Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge's "The Improvisatore": Poetry, Performance, and Remediation

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Coleridge's "The Improvisatore": Poetry, Performance, and Remediation

Article excerpt

The oral improvisation of poetry, a long-standing tradition in Italy and other Mediterranean cultures, became widely known across Europe during the early 19th century. In Italy, the male improvvisatore had a history going back at least to the Renaissance, and by the 18th century female improvisers or improvvisatrici were not uncommon. During the Romantic period, especially when the end of the Napoleonic Wars brought about an increase in international mobility, visitors to Italy regularly witnessed performances of orally improvised poetry in venues ranging from marketplaces to salons and theatres; responses to these performances can be found in the writings of well-known and lesser-known tourists and expatriates, among them Goethe, Byron, the Shelleys, and Madame de Stael. As descriptions of real-life improvvisatori and improvvisatrici appeared in travel literature and as Romantic poems like Byron's Beppo or Don Juan adopted some of the characteristics of improvisation, fictionalized representations of improvisers also began to feature with increasing frequency in 19th century literature. Parallel to this textually mediated reception, another channel of communication was opened up by improvvisatori who (ravelled and performed outside of Italy. As touring performers adapt to local conditions, these on-the-spot performances in cities such as Paris, Berlin, and London generate interesting variations on the traditional format according to which the improviser composed verses spontaneously on topics proposed by audience members, often in a specified genre, metre, or rhyme scheme.

The rise and decline of poetic improvisation as a mode of performance can be traced with some precision based on schedules of tours and reports of performances, the density of coverage in the periodical press, and the frequency with which improvisers appear in literature and visual art. By these measures, the popularity of improvvisatori in England peaked in the mid-1820s. But the sources that make it possible to identify this historical trend simultaneously reveal the wide-ranging thematic resonances of the improvisational mode. Improvisational composition and performance turns out to be an apt paradigm for the 1820s as an era of transition, rapid communication, self-conscious theatricality, and experimentation with new media such as literary-cultural magazines that respond nimbly--just as improvisers do--to the demands of audiences and markets. Perhaps recognizing its affinity with extemporizing performers, the 1820s periodical press provides avid coverage of their activities; literary magazines and newspapers struggle to find effective ways of advertising, reviewing, documenting, disseminating, and giving some permanence to the ephemeral experience of live improvised performance. Poetic improvisation, which in the 19th century always has an anomalous medial status as an oral form of poetry embedded in an age of print, thus brings about reflections on the relations between spectatorship and reading, immediacy and deferral, ephemerality and permanence, and the kinds and degrees of interaction that occur between writer or performer and readership or audience. Many of these reflections converge in Coleridge's intriguing though little-known late text "The Improvisatore." By contextualizing it within the experience and reception of improvised poetry in 1820s London, I want to suggest that this enigmatic text brings into focus the issues and anxieties surrounding the status of poetry within the rapidly evolving print and performance culture of late Romanticism.

During the post-Waterloo era, numerous Italian poets and improvvisatori travelled abroad for political as well as professional reasons; in many cases they were compelled to flee repercussions for their actual or suspected involvement in revolutionary activities. Several members of the Italian diaspora who took refuge in London attempted to continue their literary activities and build a reputation among the English public as well as the Italian expatriate community by serving as "Italian correspondents" for literary magazines, offering university courses and public lectures on Italian literature and history, and, in some cases, displaying their abilities as improvisers. …

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