Session 9D: Reassessing Romantic Origins

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9D. Reassessing Romantic Origins

Anthony Lake (Bilkent, Turkey): "Thomas Chatterton, Romanticism and the Origins of Romanticism"
Michael Zeliff (Smithsonian Institution): "John Keats: Highmindedness and a Jealousy for Good in the "Poems" Volume of 1817"
Gary Handwerk (Washington): "Beyond Beginnings: Friedrich Schlegel's Late Historiographical Work"

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"Thomas Chatterton, Romanticism and the Origins of Romanticism"
Anthony Lake
Bilkent University, Turkey

The mid-eighteenth century saw the earliest beginnings of nationalism in English culture, and the rise of nationalism is closely linked to the rise of romanticism. Central among the signs of the emergence of both was a renewal of interest in epic and ballad traditions and in the possibility of imagining and creating a specifically national English History. At the same time, this new nationalism established a critique of aristocratic hegemony and its models of political subjectivity which had appeared in poetry of the Augustan period. The work of the 'marvellous boy' Thomas Chatterton is important within these cultural formations

Both Chatterton's Rowley forgeries and his original works are of interest in the context of the emergence of nationalism and the origins of English Romanticism, and the proposed paper would combine discussion of selections from both. Before the 1750s and 1760s the nation in England had been defined in terms of the discourse of civic humanism. An important example of this characterization can be found in Anthony Ashley Cooper's 'Characteristicks of Men, Manners and Times', published in 1714, in which Cooper describes the English nation in the following way:

a multitude held together by force, though under one and the same head, is not properly united, nor does such a body make a people. It is the social league, confederacy, and mutual consent, founded in some common good or interest, which joins the members of a community, and makes a People one. Absolute Power annuls the publick; and where there is no publick, or constitution, there is in reality no mother-country, or nation.

In using the terms people and community, and most especially the publick, Shaftesbury is referring to only a small body of persons, and that body is the male members of the aristocracy. They were the nation.

In the 1750s and 1760s, a new set of ideas of how, and by whom, the nation could be constituted, first began to reveal itself, though what was beginning to take shape did not fully emerge until into the nineteenth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, the poetry of Thomas Gray and William Collins looked for a native tradition of English literature and a national history as an alternative to the legacies of Ancient Greece and Rome and the neo-classicism based on them which lay behind Shaftesbury's assertions about the nation and its forms and shape. Following them, James Macpherson's Ossian forgeries offered, albeit in counterfeit form, what they had longed for in their poetry, and it was Macphersons work which presented Chatterton with his cue for the Rowley forgeries.

The Rowley of the poems is a medieval merchant, and his class status is the crucial clue to the political dimensions of this new national history. Nationalism was born of the formation of a middle class public and represents the attempt of the middle class to define its political being in opposition to that of the aristocratic civic model. The invention of a national history was a means of working out that new collective subjectivity through the projection of present political and cultural concerns into the past, for the present offered as yet no space for such a project. Within Chatterton's oeuvre, the Rowley poems are an important text of this search for a national history.

This assertion of middle class class formation in terms of the national has another dimension, which is evidenced in some of Chatterton's original work, and in particular 'Clifton', which can be read as a response to James Thomson's 'The Seasons'. In John Barrell's reading, Thomson establishes the male aristocrat commanding a prospect view of the landscape as the model of political and, in Shaftesbury's terms, national subjectivity. In response to this Chatterton's Clifton offers a detailed and comprehensive deconstruction of this position, and this deconstruction is undertaken with the same end in mind which motivates the re-imagining of history.

The proposed paper will, then, offer a discussion of aspects of the Rowley poems, and of Clifton, as manifestations of emerging nationalism and by extension of Chatterton as a central protagonist in the beginnings of Romanticism. This latter is borne out by the attitude to Chatterton as a talismanic figure of the romantic poet in the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth in particular, and it is in their work that the nationalism first sounded in the work of Chatterton and his contemporaries was fully developed into a theory of nationhood.

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"John Keats: Highmindedness and a Jealousy for Good in the "Poems" Volume of 1817"
Michael Zeliff
Smithsonian Institution

Recent scholarship has defended Leigh Hunt and John Keats as members of the Cockney School, whose lush style challenged conservative politics and aesthetics. While this argument offers promising new ways to read the work of both writers, Keats's early poems reveal tensions that complicate the Cockney School's reputed conviviality. As a sonnet published originally in the December 1, 1816 'Examiner,' for instance, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" reads as Keats advising Hunt on acting more cautiously as a public figure. Within this context Hunt's circle becomes a place where intense exchange and struggle underlie its placid surface.

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Last updated July 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell