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British Romanticism and Continental Influences: Writing in an Age of Europhobia
Peter Mortensen
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£45.00, 230 pages, ISBN 1-4039-1515-6.

Bill Phillips
Universitat de Barcelona

This excellent book discusses the extent to which Continental, and especially German, literature influenced British writers of the Romantic Period. This might seem a simple proposition, but as Peter Mortensen vividly shows, neither critics of the period, nor of the twentieth century, were willing to recognise that the British could be tainted by suspicious, if not corrupt, foreign ideas.

An example of such thinking is Harold Bloom, whose readings, according to Mortensen, “of Romantic and post-Romantic texts are so monotonous not merely because they are rooted in a privatized and de-contextualized, endlessly repeated Oedipal struggle, but also because Bloom is willing to acknowledge only very few pre-Romantic writers as ‘strong’ precursor-poets” [pp. 3-4]. These limitations are worsened by his conviction that “translation cannot factor itself into literary history as a genuine form of ‘poetic influence’” [p. 4], thus excluding any possibility of German, French, or other European texts influencing British Romantics. Mortensen, of course, is not the first to demonstrate the debt owed to Continental writers, as he readily acknowledges, though I was surprised not to find Lilian Furst’s Romanticism in Perspective (published in 1969 also, coincidentally, by Macmillan), in his bibliography. Furst’s concern was to show that European Romanticism was not a unified movement, but differed from country to country. This is, in fact, not so different from Mortensen’s own approach, which is to show how British writers either did not, or could not, appropriate Continental works wholesale, but were obliged to adapt them to an often hostile British readership.

The great strength of Peter Mortensen’s book lies in its perceptive and detailed account of the fate of a variety of specific non-English texts—their origins and, in particular, the various translation projects which they inspired—and his analysis of those translations and adaptations. He begins by explaining the difficulties facing any writer wishing to adapt Continental works in, as his subtitle reminds us, “an Age of Europhobia.” With the revolutionary years and French wars of the late eighteenth century culminating finally with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, it is hardly surprising that the British Establishment, so ably represented by figures such as Edmund Burke, should fear all things alien. Burke’s “ingrained hostility to foreigners and foreign cultures reveals a deep-seated fear of racial, cultural and political miscegenation” [p. 21], we are told, and this extends to the new sensationalist literature emerging from Germany. Mortensen explains how the “presence and increasing popularity of foreign literature represent a scandal because they suggest that the self has already been contaminated by the other; the barbarians are not merely at the gate, but have already scaled the walls and entered the citadel” [p. 27].

Unfortunately for Burke and his establishment cronies, translated works were extremely popular, and Mortensen begins with a discussion of German balladeer G.A. Bürger's supernatural tales which transfixed the reading public and literati alike. Translations of the ballads toned down the sensationalism and perceived heterodoxy of the originals to make them more acceptable. Of particular interest is Mortensen’s analysis of Bürger’s “Der Wilde Jäger” and the influence it had on Wordsworth’s “Hart Leap Well.” In Bürger’s version the arrogant aristocratic hunter, who carelessly tramples the tilled fields of the overburdened peasantry, falls prey himself to the hounds of hell. In “Hart Leap Well” the class war, which is central to Bürger’s tale, is all but lost. “Generally speaking,” says Mortensen, “class conflict is never an issue in ‘Hart Leap Well’” [p. 74], which is of course not surprising, as the poem, published in 1800, was written long after Wordsworth had foresworn any revolutionary belief.

In the final chapter of the book, “The Descent of Odin: Romantic Writers among the Norsemen,” Mortensen shows how Wordsworth's poem “The Danish Boy” is the product of a similar metamorphosis. The Norse were seen as representatives of freedom, resistance and independence, particularly as, for many, they were the valiant destroyers of Roman imperialist oppression, and as such, an inspiration for contemporary revolutionaries. Wordsworth's Danish boy, however, has been so transformed that he “no longer epitomizes a staunch commitment to liberty and equal rights. Rather, he acquires a spiritual and transcendental, even a mystical meaning, symbolizing the unity of all things living and dead” [p. 184]. As Jerome J. McGann so memorably remarked of “Tintern Abbey:” “The poem concludes in what appears to be an immense gain, but what is in reality the deepest and most piteous loss. Between 1793 and 1798 Wordsworth lost the world merely to gain his own immortal soul.” It was precisely this kind of adaptation which enabled writers such as Wordsworth to satisfy the public demand for German sensationalism and Norse heroism, yet remain stoutly British and unsullied by dangerous foreign ideas; the opportunity to stoke his flagging imaginative powers with a few borrowed ideas must have been appealing too.

A similar dilution of political content is described in “Partizans of the German Theatre: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Dramatic Translation” in which Mortensen discusses Walter Scott's early translation of Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen. Although “set in sixteenth-century Europe during the time of the Peasant Wars, [...] critics have tended to suspect that it concerns socio-political issues pertaining to the late eighteenth century age of democratic revolutions" [p. 142] and, as such "lent itself much too easily to a reading along Jacobinical lines" [p. 143]. Scott defuses this danger by translating Goethe's modern German into archaic and old-fashioned Elizabethan English, and by deliberately using unEnglish syntactical forms which appear to be (and in some cases are) literal translations of the German. The effect of this is to distance the action both in space and in time. Scott's language insists that the play is not set in England, not even metaphorically, it is "above all a historical drama, with a particular claim upon readers interested in northern antiquities" [p. 145].

From the French, Mortensen, discusses Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788), which, he argues, "places democratic men and women in, rather than above, nature," [p. 101] and in which "the values of charity, kindliness and friendship are carried forward by women" [p. 100]. Mortensen compares the novel firstly, with James Cobb's play Paul and Virginia: A Musical Drama, which appeared briefly on the London stage in 1800. By transferring the action away from the Île de France to a Spanish island in the Caribbean Cobb deliberately exploits the text to underline the superior humanity of British imperialism over Spanish tyranny and in doing so "testifies to the hegemonic power of British wartime anti-Gallicism, demonstrating this discourse's almost uncanny capacity to absorb previous representations and convert them to an antithetical purpose" [p. 110]. Translation, then, can actually be useful if it can be adapted sufficiently.

Further insights are provided into works as diverse as Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and Coleridge's Rime of the Ancyent Marinere and there can be no doubt that Mortensen achieves his purpose of demonstrating how widespread and profound was the influence of Continental writing on British Romanticism of the period. Little detracts from this otherwise stimulating and useful book. Odd infelicities of syntax and the use of expressions such as “last but not least” occasionally jar, but so infrequently as to have no significance. It might also be useful to have some reference to events in Britain at the time, in particular to the various attempts by the British government to silence and repress any kind of political dissent, as this would have thrown the various writers and translators’ self-censorship into perspective. Despite these minor quibbles, I recommend the book to anyone interested in British Romanticism.


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