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  • Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle
  • Richard Maxwell (bio)
Sophie Thomas . Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle. Routledge. xviii, 228. US$95.00

Thomas explores 'how seeing itself was seen' in literary and visual works produced during the Romantic period. Three chapters, on Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, are largely author-centred. There are closely connected thematic chapters treating Rome, ruins, and idealism. The introduction and two later chapters explore forms of mass spectacle: panorama, diorama, and phantasmagoria. This wide range of material produces an occasional sense of discontinuity, but the book is periodically successful [End Page 428] in its efforts to integrate discussion of familiar, usually canonical, literary works with art forms (especially popular ones) that have sparked a good deal of interest in recent decades. One would not consult Romanticism and Visuality for a definitive or even a sustained exploration of fragments, ruins, or panoramas; still it is bracing to find all these topics not only juxtaposed but interrelated within a single study.

One of the most intriguing items on the agenda is invisibility. Several recent large-scale theories of the image have stressed this topic. Barbara Stafford has had much to say about Enlightenment and postmodern drives to make the invisible visible; W.J.T. Mitchell, by contrast, laments that one cannot 'see' seeing, thus elevating self-consciousness about vision into a kind of Quixotic impossible dream - which he then pursues. At times, Thomas edges towards a third path, offering its own distinctive rewards. To mention some of her most evocative examples, the Claude glass 'was used to make the visible and the invisible change places'; the phantasmagoria turns 'the visible into the invisible and vice-versa'; and the invisible (in Novalis's term) 'clings' to the visible, just as the absent whole haunts the fragment. At a minimum, it would appear, Romantic attempts to examine the act of seeing heighten the general consciousness of all that cannot be seen, creating a remarkable kind of loop between visibility and invisibility.

Given the direction of her argument, Thomas could have been a step clearer about what invisibility is. On several occasions, she associates the invisible with the passage of time, a power that makes both people and things disappear - leaving only traces, which can then be intensely examined on account of all that they evoke but do not fully reveal. Thomas also writes about idealism as a way of redefining the nature and ontological status of images; faced with the collapse of expectations about what can or should be perceived (as in Wordsworth's famously confused crossing of the Alps), the mind turns in on itself, discovering the spectacle of its own immense capacities, even while finding it unrepresentable. Thomas might have said more about a third sort of invisibility, the unseen world of daemons, sprites, ghosts, and persons (or sometimes whole cities) under a fortunate or malign enchantment. Wordsworth's theatrical Jack the Giant-Killer (with 'the word INVISIBLE' flaming on his chest) is relegated to the notes, when he deserved not only visibility in the text but a full accounting. Jack's costume is a reminder that words themselves are images of a peculiarly powerful kind. Here is one of the places in Thomas's study where verbal and visual expressivity coincide most intriguingly.

Perhaps the most successful chapter of Romanticism and Visuality is the last: 'Vision and Revulsion: Shelley, Medusa, and the Phantasmagoria.' Shelley's poem on the Medusa has hardly been neglected, but this subject carries special weight in the present context. Thomas is adept at using her study of the poem to integrate many themes that have run [End Page 429] throughout the book. She is able to move gracefully among such concerns as ekphrasis, the culture of the French Revolution, the phantasmagoria, two dazzling instances of 'Coleridgean sleight-of-hand,' and Wordsworth's remarkable treatment of the Cave of Yordas (The Prelude, book 8). The loop between the visible and the invisible also gets a fuller, almost a summarizing, explication (partly courtesy of Mitchell, but with Thomas's own distinctive slants and nuances). This exploration confirms that Romanticism and visuality constitute an integral subject in which poetry, politics, philosophy, and popular...


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