Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass, Eds., Dante and Italy in British Romanticism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass, Eds., Dante and Italy in British Romanticism

Article excerpt

Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass, eds., Dante and Italy in British Romanticism

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), x + 258 $84.00

Dante and Italy in British Romanticism , edited by Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass, joins those studies of Dante in British Romanticism have been appearing quite regularly in recent years--notably Edoardo Crisafulli's 2004 study of the Cary translation). Several have stretched the period: Dante in the Nineteenth Century, for example, edited by Nick Havely (2011) and Dante in the Long Nineteenth Century: Nationality, Identity and Appropriation (2012), edited by Havely and Aida Audeh. This emphasis corresponds to the critical interest in links between Romantic and post-Romantic literatures. Within Dante studies, particularly, it reflects the influence of Alison Milbank's ground-breaking work, Dante and the Victorians (1999; reprinted 2009). Similarly, the role(s) of Italy in British Romanticism have been a focus of recent study--by Arnold Schmidt, for instance, who considers Byron's involvement in Italian nationalism (2010), and by Maria Schoina in connection with the Anglo-Italians of the Pisan Circle (2009). It is, however, less common to find the two subject-areas combined, as they are in this rich collection of essays.

The collection originates in a symposium sponsored by the Romualdo del Bianco Foundation of Florence, Italy. The breadth of the title might be taken as a sign of disparate conference materials gathered together for convenience under a large and loose umbrella. "And", though, may be restrictive as well as expansive. The book possesses the breadth as well as the focus; some of the best insights come from considering the centre of the Venn diagram: to the role Dante played in British Romantic period perceptions of Italy and vice versa--to the impact of Italy (its historical situation, its cultural stereotypes, its landscapes, and assumptions about its language) on understanding Dante and his poetry.

Bruce Graver, for example, reveals how Wordsworth's Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837 (1842) revolves around the question whether or not Wordsworth should seat himself in "il Sasso di Dante," a large stone just outside Florence cathedral where, according to legend, Dante sat. Wordsworth feels unworthy as a poet to fill "that empty Throne" but as a patriot, sharing Dante's dream of a united Italy, he feels he may do so and perhaps, to show common cause, that he should. Similarly, Marilyn Gaull assesses the many ways in which Wordsworth encountered Italy--through his reading and translating, through tours in Europe, through the increasing number of Italian emigres in England, and, at one remove, through the Roman remains scattered across England's northern counties. Gaull points out that Wordsworth's 1842 volume contained, alongside the Memorials of a Tour poems, major early works--The Borderers (1796) and Guilt and Sorrow, a revised version of his "Adventures on Salisbury Plain" (1793-4)--and makes the fascinating proposal that this juxtaposition is not accidental or contingent but deliberate and designed. From this, Gaull argues that Wordsworth found in Italy a nation steeped in Dante and his Catholic theology of damnation; his early poems offer a different response to the mystery of human evil and, by induing them, Wordsworth could offer "a rebuke to Dante and his theology" (26).

Gaull's expert alertness to the range of Wordsworth's Italian reading (his translations from Chiabrera and Boiardo, for example) is paralleled by Peter Cochran's knowledgeable, and too sketchy account of Byron's response to Alfieri. Nicholas Halmi, in a similar vein, draws attention to Byron's indebtedness to Tasso and Ariosto, as well as Pulci, Cash and John Hookham Frere, when he was developing Don Juan. Angela Esterhammer shows how important and prevalent "improvisation" was in 1820s London, how connected with touring Italians, both male and female, and how Coleridge recognised himself and his ambitions as a Romantic poet in the spontaneity of the improvisator, whose performance creates a "wonderful 'freshness of Sensation' that endows 'old and familiar Objects' with 'Novelty'"(157). …

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