All posts by Arden Hegele

Jane Austen and Romantic Mortification

Perhaps surprisingly for its canonical status as a tale of romantic love, Pride and Prejudice (1813) is governed by many distinctly unromantic states of negative affect. Distress, embarrassment, depression, shame, and disbelief are all integral to Austen’s portrayals of character. But one emotional state stands out as being distinctively Austenian: mortification. Elizabeth Bennet is “most cruelly mortified” by her father; Kitty experiences “mortification” at the Forsters’ preferment of Lydia; Darcy feels “incredulity and mortification” at Elizabeth’s initial rejection, and later, “trouble and mortification” as he searches for the renegade Bennet sister in London; and even Miss Bingley “was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage.” Most famously, at the scene of the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth’s “mortification” accrues with each outrageous Bennet performance, and she even enters into “dances of mortification” with Mr. Collins. The Austen reader might well ask, what is this state of mortification, and why is it such a key term for describing Austen’s characters?

As a synonym for silent humiliation, “mortification” has a particularly Romantic shade. The term had been used in Shakespeare’s plays, and by Swift in his “Drapier’s Letters,” but it appears considerably more frequently in the prose fiction of the early nineteenth century. Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817) features its narrator, Frank Obaldistone, claiming that he is “Not mortified, certainly not mortified”; Amelia Opie’s short story “Mrs Arlington: Or All is Not Gold that Glitters” (1818) describes one character as “humbled, offended, mortified, and self-condemned”; and other works by Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Clara Reeve all feature mortification as a key term for describing the emotional plights of society heroines.  But “mortification” seems to be an especially potent term for Austen. In Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in 1817, the term appears at least 8 times, and Austen typically modifies it to increase its severity: Catherine Morland experiences “deep mortification” and “severe mortification” at a ball with Henry Tilney, while Anne Elliot, shocked by Captain Wentworth’s sudden appearance, “fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification” to his comment that her person is altered beyond recognition. As with Elizabeth and Darcy, both Anne and Catherine must experience mortification, and especially public mortification, as a key stage in their trajectory to marital bliss.

Where did Romantic-era mortification come from? Austen’s repeated uses of the term are fascinating, since “mortification” occurs much more often in non-literary Romantic fields.  Rather, the term could refer to a religious practice of personal deprivation in the interest of spiritual self-improvement: as Ezekiel Hopkins wrote in 1807, “THE GREAT DUTY OF MORTIFICATION” required personal penance, since “without mortification, no [after]life is to be expected.” And, as A Daily Exercise and Devotions, for the Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1816) suggested, “The constant exercise of mortification is another fruit of penance” and the young lady or gentleman in question might “draw” “vast fruit” from the spiritual exercises of personal deprivation, or even the “voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort” (as the OED would have it).

More intriguing, though, was Romantic mortification’s medical sense, as the word for the necrosis of bodily tissue — that is, as gangrene. The vast majority of references to mortification during the early nineteenth century appeared indeed in this pathological sense. “Mortification” is a central heading in John Hunter’s seminal work on battlefield surgery, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794), and the term appears with great regularity in medical textbooks in the early 1800s. One particularly clear definition appears in Sir Robert Carswell’s Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease (1838):

The term mortification is generally employed in this country to express the state which has been induced in a part of the body by the complete and permanent extinction of its vital properties. On the Continent, however, the term gangrene is employed to signify the same state, whilst in England it is more commonly used to denote the incipient stage of mortification … The extinction of the powers of life, the complete cessation of the circulation, and an entire want of sensibility, characterize the second or last stage of mortification, which is called sphacelus

But what could the horrifying condition of gangrenous mortification have to do with Mr Darcy’s embarrassment? One place to look for an answer is in the medical notes of John Keats, literature’s best representative of Romantic medicine. In his Anatomical and Physiological Note Book (published 1934), Keats discusses the connections between aneurism and mortification, and — in a cautionary tale for graduate students — mentions how “Those who have been addicted to Study from Keeping up a continued determination of Blood to the Brain have often the Vessels of that part ossified,” making the scholarly brain “subject to mortification” even among “the Young.” As Keats noted elsewhere, mortification could also take place among those who “lead a life of Intemperance.” Thus, since one of the main ambitions of Pride and Prejudice is to temper the unrestrained outbursts of the romantic leads, it makes a strange sort of sense that their intemperance of character — their respective pride and prejudice — leads to mortifying social punishment.

Although he does not use the term “mortification” in his poetry (to my knowledge!), Keats, who himself experienced “occasional ridicule, & some mortification” as a result of his “Pride and conceit […] amongst mere Medical students” (in the words of his friend Henry Stephens), is perhaps the touchstone for Romantic embarrassment. As Christopher Ricks’s 1974 book, Keats and Embarrassment, discusses, “a particular strength of Keats is the implication that the youthful, the luxuriant, the immature, can be, not just excusable errors, but vantagepoints” (12). Austen, too, uses moments of mortification to give insight and perspective, and the embarrassment her characters feel is not the result of “excusable error,” but of betrayal by their biology (their desires, or, more often, their desires thwarted by their foolish relatives). Thus, it seems no coincidence that Mary Ann O’Farrell’s discussion of “Austen’s Blush” (1994), another important work on Romantic embarrassment, touches on the biological underpinnings of socially coded desire. The blush, which Austen associates explicitly with mortification (Catherine, for instance, displays a “blush of mortification”), is for O’Farrell a marker of the body’s involuntary expression beyond the socially regulated codes of signals: “Austen necessarily invokes that about the body which is most inimical to manners, what makes manners most vulnerable to disruption” (127).  Thus, in my view, the affect of shameful mortification in Austen’s novels arises from the tension between the socially appropriate suppression of desire (analogous with religious mortification), and desire’s rebellious expression in the outer tissue of the organism (similar to medical mortification).

Austen’s union of the two external mortifications in producing her characters’ affect of humiliation established a convention that extended later into the century, and an interesting point of comparison is Anne Brontë’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which uses mortification as a key plot-point. Helen Huntingdon mortifies her would-be suitor, Mr Hargrave: “I cut short his appeal, and repulsed him so determinately […] that he withdrew, astonished, mortified, and discomforted, and, a few days later, I heard he had departed for London.” Helen’s power to mortify figuratively seems also to result (indirectly) in the death of her abusive husband, Arthur Huntingdon, whose alcoholism has led to actual mortification. In his last days, Arthur experiences “freedom from pain” and “deadness to all sensation where the suffering was most acute”; Helen writes, “My worst fears are realized — mortification has commenced.” In contrast to the extremely painful affect of mortification experienced by Austen’s characters, Arthur Huntingdon’s mortification passes from the first stage, gangrene, into the painless, fatal stage of sphacelus. His death releases Helen from her personal mortification at his hands, and leaves her free to marry Gilbert Markham. As in Austen’s novels, mortification is a developmental stage through which characters must pass to reach their marital goals; but unlike Austen’s mortification, Brontë literalizes the experience into its medical form, offering a much grislier model of character shaping.

But even marriage could not keep the advances of mortification entirely at bay. Elizabeth’s vigilance in “shield[ing]” Darcy from her humiliating relatives culminates in her permitting him to speak only to “those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification.” Et in Austen ego — even at the satisfying end of an Austen novel, then, is the encroachment of gangrenous necrosis.


An Analog Humanities? The Case for Material Technologies

As a scholarly product of my time, I am the first to admit the advantages of the digitization of the humanities: after all, that’s what gives me EEBO and ECCO, transhistorical word searches, our web-based community of fellow Romanticists, and even the ability to edit my dissertation chapter with my old friends, Copy and Paste…

These advantages are not to be scorned lightly, so it is with some trepidation that I pose the following question: what role can an “analog humanities” play in our digital landscape? When, how, and why does the materiality of the literary text give the contemporary scholar a new lens for interpretation? And how can we expand our definition of “technology” to include the technologies that have (silently) accompanied literary studies all along?

I have recently been investigating these questions by going back to the physical foundation of the book—the pre-verbal stage in a text’s life—as a member of the Pine Tree Scholars, a collective sponsored by the Pine Tree Foundation and hosted through Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This brand-new organization brings together students with an interest in the material culture of books, and introduces us to an exciting range of book-making practices in the New York City area.

The Works of Lord Byron (1816)
The Works of Lord Byron (1816)

Our first excursion, to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in April 2013, gave me an incredible glimpse into the world of rare books. The Fair’s many sellers hailed from around the world, and they displayed an almost overwhelming range of manuscripts, printed posters, antique maps, handwritten letters, and, of course, books. In some ways, what impressed me most were not just the first editions—there were some very beautiful Jane Austens—but also the more esoteric, non-paginated artefacts, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s walking cane and a large and chilling collection of glass eyes. Following the Fair, we had lunch at the Grolier Club, New York’s club for book collectors, which also features a library of rare materials, fascinating exhibits based on members’ personal collections, and a very becoming portrait of the young Walter Scott. For me, this excursion was an unquestioned success: I scored an 1816 five-volume set of The Works of Lord Byron which I then read in preparation for my qualifying exam (probably to the poet’s ghostly dismay).

More recently, the Pine Tree Scholars have delved into more specific practices of book-making, especially where material production crosses into artistry. Last fall, we visited a letterpress studio—Woodside Press, in Brooklyn—which operates letterpresses, wood-block printing, and also a variety of antique print machines, including Linotype and Monotype systems from the late nineteenth century. To my great pleasure, just as we visited, the printers were working on a special commission to print Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I was also excited to see that the arrangement of letters on the “keyboard” of the 1890s Linotype printing press followed Sherlock Holmes’s account of the most frequently-occurring letters in English, documented famously in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (etaoin shrdlu). At Woodside Press, I also learned the crucial difference between a “type” and a “font”: a “type” refers to a “typeface,” or a specific design of the letters of the alphabet, while a “font” is a mass noun that describes the necessary quantity of pieces of type required for printing a book manuscript. Woodside’s metal fonts included many familiar names—Garamond and Palatino, among others—but also a number of unusual typefaces, of which some were of the Press’s own design. And I was astonished to learn that one letterpress expert can distinguish between typefaces just by looking at their punctuation marks!

Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)
Handmade paper (Dieu Donné Papermill)

We next visited Dieu Donné Papermill in midtown Manhattan, where I produced several (very experimental) sheets of handmade paper. Dieu Donné is a workspace for artists, art therapists, and their clients, as well as members of the public interested in learning paper-making techniques. Here, paper-makers create their artworks by processing linen, cotton (including old blue jeans and medical gowns), hemp, wood pulp, abaca (used to make tea bags), or other natural fibers, in a watery solution; the cellulose within the fibrous mixture allows the sheet of paper to fuse together when the pulp is laid on a screen and the water drained or pressed away. I was very interested to learn that the artistic technique we were using—creating sheets of paper individually on screens—was still the dominant commercial way of making paper from cotton and rag fibers during the early Romantic period; the first continuous paper-making machine was invented in France in 1799 and introduced to England in 1803 and the United States in 1817, replacing the earlier practice of making sheets by hand. Now to determine whether my Works of Lord Byron is printed on handmade sheets…

My latest foray into the material practices of book-making was a bookbinding session: the artist and bookbinder Susan Mills visited the Columbia Library and instructed us in the practices of sewing together the bindings of books. To me, this was an especially remarkable experience, since I was quickly and easily able to produce my own 96-page chapbook using extremely simple tools—in addition to sheets of paper, I needed only a paper-knife, an awl, a needle and thread, and a scrap of linen. During the Romantic period, book-binding would have been done by hand, by (usually) anonymous craftspeople, whose contributions are often only recorded in tiny holes in the pages near the book’s spine (where tiny drops of blood, from pricked fingers, decayed the paper more quickly). And readers would normally have cut the pages by hand; I note, with admiration for an anonymous previous reader, that my Byron‘s pages are cut perfectly cleanly. (Later addendum: they were probably “guillotined” by the printer.)

Hand-bound Chapbook
Hand-bound Chapbook

As I return to the question about the value of the “analog” humanities—that is, a deliberate return to the material technologies used in the production of literary texts—I think that experiencing the physical processes of making books, as I have been so lucky to do, can offer a unique and valuable pedagogy for the contemporary Romanticist. Having seen printing presses, paper-making, and book-binding in action, I have such an affective appreciation for the meticulous craftsmanship of my little 1816 Works of Lord Byron. The volumes’ ink is still vivid, the pages don’t crumble, and the tightly sewn bindings remain unbroken. The many type settings, ranging from the bold Gothic lettering of the title of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to the tiny typefaces, italicized passages, and Greek fonts in the glosses, testify to a material investment in the text that extends beyond the poet. From my “analog” adventures, I’ve learned that such small details as printing errors—like the notorious misprint in Austen’s Persuasion that “Lady Russell loved the mall”—are not just criteria for editorial footnotes; they are also reminders of the book-making process and the unseen but tremendous effort of Romantic-era craftspeople to support, in material fashion, what they saw as literary inspiration worth recording.

(All photos—and the textual materials depicted therein—belong to Arden Hegele)

The Romantic Poets’ Travel-Guide to Italy

“Thy rare gold ring of verse (the poet praised) / Linking our England to his Italy!” Thus concludes Robert Browning’s masterwork The Ring and the Book (1868-69), a poem whose composition celebrates the longstanding artistic relationship between the two nations in the nineteenth century.

English literature is full of Italian journeys. There are honeymooners, though their marriages tend not to fare well (Dorothea and Casaubon; Gwendolen and Grandcourt; George Eliot’s own Venetian wedding-night debacle). There are ill-fated convalescents (Keats; Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Milly Thrale; Ralph Touchett). There are traveloguing or scholarly visitors (Sydney Owenson; John Ruskin; Byron in his late Childe Harold phase). There are also exiles (Byron and the Shelleys). And—finally—there are Italians émigrés in England (the Rossettis).

In this post, I recommend some enjoyable and Romantically-informed travels in Italy—and invite you to contribute adventures of your own in the comments section!


Like the Romantics, you may find yourself exploring thousands of years of history with the help of a guidebook – perhaps Italy, written by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) in 1821. You might also consult Byron’s always entertaining prose. He wrote in 1817, “I am delighted with Rome—as I would be with a bandbox, that is, it is a fine thing to see, finer than Greece; but I have not been here long enough to affect it as a residence. [I have been] about the city, and in the city: all for which—vide Guide-book.”

But, apparently unsatisfied with the “Guide-book” in question, Byron developed his own vision of Rome in the fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, where he writes (with characteristic grandeur):

Rome—Rome imperial, bows her to the storm,
In the same dust and blackness, and we pass
The skeleton of her Titanic form,
Wrecks of another world, whose ashes still are warm. (IV. 46)


Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and control
In their shut breasts their petty misery. (IV. 78)

Rome admired Byron back, and it comes as no surprise that the poet is omnipresent in the city. In the Villa Borghese, for instance, look for the Byron statue at the entrance to the park. This is a copy of the famous Thorvaldsen bust of the poet, for which he posed in Rome in 1817 (the original statue, refused by Westminster Abbey, is at Trinity College, Cambridge).

Even classical sites like the Colosseum can be seen anew through a Byronic lens. The poet devotes six stanzas to the gladiatorial games that took place in that “enormous skeleton” in Childe Harold, Canto IV, and finishes with this epic misquotation of the Venerable Bede:

“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls—the World.” (145)

Nearby, Trajan’s Column, now separated from the Colosseum and the Roman Forum by a Mussolini-era expressway, also gets the sublime Byronic treatment: “Whose arch or pillar meets me in the face, / Titus or Trajan’s? No—’tis that of Time…” (Childe Harold IV. 110).

Byron began writing Canto IV—the Italian leg of his peripatetic long poem—in 1817, at his Roman residence, Piazza di Spagna 66, which is located at the bottom of the famous Spanish Steps. The building now seems to be a dentist’s office—suitably befitting its red-tooth-powder-obsessed former resident.

Considerably more important, however, is Piazza di Spagna 26, a pink building across the square and directly next to the steps. This is now the Keats-Shelley House. Keats died here in 1821, and the building has since been converted into a museum celebrating the life and works of the second-generation Romantic poets, especially Keats.

Keats-Shelley House from the Spanish Steps
Keats-Shelley House from the Spanish Steps

The poet’s modest rooms, on the second floor, are particularly moving: on the wall is a brass plaque that commemorates his death, and the bedroom has been restored to its historical condition, including the original fireplace and period furniture. The museum displays many of Keats’s belongings and letters, and even his death-mask.

The Keats-Shelley House also boasts an excellent collection of over eight thousand volumes related to Romanticism, including many early editions, as well as plentiful (and sometimes disturbing) paraphernalia associated with the English poets. There are many well-preserved original letters in Mary Shelley’s hand. Look out for locks of hair belonging to Milton and the Brownings, and scraps from Byron’s red bed-curtains (dating to the night terrors he experienced during his marriage). Perhaps most uncanny is Byron’s wax mask, which he wore during the Carnival at Venice. You can even take a virtual tour of the Salone (the central room) without the cost of airfare to Rome.

Shelley’s impassioned response to Keats’s death in “Adonais” (1821) leads us to our final Romantic site in Rome. “Go thou to Rome,” Shelley urges, to see the “slope of green access / Where, like an infant’s smile, over the dead / A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread” (433, 439-41)—that is, to the Protestant Cemetery, where not only Keats, but also Shelley’s son William (and ultimately Shelley himself) were buried. Other notable Romantics there include Keats’s friend Joseph Severn, and Shelley and Byron’s friend Edward Trelawny. Keats’s grave famously features only the inscription “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.” The map of the cemetery is available here.


Florence is known for its unparalleled art galleries, which were celebrated even in the time of the Romantics. Indeed, Byron’s letters attest to how little the collections have changed in two centuries:

“At Florence I remained but a day, having a hurry for Rome, to which I am thus far advanced. However, I went to the two galleries, from which one returns drunk with beauty. The Venus [dei Medici] is more for admiration than love; but there are sculpture and painting, which for the first time at all gave me an idea of what people mean by their cant, and what Mr. Braham calls “entusimusy” [enthusiasm] about those two most artificial of the arts. What struck me most were, the mistress of Raphael, a portrait; the mistress of Titian, a portrait; a Venus of Titian in the Medici gallery—the Venus; Canova’s Venus also in the other gallery: Titian’s mistress is also in the other gallery (that is, in the Pitti Palace gallery); the Parcae of Michael Angelo, a picture; and the Antinous—the Alexander—and one or two not very decent groups in marble; the Genius of Death, a sleeping figure, etc., etc.”

The Venus” (Byron’s eyebrows clearly raised) likely refers to the celebrated and controversial “Venus of Urbino,” which is still displayed in the Uffizi Gallery. The other portrait of “Titian’s mistress,” which the poet saw in the Pitti Palace (the former residence of the Medici family), has a particularly interesting history. Usually titled “La Bella,” this painting of an unknown woman (probably the same model used for the “Venus of Urbino”) was taken to France in 1800 during Napoleon’s conquest of Florence. (Napoleon briefly occupied the Pitti Palace itself, and his opulent bathrooms, which are still accessible to visitors, would likely have provided Byron with considerable entertainment). The painting was returned to Florence fifteen years later—only two years before the poet visited the Pitti Palace in 1817. When I visited the gallery in 2011, “La Bella” had just undergone an in-depth restoration, the details of which were explained in an extensive exhibit.

Today, the Pitti Palace also features Lorenzo Bartolini’s bust of Byron, for which the poet posed some years after his sitting with Thorvaldsen:

Bartolini's bust of Byron
Bartolini’s bust of Byron

Byron’s mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, offers an amusing account of the sculptor’s encounter with the poet:

“Bartolini, the sculptor, wrote to Lord Byron to ask permission to come to Pisa and carve a bust of him. Lord Byron liked very much to be surrounded by portraits of his friends and those whom he loved—but he was loath to pose himself. When he did , it was always to please friends. Thorwaldsen had sculptured his head and shoulders for Hobhouse, but Lord Byron did not even have a plaster cast. ‘It’s all very well,’ he said, ‘getting painted’ […] But to pose for a bust in marble struck him as vanity and pretentiousness, as wanting to obtrude oneself on posterity rather than leaving a private memento. […] When pressed, he replied that he would sit, provided it was not for himself, and that Bartolini would commit himself to doing a bust of Countess Guiccioli at the same time.

When [Bartolini] set eyes on Lord Byron, he announced that he could never do justice to such an original, since Lord Byron’s handsome appearance and his expression seemed to him to exceed the power of art. He was quite right […] His beauty was wellnigh superhuman in its manifestation, and Bartolini was far from being the man to overcome the difficulty.

Lord Byron himself […] was unfavorably impressed; and when the marble was destined for Murray, he wrote to him: ‘The bust does not turn out a good one, though it may be like for aught I know, as it exactly resembles a superannuated Jesuit.’ Then again: ‘I assure you Bartolini’s is dreadful.’ He also added that if it were like him, he could not be long for this world, for the bust made him look seventy.”

I leave Bartolini’s likeness to your judgment, though the partner bust of the Countess Guiccioli (normally held at the Istituzione Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna) strikes me as being quite serene and beautiful. And a reading of Browning’s “The Statue and the Bust” would not be amiss when visiting the Pitti Palace.

Bartolini's bust of Teresa Guiccioli
Bartolini’s bust of Teresa Guiccioli

Next, though not the grandest cathedral in Florence, the Basilica di Santa Croce is a fascinating historical site, and it too gets the Childe Harold treatment:

In Santa Croce’s holy precincts lie
Ashes which make it holier, dust which is
Even in itself an immortality,
Though there were nothing save the past, and this,
The particle of those sublimities
Which have relaps’d to chaos:—here repose
Angelo’s, Alfieri’s bones, and his,
The starry Galileo, with his woes;
Here Machiavelli’s earth, return’d to whence it rose.

These are four minds, which, like the elements,
Might furnish forth creation: —Italy! (IV. 54-55)

Santa Croce
Santa Croce

Though Harold was rhapsodically transported by the four great monuments within Santa Croce, Byron himself was less impressed: “The church of ‘Santa Croce’ contains much illustrious nothing. The tombs of Machiavelli, Michael Angelo, Galileo Galilei, and Alfieri, make it the Westminster Abbey of Italy. I did not admire any of these tombs—beyond their contents. That of Alfieri is heavy, and all of them seem to me overloaded. What is necessary but a bust and a name? and perhaps a date?” But in spite of Byron’s derision, Donatello’s frescoes are worth seeing, and more recent additions include a statue by Henry Moore and a monument to Florence Nightingale on the cathedral grounds.

Moving forward through the nineteenth century, a literary tour of Florence would be incomplete without a visit to Casa Guidi, where the Brownings lived from 1847 to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death in 1861. Casa Guidi is located on the piano nobile (second floor) at Piazza San Felice 8. Now owned by Eton College, the home has been restored as a museum. Look out for the Brownings’ personal collection of flea-market-acquired Renaissance art.

And, in true Browning spirit, when you visit one of Florence’s many street markets, bring along your copy of the Old Yellow Book, which Robert Browning bought at a Florentine market in 1860. The poet ultimately used the book’s voluminous correspondence about a 1698 murder case to develop his best-selling poem, The Ring and the Book.

La Spezia and the Bay of the Poets

A lovely day-trip from Florence will take you to the province of La Spezia in Liguria, located next to the Tuscan border. The area is most famous for the Cinque Terre, a collection of five tiny coastal villages now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which are linked by a train and hiking trails. The stretch between La Spezia proper and Lerici, one of the many small towns in the area, has been renamed the Golfo dei Poeti (the Bay of the Poets) after the Shelleys and Byron, who lived in the area. The Shelleys’ home on the beach of San Terenzo, Casa Magni, now renamed the Villa Shelley, is accessible by coastal road. The villa is actually available for private rental, though the damage deposit alone might prove too much for a graduate student’s stipend… There is also a monument to Shelley in nearby Viareggio, where Shelley was cremated.

The Byron Grotto is just behind this promontory
The Byron Grotto is just behind this promontory

Portovenere, another UNESCO-protected village on the Ligurian coast, pays considerable homage to Byron. Most important is the Byron Grotto, which commemorates the “Immortal Poet, who as a Daring Swimmer Defied the Waters of the Sea” by swimming from Portovenere to the Shelleys’ home at Lerici.

Byron Grotto in Portovenere
Byron Grotto in Portovenere

The grotto isn’t a particularly appealing swimming-hole, as it’s filled with sharp rocks (perhaps of interest to Romantic geologists!), but there is a staircase that will take you near the water’s edge. Local shops and pizzerias are also named in memory of Byron. And be sure to sample some of the locally made pesto (the town holds a Feast of the Basil every year).


To set the tone for your final stop, begin by reading Byron’s letters and journals from 1817-1818. A sample: “I am just come out from an hour’s swim in the Adriatic; and I write to you with a black-eyed Venetian girl before me, reading Boccaccio…” Poetically, his first attempt at ottava rima, Beppo, is absolutely required reading for a Venetian stay.

There are a few key literary stops. First is the Palazzo Mocenigo, which Byron rented from the Mocenigo family in 1818. The palace has been turned into a museum of textiles, and much of the décor on the piano nobile dates back to the eighteenth century.  The palazzo’s library holds extensive collections of early editions, including literary works by Byron and the Gambas (Teresa Guiccioli’s family of origin).

The view from the Palazzo Mocenigo in San Stae. The building on the right is the Palazzo
The view from the Palazzo Mocenigo in San Stae. The building on the right is the Palazzo

But be warned: there are several Mocenigo palaces in Venice. This museum is in the San Stae district. When I visited in 2011, museum staff told me that Byron lived on the piano nobile of that building; unfortunately, subsequent searches suggest that the poet lived in another Mocenigo palace in the San Marco district, which I can confirm is closed to the public. But you can see the San Marco Mocenigo palace from a #1 vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal, and admire the balcony from which Margarita Cogni took her impassioned dive during a domestic squabble with the poet.

More rewarding for the poetically-inclined is the Brownings’ palazzo, Ca’Rezzonico, which is located on the Grand Canal and has its own water-taxi stop. Bought by Pen Browning, the poets’ son, and his heiress wife, this was Robert Browning’s last residence. Like the Palazzo Mocenigo, Ca’Rezzonico has also been converted into a museum dedicated to eighteenth-century Venice. It boasts a recreated apothecary’s shop on one of the upper floors, and a traditional enclosed gondola, “Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe” (Beppo ll. 150-51), in the main entrance. (And, as Shelley’s heroic couplets in “Julian and Maddalo” make clear, “gondola” really did rhyme with “way” in the nineteenth century). Browning’s rooms are on the ground floor; when I visited, they were closed for repairs. The museum café is lovely, though, and you can sit on the terrace overlooking the canal.

Located in the city centre, St Mark’s Square, is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), the historical residence of the democratically-elected rulers of Venice, and its annexed prison. Notably for Romanticists, the Doge’s Palace features the so-called Bridge of Sighs, a name fancifully coined by Byron to commemorate the sighs of the prisoners as they caught a final glimpse of the lagoon before being taken to their cells. As usual, Childe Harold says it best:

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the wingèd Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! (IV.1)

The prisoners' last view from the Bridge of Sighs
The prisoners’ last view from the Bridge of Sighs

And, for eighteenth-century aficionados, the Doge’s Palace offers a splendid tour focused on Casanova’s imprisonment and dramatic flight from the allegedly “unescapable” prison.

My final suggestion, for those looking to emulate Casanova’s escape from Venice’s main tourist hub, is a short boat-journey to the Lido, the final stop on the #1 vaporetto line. Here, you can revisit the initial setting of Shelley’s conversation poem “Julian and Maddalo,” which was based on a series of philosophical debates he had with Byron in Venice in 1818. The “bank of land which breaks the flow / Of Adria towards Venice” was a favourite riding-place for the poets: “This ride was my delight.—I love all waste / And solitary places” (ll. 2, 14-15). And, looking West from the Lido at sundown, you can try to find the Maniac’s dwelling:

A building on an island; such a one
As age to age might add, for uses vile,
A windowless, deformed and dreary pile;
And on the top an open tower, where hung
A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung… (99-103)

One final word of caution: take care not to travel to the Lido in a “heavy squall,” lest you, like Byron, return to an unexpected dressing-down: “Ah! Dog of the Virgin, is this a time to go to the Lido?”

Happy travels—and may you, like the poets, be creatively inspired by Italy—the “Mother of Arts, once our guardian, and still our guide” (Childe Harold IV. 47).

(All photos belong to Arden Hegele)

Romantic Geologies and Post-Organic Forms

I’d like to begin by thanking the NGSC for welcoming me to this year’s blogging roster. It is a pleasure and privilege to write alongside these intriguing and diverse graduate scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the material our collective will produce this year.

The blog posts we’ve seen already have been so compelling, both intellectually and personally, that I would like to continue the conversation by engaging with the fundamental questions previous posts have posed. “Fundamental” seems to be a key word for us, as we think about how the foundations of our scholarly temperaments act as cornerstones for our intellectual flights. As Nicole and Deven’s posts illustrate, we can describe this layered relation of the personal to the scholarly by drawing on material metaphors of sedimentation, accretion, and metamorphosis.

Deven and Nicole’s descriptions of their scholarly uses of archaeology and geology—as accretive fields that can inform their work with the material aspects of literary texts—come at a fortuitous time, for me at least. I have been thinking about how aspects of literary form can be captured through scientific metaphors, and their posts have sparked my interest in thinking about how geology and Romantic poetic form intersect.

Geology is a fascinating area within the Romantic sciences, partly due to the period’s uncertainty about whether “rocks and stones and trees” formed an organic continuum. This problem of unclear organicity dated back at least to Buffon’s 1749 proposal that mountains were formed when “all the shell-fish were raised from the bottom of the sea, and transported over the earth.” During the height of British Romanticism, the problem of distinguishing between organic and inorganic forms was compounded by the discoveries of giant fossils of extinct lizards between sedimented layers of rock. In 1809, the natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who had already examined the fossil of a giant sloth and coined the term mastodon, classified these reptilian fossils as the Mosasaurus and the Ptero-Dactyle, leading the charge for the study of dinosaurs, which was to reach a high point in the discovery of the iguanodon in the 1820s. As a geologist as well as an early paleontologist, Cuvier was faced with the challenge of defining sedimented organic forms as both crucial to, and distinguished from, non-living terrestrial matter.

This instability of Romantic geology shook the foundations of the period’s poetry. Though we might usually think of huge and ancient organic forms first emerging “to rise and on the surface die” in Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken” (l. 15), Romantic literature abounds with buried dinosaurs and geological eruptions. Keats’s Endymion witnesses skeletons “Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan [and] Of nameless monster” on the ocean floor (III, 134-36), while in Cain, Byron challenges the usual Biblical chronology by referring to the “Mighty Pre-Adamites who walk’d the earth / Of which ours is the wreck” (II.ii, 359-60). Likewise, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes at length the “monstrous works and uncouth skeletons” and “anatomies of unknown winged things” that lie buried in the deep (IV. 299, 303). Moreover, geology could help describe the poetic process: we see this best in Byron’s celebrated metaphorical account of his own creative tendencies, with his passions building up internally and finally erupting volcanically into verse. (Meanwhile, in Don Juan, he jokingly writes, “I hate to hunt down a tired metaphor: / So let the often used volcano go. / Poor thing! How frequently, by me and others, / It hath been stirred up till its smoke quite smothers” [XIII.36]). At the same time, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Romantic geology poses a problem for Coleridge’s definition of literary organic form, which considers the growth of the text from its inception to its adult shape—not its later stages of death, decay, and post-organic potential re-use.

Today, Romantic geology, with its imagery of defunct and sedimented layers of organicity, has profound implications for how we think about poetic form—particularly the forms of Romantic poetry. Geology is a key metaphor for many Romantic critics: David Simpson, for instance, writes that “a great deal of Wordsworth’s poetry is best approached as if it were a core sample of an especially contorted geological substrate. One works with a rough prediction of how the layers ought to relate one to another, but there are continual local deviations and surprises.” Moreover, in recent New Formalist arguments, the sedimentation of dead organic matter can be a crucial motif for thinking abstractly about the life-cycle of a literary form or genre. Recently, I read a very compelling essay, Group Phi’s “Doing Genre” (in New Formalisms and Literary Theory, eds. Theile and Tredennick, 2013), which takes geology, plasticity, and recycling as its governing metaphors. In this text, Group Phi proposes that “genre” is a “sedimented and metamorphic historical category that is received by readers,” and that “form” is the “the reader’s activity of adopting/adapting that category for further use”—more simply, that a genre is like a sedimentary rock, with accretions of its use built up over time, while form is like the wind, shaping the rock and depositing new layers of use upon it. Further developing this intriguing metaphor of geological sedimentation, Group Phi then discusses at length how genres can be “recycled” and “repurposed”—to my mind, invoking a layer of crude oil, the result of decayed organic matter, that is buried within the sedimented structure, drawn out, made plastic, “refocused, repurposed” and reshaped, and then recycled for future use. This is no doubt a metaphor of literary form characteristic of our own time, reflecting our concerns about the ethics of geotechnical excavation, and particularly the problem of violently appropriating formerly organic structures, now metamorphosed into inorganic matter (oil). Group Phi’s invocation of recycling, mid-way through the essay, is perhaps one way of “greening” their potentially problematic metaphor of the generic sedimentation of post-organic (literary) forms.

But the Romantics themselves may have something to say about these contemporary geological forms, and here I’m thinking of Shelley in particular. In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, Shelley writes about the hero’s journey as he pursues “Nature’s most secret steps” to where the “bitumen lakes / On black bare pointed islets ever beat / With sluggish surge” (85-86). What Shelley means by “bitumen lakes” has long posed a problem for critics, who have variously identified them with the Dead Sea, with the lake of fire in Paradise Lost, or with molten lava-flows in general; the most obvious precedent for Shelley’s 1815 use of the term is Southey’s reference to the “bitumen-lake” in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). To me, the image of bitumen lakes in Alastor points within Romanticism to the era’s own problem of uncertain organicity (compounding the animal imagery of decayed dinosaurs, “bitumen” introduces a layer of vegetable matter in its etymological relationship to “pitch”). Yet for today’s readers, Alastor‘s bitumen lakes gain much in the translation: “bitumen” is the correct scientific term to describe the heavy crude oil now being excavated—in part, through hydrofracking—from the vast tar/oil sands of Alberta. Anticipating one of the great environmental controversies of our time, Shelley’s prescient use of the geological term can perhaps cast light on the deep Romantic substrates of current forms of representation of the tar/oil sands project.

In short, building on Group Phi’s model, we might look more closely at how the geological realities that underlie our contemporary metaphors of form and representation are built upon a deeper layer of Romantic uses. The mixed organicism of geological sediment has rich potential for talking about poetic language. Recalling Shelley’s account of continually dying metaphors in A Defence of Poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “language is fossil poetry”; we too might look to the strata of literature’s organic forms in our own search for deeper meanings within Romanticism.