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Stages of European Romanticism by Theodore Ziolkowski

Reviewed by Karolina Watroba, University of Oxford

Stages of European Romanticism: Cultural Synchronicity across the Arts, 1798-1848, Theodore Ziolkowski. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018. £75.00. ISBN: 9781640140424.


Theodore Ziolkowski is a nestor in the field of German and comparative literature. Of particular relevance for his most recent monograph are his many publications on German Romanticism, including German Romanticism and Its Institutions (1990), Clio the Romantic Muse: Historicizing the Faculties in Germany (2004), four monographs in German on the Romantic circles in Jena, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Dresden (1998, 2002, 2009, and 2010, respectively), and a number of essays on music and visual arts in the age of Romanticism. As Ziolkowski writes in his preface to Stages of European Romanticism, ‘it seems inevitable […] that this book should finally have sought to bring it all together’ (xi-xii). Indeed, the book comes across as a retrospective on his own research: the bibliography lists one or (in just a few cases) two works by various other critics alongside no fewer than 24 works by Ziolkowski himself.

            Apart from brief introductory and concluding sections, Stages of European Romanticism is divided into six parts, each of which discusses five or six works of art created in the same year, beginning in 1798 and proceeding at ten-year intervals up until 1848. According to Ziolkowski, each such slice ‘enables us to examine in considerable detail the representative works of that year and to determine their underlying similarities’, while the intervals ‘allow time for development to take place and, as a result, enable us to note changes and contrasts as Romanticism progresses’ (4-5). Ziolkowski briefly mentions Hegel’s notion of the ‘Geist der Zeit’ and Jung’s term ‘cultural synchronicity’ (3-4) as the methodological underpinnings of his project, but this framework does not account for the coexistence of very different artistic movements at the same time. Ziolkowski implicitly acknowledges this in the ‘digression’ which he includes in the second part of his study and which is devoted to the first part of Goethe’s Faust. But it seems that rather than being a true digression, the section on Faust captures the messy reality of culture – the fact that very different texts can happily coexist alongside each other. One is left wondering if including more such ‘digressions’ would have made Ziolkowski’s approach to cultural production examined at arbitrary intervals more illuminating.

            Despite the emphasis on various branches of the arts in its title, the book predominantly discusses literature: 21 sections deal with literary texts, and only six each with music and visual art. Similarly, the focus is firmly on German Romanticism: out of 33 works of art discussed, 17 were created in the German-speaking lands. According to the author, this focus ‘stems not so much from [his] own special area of linguistic and cultural competence as from the conviction that Romanticism enjoyed a longer, stronger, fuller and more productive life in Germany than in most other lands’ (6). But it is hard to resist the impression that Ziolkowski’s areas of competence played a large role in his selection. The other texts he discusses come mostly from English- and French-speaking Europe (seven and five, respectively), with the remaining four ‘works that appear to fit’ (xii) coming from Italian, Spanish and Polish cultures. The end result is that, as happens so often in comparative studies of literature, the works supposedly representing ‘European Romanticism’ come almost exclusively from German, French and British cultures.

            Ziolkowski’s decision to discuss an important Polish text – Konrad Wallenrod, a narrative poem written in 1828 by Adam Mickiewicz, a poet whose stature in Poland is comparable to that of Goethe in Germany, who was an avid reader of Byron, personally knew Pushkin, and spent twenty years of his life in Paris, where his lectures at the Collège de France where attended by the likes of George Sand – is certainly warranted. (Incidentally, Ziolkowski does not have any chapters on Byron, Pushkin, or Sand.) But his discussion of Mickiewicz is based predominantly on a study by Wiktor Weintraub from 1954, which creates the impression that his research on this work was cursory. Among the few other sources that Ziolkowski quotes in this section is the hugely influential History of Polish Literature written by the most famous Polish poet of the twentieth century, Czesław Miłosz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. But when Ziolkowski quotes Miłosz, he refers to him as ‘a later critic’ (later than Weintraub, that is), which implies that the author is not aware of Miłosz’s central position in the canon of Polish literature (139). This might seem like a petty point, but unfortunately it seems to be symptomatic of Ziolkowski’s general unfamiliarity with Polish history and culture. For instance, he inexplicably translates the title of the work he discusses into English as Konradas Valenrodas, which is the Lithuanian version of this name (139); he calls Gdańsk by its German name ‘Danzig’, while simultaneously confirming that he is talking of the city ‘in today’s Poland’ (140); and refers to what is known as the November Uprising of 1830 with the name of ‘the Warsaw uprising’, much more readily associated with the uprising that took place in Warsaw in 1944 (145). All these inaccuracies undermine Ziolkowski’s attempt to engage with works of European Romanticism beyond the German, French and British canon.

            Returning to my point about Mickiewicz’s trans-European connections with other important poets of his time, though, Ziolkowski’s study is very effective at bringing out these sorts of networks. For example, his emphasis on Walter Scott’s deep familiarity with German literature (59) and Achim von Arnim’s and Clemens Brentano’s explicit reference to Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders as a source of inspiration for their collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (66) reminds us that Britain was far from insular in the Romantic era. Knowledge of foreign languages and enthusiastic practice of translation were fundamental to European culture for centuries, and the early nineteenth century was no exception. Other than examples of such direct links between European artists of the age, Ziolkowski also traces various indirect parallels between the 33 works of art he discusses in the book. Some of these are more persuasive than others. A comparison between several works from 1798, including Beethoven’s ‘Grande Sonate Pathétique’ and Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, organised around the notion that in all of them a new style is created out of the resources of earlier tradition, is tenuous, since it could equally well describe much of cultural production at other historical junctures. Similarly, the fact that both Beethoven and Wordsworth liked walking in nature, thinking deeply and extemporizing (17) seems too general to constitute the grounds for a meaningful comparison. But the parallel between the collaborative work of Wordsworth and Coleridge on the one hand, and the brothers Schlegel on the other (26) is much more specific and illuminating. The most original comparison drawn in the book is the use of frame narratives to relativize the importance of Romantic sensibilities in realist narratives and vice versa in various works of 1848, ranging from Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camélias to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although Ziolkowski does not explicitly make this connection, this comparison could be fruitfully extended to the composition of Carl Spitzweg’s lesser-known but fascinating painting ‘Gnom, Eisenbahn betrachtend’, which itself frames Ziolkowski’s entire narrative, since it is featured on the front cover of the book and is the last artwork discussed in it.

            Stages of European Romanticism is written in a clear, engaging style, and a considerable amount of space is taken up by detailed summaries of the plots of the 33 works selected by Ziolkowski. These two features could make it an accessible introduction to a wide range of Romantic texts of different genres and other Romantic artworks, a role in which this book would be more convincing than as a monograph aimed at experts.