During our final class meeting, Felicia Hemans’s “Casabianca” returned us to the scene of naval battle, specifically the Mediterranean theater of many of the conflicts following the French Revolution. “Casabianca” sparked quite a heated discussion in class due to the poem’s sentimentality, its apparent alignment of patriotism with filial duty, and its focus on French casualties of war with Britain. It proved a fitting end to the class, which has in many ways been a semester-long conversation about the interplay between private and public feeling.
“Casabianca” also offers an opportunity for some final reflection on the geography of our syllabus. Much of the poetry we read was driven by a sense of the local within Britain, whether Burns’s Scots dialect, Wordsworth’s approach to rural life in the Lake District, or Clare, who seems to have framed “nature” in terms of particular plots of earth, rather than as a grand abstraction. But from the start, we saw Romantic-era writers turning outward as well, and countenancing Britain’s place within a wider world. Some of the first works we read together framed the 1790s as a decade of revolutions stretching from France to Haiti. As the semester rolled on, we found Romantic writers continuing to invoke Britain’s global sphere of action, even after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo. Think of Byron’s lament, at the outset of Don Juan, that the age of naval heroes, of Nelson at Trafalgar, seems a thing of the past; or Jane Austen’s Persuasion, set during a lull in the Napoleonic Wars, with characters recounting their experience in Honduras, the Bahamas, and other parts of the “West Indies.”
However, this mapping exercise also showed that there are limitations to thinking about “location” or “setting” strictly in terms of the physical, measurable globe: “Setting” or “place” can also “literary texts, after all, also track attitudes and ideas about place. Those ideas are often culturally and historically specific, like “Honduras” (which includes modern-day Belize) or “Darien” on the Caribbean map above. It would also include texts that are pointedly vague (like the Ancient Mariner’s use of equatorial and polar settings). And, perhaps most significantly, it would include cases in which the location tells us more about British writers’ sense of foreign locales than any actual point on the globe: how might we represent the homogenized “East” of De Quincey’s Orientalist nightmares, or the indeterminate Greek and Turkish settings of Byron’s “Eastern tales”? (If you would like to think more about these knottier aspects, especially representing subjective data, a good place to start would be Johanna Drucker’s 2011 essay “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display.”)
Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank you all for a great, thought-provoking semester. It’s always a pleasure to find new ways of reading a text, and this term we produced new insights about a number of them, from Barbauld to Shelley to Austen. I look forward to the culmination of your final projects, and hope that a restful break follows. It is well-deserved.