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date: 04 April 2020

Continental Romanticism in Britain

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues on the basis of several constellations of writers that British Romanticism, far from being Europhobic, drew strength from direct contact with Continental sources. The term ‘romantic’ itself, as contrasted with ‘classical’, gained a new inflection through the Schlegel brothers’ works. In Weimar in 1804, Henry Crabb Robinson presented lectures on German aesthetics to Germaine de Staël, whose work then popularized the notion of aesthetic autonomy in Britain, paving the way for the reception of A. W. Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Friedrich Schlegel’s Lectures on the History of Literature, meanwhile, informed a nationalist approach to literature through J. G. Lockhart’s translation. Italophile writers, by contrast, resisted this northern style of Romanticism. Not only Shelley and Leigh Hunt, but also Byron, who had contact with the Italian exile Ugo Foscolo, came to regard Dante as a model for political renovation after the Napoleonic Wars.

Keywords: constellation, Romantic, classical, Continent, aesthetic autonomy, nationalism, cosmopolitanism

This chapter considers how Romantic debates on the function of literature and the nature of criticism were shaped by direct contact with European writers and their work. I begin with the term ‘romantic’ itself and its contemporary definition as a polar opposite of the ‘classical’, then trace how this distinction emerged in conflicting views about the freedom or instrumentality of art. The examples I sketch will indicate that British Romanticism, far from being a purely ‘Europhobic’ phenomenon as it is sometimes labelled, drew strength at every stage from the literature and philosophy of Continental Europe. Nevertheless, one of the results of amalgamated German and French influence was a reinforcement of literary nationalism, especially after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

Writing in 1820 on the topic of drama, William Hazlitt declared: ‘The age we live in is critical, didactic, paradoxical, romantic’.1 The comment foreshadows Hazlitt’s subsequent work The Spirit of the Age (1825), the title of which echoes the German term Zeitgeist—and indeed the four adjectives Hazlitt selects archly align the British literary scene with (perceived) tendencies on the European continent, especially Germany. A universally ‘critical’ approach, originally associated with the three Critiques of Immanuel Kant, was the aspiration of the Romantic-period review periodicals, credit for which Hazlitt justly assigned to one particular pioneer in mediating and translating German work, William Taylor of Norwich.2 The new German literary historiography, as we will see, could appear to provide a ‘didactic’ view of aesthetic education, while a spirit of ‘paradox’ was what Hazlitt himself had identified in the most prominent of (p. 692) those literary historians, August Wilhelm Schlegel, whose taste in poetry seemed systematically ‘the reverse of the popular’. All these tendencies of the age are gathered in the vague yet resonant term ‘romantic’.

But what does Hazlitt mean by ‘romantic’? He provides an explanation in his 1816 review of Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, in which he addresses ‘the nucleus of the prevailing system of German criticism’: the contrast between ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ art. In Schlegel’s presentation the reviewer finds ‘a singular mixture of learning, acuteness and mysticism’. Hazlitt expounds the key distinction in his own terms, employing the language of British associationist psychology and using familiar images to connect the ‘classical’ with ancient and the ‘romantic’ with medieval and modern art:

The most obvious distinction between the two styles, the classical and the romantic, is, that the one is conversant with objects that are grand or beautiful in themselves, or in consequence of obvious and universal associations; the other, with those that are interesting only by the force of circumstances and imagination. A Grecian temple, for instance, is a classical object; it is beautiful in itself, and excites immediate admiration. But the ruins of a Gothic castle have no beauty or symmetry to attract the eye; and yet they excite a more powerful and romantic interest from the ideas with which they are habitually associated.3

In keeping with his association of the ‘romantic’ with sublimity, Hazlitt adds that its further characteristics include ‘pleasing horror’, along with ‘passion and imagination’. The manner in which Hazlitt appropriates the romantic-classic distinction is exemplary for the importation of literary-critical ideas from Germany, France, and Italy in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Although Hazlitt, as his sometime friend Henry Crabb Robinson recognized, evinces a ‘kindred spirit’ with Schlegel, what he performs is not a neutral act of mediation, but a rewriting informed by national stereotypes: he asserts that the Germans, being ‘naturally a slow, heavy people’, require interpreters who display greater ‘ease, quickness and flexibility’.4 Hazlitt thus advertises his transfer of the idea of the ‘romantic’ from a German into an English idiom.

Further, the term ‘romantic’, though here taken from a German author, was not so much a new import as a repatriated export. Ultimately of Latinate French derivation, the epithets ‘romanesque’ and ‘romantisch’ gained popularity only in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the fashion for the English garden spread to France and Germany.5 Friedrich Schlegel, who indicated that ‘our German criticism certainly received its first impulse from the study of the English works of Harris, Home, Hurd, (p. 693) Watson, &c’,6 retained much of the older (medieval) sense of ‘romance’ in his manifesto for ‘romantic poetry’—though his definition of it in ‘Athenaeum-Fragment’ 116 (1798) as ‘a progressive, universal poetry’ also launched a modern literary programme. It was only when A. W. Schlegel, drawing on his brother’s ideas, established the distinction between classical and romantic that the latter term properly re-entered British critical discourse.

Hazlitt’s use of the term ‘romantic’ also points to a terminological stumbling block that brings in its wake more substantial questions of method for the modern scholar. ‘Continental Romanticism’ is in two senses admittedly a misnomer. First, few writers of this period designated themselves ‘Romantics’, despite the widespread use of cognate terms to describe both great works of the past and present-day ideals. As a label for a literary movement, ‘romantic’ was a hostile epithet bestowed in polemic against the Schlegels in 1807–8; it was only much later that literary historians such as Rudolf Haym (in Die romantische Schule [The Romantic School], 1870) employed it with a neutral or favourable connotation.7 Moreover, notwithstanding the synthesizing efforts of such later nineteenth-century historiographers, there was by no means a unified Romantic movement throughout Europe. Not only is Romanticism in France and Italy generally considered to begin only with the controversy surrounding the romantic-classic distinction, some twenty years after the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, but the views and practices of writers nowadays termed ‘Romantic’ are often irreconcilable with one other. In emphasizing the diversity of Romanticism(s), Christoph Bode thus observes that some Romantics ‘were politically progressive and others reactionary; some were internationalist and cosmopolitan, others fiercely nationalistic; some of them believed in the Enlightenment project of rational perfectibility, while others opposed it’—and such polarities even occur as different phases in the careers of individual writers.8 Bode argues that the very heterogeneity of Romantic writing is—paradoxically—its unifying characteristic, and, as such, that we best approach it via the concept of ‘family likenesses’: even in the absence of a single common denominator, one Romantic writer may display a characteristic that overlaps with another, who in turns shares a different characteristic with another Romantic, and so on. Though a helpful tool that frees a purely comparatist criticism from narrow assumptions about the nature of Romanticism, however, the model of family likenesses does not provide a framework within which to explore direct communication between different writers in Romantic-period Europe. We will still wish to enquire what was the intellectual effect of travel, translations, and reviews, as well as of informal contacts through letters, private conversations, marginalia, and manuscript exchange?

(p. 694) Some recent work on Continental influences on British Romanticism leaves the impression that such interaction was purely confrontational. According to Peter Mortensen’s New Historicist analysis, British Romanticism was ‘Europhobic’: in his view, Romantic writers duplicitously confirmed popular prejudice against the dangers of Continental culture even as they plundered its literary techniques and topics, often in the service of a conservative ideology.9 For instance, Wordsworth, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), inveighed against the vitiation of public taste by ‘sickly and stupid German Tragedies’, while he nevertheless borrowed both plot and rhythms from the German ballad-writer Gottfried August Bürger in poems such as ‘Hart-Leap Well’.10 It is true that hostile critics such as Francis Jeffrey triumphantly asserted affinities between the Lake School and a ‘German’ revolutionary or anarchic sensibility.11 Yet the sensational label ‘Europhobic’ remains very one-sided, obscuring the extent to which shared intellectual activity occurred.

A more fruitful concept with which to examine the literary-critical crosscurrents of this period is that of the ‘constellation’. This term, which has informed Dieter Henrich’s reconstructions of post-Kantian philosophical debates, may be extended to wider networks of European writing. A constellation is ‘a small creative group of persons in face-to-face contact or at least in correspondence with each other. Through their interchange emerge theories, which could not be understood by looking only at the development of the members of the group separately.’12 In what follows, I consider from the British perspective some results of the most important constellations of British, German, French, and Italian writers: in the earlier generation Henry Crabb Robinson, Madame de Staël, Benjamin Constant, and the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Friedrich; in the next generation Lord Byron, John Cam Hobhouse, Ugo Foscolo, and the Shelleys; and then Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt. These choices of focus do not diminish Coleridge’s role as a mediator and interpreter of Continental and especially German ideas (on which, see Tim Milnes, Chapter 38 in this volume), but serve to illustrate that Coleridge was not alone or unique in his interests. These writers, through their interactions, produced views of art that relate closely to what Hazlitt—himself a more isolated figure thanks to his stubborn pro-Bonapartism—identified as central to the spirit of the age: the paradoxical coexistence of the ‘didactic’ and the ‘romantic’. In other words, the debate revolves around (to borrow the more modern terms of David Duff) the dialectic (p. 695) between two basic views: that art should be ‘instrumentalized’ for moral ends, and that it is essentially free and an expression of liberty. As befits a dialectic, these positions do not remain polar opposites but continually push towards a third idea: that of the indirect instrumentality of literary art.13 The flexible critical model of the constellation enables us to account for the fashioning of European Romantic literature and criticism in terms of the political scenes in which these writers operated, and to show the great extent to which Continental ideas were constitutive for the evolution of what we now term ‘British Romanticism’.

The first of the literary constellations—Robinson, Staël, Constant, and subsequently the Schlegels—assembled by chance in Weimar, the unofficial literary capital of Germany, in 1804. It was the least well known of these writers who, for a brief period, occupied the key position in the evolution of critical ideas. When Henry Crabb Robinson, utilizing a modest inheritance, travelled to Germany in 1800, he pursued the education that, as a Dissenter who could not take a university degree, had been denied him in England. He soon embarked on a fashionable Bildungsreise in Saxony, probably inspired in part by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Robinson’s wandering was, however, intensely sociable, and his interests soon broadened through conversations with young advocates of the ‘new school’, as early Romanticism was then known in Germany.14 As the Englishman learnt, the early German Romantics were inspired by the philosophy of Kant, though unsatisfied by Kant’s modest restrictions on human knowledge. Rapidly improving his German, Robinson struggled through Kant’s Critiques, convinced that, for better or worse, Kantianism (in its broad sense) ‘will and must be the great ruling system’.15 To the astonishment of English friends accustomed to hear Kant disparaged as a mystagogic revolutionary, several months of this reading produced a profound change in Robinson: in April 1802 he declared that he had ‘converted’ from the philosophical empiricism associated with John Locke and Joseph Priestley to a new position, named ‘Kantianism’. Robinson’s response to German thought thus followed a similar pattern to that of Coleridge, who as a student at the University of Göttingen in 1798 reported that ‘all are Kantians whom I have met with’, and in 1801 composed Kant-inspired letters to challenge the philosophy of Locke.16 Both English writers felt the force of Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ in philosophy, which reversed the empiricist paradigm of the mind as a blank slate upon which objects impinge.17 Most importantly, Kant, in establishing that ‘the mind alone is formative’ (Hazlitt’s phrase), provided rigorous arguments for the freedom of the will as the basis for a practical (p. 696) affirmation of metaphysical principles that mere understanding cannot establish. This was the approach that Robinson took in his pioneering publications on the topic.18

Despite the efforts of Robinson and Coleridge, and the presence in London of an able proselyte in Friedrich Nitsch, the philosophy of Kant nevertheless entered British Romantic discourse slowly and indirectly. Augmenting the difficulty of Kant’s German (a full translation of the Critique of Pure Reason would not appear until 1838), the campaigns of the government-sponsored Anti-Jacobin and its successor the Anti-Jacobin Review against the importation of Continental culture were in this respect successful: Kant continued to be stigmatized as an atheistic revolutionary in the mould of the legendary Illuminati. It was a sign of the times that a periodical designed to diffuse German work, The German Museum, collapsed in only its second year of production, in 1803; while the Monthly Register, where Robinson published his ‘Letters on the Philosophy of Kant’, likewise had a truncated lifespan (1802–3).

Robinson’s immersion in German thought was nevertheless informally productive. When he matriculated at the University of Jena in October 1802, he studied the Naturphilosophie and philosophy of art taught by F. W. J. Schelling, a charismatic young lecturer associated with the Schlegels’ early German Romanticism. Although Robinson had brought primarily religious concerns to his study of German philosophy, eventually finding that (contrary to anti-Jacobin polemic) it effected ‘a sort of peace and union between it and religion’, his own literary ambitions gave him a special interest in the new discipline of aesthetics.19 This was why he found himself summoned in early 1804 to nearby Weimar, to provide tuition for Madame de Staël, who had arrived in this town as an exile from Napoleonic France, accompanied by the novelist and political writer Benjamin Constant. To assist her research for the book that would eventually become De l’Allemagne (‘On Germany’), Staël wished to be initiated into the ‘new’ aesthetics. The constellation Stäel–Constant–Robinson that now flourished was initially beset by national as well as gender stereotypes. When he first called on Staël, the Englishman was pleasurably shocked to find the ‘French lady’ ‘sitting most decorously in her bed’; she proceeded to ‘force’ him to prepare a series of private lectures. Echoing the collective judgement of the German literati about Staël, Robinson complained that ‘She has not the least sense for poetry and is incapable of thinking a philosophical thought.’20 The French visitors, meanwhile, mistakenly assumed Robinson to be a disciple of Schelling, and Constant tersely noted in his diary ‘l’absence de finesse des Anglais’ (the lack of refinement of the English). Following a propitiatory letter from Robinson to Staël, however, the meetings became tangibly more productive. An introductory presentation on Kant and another on Schelling prepared the way for Robinson’s final lecture, entitled ‘On the German Aesthetick or Philosophy of Taste’. This lecture pinpoints how Kantian philosophy paved the way to a new, romantic form of literature.

(p. 697) In recounting Kant’s controversial doctrine of the autonomy of aesthetic judgement—according to which beautiful objects such as works of fine art may symbolize moral concepts but cannot be determined by a moral purpose—Robinson enlivened his exposition with an allusion (to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) of the kind which delighted Staël:

The beautiful object must have in itself a form that intimates design, i.e. a harmony of parts propriety and fitness, a series of connections & dependencies, which being contemplated excite the Sense of Beauty, but it must not manifest in itself any precise & definite purpose—it must have no object out of itself.

Every definite purpose limits & chains the aesthetical feeling which must be free.N.B. This Result, which I have stated very loosely (in Kant it is left very obscure) has also led to many favourite doctrines of the modern Critics. That pure poetry & works of pure art must be judged of in this way is obvious—Art is like Jehovah a jealous God, or rather it may be said, that the Muses in their connection with the Artist, resemble Corporal Trim whose wound was dressed by a Nun—Trim was grateful & in truth in Love with the pious doctress—‘C’est tout pour l’amour de Jesus Christ’ said the Nun And that displeased the honest Corporal—‘I would rather it were for the Love of me, said Trim.’ ’tis so in respect the application of the Arts—The Artist must always have a subject & an interesting subject too but he must contrive to render the aesthetical Interest predominate [sic] over the material—he must make no poem or painting which is obviously produced ‘par l’amour de Jesus Christ’—21

Immediately after this lecture, Constant noted that Robinson’s work on Kant had contained ‘Idées très ingénieuses’ (very ingenious ideas), and entered a remarkable coinage in his diary: ‘l’art pour l’art, et sans but; tout but denature l’art: mais l’art atteint au but qu’il n’a pas’ (art for art’s sake, and without a purpose; all purpose distorts art; but art reaches the purpose it does not have).22 This usage of the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’ predates its first appearance in print by thirty years. Although commentators have usually assumed that the derivation of this ‘decadent’ slogan from the morally rigorous Kant must reflect a hopeless misunderstanding on the part of the foreign visitors to Weimar, the context of Robinson’s recently rediscovered lecture proves the contrary. In the above-quoted passage he correctly points out that the Kantian notion of aesthetic autonomy is ‘obscure’, and that its more radical formulations occur rather in the ‘modern Critics’, a reference perhaps primarily to Schelling, whose theories regarding the self-sufficiency of ancient mythology the group discussed at length.

Constant’s note on ‘l’art pour l’art’, suggested by Robinson’s interpretation of Kant, might appear the apex of a ‘free’, as opposed to ‘instrumentalist’, critical view of art. Yet attention to the rest of Constant’s sentence shows that he does not regard art for art’s sake as implying the renunciation of moral purpose. Instead, art ‘reaches’ the purpose that it does not ‘have’: the instrumentality of art is to be indirect, its effectiveness guaranteed (p. 698) precisely by the fact that it does not aim to be useful. There is further evidence of agreement on this topic. In the margin of Robinson’s lecture script, which Staël eventually brought back with her to her family seat at Coppet, near Geneva, she scribbled a note that reveals how she applied this thought to her own creative work: ‘delphine montre trop son but moral[;] la vie humaine est sans but evident’ (Delphine shows its moral purpose too much; human life is without an obvious purpose). In the light of the (post-)Kantian theory of aesthetic autonomy, Staël thus reflects that her own recent novel, Delphine (1802)—a work commonly viewed in England as an immoral onslaught on the sanctity of marriage—was too morally didactic.23 Again, Staël by no means denies the potential social utility of art, but her note suggests that such utility should not be overtly invoked, since human life itself does not have an obvious ‘purpose’. In place of didacticism, she now prefers Friedrich Schiller’s notion of the ‘play-drive’ (Spieltrieb). In response to Kant’s division of the human mind into different powers, Schiller had insisted instead that aesthetic play unites our faculties and makes us fully human.24 Thus, Staël’s marginal note continues: ‘Quand l’homme joue il vaut mieux que quand il agit’ (when man plays it is better than when he acts), a view consonant with Coleridge’s later assertion that pleasure is the only possible vehicle for a poet to ‘moralize his readers’.25 Staël, though never a revolutionary, was thus one of many Romantic authors who learned to renounce the hope of immediate political reform in favour of the ideal of a more gradual, moral amelioration. From the dialectical relationship between the traditional view that art should perform a directly moral function and the ‘romantic’ counter-argument that art should exist only for its own sake, there emerged a consensus that moral design should be impalpable: in the words of Thomas De Quincey, another author steeped in Continental sources, ‘not direct or explicit, but lurking, implicit, masked in deep incarnations’.26

Staël duly adjusted her technique in her next and greatest novel, Corinne, or, Italy (1807), in which the narrative dwells on aesthetic more than directly political matters. Received with great interest in Britain, not least due to its picturesque descriptions of ruins and other historical sites in Italy, as well as its depiction of an inspired improvisatrice, Corinne offered a compelling plot for war-torn Europe: as James Mackintosh pointed out in his review, ‘the difference of national character is the force that sets all in motion’.27 The frivolous French count d’Erfeuil, an unsuitable friend for the morally earnest Scotsman Lord Nelvil (Corinne’s beloved), embodies the cultural (p. 699) orientation that Staël was to attack in her next work, On Germany (1810). This ambitious four-volume survey formed a companion piece to Corinne in its focus on national character, and promoted the exportation of the ‘new’ German aesthetics. At a culminating point in her discussion of German philosophy, she articulates the principle that the whole book is designed to enforce: a clear purpose in a work of art ‘borne et gêne l’imagination’.28 This is a formulation that closely echoes the phrase from Robinson’s notes that she had annotated: ‘Every definite purpose limits & chains the aesthetical feeling which must be free.’29 The Weimar constellation of 1804 thus informed the subsequent ‘romantic’ challenge to an instrumentalist or ‘classicist’ view of art.

The chief influence on Staël’s work was, however, not Robinson but A. W. Schlegel, whom she had approached in Berlin in 1804 (on Robinson’s recommendation) and who had since then accompanied her in the role of travelling tutor to her son. On Germany proved an even greater success in England than any of the writings by the men in Staël’s circle, in part because she remained sufficiently independent from them to pursue her own agenda. Robinson and other readers who complained that she simplified the nuances and eradicated the conflicts of German thought failed to acknowledge the extent to which this was a deliberate policy to further her propagandist aim. For Staël aimed to contrast what she regarded as French superficiality with German depth, and accordingly On Germany establishes a contemplative hero in Immanuel Kant as a new model for Europe, to trump the martial force of Napoleon. Staël’s challenge to the literary tyranny of the neoclassical criticism institutionalized in France, then, is simultaneously a critique of the Napoleonic regime. Napoleon’s censors, recognizing Staël’s work as a direct threat, had the first edition of 1810 pulped; in 1813 Staël arrived in England and published the book with John Murray, utilizing the services of Robinson (by now qualified as a barrister) to negotiate the contract.30 The preface to the 1813 edition judiciously emphasizes the persecution Staël had suffered from Napoleon, an aspect calculated to recommend the work to English readers. A decade after its first vogue, in Francis Hodgson’s 1813 translation, Blackwood’s could still report in October 1823 that ‘Madame de Staël’s Germany is in every hand’. Indeed, On Germany became a standard authority on its topic—doubtless to the frustration of Coleridge, who complained of the diluted mediation of Kantian thought at the hands of ‘Reviewers and Frenchmen’.31

The success of On Germany, together with Staël’s social prominence during her stay in London, also paved the way for the reception of a major work by her long-term companion A. W. Schlegel: Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, a book that enjoyed pan-European fame. John Black, editor of the politically radical Morning Chronicle, (p. 700) translated it from German into English in 1815; the previous year, the work was translated into French by Albertine Necker de Saussure, Staël’s cousin; and an Italian version was made from the French in 1817. These translations both reflected and actively increased the extent to which a ‘romantic’ movement in Western Europe defined itself against a notionally preceding era of ‘classicism’. In elaborating and justifying a contemporary ideal, the ‘romantic’, Schlegel turned to works of the past for exemplification and inspiration. In Schlegel’s comprehensive history of European drama and literature, Shakespeare is presented as the romantic artist par excellence. Schlegel repudiated the older critical tendency to celebrate the beauties of Shakespeare’s plays while deploring the blemishes: he thus defended Shakespeare against the charges that he lacked learning and committed ignorant anachronisms. Crucial to Schlegel’s method was the ‘romantic’ notion of organic form, whereby all the parts of a work, however discordant they might appear if judged in isolation by predetermined rules of composition, contribute to the gradually emergent effect of the whole. This approach was consonant with the prototype version of ‘l’art pour l’art’ worked out by the Weimar constellation: the critic should judge a work of art according to its own inner purpose, rather than by measuring its individual details against the ‘moral’ standard erected by neoclassicist critics.

Schlegel conducts his discussion in highly nation-conscious terms: for instance, he laments the inability of English critics to understand the excellencies of their own greatest writer. As with the term ‘romantic’ itself, Shakespearean drama thus becomes a kind of repatriated export. But it is one of the paradoxes of the importation of ‘Continental Romanticism’ that it involved assimilating ultra-patriotic attitudes from a foreign source. German scholarship was enlisted to celebrate the achievements of English culture.32 Rivalries in the proper appreciation of Shakespeare and, by extension, of ‘romantic’ art, developed along both national and personal lines. In a typical manoeuvre to establish national hierarchies, Hazlitt declared that ‘I have done something (more than anyone except Schlegel) to vindicate the Characters of Shakespeare’s plays from the stigma of French criticism’, thus implicitly snubbing his rival London lecturer, Coleridge, whose detailed comments on the organic form of Shakespeare’s plays, and on the primacy of Shakespeare’s artistic ‘judgement’, developed along parallel lines to Schlegel’s (see Gregory Dart, Chapter 39 in this volume).33 Wordsworth, too, acknowledged the supremacy of German Shakespeare criticism over French, Italian, and English criticism—an evaluation to which Coleridge took exception as a further slight to his own work.34 Shelley was another writer whose thinking about Shakespeare and about dramatic form was powerfully influenced by Schlegel, as the echoes of the Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature in his Defence of Poetry (written in 1821) demonstrate.35

(p. 701) The excitement that surrounded Schlegel’s work might seem puzzling, given that there was some justice in Hazlitt’s opinion as to its pedestrian style. A key to Schlegel’s appeal lay in the opposite directions in which his ongoing manifesto for Romanticism pointed: on the one hand, he promoted Weltbürgertum, a cosmopolitan and tolerant attitude to different cultures; on the other, he propagated nationalistic sentiment, pleading especially for the recognition of Germany as an independent nation. What ensured the relevance of Schlegel’s scholarship to the British Romantic scene was above all the potential for the anti-instrumentalist discourse of ‘l’art pour l’art’ to be appropriated to a nationalistic context. Following the Congress of Vienna, moreover, the other Schlegel brother assumed fresh prominence. As an employee of the Austrian civil service from 1809, Friedrich Schlegel had completed a trajectory (catalyzed in his case by Napoleon’s invasion of Prussia in 1806) analogous to that of Coleridge and Wordsworth, from revolutionary sympathizer to political conservative. The translator of Friedrich Schlegel’s Lectures on the History of Literature, the Scottish patriot John Gibson Lockhart, seized upon the work’s message that ‘literature’ itself is nothing more than ‘the aggregate mass of symbols in which the spirit of an age or the character of a nation is shadowed forth’.36 As Ian Duncan has shown, ‘Lockhart imports Schlegel’s scheme to found, in effect, the nationalist topos of the Scottish literary tradition.’37 Lockhart’s translation is frequently inaccurate, and from the outset intensifies the nationalistic tone of Schlegel’s work: Lockhart inserts the adjective ‘national’ where it did not appear in the original and translates, for instance, ‘die Bildung des menschlichen Geistes’ (the education of the human spirit) as ‘the formation of a national character’.38 Yet, as Lockhart’s unsigned review of his own translation in the 1818 Blackwood’s indicates—he praised Schlegel’s work as ‘by far the most rational and profound view of the history of literature which has yet been presented to Europe’—it helped to set the intellectual agenda for Blackwood’s and thus profoundly to influence Romantic culture.39

Thus, although the Romanticism of the Weimar constellation and subsequently of the Schlegel brothers was initially founded on an anti-instrumentalist and anti-authoritarian endorsement of a non-‘classical’ aesthetic, it was readily appropriated to an exclusive nationalism in England and especially in Scotland, whose tenor was quite alien to the spirit of revolution prevalent two decades previously. This context helps to explain why the second constellation I will examine, consisting of members of a younger generation whose Continental interests were more Swiss and Italian than German, regarded Schlegelian Romanticism with ambivalence and sometimes hostility—while (p. 702) nevertheless operating within the terms of the familiar dialectic. Shelley’s interest in A. W. Schlegel has already been noted. Better documented is Byron’s debt to Staël. Already on passable terms with her in London in 1813, he befriended her in Geneva in 1816; and Childe Harold resembles in world-weariness, if not in moral outlook, the gloomy hero of Corinne, Oswald.40 Yet Byron considered Staël’s politics ‘sadly changed’, and ripe for the kind of conservative appropriation that Lockhart implemented with Friedrich Schlegel’s work.41 Moreover, Byron consistently expressed suspicion of Staël’s literary theorizing: he considered her 1816 article on translation for the periodical Biblioteca italiana, which called for Italian writers to revitalize their literature with English and German models, to be partly to blame for the ‘bitterness of the classic and romantic war’.42

Following Staël’s lead in a somewhat different direction, Byron, like the Shelleys, invoked another French influence and predecessor in the struggle for freedom: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron admires Rousseau for his legendary role in preparing the French Revolution:

  • For then he was inspired, and from him came,
  • As from the Pythian’s mystic cave of yore,
  • Those oracles which set the world in flame,
  • Nor ceased to burn till kingdoms were no more:
  • Did he not this for France? Which lay before
  • Bowed to the inborn tyranny of years?

(Canto 3, stanza 81)

A consideration of the upheavals in Rousseau’s reputation during the Romantic period sheds light on the extent to which Byron’s forceful invocation of Rousseau constituted a response to Madame de Staël. As spokesman for egalitarianism, Rousseau had once appeared the foremost intellectual icon of the French Revolution. Rousseau’s reputation then declined, primarily because Robespierre had claimed him as a kindred spirit during the Terror. But following the phase of conservative, anti-Enlightenment vilification of Rousseau, it became common among both admirers and detractors to portray him as a dreamy idealist of deep feeling as opposed to a coldly calculating rabble-rouser, (p. 703) a shift exemplified by the first ‘landing-place’ essay in Coleridge’s The Friend (1809).43 In the wake of the Congress of Vienna’s ‘king-making’, as Byron contemptuously termed it in Childe Harold (Canto 3, stanza 17), a sublimely eloquent version of Rousseau now became a literary focal point of resistance to the new order. The Shelleys read Rousseau when they travelled to Geneva and to Clarens, the place rapturously described in the novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761). Byron, too, shared pilgrimages with the Shelleys, recording: ‘I have traversed all Rousseau’s ground—with the Heloise before me—and am struck to a degree with the force and accuracy of his descriptions—and the beauty of their reality.’44 In the above-quoted stanza, Byron evokes an inspired, prophetic version of Rousseau, placing him in the same Delphic company (the ‘Pythian cave’) as Staël’s prophetic heroine, Corinne, yet pointedly linking Rousseau’s faculty of composition to violent revolution.

Neither Byron’s implicit outdoing of Staël, nor his explicit appeal to the pre- revolutionary sensibility of Rousseau, however, sufficed to keep him aloof from the romantic-classic controversy that he wished to repudiate. Through his contacts with Italian writers in Italy and his reading and translations of Italian works, Byron inevitably became involved in this dispute, central as it was to the new debate about Italian literary and political identity. In 1818–19 a group of young, liberal writers enlisted Byron’s recently translated works to the Romantic cause; the anti-Romantics, or classicists, responded by first attacking Byron, then claiming him for their own side.45 Ugo Foscolo was, with Alfieri, the ‘classicist’ poet of greatest importance to Byron. Foscolo’s Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1798), inspired by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, attracted Byron’s admiration; and his poetic reflections on the immortality of Italy’s men of genius probably inspired the nostalgic tone of Byron’s self-fashioning in Canto 4 of Childe Harold. But Foscolo’s role in relation to Childe Harold went further. Byron, also in this respect competing with Staël, decided to supplement this canto with a prose exposition of the state of Italy. For assistance with the notes, he turned to John Cam Hobhouse, the disconsolate friend with whom he had toured Rome and stayed in Venice in 1817. Hobhouse swiftly embarked upon a companion project: Historical Illustrations to the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818). It was after his return to England that Hobhouse first met Foscolo (in February 1818), for just as Byron was self-exiled in Italy, so Foscolo had been living in London in self-imposed exile from Austrian domination since 1816. This parallel would not have escaped Hobhouse, who noted in his diary: ‘Foscolo is an extraordinary man; he talks poetry. He said Napoleon’s dominion was like a July day in (p. 704) Egypt—all clear brilliant and blazing; but all silent not a voice heard, the stillness of the grave.’46

The constellation Byron–Hobhouse–Foscolo is another instance of the way in which the transfer of Continental ideas in this period occurred in a two-way movement and through direct personal contacts. Foscolo, an adherent of English empiricist philosophy, was a suitable ally for writers who opposed the tendencies of German idealist thought; he also concurred with Byron in considering Corinne a factually inadequate work.47 The impecunious Italian poet had already begun writing for the British press, notably on Petrarch and Dante: he would publish five major articles on Italian literature and history in the Edinburgh Review between 1818 and 1827, as well as three in the Quarterly Review in 1819–20.48 Hobhouse persuaded him to contribute a section of biographies of modern literary writers to his volume of Historical Illustrations. Foscolo’s resulting ‘Essay on the Present Literature of Italy’, translated by Hobhouse, performed a dual task: it was an exile’s intervention in the romantic-classic dispute taking place in his own country, and at the same time a source of information about Italian literature for English readers, who would have been unfamiliar with the names that Byron presents in an incantatory list in the Preface to Canto 4 of Childe Harold.

Readers in Italy at once discerned the authorship of the ‘Essay’, despite the fact that Foscolo, who was accustomed to publishing unsigned work, denied it. The ‘Essay’ courted controversy: it promoted Foscolo himself, treated other contemporary Italian writers with condescension, and most provocatively of all, it dismissed the romantic-classic controversy as an ‘idle question’. Ludovico di Breme, a partisan of the romantici who was doubtless offended by being omitted from the ‘Essay’, wrote letters of protest to both Byron and Hobhouse.49 Two aspects of Foscolo’s approach are especially important. First, he emphasizes the importance of Anglo–Italian exchange; and second, he suggests that the spirit of Dante—the original romantic exile—might revive in the present day to reinvigorate both Italian blank verse and political attitudes. Increasingly, the group of expatriate English liberal Italophiles found a cultural focus in Dante, by way of counterpart to the patriotic version of Shakespeare promoted by Coleridge and August Wilhelm Schlegel.50 Leigh Hunt’s poem The Story of Rimini (1816), a ‘cockney’ satire on authoritarian politics written in rhyming couplets and dedicated to Byron, was based on (p. 705) Dante’s story of the lovers Paola and Francesca in Hell. Byron, in The Prophecy of Dante, ventriloquizes Dante’s sublime voice to produce a dramatic portrayal of the artist’s revolutionary role. In 1822 Hunt, persuaded by Shelley, brought his family to Leghorn to collaborate with his two fellow-poets in founding a journal, The Liberal. The first number announced programatically in its first issue that ‘Italian Literature, in particular, will be a favourite subject with us’. Although the constellation Byron–Shelley–Hunt was short-lived, undermined by the uneasiness of Byron’s relationship with Hunt and then ended by Shelley’s death, this expatriate publication received a level of attention in the London press commensurate with the importance of some of its contributions.51 It opened with Byron’s A Vision of Judgment, his sharpest attack yet on British establishment politics; offered renditions of Ariosto and Alfieri, and critical ‘Letters from Abroad’; and wryly dissected the over-disciplined ‘Scotch Character’.

The Liberal, then, like Blackwood’s, took both political and literary inspiration from Continental sources, yet the ideological orientation of the two periodicals was diametrically opposed. In this sense, Staël’s perception of the division of national characters according to geographical features, especially climate, came to fruition: The Liberal’s provision of ‘Verse and Prose from the South’ contrasted with the northern bias of Blackwood’s. In both cases, the supposed freedom represented by a form of European literary art was instrumentalized for a new critical programme; but in the work of the Byron–Shelley–Hunt constellation, Dante and his notional heirs in the early Risorgimento were pitched against the appropriation of the romantic by the ‘conservative’ group of Shakespeare critics including Coleridge and the Schlegels. That it had been the Schlegels’ work that helped to inform Robinson’s mediation of the notion of aesthetic autonomy to Staël in 1804 reflects the fragility as well as the intensity of each of the constellations traced in this chapter, as British attitudes to European romanticism shifted according to particular personal contacts and political circumstances.

Further Reading

Burwick, Frederick, and Paul Douglass (eds), Dante and Italy in British Romanticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).Find this resource:

Class, Monika, Coleridge and Kantian Ideas in England, 1796–1817 (London: Continuum, 2012).Find this resource:

Corrigan, Beatrice (ed.), Italian Poets and English Critics, 1755–1859: A Collection of Critical Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).Find this resource:

Ferber, Michael (ed.), A Companion to European Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).Furst, Lilian R. (ed.), European Romanticism: Self-Definition (London: Methuen, 1980).Find this resource:

Hamilton, Paul, Realpoetik: European Romanticism and Literary Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).Find this resource:

(p. 706) Hamilton, Paul (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of European Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).Find this resource:

Isbell, John, The Birth of European Romanticism: Truth and Propaganda in Staël’s ‘De l’Allemagne’, 1810–1813 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).Find this resource:

Kooy, Michael John, Coleridge, Schiller, and Aesthetic Education (New York: Palgrave, 2002).Find this resource:

Paulin, Roger, The Life of August Wilhelm Schlegel: Cosmopolitan Art and Poetry (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014).Find this resource:

Prickett, Stephen, and Simon Haines (eds), European Romanticism: A Reader (London: Continuum, 2010).Find this resource:

Saglia, Diego, European Literature in Britain, 1815–1832: Romantic Translations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).Schoina, Maria, Romantic ‘Anglo-Italians’: Configurations of Identity in Byron, the Shelleys, and the Pisan Circle (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).Find this resource:

Simpson, David, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993).Find this resource:

Stock, Paul, The Shelley-Byron Circle and the Idea of Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).Find this resource:

Wellek, René, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950, vol. 2: The Romantic Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).Find this resource:

Woudenberg, Maximiliaan van Woudenberg, Coleridge and Cosmopolitan Intellectualism 1794–1804: The Legacy of Göttingen University (London: Routledge, 2017).Find this resource:


(1) ‘The Drama: No. IV’, London Magazine (Apr. 1820), in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols (London: Dent, 1930–4), xviii. 302.

(2) ‘Mr. Jeffrey’, The Spirit of the Age (1825), in Complete Works of Hazlitt, xi. 127 n. On Taylor, see John Boening, ‘Pioneers and Precedents: The “Importation of German” and the Emergence of the Periodical Criticism in England’, Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 7 (1982), 65–87.

(3) ‘Schlegel on the Drama’, Edinburgh Review 26 (Feb. 1816), in Complete Works of Hazlitt, xvi. 61.

(4) Robinson, Diary (MS, Dr Williams’s Library, London), 12 May 1816; ‘Schlegel on the Drama’, Complete Works of Hazlitt, xvi. 58.

(5) Hans Eichner, ‘Introduction’, in Hans Eichner (ed.), ‘Romantic’ and its Cognates: The European History of a Word (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 5.

(6) Friedrich Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Literature [trans. John Gibson Lockhart], 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1818), i. 365.

(7) See Hans Eichner, ‘Germany: Romantisch-Romantik-Romantiker’, in Eichner (ed.), ‘Romantic’ and its Cognates, 146.

(8) Christoph Bode, ‘Europe’, in Nicholas Roe (ed.), Romanticism: An Oxford Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 127.

(9) Peter Mortensen, British Romanticism and Continental Influences: Writing in an Age of Europhobia (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

(10) The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), i. 238. On Gothic imports, see F. W. Stokoe, German Influence in the English Romantic Period 1788–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926); and Angela Wright, Britain, France, and the Gothic, 1764–1820: The Import of Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(11) See, for instance, Jeffrey’s review in the first number of the Edinburgh Review (1802) of Robert Southey’s poem Thalaba: ‘their doctrines are of German origin’ (63).

(12) Martin Mulsow, ‘The Third Force Revisited’, in Jeremy D. Popkin (ed.), The Legacies of Richard Popkin (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 118.

(13) David Duff, Romanticism and the Uses of Genre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 116–18.

(14) Ernst Behler, German Romantic Literary Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 30.

(15) Henry Crabb Robinson, Essays on Kant, Schelling, and German Aesthetics, ed. James Vigus (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2010), 6.

(16) Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71), ii. 677–703.

(17) I have developed this comparison further, with reference to Heinrich von Kleist’s contemporaneous Kant-crisis, in ‘Romantic Insight’, in Klaus Vieweg (ed.), Die Aktualität der Romantik (Berlin: LIT, 2012).

(18) Complete Works of Hazlitt, i. 130; Robinson, Essays, 28–55.

(20) Robinson, letter to Thomas Robinson, 20 Jan. 1804, quoted in Essays, 19.

(21) Robinson, Essays, 130–1. The Corporal Trim and Nun exchange is from vol. 8, ch. 20 of Tristram Shandy (trans.: ‘It is all for the love of Jesus Christ’).

(22) Quoted in Robinson, Essays, 22.

(23) Axel Blaeschke, ‘ “The First Female Writer of the Age”: Zur Staël-Rezeption in England’, in Madame de Staël und die Internationalität der europäischen Romantik: Fallstudien zur interkulturellen Vernetzung, ed. Udo Schöning and Frank Seemann (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2002), 35.

(24) Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 106–7.

(25) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. J. Bate, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), ii. 131.

(26) Rev. of Roscoe’s edition of Alexander Pope, North British Review 9 (Aug. 1848), quoted in Duff, Romanticism and the Uses of Genre, 117–18.

(27) Edinburgh Review 11 (1808), 183.

(28) Germaine de Staël, De l’Allemagne, ed. Comtesse Jean de Pange and Simone Balayé, 5 vols (Paris: Hachette, 1958–60), iv. 281.

(29) Robinson, Essays, 130 (italics added).

(30) Robinson noted this on 11 July 1813: Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, Barrister-at-Law, F. S. A., ed. Thomas Sadler, 2 vols (Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1871), i. 267.

(31) Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, i. 153. On the British reception of Staël’s De l’Allemagne, see Blaeschke, ‘The First Female Writer’; and Roberto Romani, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 88–92.

(32) Thomas G. Sauer, August Wilhelm Schlegel’s Shakespeare Criticism in England, 1811–1846 (Bonn: Bouvier, 1981), esp. 172.

(33) Complete Works of Hazlitt, xii. 122.

(34) ‘Essay Supplementary to the Preface’ (1815), in Wordsworth, Prose Works, iii. 68–9; Coleridge, Letters, iv. 839.

(35) Michael Rossington, ‘Tragedy: The Cenci and Swellfoot the Tyrant’, in Michael O’ Neill and Anthony Howe, with Madeleine Callaghan (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 304. Shelley’s reading of A. W. Schlegel is noted in The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), i. 198 (entries for 16–21 Mar. 1818).

(37) Ian Duncan, Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 60.

(39) Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 3 (1818), 511; Duncan, Scott’s Shadow, 57.

(40) See ‘Some Recollections of My Acquaintance with Madame de Staël’ (1821), in Lord Byron, The Complete Miscellaneous Prose, ed. Andrew Nicholson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 184–6; and Byron’s note to Canto 4, line 478 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–93), ii. 235–6. For a comparison between Childe Harold and Corinne, see Joanne Wilkes, Lord Byron and Madame de Staël: Born for Opposition (Farnham: Ashgate, 1999), 100–31.

(41) Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 13 vols (London: John Murray, 1973–94), iii. 66 (22 June 1813).

(42) ‘Preface’ to The Prophecy of Dante (1821), in Byron, Complete Poetical Works, iv. 215; Wilkes, Lord Byron and Madame de Staël, 10. For a concise account of the dispute, see Fabio A. Camiletti, Classicism and Romanticism in Italian Literature: Leopardi’s ‘Discourse on Romantic Poetry’ (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013), introd.

(43) See Gregory Dart, Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 16–21.

(44) Byron’s Letters and Journals, v. 82. On this group’s literary tourism in Switzerland and France, see Patrick Vincent, Chapter 45 in this volume.

(45) See Eduardo Zuccato, ‘The Fortunes of Byron in Italy (1810–70)’, in Richard Cardwell (ed.), The Reception of Byron in Europe, vol. 1: Southern Europe, France and Romania (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004), 81–2.

(46) Foscolo, diary entry for 22 Aug. 1823, quoted in E. R. Vincent, Byron, Hobhouse and Foscolo: New Documents in the History of a Collaboration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949), 113.

(47) See Sandra Parmegiani, Ugo Foscolo and English Culture (Oxford: Legenda, 2011). The remarks on Corinne appear in Lettere scritte dall’Inghilterra (Letters from England) (1817): see Joseph Luzzi, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2008), 71–6.

(48) For a bibliography, see Francesco Viglione, Ugo Foscolo in Inghilterra (Pisa, 1910), 319–21.

(49) Nick Havely, ‘ “This Infernal Essay”: English Contexts for Foscolo’s Essay on the Present Literature of Italy’, in Lila Maria Crisafulli (ed.), Immaginando l’Italia: Itinerari letterari del Romanticismo inglese / Imagining Italy: Literary Itineraries in British Romanticism (Bologna: CLUEB, 2002).

(50) Caroline Franklin, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Catholic Culture: Byron, Italian Poetry, and The Liberal’, in Laura Bandiera and Diego Saglia (eds), British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting (New York: Rodopi, 2005), 268.

(51) William H. Marshall, Byron, Shelley, Hunt, and The Liberal (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960), 90–134. See also Maria Schoina, ‘Byron and The Liberal: A Reassessment’, in Alan Rawes and Mirka Horová (eds), ‘ “Tears, & Tortures, & the Touch of Joy”: Byron in Italy’, Litteraria Pragensia: Studies in Literature and Culture 23, no. 46 (Dec. 2013), 23–37.