Shelley's Wrinkled Lip, Smith's Gigantic Leg

By Logan, William | Parnassus : Poetry in Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Shelley's Wrinkled Lip, Smith's Gigantic Leg


Logan, William, Parnassus : Poetry in Review


The later Romantics were the first generation of British poets - perhaps the first generation of poets anywhere - to find their poems while contemplating remnants of the ancient world. This interest in the past, in the pastness of the past, infused the Romantic sublime, for there is nothing more useful in contemplating mortality than a vine-covered ruin. If you wanted your own ruin and had the means, your masons could build what was called a folly, the counterfeit remains of abbey or castle (Byron might have indulged himself, had he not been Byron - in any case, his ancestral home had been built next to the ruins of an ancient abbey). If you were without means, however, if you could not afford the Grand Tour, you had to take your inspiration from books, as Keats did in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Or you had to visit museums.

England was not always the warehouse of empire. When it opened in 1759, the British Museum contained few antiquities amid thousands of books, stuffed animals, and dried plants. It wasn't until die 1780s diat the museum began to acquire Brobdingnagian fragments like the colossal sandaled foot found near Naples and purchased from William Hamilton. Among the wrack of vanished civilizations were sky-scraping heroic statues, often preserved in mutilated form. These statues were a particular curiosity to the British, who could offer, as massive fragments of antique civilization, not much more than an earthen dike or two, some lengths of Roman wall, and Stonehenge. Articles about these statues and other objects from the Near East filled the reviews of the day and drove the public to the museum, sometimes in eager anticipation of the objects to come.

The older Romantics, however much they loved books (we owe our deepest knowledge of Coleridge's imagination to his marginal scrawls - if he returned a book he had borrowed, it was defaced with his genius), depended on the close observation of nature. Wordsworth hated the city and couldn't wait to escape it - in his devious sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge," he looked upon London as if it were another landscape. When he hiked above Tintern Abbey, he was more interested in the hills and cataracts than in the abbey's vanished majesties - the roofless stones famously make no direct appearance in the poem. This is not to say that Wordsworth and Coleridge failed to hold ruins in due Romantic reverence - fallen walls litter their work, but they are largely local. The second generation of Romantics, who in the main preferred city life, were drawn to ruins far-flung - perhaps their fascination was derived partly from the discoveries made during the Napoleonic wars. (Byron's use of Greek ruins in the early cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage [1812] may have been crucial for thinking of ruins in political terms.) These later Romantics were not counterfeiting antique poetry, like Chatterton or Macpherson, nor like the Elizabethans dramatizing twice-told tales of Caesar, or Sejanus, or Tamburlaine. The monumental past was newly available in journal and book and museum, as well as by travel - and poets were quick to make use of it.

We think of the Romantics as the embodiment of imagination, not fancy; of the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," as Wordsworth had it, not cautious artifice; of "incidents and situations from common life," not gossip of dead kings. Yet in some ways the Romantics were just as much in love with artifice as the Augustans before them. Inspiration cannot derive mystically from nature if it can be had on demand, from a tap; but some of the Romantics, as a kind of parlor trick, loved to write when inspiration was forced. Think of that gloomy evening on Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816 - the notorious Year Without a Summer. The company having diverted itself with a book of supernatural tales, Byron (for he was the host) proposed that each write a ghost story. They pottered about in prose - John William Polidori writing about a "skull-headed lady" - but eventually gave up the task. …

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