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In 1784, as the Welsh Orientalist Sir William Jones presided over the Calcutta bench and his Asiatick Society, his agitational pamphlet A Judgement on the Principles of Government, in a Dialogue between a Gentleman and a Farmer (over ten thousand already distributed) reappeared in Welsh and included a history of the prosecution of its publisher, a history performed at fairs and markets across North Wales. While Jones’ pamphlet draws from Locke in its arguments for parliamentary reform and cooperative association, Jones was also steeped in Welsh material and cultural life, defending the peasantry from rack-renting tyranny and serving as “chief Bard” for the society of the “Druids of Cardigan” before departing for India (Michael J. Franklin, “Sir William Jones, the Celtic Revival and the Oriental Renaissance” 30). Influenced by Welsh antiquarians and poets such as Lewis Morris and Evan Evans, Jones wrote Anglo-Welsh poems, yet their scope points outward, invoking Druids to “teach the world to be wise” and embrace a religious syncretism (“Kneel to the Goddess whom all Men Adore” ) or, in his projected Anglo-Indian epic, depicting a harp-playing druid who advocates “the government of the Indians by their own laws” (36).
The tracing of complex circuits—be they the physical movement between such sites as County Glamorgan, London, and Calcutta or the transforming travel of political ideas and literary topoi, from north Welsh radicalism to the figure of the druid/bard—forms the basis of the strongest contributions to Carruthers’ and Rawes’ important collection. Recent scholarship has been busy revising our understanding of eighteenth-century and Romantic British writing by focusing on the “Celtic World,” as Carruthers and Rawes call it. Susan Manning’s Fragments of Union (Palgrave, 2002), Kathryn Temple’s Scandal Nation: Law and Authorship in Britain, 1750-1832 (Cornell UP, 2003), and the collection Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism (Cambridge UP, 2004) all consider how Scottish writing in particular destabilizes conventional notions of literary periodization, canonicity, authorship, and national identity itself. The essays in English Romanticism and the Celtic World also explore not simply an unproblematically pluralist “four nations” theory of literary history but consider “the extent to which Celticism was used as a tool in the construction and expansion of the British State” (1) and, alternatively, how Scottish, Irish and Welsh writers “construct[ed], cement[ed] and promematiz[ed] British identity” (6). Yet perhaps most original about this volume is its recurring motif of a mobile Celticism. The book’s most compelling moments are those in which it reveals how those “Celtic” literary figures and themes—such as the bard or primitivism—so unrelentingly connected in the national imaginary to a specific, even essential, organic space, were in fact easily attached to imperial movements and often produced out of them.
In marvelously detailed accounts, Michael J. Franklin and Caroline Franklin put fascinating local histories to use in their respective studies of Welsh writers and Celtic themes at work in far-flung sites of British commerce and colonization. While Michael J. Franklin situates William Jones within Welsh and Irish antiquarian circles, Caroline Franklin considers Bristol, thriving port of British empire and economic “metropolis” of Wales, in her analysis of the period’s dialectically related cultures of antiquarianism and forgery. Writers fabricated the primitive and vernacular society and literature that the forces visible in a rapidly changing Bristol were eroding. Thus Bristolian Robert Southey turns to the myth of “a twelfth-century Welsh prince who supposedly discovered America before Columbus” (70) in the long poem that he hoped would be his masterpiece, (but, alas, was not) Madoc (1805).
The political valence of this wide-ranging circulation of Celticism was complex, particularly in relation to the quasi-colonial status of Wales, Ireland, and the Scottish Highlands. Several essays point to the parallels writers perceived between various colonial populations and Celtic peoples. Arthur Bradley provides a highly original reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Laon and Cythna (1817), emphasizing the Irish context of Shelley’s Orientalism. Shelley, Bradley maintains, “drew a number of striking aesthetic-political parallels between the colonial situation in Ireland and the orientalised India of Laon and Cythna” (117). What is more, Shelley used that poem to voice his position on appropriate models of rebellion (“quiet gradual” ), as Bradley shows in his readings of Shelley’s early pamphlets on Ireland. In separate essays Bernard Beatty and Andrew Nicholson examine the “palimpsestic” (Nicholson, 138) parallels in Byron’s conceptualizations of the Scottish Highlands and Albania and Greece. Byron’s own relationship to his Scottish ancestry was vexed—his mother was a Scot and he spent his first ten years in Aberdeen, yet his early writing is frequently hostile to all things Scottish. The influence of Walter Scott, however, as Nicholson demonstrates, provided Byron with a Celtic cultural lexicon in which to articulate his support of the Albanians and Greeks. In an 1823 letter he quotes from Waverley to explain why he is fighting for Greece, “I shall ‘cast in my lot with the puir hill folk” (114). Similarly, as Welsh radicals fled to the United States, Caroline Franklin notes, the Madoc legend allowed them to imagine themselves and their plight in close relation to Native Americans.
As these and other essays track the production and movement of “Celtic” images and themes they also document, not surprisingly, the significant changes they underwent in their transport. In her interpretation of Southey’s use of the Madoc legend, Caroline Franklin demonstrates that what starts as a Jacobin dream becomes an excuse for British colonialism, especially as those Welsh radicals embracing the dream failed to reconcile it with the reality of U.S. slavery. Conversely, the bard/druid, presented in some writings as the hoary spokesperson of claims to ancient national identity, comes to function as a cosmopolitan. William Jones’ druids promote cross cultural understanding and even relativism. Felicia Hemans, as William D. Brewer notes, imagines the bard as a cosmopolitan of a different stripe—not the cultural relativist of Byron’s cosmopolitanism, Hemans’ bard is, nonetheless, figured as disinterested traveler, freely traversing battle zones even as he memorializes them in song. Hemans’ positioning of herself as bard is particularly suggestive for the way in which it invites a rethinking of the gender politics of certain aspects of “patriarchal” Celticism—a rethinking which is frustratingly absent from the collection which offers no analysis of this move or of any other women writers.
Brewer’s claim that Hemans’ bardic ideology can embrace a “respect for patriotism” that remains cosmopolitan is a bit of a stretch, but his identification of a cultural logic that at once memorializes while eschewing a violent past and its riven borders has a finger on the very pulse of Romantic Celticism. In his chapter on “Scott and the British Tourist”—an elaboration of another kind of travel—domestic travel—and its production of Celticism, Murray G.H. Pittock remarks on the “images of darkness” in Scott’s writing: “in Scott’s sustenance of the Scottish image and the Scottish tourist industry lies a paradox of death-in-life and life-in death, a country created in its uncreation, victorious in defeat, popular in its depopulation” (166). The construction and unraveling of the nation in the very moment of its writing, however, is not unique to the Celtic nations, but crosses the borders to England even as it creates them, as David Punter’s contribution illuminates. If “on the subject of Celts and the Celtic, Blake maintains a voluble reticence” (54), his preoccupation with ancient Britain inevitably leads him to that territory. And in linking that history to the twelve tribes of Israel, Blake composes a British nation “that is at the same time an inalienable homeland and an unending diaspora” (54). In the most theoretically sophisticated of the contributions to the volume, Punter’s interpretation of Blake’s Jerusalem deploys Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the nomadic to describe the “pre-existing, primitive . . . Celtic” (59) as “a fantasy of priority but also as a presentiment of order, and at the same time as a different—and differentiated—mapping, measurement, survey of the earth” (60). Here, a Celtic world defined by its nomadism also becomes the (fictive) pre-existing distinguishing unit against which a hegemonic British identity might define itself.
In emphasizing the profoundly labile quality of both Celticism and British constructions of the Celts, these essays perhaps return us to what Dafydd R. Moore views as Romantic critical reception. In his recovery of Ossian’s dominance on the English Romantic scene, Moore insists that the issue of authenticity was marginal to Romantic reception and that the performative and lyrical trumped epic readings of Ossian early on. Understanding “English Romanticism and the Celtic World” in these ways—as a motile, consciously performative relationship, not wholly concerned with the genuineness of the narratives of origins it generates—might transform not only what we read but how we read a Romantic canon.
The two concluding essays in the volume, by Malcolm Kelsall and Michael O’Neill, in turn, consider the influence of English Romanticism on the “Celtic world.” Kelsall’s contribution, an essay that, like Moore’s, makes a case for revaluing and recovering a text, locates Charles Lever’s Victorian novel Luttrell of Arran between a “Burkean Romantic Conservatism [and] the Romantic Unionist regionalism of Scott” (183). Failing to find a position between the two Lever, Kelsall argues, belongs to “what Shelley called . . . ‘the age of despair’ which followed the Enlightened dream in the bloody realities of the revolutionary wars” (189). The twentieth-century Northern Irish poets O’Neill discusses also contend with Shelley, particularly his fraught but alluring vision of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the World” (202). O’Neill identifies as “Wordsworthian” Northern Irish poet John Montague’s “circlings, leadings-on and near returns” (197) and offers Shelley as a prime instance of how Romantics “prize otherness” (198), a legacy found in recent Northern Irish poetry. Yet as the previous essays of the volume illustrate, these qualities inform the writings of “Celtic” writers of the Romantic period too and appear in English Romantic writers often in dialogic relation to Celtic spaces and their representation.