Romantic Period

Romantic Period Faculty

Romantic PeriodThe MA and PhD specializations in British Romanticism offer students the opportunity to focus intensively on one of the most turbulent and productive periods in British literary history.

The half-century around the French Revolution (1780-1830) saw an astonishing rise in political radicalism followed by a sweeping wave of political and cultural reaction. Both movements were fueled by a massive expansion of print culture and an increasing variety of exhibitions, entertainments, and other cultural commodities aimed at an expanding public. This volatile climate encouraged aesthetic experimentation. Romanticism across Europe and the Americas launched many of the ideas that gave modernity its decisive shape. Literary and political responses to the French Revolution, in particular, sought to redefine fundamental categories of modern life, rethinking concepts of personhood, knowledge, rights, the imagination, the emotions, and nature, to name only a few, and endowing the category of literature itself, which acquired its specialized modern sense of “poetry, fiction, and drama” between 1780 and 1830, with unprecedented force. “Poets,” wrote Shelley in 1821, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The Romantic period boasts not only six legendary poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats—but also a stellar pantheon of gifted and commercially successful women writers including Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, and Felicia Hemans, and a broad, historically unprecedented range of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that is still being discovered by students and scholars. The field offers new opportunities for traditional literary scholarship as well as for interdisciplinary engagement with visual culture, political theory, the history of science, and the practice of creative writing, among other possibilities.

Both nationally and locally, Romanticists benefit from their proximity to scholars in the eighteenth century and the Victorian period, whose wide-ranging and often allied studies of the earlier and later decades help to maintain a scholarly niche for the intensive study of the revolutionary decades.

Faculty Overview
Noah Heringman serves (with Elizabeth Chang) as co-organizer of the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Studies reading group.  His recent graduate seminars include Ballads and Revivals (2013, 2016) and The Shelleys and Their Circle (2011) as well as The History of Criticism and Theory (2012, 2014, 2016).  He serves on numerous graduate committees for students in literature as well as creative writing (poetry).

Our program offers students of Romanticism a strong larger community of faculty and graduate students in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature as well as in related fields such as art history, history, and German studies.  Our students regularly take courses from Sean Franzel, Michael Yonan, and other affiliated faculty, who also participate (with their students) in the Working Group. We meet informally several times each semester, providing a forum for discussion of shared critical reading as well as student work. In addition to attending conferences, graduate students in Romanticism also have the opportunity to team-teach in their specialty with a faculty member, a model that allows much greater independence than the "teaching assistant" model while also giving students exposure to the advanced undergraduate classroom.

Ellis Library Special Collections has fine holdings in eighteenth-century British printed materials. For example, students interested in the picturesque will find an unusually complete collection of the works of William Gilpin, in the original editions. See also the MU Library's strong list of early British periodical holdings.

Recent upper-level undergraduate courses:

British Romanticism

Taught by Noah Heringman

This course reconsiders traditional definitions of Romanticism as the poetry of nature and imaginative vision by reading the six canonical poets--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats--with and against a range of women writers in prose and poetry, including Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Ann Radcliffe. Although there are some obvious contrasts between male and female writers in this period, this approach also highlights the many concerns they shared: the discourse on human rights and other concerns arising from the French revolution; the slave trade and the growth of empire; natural history and the growth of scientific specialization; and the cultural example of ancient Greece, among others. We will also draw on the numerous travel narratives written by both men and women to consider period attitudes toward people and places in different parts of Britain and the empire, as well as the contours of "Romantic nature" and its relationship to today's discourse on "the environment."

Major Authors, 1789-1890: Byron and Scott

Taught by Noah Heringman

This course deals with one of the most intense rivalries in literary history.  Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) became famous in the early nineteenth century by publishing verse romances such as The Lady of the Lake.  George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), working in the same genre, eventually eclipsed Scott’s success with romances such as The Corsair, which sold 10,000 copies on the day it was published in 1814.  That same year, however, Scott published his first novel, Waverley. Waverley was a sensation, heightened by Scott’s astute decision to publish it and its numerous sequels anonymously.  These commercially successful novels remain beloved by readers and widely studied by scholars, who regard them as establishing the model for the historical novel.  Byron, meanwhile, fell into disrepute because of his scandalous divorce and wrote much of his best poetry from his self-imposed exile in Italy.  In the second half of the course, we will read his satiric masterpiece, Don Juan, in its entirety, along with three of the Waverley novels (perhaps Waverley, Old Mortality, and either Rob Roy or Ivanhoe).  In the first half, we will read verse romances by each poet (perhaps also including Scott’s Marmion and Byron’s The Giaour) along with lyric poetry by both, one of Byron’s plays, and selections from Scott’s early Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.  Throughout the semester, we will look at how and why the literary marketplace changed to favor the novel increasingly over poetry and we will consider how the political commitments of these two authors—roughly speaking, Scott’s nationalism vs. Byron’s anti-nationalism—inflected their literary choices, their rivalry, and their celebrity.

Major Authors, 1789-1890: Jane Austen

Taught by Lily Gurton-Wachter

In this class we will develop our close reading skills as we move slowly and carefully through the novels of Jane Austen. Our discussions will investigate a wide range of topics, from how Austen delineates the nuances of feeling, sympathy, and attachment, to her formal innovations in realism, irony, and the representation of interiority. We will consider how Austen used the novel form to comment on the major social and political issues of her time, to explore issues of gender, politics, history, and class, and to develop new ways of thinking about the experience of reading and the work of literature. Supplementary materials will include poetry by Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth, political texts by Burke, Godwin, and Wollstonecraft, visual art from the period, a selection of Austen’s letters, and a range of literary criticism devoted to understanding Austen’s style. Students will write regular close reading papers, a longer research essay on a topic of their choice, and give at least one oral presentation on their research.

Romantic Confessions

Taught by Noah Heringman

"I have bared my secret soul!" With this declaration Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced his notorious Confessions in 1766, claiming that his work was the first truly candid revelation of a unique self in writing. Beginning with Rousseau's, we will read a series of autobiographical and other life writings from the Romantic period. Some of these, including Rousseau's, are frankly erotic, as the title of this course seems to promise; others are far too morbidly self-obsessed to betray that level of interest in other people. But the idea of romantic love-- coming from the courtly literature of the Middle Ages-- was under revision in the Romantic period, and the transformation of the idea of Rousseau, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Shelley, and others will be one of our central topics. We will read De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Shelley's Matilda, The Prelude (in five books) by William Wordsworth, and other narratives by William Hazlitt, William Godwin, and James Hogg. We will also read the Memoirs of Mary Robinson (1801), intiially famous as a gifted actress who won the heart of George IV and later famous as a poet. We will spend time examining and thinking about different critical models as well as different practices of life writing and the special kinds of pressure that it puts on verisimiulitude. Work for the course includes a substantial research paper as well as reading responses and at least one exercise in autobiography or memoir. 

Reading William Blake

Taught by Lily Gurton-Wachter

This class will focus on the visual and verbal work of poet and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827) who, though unrecognized in his own time, is today hailed as a prophet, genius, and revolutionary. By reading his poetry and images slowly and closely over the course of the semester, we will explore the relation between myth and history, familiarizing ourselves with Blake’s mythic figures while considering how and why he used them to represent the history he lived through (the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the slave trade and its abolition, the emergence of women’s rights and the “rights of man,” war with France, and colonialism). Though written over two hundred years ago, Blake’s verse raises questions that are still relevant to us today about race, politics, religion and religious law, ideology, revolution, labor, class, and gender. His indictment of the “mind-forg’d manacles” with which we all live suggests that the rules, customs, and laws that we tend to take for granted are actually self-imposed limitations that prevent us from really seeing the world around us: “'If the doors of perception were cleansed,” Blake writes, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” We will consider the scientific, political, aesthetic, and social contexts in which Blake was writing to better understand both his trenchant critique of the world in which he lived and his utopian, often apocalyptic and revolutionary dreams of a different future.

Recent graduate seminars:

Ballads and Revivals

Taught by Noah Heringman

Lyrical Ballads, published by Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798, is “generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature”—according to Wikipedia. But it could also be considered as the end of two revivals, the Ballad Revival and the “Romantic Revival”—in fact, literary critics typically used the latter expression before the idea of English Romanticism became widespread in the mid-20th century. What did Wordsworth and Coleridge do differently from Thomas Percy, Robert Burns, and the many other poets before them who revived the ballad, a form of verse narrative in quatrains that came down from the European Middle Ages, often by way of oral tradition? Are ballads really literature?  (Samuel Johnson, predictably, said no.)  What is a literary revival, and is it conservative, innovative, or just undead?  Is making poetry speak “the real language of men” a political project?  How did Romantic poets bridge the European literary tradition with the modern nationalist practice of collecting folk songs and folk tales?  We will ask these questions as we read Lyrical Ballads (of course), Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), and selections from Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), James Francis Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898), and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952).  We will also read critical and theoretical essays by Katie Trumpener, Maureen McLane, and others who explore connections between the ballad revival and the “human sciences” of the time, including conjectural history and early forms of ethnography.  The course concludes with a unit on versions of the ballad in American popular music. 

Poetry and Politics in the Romantic Period

Taught by Lily Gurton-Wachter

In this seminar, we will ask how literary texts of British Romanticism responded to and intervened in the political climate marked most famously by the French Revolution, but also by the Napoleonic Wars, the Peterloo Massacre, abolitionism, and by controversial political debates throughout England about immigration, enclosure, the suspension of habeas corpus, free speech, the rights of man, the rights of women, and alarmism. Through close readings of the literary texts of British Romanticism—a movement that, for a long time, was characterized as an apolitical retreat into either the self or the natural world—we will investigate what this literary tradition has to say about revolution and rights, about the vulnerabilities of war, or about the unsteady distinction between natural history and national history. We will explore the impact of war, revolution, and historical violence on literary form, and examine texts that look to literary form for new ways to represent historical experience and frame political argument. At least one class will be devoted to the proliferation of poems with dates; another to the lyric poems that detail the feelings prompted by the anticipation of an invasion. Though our focus will be on poetry, there will be a few forays into other genres, including the novel, for which we will investigate William Godwin's claim that the "writer of romance is to be considered as the writer of real history." Reading a range of literary criticism as well, the class will track the shifting position of historical context in Romanticist scholarship and invite us to reflect upon our own use of historical research in literary interpretation. Readings likely will include texts by Anna Barbauld, William Blake, Edmund Burke, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Godwin, John Keats, Thomas Paine, Percy Shelley, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Wordsworth.

Romanticism and Feeling

Taught by Lily Gurton-Wachter

“Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps” – William Blake

In this graduate seminar we will read a selection of major texts from British Romanticism with particular attention to problems of feeling, emotion, and sensation. From Wordsworth’s famous declaration that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” to Keats’s attempt to represent the “feel of not to feel it,” Romantic authors took on the task of representing how feeling—or not feeling—works, of delineating unpredictable and unruly passions, and of engaging with difficult questions that remain with us today: whether we can adequately represent our own feelings or understand the feelings of others, how and why private feelings become a public concern, and how major historical events (revolution, war, shifts in technology and industry, slavery, imperialism, among others) feel to both participants and onlookers. We will put Romantic representations of feeling in a variety of contexts, considering political debates about the right to happiness or the uncertain origin of national alarm; the promises and dangers of revolutionary enthusiasm; the wartime spread of “bad passions”; the contagion of feeling and fellow-feeling (sympathy); the delineation of “self-feeling”; philosophical arguments about how the sublime and other kinds of aesthetic experience should feel; scientific attempts to categorize, define, and distinguish between various passions and their expressions; the challenges of mourning and melancholy; the relation between feeling and sensation; and questions about how to read the feeling—or tone—of literary texts. 

The Shelleys and Their Circle

Taught by Noah Heringman

This seminar focuses on the younger generation of what has been called Britain’s “first family of writers,” the Godwin-Wollstonecraft-Shelley family. The course will be divided roughly into thirds, with one-third devoted to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and one-third devoted to the fiction and nonfiction prose of Mary Shelley. The remaining one-third will be divided between important precursor texts such as William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindications, on the one hand, and works by members of the Shelley circle, on the other—especially Lord Byron and John Keats. We will look at P. B. Shelley’s dramas The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound, along with many long and short poems, possibly including The Revolt of Islam. Covered works by Mary Shelley will include History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, The Last Man, Valperga, and possibly Frankenstein.