- Repressive Violence and Romantic Resilience
A fundamental question arose during a roundtable at the "Resistance in the Spirit of Romanticism" held at the University of Colorado-Boulder in September of 2018: "What precisely is the resistance to resist?" The symposium, organized by the UCB Romanticism Collective in conjunction with the Romantic Bicentennials Project (itself a collaborative endeavor of the K-SAA and the Byron Society of America) asked participants "to think both about the spirit of resistance in the Romantic period and the ways it informs liberation movements today," such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. The answer to the roundtable question—it struck me then and I remain convinced—what is to be resisted is state violence, or more precisely, repressive violence that seeks to disenfranchise diverse or dissenting voices.
Of course, the British Romantics were no strangers to repressive violence, from the counter-revolutionary efforts of the 1790s, through the campaign of domestic intimidation during the Napoleonic Wars, to the repression of the post-Peterloo years. Simply put, the Romantics contended with a political culture that more often than not sanctioned state violence both abroad and at home, a fact that is apparent in their biographies and in their literature. That this literature survives is a testament to their resilience, a spirit that in suffering violence nonetheless insists that the voices of the poets be heard, their identity as civic participants be recognized, and their claims for government accountability be acknowledged. It is that spirit that we should celebrate 200 years later. [End Page 99]
That the Romantics contended with a culture of violence is an easier claim to make than more specific accounts of how the Romantics challenged it—and the degree to which they were successful. Percy Shelley's political effectiveness, as an obvious example, has been a matter of critical debate since his death. Moreover, what we recognize as state violence is also not self-evident. Does Keats intimate that environmental degradation was fueled by state corruption in "To Autumn"—a kind of "slow violence," to borrow Rob Nixon's Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011)? Similarly, Michael Bush's study of the Manchester infirmary records after Peterloo, The Casualties of Peterloo (Manchester: Carnegy Publishing Ltd, 2006), suggests that our understanding of the extent of the violence has only ever been summative estimations—there has never been a sustained study of who was targeted and why both on the day of the massacre and on those that followed.
The twelve contributors to Commemorating Peterloo: Violence, Resilience and Claim-making during the Romantic Era (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), a volume I co-edited with Regina Hewitt (University of South Florida), all explore such issues. In the introduction, Regina and I put forward two prevalent but competing metanarratives about violence. The first expresses confidence in the progress of civil rights gained over the past 250 years, while acknowledging occasional violent setbacks. The second despairs that violence has not diminished but has been dispersed into acts harder to witness, harder to protest, and harder to resist. As I compose this essay in Texas on state violence and Romanticism, my thoughts wander to the mass incarceration of migrant children, to the storms precipitated by global warming, to poorer neighborhoods of Houston who are suffering the brunt effects of industrial chemical fires, to the violence faced by protestors, and the social injustices made apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic. My hope, then, is that the study of Romanticism will aid us in manifold ways to better discern state violence, to oppose it, and to have many victories over it. [End Page 100]
Michael Demson is an Associate Professor at Sam Houston State University, where teaches courses in World Literature, Literary Theory, and Romanticism; his research focuses on the intersections of radical politics and Romantic literature.