Romantic Living

I realize the title of my first piece sounds like a Redbook article. It isn’t. Yet. But, I thought for my first post it’d be good to introduce myself by talking a little about how I’ve come to do, and view, Romantic studies and, in so doing, gesture towards why I think our field is particularly special. I do this because as we’re making the turn toward the end of an academic term it’s good to pat one’s self on the back and to do the same for others pursuing similar interests. In order to rescue this piece, however, from being mere intellectual biography, which admittedly would be pretty drab, I hope some of you reading will chime in in the comments about what your initial experiences were that initiated you into the field and how that informs (or doesn’t) the work you do now.

I’m generally positioned in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, and moving towards specializing in Blake studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon. What I’ve loved from the beginning about Romantic studies is how my intellectual, social, political, and environmental commitments can exist as an integrated whole—life as a romanticist has to some degree, for myself, as I know it has for others, always functioned as a way of living as a type of art in itself. 

Pretty much from the moment I initially encountered Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley in a lit survey course (however unfortunate it was figures like Mary Robinson and Anna Barbauld were left out, not to mention Byron) four years ago, I experienced something I imagine a few, if not most of those who frequent this blog, did. The cultural documents I encountered transformed in an exciting way how I viewed and related to my own world in a vitally immediate manner. Most poignantly for me, commitments to a liberatory ethos in terms of a casting off of ‘mind forg’d manacles’ (“London”) and to intensely experiencing nature in such a way that retains the potential to precipitate (pun intended as I watch a wintry mix fall outside the coffee shop where I’m writing in Eugene) an emergence and continuous renewal of—what I later came to realize represented—an ecological consciousness (“Mont Blanc”) became clarified. With Blake and Shelley as catalysts, the developmental trajectory of my studies coalesced into a new, pragmatic, and illuminating whole. Still I remember, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget, the way I felt when I climbed Camelback Mountain in Phoenix one February morning in 2007, taking a break from my first time writing on Shelley. An experience with nature that I had had so many times before, being an Arizona native, was revitalized and rendered somehow more authentic as a result of actively thinking through and writing on English Romantic texts.

Although I’ve since moved into Romantic visual culture, with the nature of the cultural documents I study having shifted somewhat, my initially pragmatic interests in the field have remained. Some mornings when riding my bike to campus along the Willamette River, I reflect on the ways in which my studies have influenced the changes I’ve made to how I work and live. Often, and particularly at the segment of my four mile bike trek to campus where my route takes me through a gorgeous field near the UO’s Autzen stadium (next year, the BCS Championship will go to the Ducks—it was published here first), I gaze across the Eugene countryside and am reminded of paintings like that of John Constable, where the artist’s experimentation with the realistic representation of the play of light in nature elides the mediating role of art work in the first place (fig. 1),

Fig. 1. John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, Oil on Canvas, 35.63 x 44 in. (87.9 x 111.8 cm.), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, used with permission (Images for Academic Publishing)

with Constable’s aesthetic shattering what Italian Renaissance art theorist Leon Battista Alberti theorized as the work of art as a type of window out into a mathematically and always rationally represented world. Such a Romantic way of viewing and reading, realized pictorially and poetically throughout the period, where the viewer (subject) and nature (object) collapse into one another and form an interconnective unity is something I try to realize on a pragmatic level, everyday—in terms of how I relate to my environment and others, striving to consistently move beyond myself in the best interests of both.

So, in closing, it’s for these reasons that I’ve come to see that “life as a romanticist is a life for me” and I have to say that I feel privileged to be a part of this community going forward. I can’t wait to get to know you all better in this space, at NASSR/ICR conferences, and other events down the road.

5 thoughts on “Romantic Living”

  1. The light in Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral” painting that you included here is indeed incredibly interesting and I’m running through a list of poems and novels in my mind that would be fun to read in conjunction with Constable’s experimentations with light. Jacob, how do your art history studies of Romanticism dovetail (or not) with literary Romanticism? In your MA coursework on Romanticism, for example, did you read literary works to accompany studies period painting, sculpture, etc.? Were there pairings that you found particularly interesting? Or are you nearly exclusively studying the artwork? I’m curious about the way graduate Romanticism studies are fashioned in a non-literature field. Thank you so much for your post!

  2. When I was an undergrad honors student, I took a seminar entitled “Sex, Drugs, and Rights: Experimentation in the British Romantic Era.” I took it as an elective and because of the cool title–and four years later, I’m working on Godwin and M. Shelley for my Master’s thesis.

    We read a couple Jacobin novels (Mary Hays’s “The Victim of Prejudice” and Eliza Fenwick’s “Secrecy”), De Quincey’s “Confessions,” Dacre’s “Zofloya,” and a few others. Suffice to say, the course was influential in terms of my decision to pursue Romanticism. I remember especially liking the Jacobins with all their equal rights talk and their anti-monarchical stance. I initially equated Romanticism to the genre of the novel and to risque subject matter because of this class, only later discovering The Big Six and the canonical politics inherent in my professor’s exclusion of Wordsworth and poetry in general.

    I have worked a little on Wordsworth (“The Prelude”) and love four of the Six (Blake and Keats I know the least about.) I enjoy studying Romantic era lit because I continually discover a new writer/poet/critic/novelist/event/figure from the period who says/does interesting things. I’m just now discovering the Luddite riots and Byron’s parliementary speech defending the Luddites. (I guess I gravitate toward the radical writings and figures from this period.)

    I’m just never bored reading Romantic-era writers.

    I enjoyed reading your post. Most of my friends in the grad program are adamantly opposed to reading anything before the modernist period, so it’s nice to know there are other Romanticist aspirants out there.

    Oh, and I live in L.A. Not too many nature-y scenes over here but I dream about Wordsworthian landscapes (as pretentious as this sounds.)

  3. Kirstyn, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad the post catalyzed some thought in terms of the representation of light in literary texts for you. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear what came to mind.

    To answer your first question, the best way to describe how my art historical and literary studies in Romanticism dovetail is my interest in how a work of art simultaneously absorbs and re-appropriates not just other forms of visual art, but also the literary texts, that surround and precede it. Specifically, this quarter, I started some work on the gaze in William Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s Comus. Doing so required that I trace the way Blake engages both the original literary text and other influential depictions of the gaze in visual art with which Blake would’ve been familiar.

    Relative to coursework, I’ve yet to take anything specifically in Romanticism. However, in the first quarter, I took what turned out to be an excellent course called Symbolism & Decadence in the Art History department, which covered both art and literature of the fin-de-siècle and dealt extensively with “Post-Romantic” artists and ideas. Artists were often paired with texts where forms of visual and verbal representation proved resonant. For instance, when looking at Gustave Moreau, whose canvases are quite visually dense (for instance, he even tattooed the surface of one of his Salomé paintings with vibrant hieroglyphic designs—take a look, it’s stunning), his art was paired with Huysmans’ novel Against the Grain, which thrust toward a similar visually saturated literary aesthetic.

    Specialization in Romantic studies, both for myself and the other career romanticist in the department, thus far, however, has been almost entirely facilitated through independent study directed by our adviser, as opposed to coursework (the exception being required first-year seminars covering general topics like “Text & Image,” where we’re free to write on topics geared towards our respective specialties). I’m wondering if this is different from graduate studies in English. Art History is so dominated by Renaissance and Modernist studies, especially here at the UofO, that it’s difficult to take specialized coursework in the field—at least in my home department.

  4. César: pleased to meet an LA-based aspiring romanticist, here. I have to confess that, after visiting for the first time for MLA this year, LA simply seems like the perfect locale to try out the more decadent sides of Romanticism (on that note, have you ever been to The Standard, downtown?—*really* enjoyed that place).

    That aside, the prospect of colliding Godwin and Mary Shelley sounds like a very intriguing thesis project. I’d love to hear how the project crystallized, what sort of reading it has entailed, and the direction your ideas have taken, generally.

    Let me know, also, where your reading of Byron and the Luddites goes. After the recent events back home related to SB1070 led me to proclaim myself a self-imposed exile (not that I wasn’t leaving for grad school anyways), I’ve become increasingly interested in Romantic political radicalism. So, it’d be wonderful to hear more about your interests in this respect, either in this venue, over email, Skype, or some other medium.

    I certainly appreciate the positivity of your reply and look forward to meeting you down the road.

    1. Pleased to meet you too, Jacob. I registered for MLA but was unable to go. And The Standard: never been. Sounds like I should check it out.

      I can email you and we can stay in contact that way–what’s your email?

      Were you at last year’s NASSR conference in Vancouver? I was. Maybe we met. I plan on going to Utah this year, even if my proposal is not accepted.

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