Shelley's Eye: Travel Writing and Aesthetic Vision

By Bradley, Arthur | The Byron Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Shelley's Eye: Travel Writing and Aesthetic Vision


Bradley, Arthur, The Byron Journal


SHELLEY'S EYE: TRAVEL WRITING AND AESTHETIC VISION. By Benjamin Colbert. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. Pp. ix + 259. ISBN: 0 7546 0485 3. £45.00.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was just one of the many sightseers who poured into Europe after Napoleon's 1814 defeat, and his nomadic wanderings throughout the continent in the ensuing years might even be seen as a kind of extended Grand Tour. It might be disconcerting to think of the great poet as a mere tourist, but, strangely enough, he does exhibit some of the familiar vices of the foreign holiday-maker. On the one hand, he is inclined towards faintly embarrassing professions of love for countries of which he knows little: 'We are all Greeks', 'Thou paradise of exiles, Italy!'. On the other, he has an unfortunate tendency to bad-mouth the locals (Italians are described as 'odious' in an 1818 letter to Hogg), to look down his nose at other tourists and to surround himself with English ex-pats. More seriously, we might say that Shelley's travel writings also share the impossible dream of tourists everywhere, namely to experience something authentically foreign: the 'real' France or Italy where the tourists supposedly never go. In Benjamin Colbert's thoughtful study, it is precisely this quest for an authentic vision of Europe that characterises 'Shelley's eye'.

Colbert offers the first major analysis of Shelley's travel writings - particularly the neglected History of a Six Weeks' Tour - as well as the poet's extensive reading of contemporary travel literature. As the scope of his book makes clear, however, this is no mere travelogue but a far more ambitious attempt to situate the poet's own writings on travel within the context of travel and touristic discourse more widely. It is Colbert's thesis that Shelley's travel writings are carefully positioned between two competing visions of European travel as the Napoleonic Wars ended and the era of mass tourism began. On the one side, they valorise European travel as the means for recovering a civilised or cultivated poetic subjectivity in the post-revolutionary age. On the other, they distance themselves from the populist tourist aesthetic that enabled the more prosaic classes to experience continental travel for the first time. Perhaps more ambitiously, Colbert argues that Shelley's travel literature also participates in contemporary philosophical debates about aesthetics and perception: 'Shelley's eye' signifies the way in which all perception and expression - not simply aesthetic or touristic discourse - is implicated in the cultural conditioning of the age. For Colbert, Shelley's visionary travel poetry constantly seeks an 'alternative cultural space for authentic aesthetic vision' which squares the circle of aesthetic detachment and cultural and political locatedness.

It must be said that this is a serious and exhaustively researched book that will be of obvious interest to anyone working in the field of Romantic travel writing. As the voluminous footnotes indicate, Colbert is immersed not only in Shelley's own travel writing but Romantic travel writing more generally and he uncovers some genuinely fresh material on such figures as Birkbeck, Eaton and Eustace in what is increasingly well-trodden ground. More impressively still, this is an ambitious and interdisciplinary study that constantly seeks to link the metaphor of the European Grand Tour to the main currencies of Romantic thought from Rousseau and Burke to Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth and Byron. Yet this attempt to demonstrate the applicability of Shelley's travel writing and travel discourse more generally to wider Romantic questions of poetics, aesthetics and politics yields mixed results.

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