Romantic Worlding

Frontispiece, The Song of Los, copy B, in the collection of the Library of Congress. Leaf size 32.0 x 24.0cm. Lambeth, Printed by W. Blake, 1795. 8p.; 33cm (detail)
Frontispiece, ‘The Song of Los’, copy B, in the collection of the Library of Congress. Leaf size 32.0 x 24.0cm. Lambeth, Printed by W. Blake, 1795. 8p.; 33cm (detail)


In his letters and journals Johann Wolfgang von Goethe conceived of world literature as a dynamic process of exchange that would enable cultures to be regenerated through a process of mirroring and critique, while also providing a means of moving towards intercultural understanding and universal tolerance via the bridging of differences. It is this notion of literature as a force of change that some have seen as missing from current approaches to world literature, most of which (Damrosch, Moretti, and Apter for example) imagine the world as a surface across which literatures circulate and capital’s global expansion can be made visible. In contrast, this project recasts the relation between world and literature as one in which the dynamic force of the latter has the potential to open new worlds that can resist and subvert the capitalist expansions that world literature studies generally takes as given.

Following Betty Joseph’s suggestion that, during the long eighteenth century, the notion of world-becoming emerges as a distinguishing feature of modernity, Romantic Worlding examines the ways in which Romantic refigurations of space-time as layered, plastic, circular, or overlapping, as simultaneously material and spiritual, contextual and expansive, can be seen as attempts to engage with forms of worlding that disrupt the easy universality of Enlightenment and now globalisation. Thomas De Quincey’s attempts to unify a heterogenous world, for example, were increasingly countered by proliferating forms of difference, represented in particular by the spatio-temporal mechanics of his palimpsestic layerings. Conversely, in the work of Percy Shelley, literary transmission and imaginative engagement are presented as forms of transnational dialogue that open worlds to difference and thus to a modern politics. And far more radically, William Blake’s entire oeuvre resists the institutionalisation of a single world, by presenting the conflict between contraries as able to open new worlds in all their plurality and difference from things as they are.

Rather than a bounded object in Mercatorian space, the globe traversed by these writers exceeds regimes of equivalence, becoming a space open to new forms of exchange via an attentiveness to possible beginnings and the emergence of new forms. This dynamic space provides the touchstone for Romantic Worlding, which examines the ways in which De Quincey, Shelley, and Blake give us forms of worlding that either attest to, disrupt, or simply refuse a generalised translatability between worlds. It asks after the consequences, political, social, and ethical, of refiguring our world/s as either imbricated transmission, palimpsestic layering, or machinic assemblage, in order to ascertain how we might conceive the role of literature within a world as an active force rather than a mere commodity of exchange.


Dr Phil Habil Jennifer Wawrzinek, Freie Universität Berlin



Themes related to this project