Wordsworthian Romance: 'Into a dazzling cavern'

This post is a shortened version of the Jonathan Wordsworth Memorial Lecture given by Professor Frederick Burwick, at  Grasmere on February 21st 2015.  You can see a film of the whole talk below.
 
In the eighteenth century, the term ‘Romantic’ was applied to a literary resurgence of wild narratives similar to those popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe, from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-96). Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516) and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) were ranked as masterpieces of Renaissance romance. As a literary genre, these fantastic tales of the heroic, marvellous, magical, and supernatural merged with another evolving narrative mode, the Roman as it was called in Germany and France, the novel as it was called in England. Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic Romance and Sir Walter Scott’s Historical Romance contributed further to the popular permutations of the genre. Among the poets who persisted in attributing sublime grandeur to the traditional romance, Wordsworth acknowledged Spenser alongside Ariosto and Tasso as foremost masters of the genre. Just as Ariosto and Tasso used the romance to transport readers into strange exotic territories, Wordsworth recognized in the romance a model for exploring the subjective spaces of fantasy and dream.
 
One of Wordsworth’s repeated metaphors for the subjective retreat into the imagination is quoted in my title. As you will have recognized, it is from his account in The Prelude of attending a theatre performance (Prelude 7:437-515).

At the thought of where I was
I gladdened more than if I had beheld
Before me some bright cavern of romance (7:483-485)

 
Here and elsewhere there is a doubleness in his reference to the ‘cavern of romance’. The experience of something ‘more’ is engendered not by the performance but by the awareness of being in a theatre, ‘the thought of where I was’. The doubleness of ‘where’ is compounded by the ‘when’: his recollection of a country-theatre while describing a London theatre. The seeming paradox of a ‘glimpse/ Of daylight’, even in a sunless cavern, Wordsworth dispels by the doubleness of the self-aware imagination contemplating the spells of romance, yet resisting the spell-bound thrall.

Caverns there were within my mind which sun
Could never penetrate, yet did there not
Want store of leafy arbours where the light
Might enter in at will.             (3:246-249)

 
Such caverns abound: the theft of the boat from the ‘Cavern of the Willow tree’ (1:398), or ‘in a rocky cave/ By the seaside’ dreaming of Don Quixote transformed into an Arab Bedouin (5:57-165), or the glittering shield and the ‘knight’s tomb’ (8:574-582), ‘the grotto of Antiparos, or the den/Of Yordas’ (8:717-747).
 
In crossing the Alps, Wordsworth carried with him an edition of Orlando Furioso. More significantly the characters and incidents of Orlando Furioso were stored in his mind, readily conjured by association, as when he recognized in Michel Beaupuy the idealism and ‘perfect faith’ that belonged to the heroes of old romance (9:306-311). Wordsworth met Captain Beaupuy in Blois, a man who was to have a great influence on the poet’s developing political ideas; he is mentioned in The Prelude  as someone ranked by birth “With the most noble, but unto the poor / Among mankind he was in service bound … Man he loved / As man”. The very terrain through which he wandered with Beaupuy became animated with episodes from Ariosto and Tasso: ‘Angelica thundering through the woods/ Upon her palfrey, or that gentler maid/ Erminia, fugitive as fair as she. (9:448-471).
<iframe src=”https://player.vimeo.com/video/121882625″ width=”500″ height=”281″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/121882625″>The origins of Romanticism: A lecture by Professor Fred Burwick (Fourth annual Jonathan Wordsworth Memorial lecture)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/wordsworthtrust”>Wordsworth Trust</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
 
 
In recollecting his boyhood reading of romance, Wordsworth reconstructs the affective response, the wild stimulation tamed by reflective thought. In Book One, Wordsworth announced his preparations for his ‘glorious work’ as poet. Confident of his ability, he conducts an inventory of poetic subjects. He has a ‘plenteous store, but nowhere such / As may be singled out with steady choice’ (1:171-172) His deliberations survey a wide-scope of chivalric romance: ‘some old/ Romantic tale by Milton left unsung’ (1:180-181). Rather than pursue the grand legends, he turns to ‘Some tale from my own heart, more near akin/ To my own passions and habitual thoughts, (1:222-223). In narrating ‘the Growth of the Poet’s Mind’ Wordsworth recounts the nurturing of the imagination in the wild adventures of romance, in reading and re-enacting in childhood sports. He delineates, too, the discovery of the ‘glimpse/ Of daylight’, the double perception of romance narrative, and the cultivation of ‘romantic perception’.
 

 
 
Professor Fred Burwick has been teaching at the English department at the University of California, Los Angeles since 1965, and has held several positions at universities in Germany, lectured in Cologne, Heidelberg, Leipzig and Munich. Professor Burwick wrote more than 30 books, 140 articles and numerous reviews, and his book on Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (Penn State, 1996) won the Outstanding Book of the Year Award of the American Conference on Romanticism. He has been named Distinguished Scholar by both the British Academy (1992) and the Keats-Shelley Association (1998).