What the Victorians made of Romanticism

by Tom Mole
My new book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers a new way of understanding the reception history of Romantic writers and their works in Victorian Britain. Other scholars have told this story before, of course. But they have mostly focussed on the ways in which Romantic writers influenced their Victorian successors. They tell us about how Alfred Tennyson responded to Byron, or how Matthew Arnold responded to Wordsworth. I’m interested in a different kind of story. The story I tell is about the material artefacts and cultural practices that remediated Romantic writers and their works amid shifting understandings of history, memory, and media. I pay attention to the things Victorians made – including illustrated books, anthologies, statues, postcards and memorial plaques – as well as to what they did with Romantic writers – citing and reciting them, including them in sermons, placing busts of them on their mantelpieces, and a host of other practices. These artefacts and practices made sure that the Romantics were renovated for new generations of readers – and non-readers – while recruiting them to address new cultural concerns in the process.
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For a while, it seemed that the Romantics would not be remembered at all. Many early-Victorian commentators worried that the writing of the recent past no longer compelled readers’ interest, and that it would soon be forgotten. The predictions began polemically. Blackwood’s Magazine claimed in 1820 that John Keats had ruined his talent by imitating Leigh Hunt, and that ‘he must be content to share his fate, and be like him forgotten’, and Coleridge wrote in 1825 that he ‘dare[d] predict, that in less than a century’ Byron’s and Scott’s poems would ‘lie on the same Shelf of Oblivion’. But predictions soon became warnings. The Quarterly Review asserted that Scott was ‘in danger of passing – we cannot conceive why – out of the knowledge of the rising generation’, and Thomas Carlyle cautioned in 1829 that ‘Byron … with all his wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten’.
Byron Grasmere
Before long, the warnings became simple statements of fact. Orestes Brownson asserted in 1841 that Shelley was ‘seldom spoken of and much more seldom read’. The Graphic cattily remarked in 1873 that Hemans was ‘almost as much neglected now, as she was overrated formerly’. Stopford Brooke declared simply in 1893 that Byron was ‘not much read now’. If anyone read the Romantics, some claimed, it was only those people who scarcely counted, like adolescents or the uneducated. Selections of Wordsworth’s poetry ‘chiefly for the use of schools and young persons’ appeared from as early as 1831, while in 1848 Readings for the Young from the Works of Sir Walter Scott inaugurated a tradition of excerpting or retelling Scott’s works for children. Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘a stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for The Giaour or The Corsair …, but the real posterity – the quiet students of past literature – never read them or think of them’. The fact that the Romantics were remembered – at least some of them – is not down to the enduring excellence of their poetry, or to its ability to transcend the historical moment in which it was written. Rather, I argue, Romantic writers and their works continued to attract attention because they were mediated to Victorian audiences in new ways. This was necessary because the Romantics were increasingly in danger of seeming outdated. Victorian commentators worried that the literature of even the recent past was no longer suited to address the present’s most pressing concerns.
When Matthew Arnold hailed his generation as ‘we, brought forth and reared in hours / Of change, alarm, surprise’, he signalled a self-conscious modernity. In this accelerated and uncertain time, the literature of even the recent past began to seem alien or obsolescent. ‘Too fast we live, too much are tried, / Too harrass’d, to attain / Wordsworth’s sweet calm’, Arnold wrote. Poetry of the recent past no longer seemed like it could speak to the anxieties of the present. Echoing Byron’s Manfred, who found that ‘the wisdom of the world… avail’d not’, Arnold turned Manfred’s conclusion into a question and made it a matter of generational difference: ‘what availed it, all the noise / And outcry of the former men?’
Introducing an edition of Byron’s poems in 1866, Algernon Charles Swinburne reiterated Arnold’s sense of a generational shift, and framed it ironically in the religious language that Arnold would use earnestly in ‘Dover Beach’ the following year. ‘Men born when this century was getting into its forties were baptised into another church than [Byron’s] with the rites of another creed. … No man under twenty’, he asserted, ‘can now be expected to appreciate’ Byron or Wordsworth. This fear that the Romantics were being forgotten, and that they could not find new readers unaided, produced a whole set of efforts to bring them to new audiences, and make them newly relevant. In the book, I look at how these efforts took shape in four different media: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.
Retro-fitted illustrations – that is, newly-produced illustrations for works that didn’t appear with illustrations when they were first published – were produced for many Romantic works in Victorian Britain. They helped to make new editions of Romantic poetry look modern and up-to-date, because an increasing number of new books in the Victorian period appeared with illustrations from their first edition. Think of the close association between Dickens and Phiz or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. New illustrations helped to renovate Romantic poetry, allowing it to circulate once again in the market for new books. Illustrations therefore offered a way to come to terms with the sense that a generation gap was opening up between the Victorians and their Romantic precursors. I look at several examples of illustrated books that thematise this sense of the passage of time. In some cases, they update Romantic poetry by including recognisably Victorian people and scenes in illustrations. In others, they combine canonizing images that proclaimed the lasting value of Romantic poetry with images that invited Victorian readers to put aside their preconceptions and experience it afresh.
Victorian Keats
When Victorian people went to church, they heard Romantic poetry quoted in sermons surprisingly often. Some authors – such as Wordsworth – could be recruited in support of a generalised and often rather vague sense of spiritual uplift. Others – such as Byron – were more likely to serve as an awful warning, an example of misspent time and misapplied talent. But the way Victorian preachers and religious writers handled Romantic writers and their works could sometimes be surprising. Shelley, for example, was turned into an honorary Christian by a number of progressive figures in several Christian denominations. And Byron was quoted not only as an example of a sinner, but also approvingly, for example for his paraphrases of certain psalms and his descriptions of nature. I look at one preacher in particular – Charles Haddon Spurgeon – who quoted Byron regularly. Spurgeon’s library has survived almost intact, and so we can trace the ways in which he encountered Byron through anthologies, primers and books of quotations.
Several Romantic writers were commemorated in statues and other kinds of memorials. These monuments were part of a wider effort to create a new British pantheon. The new pantheon was secular, and liberal enough to include people with drastically different political views. It helped to create a new kind of cultural consensus during a period of radical introspection about who constituted the nation and what they shared. And crucially, it was not housed in a particular structure or institution, but spread out across the cities of London and Edinburgh, and eventually across the country as a whole. I examine the statue of Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, and the statue of Byron in Hyde Park, London, as key monuments in the development of this new pantheon. I also show how these monuments were remediated in figurines, postcards, and cigarette cards.
Finally, I examine the ways in which anthologies mediated Romantic poetry to Victorian audiences. I’ve looked at over 200 Victorian anthologies, and for the first time I can explain in detail which poems by Byron, Hemans and Shelley they included, which sections of long poems appeared, and how they framed these poems with editorial material such as headnotes, footnotes and glosses. The results are fascinating. The anthologies produced their own version of Byron, Hemans and Shelley, which is different in several key ways from the version you get in a collected or selected edition, as well as the versions of those poets that English students today discover in modern classroom anthologies.
Overall, the book aims to show how literature of the past can be appropriated and made newly relevant in ways that could not have been imagined by its authors. I think recent critics have often tended to connect literature so closely to the context in which it’s written that we tend to overlook its ability to function in other contexts. I hope What the Victorians Made of Romanticism will help people to see some of the ways in which literary works get redeployed in unexpected ways.
Dr Tom Mole received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2003 and has worked at the University of Glasgow, the University of Bristol and McGill University. He is currently Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Tom Mole 2Edinburgh. With Michelle Levy, he wrote The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017) and edited The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014). His other books include Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture (ed, Cambridge, 2009) and What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (Princeton, 2017). From 2008-2013 he was Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print research group, whose collaboratively written ‘multigraph’ will be published by Chicago UP in 2017. He is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee.

Keats and ‘Negative Capability’

by Lucy Tutton
It was in December 1817, in a letter to his brothers, that we see John Keats first use the term Negative Capability. He set out what he believed was necessary to become what he called a “Man of Achievement” or one who is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” As the famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn reads: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – That is all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

We can see this sentiment reflected in his letters. In 1817, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, he wrote that “what the Imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” This letter was written just one month before the Negative Capability letter, and we can see Keats setting out the ground work for what would become the final concept. He stated that whatever a person perceived as beautiful must be the truth, whether it be in art or poetry or music. A person must be able to accept whatever they perceive as true without questioning how or why; this is the only way they can become a ‘Man of Achievement.’ Keats spent much of his, albeit short, career striving to become one such man. In the following post I will be discussing the origins of Negative Capability, how Keats developed it as his circumstances changed, and also whether or not Keats ever achieved his goal of becoming ‘negatively capable’.

First of all, I would like to point out the irony of studying Negative Capability, a subject which requires the reader to be content with “half-knowledge”; an irony that Keats himself was aware of during his constant quest to achieve it. He longed for “a life of Sensations, rather than thoughts” but found himself unable to be happy with “half-knowledge”. He was a thinker, but longed to be among the dreamers of the world.  In addition, I do not believe that Keats ever saw himself as a “Man of Achievement,” nor did he consider himself to be a master of Negative Capability. He was ambitious, yes, but incredibly hard on himself.

We need only look at his self-written epitaph to get an idea of how the young poet saw himself. He died at the age of 25, his gravestone bearing the words Here lies one whose name was writ in water. His name being “writ in water” gives the impression that he believed his words would fade and evaporate. It is understandable, given his poor health and the deterioration of his mental state, that his epitaph reads in such a way, however, we can see these uncertainties and doubts even in his earlier poetry. Consider the sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be. It shows perfectly both Keats’ ambition and his fears should he not survive to reach his goals. Keats knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, just not how to get there. Especially towards the end of his life, after watching his mother and brother die of consumption, the same disease which would eventually claim his own life, Keats became more and more disillusioned with his original concept of Negative Capability. He didn’t give up on it completely, however, he changed and twisted it in order to create a goal that he considered to be reachable.

In a letter he wrote to close friend, Benjamin Bailey, Keats’ insecurities and doubts at his own ability to achieve Negative Capability become clear:

I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought.

He credits Bailey, stating that his is one of these minds. However, it would appear that Keats himself saw “existing partly on sensation partly on thought” as an easier target than Negative Capability. In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse in October 1818, Keats talks about the “Chamelion poet,” or one who possesses such “egotistical sublime” that he is “without self, without character”. Keats wrote that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the Chamelion poet.” This is because the “Chamelion poet”, as Keats sees him, does not have any consideration for whether or not his argument is valid, or if there is any rational reasoning behind it. This idea of the “Chamelion poet” can be seen to have similarities with Negative Capability. To be negatively capable, a person must be able to completely disregard the need for rational explanations, in the same way that the “Chamelion poet” disregards logic. Nearly a year after Keats wrote this letter, he is still toying with the idea of a “life of Sensations”, but he is still struggling to achieve it.

It seems that Keats’ own self-doubt is what truly prevented him from becoming completely negatively capable.

I know nothing I have read nothing and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions of ‘get Wisdom- get understanding’ – I find cavalier days are gone by. I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge – I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world…there is but one way for me – the road lies th[r]ough application of study and thought.

This statement creates something of a paradox for Keats. He intended to become a master of Negative Capability, a real “Man of Achievement”, and yet the only way he could do so was through the acquisition of knowledge. In 1819, Keats wrote that “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” and yet he denied himself the opportunity to travel because he believed he hadn’t read enough, nor did he know enough. He denied himself life experience because he felt that his true calling lay in education and knowledge. Keats was young, ambitious and unforgivably hard on himself. It seems that he never truly talks himself out of his struggle between his need for knowledge and his determination to become negatively capable.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that Keats ultimately compromised in his need for Negative Capability, reaching instead for a sort of happy medium between intellect and imagination. “I was never afraid of failure,” he wrote, “for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” It is not surprising that this move away from his original musings on Negative Capability correlated with his deterioration in health. In 1820, in a letter to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, he wrote:

‘If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal words behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time I would have made myself remembered.’

It would appear that in order to become “among the greatest” before he died, Keats decided to aim for something he perceived to be more realistic. He died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a disease that he most likely contracted from his younger brother whilst he was attempting to nurse him to health. His symptoms first appeared in 1820, and having a medical background and seeing both his mother and his brother die of the disease it seems likely that he would have known what was going to happen. Having to face his own mortality at such a young age led him to question his life, his achievements (or, as he saw it, the lack thereof), and his eventual demise.

Keats was fully aware of his contradictions and his limitations, or at least the ones that he perceived himself to have. In the letters grouped between the dates of 14th February – 3rd May 1819, all of which are addressed to ‘The George Keatses’ he wrote about the “disinterestedness of Mind”, presumably the ability to separate intellect and the imagination, remaining only with what the imagination alone perceived to be the truth. He stated “I perceive how far I am from any standard of disinterestedness.” It is clear that Keats struggled to separate his need for thought and knowledge from his perception of the truth, thus preventing himself from becoming a “Man of Achievement.” He was stuck in a cruel cycle; he constantly questioned how he could become one of these men, and in doing so he drove himself further away from his goal. He believed so fervently in the importance of Beauty and Truth, however, he could find no other way of coming by it himself other than through education and learning, which seems to oppose a person’s ability to be negatively capable.

I am three and twenty, with little knowle[d]ge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.

We can see clearly Keats’ inability to view himself as anything other than mediocre, despite having achieved so much for a man who was so young. Furthermore, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey composed in 1819, he puts the “fine writer” in second place next to the “human friend Philosopher”. We can see that Keats was truly torn between his quest for truth and his quest for knowledge.

In his essay entitled ‘Was Negative Capability Enough for Keats?’, critic R.T. Davis concludes that, for Keats, Negative Capability was “temporarily convenient”, stating that by the end of his career “he was impelled by his experience both of living and writing to reach after that fact and reason which he had once said were small considerations for a great poet.” This much is true; with his change in health and circumstance, the young Keats did find himself reaching after “that fact and reason”, desperately trying to understand why his life had turned out in the way it had. However, I would not agree with Davis in stating that Negative Capability was just “temporarily convenient” for the young poet; this much is obvious from reviewing his letters. In February 1819, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he wrote:

I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of…staring at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion –

He consistently aimed for Negative Capability, referring to it throughout his letters, or at least to something similar. We are fortunate that his letters are easily available to read alongside his poetry; it gives us a unique opportunity to see the, often complicated, thought processes behind his work. His quest for beauty never ceased, just his way of finding it. Faced with his brother’s mortality, followed swiftly by his own, he wanted only to be remembered as a great poet. Ideally the way he would have become one was through Negative Capability, yet he doubted his own abilities in achieving the concept that he had created. Instead he found a medium; one who can exist “partly on sensation, partly on thought.” It was less that Negative Capability “was not enough for Keats”, it was that Keats could not picture himself, a man of “middling intellect” achieving it; therefore he could not.

Lucy Tutton graduated in July 2014 with a degree in EnglishLucy T Literature from the University of Birmingham, during which time she studied Shakespeare, Victorian Literature and Metaphysical Poetry. She wrote her final year Research Project on the subject of Keatsian Negative Capability.
She currently works as an Academic Coach in English Literature and Language. She will return to University in September 2015 to begin a Masters degree in Literature and Culture where she intends to undertake modules in Victorian, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite Literature.