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  • The Age of Exile
  • Omar F. Miranda (bio)

The Romantic era witnessed mass displacements on a global scale. African slaves were involuntarily transported across the Atlantic, Native Americans displaced from their homelands, French citizens forced to flee the Reign of Terror, British convicts sent to Botany Bay, and soldiers of the Napoleonic wars deployed across the world. At center stage were eminent individuals such as Louverture, Miranda, Bolívar, de Staël, Burney, Napoleon, Paine, Byron, and Hugo who fled into exile. This prevalence of dislocation permeated the literary scene with a body of writing that centered on marginalized subjects and alienated characters. One need only consider Jemima from Wollstonecraft's Maria, the Ancient Mariner (and other figures from Lyrical Ballads), the creature in Frankenstein, and Quasimodo—or even more privileged exiles such as Corinne, Fanny Price, the Alastor poet, or any Byronic hero. The cumulative effect of imposed, voluntary, and metaphorical—real and fictional—manifestations of exile set the tenor and tone of the age.1 [End Page 150]

Yet even as the realities of these physical and figurative displacements proliferated, they incited an extraordinary response. In the wake of revolutionary disorder, what had been understood since ancient times as a form of punishment—exile—propelled new ways to imagine socio-political transformation. In this Romantic age of exile, exile itself became a catalyst of revolution: a pathway toward innovative political structures, social systems, and art forms. Take the case of The Prelude, an epic autobiography that pushes traditional genres as it refigures the Miltonic religious and metaphysical senses of banishment with which it famously begins. By book one's conclusion, Wordsworth repositions himself onto a "road [that] lies plain before [him]."2 In so doing, he reframes the exilic condition that he faced at the poem's onset; he is no longer situated amid vast stretches of "earth… all before [him]" (I, lines 15–6). Rather than being associated with a human state adrift and fallen, his personal journey becomes concrete and purposeful: a "theme / Single and of determined bounds" linked to his poetic mastery and the betterment of the human community (I, lines 668–9). Other instances of auspicious, generative exile abound in the period: Southey's and Coleridge's Pantisocratic emigration plan; Caleb Williams's ideal commune in Wales; the creature's hopes for relocating to South America in Frankenstein; the healing island paradise in "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills"; or even Adrian's proposal for mass exodus at the planetary and cosmic scale in The Last Man.

That exile could serve to promote states of inclusion, belonging, continuity, and order during the rise of the nation-state is one of the greatest paradoxes of the period. This irony becomes only further accentuated today amid the pervasiveness of pandemic-generated [End Page 151] social distancing, an unprecedented number of refugees across the globe, and a world where Black and immigrant lives repeatedly face unjust attacks and treatment. How might we recapture, then, that two-hundred-year-old spirit for challenging the limitations of borders and patriotism? How do we establish new collective formations that collapse delimiting categories and exclusive traditions? Do we recover that revolutionary legacy through undertakings to colonize Mars or initiatives like "Nextpolis," the strategy for relocating Hong Kong's citizens to Ireland? Maybe we as scholars and instructors can revive these hopes ourselves through espousing such efforts as the Bigger 6 Collective (@Bigger6Romantix) in our conversations and classrooms? The ideals of Romantic exile might be less elusive than we think.

Omar F. Miranda

Omar F. Miranda is Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Francisco. He is currently writing a book on the relations among transnationalism, literary form, and the rise of celebrity culture in the Romantic era.


1. There has been no dearth of scholarship tracking the varied angles of this "brutal historical reality" (Toby Benis, Romantic Diasporas [New York, 2009], page 1). Jacques Khalip has called Romanticism a literature of dispossession (Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession, [Stanford, 2008]), while Stuart Curran has argued that the era "created an entire literature of displacement" ("Romanticism Displaced and Placeless," European Romantic Review 20, no. 5 [2009], page 638...