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Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 68-74

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Book Review

Poetic Castles in Spain:
British Romanticism and Figurations of Iberia

Poetic Castles in Spain: British Romanticism and Figurations of Iberia. By Diego Saglia. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. 355 pp. $51.

How did early nineteenth-century Spain, under siege by the French and on the brink of revolution, figure in the development of some of the most popular poetry of the British Romantic period? How did the English view their relation to Spain and the Spanish people during and after the 1808-1814 Peninsular War, in which English military forces assisted in fending off Napoleon's invasion and in preserving the Spanish monarchy? How did the founding and dissolution of the short-lived Spanish constitutional monarchy from 1820 to 1823 influence English poets' perspectives on Spanish freedom fighters? Diego Saglia is the first to treat these questions with this groundbreaking topography of Spain's imaginary landscape as romanticized by early nineteenth-century British writers.

Particular geographical spaces and historical moments are of great value in this book, as Saglia painstakingly outlines the imaginary contours of famous Spanish locations and events in British narrative poetry. Due to his sharply defined focus on 1800s to 1820s English narrative poetry on Iberian subjects, Saglia significantly expands and complicates postcolonial perspectives on British imperialism. Exposing the limitations of Gaston Bachelard's, Michel Foucault's, and Mikhail Bakhtin's phenomenological approaches to space and time in literature as oversimplifying how discourse mediates between the imaginary and material reality, Saglia claims to adapt these theories to advance a locally and temporally specific cultural analysis they have too generally avoided. The founding questions of this study have gone too long unasked, as Romanticists interested in questions of nationalism and colonialism generally focus on literary appropriations of lands that the British strove more obviously to possess and subjugate. To critique British notions of the exotic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Edward Saïd's and Benedict Anderson's seminal studies have focused on Western efforts to subjugate [End Page 68] territories in India, Asia and Africa; while more recent cultural analyses more methodologically related to Saglia's, like Katie Trumpeter's Bardic Nationalism, have concentrated on the British Isles, discussing literary treatments of Scotland with its long history of border wars and rebellions, and Ireland with its continued resistance to English cultural and military impositions. In considering Spain as an Oriental domain, subject to British desires, yet defended by British forces from a demonized French imperialism, Saglia addresses an unusual subject--a country with exotic Eastern roots in Western Europe, once a serious threat to England's autonomy, and at the time considered in this study, a country whose Catholic institutions and poetic traditions connected it with a Gothic medieval past, the spirit of which the English Romantics were striving to recover. Unlike lands subject to British conquest, Spain's idealized sovereignty and traditions were to be defended from rapacious onslaught; indeed, Saglia presents numerous examples of British visions of Spain as a damsel in distress whom only an honorable British knightly force could rescue.

Saglia's impressively detailed study reads as a microhistory of contradictory English attitudes towards Spain, attitudes which expose a range of English anxieties about their own national identity in the face of multiple religious worldviews, and of principled differences concerning appropriate gender roles in a "free" state. Nonspecialists in Napoleonic Europe may wish for a broader introduction to the Peninsular War, as Saglia dives almost immediately from postcolonial theory into such details of British-Iberian affairs as Lord Holland's independent efforts to craft a constitutional free state in Spain and the exile Blanco White's influential commentary on Spain's decline in might and morals. Poetic Castles in Spain seems ideally directed to the savvy Romanticist with a strong background in the complex and varied theories of nationhood expounded by ardent philosophers and revolutionary leaders across early nineteenth-century Europe, ideas which simultaneously threatened English security and evoked passionate sympathies even when French Revolutionary ideals had been largely...


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