- Kaleidoscopic Romanticism
We need new ways of looking at Romanticism. Thanks to the work of pioneering critics, Romantic studies has expanded dramatically, moving away from restrictive canonical models such as that of the "Big Six" to create a varied and nuanced picture of Romantic literary culture. This dynamic landscape demands a flexible way of thinking about the changing relationships between re-emergent and established writers and their work. I have considered the usefulness [End Page 156] of David Brewster's kaleidoscope for understanding and reassessing James Hogg's radical literary practice as both a maker and a viewer of Romantic literature. But the kaleidoscope—a Romantic-era invention—also offers a responsive and resilient model for re-viewing Romanticism more broadly.
The kaleidoscope invented by Brewster in 1816 gave users a continually shifting range of views, determined by their choices—both in selecting objects to view and deciding how to view them. The instrument could be assembled in myriad ways—in "simple" form, or as a polyangular, annular, parallel, polycentral, or stereoscopic kaleidoscope. Individuals could choose what to place in the viewing cell at the end of the instrument (for example, beads, glass, colored fluids, spun thread, or painted images) and were also encouraged to experiment with viewing external objects by applying the kaleidoscope in its telescopic or microscopic modes. If the objects in the cell were loose, the number of possible images was infinite, making each viewing distinctive and unpredictable. Most pertinently for considering issues of canonicity, in the act of turning the kaleidoscope, the reflections of the objects being viewed are continually realigned so that the viewer sees what was peripheral become central and what was central move to the periphery.
Hogg's kaleidoscopic centering of himself is exemplified in his brilliant collection, The Poetic Mirror, or The Living Bards of Britain (1816), in which he both inserts himself into, and critiques, an emerging canon of Romantic poets by parodying himself and them. Flanked by Byron, Scott, and Wordsworth on one side, and Coleridge, Southey, and John Wilson on the other, Hogg presents readers with a portrait of what the Romantic age looked like with him occupying the space of a major figure. The Poetic Mirror thus prompts us to consider a British Romanticism that looks very different with the marginal figure of a shepherdpoet as its focal point and when seen through the series of perspectives which he presents. By genre-mixing, playing with a variety of literary traditions, and subverting readers' expectations, Hogg frequently repositions readers in relation to his texts in ways that force us to reassess our views not only of his work, but of Romanticism itself.
Reading Romanticism kaleidoscopically rather than canonically creates repeated opportunities to reimagine the field from the point of [End Page 157] view of any of its actors. By shifting the central objects of our focus we can draw disparate elements together non-hierarchically, allowing refractions of light to bring previously unseen moments to the forefront, as well as giving them space to recede, and enabling new critical dialogues to emerge. The kaleidoscope offers us an exciting way of seeing Romanticism in all its fluctuating complexity and with new realignments.
Meiko O'Halloran is a Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University, UK, and the author of James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (2016).