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Diego Saglia, Poetic Castles in Spain: British Romanticism and figurations of Iberia. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi. 1999. ISBN: 90-420-0409-6. Price: £40.

  • Lynda Pratt

…more information

  • Lynda Pratt
    The Queen's University of Belfast

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In May 1815 Charles Lamb wrote to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, thanking him for a copy of his latest publication:

I have received from Longman a copy of Roderick, with the author's compliments, for which I much thank you. I don't know where I shall put all the noble presents I have lately received in that way; the Excursion, Wordsworth's last two vols., and now Roderick have come pouring in upon me like some irruption from Helicon—I don't know whether I ought to say that it has given me more pleasure than any of your long poems—Roderick is a comfortable poem—I am at home in Spain and Christendom. I have a timid imagination, I am afraid. I do not willingly admit of strange beliefs or out-of-the-way creeds or places. I never read books of travel, at least not farther than Paris or Rome. I can just endure Moors, because of their connection as foes with Christian; but Abyssinians, Ethiops, Esquimaux, Dervises, and all that tribe, I hate. I believe I fear them in some manner.

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Although Lamb joked about its "comfortable" qualities, Roderick is perhaps the most uncomfortable—and certainly until recently the most neglected—of Southey's five long poems. Set in seventh century Spain, it draws on the history of (and legends surrounding) Roderick (Rodrigo), the last visigothic king of Spain, whose rape of the noblewoman Florinda precipitates a Moorish invasion and takeover of his country. Southey's narrative focuses on the events after the Moors assumption of power, on Roderick's repentance for his crimes and the organisation of Christian resistance to Moorish rule. This opposition centres on Pelayo, Roderick's successor as Christian leader, and will eventually culminate in the reconquest of 1492. Southey (author of the oriental romances Thalaba the Destroyer [1801] and The Curse of Kehama [1810]) was far from being a man of "timid imagination", but to his contemporaries his choice of subject matter from nearer home would not have come as a surprise. He was in fact one of the leading hispanists of the Romantic period: he had travelled in Spain as early as 1795-6 and his account of his experiences, first published in 1797, had gone through three editions by 1808; he was fluent in the language and from the mid 1790s onwards had been an ardent populariser of Spanish literature, translating amonst others works by Yriate, De Vega for the Morning Post and also publishing English versions of the romances Amadis of Gaul (1803) and The Chronicle of the Cid (1808). Roderick therefore allowed him to indulge a long term interest in Spanish history and culture and also to demonstrate (especially in its lengthy endnotes) his hispanic learning to a Romantic reading public.

Yet Southey—and indeed Lamb—were not the only ones to feel "at home in Spain". Roderick proved to be popular with readers and was into a third edition by 1815. It was equally not unique in its choice of subject matter or geographical location. By the time Southey's poem appeared in 1814, the Roderick legend had been so well absorbed into British culture that Matthew Lewis described it as "too well known to require any recital". It formed the basis of Walter Scott's The Vision of Don Roderick (1811) and Walter Savage Landor's Count Julian (1812). They were not alone. In 1809 Wordsworth had begun an unpublished fragment entitled "Pelayo" and Byron had referred to Roderick and Count Julian (Florinda's father) in the first canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, "Pelayo" had been Southey's original choice of subject and title for his own "Spanish" long poem.) Moreover, the efforts of Southey, Scott, Landor and Byron represent just a handful of the many Romantic "irruptions of Helicon" which dealt with the matter of Spain.

The extent, nature and complexity of British Romantic writers' engagement with Spain forms the subject of Diego Saglia's Poetic Castles in Spain: British Romanticism and figurations of Iberia. Although Spanish culture and society had figured in pre-Romantic British culture, through a series of historical accidents, it achieved both increasing topicality and resonance in the early nineteenth century. From the Peninsula conflict of the 1800s through to the Carlist wars of the 1830s, events in the Iberian peninsular were the subject of parliamentary debate, practical intervention (witnessed in British military involvement in the peninsular) and literary endeavour. Whilst he briefly surveys important literary ancestors for and descendants of Romantic hispanism, Saglia wisely concentrates his analysis on representations of Spain in British literature (especially poetry) of the 1810s and 1820s. His detailed study recovers the discursive materials employed in these fictional representations and assesses the relevance of this "Iberian" activity in the context of the dominant themes and preoccupations in Romantic culture.

An act of authorial and textual, as well as geographical, recovery, both Saglia's argument and his meticulously detailed bibliography reveal the richness and complexity of Romantic hispanism. As well as engaging with relatively familiar works by Byron (Childe Harold and Don Juan), he also pays welcome attention to a myriad of previously overlooked authors and texts, including Hemans' England and Spain, Mary Leman Grimstone's Zayda, Barry Cornwall's Diego de Montilla and George Croly's Sebastian. As his detailed analysis of Romantic appropriations of Spain reveals, a county which was itself the site of actual conflict between Napoleonic France and her opponents was in the 1810s and 1820s translated into an imagined space in which ideological battles between notions of public and private, national and imperialism and masculinity and femininity were fought out by writers of often markedly different views on politics, society and gender. Moreover, as his section on Romantic adaptations of the Roderick story illustrates, although their interest in writing on Iberia may have provided a "common currency", a thematic link between these writers, the opposing ways in which they engaged with the "matter of Spain" reveals the multiple schisms and complexities of early nineteenth century British culture.

For Romantic writers and readers Spain was both familiar and "other", on the very edge of mainland Europe (a space where Christian and Islamic cultures met, even collided) and yet central to their own nationalistic preoccupations. As the works of Hemans, Landor, Scott and numerous others demonstrate, it was a land that was simultaneously real and open to constant reimaginings. Above all it was a space onto which Romantic writers, male and female, projected their own concerns—their hopes and fears about their own individual, gender and national identities. Its ability to act as a focus of interest for writers of the likes of Byron, Coleridge, Landon, Southey, Grimstone and Croly, also suggests Romantic Spain's potential for early twenty-first century readers. As this book amply illustrates, the topicality of Spain attracted the attentions of many, very different writers, making it a meeting place for canonical and non-canonical, the old and the new Romanticisms. This is perhaps the most suggestive element of Saglia's excellent study, its opening up of a space latent with domestic and exotic potential and familiar and unfamiliar literary texts, and also its illumination of the depth and richness of British Romanticism itself. In confronting a Spain that was both real and imagined, British Romantic writer—male and female, canonical and non-canonical—revealed themselves as competitive, diverse, discomforted and completely lacking in "timid imaginations".

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