Romantic Disasters: Byron, Keats and John Martin

In her essay on catastrophe dated 2011, Annie Le Brun rethinks poetry in terms of what she calls a « vital tension » – a concept which, according to Le Brun, is tied to the questions of temporality and meaning, itself at the heart of any (sane) reader’s understanding of disaster poetics. Le Brun’s notion of a « depraved » aesthetics therefore allows her to broaden the scale of the lyrical, the erotic and the chaotic by possibly embracing catastrophism as a genre.

Le Brun could very well have chosen to quote the Romantics, alongside Sade and his strange passion for volcanoes, to illustrate her epistemology of chaos as a founding principle of any form of creation or, better yet, self-knowledge. If the Romantics have taught us anything about disaster, beyond the vestiges of a malevolent astral influence – Spenser’s “evil starr” – which intimately links folly to astronomy, is that most of their procreative drive comes from a reversed eschatology more often than not inspired by the figures of the past (Dante, Milton). Keats’s “melancholy storm” comes to mind, in his sonnet, After Reading Dante’s Episode of Paulo and Francesca (1819) or the even more famous “Miltonian storms” which Keats beautifully stages in To Charles Cowden Clarke (1816).

Aside from this genealogy of disasters for the most part internalized as a sublime inheritance, Romantic disaster transforms into a signature mark the moment the world, thus caught in the act of a dramatic shift, becomes pathologically rooted in the poet’s consciousness and modes of expression. If some symptoms are organic or celestial, others are simply chromatic. To quote just a few examples: Keats’s “deep volcanian yellow” in Lamia (1820) echoing John “Mad” Martin’s feast of yellow in Eruption of the Vesuvius (1821) or Byron’s “blackening” visions of “Darkness” in his eponymous poem (1816) feeding into the painter’s projections of the apocalypse as a black hole in his art. The palette is infinite.

Needless to say that, in this chain of disasters, the Romantics would not have known what pool of catastrophes (climate change, geology, social upheaval) to choose from: the summer of 1816 was non-existent after a series of volcanic eruptions had occurred between the 5 and 15 April 1815; two new planets had been discovered between 1781 and 1846, upsetting the solar system as we knew it; and, of course, other types of revolutions which simultaneously affected the industry, politics and science were raging throughout Europe and beyond.

In such a context, John Martin’s disastrous profile stands out. Born the same year as the French revolution, his brother lost his mind, and yet he was haunted, throughout his life, with suspicions of madness. In 1822, Martin painted the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which in turn was submerged and almost completely destroyed by the 1928 flood. Case in point: John Martin forces us to admit that Romantic disaster is not without its share of meta-historical irony!

Caroline Bertonèche (Université Grenoble Alpes)

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