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Romanticism and Disaster

"The Ruins of Empire and the Contradictions of Restoration: Barbauld, Byron, Hemans"

William Keach
Brown University


1.        The Prince Regent was a notorious “ruin gazer.” Colonel Hanmer Warrington, the British consul-general in Tripoli, knew this, and in 1816 he persuaded the local governor to allow the Prince Regent to “help himself” to the remains of the Roman imperial city of Leptis Magna in Libya. Despite local opposition and resistance, Warrington arranged for Commander W.H. Smyth to ship many pieces of this ruin to England: twenty-two granite columns, fifteen marble columns, ten capitals, twenty-five pedestals, seven loose slabs, ten pieces of cornice, five inscribed slabs, various sculptural fragments. When the shipment arrived in London it also included the colossal bust of Memnon from the temple of Ramesses at Thebes (the provocation for Percy Shelley’s "Ozymandias" ), which had been collected at Malta. Between August and October 1826, after several years in the British Museum, the ruins from Leptis Magna were transported on gun carriages to Virginia Water, a royal site within Windsor Great Park. There, according to The Royal Landscape website, between June 1827 and March 1828, they “were arranged by Sir Jeffry Wyatville, George IV’s architect, in the form of a ruined Roman temple,” which came to be called the “Temple of the Gods” or “Temple of Augustus.”

2.        Christopher Woodward and Sophie Thomas have given informative accounts of this project through which King George IV entered the annals of princes and aristocrats who created fake ruins out of real ones (Woodward 136-9, Thomas 177-8, 185). It seems that over 600 columns from Leptis Magna had been given to Louis XIV for use in his palaces at Versailles and Paris—so in quantitative terms the Prince Regent’s expropriation was relatively modest by comparison. By the end of the Victorian period, time and the English weather were discovered to have been ruining the fake ruins. Efforts at preservation and restoration were undertaken and have continued intermittently into the present. The final page on The Royal Landscape website is devoted to the very recent work of the Ruins Repair Project Team: “All of the stone and brick used in the reconstruction was found on the site, and all the building methods used were traditional ones that would have been used in the early 19 century.” This text is accompanied by a photo: "The restored Ruin, May 2009."

3.        I begin with this anecdote from Regency ruin culture as a way of framing the following exploration of contradictory discourses of ruin in a sequence of historically and intertextually connected poems from this decade. My argument particularly attends to ruin’s abiding companion process, restoration. The centuries-long European tradition of gazing at, meditating upon, representing, selling, and buying ancient ruins is persistently accompanied by the compensatory activities of reconstructing, conserving, preserving them. Ruin fosters restoration, which in turn may variously constitute itself as a kind of ruin, even as a form of disaster—and not only in the sense in which Ruskin and Morris denounced the destruction of Britain’s medieval architectural heritage in the effort to “restore” it. “Restoration” means political as well as architectural or aesthetic reconstitution and needs to figure persistently in efforts to rethink the cultural politics of ruin and of ruins. Restoring an artificial ruin so that it continues to look like a ruin is one of many permutations of the ruin/restoration dyad.

4.        To this dyad we may add a third term intrinsic to the cultural-political process at issue: survival. Ruins presuppose survival and materialize it; restoration seeks to sustain the survival of ruins, but in doing so imperfectly arrests and undoes both ruin and survival. In a trenchantly comprehensive essay entitled "Imperial Debris," Ann Laura Stoler says of Derek Walcott:

Rejecting the pathos of ruins, he opted for a celebration of survival. But his vision was not only romantic. It was full of rage. . . . Melancholy, compassion, and pity nourish imperial sensibilities of destruction and the redemptive satisfaction of chronicling loss. Ruins hold histories but are less than the sum of the sensibilities of people who live in them. Instead we might turn to ruins as epicenters of renewed claims, as history in a spirited voice, as sites that animate new possibilities, bids for entitlement, and unexpected political projects. (Stoler 197)
“Survival” for Stoler means the simultaneous living on of ruins and of people whose lives are defined and constrained but also charged with critical resistance by them. Her remarks make implicit contact with but move in a direction quite distinct from Derrida’s effort to inhabit the unfinished inbetweenness of Romantic—and specifically Shelleyan—survival in The Triumph of Life ("Living On: Borderlines," 1979). It is at once surprising and confirming for Stoler to say that “[Walcott’s] vision was not only romantic [my emphasis],” for this implies that any dichotomizing opposition between “pathos” and “rage,” between “romantic” melancholy and “renewed claims,” belies the way in which one kind of affective relation to ruins can transform itself into another. Ruins survive insofar as people to whom they have meaning invest them, nostalgically or resistingly, with their sense of living on. There is a grotesque difference—but also an occluded relationship—between the Caribbean “sugar estates and abandoned forts” to which Walcott refers and the Prince Regent/George IV’s Leptis Magna folly. England’s ruins, both the fake and the not-so-fake—lived on via the flow of colonial wealth. In 1817 Byron managed to sell Newstead Abbey to Thomas Wildman, an old Harrovian and British army officer, for 94,500 pounds. These funds, and the 100,000 pounds Wildman subsequently spent in restoring the Byron family property, were generated by a sugar plantation in Jamaica (Marchand 275-6 and note).

5.        The historical crossings between ancient ruin culture and more recent imperial ruination are semantic as well as historical. As Stoler observes, “‘Ruin’ is both the claim about the state of a thing and a process affecting it. . . . To turn to its verbal, active sense is to begin from a location that the noun ruin too easily freezes into stasis, into inert object, passive form. Imperial projects are themselves processes of ongoing ruination, processes that ‘bring ruin upon,’ exerting material and social force in the present” (Stoler 195). Refashioning the Roman imperial ruins of Leptis Magna at Virginia Water, we might say, is enabled by and enables the “ongoing ruination” of British imperial exploitation.

6.        Yet critical reflection on this process—even on this very example—can also be part of resisting the ways in which ruin gazing and ruin culture function within ongoing processes of imperial ruination. Some of the poetic texts I will explore here derive their political and aesthetic integrity from such critical reflection; others promote a celebratory enthusiasm, at once aesthetic and political, designed to pre-empt and block a resistant critical understanding of what and how ruins come to be valued. Julia Hell recognizes this constitutive ambivalence in her Introduction to Ruins of Modernity, where she focuses momentarily on “a veritable explosion” of texts deploying the thematics and the rhetoric of ruins to represent “some of romanticism’s core concerns.” These include “the political ramifications of the French revolution, an event in Roman (dis)guise that opened a gap between the modern and premodern worlds; the nature of the modern, its aesthetics, and its philosophies of history; and Rome, both republican and imperial, which constitutes one of the most enduring topoi of the ruin archive, the theme of the rise and decline of empires” (Ruins of Modernity, 2). These Romantic “concerns” figure prominently but ambiguously in the texts that interest me, especially with respect to their articulations of Britain’s role in determining the trajectory of the Napoleonic imperial project at moments unstably situated between triumph and catastrophe, commercial and military pre-eminence and social crisis.

7.        Reading this historical process in Regency poetry will mean extending Hell’s naming of “romanticism’s core concerns” to include “England’s ruins” alongside the ruins of Roman and of post-Napoleonic Europe. As Anne Janowitz has argued, native ruins (particularly landscape ruins) performed powerful ideological work in shaping national identity during Britain’s eighteenth-century rise to global prominence, its confrontation with Revolutionary and then with Napoleonic France as rival hegemon, and its post-Waterloo emergence from this confrontation as an imperial power with deep internal contradictions (Janowitz 1-19). England’s ruins and the ruins of ancient imperial cultures speak to each other in Regency poetry. What they say is over-determined and conflicted in ways that produce both conformity and confrontation.

8.        Canonical ruin culture transvalues fall, decay, collapse, disaster into sites and objects of positive aesthetic and ideological value: the positive transvaluation subsumes and idealizes the negation of ruin as historical, material reality. Critical ruin discourse enters this realm of aesthetic transvaluation and discloses historical and material circumstances that otherwise remain suppressed and mystified. As Stoler observes, it is Benjamin who establishes the most productive precedent for a critical reading of ruin that begins by inhabiting a “dream-collective,” an ideologically saturated terrain of idealization and mystification. The Arcades Project, Stoler writes, “provides the canonical text for thinking about ruins as ‘petrified life,’ as traces that mark the fragility of power and the forces of destruction” (Stoler 194). In this as in many other respects, Benjamin articulates the crucial interface between what we might broadly call Romantic and post-Romantic forms of modernity. His focus on nineteenth-century Paris constitutes as primary field of ruin the historical and cultural terrain between the Revolution and the beginnings of Romanticism on the one hand, and twentieth-century modernism on the other. In the culminating moment of European capitalism, Benjamin says, “we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled” ("Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century" [1935], Arcades Project 13). It is what Stathis Gourgouris calls “Benjamin’s idiosyncratic anti-Romanticism” that gives his commentary on the Romantic century its remarkable suggestiveness and force. When Stoler distinguishes what she sees as her own less tragic line of analysis—“ruins are also sites that condense alternative senses of history”—she mischaracterizes Benjamin’s critical commitment to this very project. His reading of the Paris arcades as structures incorporating the fantasies of a new kind of consumer society evolves via passages from affective participation to dialectical critique, from knowing seduction to historical awakening. “The new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth. To pass through and carry out what has been in remembering the dream!” (Arcades Project 389). This “method” becomes distinctively productive in constructing as its “dialectical image” the ruined arcade, for it is in its conditions as already ruined that the architecture of capitalist culture most fully discloses its status in the ongoingness of social history.

9.         The value of Benjamin’s ruin-reading becomes especially evident in comparison to the more limited neo-Romantic claims of Georg Simmel’s famous 1911 essay "The Ruin." Simmel revives both the Schillerian and the Hegelian idealist dialectic of “spirit” and “nature,” of human mental agency and a material realm that is at once resistant to and—uniquely, for Simmel, in the art of architecture—complicit in “carrying out the [mind’s] plan, as it were, with its own forces.” This generates Simmel’s celebration of the architectural ruin’s “unique balance . . . between mechanical, inert matter . . . and informing spirituality” (Simmel 259). Simmel’s dialectic remains entirely conceptual and metaphysical; it offers no purchase on ruins as indices or tropes of material history—which is why he insists that the “fascination of the ruin” derives not from “destruction by man” but from an ineluctable “effect of nature.”

10.        Benjamin inverts Simmel’s hymn to “that metaphysical calm which attaches to the decay of a material work by virtue of a profound a priori,” tracing instead the ways in which ruins make legible simultaneously natural and social processes. We have much still to learn by rereading Romantic discourses of ruin through the lens of Benjamin’s post-Romantic dialectics. The first arcades in Paris were constructed in anticipation of Napoleon’s return from his Egyptian campaign; by the time the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, some arcades were already beginning to deteriorate as architectural and social spaces. Meditating on arcades and associated urban structures fallen into ruin, Benjamin finds himself returning to that canonical site of ancient natural/social ruination, the ruins of Pompeii (Leslie 108). The Arcades Project points the way to freshly elaborated understandings of how the ruins of ancient empires shaped—and still shape—the political and cultural ruins of the nineteenth century.

11.         We need to recognize, however, that eighteenth-century ruin culture had already developed critical as well as melancholic and nostalgic perspectives. Goldsmith’s "The Deserted Village" is not just a wistful lament for the bygone days of “sweet Auburn”; it also offers a kind of critique of modern commercial, urbanizing existence. Less reactionary ways of deploying a vocabulary of ruins were also available, as Andreas Huyssen has shown in recent work on Piranesi’s distinctive concept of the “authentic ruin,” which enters European culture of the 1740s and 1750s not as the melancholy revival of an originary past but as a critical—and self-critical—imaging of cultural instability (Ruins of Modernity, 22-7). Huyssen’s argument is directly pertinent to my readings of Barbauld and Byron—and also, less directly, of Hemans, whose early poems of ruin and restoration illuminate by contrast the potential within Romantic ruin culture for a poetry of defiant resistance.

12.        Anna Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven shocked and dismayed Regency readers. Published in early February 1812, some seven months after the Prince of Wales celebrated his promotion to Prince Regent, the poem opens with an attack on a disastrous war from which nobody but the old ruling class could benefit. It goes on to elaborate a future vision of England in ruins—of England as ruins—whose value will derive entirely from their transformation into forms of cultural property and cultural capital. The countervailing forces in the poem—the opening condemnation of the Napoleonic “despot’s sway,” the celebration of Britain’s current though threatened commercial pre-eminence, the extended praise of British artistic and scientific achievement—failed to moderate the outrage of readers and reviewers who (rightly) felt themselves compelled to question British exceptionalism: “Britain, know, / Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe./ . . . Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here” (45-6, 49). If the present ruins of imperialist war are still distant for Britons not directly engaged in fighting, the future ruins the poem imagines pervade the core of the metropole, as “London’s faded glories rise to view” (157) and “pilgrims” from Canada and the United States “some crumbling turret, mined by time, / The broken stairs with perilous step shall climb” (171-2).

13.         Barbauld invests this future England in ruins with a contradictory double valence. On the one hand, the ruins are vestiges of British social and especially commercial decay rooted in imperialist war:

Thy baseless wealth dissolves in air away . . .
Sad, on the ground thy princely merchants bend
Their altered looks, and evil days portend,
And fold their arms, and watch with anxious breast
The tempest blackening in the distant West.
Yes, thou must droop; thy Midas dream is o’er;
The golden tide of Commerce leaves thy shore . . .
(lines 53, 55-62)
This vision of the future demise of British power is importantly indebted to Volney, whose meditation on the crumbling remains of ancient Palmyra provokes an imaging of future disaster for present empires, including France:
. . . revolving in my mind the vicissitudes which have transmitted the scepter of the world to people so different in religion and manners from those in ancient Asia to the most recent of Europe, . . . I began to reflect on the situation in which I had left [France]. . . . I was gratified to find in modern Europe the departed splendor of Asia; but the charm of my reverie was soon dissolved by a last term of comparison. . . . who knows, said I, but such may one day be the abandonment of our countries? Who knows if on the banks of the Seine, the Thames, the Zuyder-Zee . . . some traveler, like myself, shall not one day sit on their silent ruins, and weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their former greatness.
(Volney 2. 13)

14.        Barbauld foregrounds her poem’s connections with Volney’s radically democratic “Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires”:

England, the seat of arts, [will] be only known
By the gray ruin and the mouldering stone;
That Time may tear the garland from her brow,
And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now.
(lines 123-6)
Within these evocations of recurrent, cyclical ruin, however, are the seeds of a process of transvaluation that moves in a direction quite different from anything in Volney. England’s loss of economic and political power produces a new kind of cultural wealth that assumes the form of ruin—that preserves the greatness of Locke and Milton, of Fox and Nelson, as a heritage of ruin available only, or most dramatically, to visitors from former North American colonies. Barbauld rejects any prospect of restoration, elaborating instead a form of preservation- and propagation-in-ruin. British national heritage, one might say, will be available only to “Nations beyond the Apalachian hills” (83), to “the ingenuous youth whom Fancy fires / With pictured glories of illustrious sires” (126-7). Perhaps some Briton may “lead his wondering guests” to the ruined sites of former power—but in Barbauld’s vision the value of such sites accrues to the tourists, not to their native guides or, presumably, to those who still own these sites as “real” property.

15.         Barbauld reverses the characteristic movement of Benjamin’s ruin-reading: instead of proceeding from affective participation to critical awakening, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven begins with critical alarm at the ruins of war and out of this shapes an elegiac future for British culture as ruin. The terms on which British greatness will survive as ruin are additionally articulated through the reversal of an Enlightenment and Romantic master-trope, according to which human history progresses as the diurnal movement of light from east to west. Barbauld deploys the trope conventionally early in the poem: “And Europe sit in dust, as Asia now.” She complicates it, however, by imagining England’s future ruins in the shape of palaces and museums that contain, as did earlier imperial ruins, expropriated representations of this very process. Visitors who view these ruins-within-ruins have political lessons to learn as they acquire the cultural capital of their forbears:

Oft shall the strangers turn their eager feet
The rich remains of ancient art to greet,
The pictured walls with critic eye explore,
And Reynolds be what Raphael was before.
On spoils from every clime their eyes shall gaze,
Egyptian granites and the Etruscan vase;
And when midst fallen London, they survey
The stone where Alexander’s ashes lay,
Shall own with humbled pride the lesson just
By Time’s slow finger written in the dust.
(lines 205-13)
Learning this “lesson just”—that what are often called “priceless” antiquities to be found in London’s ruined institutions were and remain the “spoils” of empire—depends on a countermovement to the east-to-west direction of cultural progress and decline. It is a west-to-east retrogression that will produce both touristic pleasure and critical knowledge among future generations, a return to the parent nation in ruins that “shall,” in a concluding vision remapping the constitutive east-west coordinates onto a new north-south axis, lead to a “world” that is “free.” [1] 

16.        If Eighteen Hundred and Eleven was the most reviled major poem of the early Regency, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published just over a month later on 10 March 1812, was the most celebrated. Strangely, Byron seems never to have said a word about Barbauld’s poem, perhaps because at that moment, as he wrote to Francis Hodgson on 16 February of that year, “I won’t even read a word of the feminine gender;—it must all be propria quae maribus” (Byron’s Letters and Journals 2. 163). Yet the movement from England’s ruins to the ruins of Greece and the Ottoman Empire in Childe Harold stands in complex and revealing relationship to what the reviewer for the Universal Magazine read as Barbauld’s “tragical” satire (Barbauld 310).

17.        Byron’s “Romaunt” opens with a scene of double ruin: Childe Harold’s personal ruin, his “crime” (1.27) or “Sin” (1.37), has introduced “uses vile” into what we are given to accept as the noble ruin of “his father hall,” “a vast and venerable pile, / So old, it seemed only not to fall” (1.55-7). His motivation for leaving “his native land” to “visit scorching climes beyond the sea” (1.51-2) arises from shame—he is ruining the family ruin, we might say—and from a kind of boredom or “satiety” (1.34) that becomes part of what makes his confessed “crime” glamorously alienating. Childe Harold’s departure from England’s ruins, then, is at once obedient and transgressive, and evokes analogous fantasies in the reader. There is no mention here at the outset of an England ruined by war, as in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. Byron’s England is initially an Albion whose ruins are intrinsic to its ancient “heritage” (1.91). Childe Harold’s threat to that heritage is staged in terms that make it fascinatingly ruinous; “crime” and “satiety” become signs of a darkly desirable perversity whose trajectory points forward to the “scorching climes” of an orientalist quest.

18.         Between Harold and the ruins, ancient and modern, that he seeks to the east lies the reality of the Peninsular War. “[L]ovely Spain! renown’d, romantic land!” (1.386) is being destroyed, and not only by Napoleon’s armies and a faltering Spanish resistance. “Albion” is now “the fond ally / That fights for all, but ever fights in vain” (1.445-6), lines that recall—and may even echo—Barbauld’s image of a Britain that “Bravely, though vainly, dares to strive with Fate, / And seeks by turns to prop each sinking state” (5-6). Byron’s criticism of British military aims goes further than Barbauld’s, however. Though his original note on stanza 33 praises “The late exploits of Lord Wellington” who “has, indeed, done wonders,” Byron’s stanzas on the Battle of Talavera present a grim vision of the blind futility of war quite close to Barbauld’s. The contending armies “Are met—as if at home they could not die— / To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain, / And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain” (1.447-9). The sequence that follows dissolves all patriotic glory in an apprehension of mutual disaster. Albuera, where the French were defeated on 16 May 1811 by British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces, is a “glorious field of grief,” “A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed” (1.459, 462). Byron’s resistance to militarized patriotism will be for him, as it is on different terms for Barbauld, deeply connected to their respective interventions into the politics of ruin culture. The meditation at the very end of Canto 1 most immediately registers Byron’s personal grief over the death of John Wingfield, but its movement from “dreams” to “Consciousness awakening to her woes” (1.938, 941) also looks forward to the ruins of Greece.

19.         These ruins have already made a preemptive if indirect intrusion into the stanzas on Spain:

Oh, thou Parnassus! . . .
Oft have I dream’d of Thee! . . .
. . . — Ev’n amidst my strain
I turn’d aside to pay my homage here;
Forgot the land, the sons, the maids of Spain;
Her fate, to every freeborn bosom dear,
And hail’d thee . . .
(1.616, 621, 639-43)
This disruption of the travel narrative by a narrative of compositional desire (Byron did not draft the stanzas on Portugal and Spain, which he visited in the summer of 1809, until he arrived in Greece in the late autumn) indicates the supervening force of Greece in ruins for the entire textual performance. At the same time, the opening address to Athena and to Athens in Canto 2 presupposes the ruins of “war and wasting fire” (2.4) that Harold has witnessed on the Iberian Peninsula, and that he now confronts in Greece itself. His response to Athens is historical and political from the outset: “o’er each mouldering tower, / Dim with the mist of years, gray flits the shade of power” (2.17-18). Then gradually, via stanzas of generalized reflection on “yon defenceless urn” (2.20) and “the vanish’d Hero’s lofty mound” (2.37), the Parthenon rises in the shape of a question: “Is that a temple where a God may dwell?” (2.44).

20.        Byron’s question opens a space in which the poem’s first major critical excursus on the ruins of empire unfolds. As the narrator displaces Harold and seems to occupy the conventionalized Piranesian position of the reflective ruin connoisseur seated upon “this massy stone, / The marble column’s yet unshaken base” (2.82-3), he quickly makes clear that the British have replaced the Ottomans as the most flagrant “plunderers of yon fane” (2.91). The five stanzas condemning the removal and sale of the Parthenon sculptures to the British government involve a relation between the politics of imperialist war and the politics of culture that differs sharply from Barbauld’s vision. Elgin is the “last, the worst, dull spoiler” (2.94), a “barbaric” aristocrat who has ruined by expropriating “what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared” (2.101). In a note “too long to be placed here” (within the poem’s text), Byron explains that “Lord Elgin [may] boast of having ruined Athens” ("Appendix to Canto the Second," Note [A]). French and Italian as well as British interests converge in a “devastation” marked by a grotesque mixture of trivial dilettantism, military coercion, and vast private wealth. At the center of the scene is Giovanni Lusieri, the Neapolitan court painter and cultural middleman whom Elgin hired to supervise the removal: “While he and his patrons confine themselves to tasting medals, appreciating cameos, sketching columns, and cheapening gems, their little absurdities are as harmless as insect or fox-hunting, maiden speechifying, barouche-driving, or any such pastime; but when they carry away three or four shiploads of the most valued and massy relics that time and barbarism have left to the most injured and celebrated of cities, when they destroy, in a vain attempt to tear down, those works which have been the admiration of ages, I know no motive which can excuse, no name which can designate, the perpetrators of this dastardly devastation” (Byron 190-91). Byron follows but goes beyond Gibbon here in extending the discourse of barbarism to the inheritors and exploiters of empire. Elgin’s deal with the Turks for the Parthenon ruins enacts, at the level of cultural property, a degradation of Greek potential for liberty and self-determination—however distant the prospect of realizing this potential may have seemed at the time. Byron goes on to distance himself from the entire sphere of cultural investment and acquisition—“I am not a collector or admirer of collections”—in a gesture with critical implications for the status of cultural politics as it evolves in the later cantos of Childe Harold. He also extends his attack on imperialist cultural predation back into its founding moment by linking Elgin to Gaius Verres (120-43 BC), the notoriously corrupt Roman governor of Sicily prosecuted by Cicero for, among other things, devastating the temples and private houses of that province (Miles 19-34).

21.        Addressing the full critical scope of Byron’s stanzas on Greece in Canto 2 is beyond the reach of my argument here. It would mean tracing the aftermath of the “Elgin Marbles” controversy into its present status in the polemics of books such as James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. It would also mean extending Saree Makdisi’s challenging account of the ways in which “the text of [Byron’s] musings on Hellenistic antiquity is shaped by the context of the Oriental world within which he finds the ruins of ancient Greece” (Makdisi 206). The Albanian sequence later in Canto 2 is especially important in making legible an erotics of ruin that is suppressed in the moment when “Greek love” might have figured into the narrator’s elegiac anger towards the desolation of modern Athens. I defer detailed discussion of these issues, however, in order to sustain a more delimited focus on the critical import of Byronic ruin discourse. It is emphatically a discourse that repudiates “restoration”:

Hence let me trace
The latent grandeur of thy dwelling-place.
It may not be: nor ev’n can Fancy’s eye
Restore what Time hath labour’d to deface.
Whatever form Byron’s early philhellenic impulses may take, they will not attach themselves to visions of either antiquarian reparation or political restitution (in the sense of “restoring” a previously existing form of the state). Elgin has seized “relics ne’er to be restored” (2.132) and made them British property; there can be no undoing of this ruin as historical event. The future of Greece’s political and aesthetic renewal will have to be built in the midst of this ruin, through the survival of a hope that, in the words of Shelley’s Demogorgon, “creates, / From its own wreck, the thing it contemplates” (Prometheus Unbound 4.573-4).

22.        For Byron and his Regency contemporaries, Waterloo marked a watershed in the valuing of ruins and the meaning of restoration. Felicia Hemans’s The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, her first significant poetic success, responds to the immediate post-Waterloo moment in terms antithetical to those I have been looking at in Byron and Barbauld. The first edition was published by Byron’s own publisher, John Murray, in May, 1816, and it did well enough to justify a second, much-expanded edition later that year—this one identifying Hemans as author. Byron told Murray in September that he found The Restoration “a good poem—very” and intended to take it with him on his anticipated travels through Italy (Byron’s Letters and Journals, 5. 108). Whatever may have motivated this judgment, it is surprising: Hemans writes about British patriotism and its relation to the timeless, transcendent claims of art in ways that conflict dramatically with the cultural politics of Childe Harold.

23.        The first edition of Hemans’s poem opens with a complicated epigraphic sequence. A line from Byron’s The Giaour celebrating the Greek Isles appears on the title-page: “AS IF FOR GODS A DWELLING PLACE.” This is followed by five lines from a famous sonnet by Count Vincenzo da Filicaja (1642-1707) representing Italy as a woman burdened with a “Dono infelice di bellezza” (“graced / With ill-starred beauty” in Hemans’s own 1818 translation), then by a passage from the Rev. J.C. Eustace’s popular A Classical Tour Through Italy (3rd edition, 1815) in which Napoleon’s project of making Italy part of the French Empire is said to “have rivaled or rather surpassed the rapacity of the Goths and Vandals” (Hemans 31). These gestures set in motion a performance in which an elegiac idealization of Italy’s supreme but tragic artistic heritage, recurrently identified with an aesthetic of “romantic” ruin, coexists with a celebration of “restoration” understood, as Susan Wolfson notes, both as reestablishment of the papacy and aristocracy and as restitution of the works of art which Napoleon’s forces had “liberated” and taken to Paris. Just how the “grandeur” of “decay” that defines Italian artistic culture is to survive its “restoration” arises as a central question in both early versions of the poem.

24.        The thematic complex of Italy’s glorious “Desolation” (112) in relation to its splendid restoration (101-4) is linked emphatically in the expanded second edition to a triumphant affirmation of Britain’s heroic military intervention: “Land of the lyre! ‘twas there th’avenging sword / Won the bright treasures to thy fanes restored” (87-8). It is hard to imagine that Byron was responding to such lines as these when he praised Hemans’s poem to Murray. Or that he would have tolerated, much less admired, Hemans’s epically inflected encomium of Wellington:

Sing of that Leader, whose ascendant mind,
Could rouse the slumb’ring spirit of mankind;
Whose banners track’d the vanquished Eagle’s flight
O’er many a plain, and dark Sierra’s heights; . . .
And ‘midst those scenes renew’d th’achievements high,
Bequeathed to fame by England’s ancestry.
(lines 33-6, 43-4).
Under the sign of “restoration,” a mystified British patriotism converges so fluently with the image of Italy as “Land of departed fame!” (1)—as “Proud wreck of vanish’d power” (7)—that the potentially contradictory dimension of this variation on the ruin/restoration dynamic remains submerged, for the most part, beneath the poem’s impassioned affective continuity.

25.         For the most part—but not entirely. Twice in the second edition of "The Restoration" Hemans shifts abruptly against the surge of “romantic” Italophile pathos and into a different discursive register. Turning from Florence and Venice to Rome in her narrative of Italy as a land where “Each ruin tells of Earth’s departed lords” (118), Hemans imagines that “from the sacred ashes of the first, / Might a new Rome in phoenix-grandeur burst” and “With one loud call wake Empire from the tomb” (301-4). In the first edition this call for a restoration of “Empire” is immediately followed by a celebration of the Apollo Belvedere, one of the prize antiquities taken from the Vatican to the Louvre in 1800 and “restored,” under the supervision of the sculptor Antonio Canova, in 1815. But in the second edition Hemans finds it necessary to make a sudden correction of perspective: “Vain dream! degraded Rome! thy noon is o’er, / Once lost, thy spirit shall revive no more” (309-10). These lines, which echo Barbauld on London in "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven," cut sharply against the poem’s rhetoric of restoration—and so themselves require immediate adjustment to allow a return to Hemans’s main line of argument: “Still, still to thee shall nations bend their way, / Revered in ruin, sovereign in decay!” (317-18). The difficulty here, it would appear, is that for political and ethical as well as aesthetic reasons, Rome needs to remain in ruins; any prospect of a phoenix-like rise from its ashes would compromise its distinctive value as ruin—and also threaten Britain’s ascendancy as Europe’s new imperial champion of restoration.

26.         A similar disruption occurs some 150 lines later in the second edition. Hemans’s account of the Vatican Museum’s Laocoön leads into a more encompassing tribute to the “pomp” of

. . .many a marble and classic dome,
Asserting still the majesty of Rome:
Round many a work that bids the world believe,
What Grecian Art could image and achieve.
(lines 443-6)
This time it is a need to acknowledge the false allure of surviving pagan forms and iconography that provokes the sudden shift:
Hence, ye vain fictions, fancy’s erring theme,
Gods of Illusion! phantoms of a dream!
Frail, powerless idols of departed time,
Fables of song, delusive, tho’ sublime!
To loftier tasks has Roman Art assigned,
Her matchless pencil, and her mighty mind.
(lines 461-6).
The surviving power of Roman art-in-ruin is part of what Britain has restored. We might say that Hemans found it necessary both to confirm and to confine this ruin, as part of controlling her chosen narrative of restoration.

27.        Controlling the broader narrative of ruin/restoration/survival is fundamental to each of the monumental set-pieces in The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy. Hemans’s master-narrative is clear: Italy’s artistic patrimony was ruined when Napoleon seized it as the spoils of war; Britain has nobly restored that artistic patrimony as part of returning Italy to the control of the Church and the old ruling class. But Italy’s antiquities are encoded with multiple narratives of ruin/restoration/survival, and these narratives often stand in contradictory and ironic relation to each other and to Hemans’s historical present. Napoleon took the Apollo Belvedere from the Vatican—but how did this Roman copy of a fourth-century BC Greek original come to be there in the first place? Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, appropriated it shortly after it was unearthed in 1489; for several years it was part of his private collection and stood in the garden of his titular church, Santi Apostili. Upon his election to the papacy he brought it across town to the Vatican (Brummer 66-81). Critical knowledge of such history complicates the status of all the great monuments commemorated in Hemans’s poem: the Venus de’ Medici in the Uffizi Gallery was exiled from Rome to Florence by Pope Innocent XI in 1667, apparently because it had come to be regarded as dangerously provocative (Haskell and Penny 71-83); the four bronze horses above the main portal of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice were stolen from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade some six centuries before Napoleon stole them for France (Freeman 11-36); the “Belvedere Torso” of Hercules, now believed to be a Roman copy of a second-century BC original, circulated among Roman aristocrats and their artists for more than a century before it entered the Vatican collections under unknown circumstances (Sommalia 54-9); the Laocoön itself—probably a first-century BC Roman copy—was found in 1506 near Nero’s Domus Aurea and bought by Julius II, who placed it alongside his celebrated Apollo in the Belvedere Garden of the Vatican (Masson 317-19). The story of Napoleonic rapacity reads somewhat differently within these contexts. Furthermore, neither the Belvedere Torso nor the Laocoön was taken to France during the Napoleonic occupation. Their inclusion in Hemans’s promenade of “restored” Italian antiquities illustrates the controlling and at times misleading ideology of her poem’s defining narrative.

28.        Byron may have read the first edition of The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy sometime during the composition of Canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, between April and November 1816. But his explicit compositional response to it was, with one possible exception, delayed. In resuming the poem as part of his self-exile, Byron reprises the constitutive movement from ruins to ruins in Cantos 1 and 2. Harold and the poet-narrator in Canto 3 are more defiantly embittered extensions of their previous textual identities. This is especially true of the latter, who carries within him now the ruins of his own unprecedented literary conquest: he is himself a kind of ruin of empire. The internalizing and reflexive trajectory of the canto sustains, however, a powerful outward-reaching relation to the immediate historical moment. In his exilic travels the autobiographical subject tracks anew the disastrous course of more than two decades of revolutionary struggle across the European continent, pausing to consider its complete disintegration “upon this place of skulls, / The grave of France, the deadly Waterloo” (3.154-5). Here Byron begins to rearticulate an ironic and critical relationship between his own personal disaster and the demise of freedom’s cause. The intermittent turnings to “nature” in Canto 3 will ultimately mirror back to him the turbulence and despair by which these gestures are motivated, resulting in rhetorical performances—like the famous lightning storm on Lake Leman—that figure imaginative power in terms that are glamorously self-frustrating, self-withholding (Emerson 363-78). His meditations on Rousseau late in the Canto lead him to declare that “this will not endure, nor be endured!” (3.779). But by the end a defiant endurance, which includes a determined belief in the efficacy of his own writing, is all that remains, along with a parent’s fond hope for a daughter whom he will never see again.

29.         Where Byron’s reading of Hemans may have exerted an influence is in the proleptic apostrophe to “Italia” that marks the transition to the concluding stanzas of Canto 3:

Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
Before he crosses the Alps Byron imagines that—to a degree beyond what even the ruins of Athens had afforded—the “knowledge” he now seeks is to be read from the ruins of “imperial” Rome. This is why, three stanzas earlier, he identifies so forcefully with Gibbon, the “lord of irony” whose “master-spell, / . . . stung his foes to wrath . . . / And doom’d him to the zealot’s ready Hell” (3.1000-2).

30.        Byron would undertake his anticipated study of the ruins of Roman imperialism in April and May 1817, six months after he had settled in Venice and a year after his self-exile from Regency society and literary triumph. The fourth canto of Childe Harold, unlike the previous three, was not written during the events it narrates; it was begun after Byron returned to the Veneto in the early summer. As he makes clear in the prefatory letter to Hobhouse, he regarded Canto 4 as a “poetical work” in its own right, as “the most thoughtful and comprehensive of my compositions.” Only in critical retrospect, we may assume, did Byron believe he could know what Italy had to teach him. We may also assume, accordingly, that there is nothing perfunctory about the pervasive rhetoric of ruin in this text. The word ruin and its variants appear fifteen times in 1674 lines of verse. The work this rhetoric performs has been extensively and effectively examined in previous critical accounts; what I wish to contribute lays no claim to being exhaustive or comprehensive. My more limited concern is with the function of ruin in connecting two intricately aligned textual trajectories: a self-critically updated re-production of the literary identity called “Byron” in the aftermath of post-Waterloo restoration, and an equally self-critical extension of Childe Harold’s status as travelogue—as a special kind of literary commodity consumed by readers finally able to travel again to the treasured sites of Italian aesthetic achievement and cultural value.

31.        In a chapter called "The Shaping Spirit of Ruin: Childe Harold IV," Jerome Christensen engages the issues I am emphasizing here with characteristically bold and knowing penetration. For him, ruin in Canto 4 functions symptomatically rather than critically: “Lord Byron monumentalizes himself by Byronizing all monuments,” he writes. “The ruin of Lord Byron’s name (published abroad by scandal and reviews) does not any more than the ruin of Italy mean extinction but allegorization: Byron becomes the name of ruin” (Christensen 191). What this reading minimizes is the pressure of political resistance generated through the dynamic Christensen so commandingly conceptualizes. Byron does indeed represent himself “as both victim and exploiter” of British commercial society and of the imperial expansion that is its analogue. But what Christensen terms the “imperial self-division of Byronism” is more often antagonistic to than complicit with, or merely allegorical of, British imperialism and the poem’s status as cultural commodity. Hence the importance of Peter Manning’s argument in "Childe Harold in the Marketplace: From Romaunt to Handbook" —that Childe Harold simultaneously invokes and undoes both the ideology of the romance genre and what a contemporary reviewer identified as “the narrative of a modern tourist” (Manning 171). This dynamic is evident, as we have seen, in the anti-war sections of Cantos 1 and 3. But it is most remarkably elaborated in the cultural politics of Canto 4, where Byron performs his now sensational identity as a “ruin amidst ruins” in ways that transform the glamour and pathos of the renegade British aristocrat into a figure who evokes in order to disrupt the apparent triumphs of empire, literary celebrity, and aesthetic monumentalism.

32.        Consider the sequence beginning with the stanza on Ariosto (4.361-9), whose fusion of chivalric romance and satire (the epigraph to Canto 4 is from Ariosto’s Satire 3) is fundamental to the latter phase of Byron’s career. The salute to Ariosto is followed, as a note in the first edition indicates, by an adaptation of Byron’s translation of the Filicaja sonnet that Hemans excerpts at the beginning of The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy. But Byron turns the trope of Italia’s “fatal gift of beauty” (4.371) in a quite different direction. Recalling his youthful reading of Servius Sulpicius’s letter to Cicero on traveling through Greece, Byron alludes to his own sail between Piraeus and Corinth and reads from those unrebuilt ruins anticipations of present imperialist realities:

That page is now before me, and on mine
His country’s ruin added to the mass
Of perish’d states he mourn’d in their decline,
And I in desolation: all that was
Of then destruction is; and now, alas!
Rome—Rome imperial . . .

33.        For Christensen, “Byron’s identification with the ruins of Italy” is such that “the ruins of the modern age are themselves radically discontinuous with ruins in the past” because of their “status as commodities” (Christensen 192). But Byron’s stanza would appear to indicate the opposite: the ruins of the ancient Mediterranean acquire a double meaning as cultural commodities because “all that was / Of then destruction is.” As Janowitz argues, in Childe Harold 4 “the distance between past and present is significantly diminished by a labile self and by the contemporaneity of the history the poet evokes” (Janowitz 41). Byron links what was to what is through a tense-inflected copula not of identity but of survival, of living on in “destruction” and “desolation.” The connection to Benjamin here is striking: “It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation” (Arcades Project 462). As Mark Featherstone comments, Benjamin worked “through the excavation of those ruins of the present that might allow for the rediscovery of the horrors of the past qua the return of the historical repressed. . . . the traces of the past were encrypted in the ruins of the present” (Featherstone 313). And so they are for Byron too. Though Benjamin’s focus on the previous century’s relatively recent past-in-ruins differs from Byron’s “all that was” of “imperial Rome,” their respective recognitions of material history’s convergences in constellated representations of present cultural affect and critical resistance put them into reciprocally revealing dialogue.

34.        Janowitz argues that in confronting this deep historical survival of ruin from past into the “now” of social existence and of writing, “Byron restores Rome aesthetically . . . In this dialectic of ruin, Byron is . . . authorized to emancipate aesthetic value from its historical order, and fix its form against historical decay.” But the “terrible cost of that emancipation,” she continues, “is the power of poetic monumentality, which is collapsed into those historical wastes which face the speaker” (Janowitz 41). And which face the reader, of course. We may extend Janowitz’s insights along more explicitly Benjaminian lines: the desire for aesthetic restoration and redemption is powerfully inscribed in the language of Canto 4—but even more powerful is Byron’s sense of a continuity of ruin that transmutes monuments regarded as transcendent into critical historical texts of ongoing political significance. No nineteenth-century writer would have assented more knowingly than Byron to Benjamin’s Thesis that “There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism.” Like Gibbon before and Benjamin after him, Byron knew that “barbarism” was and is a condition intrinsic to all class society.

35.        From this perspective, we may follow Byron as he enters Rome in Canto 4 enunciating, in the spirit of Benjamin’s “at the same time,” a vision of the “Lone mother of dead empires” that simultaneously retraces the steps of melancholy ruinists and insists on a critical awareness that “empire” lives on. His insistence on the limits, even the futility, of both aesthetic and scientific recuperation are self-critical, not self-satisfied: “Chaos of ruins! Who shall trace the void, / O’er the dim fragments cast a lunar light, / And say, ‘here was, or is,’ where all is doubly night?” (4.718-20). There is an element of rueful identification rather than of dismissal in Byron’s vignette of those who are excited when “some false mirage of ruin rises near” (4. 729). What matters is the ascendancy of historicizing self-consciousness over antiquarian connoisseurship. Of the vast “mass of ruins” on the Palatine he asks: “Temples, baths or halls? / Pronounce who can; for all that Learning reap’d / From her research hath been, that these are walls — / Behold the Imperial Mount! ‘tis thus the mighty falls” (4.960-3). As empire survives, ruin survives; it is in this sense that “History, with all her volumes vast, / Hath but one page” (4.968-9).

36.        Byron turns our attention towards the revered monuments of ancient empire not to debunk their affective force in the present but to redirect that force towards an awakened sense of how they may be read as commentaries on the present—including the present phenomenon of Byron’s own commodified celebrity. From this angle rereading the most familiar and persistently decontextualized sequence in Canto 4—the eighteen stanzas on the Coliseum—affords fresh opportunities for seeing how Byron performs his identity as a special kind of tourist guide through acts of resistant ruin-reading. Stanza 128 opens the sequence by viewing this monument of Roman monuments in what will become a clichéd ambience: a “wondrous,” “magic” atmosphere of “moonbeams” and “shadows” (see the reference to “lunar light” in 4. 719). But in stanza 130, with its shift from “Time! the beautifier of the dead” to “Time, the avenger!” (4.1162, 1169), Byron enacts a desire for revenge against those who would ruin him and links it to the fate of his writing: “. . . there is that within me which shall tire / Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire; / Something unearthly, which they deem not of” (4.1228-30). It is this affirmation of writing that lives on beyond the life of the writer in the form of ruin that opens the way to his now seeing the Coliseum in the intense light of historical reality—as a theatre of imperial brutality. The “dying gladiator” Byron places before us has its origins in a celebrated work of art in the Capitoline Museum, the second-century BC marble figure not of a gladiator but of a Gaul who fell fighting against King Attalus I of Pergamon in Asia Minor (Sommalia 55-8). But through a process of double transfer—from battlefield to public spectacle, from monumental marble to covertly ekphrastic verbal fiction—Byron compels his readers to see the Coliseum historically, as a site of ideological manipulation and control, as a stadium where enslaved human beings were “Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday” (4.1267). By merging what the “dying gladiator” was and is to his own vindictive impulses—“Shall he expire / And unavenged?” (4.1268-9), Byron turns the culture of tourism his poem inhabits and participates in against itself. When the moon rises over the Coliseum again in stanza 144, it rises with a different kind of “magic,” with the power to “raise the dead” (4.1295). The “Heroes” who haunt this ruin are the victims, not the victors, of empire. This is the grim lesson of the Coliseum for Byron: “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill, / The World, the same wide den—of thieves, or what you will” (4.1304-5).

37.        The cultural logic of ruin/restoration in Childe Harold 4 reverses that of The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy. It shares with Barbauld’s argument in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven the conviction that the ruins of empire live on both as idealized cultural property and as sites of critical and potentially liberatory knowledge. Near the end of the letter to Hobhouse that introduces Canto 4, Byron comments on Britain’s post-war triumphalism in terms congruent with if not identical to Barbauld’s wartime vision of a grim future reckoning: “What Italy has gained by the late transfer of nations, it were useless for an Englishman to enquire, till it become ascertained that England has acquired something more than a permanent army and a suspended Habeas Corpus; it is enough for them to look at home. For what they have done abroad, and especially in the South, ‘Verily they will have their reward,’ and at no very distant period” (Byron 124). This understanding of England’s role, now in post- rather than pre-Waterloo transfers of wealth and power, cuts directly against the idealizing patriotism of Hemans’s Restoration—and of its contradictory sequel, Modern Greece and the Elgin Marbles.

38.        The contradiction is overt: in the earlier poem Britain is celebrated for “restoring” Italian artistic property expropriated by the French; in the latter, it is Britain’s own expropriation of sculptural ruins from the Parthenon that is cause for culminating celebration. [2]  What links The Restoration and Modern Greece across this striking shift in Britain’s role, however, is an idealized, explicitly “romantic” discourse of ruin-value ideologically tied to myths of ancient Greco-Roman political freedom, and to a belief in Britain as the modern imperial successor to Greek and Roman greatness. It has been argued, initially by Susan Wolfson and then somewhat differently by Francesco Crocco, that the idealizing patriotic emphasis of Hemans’s philhellenism was motivated by her determination to gain credibility for women poets working in poetic genres still dominated by men. The persuasiveness of this view, however, further complicates a poetic agenda devoted to the idea that post-Napoleonic Britain “has[ ] power to be what Athens e’er hath been” (line 990).

39.         The “power” Hemans celebrates in Modern Greece involves her redefining “empire” in entirely mental terms. What we see in the vestiges or traces of Greek ruins is “the awful wreck of mind, / That weareth still a glory in decay” (lines 285-6). Antithetically, the conquering power of Ottoman Islam is represented as crudely material and primitive; it derives from “Regions” that are literally and figuratively barren, “to intellect a desert space” (lines 345-7). Greek “ruin” is the result of barbaric Islamic conquest—and of the decay of the Greek “race.” As material phenomenon, however, ruin now becomes the distinctive form of “Mind’s unconquer’d power” (line 390). “Attica” was and is, for Hemans, both “empire” and “little sphere, whose soul-illumined round / Concentrated each sunbeam of the mind” (lines 691-4). The idealizing of “ruin” as mental trace or reflection becomes especially evident as Hemans varies the vocabulary of “form” to include “archetype” (“Bright archetypes of all the grand and fair,” line 834) and “model” (“nations rising to their fame afar, / Still to thy model turn,” line 840; “art hath won a world in models pure as thine,” line 950). An abstracted and purified aesthetic glory is what enables the poem’s ultimate transfer of “power” via the culture of ruins from ancient Greece to modern Britain.

40.         If ruin-as-form is the repository of ancient but still readable genius, it is also the place where the life of the mind merges most affectively with organic nature:

—Yet o’er the low, dark dwellings of the dead,
Verdure and flowers in summer-bloom may smile,
And ivy-boughs their graceful drapery spread
In green luxuriance o’er the ruined pile.
(lines 75-8)
In Piranesi’s Vedute—and in Byron—organic growth is as much threat as picturesque supplement to the ruins of empire. In Hemans, this tension is replaced either by harmonious reciprocity between nature and culture or, in some of the poem’s more arresting moments, by a melancholy that borders on the macabre:
The rose is flourishing o’er beauty’s clay,
The myrtle blows when love hath ceased to be;
Green waves the bay when song and bard are fled,
And all that round us blooms, is blooming o’er the dead.
(lines 587-90)
Such somber, Wordsworthian hauntings depend on a kind of anti-pathetic fallacy, on organic nature’s obliviousness to the pathos of human mortality. In the rhetoric of Modern Greece they supplement the “secret magic” of Grecian ruins by giving the vestiges of “Mind’s unconquer’d power” (line 390) an additional “romantic” charm.

41.         The poem’s concluding celebration of the Elgin Marbles begins by preemptively and defensively linking “those” critical of Britain’s acquisition to the barbaric “conquerors of Minerva’s land”: “Oh! Live there those who view with scornful eyes / All that attests the brightness of thy prime?” (lines 851-2). The link is extended in the following stanza’s claim that “No patriot feeling binds them to the soil” (line 865), where the adjective “patriot” merges Greek and British loyalty. But it is the broader merging of national and universal interests that is decisive. The universalizing agenda in Hemans’s poem is crucially different from Byron’s and Shelley’s internationalism (“We are all Greeks,” Preface to Hellas, Shelley 4431). From Hemans’s perspective the real “Spoilers” are Elgin’s critics, who refuse to recognize that “Thy relics, Athens! borne to other lands, / Claim homage still to thee from every heart” (lines 873-4). Hemans offers here a Regency version of the central argument of Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity?, with its reiterated case on behalf of the “universal museum,” the “museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations” (Cuno xxxii). Hemans is more forthright than Cuno in acknowledging that, historically, these “universal” institutions just happen to be located in imperialist metropoles. In fact it is Britain’s future role as imperial power that generates the energy of Hemans’s conclusion:

Each hallow’d stone, from rapine’s fury borne,
Shall wake bright dreams of thee in ages yet unborn.
(lines 899-900)
The soul of Athens lives in every line,
Pervading brightly still the ruins of her shrine.
(lines 909-10)
Presiding over this scene of restoration/preservation-via-expropriation is the figure of “conquering Genius!” (line 931)—Phidias, explicitly, but also by implication Elgin, Wellington, and other heroic British figures whose money and guns and good taste have made sure that their nation now has “power to be what Athens e’er hath been.”

42.         Like The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy, Modern Greece is obviously indebted to Byron. That it concludes with a polemic against Byron’s position on the Parthenon ruins signals both the boldness and the limitations of Hemans’s literary ambitions. It also concludes with an allusion to Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, the shadow of which remains undispelled by the final encomium [3] :

So, should dark ages o’er thy glory sweep,
Should thine e’er be as now are Grecian plains,
Nations unborn shall track thine own blue deep,
To hail thy shore, to worship thy remains;
Thy mighty monuments with reverence trace,
And cry, “This ancient soil hath nurs’d a glorious race!”
(lines 1005-10)
“Empire” may ultimately survive only in its ruins: this is what haunts ruin-gazer as well as ruin-critic. The question that makes all the difference, as Barbauld and Byron differently make evident, is whether or not we awaken from what haunts us in the ruins of empire to what can enable us to transform survival into freedom.

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[1] There has been, appropriately, considerable discussion of Barbauld’s concluding reference to Columbus (“Thy world, Columbus, shall be free”). See the note on the last ten lines of the poem in Barbauld, Poems, 317. The final line may be read as indicating that in the future the “new world” of South America will be liberated from and no longer belong to Columbus and the European imperial power he represents. BACK

[2] Byron makes no mention of this reversal of perspective on national cultural property when he denounces Modern Greece as “trash,” “good for nothing,” in a letter to Murray of 4 September 1817 (Byron’s Letters and Journals 5. 262-3), probably because he did not know that the anonymous author was Hemans. Ironically—and astonishingly—the reviewer of Modern Greece in the New British Ladies’ Magazine conjectured that the anonymous author was Byron himself; see Wolfson’s headnote in Hemans, Selected Poems, 34. BACK

[3] The influence of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is evident elsewhere in Modern Greece. The key figure of the “wanderer” with “enthusiast mind” who visits Greece as cultural “pilgrim” echoes in several passages Barbauld’s North American visitor to England’s ruins. The emigrant/immigrant status of Barbauld’s returning “pilgrims” may well have influenced Hemans’s stanzas on Greek emigration to Asia and America (stanzas X-XX). BACK

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January 2012