Topics in Romanticism
The literature of the romantic era has been widely celebrated for valuing important new artistic criteria—criteria to which we continue to cling: individual expression, originality, and the creative imagination. Yet while their work marked a significant break from the past, romantic writers also valued literary history in a new way: they revived older poetic forms, such as the sonnet; canonized the works of Shakespeare; and rediscovered the ancient poetic voice of the “Bard.” If they seemed to abandon the practices of their immediate past, they dug back into what they saw as a deeper, more meaningful English tradition, one that spoke to a growing sense (fueled by the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions) of national cohesion and political renewal. In this course, we’ll examine this romantic reconstruction of the past, which built on and often radically transformed the ideas and visions of the thinkers and writers who immediately preceded it: the intellectual and artistic movements of the Enlightenment, the literature of sensibility, and the Gothic. Moreover, we'll treat the romantics as consummate readers of the past. For instance, we’ll explore Jane Austen’s allusions to the Napoleonic Wars and Byron’s poetry in her novel Persuasion, and Charles Lamb’s surprising essay on why the plays of Shakespeare should only be read—and not performed! We’ll also compare earlier writings that attempted to theorize aesthetic experience with romantic-era writings that put those theories into practice (for instance, the ideas of Edmund Burke, who theorized the sublime, with the poetry of writers like Shelley, who embodied the sublime in his poetry); through exploring the roots of the period’s revival of the sonnet in the work of Charlotte Smith; and through scrutinizing earlier and later drafts of romantic works themselves, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. We’ll end the course by reading Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, a contemporary rumination on romanticism and the romantic era, as a way to take stock of our own perceptions. Course work will consist of frequent short responses, in-class presentations, and a longer final project.