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Romantic Classics

This page details a prospective graduate seminar on receptions of the Classical tradition in British Romanticism, which draws on one of my central research interests.

Running this course would pose two particular challenges:

  1. The problem of 'double esoterics': the course would require strong enough knowledge of the Classical material to understand how it informs some fairly obscure Romantic texts. My intention is that the seminar would attract students who possess some grasp of British Romanticism or of Classics.
  2. Some of the texts are not easily available. No anthology of Classical receptions in Romantic literature exists at present (perhaps I'll edit one).

Romantic Classics

Mad emperors, hideous monsters, bed-hopping gods, immolated virgins, perilous quests to the underworld, cannibalistic dinner-parties: the Romantics were fascinated by the culture and history of classical antiquity. Romantic authors translated and adapted ancient literature, finding convenient symbols for their own condition in their myths, and invoked the ancients in deeper philosophical contemplations. Yet Romantic interest in antiquity was not solely a textual affair, but a visible and vibrant concern as Neoclassicism arose in architecture, art and politics. Popular adaptations of ancient myths were staged in theatres, often terribly. French revolutionaries, and later Napoleon, modelled themselves on Roman politicians and aristocrats. The acquisition of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon caused celebration and controversy that continue to this day. Readers consumed travel narratives of ancient sites eagerly, and when war made it impossible to travel in Europe, Barker’s Panorama offered representations of Athens, Pompeii and Corfu to the London public.

This module is for students interested in how Romantic authors interacted with a key area of influence, in the rise of Neoclassicism, and for those wishing to explore the interdisciplinary relations of Romantic culture to Classical drama, poetry, philosophy, sculpture and architecture.


Seminars (reading texts to be supplemented with visual materials in class):

1. Introduction: Classics in Romantic Education

2. The Myth of Oedipus

Texts: Sophocles, Oedipus the King, Blake, Tiriel, Shelley, from Swellfoot the Tyrant, De Quincey, ‘The Sphinx’s Riddle’

3. The Elgin Marbles Controversy

William St Clair, from Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures, Christopher Hitchens, from The Elgin Marbles: Should They be Returned to Greece?

4. Romantic Ekphrasis: Writing About Art

Texts: Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’, Keats, ‘Chapman’s Homer’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Hazlitt, ‘On the Ideal’, ‘On Gusto’

5. The Myth of Philomela

Texts: Charlotte Smith, ‘To a Nightingale’, ‘On the Departure of the Nightingale’, Coleridge, ‘The Nightingale’, Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’

6. Romantic Epics I

Texts: Wordsworth, Aeneid I-II, Keats, Endymion, IPrometheus

7. Romantic Epics II

Texts: Wordsworth, The Prelude I; Byron, Don Juan, Dedication and I-II

8. Blake, Lamb and the Monsters of the Underworld

Texts: Virgil, Aeneid VI, Charles Lamb, The Adventures of Ulysses I-II, images by Blake

9. Revellers and Philosophers, Ancient and Romantic

Texts: Shelley, from Symposium, Keats, ‘Lamia’, ‘Ode to Psyche’

10. Ruins, Real and Imaginary: Travel Writing, Postcards and the Panorama

Texts: Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, images supplied in class

11. The Myth of Prometheus I

Texts: Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, Byron, ‘Prometheus’, Keats, ‘Hyperion: A Fragment’, ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, Coleridge, from ‘On the Prometheus of Aeschylus’

12. The Myth of Prometheus II

Texts: Shelley, Prometheus Unbound I, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus

13. Review


Recommended Texts and Secondary Reading

Mark Morford and Robert Lenardon, Classical Mythology, 8th ed. (2007)

Duncan Wu ed., Romanticism: An Anthology, 4th edn (2012)

Mary Shelley with Percy Shelley, The Original Frankenstein, ed. Charlie Robinson (2009)

Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (1984)

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays, trans. Philip Vellacott (2001)

Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fagles (2006)

Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (2004)

Catharine Edwards ed., Roman Presences (1999)

Timothy Webb ed., English Romantic Hellenism (1982)

Further texts available through online resources or distribution in class