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  • Romantic Fancy in the Context of Pacific Exploration
  • Kacie L. Wills (bio)

As we move into the next decade of Romantic scholarship, we must look to eighteenth-century Pacific exploration and to its material and literary productions in order to understand the impact that extended contact with the Pacific had on the Romantic imagination. The material culture surrounding James Cook's voyages continues to offer scholars more complex ways of understanding Romantic concepts such as fancy, situating them anew within overlooked historical contexts. Access to often unheard voices in these contexts promotes a scholarship of inclusion that attends to the ways that individuals were engaged in the curation of a materiallysituated imagination.1 [End Page 192]

Both exploration narratives and canonical Romantic works manifest traditional views of fancy as a superficial or flighty form of the imagination. Throughout James Cook's journals, he remarks on the role of fancy in shaping Indigenous practices, contrasting "fancy" with "custom," which, for Cook, is a term applied to practices he considered to be ancient traditions. Cook sets up fancy's association with Indigenous cultures in a way that creates a dichotomy between the valuable and meaningful ("custom") and the attractive but superficial ("fancy"). We see a similar ambivalence toward fancy not only in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous definition, but also in works by John Keats, Percy Shelley, and their circles.2 Keats's description of fancy as the "the Sails" of the poem, while the "Imagination [is] the Rudder," depicts fancy as a necessary but directionless imaginative form.3

However, by turning to the material culture surrounding Pacific exploration—to Tahitian tattoos and tapa, to pantomime costuming and popular representations of Indigeneity, to women's collections of ephemera and exploration literature—it becomes clear that fancy is a form of the imagination that destabilizes the hierarchies and dichotomies the literary canon attempts to uphold. Fancy, when viewed in the material context of the Pacific, is instrumental in shaping interactions between Europeans and Indigenous individuals, like Ma'i, in informing the content curation of collections like those of Joseph Banks's sister, Sarah Sophia Banks, and in manipulating the popular imaginary of the Pacific in works by female poets like Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams.4

Keats's and the Shelleys' connections to explorers like Mungo Park [End Page 193] have been mentioned by critics, and Tim Fulford's, Debbie Lee's, and Peter J. Kitson's Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge does foundational work in delineating the role the Cook voyages played in the development of Romantic literature.5 Still, future scholarship needs to shift its focus more fully to the role Indigenous persons and women played in shaping Romantic material and imaginative culture.6 Whether looking more closely at Indigenous shipbuilding in the Pacific or thinking about the material productions of women in response to a globally-curious popular culture, bringing this material history into our discussions of Romanticism can have long-lasting effects on the ways we read Romantic texts.

Kacie L. Wills

Dr. Kacie Wills is Assistant Professor of English at Illinois College and co-editor of the compendium, Women and the Art and Science of Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Routledge, 2020).


1. For current views on fancy in the Romantic imagination, see Julie Ellison, "The Politics of Fancy in the Age of Sensibility," in Re-visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 17761837, ed. Joel Haefner and Carol Shiner Wilson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 228–55; Ivan Ortiz, "Fancy's Eye: Poetic Vision and the Romantic Air Balloon," Studies in Romanticism 56 (2017), 253–84.

2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985); John Keats, "Fancy," in The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); Leigh Hunt, Imagination and Fancy; or Selections from the Best English Poets, Illustrative of those first Requisites of their Art; with markings of the best passages, critical notices of the writers, and an essay in answer to the question "What is Poetry?" (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1844); Percy Shelley, "Queen Mab," in Shelley's...


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