The Persistence of Beauty: Tennyson to MacNeice

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.

Those lectures given by academics from the Department of English are listed below. The full series – which includes renowned external speakers – is available to download from the Institute of Advanced Study website. This lecture series was complemented by another on the Recovery of Beauty, which examined notions of beauty broadly across the arts, history and medicine.

Lamia Beauty and Problematic Sylphs in the Works of the Brontes and George Eliot

By Dr Sarah Wootton

Charlotte BronteAccording 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.” Prevailing ideals of feminine beauty are subjected to scrutiny and satire in the fiction of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, making way for a “perfectly new character,” as Rochester describes the “plain” protagonist of Jane Eyre. Self-styled “sylphs,” such as Blanche Ingram in Jane Eyre, Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette and Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, are undeniably “problematic” for their authors, yet remain central to the narrative and compelling for readers. This lecture demonstrates that while derivative ideas of beauty are derided, increasingly complex portraits of beauty emerge. Beauty, in various guises, retains an agency that challenges and destabilises the models of female subjectivity established in these works. [Duration: 50 minutes]

Ugly Meanings in Beautiful Things: Reading and Desire in Fin-de-Siècle Fiction

By Professor Simon J James

Oscar WildeWhat might it mean to speak or write in words, of beauty, especially physical beauty? Is to do so always redundant, since beauty itself is beyond the power of language to depict? Is it the case that the literary arts can only ever portray not beauty itself but the effect of beauty? – whether awe, ecstasy, sexual desire….The aesthetics of 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. This lecture focuses mostly on the first of Wilde’s legal trials, in which his opponents sought to find unspeakably “ugly meanings” in the “beautiful things” of his literary works. [Duration: 50 minutes]

‘Enigmatical Beauty of Each Beautiful Enigma’: The Persistent Poetics of Beauty and Death in Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens

By Dr Mark Sandy

Walt WhitmanWalt Whitman and Wallace Stevens shared an abiding fascination for the “beautiful enigma” of ordinary things. Both poets recognised the ordinary as a source of imaginative vision, but also understood that the particulars of nature constitute an “enigmatical beauty” of their own which confounds the imagination. This lecture explores the varying ways that the imaginative encounters of Whitman and Stevens with beauty in the ordinary shaped their respective poetics of process, change, and death. In spite of poetic differences, Whitman read in the specifics of nature the “delicious word death” and Stevens learned the axiom that “Death is the mother of all beauty.” [Duration: 50 minutes]

The Difficulty of Beauty: Hopkins, Yeats, Crane, Spender

By Professor Michael O’Neill

WB YeatsThis lecture explores the various ways in which four poets make poems out of their struggle with and aspirations after “beauty.” Hopkins suggests that “mortal beauty” is both perishable and “dangerous” (“To What Serves Mortal Beauty?”); Yeats creates a “beauty born out of its own despair” (“Among School Children”); for Crane it seems that there is no “beauty blessed” that is not also a “beauty cursed” (“The Bathers”); Spender’s poetry sets the aesthetic in tension with the political. The lecture discusses a reluctance to settle for “beauty” in all four poets, a reluctance central to the difficult beauty that they achieve. [Duration: 50 minutes]

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