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Blazing Ideas in Literature

By Megan Powell, Lucy Carr and Serena Kerrigan-Noble

On Saturday 5 November, many people will have enjoyed spectacular firework displays or attended a traditional bonfire. The classics team were discussing the significance of this event and had an interesting conversation on which classic texts we could link to this annual occasion. Previously we have devoted features to royalty, and when thinking of the gunpowder plot we identified many recurring themes in classic literature, like that of revolution. For a less political standpoint, we tried to think of texts which included a modern theme of fireworks. To no avail, we decided to take an abstract approach on bonfires and instead devote this feature to classics that have sparked revolution or literary movements within their canon. With the title of this feature borrowing from Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666), it felt apt to explore examples of literature that were ahead of their time and everlasting.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The term “pre-Romantic” is inflected with the prejudices of the academic community which has canonised the "Big Six" male poets of the period at the expense of others, particularly female poets. Such an attempt at streamlining literary history by excising female authors reveals that scholarship itself is always embroiled in gender politics, consigning female poets like Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743–1825) to the margins of this literary epoch. In An Inventory of the Furniture in Dr. Priestley’s Study (1771), Barbauld’s topographical study of the male space becomes a metaphor for her literary trespassing on male poetic forms. The poem parodies Swift’s poem, The Lady’s Dressing Room, positioning Barbauld as a female intruder, like Priestley’s experiments with hydrogen, “a thing unknown, without a name.” On the contrary, Barbauld was an important precursor and catalyst of the Romantic literary movement and a pivotal influence for writers like Coleridge. Indeed, the number of women such as Barbauld writing in the period reveals that they were not just on the margins of the literary market, but at its centre. J. R. de J. Jackson’s 1993 survey of women poets found that over four hundred women were writing and publishing poetry in England during the pre-Romantic period.

William Blake

Another important precursor for Romanticism as a literary movement is William Blake (1757–1827), whose poems are often as politically incendiary, (“burning bright”) as the Tyger from his poem of the same name. In his prophetic poems The French Revolution (1791), America (1793) and Europe (1794) Blake demonstrates the revolutionary impulse of the age and what he viewed to be the political incompetence of Pitt’s establishment, in biblical narratives of original sin and the apocalyptic imagery of Revelations. Blake criticises all systems in which “human thought is crushed beneath the iron hand of power” with “mind-forg’d manacles” (London), be it by his quasi-divine mythological character Urizen or sublunary political figures like Pitt. Blake’s England is depicted as a prison in Europe: “the windows” of every house “wove over with curses of iron,” “every man bound.” Blake suggests that it is this appeal to ancient feudalism and an inability to conceive of the French Revolution as anything but an attack on the English constitution, which have embroiled England in a financially and morally reprehensible war.

Betty Friedan

Written by American activist and writer Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963) is a landmark piece of non-fiction, regarded as a catalysing force for the second-wave feminism movement. It is a text that spurned the post-WWII belief that women found their greatest sense of fulfilment in domesticity and gave voice to the frustration, helplessness and anger felt by millions of American women who were dissatisfied with the gender roles ascribed to them. It’s important to note that the intended audience for this text was white, college-educated, middle-class women and so its commentary on female liberation is limited in this sense, but at the time of its publication, it was undoubtedly influential in sparking calls and protests for gender equality in the following decades.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois is one of the US’s most prolific sociologists, and his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), is perhaps one of the most foundational pieces of writing of the 20th century, due to its enduring impact on academia and politics. DuBois’ collection of essays draws upon a range of disciplines – history, religion, autobiography, anthropology, sociology and more – to inform the reader of the wide-ranging and destructive effects that racism, bigotry and segregation imposed on the consciousness of Black people. It offers an assessment of the obstacles impeding racial equality at the turn of the 20th century, condemning the rife practices of virulent racism and advocating for social change through disruption and protest. Like the other texts in this list, the importance of its legacy cannot be understated.

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