Four lectures on the theme of the “The Persistence of Beauty: Tennyson to MacNiece” are now available to download as podcasts.
The Persistence of Beauty was a series of lectures run by the Romantic Dialogues and Legacies research group within the Department of English Studies, sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Study as part of its thematic year on Futures II.
The Persistence of Beauty focused on British, Irish, and American authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The series reflected on the ways that the Romantic and Post-Romantic imagination aspired towards an idealised notion of the beautiful as a harmonious, often transcendent, perfection only to discover that such an ideal conception of beauty is ironically unattainable. An aspiration towards the beautiful confronts us with some of the most difficult and unbeautiful truths about the limitations of our existence and art. This is something Post-Romantic writers took up, and beauty remained central, and was perhaps even renewed and intensified, for later nineteenth- and twentieth- century writers.
Four lectures in the series were given by members of the Department of English Studies, and can now be listened to as podcasts.
Dr Sarah Wootton gave the first lecture of the series, Lamia Beauty and Problematic Sylphs in the Works of the Brontes and George Eliot. According to Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë told her sisters that “they were wrong – even morally wrong – in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course.” Their fiction subjects prevailing ideals of feminine beauty to scrutiny and satire. The lecture demonstrates, though, that while derivative ideas of beauty are derided, increasingly complex portraits of beauty emerge.
Later in the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde sought to celebrate the artificiality of beauty, severing the Romantic connection of the beautiful from the good on the one side, and the true on the other. In Ugly Meanings in Beautiful Things: Reading and Desire in Fin-de-Siecle Fiction, Professor Simon J James focuses on the first of Wilde’s legal trials, during which his opponents sought to find unspeakably ‘ugly meanings’ in the ‘beautiful things’ of his literary works.
Continuing the link between beauty and ugliness, but turning from fiction to poetry, Dr Mark Sandy looks at The Persistent Poetics of Beauty and Death in Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. These two poets shared an abiding fascination for the “beautiful enigma” of ordinary things. Their encounters with beauty in the ordinary shaped their respective poetics of process, change and, in particular, death.
The final lecture explores the various ways in which four poets make poems out of their struggle with and aspirations after “beauty.” The Difficulty of Beauty: Hopkins, Yeats, Crane, Spender, by Professor Michael O’Neill, discusses a reluctance to settle for “beauty” in all four poets, a reluctance central to the difficult beauty that they achieve.
These four lectures were given by academics from the Department of English Studies at Durham University, but the series also brought in external speakers to explore beauty in a range of other writers, including Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Graves and Louis MacNeice. The full series of lectures is available to listen to via the IAS website. It was complemented another lecture series on the Recovery of Beauty which can also be freely downloaded.