BYRON’S AND SHELLEY’S REVOLUTIONARY IDEAS IN LITERATURE
Vol.3, Issue 1, 2017, pp.27-48 Full text
DOI: http://doi.org/10.33919/esnbu.17.1.2 ☍
Author: Elma Dedovic-Atilla
International Burch University, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The paper explores the revolutionary spirit of literary works of two Romantic poets: George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the period of conservative early 19th century English society that held high regard for propriety, tradition, decorum, conventions and institutionalized religion, the two poets’ multi-layered rebellious and subversive writing and thinking instigated public uproar and elitist outrage, threatening to undermine traditional concepts and practices. Acting as precursors to new era notions and liberties, their opuses present literary voices of protest against 19th century social, religious, moral and literary conventions. Their revolutionary and non-conformist methods and ideas are discussed and analyzed in this paper through three works of theirs: Byron’s The Vision of Judgement and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.
Keywords: Romanticist era, poetry, insurgent, Byron, Shelley
Received: 29 November 2016;
Reviewed: 24 December 2016;
Revised: 03 May 2017;
Accepted: 08 May 2017;
Published: 31 May 2017
Dedovich-Atilla, E. (2017). Byron’s and Shelley’s Revolutionary Ideas in Literature. English Studies at NBU, 3(1), 27-48. http://doi.org/10.33919/esnbu.17.1.2 ☍
Copyright © 2017 Elma Dedovich-Atilla
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1. Tadd Graham Fernée, New Bulgarian University
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The article presents an informed and engaging account of the nineteenth century Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley, in terms of the “spirit of liberty”. This raises very interesting questions about the legacy of the French Revolution and the emergence of Modernist culture and politics in the nineteenth century.
The research is focused (analyzing key works), and thorough (making abundant reference to the texts), and the theoretical problem is potentially very important. It can offer new insights into the cultural politics of modernism in the nineteenth century. The purpose is to analyze key works of Byron and Shelley in terms of the revolutionary spirit. It is well defined. The article is methodologically sound. The primary texts are extensively analyzed, and a background in social history is provided. It is only the conceptual argument which requires greater and more careful elaboration.
The theoretical framework is inadequately developed. The “revolutionary spirit” is treated as a stable entity, from the 1789 French Revolution through to the early to mid-nineteenth century. Here is an unresolved problem: the “revolutionary spirit” underwent mutations in meaning, particularly at the hands of the Romantics. This entailed important changes also in the notion of “freedom”. But the author does not address this. Here are three examples: (1) how can we square the 1789 French Revolutionary ideology, committed to “reason and progress” as a public politics, inspired by the rationalist optimism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with Byron’s emphasis on the Individual Will, and his theme of the “exiled individual”? Precisely such heroic and “spiritually higher” supermen had been the target of French Revolutionary classicism, public egalitarianism, and rationalism. (2) The discussion of Shelley and institutions further makes this point. For Shelley, the “great soul” of the “exceptional individual” cannot be contained by any institutions. All institutions are oppressive, because they appeal to the mediocre. However, the 1789 Revolution was far from such anarchism. It upheld a strict republican principle of institutional checks and balances, and uniform public order. (3) For Byron and Shelley, freedom meant the unfettered self-expression of exceptional individuals; for the French Revolution, it meant public conformity to order and reason. For Byron and Shelley, introspective self-transformation is the key to human freedom; the French Revolution envisioned freedom as a purely public and external matter, seeking to uproot “alien thought” (during the Terror).
Individual nostalgia, pessimism and introspection are ideologically far from 1789 (except for the aspiration to revive a “classical past”), with its military notion of mass mobilization, all-pervasive public institutions, and the homogenous nation.
These points undermine the thesis of “continuity” in “revolutionary spirit” between the French Revolution and the Romantics. Ideally, the author should identify elements of continuity and discontinuity, and suggest how these mutations transformed the culturally received understanding of freedom in Western modernism.
The author needn’t analyze this problem in great depth. This is simply to suggest the problems. However, the tensions in the historical development of “modernist freedom” must be acknowledged. Or else, the theoretical framework will appear insubstantial.
The literature review is very good. Both primary texts, of the two Romantic authors, and secondary texts providing historical and social context, are thorough and thoughtful.
The engagement with existing scholarship is rather minimal. For example, in the conclusion, there is a reference to structuralism, and its doctrine that the biography is irrelevant to internal analysis of the text. This is very passing. However, I do not think the author needs to pursue the scholarly debates in detail. The argument can stand. However, the question of biography might be important. The tension between “libertine” and “libertarian” goes to the heart of the problems I’ve been referring to. The Marquis de Sade embodied these tendencies in the French Revolution. Despite the section heading, the problem is not properly engaged.
The conclusion seems to be that Byron and Shelley embraced, conveyed, and transmitted the “revolutionary spirit” of the French Revolution. However, because the “revolutionary spirit” is presented as an unproblematic unity, the argument loses its persuasive power. However, I am convinced that the potential for reconstructing the argument in more nuanced fashion is there. For example, the ambiguous figure of Napoleon as “superman”, “dictatorial betrayal of the French Revolution”, and “champion of liberty/egalitarianism”, is evoked, but not deeply analyzed. The author has suggested deeper problems throughout the article, but not taken them up.
The article is generally well written. It is readable and well organized. The argument – although I have indicated flaws – is coherent. However, the sentences are often too long. Where possible, they should be made shorter. The whole article should be carefully edited, to sharpen and clarify the argument, particularly long sentences. These should be systematically reduced, as they can compromise clarity.
This article is intended for specialists in literature, culture, and the history of ideas. However, it is written in an accessible manner. It could prove of interest to anyone who has an interest in nineteenth century European history, Romantic literature, the French Revolutionary legacy, socialism and revolution, and modernity. In short, it can potentially appeal to a wide public. It treats an important subject in a lively and accessible way.
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2. Andrey Andreev, New Bulgarian University
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This is an interpretation of a subject that has produced numerous inquiries and prolific research. The problem is important and well-defined, though research of this kind is not new. The purpose is seemingly well-defined.
The methodological approaches in a work of this nature can only be review of the literature and literary analysis, so they are appropriate. It is another matter that it is never explained why these two particular writers have been chosen as a subject with no reference at all to earlier Romanticist poets protesting the state of the nation (e.g. William Blake).
The inferences and conclusions are well-organized, although the section on Byron would have benefited from more examples from the poet’s work to support some of the arguments.
The article is well-written and readable. It has a more or less coherent argument, though one has to wait until the conclusion to comprehend in what precisely the author is comparing the two arguments, despite the claims made in the introduction. Also, the conclusion introduces a significant amount of new information which would have served better purpose if introduced earlier, precisely in making the connection between the two main sections. The style is adequate, but it jars when one is faced with purposefully highbrow vocabulary.
Across the disciplines. A highly specialized readership would not need so much background information unless explicitly linked to particulars of the issue under investigation.
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