Crocco, "The Ruins of Empire: Nationalism, Art, and Empire in Hemans's Modern Greece"

Romanticism and Patriotism:
Nation, Empire, Bodies, Rhetoric

The Ruins of Empire: Nationalism, Art, and Empire in
Hemans's Modern Greece

Francesco Crocco, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands strech far away
          —Percy Bysshe Shelley [1]

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud,
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of the old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.
                 —John Keats [2]
  1. At the conclusion of his magisterial history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon confesses, "It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life" (II.642-3). Over a decade later and across the channel, C.F. Volney would write The Ruins or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature, a text which gained instant popularity among select British reading circles. The invocation to the text echoes Gibbon's sentiment by hailing those sublime and "solitary ruins, holy sepulchers and silent walls" (1), which, while traveling "in the Ottoman dominions, and through those provinces which were anciently the kingdoms of Egypt and Syria" (3) inspired his plan for a philosophical reverie on the causes of the decline and fall of empires. These texts illustrate the depth of interest in relics, ruins, and antiquities that prevailed among late eighteenth- and early ninteenth-century British culture, fed as it were by the parallel developments of Ossianic nation-making and imperial travel narratives. They also establish a unique rhetoric and paradigm of the cyclical decline and fall of empire that will inform later nationalist texts.

  2. The literature of the long eighteenth century reflects an uneasiness about the pursuit of empire in the trope of ruins. Proceeding from eighteenth century antiquarianism, the literature of ruins converted the congeries of ruins, relics, and forgeries into artifacts that naturalized and codified a cohesive British identity and continuity of community. [3] But the ruin also performed a separate and sometimes subversive function as a symbol for the historical process of the rise and decline of nations. This hermeneutic diverges into two distinct but related traditions in the eighteenth century. Whereas Gibbon's Decline expresses the classical ruin sentiment, which mourns the inevitable decline of empire, in the eighteenth-century this sentiment adopts a different tone—that of the prophet's scorn for the self-destructive pursuit of power and worldly splendor most poignantly expressed in Volney's Ruins. [4]

  3. Nestled between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the figurative landscape of British Romantic poetry is frequently littered with ruins. In Romanticism, the ruin motif is expressed and interpreted in various ways; here the literal ruin or monument, there the figurative ruin of the self, and elsewhere still the formalistic ruin of the Romantic fragment poem, with all of its unsettled meaning. [5] Among other readings, this study proposes that the literal ruin is politically overdetermined as a motif in Romantic poetry, possessing an acute political currency in a stormy period characterized by war, transience, and political extremes. Bruce Haley has argued that when Romantics write about ruins and monuments, they act "to restore damaged, faded, or unfamiliar figures to the status of living forms"—forms that can express meaning (5). Because there is an essential anxiety that the ruin or monument, as a record, fails to express its idea or even the characteristics of its central figure without the aid of an interpretive apparatus often consisting of adjoining visual forms and inscriptions, the monument poem must recover the muted and dead form of the central figure and make it live and speak again (3). However, this imagines that the poet can imaginatively recreate the cultural and ideological matrix that once determined meaning for the figure, a kind of Romantic archeology. My contention is that rather than restore meaning, the poet refurbishes meaning using contemporary ideological materiel. The monument poem breathes life into a dead form so that it may speak to a contemporary audience. Furthermore, the message is mediated in transmission and reception, and is thus subject to a host of aesthetic, cultural, historical, and ideological forces. For instance, if we take Shelley's Ozymandias (1818) and Keats' On Seeing the Elgin Marbles (1817) and reread these poems from within this hermeneutic they do not appear as restorations at all. Hence, when Shelley recovers the figure of Ozymandias, it is not his leadership and omnipotence that is conveyed by the poem's interpretative apparatus, which would have been the intention of the record, but rather his cruelty and the transience of empire (which admittedly may have been how it was originally received). Likewise, Keats takes the Elgin Marbles not as evidence of everlasting Grecian grandeur, but as symbols of the inevitable decay wrought by time. The refurbishing of meaning that occurs in these poems, as I stated above, is overdetermined by the political unconscious of a less sanguine age, where the drive for insatiable power and grandeur appear as deadly hubris. Ultimately, these poems are mediated by historical, cultural, and ideological transactions that place them within a broader national and international conversation over the direction of national politics, the arc of imperial desire, and the anxiety generated by these overlapping vectors, an anxiety frequently troped as ruin.

  4. Proceeding from this methodological stance, this study will discuss the importance of the trope of ruins and the paradigm of decline and fall to the rhetoric of nationalism and imperialism in Felicia Hemans's Modern Greece (1817). In the poem, Hemans adopts a historicist narrative position reminiscent of Gibbon and Volney, replete with "objective" detachment, episodic flashbacks, sentimentalism, and magniloquent conclusions. Yet, contrary to the republican commonplace that nation and empire are ultimately incompatible, Hemans draws the opposite conclusion: Western nation-making and imperialism are interdependent . But this contention is made conditional upon the active participation of women in patriotic discourse. Through the discourse of (uncritical) patriotism, a site where women could in fact make their presence felt during her time, Hemans sought to broaden the role of women in political and public English life, and would herself become widely hailed as a model of domestic patriotism. In Modern Greece, which is an adaptation of the conventionally masculine travelogue genre, she is sensitive to the hazards of this project, employing innovative generic modes and narratological structures to manage the public fallout of gender-based discursive transgressions. Once accessible by this stage work, the poem can then specifically accomplish the broadening of the role of contemporary women by arguing that the fall of ancient Greece occurred because of the failed education of its youth, itself a consequence of restricting the influence of Greece's mothers in Greek civil society. In making this argument, Hemans actively disputes the view that Greece's national decline was fated because of its imperialist designs, thereby restoring the link between nation-making and empire that Gibbon, Volney, and a tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century texts had warned against. Instead, she issues her own equally apocalyptic warning to the nation: if Britain is to avoid Greece's tragic but avertable fate, it must find a place for patriotic women to speak and write in the public sphere.

    I. Nation and Empire in British Self-Construction

  5. The centrality of empire to the constitution of British identity is by now fairly well established. Picking up from Renan's claim that forgetting is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation (45), and Anderson's claim that a nation is above all an "imagined community," Linda Colley has argued that Britishness was quite literally "forged" from conflicting and internally fractious Scottish, Welsh, English, and Irish communities—not primarily through political Acts of Union (1707 & 1801), but through the mechanism of othering. Colley argues that Britain was "an invention forged above all by war." She continues,

    They [the British] defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world's foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent and unfree. And, increasingly as the wars went on, they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered, peoples who were manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion and colour. (Britons: Forging the Nation, 1701-1837 5)

    Conflicting class and ethnic interests could only be successfully negotiated and subsumed within a constructed British sodality by their hostile alterity to various others defined in national, religious, or racial terms.

  6. This raises two questions. How long can a nation maintain such specious and tenuous commonalities after the war is over and the empire is lost? And is there a greater danger of incessant warfare and unbridled expansionism consuming and corrupting the very essence of the nation? Many cultural historians have spent a good deal of time studying the trauma inflicted upon British national identity in its post-imperial phase, particularly as fears mount about the fragmentation of Britain in a federated European Union. [6] For now, I only wish to pause on this subject in order to point up the dialectic of nation and empire intrinsic to the modern British nation-state before I move from this observation to the latter question. If imperialism, in all its many permutations, helped forge a nation, could it also lead to its ruination? It seems to me that at the heart of Gibbon and Volney's texts is a fundamental assurance of this fact.

  7. Not surprisingly, in British literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we often discover a troubling conflation of imperial discourse with nationalist rhetoric, particularly since Thomson's patriotic "Ode: Rule, Britannia" first articulated a pattern of providential national election and commercial/colonial supremacy which confirmed the centrality of the artist to the project of national invention. [7] Thomson's claim dovetails with the sanguinary disposition of 18th -century political economists towards the rise of a capitalist society. Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees elaborates a commercialist stance which defends the extremes of "private vice" or self-interest as the vehicle for ensuring the common good, despite the ostensible contradiction with conventional morality. [8] Mandeville's argument presages Smith's more developed analysis of mercantile capitalism, with its serene faith in the benevolent and invisible hand of the free market to produce utopian conditions. [9] Both understood that the untrammeled freedoms of the market, when hitched to a compliant "fiscal-military state" [10] would and did lead to expansionist tendencies. Hence, like Thompson, both countenanced imperial expansion as the necessary outcome of a prosperous and free commercial society.

  8. But where Thomson, like Mandeville and Smith, is unequivocally in favor of commerce and empire as the twin springs of Britain's liberty and prosperity, other interlocutors in this conversation weren't so sure. Cowper and Goldsmith expressed anxiety about the compatibility of progress, commerce and empire. Hume warned that overrefinement, which is born of excessive luxury, is the most extreme danger to taste and national sensibility. [11] Gibbon attributed the decline of Rome to the perils of imperial expansion. [12] And Malthus, portending Marx, would later question the wisdom of placing trust in market forces to serve the public good.[13]

  9. The belief in the fundamental incompatibility between a prosperous republican state and a powerful imperial state has a classical provenance. David Armitage has traced this discourse back to the Roman historian Sallust, who argued that the Roman Republic's thirst for glory eventually led to cultural decline and the loss of republican freedoms under the dictatorship of the caesars (The Ideological Origins of the British Empire 126-27). The Sallustian tradition, which poses an irreconciliable relationship between republican liberty and empire, informs Machiavelli's Discorsi, where he too remarks on the dilemma of sustaining liberty or pursuing imperial greatness or grandezza. Armitage locates this tension at the very beginning of the English Republic, during the years of the commonwealth. Milton, he argues, perceived the crisis and failure of the commonwealth in precisely these terms as the Rump Parliament gave way to a Cromwellian Protectorate, evaporating political liberty in the wake of a Sulla-like military dictatorship that hastily pursued expansionist commercial policies (134-6).

    II. Women and Patriotism in British Romantic Literature

  10. From Milton to the Romantics—who witnessed a similar period of revolution, empire, and colonial expansion—there is a continuous theme of patriotic discourse and imperial anxiety underlying much of British literature. Many authors, particularly female authors, entered the literary milieu by intervening in this conversation, precisely because patriotism was such a convenient front for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women to enter the literary public sphere. Since the woman's purview is primarily concerned with domesticity and private relations, it is within reason to expect that women should want to be concerned with the preservation of the nation (often gendered female as in the case of "Britannia"), which is the guarantor of this private sphere. Hence, as female patriots increasingly stake out a civic role in support of their male compatriots, concern for the nation, especially one like Britain that was defined by intermittent warfare, supersedes the doctrine of separate sexual spheres (Colley 261). And who better to assume the domestic guardianship of the nation than those women entrusted with the reproduction and transmission of its bodies, values, and subjectivities?

  11. The popular conception of female moral authority, rooted in the domestic roles of child-rearing and education, converted the female desire for civic participation into a duty to act and often to write.[14] Female writers sometimes translated this duty into conservative reform initiatives to discipline the laboring class, as with Hannah More's tracts; or conversely into liberal or radical reform initiatives, such as Wollstonecraftian feminism or abolitionism. [15] As Anne Mellor has suggested, female writers were also expected to embody Christian virtue, adding piety to patriotism. [16]

  12. Yet, if writing were a duty, it was also a form of dissension against the increasingly strict mandates of a society of separate spheres. [17] In a growing print culture where the status of the "literary lady" as a feminine icon contributed to the marketability of female texts, the viability of a woman writer's career often depended upon the strategy selected to manage the public fallout of this transgression. [18]

  13. In light of this, Felicia Hemans's prodigious authorial career, extending through nineteen volumes of poetry and two dramas from the publication of England and Spain; or, Valour and Patriotism (1808) to the second edition of Songs of the Affections (1835), exhibits perhaps the most successful attempt at self-definition as a "literary lady," but one which also manifests a patriotic role. Indeed, her status as "England's most famous female patriotic poet" [19] garnered her a place in the British canon for over a century. What Victorian schoolchild could forget the famous verses of Casabianca, Homes of England, or England's Dead? So successful was she at trademarking an orthodox image of domestic femininity that she outsold almost all of her male and female competitors in the literary marketplace, and this during a period of reaction and war.[20] Her contemporary reviewers and Victorian biographers would proceed to relish the delicacy and refinement of her feminine traits. The Edinburgh Monthly Review raved that Mrs. Hemans "never ceases to be strictly feminine in the whole current of her thought and feeling."[21] Francis Jeffries, writing for the Edinburgh Review, summed up her poetry as "a fine exemplification of Female Poetry." [22] This sentiment is corroborated by her biographer, Henry F. Chorley, in his Memorials, who tells us that her letters "give so fair a picture of her mind in all its womanliness " and approvingly cites one critic who swears that her poems "could not have been written by a man" (112-13).

  14. However, modern critics have examined the reality fo teh failed marriage and disregard for domestic matters that characterized Hemans's life behind her traditional reprsentation as a paragon of womanly virtue.[23] Felicia Hemans, neé Felicia Dorothea Browne, was born in Liverpool in 1793 to a middle-class family of six children. In 1808, after her father abandoned the family, they moved to Bronwylfa in Wales and Felicia began writing poetry for publication to defray household expenses. In 1812, she married Captain Hemans, moved to Daventry, and conceived the first of five children—all boys. Suddenly, in 1818, her husband left for Italy and never returned, leaving her pregnant with their last son and bereft of sufficient income to care for their children. It is at this point that Hemans moved back in with her mother, older brother, and sister who effectively raised her children while she devoted herself to full-time writing—at least until her mothers death in 1827. Of this period, Chorley writes,

    [The] peculiar circumstances of [her] position, which, by placing her in a household, as a member and not as its head, excused her from many of those small cares of domestic life, which might have either fretted away her day-dreams, and, by interruption, have made of less avail the search for knowledge to which she bent herself with such eagerness; or, more probably still, might have imparted to her poetry more of masculine health and stamen, at the expense of some of its romance and music. (I.35-6)

    To allay potential criticism of Hemans, Chorley cleverly converts Hemans's shirking of the prescribed domestic role into a positive good for the production of a feminine poetry sans the adulteration of a "masculine health" that would have been imparted to it, ironically, by the rigors and interruptions of domestic labor. This apologia points up the work of literary fabrication that went on behind Hemans's proscenium of domestic femininity throughout much of her adult life. Ultimately, after a lifetime of disappointments by male providers and being early thrown into the competitive literary market to eke out a living for herself and her family, the trauma of her mother's death precipitated the onset of physical decline that eventually leds to her early death at the age of 41 in 1835.

  15. Because her writing came as a result of financial necessity, considerations of pubic taste frequently impinged upon her selection of topoi and style to ensure commercial success. [24] England & Spain (1808), her first published poem, was calculated to exploit contemporary interest in the continental war. Likewise, The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy (1816), a work that sealed her literary fame, exploited popular contempt for Napoleon's plundering of Italian and Roman art. In the case of Modern Greece (1817) we know from a correspondence with her publisher, John Murray, that she chose the topic in order to exploit the nationwide scandal ensuing from the importation of the Elgin Marbles, and, moreover, that because of its academic style she thought it circumspect to publish the poem anonymously to increase its salability. [25]

    III. Ruins and Empire in Modern Greece

  16. In Modern Greece, one finds a peculiar sentimentalism towards the quest for imperial grandezza. Perhaps deliberately, the poem takes off from the success of Byron's Childe Harold in content and form. Like Childe Harold, it utilizes the rich features of the travelogue genre and engages the simmering debate over the Elgin Marbles. It also shares a similar stanzaic structure, notational apparatus, and episodic form. But here the similarities end. The poem's contiguous 101 stanzas reveal a non-chronological episodic structure with multiple rhetorical modes. It begins ostensibly in the present with a sublimely picturesque Grecian landscape colored by wild vegetation and moldering ruins. The narrator guides us through this scene by following the meandering path of a wandering enthusiast —ostensibly a western traveler captivated by ancient Greece. We move from this to the tragic account of a Grecian émigré in the Americas, reflecting on the phenomenology of the refugee who has lost his homeland. From here, the poem shifts into a specious historicity, narrating the fall of classical Greece (and conflating this with the decline of the Byzantine Empire) on the very morning "When Asia poured / Her fierce fanatics to Byzantium 's wall" (XXXVI). From this re-enactment, the poem turns back to the present to magnify the contrast between past glory and present ruin. It then concludes by shifting into prophecy, reclaiming Greek heritage (manifested in the expropriation of the Elgin Marbles) for an emergent British imperium and striking a potentially jarring final note with a disturbing vision of Britain's future ruins. This vision is reminiscent of Volney's sentiment in The Ruins, where the narrator witnesses the ruination of past civilizations and ponders whether one day a traveler like himself might also sit silently amidst the ruins of Europe and "weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their former greatness" (8). [26]

  17. Central to the poem's machinery of anonymity is its sophisticated notational apparatus, whose erudition fooled one reviewer into believing that the poem could not have been the work of a "female pen" and must certainly be the production of an ostensibly male "academical pen." [27] Furthermore, the notes are freighted with frequent citations of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and the poem's subject matter clearly betrays a line of influence to this text as well. [28] In fact, Peter Trinder's biography states that this was one of Hemans's favorite books. [29]

  18. Trinder also reveals that Hemans "spent much of her [childhood] time lingering and reading in the ruins of the castle [Conway]," indicating a fascination with place and romantic ruins. This corresponds with her description of the Grecian landscape as "the ruin Time and Fate have wrought" (XXX). Just as she would steal off to the ruins of Conway Castle to suffuse her imagination with sublime thoughts as she read, so too she constructs modern Greece as a vast and desolate wasteland of tombs and monuments for the wandering enthusiast to stray and seek inspiration. It is a "Realm of sad beauty . . . a shrine / That Fancy visits with Devotion's zeal, / To catch high thoughts and impulses divine . . . Amidst the tombs of heroes" (XXI).

  19. There are two observations that need to be made here. The first has to do with Hemans's creative destruction of contemporary Greek culture and society. Hemans orientalizes modern Greece by reducing its territory to a vast wilderness of "savage cliffs and solitudes" (XLIX) that is ready for European colonial intervention in the guise of a wandering enthusiast. [30] Through a clever temporal disjuncture that posits a radical and unmediated cultural dislocation between past and present, she is able to reconcile this orientalized image of modern Greece with a concomitant Hellenic revival that contrarily depicts Greece as the cradle of Western civilization. Greece was part and provenance of the constellation of western civilization; its ruins signify this former identity. But now, we are told, these ruins litter a territory inhabited by another culture, dubiously "Greek," but bearing no connection to the land's past inhabitants. In fact, the only thing these cultures share in common is a geographic coordinate. Interestingly, Greece's geographical location, on the metaphoric borderline between East (Levant) and West (Europe), sustains such a condition of categorical confusion. These factors fertilize the orientalist imaginary in which modern Greece is transformed into a sublime sepulcher of tombs, ruins, and silent plains where all is "silence round, and solitude, and death" (XXXII). It is easy thus to imagine the modern Greeks as belonging to a debased "second race" who "inherit but their name" and for whom "No patriot feeling binds them to the soil . . . Their glance is cold indifference, and their toil / but to destroy what ages have revered" (LXXXVII). The specter of cultural miscegenation is duly exorcized by insisting that this "second race" is really the progeny of an invading "Crescent horde" whose Moslem regions are "to intellect a desert space, / A wild without a fountain or a flower, / Where towers Oppression ‘midst the deepening glooms." The vast chasm separating this "second race" from the ancient Hellenes is glibly denoted by the use of the modifier "modern" in the title Modern Greece. The phrase is presented as an oxymoron, because we are led to believe that there is nothing really modern about them. [31] Instead, they appear wholly the production of an expansionist, despotic, and conventionally oriental culture that has plundered and destroyed the ancient glories of Hellenic Greece; exterminated or exiled its people; annexed its territories to the landscape of the oriental sublime; and, tragically for the "civilized" West, subjected the cradle of culture itself to a primitive regime of barbarism. [32]

  20. This narrative tour-de-force legitimates intervention by Western forces, who are figured as the proper heirs and descendants of that "nobler race" now displaced by a "second race" which lacks the intellect and sensibility to appreciate the Grecian legacy. Gibbon provides the sub-text for this passage when he cites Petrarch's astonishment at the "supine indifference" of the modern Romans towards the stupendous monuments and ruins of ancient Rome, and who marvels that a "stranger of the Rhone was more conversant with these antiquities than the nobles and natives of the metropolis" (II.638). Gibbon viewed himself as just such a stranger, characterizing himself as a "devout pilgrim from the remote and once savage countries of the North" who has now returned to the cradle of western civilization to pay homage and resurrect its glories (II.641-2).

  21. This takes us to a second point, for if the "savage" natives cannot appreciate the relics and ruins of a fallen empire, then it behooves the "civilized" nations to send their own archeological teams to recover this history for the presumed benefit of humanity. True to the orientalist mold, Hemans's Modern Greece posits that Hellenic Greece's ruins can be metaphorically read, appreciated, and understood only by an enthusiast possessed of an equivalently western sensibility. [33] Like Gibbon, Hemans offers us a pilgrimmatic figure—a "wandering son of other lands"—possessed of a remarkably British temperament. I would argue that Hemans's enthusiast is a specimen of British Romantic sensibility. Our narrator, who functions as a guide and chronicler, describes our wandering enthusiast who traverses the vast solitudes and sublime ruins of modern Greece as one "whose enthusiast mind / Each muse of ancient days hath deep imbued / With lofty lore, and all his thoughts refined / In the calm school of silent solitude" (III). We have here the quintessential Wordsworthian traveler "fostered alike by beauty and by fear," who exhibits a penchant for introspection and a profound sensitivity to one's natural surroundings. This traveler is distinguished from the modern Greek in every way that matters. In fact, the only character similar in disposition and sensibility to our peripatetic protagonist is the figure of the exiled Greek, who is also portrayed as possessing a Romantic demeanor as he traverses the North American wilds.

  22. We must pause here and note that this characteristically British Romantic traveler operates within the narrative in a manner similar to that of Mary Louise Pratt's "sentimental narrator" of contemporary travel narratives who feigns innocence and vulnerability while performing the interior exploration of native lands slated for expropriation, exploitation, and colonization. [34] In this sense, our restless Romantic enthusiast is also an imperialist agent, culturally expropriating Grecian territory and artifacts based on a presumed commonality of sensibility and shared historical experience of imperial and civilizational grandezza. When we consider this in conjunction with the fact that Hemans's text also comes equipped with a panoply of ethnographic and topographical notes that subject Greece to a scrupulous investigation by Western academics, we can begin to see the various layers of cultural appropriation that operate within the text. Ultimately, Hemans's poem displaces and deterritorializes the modern Greeks, offering instead a genealogy in which the modern Briton, who is presented as the Romantic antithesis of the savage modern Greek, becomes the legitimate heir to Hellenic Greece. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mirroring of the modern Briton in the Romantic figure of the exiled Greek.

  23. The British cooptation of a Grecian national heritage is further impelled by the act of mourning over its demise. In "Hemans and Home" Tricia Lootens has explored the complicity of mourning with nation-building in Hemans's poems. Heroes' graves bind national folk communities, and the work of the female poet is to memorialize these graves and thus impress them into the national imaginary as sentimental signposts of a shared national experience of loss (247). In addition, as in the case of England's Dead, these graves are often found spread across the empire, thus working to assimilate settler communities into a nationalist framework and thereby further legitimate expansionary imperialist polices. [35] In Modern Greece, we see the psychological annexation of Greece to a "Greater" Britain through the sentimental act of mourning for a supposedly long dead people whose territory remains a vast sepulcher which only the British romantic subject, as cultural heir to Grecian antiquity, is properly equipped to appreciate.

  24. Hemans's choice of narratology is remarkable because it raises the gendered politics of the travelogue genre. Hemans's decision to publish the poem anonymously suggests a profound sensitivity to the gendered exclusivity of the travel narrative with its rigorous academic style and apotheosis of masculine mobility and independence. [36] To make it accessible to women authors writing within a discourse of patriotic inclusion, she finds it expedient to tamper with the conventions of the genre by retrofitting it with an overtly patriotic rhetoric and value, insinuating that she understood full well the consequences of unmitigated generic transgression. By resituating this generic form within the discursive horizon of patriotic texts, Hemans was quite deliberately fashioning a strategy whereby a "female pen" could experiment with a conventionally masculine genre without fear of reprisal.

  25. The poem's narratological structure elaborates this strategy. Unlike Byron, who eventually outs himself as the protagonist of his travel narrative Childe Harold, Hemans cannot claim firsthand knowledge of Greece and must instead operate behind the invented persona of a Romantic enthusiast. I would argue that this ploy bespeaks Hemans's awareness of the severe limitations placed on women's geographical mobility in the early nineteenth-century. In light of this, Byron's hasty denunciation of the poem as "good for nothing; written by some one who has never been there" [37] comes off as a callously insensitive remark that carelessly overlooks the reality of immobility faced by middle-class women like Hemans. One way around this sad reality is to construct a protagonist that is recognizably a male Romantic while developing a narrator who is altogether disembodied (and thereby degendered), existing outside of space-time like Volney's Genius, and who is thus able to traverse time and reconstruct the minutia of historical events. Of course, this historical imaginary is largely enabled by Britain's privileged role as Queen of the seas: Britain's powerful navy and colonial infrastructure provide the unique vantage point from which Hemans can project her piercing and acquisitive vision of modern Greece.

  26. Hemans's narrator can rather effortlessly distill the national essence and history of a bygone people largely by virtue of the statuary and architecture whose ruins litter the landscape. In the tradition of eighteenth-century ruinology, these fragments of art are mined for their unique expression of national identity. In the text, Hemans proffers the Athenian city-state as a synecdoche for Greece itself. And Athens is rendered knowable through an investigation of the ruins of the Parthenon, which Hemans calls "the purest model of Athenian taste" (LXXIV), locating in a nation's art its peculiar sensibility. She also subscribes to the eighteenth-century fascination with the nationalist role of the bardic artist when she hails Greece as the "fair land of Phidias," the renowned sculptor and architect who oversaw the building of the Parthenon and personally sculpted the statue of Athena (or Minerva in the Roman lexicon), which is stationed in its central shrine.

  27. Yet, Hemans modifies this tradition by outfitting the study of ruins with a capacity for augury. At will, her narrator can recount the events that transpired during the "closing night of that imperial race" (XXXVII). Furthermore, by the agency of the creative imagination, the narrator can also conjure up vivid imagery of a pre-lapsarian Greece, recovering the splendid vistas of a once glorious Athens from the ruins of time:

    Again renewed by Thought's creative spells,
    In all her pomp thy city, Theseus! Towers:
    Within, around, the light of glory dwells
    On art's fair fabrics, wisdom's holy bowers.
    There marble fanes in finished grace ascend,
    The pencil's world of life and beauty glows,
    Shrines, pillars, porticoes, in grandeur blend,
    Rich with the trophies of barbaric foes;
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Athens! Thus fair the dream of thee appears,
    As Fancy's eye pervades the veiling cloud of years. (LXXII-LXXIII)

  28. By meditating upon the nation's ruins, the narrator is able to precipitate a spell of imaginative reconstruction whereby imperial Athens is delivered from decay and presented at the height of its grandezza.

  29. Interestingly, the Parthenon, which occupies a special place in the text's discursive topography, is a site that conflates Athenian nationalism and imperialism. At the time of its construction, Athens was pursuing an overt policy of imperial expansion. The processional frieze depicted along the metopes and pediments of the structure were meant to root the nation's present imperial exploits in the nation's past experience of warfare against human and mythological enemies, each time concluding with a Grecian victory that consolidated national identity and augmented Athenian grandezza.[38] So, in truth, the Parthenon is a special memorial which functions as a technology for channeling individual desire into the production of a national sodality premised on an invented tradition and its redeployment in support of imperialism.

  30. This technology and its product are symbolically co-opted by Britain through the expropriation of the Elgin Marbles, which are quite literally fragments of this mythology because they are fragments of the Parthenon's processional frieze. Thus, continues Hemans's narrator: "Who may grieve that, rescued from their hands, / Spoilers of excellence and foes to art, / thy relics, Athens! Borne to other lands, / Claim homage still to thee from every heart?" (LXXXVIII). To paraphrase, better that Britain, heir to the legacy of imperial and civilizational grandezza, recover these fragments than that they be lost to the ignorance and obscurity of an orientalized and debased "second race" whose only claim to them is that they happen to be squatting upon the lands once occupied by a "nobler race" of antique Greeks.

  31. "In those fragments" we are told "the soul of Athens lives" (XCI). Furthermore, "these [fragments] were destined to a noble lot . . . to light another land, the quenchless ray that soon shall gloriously expand" (XCVII). Hemans proposes that art, as the embodiment of national sensibility, can act as a conduit. This is, in effect, how British literature was utilized in India and elsewhere to interpellate Indian subjects with a uniquely British sensibility, and thus produce compliant colonial subjects under the ruse of spreading civilization. [39] In this instance, however, art becomes the vehicle for imperial grandezza, passing the torch of empire from one nation to the next, thus quickening the birth of another great civilization. Britain, we are told, "hast [the] power to be what Athens e'er hath been" (XCIX).

  32. In a cautionary moment pregnant with patriotic fervor, Hemans warns that to realize this destiny Britain must first cultivate its own native art—"treasures oft unprized, unknown"—instead of prizing foreign "gems far less rich than those, thus precious, and thus lost" (C). [40] Imitating Volney and Gibbon, the narrator imagines a post-lapsarian Britain whose imperial glory has flickered and extinguished. Yet it too, like Greece, can have an everlasting life-after-death in the splendid ruins of its art and architecture. These can serve to quicken the next turning of the imperial gyre:

    So, should dark ages o'er thy glory sweep,
    Should thine e'er be as now are Grecian plains,
    Nations unborn shall track thine own blue deep
    To hail thy shore, to worship thy remains;
    Thy mighty monuments with reverence trace.
    And cry, "This ancient soil hath nursed a glorious race!" (CI)
  33. In turning from this passage to the conclusion of this study, I would like to point up the use of the modal verb "should," whose conditionality indicates that this apocalyptic vision is not an inexorable consequence of the pursuit of empire vis-à-vis the Sallustian and Machiavellian tradition. Returning to the narrator's Gibbonesque chronicle of Greece's fall, we discover that the cause of Greece's demise lay not in any perceived contradiction between liberty and empire, but in basic human frailty and error. The narrator concludes that the Crescent horde succeeded in single-handedly demolishing Greek culture not because of the decadence wrought by the pursuit of empire, but instead because of an avoidable and lamentable lack of patriotic vigilance on the part of the Greek defenders:

    Ye slept, O heroes! Chief ones of the earth!
    High demigods of ancient days! Ye slept:
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    No patriot then the sons of freedom led
    In mountain pass devotedly to die;
    The martyr spirit of resolve was fled,
    And the high soul's unconquered buoyancy,
    And by your graves, and on your battle plains,
    Warriors! your children knelt to wear the stranger's chains. (XLII)

  34. Unlike the boy in Casabianca who needlessly remains upon the burning deck out of filial affection and patriotic zeal, the sons of Greece shrank from patriotic self-sacrifice, and subsequently a once-mighty nation fell.

  35. At the figurative center of this narrative is a re-inscription of the vital role of the domestic sphere in cultivating the proper degree of patriotism among the sons of the nation. "O, where were then thy sons" exclaims the narrator as the morning of Greece's fall unfolds. Their absence during the invasion of their homeland is telling because it reveals the ideological poverty of the Grecian women charged with their patriotic upbringing—who are also absent from the scene! If we once again compare Hemans's steadfast British child in Casabianca with these derelict Grecian sons and mothers we discover a subtext here about the vital role and presence of women in the service of patriotism. Put glibly, the nation is only as strong as its women.

  36. One clue to this can be found in the fore-grounded figure of Minerva, the patron goddess of Athens who represents the merger of fertility, wisdom, and martial prowess. In the text, Minerva functions as a metonym for the nation. At one point, Hemans addresses Greece as "Minerva's land." She also uses the polysemic figure of "Minerva's rent veil" as a symbol of Greece's fall. Through the association of an ostensibly female, domestic goddess with the nation and its fate, Hemans proffers a symbolic affront to the modern notion of separate spheres and insinuates a pre-ordained role for women in civic discourse. [41] The negligence or erasure of this role leads to spoliation and decline, figuratively represented by the tattered veil, which variously signifies the cultural and spiritual decline of the nation; the pillaging of the nation's most cherished sites—in this case the temple of Minerva within the Parthenon; or the literal and metaphorical rape of the nation, resulting in the extinction of a people and the procreation of an utterly distinct "second race." But, by signaling that these fates are in fact conditional and highly contingent upon the domestic infrastructure of patriotism, Hemans disputes the established position that liberty and empire are in contradiction by placing the blame for Greece's fall squarely on the deficient patriotic instruction of its youth, while simultaneously purveying an aggrandized and universal vision of female nationalism relevant to all epochs.

  37. Ultimately, then, the ruins of modern Greece do issue a warning to British society, but not one consonant with Gibbon, Volney, or the tradition of pastoral and abolitionist poetry that railed against the corruptions of luxury wrought by unrestrained greed and imperial ambition. Rather, Hemans mobilizes these ruins to warn modern Britons not to pursue too vigorously the ideology of separate spheres, which, when too rigid, can foreclose the essential public role played by women in the patriotic instruction of youth and the maintenance of a patriotic morality in popular culture. Through the very act of authoring Modern Greece, Hemans underscores the participation of women in the patriotic defense of the nation, for only they, we are led to surmise from the text, can circumvent the decline of the imperial nation through the sedulous cultivation of the salutary and ultimately redemptive domestic affections. Her argument is compelling because it forces critics and historians to explore how the counter-hegemonic demand for greater female participation in public life and in the canons of literature can seemingly paradoxically be made from within the hegemonic and grossly masculine discourses of nationalism and imperialism. However, although this strategy ultimately did carve a public space for female patriotism, it left intact the institutions of patriarchy that continued to subjugate women. And, rather than challenge the prescriptive gender roles that propagated the figure of the lady, with its characteristic feminine delicacy, moral sympathy, and instinctive maternity, it objectively fortified them. But perhaps what should most perturb contemporary scholars about Hemans's argument is the manifest reality of Britain's rapid post-imperial decline. Strangely, it would seem that Hemans's new breed of civic-minded patriotic ladies may have helped to hasten Britain's decline precisely by fanning the flames of jingoism and imperial lust ever higher, and thus consuming in a shorter period the will and resources which it took Hellenic Greece several hundred years to exhaust.  If imperialism has not brought to the British nation the utter ruin projected by the metanarratives of Gibbon and Volney, nonetheless it has effected a remarkable diminution of Britain's once formidable stature.


1. Ozymandias (1818), ll. 12-14.

2. On Seeing the Elgin Marbles (1817), ll. 9-14.

3. This argument is convincingly posed by Anne Janowitz in England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape (1990).

4. This is Laurence Goldstein's argument in Ruins and Empire: The Evolution of a Theme in Augustan Romantic Literature (1977).

5. The conversation on Romantic ruins and fragments has had several notable episodes. Paul de Man's classic study of Shelley's Triumph of Life, “Shelley Disfigured” (1984), argues that we must resist the urge to seek semantic closure for the fragment poem through its “monumentalization” as historical or aesthetic object, a process that he claims arbitrarily settles meaning within a pre-determined historical or semantic order (121). In Thomas McFarland's Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin, the fragmentary is instead elevated to a cultural theme. In this expressivist-essentialist model, Romanticism is the emblematic expression of a phenomenological reality characterized by the “diasparactive” triad of incompleteness, fragmentation, and ruin (5-7). This reality, which is not necessarily mediated by social and political history, manifests in Romantic literature as the expression of longing and melancholy that terminate in a “sentiment des ruines” (15). Marjorie Levinson's The Romantic Fragment Poem: A Critique of a Form (1986) disputes this claim and argues instead for a historically nuanced reading of the fragment poem that disentangles the history of its composition, publication, and reception from the signification produced by the early nineteenth-century literary milieu and the legacy of Romantic ideology influencing modern critical discourse (8). Methodologically, this study most closely resembles Levinson's in its attention to historical facts and ideological determination. Yet it is not, per se, a study of the fragment as phenomenon or form.

6. See also Nairn's Break-Up of Britain (1977) and After Britain (2000), Samuel's three-volume collection Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British Identity (late 1980s), Hitchens's The Abolition of Britain (1999), and Marr's BBC documentary and book The Day Britain Died (2000). For an excellent review of this literature, see also Stuart Ward's “The End of Empire and the Fate of Britishness” (2004).

7. This, indeed, is the subject of Suvir Kual's Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire (2000): 'Rule, Britannia!' . . . is testimonial to the fact that poets in the long eighteenth century imagined poetry to be a unique and privileged literary form for the enunciation of a puissant (and plastic) vocabulary of nation, particularly one appropriate to a Britain proving itself . . . great at home and abroad” (5).

8. Shaftesbury's Characteristicks (1714) is very much a recapitulation of the classical argument for Christian morality espoused by landed Tory aristocrats over and against an emergent bourgeois culture that emphasized the ameliorating effects of personal industry and commerce, despite being driven by self-interest and monetary reward. In many respects, Mandeville, a Dutch native raised in a commercial society where the state facilitated commercial and colonial expansion, is the mouthpiece for bourgeois cultural transvaluation against an established hegemonic aristocratic culture whose values and sensibility are rooted in the classical doctrine of “virtu,” which is based on the ownership of land and feudal social relations. J.G.A. Pocock's “The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology” (1985) provides an excellent study of this tension.

9. Both arguments flow from Giambattista Vico's argument that destructive passions can be harnessed for the public good.

10. The term comes from John Brewer's The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (1989).

11. “It was thus,” continues Hume in Of Simplicity and Refinement, “the ASIATIC eloquence degenerated so much from the ATTIC: It was thus the age of CLAUDIUS and NERO became so much inferior to that of AUGUSTUS in taste and genius: And perhaps there are, at present, some symptoms of a like degeneracy of taste, in FRANCE as well as in ENGLAND” (Essays Moral Political and Literary 196). Cultural refinement, swelled with age and imperial growth, leads to decadence and degeneracy, following the cyclical pattern of rise and decline.

12. In 1781, after completing the first part of his narrative on the fall of the Western Roman empire and before embarking on the second part concerning the fall of the Eastern Roman empire, Gibbon wrote his General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West, an essay which was appended to the end of Chapter 38 of The Decline. In it, he writes, “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable result of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principles of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight” (IV.XXXVIII.119).

13. Contra Smith, Malthus argues that “the increasing wealth of the nation has had little or no tendency to better the condition of the labouring poor” (An Essay on the Principle of Population XVI.112). Indeed, he suggests that the opposite may more likely be true.

14. See also Colley's chapter on “Womanpower” (237-81).

15. Kate Davies convincingly argues that female involvement in the early abolition movement strengthened it because of its presumed non-political character. Females were attracted to the movement because of the delicacy of “feminine sympathy” toward the suffering of slaves, which tinctured the abolitionist movement with a moral imperative ratified by the purported moral authority invested in females. See also “A Moral Purchase; Femininity, Commerce, and Abolition, 1788-1792” (2001).

16. See also Mellor's “The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women's Poetry, 1780-1830” (1997).

17. In “Configurations of Feminine Reform: The Woman Writer and the Tradition of Dissent” (1994), Marlon Ross argues that for Romantic women writers the act of writing, and furthermore of writing on behalf of liberal reform initiatives, constituted a “double dissension” that could be mitigated by generic manipulation of two sorts: either disguise women's political speech in acceptably feminine modes like the conduct manual or feminize conventional political modes (94).

18. In “Consuming women: The Life of the ‘Literary Lady” as Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century England” (1993), Paula McDowell elaborates the argument that iconic images of femininity circulated alongside female texts in eighteenth-century print culture and lent them a unique marketing edge that also placed heavy constraints upon the public image of female authors. This is because readers consumed female texts as much for the commodified images of femininity associated with the author as for content of the texts themselves.

19. See also Tricia Lootens's “Hemans and her American Heirs: Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry and National Identity” (1999) for a discussion of Hemans's American reception as a trans-atlantic patriotic poet.

20. With the exception of Scott and Byron, Hemans generated more revenue by the sale of the multiple editions of her works than any other Romantic contemporary. Paula R. Feldman documents this phenomenon in “The Poet and the Profits: Felicia Hemans and the Literary Marketplace” (1999).

21. The Edinburgh Monthly Review 3 (April 1820): 373-83, cited in Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan J. Wolfson, 531.

22. The Edinburgh Review 50 (October 1829): 32-47, cited in Wolfson 551.

23. In Ambitious Heights (1990), Norma Clarke reveals that “the poet of domesticity, of hearth and home, had skeletons rattling by the fireside,” including a husband's desertion and the abandoning of her children's welfare to her mother, sister, and brother's good will (45-8).

24. Susan Wolfson, in “'Domestic Affections' and ‘the spear of Minerva': Felicia Hemans and the Dilemma of Gender” (1994), has argued that Hemans deeply deplored the prescriptions of femininity that consigned her to a life of shattered domesticity after her husband's departure, and constrained her to write behind a domestic mask out of the economic necessity of providing for her family. She manages this situation by casting an array of female characters in her poetry that reflect the suffering endured by women as a result of their sequestration and subjection to losses inflicted by the masculine world of politics and war. As compensation, many of her characters model an almost stoical degree of heroism in the face of insurmountable suffering. Hence, her patriotic stance may well be an adaptation to the deplorable fate of women in a male-dominated society where the tranquility of domestic space is constantly imperiled by political intrigue and warfare.

25. See the Letter to John Murray (26 February, 1817), cited in Wolfson 480-1. These marbles—scavenged from the ruins of the Parthenon and imported to London by Lord Elgin in 1804, and eventually sold to the British government in 1816—are featured in Keats's self-reflexive poem, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles (1817). But they were also the subject of a popular furor over their rightful ownership involving Byron when he, in Part II of Childe Harold (1812), explicitly deplores their theft. Interestingly, contemporary reviewers believed Modern Greece to have been written by Byron despite the fact that the poem clearly weighs-in in favor of this expropriation of Grecian art. See the review of Modern Greece in The New British Ladies Magazine n.s. 1 (1817): 70. See also Susan Wolfson's study of Heman's relationship with Byron and his poetry in “Hemans and the Romance of Byron” (2001).

26. We know from Chorley that Volney was also quite influential on the young poet Hemans. He cites a correspondence from Bishop Heber that reveals Hemans's abandoned plan for a syncretistic poem along the lines of Volney's Ruins, in which her design was “to trace out the symbolical meaning, by which the popular faiths of every land are linked together” (I.46-7). One can infer from Daniel White's “'Mysterious Sanctity': Sectarianism and Syncretism from Volney to Hemans” that Hemans most likely did eventually complete her syncretistic and pietistic poem under the title of Superstition and Revelation, a twenty-eight stanza poem that argues for the universality of Christianity as the root of all other creeds, which are revealed to be superstitious adulterations of Christian revelation.

27. See The British Review and London Critical Journal 15 (June 1820): 299-310, cited in Wolfson 532.

28. The erudition of these notes led one early reviewer to believe that the anonymous poem could not have been the production of a “female pen” and must surely have been the work of a presumably male “academical pen.” See The British Review and London Critical Journal 15 (June 1820): 299-310, cited in Wolfson 532.

29. Trinder posits that Gibbon was the inspiration behind Hemans's Alaric in Italy (24-5).

30. Hemans is here operating within the mode of modern orientalism. As Said has explicated, the modern orientalist performs a vital function for imperialism by discursively mastering and dominating those peoples and regions under its scrutiny. According to Said, the practice of “discovering” the East operates within a modern paradigm of orientalism that figures the East as backwards and essentially knowable because it occupies a past stage in Western development. Said explains that this paradigm is contrary to classical orientalism, which figures the East as exotic, essentially different from the West, and therefore inscrutable (Orientalism 120-3). Byron's treatment of Greece and the Levant in Childe Harold adheres closer to the latter mode.

31. In a letter to John Murray dated 4 September 1917, Byron, bristled by this wordplay, indignantly retorts, “Besides, why ‘modern?' You may say modern Greeks, but surely Greece itself is rather more ancient than ever it was” (cited in Wolfson 536; his emphasis).

32. Saree Makdisi makes a similar argument for Shelley's description of the East in Alastor, where he discursively depopulates and reduces to ruins the entirety of Eastern territories in order to enable a reframing of the East as pre-modern space situation within a historical continuum that leads teleologically to Western European civilization. See also his Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (1998) for a more advanced elaboration of this argument.

33. This difference can perhaps help to explain why Byron spoke so fervently in behalf of Greek nationalism while Hemans preferred to subject Greek society to the tutelage of a more “civilized” British empire.

34. See also Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Pratt offers Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa as a text that exemplifies the central traits of a “sentimental narrator.” The “sentimental narrator” is defined as experiential, innocent, passive, and imperiled by natives, thereby deflecting any claim to imperial ambitions, when, in fact, this narrator is performing the necessary task of collecting data on unexplored territories. The narrator also inverts imperial reality by presenting soon-to-be conquered natives as dangerous aggressors while depicting the imperialist West as fundamentally benign, inquisitive, and innocent.

35. Ward contends that sameness, not alterity, is the primary force that consolidated a cohesive British identity by psychologically binding Britain with its white settler communities across the globe (245). Accepting this, their globally scattered graves also work to engrave a British presence upon disparate and far-flung regions of the globe, symbolically annexing these territories to a British Commonwealth.

36. See the Letter to John Murray (26 February, 1817), cited in Wolfson 480-1.

37. See Byron's Letter to John Murray (4 September 1817), cited in Wolfson 536.

38. Sophia Psarra promulgates this argument in “The Parthenon and the Erechtheion: The Architectural Formation of Place, Politics, and Myth.” Her study focuses on two adjacent structures that stand upon the Acropolis: the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. The former roots present imperial exploits in the nation's past, thereby granting it legitimacy, while the latter anchors an ancient religion and mythology in the present, granting continuity to the nation's culture.

39. Sarah Suleri's The Rhetoric of English India (1992) and Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1989) pursue this theme at length.

40. Here, Hemans takes up the cause of the native arts movement, following in the footsteps of Blake, Wordsworth, and numerous other British poets and painters. For more on this, see also Morris Eaves's The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (1992).

41. In “Minerva's Veil: Hemans, Critics, and the Construction of Gender” (1997), Eubanks suggests that the figure of Minerva, the warrior goddess, which is central to Hemans's description of the Greek national mythology, is a symbolic affront to the doctrine of separate spheres (345).

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