Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Absorbing Hesitation: Wordsworth and the Theory of the Panorama

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Absorbing Hesitation: Wordsworth and the Theory of the Panorama

Article excerpt

I. Sublimity, Virtuality, Materiality

THERE HAS BEEN A NOTICEABLE PREOCCUPATION, EVEN FASCINATION, with the panorama in romantic studies. (1) At the heart of this essay is the claim that the reason we continue to be so fascinated by the specter of the romantic-era panorama is that we are still caught in a romantic dilemma. The panorama compels us to confront a fundamental question of avant-garde aesthetics: what distance (or not) should art assume towards casual (mass, commercial, idiotic) enjoyment? Furthermore, the aesthetic debates unleashed by the panorama survive and even thrive in our own new media technology, virtual reality. The outpouring of responses of British romantic-era commentators to the new representation technologies that emerged in the 1790s, responses which oscillate between the poles of exuberance and horror, mirror the contemporary discourse of virtual reality both in terms of the respective new technologies' relationship to established modes, particularly literature, and in terms of the sheer extent of their powers. At both historical moments the question becomes, do new representation technologies transcend the aesthetic and become the real? The ways in which the aggregate of the idea of the panorama (emergent in England in the 1790s) and of virtuality (a late-twentieth century idea with global implications which may be said to be the latest incarnation of panoramic aesthetics) identify and perpetuate romantic positionings vis-a-vis casual enjoyment, particularly as casual enjoyment relates to mimetic representation, are my central concern here.

The sublime is implicated in this set of issues in multiple ways. First, the idea of the panorama evolved into a powerful foil of the romantic sublime within the context of romantic-era discourse, and this dichotomy continues to influence criticism and thought about both the panorama and the sublime of the period. Significantly, it was slow to take form and actually emerged out of a discourse that tended to understand the idioms of the panoramic and the sublime as intimately connected rather than quintessentially different. Indeed, the terms seem to have been, for a length of time, entirely interchangeable. Technically speaking, the term panorama refers to a 360-degree painting patented by Englishman Robert Barker in 1787 and first executed by him in 1792. (2) However, a recent historian of the panorama confirms that "the use of the word 'panorama' in a broad or metaphoric sense seems to have begun almost simultaneously with the invention of the technological term" (Oettermann 6). As such, the term "panoramic" was applied to all manner of art works in all manner of media, from print to song to dramatic performance to paint. (3) The term became ubiquitous--what was "panoramic" was also understood to be "sublime"--most often by virtue of the given art work's aesthetic power (to move its reader/viewer/listener) or its size (exceptionally large and diminutive alike). As such, romantic-era writers applied the term panoramic to works as diverse as a journal which called itself the Literary Panorama, to Robert Southey's poetry, notably Kehama; (4) Schiller's dramas; Italian opera, particularly the voices of castrati singers, who continued to perform in London well into the nineteenth century; and visual representations as diverse as John Martin's paintings and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg's miniature moving light-and-sound show, the Eidophusikon, all of which were also understood explicitly to draw on the aesthetic of the sublime. The drive for disassociation of the terms panoramic and sublime was thus not initiated until well after critical discourse had become comfortable with their proximity to one another and even their synonymy. It was not until Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb introduced the term "material sublime" that this relationship began to shift. (5) The term material sublime was deployed precisely to undo the proximity that had developed and to make the case that the panoramic and the sublime are not only essentially unlike, but that the former is actually the antithesis of the latter. …

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