the impossibility of actually reviving the vision. The section of the poem containing the reference to the vision is set off from the rest of the poem by its change in meter. The poet is distanced from the poem by events of the paratext referenced in the title, “Kubla Khan: Or a Vision in a Dream.” The poem recounting the vision is ostensibly the result of a dream he had during a “profound sleep, at least of the external senses” in which he “composed” a long poem, of which the printed poem is but a fragment, produced before he was interrupted by the man from Porlock. He describes the composition process as an almost magical moment: “all the images rose up before him [Coleridge] as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions.” This unlikely framing of the poem’s genesis is countered by another story found in Coleridge’s note to the Crewe manuscript of the poem, in which he says the fragment was “composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery.” While considerably less mysterious, that the poem was composed during an opium high is considerably more credible than the preface’s account of it being composed during a dream. However, these changing accounts of the poem’s composition reveal the poet’s anxiety about recounting the visionary experience as the poet increases the distance between writer and the visionary moment.
Wordsworth displays a similar pattern of distancing in his revisions of “Tintern Abbey”. Over the course of its publication history, “Tintern Abbey” undergoes some subtle but crucial changes. When it first appeared as part of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the full title of the poem was “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” In 1815, Wordsworth changed the lengthy title to “Lines Composed” instead of “Written.” Andrew Bennett reads the change in title as the poet’s attempt to disengage “the site of composition from that of inscription” (Wordsworth Writing 45). In the poem, the poet’s thoughts receive far more description than what the poet sees from his location on the Wye. In this case, ‘vision’ is more an act of the mind than of the eyes. Wordsworth wants to create distance between his experience of the River Wye and the act of writing. “Tintern Abbey” was actually written in Bristol and Bennett makes the provocative suggestion that a more accurate title would be “The Bristol Poem.” In the context of this discussion, we see two poets carefully presenting how their respective works came to be.
Both poems demonstrate their authors’ skepticism about writing their visions. Through various paratextual additions and alterations, Wordsworth and Coleridge increase the distance between themselves as authors and the visionary moments represented in their texts. Tintern Abbey was published in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, and although it wasn’t published in print until 1816, Kubla Khan was written in the autumn of 1797 and circulated through recitation for several years, so both poems partake of a historical moment which may have contributed to their skepticism regarding the possibility of accurately recording or reporting individual perception. What might account for this anxiety about recounting visions, whether of sensory perception, mental reflection, or revelatory imagination? What about England in the 1790s promotes this skepticism?