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ICR 2019 Panel: Nineteenth-Century Receptions. Reviewed by Lucia Scigliano

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 14:36

Romanticism Now and Then

International Conference on Romanticism

July 31-August 2, 2019


International Conference on Romanticism
Manchester 2019
Panel: "Nineteenth-Century Receptions"

  • Chair: Ingrid Hanson (The University of Manchester)
  • Rachel Lewis (University of California, Berkeley), “Seeing Shelley Plain: Mediating the Romantic Past in Browning and James”
  • Matthew Ward (University of Birmingham), “Arnold’s Struggle with Byron”
  • Federica Coluzzi (The University of Manchester), “Beyond Creative Appropriation: The Romantic Critical Discourse on Dante from Coleridge to G. Rossetti”
  • Alessia Benedetti (The University of Manchester), “Between Romanticism and Anti-Romanticism: A Journey Across Pre- and Post-Revolutionary Reception of Dante in Russia”

Reviewed by Lucia Scigliano (Durham University)

The panel “Nineteenth-Century Receptions” provided a wide-ranging and far-reaching understanding of cultural and literary receptions in the nineteenth century, exploring not only transgenerational literary relations but also the ways in which certain authors are appropriated for intellectual and political pursuits. The panel spoke directly to the conference theme, which, in addition to commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, sought to reconsider the relations among politics, aesthetics, and time in the Romantic period, especially from an interdisciplinary perspective. 

Focusing her analysis on the portrait of Shelley and his circle depicted in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, by way of Browning and Derrida, Rachel Lewis examined the sense of wonder that runs through James’s negotiations with the Romantic past. Taking as a starting-point the extent to which the debt to a Romantic poet produces a sense of closeness to the Romantic past, Lewis successfully re-evaluated this connection, looking at counter-indicators suggesting distance that dispel this impression and produce the rich temporality that James describes. To achieve this, Lewis traced the noted absence of photography in The Aspern Papers, an aspect which should have, perhaps, been reflected in the paper’s title. The novella situates photography among the nineteenth century’s development of new recording media to mark a cultural rupture that instantly consigned the Romantics to a distant history. Reminding us that there are no photographs of any of the Romantic poets (Wordsworth was the last unphotographed major poet before the advent of photography in the UK), Lewis considered the very different and real image of the man that the photograph of Percy Florence Shelley provides, in contrast with his father’s well-known portrait by Amelia Curran, showing how photography creates a sense of familiarity and closeness that portraiture, not matter how close to real life, can never achieve. 

While photography remains at the centre of James’s text as a marker of historical difference, the reader never encounters the photograph of the fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern in the novella. The paper highlighted how, in this context, the miniature illustrated portrait of the poet Aspern becomes significant as a recurring element which seems to aggravate rather than confirm a sense of connection to the Romantic past. That Shelley died before the advent of photography makes it impossible for his closely-modelled, fictional double Aspern to have been photographed. However, Lewis concluded that, taking together The Aspern Papers’ repeated evocations of photography as a distinguishing factor separating the present from the near past and the recurring references to the miniature portrait’s insufficiency, the coincidence of these two themes invites the reader to engage in historical fantasy, to imagine the possibility of an Aspern photograph. According to Lewis, it is this so-called “retrospective science fiction” to which Derrida alludes in “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.”

Matthew Ward’s paper, as its title suggests, focused on Matthew Arnold’s response to Byron, who became, for many nineteenth-century artists and scholars, symbolic of a Romanticism governed by intensity of feeling to the detriment of intellectuality. Arnold’s ambivalent reaction to Byron, highlighting the latter’s shortcomings while presenting him as a source of much needed influence, is immortalised in “Memorial Verses, April 1850.” Taking Arnold’s consideration that, of the nineteenth century, Wordsworth and Byron would be the authors that future generations would most admire, Ward showed how Arnold wrestled with Byron’s character, finding problems with his theatricality (“The pageant of his bleeding heart” is a famous example). For Arnold, Byron’s unwillingness to reform his moral character is revealed in his careless approach to his writing, thus echoing previous criticism of the poet as well as anticipating views still held by scholars today. Ward concludes that Arnold was susceptible to the fashionable, yet incorrect, view that Byron did not care about his poetry. 

Ward also considered the potential reasons behind Arnold’s interest in Byron—did it stem, in part, from an affinity the Victorian professor found with the Romantic poet, based on what nineteenth-century literary criticism considered to be Byron’s limitations and Arnold’s own sense of his gifts as a writer? We are reminded, in fact, that the Oxford Professor of Poetry was not deemed, by either Buxton Foreman or Saintsbury, as excelling in the skill of poetic composition. Ward acutely stressed the need to acknowledge that, in spite of this sense of kinship that Arnold felt, the differences between both poets should be reappraised. The paper successfully considered this relation as a paradigm for nineteenth-century artistry: the effortless genius of the Romantic period giving way to the Victorian failure to be productive, exemplified in how the Byronic capacity to make others feel so intensely gives way to Arnold’s dramatization of thoughts on feeling, rather than feeling itself. Both authors cogitate on the ways to think through feeling, reflecting on emotions and their place in life.

Federica Coluzzi’s paper proposed a reappraisal of Dante’s reception in nineteenth-century Britain. It offered a fascinating, if somewhat descriptive, history of this reception, calling for a redefinition of this concept, as reception has lately been employed as a synonym for influence, traditionally focused on a male-centric canon of authors. Coluzzi suggested that one way to redefine reception as a composite cultural relationship is to recover the model that Dante scholar Paget Toynbee set forth in Dante in English Literature, from Chaucer to Cary (1909). Despite covering an almost five-hundred-year span, two thirds of these entries date to the Romantic age, which suggests that the period between 1780 and 1820 transformed Dante as an object of study. It would have been useful, at this stage in the paper, for Coluzzi to have expanded more on how the concept of reception can be reinterpreted as well as to have acquainted the audience with the particularities of Toynbee’s methodology that make it the model on which (Dante) reception studies should be based.

Coluzzi also traced some of the nineteenth-century translations of Dante’s works, objects that mixed the literary and visual (such as those that contained illustrations and engravings by Doré, Fuseli, or Flaxman), which not only had the effect of stimulating the imagination of its readers but also spurred literary activity as articles on Dante-related topics began to appear in magazines and periodicals. As the nineteenth century witnessed the reading of Dante stretching beyond Inferno to encompass all sections of the Commedia and even to La Vita Nuova, as in the case of Coleridge and Percy Shelley, there was a deeper understanding of the Florentine poet but a reliable tradition of critical studies was still absent. Coluzzi concludes that Dante, in the critical studies that appeared in the later nineteenth century, emerged as a palimpsest possessing multiple significations. Periodical articles educated the reader on how, where, and when to read Dante. Coluzzi also noted how the Romantic period saw the beginning of a lecturing tradition, institutionalised in academic centres such as the Barlow lectureship at UCL (the world’s first Dante lectureship) and the Oxford Dante lectureship, leading to a widespread “Dantephilia” across Britain. Finally, Coluzzi stressed how the transformation of Dante in the Romantic period into an object of specialist study is a phenomenon of great historical and cultural relevance as it helps us to recognise the many ways in which Dante was understood and employed in the literary activity of the period and how this influenced the perception of the artist and his work later in the nineteenth century. 

Alessia Benedetti’s paper delved into the ways in which the reception of Romanticism in Russia is useful in the understanding of attitudes towards Dante’s Commedia in Russia before and after the 1917 revolution. Using Dante’s Commedia as a case study, Benedetti showed how European literary classics (in addition to Russian classics) were appropriated by Russian authorities to create an unified sense of culture and identity among the newly literate masses in Russia in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. After briefly tracing the history of Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century, Benedetti explored the two trends that emerged in the reception of Dante in Russia during this period: one following the Romantic conception of Dante as a genius, and the other idea of “Dante as a man of the thirteenth century,” an artist who should be understood within the context of thirteenth-century Italy.

Benedetti showed how Dante’s image and work were employed from both an aesthetic (for example, in the letters and essays of Pushkin) and socio-political (exemplified in the works of Alexander Herzen) perspective in pre-revolutionary Russia. Literary scholar Alexander Veselovsky, however, demonstrated the importance of situating Dante in his historical context and criticised cultural and ideological appropriations of the Florentine author which decontextualized him. This tension persisted in post-1917 Russia, when ideas about how Dante should be approached after the revolution were under review, and Benedetti analysed the views by critics Vladimir Friche and Vadim Bystriansky, and Leon Trotsky as three illustrative examples of this tension. As the Romantic reception of Dante had a continuing influence on post-1917 Russia, Benedetti argued for the necessity of further research to expand our understanding of this period: for example, to what extent were Bolsheviks aware of the similarities between their perception of Dante and the Romantic reception? Which other European classics, beyond Dante’s Commedia, were used by Bolsheviks to promote their socio-political agenda?

The Q&A section of the panel posed an opportunity to reflect on ideas of periodisation and anthologisation, poetics, and the specific uses of Dante in literature. Considering the particular sections of Dante’s works to which the Romantics would continuously return and the Bolsheviks preferred, Benedetti explained that, while Italian and French translations of Dante’s Commedia were circulating in nineteenth-century Russia and cantos from Purgatorio were translated into Russian in 1798, references to the Inferno(cantos I-III, V, and the Ugolino cantos) are particularly found in Russian classics and were the best known amongst Dante’s Russian readers. She intimated that this was due to the influence of Western Romanticism and the particularities of Russian history at the time, with passages from Dante being circulated in military schools. Coluzzi stressed the Romantics’ preference of Inferno, perhaps due to its gothic scenes, but this focus shifted in the Victorian period to the entire Commedia as well as to Dante’s first book, La Vita Nuova. Coluzzi identified Shelley as the first true reader of Dante, with his interest in the entire Commedia and his translations of La Vita Nuova. Ward and Lewis reflected on poetics and diversified forms of poetry. Lewis emphasised that the Romantics can be perceived as the last generation of poets to have the primacy of the word, something that James and Browning regret as it is not continued in their time. Although Clough and Arnold were preoccupied with the idea of the public poet, Arnold retreats from it on a personal level but intellectually realises the need to foment it. Ward stressed that the ultimate goal of his paper was to show the ways in which Byron invigorates some of Arnold’s verse, to re-energise our sense of the Romantic poets as practitioners and critics of art in a longer movement, in line with the scholarship of Michael O’Neill.