- Byron, Shelley, and Goethe's Faust. An Epic Connection by Ben Hewitt, and: Hegel and the English Romantic Tradition by Wayne Deakin
In Byron, Shelley, and Goethe's Faust, author Ben Hewitt invites readers to share in the excitement felt by the English Romantics as they first encountered Goethe's Faust I. Hewitt's work is in fact far more ambitious than this, however, for his ultimate effort is to effect what he describes as an "equilateral triangulation" [End Page 168] by means of which the three poets can be brought into an "egalitarian, even republican, relationship" with one another. Hewitt is the first to admit that the results "will necessarily be quite ambitious, speculative, and suggestive, drawing on theory and philosophy for assistance in readings that stretch beyond what can be borne by historical, factual, evidence" (p. 1), but he is keen to convince us that such "lateral comparisons" are worthwhile. For if successful, he argues, "these will be the foundation for riskier and farther-reaching, synthesizing readings, touching upon broader and deeper connections between the writers under scrutiny, and between British and German Romantic literature more widely" (p. 2).
The key to Hewitt's triangulation lies in the difference between "epic" and "tragic" literary production. Here Hewitt suggests that we understand British Romantic epic writing as offering an antidote to the tragic. Goethe's Faust is central to this account since Hewitt sees it as effectively straddling the two forms so far as Faust I can be read as a predominantly tragic production—on this Hewitt notes that the play's subtitle is literally "A Tragedy"—whereas Part II bears important traces of the epic. It is significant that Goethe's two-part play straddles any historical account of our three poets as well, since Hewitt employs his lateral reading in order to bring Byron and Shelley into conversation with Part II, despite the British poets having both died before its publication. Hewitt develops this reading across four chapters, with the first two devoted to Goethe and chapters three and four to Byron and Shelley respectively. The opening chapters provide the historical and interpretive context for Hewitt's approach to the British poets by way of an investigation into the precise nature of Faust qua "tragedy" (Chapter 1), and then regarding the play's reception in Britain—primarily via de Staël's critique—and its effect on Byron and Shelley (Chapter 2, and en passim).
The value of the epic, as Hewitt reconstructs it and indeed interprets Faust II in the light of this reconstruction, is its ability to function as a response to the tragic view of life—a literary mode that had come to dominate Goethe's German Romantic contemporaries (see Butler's The Tyranny of Greece over Germany). In the case of Byron, this is most clearly figured in the space made for activity. Thus "Don Juan's ironic capacity for indefinite further growth, reaching no 'conclusions,' political, philosophical, or otherwise," Hewitt argues, "is the shift in the same direction in which Goethe was to develop Faust into the epic mode … that was the most vital step taken by Byron" for "it was an action too, with a wider significance" (pp. 114-15). In a similar manner Hewitt tells us that "Shelley's aim is to prove that love, properly understood, is an activity, rather than a static state or abstract metaphysical principle"; indeed, "we might say that the epic is the form that promises to convert this love into such an activity" (p. 164). In the end, "Shelley tries to shift the structure of Prometheus Unbound, from tragic monodrama centered on Prometheus in the first act, into diverse, dialogic poetry, resembling the lyrical variety of Faust but with a different aim: to depict the 'void' filled with the Love that replaces the rule of Jupiter." In other words, [End Page 169] "to succeed in its...