Slavery and the Romantic Imagination

Slavery and the Romantic Imagination

Slavery and the Romantic Imagination

Slavery and the Romantic Imagination


Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title

The Romantic movement had profound social implications for nineteenth-century British culture. Among the most significant, Debbie Lee contends, was the change it wrought to insular Britons' ability to distance themselves from the brutalities of chattel slavery. In the broadest sense, she asks what the relationship is between the artist and the most hideous crimes of his or her era. In dealing with the Romantic period, this question becomes more specific: what is the relationship between the nation's greatest writers and the epic violence of slavery? In answer, Slavery and the Romantic Imagination provides a fully historicized and theorized account of the intimate relationship between slavery, African exploration, "the Romantic imagination," and the literary works produced by this conjunction.

Though the topics of race, slavery, exploration, and empire have come to shape literary criticism and cultural studies over the past two decades, slavery has, surprisingly, not been widely examined in the most iconic literary texts of nineteenth-century Britain, even though emancipation efforts coincide almost exactly with the Romantic movement. This study opens up new perspectives on Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, and Mary Prince by setting their works in the context of political writings, antislavery literature, medicinal tracts, travel writings, cartography, ethnographic treatises, parliamentary records, philosophical papers, and iconography.


I have always been fascinated by the idea that the Romantic imagination can reveal things hidden to the naked eye. So when I began this study I wondered what the imagination revealed about slavery, which was not hidden in the culture but seemed to be missing from the era’s most powerful poetry. Since slavery was the great moral question of the age and Romanticism the great aesthetic development, it seemed logical to set these two movements side by side. But I soon became acutely aware of the violence in doing so. What did women forced into rooms that smelled of rape and men burned alive after frenzied revolts have to do with Romantic writers’ long hours of peaceful reflection and protected moments of rural retreat? Even when I thought of the Romantic imagination as a purely political construct, the fact that its politics were often contained in poems about Grecian urns or ruined cottages or magical lands like Xanadu made me wonder just what imagination could say about slavery. To put the Romantic imagination in close proximity to the horrifying details of slavery seemed plain wrong.

Still, the more I read from the period’s discourses on slavery in parliamentary papers, travel narratives, medical tracts, abolitionist poetry, and slave narratives, the more I began to see signs of slavery in imaginative works. This was especially true of works that had come to be thought of as direct products of the Romantic imagination because they were in some way about the imagination, works such as the Lyrical Ballads, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Lamia, “The Witch of Atlas,” and Frankenstein. How, I wondered, would someone characterize these works about imagination as being also works about slavery?

Fortunately, because other scholars were asking similar questions, a shared critical language began to emerge, with some of the most exciting work coming from Srinivas Aravamudan, Alan Bewell, Elizabeth Bohls, Laura Brown, David Dabydeen, Markman Ellis, Moira Ferguson, Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson, Nigel Leask, Saree Makdisi, Javed Majeed, Timothy Morton, Felicity Nussbaum, Mary Louise Pratt, and Alan Richardson. These scholars, and others like them, take their critical language from both history and current postcolonial theory . . .

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