The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period

The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period

The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period

The Blind and Blindness in Literature of the Romantic Period

Synopsis

In the first full-length literary-historical study of its subject, Edward Larrissy examines the philosophical and literary background to representations of blindness and the blind in the Romantic period. In detailed studies of literary works he goes on to show how the topic is central to an understanding of British and Irish Romantic literature. While he considers the influence of Milton and the 'Ossian' poems, as well as of philosophers, including Locke, Diderot, Berkeley and Thomas Reid, much of the book is taken up with new readings of writers of the period. These include canonical authors such as Blake, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Keats and Percy and Mary Shelley, as well as less well-known writers such as Charlotte Brooke and Ann Batten Cristall. There is also a chapter on the popular genre of improving tales for children by writers such as Barbara Hofland and Mary Sherwood. Larrissy finds that, despite the nostalgia for a bardic age of inward vision, the chief emphasis in the period is on the compensations of enhanced sensitivity to music and words. This compensation becomes associated with the loss and gain involved in the modernity of a post-bardic age. Representations of blindness and the blind are found to elucidate a tension at the heart of the Romantic period, between the desire for immediacy of vision on the one hand and, on the other, the historical self-consciousness which always attends it. Key Features
• Original research on an important, previously unexamined topic which will extend knowledge and understanding of the period
• Provides new readings of major authors and texts including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, Bryon and Shelley and Mary Shelley
• Examines non-canonical texts including tales for children
• Makes a distinctive contribution to debate about Romantic understanding of history

Excerpt

For many writers of the Romantic period, the blind are necessarily associated with the idea of intense inward vision. Homer, Ossian and Milton provide obvious models. The age that became so fascinated by the bardic past was also fascinated in particular by the blind bard. Yet it understood that phenomenon as an historical one. Such visions were appropriate to an earlier age: they had to give way to the abstraction, organisation and commerce of modernity. This very course of events had been foretold by the blind bard who sang ‘Rule Britannia’ in Mallett and Thomson's Alfred: A Masque (1740), an anthem in which he foresaw Britain's future commercial prosperity. Ann Batten Cristall constructs an historical account of visionary blindness from such postulates.

Yet in the Enlightenment, the blind, who are the subject of intense philosophical scrutiny, are shown to be very capable, despite the bars to sympathy and empirical learning which make them such tempting test cases. Some of the popular moral tales in which they figure make this point in a quite prosaic manner, which is nonetheless very instructive about the role they play in more polite literature. Most of all, though, they are thought to enjoy the compensations of enhanced sensitivity to music and to words. This compensation becomes associated with the loss and gain inherent in the modernity of a post-bardic age. In particular, poets may learn to value such mastery of sound and association and find a richness in these which compensates for, and even surpasses, the lost intensity of inner vision. Such was Milton's power. Indeed, it is in words and their associations that one can convey a fullness of understanding without historical precedent. Representations of blindness and the blind elucidate a tension at the heart of the Romantic period, between the desire for immediacy of vision on the one hand, and, on the other, the historical self-consciousness which always attends it.

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