Left: Sir Walter Scott by John Steell. Middle: Walter Scott Monument by George Meikle Kemp. Right: Byron by Bertel Thorvaldsen. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
n the course of explaining the many ways Victorians reconceived and often distorted the major Romantic poets, particularly Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley and Sir Walter Scott, Tom Mole discusses later nineteenth-century attempts to create a national pantheon, observing that using Westminster Abbey to house particularly honored writers only came about in the eighteenth century (187). During the age of Victoria attempts were made to find a place for great figures in British history outside religious institutions, but “efforts to raise memorials to Scott and Byron brought to light problems with the eighteenth-century conception of a national pantheon, and helped to shape a new version of the pantheon, with its own monumental sites and forms, which contributed to a new understanding of the national identity.”
According to Mole, the desired Victorian pantheon had six requirements, the first of which was that it had to be “liberal” (by which he means “inclusive”). Moreover, it had to be secular: “not located in a house of worship, and so it could include people of different denominations, as well as those like Byron whose conduct and beliefs seemed questionable.” Third, rather than being located in a single place, it (or its component parts) had to be distributed throughout the country. Fourth, its components had to function as parts of a network. Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, it was “nondiscursive. Rather than offering readings of Byron or Scott, their monuments offered ways not to read them” (180). Sixth, this memorialization of the truly great men (!) who had created Britain and British culture had to appear in a wide range of media — from poetic anthologies, monumental public statues, parian ware busts for the home, and photographic postcards of notable memorials, such as that to Walter Scott.
The result, though Mole does not use the term, was to create a virtual national monument, and like Victorian anthologies of Romantic poetry, the means and process of creating such an embodiment of cultural nationalism produced a censored, reduced, rather bland version of controversial figures, which “banish[ed] contention and celebrate[d] individuals whose merits were a matter of common consensus.” The very silence of the sculptural portion of this nationalist pantheon "simulated the cultural consensus that it claimed to represent, and by doing so helped to bring it about. It imagined a nation that could include Tories, Whigs, and radicals, Anglicans, dissenters, and deists. It served an electorate who passed statues of their heroes on the way to work, rather than visiting them in special shrines. . . . the pantheon gave material existence, in the present, to the past shared by the newly enfranchised subjects of a Reformed nation that not only had to legislate itself into existence but also had to imagine itself into being” (184).
- “Bite-sized chunks of culture”: How Anthologies reshaped Victorian ideas of Romantic poetry
- Victorian Illustrated Books as Essentially Victorian
Mole, Tom. What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History. Princeton: Princeton University press, 2018. [Reviewed by George P. Landow]
Last modified 30 August 2018