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On this Date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was Born

September 8, 2017


On this date in 1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was born in Hanover. The following are some notes I used for my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

The German Romanticist, critic, and philologist was known primarily in England for his translation into German, with the assistance of his wife and others, of the plays of Shakespeare. He also became famous for his lectures: Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, published in 1815. William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt praised the lectures dealing with Shakespeare, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost certainly borrowed from them for his own Shakespeare Lectures. Schlegel was also, with his younger brother Friedrich, the editor of The Athenaeum Magazine (1798-1800) a manifesto of German Romanticism. He died in1845.

Here is a sample of A. W. Schlegel’s work, from his commentary on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. As a critic, Schlegel’s ideas still matter greatly in Shakespearean scholarship.

August Wilhelm Schlegel
from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808)

Of all the works of Shakespeare this is the only example of imitation of, or borrowing from, the ancients. I cannot acquiesce in the censure that the discovery is too long deferred: so long as novelty and interest are possessed by the perplexing incidents there is no need to be in dread of wearisomness. And this is really the case here: matters are carried so far that one of the two brothers is first arrested for debt, then confined as a lunatic, and the other is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary to save his life.

In a subject of this description it is impossible to steer clear of all sorts of low circumstances, abusive language, and blows; Shakespeare has however endeavored to ennoble it in every possible way. A couple of scenes, dedicated to jealousy and love, interrupt the course of perplexities which are solely occasioned by the illusion of the external senses.

A greater solemnity is given to the discovery, from the Prince presiding, and from the reunion of the long-separated parents of the twins who are alive.

The exposition, by which the spectators are previously instructed while the characters are still involved in ignorance, and which Plautus artlessly conveys in a prologue, is here masterly introduced in an affecting narrative by the father.

In short, this is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menaechmi; and if the piece be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because nothing more could be made of the materials.

Paul Varner

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Robert Southey and the Literary Life

May 3, 2017


Robert Southey and the Literary Life

“No one of his generation lived so completely in and for literature as did Southey. ‘He is,’ said Byron, ‘the only existing entire man of letters.’ With him literature served the needs both of the material life and of the life of the intellect and imagination; it was his means of earning daily bread, and also the means of satisfying his highest ambitions and desires.

“This, which was true of Southey at five-and-twenty years of age, was equally true at forty, fifty, sixty. During all that time he was actively at work accumulating, arranging, and distributing knowledge; no one among his contemporaries gathered so large a store from the records of the past; no one toiled with such steadfast devotion to enrich his age; no one occupied so honorable a place in so many provinces of literature.

“There is not, perhaps, any single work of Southey’s the loss of which would be felt by us as a capital misfortune. But the more we consider his total work, its mass, its variety, its high excellence, the more we come to regard it as a memorable, an extraordinary achievement.”


Robert Southey (1774-1843)

From Southey, by Edward Dowden. English Men of Letters Series, 1880.

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First Impressions: Dorothy Wordsworth Meets Her Brother

Racedown Cottage, the first residence of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in the Lake District

April 7, 2017

On this date William Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, UK.

Few brother-sister relationships in literary history have affected the course of western literature like that of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. The story of that relationship is the story of natural and shared genius, yet the genius of one relegated, obscured, and subordinated in her lifetime to the genius celebrated in his lifetime. Yet, William’s genius was dependent greatly upon that of his sister’s. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals were not published in her lifetime, but they reveal her genius and they reveal that she was for many of the early Wordsworth poems her brother’s collaborator. It’s not that William took advantage of his sister or that he would have denied her role as his partner if asked. Nineteenth-century English society took advantage of her.

Regardless, William Wordsworth received the acclaim of history and the western world as he dominated his age and mightily helped the worldwide paradigm change that was Romanticism.

Dorothy and William spent their childhoods apart with relatives after the deaths of their parents. So when they came together in early adulthood they really did not know each other well.

Here in a letter to her close friend Jane Pollard from February 1792, Dorothy offers her early impressions of her brother, at first comparing him to their brother Christopher:

Christopher is steady and sincere in his attachments. William has both these virtues in an eminent degree, and a sort of violence of affection, if I may so term it, which demonstrates itself every moment of the day, when the objects of his attentions to their wishes, in a sort of restless watchfulness which I may not know how to describe, a tenderness that never sleeps, and at the same time such a delicacy of manner as I have observed in few men.

In another letter to Pollard from June of that year, Dorothy writes an introduction to her brother whom she hopes Pollard will soon meet:

But it is enough to say that I am likely to have the happiness of introducing you to my beloved brother. You must forgive me for talking so much of him; my affection hurries me on, and makes me forget that you cannot be so much interested in the subject as I am. You do not know how amiable he is. Perhaps you reply, ‘But I know how blinded you are.’ Well, my dearest, I plead guilty at once; I must be blind; he cannot be so pleasing as my fondness makes him. I am willing to allow that half the virtues with which I fancy him endowed are the creation of my love; but surely I may be excused! He was never tired of comforting his sister; he never left her in anger; he always met her with joy; he preferred her society to every other pleasure—or rather, when we were so happy as to be within each other’s reach, he had no pleasure when we were compelled to be divided. Do not, then expect too much from this brother of whom I have delighted so to talk to you. In the first place, you must be with him more than once before he will be perfectly easy in conversation. In the second place, his person is not in his favour—at least I should think not; but I soon ceased to discover this—nay, I almost thought that the opinion which I had formed was erroneous. He is, however, certainly rather plain, though otherwise has an extremely thoughtful countenance; but when he speaks it is often lighted up by a smile which I think very pleasing. But enough, he is my brother; why should I describe him? I shall be launching again into panegyric.


On This Date: Friedrich von Schlegel Was Born

March 10, 2017


On this date in 1772 Friedrich von Schlegel was born in Hanover. He died in 1829. Here are a few notes I made in writing my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature.

Friedrich von Schlegel, the younger brother of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and one of the early Jena Romantics, was a leading German Romantic theorist whose ideas were popularized by his brother. He published frequently in the Athenaeum Magazine. His writings on Greek, Indic, and modern literature established a mode of thinking for his contemporaries and successors. Schlegel was notable for his studies of the history of literature, particularly Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern, published in 1818. His method was to contrast classical and romantic literature and expound his theory of what he termed “romantic irony,” or the consciousness on the part of the artist of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal artistic goal and the limited possibilities of achievement.

Paul Varner

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On This Date: The Death of John Keats

February 23, 2017


On this date in 1821 John Keats died in Rome. Here are some notes I made for a draft entry on Keats’s death in my Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature:

By the end of the year 1820 Keats’s declining health rapidly accelerated. After February he never wrote another poem. His temper darkened and he began his short life as a recluse. Some of his bitterness began to be directed toward Fanny Brawne. As a desperate measure Keats accepted the Shelleys’ invitation to travel to Italy and share their residence in Pisa. So in September 1820, accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, Keats moved to Italy. But his health was such that the move either did not help at all or it hastened the end. His close association with the Shelleys and with the Byron circle was brief. On 10 December he suffered a major hemorrhage followed in January with another severe attack. John Keats died in Rome near midnight on 23 February 1821. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near the tomb of Caius Cestius close to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s burial place. Keats’s tombstone epitaph reads, “Here lies One/ Whose Name was writ in Water.”

John Keats seemed to have a premonition of an early death for most of his brief adult life. Take a look at one of his most familiar sonnets, “When I Have Fears.”

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats wrote this sonnet at the same time as he wrote “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” in January 1818. Lord Houghton published both poems posthumously in 1848. “When I Have Fears” is one of Keats’s few Shakespearean sonnets. When the poet realizes that death may prevent him from achieving poetic fame and enjoying passionate love, he understands that love and fame are of no consequence ultimately. They sink to nothingness before the threat of oblivion

A tidbit: Notice the two dominant metaphors of the first and second quatrains respectively: that of the harvest and that of a cloudy night. The imagery of the first two quatrains seems to relate to the nature of the imagination, involving work and maturity in the first while the imagery of the second involves chance and inspiration.

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Paul Varner

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