Jerome McGann’s The Beauty of Inflections is a collection of essays and readings that attempt to outline a program for the re-historicization of poems. McGann’s readings of Keats, Coleridge, and other Romantic poets show how to historicize, while the broader essays give theoretical justifications for the program, or show how it might benefit literary study. Toward the end of this program (the last chapter before the conclusion) McGann chooses to include an essay on “Rome and its Romantic Significance.” In the introduction he had told us that these essays were carefully selected and ordered in the book, sometimes out of chronological sequence, to best make the argument for historicization. Why include an essay on a place and civilization that seems antithetical to anything Romantic? (Despite the obvious shared root in the city’s name, what is Romantic about the civic-life-loving Romans?) McGann uses Rome as one of his best examples of the poet’s ability to Romantically idealize almost anything, and discusses how Rome’s long and tumultuous history lends itself to embellishment and longing in the imagination of the Romantically-minded.
Romantics have a notorious aversion to cities and cities’ trappings, yet Rome was somehow the “one city that escaped the judgment of Romanticism” (313). McGann names Winckellmann the first Romantic to visit Rome, arriving when Rome had just come out of yet another fall of some “civilization.” It was a beautiful, empty place of ruins, ripe for the imagination’s taking, ripe for yet another birth. Winckelmann “presided over its birth” and saw to it that it was a Romantic one. It is because of Rome’s peculiar position as a city of rich history and a city of empty ruins that the Romantics, McGann argues, were able to “discover the limits of their ideological experience” (314). The poets had found a blank canvas, but under the ruined surface were millennia of possibilities for what Rome could be. No matter that none of these possibilities suited the poets, for it was the remembrance of Rome that could easily be Romanticized, painted with the imagery of the city in its beautiful desolation, desolation that was just waiting for melancholy and nostalgia to give it an afterlife. So, the ruins and their shadows inspired poetry, and even though Winckelmann’s Roman project was really a historical one (full of discoveries that somehow only fueled the nostalgia rather than grounding Rome’s new identity on the facts of its un-Romantic history), portrayals and conceptions of Rome going into the 19th century were those of the “Everlasting Rome, not the Rome which is replaced by another every decade” (Geothe as quoted in McGann 316).
McGann’s example of a Romantic Rome shows how far the Romantic ideology can go in conceiving of a place, a time, or even a city as something that reflects the Romantic's inward turn, his longing for some imagined place of the past, and his veneration for creativity and the individual. Rome is the least ideal place and possesses the least ideal histories for those particular kinds of daydreams. (Those daydreams spawned some great poetry, for sure, but the Romans of antiquity or any time before Winckelmann would have called them daydreams.) I don’t know if this essay proves any of the major tenets of McGann’s beliefs about historicizing literature, but it does provide some insight into how the Romantic mind works, and a great example of what we still mean when we talk about “Romanticizing” something. The fact that a city such as Rome can fuel the same imagination that longs for pastoral solitude, freedom of expression, and freedom from religion and civic life, seems surprising, even if we already know that humans, Romantic or not, tend to envision “everlasting” places and cultures, usually picturing them in some conflated recollection of every iteration, glossing over the troubling bits, and conveniently forgetting (or valorizing anew, in a new language befitting the contemporary climate of nostalgia) the parts that don’t fit the ideology. Winckelmann, Goethe, Chateaubriand, and the rest, are interested in history – real, factual history, full of troubling events likes those happening in France – but that does not stop them from deeply Romanticizing Rome.
Only in Stendhal (who McGann comes to at the end of the essay) do we see the movement reach the “limits” McGann had promised to show us early on. The other thinkers and poets “refused to part with their most cherished forms of Romantic illusion and displacement,” but Stendhal finds these ways of viewing history “finally wanting” (333). Stendhal exhibits the despair of losing Rome, or anyplace for that matter, but not the desperate nostalgia of his contemporaries (331).
Perhaps Stendhal is the example McGann wants to leave us with, even though much of the essay is spent on those most charmed by their illusions. Stendhal’s Romanticism allows for a more realistic view of history and the loss of civilizations without imagining all of history as something preferable to the present day, something longed after through a misty veil of Romantic embellishments. Stendhal’s historical perception of Rome is one that teaches lessons (as McGann thinks history should), one that reminds us of what we should not forget, and allows us a rich poetic outlet, through its well-known histories and literary tropes. Perhaps Stendhal’s view of Rome is in many ways like McGann’s view of literary study. We learn from its losses (textual or otherwise), we lament the losses, and we do not forget the losses. Instead we record them, we seek inspiration from them, and we look forward to the possibilities of variants, interpretations, and meanings that a future of continued losses surely holds.
Work CitedMcGann, Jerome J. The Beauty of Inflections. Oxford UP: Oxford, 1985.