Letitia Landon and Romantic Hellenism

Article excerpt

  "Wordsworth is a poet that even Plato might have admitted into his
  republic. He is the most passionless of writers. Like the noblest
  creations of Grecian sculpture, the divinity is shown by divine
  repose" (Landon, Letters, 145).

In this excerpt from a letter, Letitia Landon compliments Wordsworth by rephrasing his own concept of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility." Although the sentiment is familiar, she places Wordsworth in an unconventional context, the discourse of Romantic Hellenism, along with Plato and the Apollo Belvedere. An ambitious footnote to the quotation might name some of the preeminent German Hellenists of the eighteenth century. For instance, "divine repose" echoes Johann Winckelmann's observations on the sedate emotionality of Grecian art, (1) while merging of statuary with philosophy and poetry recalls A.W. Schlegel's lectures on Greek drama and sculpture. These authors make strange companions for Wordsworth, who seldom expressed an interest in Greek subject-matter or aesthetics. For the critical discussion of Romantic Hellenism, the quote reveals more about Landon than Wordsworth.

Like Mary Robinson, Landon cultivated a lyrical persona on the model of Sappho, through which she fed the public's appetite for tragic femininity. Like Lucy Aikin, she developed a keen understanding of ancient history, especially the social history of women. And like Felicia Hemans, her contemporary, she distrusted the martial values promoted in the Greek and Roman classics that she read in translation. These similarities notwithstanding, Landon's Hellenism differed from that of Robinson, Aikin, and Hemans, in its variety and reflexivity. Her collected works include more than thirty poems involving ancient Greek mythology, literature, or history. These poems cover a range of topics and attitudes, from the anxieties of motherhood during the Persian War ("Eucles Announcing the Victory at Marathon"), to a rallying cry for modern Greek liberation ("Greek Song"). Throughout this diverse collection, most of which appeared under the signature "L.E.L." in the 1830s, Landon maintained an interest in both the Hellenist aesthetic, and the work of cultural memory it entailed. Her Hellenism was hesitant and introspective, uneasy with the idea of Greece it promoted. In an exemplary poem, "The Thessalian Fountain," she at first invokes the topoi of Romantic Hellenism, and then dismisses them as disingenuous, outmoded themes. She manipulates Hellenist themes in order to disturb the narrative from which she derived them, and in "The Thessalian Fountain" she takes issue with the sexual politics of neoclassicism in particular. Challenging Hellenism as a masculine movement, unsympathetic to women, the poem demonstrates how women writers could engage with and undermine it as an authoritative frame of reference, and an aesthetic response to history.

Landon's critique of Hellenism from a feminist perspective extended the contemporary cultural revision. English Romantic Hellenism was a "primitivist fiction" that disregarded the "authentic native classical history" of Roman Britain (Gaull 16; 17). The circulation of Hellenist themes in any number of aesthetic genres (architecture, cookery, home furnishings, etc) signaled not the invasion of a verifiably Greek culture, but rather the evasion of a British imperial history--a history written by the Roman conquerors, not the native Britons. If Romantic artists groaned under the hegemonic weight of the Greek legacy, still, this was a self-imposed burden, one of their own invention, and one that freed them from a confrontation with the remnants of a darker classical past that was literally at their feet (Gaull 17). The result was a Hellenism with little historical or textual basis, creatively and materially dependent on the forces of modernity its proponents claimed to circumvent. "The Thessalian Fountain" participates in a stigmatizing of Hellenism: in a candid but subversive expression of its tropes, Landon reproaches the idea of ancient Greece as nothing more than modern intellectual property. …