Romantic-era epic poetry and the mission of empire

Matthew Leporati, Fordham University


More epic poems were written in Britain during the Romantic era than at any other time in history. Critics have typically regarded the Romantic-era epic poem as an internalized form, an investigation of psychology isolated from history. This interiority is often taken to be a retreat from the epic's traditional external, socio-historical focus. Departing from this view, this dissertation examines a number of overlooked Romantic-era epics that feature and critique interiority as a means of examining the epic ambitions that were shaping British imperial expansion. These ambitions were bound up in a number of anxieties that include especially the tensions created by the evangelical turn of empire. This turn is a significant feature of the Romantic era, as this period saw the beginning of the modern global British missionary enterprise as well as the development of a secular "civilizing mission." Exposing the complicated friction between these missions, this dissertation explores how long poems of the Romantic era address these conflicts, as they imagine heroes capable of transforming populations through performances of interiority. By revising the tropes of the genre, these epics interrogate the developing contours of British imperialism. Foregrounding understudied poems by missionary propagandists, Ann Yearsley, and Robert Southey, the dissertation allows us to see how more canonical poems of the era are also shaped by the age's evangelism and its fraught connections to empire. Turning to Sydney Owenson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake, the dissertation studies how they appropriate the concept of missionary conversion as metaphors for creating worldwide transformation through poetry. The project concludes by reading Lord Byron's most famous long poem, Don Juan, as a repudiation of evangelical imperialism, as it subverts the epic genre as a way of objecting to the imperial implications of conversion. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Romance|History, European|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Leporati, Matthew, "Romantic-era epic poetry and the mission of empire" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3643382.