Naturalism in England (1875)

by Robert William Rix

An introduction to the background, genesis, themes and reception of the book.

1. Introduction

Naturalism in England, the volume on literature in the English language as it had developed at the beginning of the 19th century, was published at the end of 1875. While the title might suggest that the theme is “English” literature, it is in fact more broadly the literature of Great Britain, since in addition to the English poets Brandes includes in his analytic portraits the Scotsman Walter Scott and the Irishman Thomas Moore (Ireland having been ruled by Westminster until 1922). Since Brandes places much emphasis on the national strain in the authorships he treats, it is thus more correct to refer to the volume as an analysis of British literature, as shall be maintained hereafter.

Of the six volumes of Main Currents, three are concerned with French literature, two with German and only one with British. Thus, there appears to be an imbalance in the respective significance attributed to the three national literatures. That the Morgenbladet reviewer (perhaps Edvard Brandes?) can ultimately assert that Naturalism in England is the “fourth, greatest, and most important volume in Brandes’ work” is attributable to the fact that it contains the portrait of George Gordon Byron (after 1798 Lord Byron), the hero of freedom who constitutes the culmination of the movements in European intellectual life that Brandes had described in the earlier volumes. This is already anticipated in the introductory lecture to Emigrant Literature (1872), in which Lord Byron’s works are said to mark a turning point.

In the 1923 edition of the first volume of Main Currents (Emigrant Literature), Brandes reflects on his entire project as constituting a “piece of the history of the European soul” (Brandes 1923:3) as anchored in politics. Already in the original edition of 1872 he makes it clear that the literary production of the era must be seen as the decisive factor in “the final victory of freethinking” (Brandes 1872:7). Byron’s poetry is an important part of this development, since it was published at a time in which religion and authoritarian ideas had trampled revolutionary sentiments under foot, thus once again establishing a dominant position. Byron signals the return of freethinking, after which the continental revolutions of 1848 put an end to tyranny and to captive intellectual life in many places across Europe. Only Denmark remained unchanged and thus weighed down by reactionary sentiments.

“Naturalism,” the unifying principle in the in the volume, is Brandes’ name for a literary orientation that breaks with the traditions that constantly limit the possibilities of human development and novelty (it is in the natural landscape, at sea, and among the animals that we can distance ourselves from society and reconstruct the subjugated self). The English-speaking authors are treated not just for the literary qualities but also for their indirect as well as direct political engagement.

As much as Naturalism in England is a literary history, it is just as much a defense of engaged and socially critical poetry, which serves as an example that may move the Danish reader to employ literary art in a new manner.

2. Background and Genesis

a. Agony and Inspiration

The lectures that formed the basis of Naturalism in England were delivered in the spring of 1874 and, after a stay in Germany, in April and October of 1975; the volume appeared on November 12th, 1875. Brandes himself relates that his collection of the material took place under “unfavorable conditions,” as he was staying with his parents in Krystalgade, Copenhagen, in a little room with a view of a garden wall and with the constant “hellish racket” of a piano teacher in the background (Brandes 1907:154). Eighteen-seventy-five was a year in which Brandes’ marital agonies worsened and in which he was plagued by several small ailments such as diphtheria and a paralysis of the palette that made it difficult to speak (Brandes 1907:174). There was briefly hope of an opening in the impasse that was Brandes’ application to the university when a new Minister of Culture, J.C.H. Fischer (1814-1885), was appointed by the government of J.B.S. Estrup. Because Fischer was in an unmarried relationship he was considered a “freethinker,” yet any possibility of a more tolerant attitude toward Brandes and his application was soon extinguished when one of his old opponents, Hans Lassen Martensen, Bishop of Sjælland, intervened in the matter.

There was, however, a silver lining. While Brandes was working on the English-language material, Frederik Hegel, director of the Gyldendal publishing house, arranged for him to found the cultural journal Det nittende Aarhundrede: Maanedsskrift for Literatur and Kritik, which was published between 1874 and 1877. Brandes and his brother Edvard became the editors of the new periodical, which was intended to be a channel for the liberal and anti-clerical culture war that was also written into the fabric of Main Currents. In one of the issues, Brandes published an essay on the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Brandes 1875b), who was presented as a forerunner of such progressive attitudes. The essay was based on the two-hour lecture on the poet Brandes had delivered at the Studenterforening in April. While most Danish readers were aware of authors like Walter Scott and Lord Byron, Shelley remained as good as unknown, as only a few sporadic examples of his poetry had been translated into Danish. Brandes’ Studenterforeningen lecture was thus erroneously billed as an address on “Schelling” (Brandes 1907:174), the German Romantic and philosopher much better known in Denmark.

It is evident that Brandes had only become acquainted with many of the poems treated in Naturalism in England shortly before the publication of the volume. Yet he was already familiar, in greater or lesser degrees, with many of the authors themselves. An 1861 note in his diary, for example, indicates that he had read a biographical article on Shelley in Fædrelandet (Dagbog 1861:100). But it was the personal meeting with the English critic and author Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) that proved decisive in the shaping of Naturalism in England. Gosse, who had learned Danish and was interested in Scandinavian literature, visited many Danish authors, making contact with Brandes in May of 1874. Brandes ascribes great significance to the meetings in his Memoirs: “Gosse’s visit provided a new opening for my study of English poetry. His enthusiasm struck a chord with me” (Brandes 1907:157). The two men arranged to read their respective national literatures aloud to one another. Gosse relates that during their morning meetings he recited, among others, Shelley, William Wordsworth, and A.C. Swinburne. He especially recalls an episode in which read Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” of which Brandes at that point was unaware. During the recitation Brandes “shivered with pleasure,” and upon its final line fell back on the sofa, entranced by the beauty of the poem (Gosse 1911:288-9). Brandes would later refer to this ode as Shelley’s “mightiest poem” (Brandes 1875a:324-5).

It was Gosse who provided Brandes with insight into how British authors were generally viewed and judged. He also gave Brandes the incentive to revise the canon. Thus, in his Memoirs Brandes writes that Gosse “was the first who taught me how much more highly the artists of modern England esteemed Shelley, Keats and Coleridge than Byron, and how strongly the bourgeoisie preferred Wordsworth to him” (Brandes 1907:157). In the revolt against petite bourgeois values that is written large in Naturalism in England, it is precisely Byron who comes to the forefront and Wordsworth who is downgraded.

b. The English Language

If the analysis of the British material receives less attention from the author – measured in page count – than German and French literature, it is partly due to the generally lesser impact exerted by English literature in Denmark of the 1870s. Yet in the second half of the 19th century a rising number of Danish translations from English were published, both of Romantic and of contemporary literature (see Downs 1948).

One unavoidable question in this context involves Brandes’ reasons for writing Naturalism in England. His knowledge of English was limited. Instruction in it had not been a part of his schooling, as traditionally French and German were the common foreign languages of Denmark. Yet there was a rising acknowledgment of the importance of English. Copenhagen University established a professorship of English in 1851, which was occupied by the eccentric George Stephens, and in 1864 it first become possible to choose English as an elective in the school system (Rasmussen 2003:83-4). Even though Brandes had acquired solid competence in reading English, his command of the spoken language was lacking. When during a three-week visit to England in 1870 he had met the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose The Subjection of Women he had translated into Danish, they spoke French together.

Gosse recalls from his time in Copenhagen that “Brandes had a good knowledge of literary English and was accustomed to the pronunciation, but he did not trust himself to talk.” Therefore they spoke Danish when together. Gosse also mentions that Brandes had difficulty grasping the metrics of English lyric and was especially tone deaf to the metrical foot anapaest. In an 1895 appearance at The London Author’s Club, twenty years after the publication of Naturalism in England, Brandes acknowledges as much: “Although I, as you can hear, speak English quite poorly, I can reassure you that I read it with ease” (Brandes 1905:428).

In the volume on British literature it can be observed that the section that had been used as the basis of the Shelley lecture at the Studenterforeningen primarily provide the readers with Danish prose renderings or paraphrases of the poems so that Brandes would not have read aloud too many direct citations from the English. In his correspondence with his soon to be wife, Henriette Strodtmann, Brandes notes that he had used a German translation of Shelley’s works, but had however found that the poet was awful in this language (cited in Nolin 1965:195).

3. Method, Canon and Conceptual Apparatus

a. A Characterization of Naturalism in England

In Naturalism in England we witness the culmination of what Brandes had built up to in the previous volume, The Reaction in France, in which he discusses the return of authoritarian ideas. Naturalism is the literary mode Brandes sees as the means of realizing freethinking. He thus begins the volume by describing the political situation of Great Britain at the beginning of the 19th century: the tyranny of the Church and the monarchy, the fear of revolution among the establishment classes, and the imperialistic tendencies. Political domination and cultural stagnation function as the taking-off point for the selection of the authors for the volume, all of whom are evaluated according to their ability to take account of the political power of the dominate class.

As noted, Brandes attributes great political and cultural significance to Byron’s works, which were published between 1807 and his death in 1824. Yet the subtitle of Naturalism in England, “Byron and his Group,” is misleading, since the poets were not a cohesive group and many of the older authors were deeply critical of George Gordon Byron. But in his chosen title Brandes signals his underlying agenda: the nature-oriented literature from the beginning of the 19th century can be understood as an overture to Byron, whose poetry functions as the climax of the book. This model of analysis, which has a clear goal in sight, appears to justify Brandes holding up Byron’s poetry as a yardstick for the other naturalistic authors in the volume in a manner that is always unfavorable to them.

The material in Naturalism in England falls chiefly into two sections, although with respect to page count or to Brandes’ judgment they are hardly equal. The first and shortest section addresses the first generation of nature poets, the so-called “Lake Poet School,” as they were dubbed by the influential Edinburgh critic Francis Jeffrey. This group includes William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, each of which was connected to the Lake District of northwest England. In reality they never constituted an actual “school” with a common program, but in Brandes’ view they all share a movement from radical sympathies in their youth toward a later conservative ideology. Brandes also sees the Scottish writer Walter Scott as belonging to this old guard.

Despite the immense literary significance of these authors, they are for Brandes political apostates, and discussion of them functions in part as a prelude to the second half of the volume in which the younger generation of poets is addressed. The first of these young poets is John Keats. He is followed by a chapter on the Irishman Thomas Moore, who is viewed as an erotic poet but whose political rebelliousness provides Brandes with an occasion for a long historical elucidation of the Irish Rebellion at the turn of the 19th century. The cultural-historical development that Brandes describes builds to a crescendo via the controversial poet Shelley, after which the volume culminates in a 170-page treatment of Byron. That Byron would be placed so prominently in Main Currents had already been presaged in The Reaction in France:

In Napoleon positive greatness had fallen, the real hero of an age vanished from the Earth. Human admiration was as empty as a pedestal from which the statue had been removed. Lord Byron occupied the empty space anew with the fantastical greatness of the hero. Napoleon had replaced Werther, René and Faust; the promethean and desperate heroism of Byron replaced Napoleon. He was marvelously attuned to the needs of the age. (Brandes 1874:348).

b. Literary-Historical Methodology: Hippolyte Taine

A general tendency of the 19th century was to tie literary studies to historical empiricism and to leave aesthetics to philosophy. Brandes’ method of literary criticism incorporates that of the French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), who is especially associated with a biographical approach to literature. Yet with respect to Byron, Brandes cultivates an exorbitantly admiring approach that distinguishes itself from Sainte-Beuve.

The other great source of inspiration is Hippolyte Taine (1828-1898), whom Brandes had addressed in his dissertation of 1870, and with whom he had both corresponded and met personally. In the fourth volume of Taine’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise [The History of English Literature], published in 1864, early 19th century literature is described as a part of “l’âge moderne” [the modern age], which not only involved a break with Neoclassical forms in poetry, but also a flourishing of new revolutionary thoughts. It is this same frame of understanding we find in Brandes’ writing. Many of the literary figures are also the same, and the greatest poet, toward whom all early 19th poetry pointed, is Byron, the only figure to warrant his own chapter in Taine’s account of the period.

The systematic method of literary criticism that Brandes implicitly employs in his analysis can also be traced back to Taine, including the three main principals of the understanding of literary production: race (national character), milieu (the author’s environment), and le moment (the historical circumstances). It is from these three parameters that the author should be understood, as well as the national tradition of which the author is a part. Yet Brandes broadens the literary critical scope, for whereas Taine sees the literary product as the final result of the three conditions, Brandes emphasizes how the work is subsequently transmitted, and how it influences and inspires later authors. Brandes judges works according to their ability to inspire political debate, which is the criterion that distinguishes him from Taine’s more apolitical criticism (see Levin 1963:13-14; Wellek 1968:359).

Taine’s concept of race receives a measure of special attention from Brandes. Thus he suggests that Walter Scott, through his “detective’s gaze,” attempted to capture in his historical novels concepts such as the “natural substance” and “psychology of the folk” (Brandes 1875a:183). These national traits are in part the result of climactic and hereditary circumstances. Taine describes, for example, Byron’s rebellious instinct as springing from the cold northern climate: it affected his pride, gave his powers of representation a wildness, sharpened his appetite for destruction, and fostered the kind of frenzy in him that had driven the Scandinavian berserks, who had conquered and settled England (Taine 1864:528-9). Brandes also refers to Byron’s Scandinavian ancestors, when he infers that the poet chose to become an officer in the Greek War of Independence because “the Viking blood in his veins could not give him peace until he himself had become a Viking king just the like the Normans from whom he descended” (Brandes 1875a:479-80).

Taine received a measure of attention in Denmark during the second half of the 19th century. His analyses of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Alfred de Musset were translated by Rudolf Schmidt and published in the anthology Stories and Sketches in 1867. And as Brandes began writing Naturalism in England, H.S. Vodskov’s translation of Taine’s The History of English Literature (4 vols., 1874-77) was already in the works.

On the whole, literary histories à la Taine are at a premium in late 19th-century Denmark. Julius Paludan, for example, published A Sketch of the History of French National Literature in 1874, and part of the same period is covered in French Literature of the 18th Century (1876), which is an excerpt H. Schwanenflügel had translated from Hermann Hettner’s highly esteemed Literaturgeschichte des achtzhenten Jahrhunderts (1856-70). Methodologically Taine also inspired others than Brandes in the Danish cultural landscape, including literary history professor Valdemar Vedel (1865-1942) and especially those who worked on the cultural ideals of the Middle Ages.

c. The Physiognomic Approach

Another largely overlooked implement that Brandes borrowed from Taine is the physiognomic approach to the analysis of the authorships. This is the idea that the physical appearance of the poet is reflected in his work. The History of English Literature begins with a long passage on how the inner man can be extrapolated from the outer, which leads up to a formulation of the three elements of literary analysis described above.

Physiognomically-oriented literary criticism is not limited to Taine, but was a theme within French, German and English criticism throughout the 19th century (Tylor 1982:82-122). Many times, Brandes introduces his author portraits with a description of the poet’s external appearance in order to understand the anatomy of his work. For example, we learn that Keats’ “appearance corresponded to the impression we now receive from his poetry.” Brandes describes the “earthy and heavy-footed Keats” as having “a broad and powerful chest with strong shoulders . . . eyes large, glowing and dark blue and glinting with strong palpitations of the mind” (Brandes 1875a:203-4). This can be compared with Brandes’ portrayal of the “sensuality” in Keats’ poetry, which emerges as “sturdy and heavy” (Brandes 1875a:208) and is expressive of the enjoyment of all the impressions the physiological senses can discover (Brandes 1875a:210-12).

In contrast to Keats, we encounter “the ethereal and feminine Shelley,” who is a “slender, delicate and small-shouldered figure” (Brandes 1875a:203) and whose eye is “womanly and almost seraphic in its gaze” (Brandes 1875a:307). This coheres nicely with his poetry, in which his hero Alastor is “the spirit of the wind and the air with luminous eyes, refreshing breath and a light gait” (Brandes 1875a:315). Yet as Brandes wrote in the preface to Johannes Magnussen’s translation of Shelley’s The Cenci, there is a contradiction between the physical poet and the inspiration he shall use to change the world: “Shelley’s delicate and brittle body” could not “bear his exalted powers of imagination.” This renders Shelley unsuitable to carry the banner of the political transformation the world had been expecting, and thus he goes to ruin as a “martyr of the imagination” (Brandes 1878a:iv).

There are, however, further examples in Naturalism in England of strong poets who are possessed of robustness and flair. The brow of the Irish national-political poet Thomas Moore, for example, is described as “large and radiant” and “so interesting that it would send a phrenologist into convulsions” (Brandes 1875a:238). The portrait of Byron, whose poems heralded a coming cultural and political storm over calcified Europe, begins with a reference to Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 1821 bust of the poet, in which Brandes notes that the sculptor had provided a brow on which “clouds might gather . . . and lightning flash from the clouds, and from something violent in the gaze” (Brandes 1875a:358).

With Taine as his intellectual mentor, Brandes emphasizes that the life of the author is the chief source for understanding the work. When it comes to the judging of the literary quality of an authorship, Brandes invariably links this with an evaluation of the author’s biography. Since it is Brandes’ aim to construct an image of the great poets as castigators of society who – according to the nature of the matter – must necessarily be controversial in their own age, he almost draws an equivalence between the adversity encountered by the author and the ability to create great art. The primary examples of this are Shelley and Byron, who had to struggle against the condemnation of their surroundings, as well as Keats, whose lovely verse was written “amidst great agony” (Brandes 1875a:221).

In the other camp are Coleridge and Wordsworth, whom Brandes desires to pull down from their pedestals. Coleridge was “will-less” and “like a child allowed his life to be preserved by others” (Brandes 1875a:131); his poetry is therefore not ultimately successful. Wordsworth is portrayed as a poet who lived an “idyllic and protected life” (79) devoid of any external events that might “inflame the passions in his poetry” (80). Yet here Brandes leaves out Wordsworth’s sojourn in France during the Revolution as well as the financial problems that forced him to return home. Thus, it can be said that there is a certain selectivity in the his arrangement of the biographical material; and it is no accident that Brandes chooses to focus on anecdotes about the conservative Wordsworth’s obstinate self-absorption and various caprices. It borders on character assassination that in turn functions as legitimization of Brandes’ critique of the limited literary merits of the poet. In this endeavor Brandes was assisted by the Edinburgh professor David Masson’s Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Other Essays (1874), from which he borrowed many of the anecdotes that are re-presented in Naturalism in England. And, like Masson (Masson 1874:34-5,68), Brandes also compares Wordsworth negatively with the much more rebellious Byron.

A distinguishing characteristic that seems to render Brandes’ text foreign in relation to modern critical praxis is that at times he borrows literary themes and images from the works he discusses. An example of this is the transition he makes from the first generation of poets, who had already sold themselves to the conservatism of the status quo, to the young and indisposed poets (Brandes 1875a:196). This is laid out in a reading of John Keats’ unfinished epic Hyperion (1818-19), from which Brandes cites the tribute to the god Apollo. Here a new era is heralded for the Gods of Olympus after the fall of their old overlord Saturn and his titans; Brandes appropriates this as a relevant image of the inauguration of a new age in 19th-century literature. Brandes also allows the voice of the literary critic to blend into the object of analysis, as when he describes Keats as the nightingale the poet had been captivated by in the famous “Ode to a Nightingale”: Keats is like a “radiant bird that rises high up into the air from Wordsworth’s ancient many-leaved oak” (Brandes 1875a:201). This undeniably introduces a certain form of pathos into Brandes’ criticism, which Jørgen Knudsen characterizes as the “exaggerated language” of the volume that constitutes “glaze atop the viscous cake” (Knudsen 1985:387). An example of Brandes’ penchant for metaphorical formulations can also be located in the reference to Byron’s Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Canto III, in which the reader becomes an observer of a waterfall, which “ in the raging white froth, swirled into the maelstrom, split . . . everything that stood in its way, indeed in the long run hollowed out the rocks” and yet in its middle brought forth “a magnificent radiant rainbow, a sign of harmony and peace and the love of freedom.” This kind of nature description is read allegorically as a portent of the “better days for Europe” that shall follow in the wake of Byron’s powerful poetry” (Brandes 1875a:527).

d. Naturalism as Concept

The various authors addressed in Naturalism in England would be placed under the category of “Romanticism” in modern textbooks. Yet Brandes desires to group them under the concept of “Naturalism.” Of all Brandes’ literary terms this the one that has most often raised eyebrows and which always demands explanation when it is mentioned. This is because “Naturalism” is today almost automatically associated with the literary approach of Émile Zola, as expressed, for example, in his 1881 Les Romanciers naturalistes [The Naturalist Novelists], in which modern literature is characterized as the presentation of realistic social and psychological sequences of events. That such a connection has come about is related to the fact that Naturalism was later tied to the Modern Breakthrough in Scandinavian literature after 1870, in which Brandes was a key figure.

But what did Brandes mean by the concept when he originally used it? In The Men of the Modern Breakthrough he notes that Naturalism is a “quite comprehensive word” and can connote both the “most delicate elven melodies” of Shelley as well as the prosaic scenes of Zola (1883:398). Yet as Zola’s conceptual explanation took hold and gained dominance, Brandes sharpened the distinction between these poles. In the preface to the fifth edition of Main Currents he writes that the concept of Naturalism “was shaped by me a decade before Zola introduced it into France in an entirely different sense than I had given it: the love of nature” (Brandes 1923:4). Bertil Nolin has suggested that Brandes’ conception of Naturalism is borrowed from the German literary historians Rudolf Haym, Hermann Hettner and Julian Schmidt, to whom he refers in The Romantic School in Germany (Nolin 1965:192). In Naturalism in England, however, Brandes focuses on “the love of nature” as an opposing pole to the artificial order of established society and to political repression. In this sense he recalls Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea that humanity is at its best in the natural state: “applied to society Naturalism becomes, as it already was for Rousseau, revolutionary” (Brandes 1875a:19). Nature becomes the vehicle of freethinking, by which Brandes’ concept of Naturalism can acquire a series of overlapping meanings. Toward the end of the volume he notes in summary that the British authors “prefer the forest to the sea, natural man to salon man, and the original expression of passion to its artificial language” (Brandes 1875a:483). It is worth briefly attending to these three elements in order to understand the significance Brandes attributes to Naturalism as a literary orientation.

Whereas German Romanticism was marked by the supernatural and the Danish iteration was centered on the rediscovery of the Scandinavian and Old Norse past, its national character in Great Britain was that of “worshipping . . . nature” (Brandes 1875a:12-13). This involved interest in landscape and in the sea (not unnatural for a seafaring nation), as well as a warm affection for the animal world (Brandes 1875a:12-25). But this entails more than just a reproduction of physical objects as in landscape painting. The observation of nature is filtered through the form of highly developed “sensibility” (that is, the ability to feel and to sense) that Brandes sees in Moore and Keats. He further identifies an over-imaginative “pantheism” in Wordsworth (62-3), Keats (Brandes 1875a:210), and Shelley (Brandes 1875a:307). Thus, in Wordsworth there is a suggestion of the reactivation of the mystical understanding of “the poetry of nature” (Brandes 1875a:87). This is the result of the displacement of traditional Christianity by nature mysticism, which Brandes traces back to Spinoza and Jakob Böhme (Brandes 1875a:55). This reading had already been introduced in The Romantic School in Germany, in which Brandes describes how nature replaces religion (Brandes 1873:124-5,239-40). This displacement would later be mapped out by the American critic M.H. Abrams under the heading of Natural Supernaturalism (1971), the title of his influential thesis on both German and English Romanticism.

Brandes’ designation of “natural man” is perhaps best understood through his description of Wordsworth’s “naturalistic passion” for the “peasants and rural folk,” who live with and through nature (Brandes 1875a:103). As Wordsworth expresses in his landmark “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1802), it is the rural population who are the real philosophers of the age, in that they are in close contact with nature and learn from it. Wordsworth therefore imitates a “natural prose dialogue” (Brandes 1875a:58), which (in modified form) resembles the language spoken by “the common people of the countryside.” Brandes designates the dismantling of the artificial and stilted Neoclassical style as “the most extreme literary consequence of Naturalism” (Brandes 1875a:105). Brandes sees a common thread in the various authors treated in Naturalism in England in the fact that each breaks with the salon style and the rigidly Neoclassical rhyming pattern that dominated the poetry of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and the “stiff school of art” that had “perfumed the air with affectation” during the 18th century (Brandes 1875a:314). Continuing in this vein, Brandes at times allows his ideas about the Naturalist love of nature to be reflected in an author’s aesthetics: Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, for example, are described as poems that can “murmur like the waves of the sea and with the overwhelming force of a natural element” (Brandes 1875a:263). On the other hand, Brandes also insists that the portraits of nature created by the Naturalist authors are not only illustrations of feelings, but are also true to nature, indeed even scientifically accurate. Thus, in Walter Scott’s works he observes “portraits of nature” so accurate that “a botanist could well familiarize himself with the vegetation of the area from them” (Brandes 1875a:13).

Even though Brandes later insisted on distinguishing his conception of Naturalism from Zola’s hyperrealism, he still understands the British authors as advocates of realism in nature. With respect to Wordsworth’s “She was a phantom of delight,” for example, he praises its presentation of an “authentically naturalistic ideal of the English female type” (Brandes 1875a:78), that is to say, that her beauty is not mythologized or unnecessarily embellished. Brandes also alludes to realism in literature when he adopts the skepticism Taine reserved for Scott’s popular historical novels. Brandes thus cites the novel series Tales of the Crusaders, and specifically The Talisman (1825), as works that are not faithful to truth, but “popular fictions about the fairytale world of the crusaders and their wondrous deeds” (Brandes 1875a:193). The contrast here is Byron, whose “direct clear vision” was capable of “grasping all that science seeks and demonstrates” even in age before the natural sciences had truly triumphed (Brandes 1875a:195-6). Science, as Brandes understands it, is bound up with the inclination to revise hallowed yet incorrect understandings of the world. Here he is thinking not the least of Byron’s distancing himself from Christianity (Brandes 1875a:447), which chimes with his own hard stance against the religion.

In Brandes’ conceptual usage, the term “Romantic” is reserved for the literature that takes inspiration from the Middle Ages and its magical Romances. Thus, for Brandes it is “the truth of nature” in Wordsworth that distinguished him and the other British authors from the German Romantics, who revel in the “supernatural or fantastic” (Brandes 1875a:88). Yet examples of the supernatural can be located in the English material, such as in Scott’s semi-Gothic Lay of the Last Minstrel and in the enchanted dreams of Coleridge’s unfinished Christabel (Brandes 1875a:118). Brandes views Coleridge as the chief exponent of “romantic-fantastic” poetry, which “neither presents an energetic, lively and personal life of a soul nor reproduces observations of the surrounding world” (Brandes 1875a:128). Coleridge borrows from the German Romantics whom Brandes had criticized in a prior volume of Main Currents, thereby registering “an abstract scientific protest against the Enlightenment.” Brandes views rationalism as a distinguishing characteristic of the English national spirit, of which the empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-76) is the doyen. Within this frame, Coleridge’s poetry is designated as downright “unenglish,” in that he makes himself the “representative of the German philosophy of the past,” which is “in opposition to the experimental character of English science” (Brandes 1875a:11). Scott’s dreams and prophecies belong in the same way to the “Romanticism of the Uncanny” as it is found in Germany in Novalis or Hoffmann (Brandes 1875a:175).

Brandes is also skeptical of Southey’s “exterior Romanticism,” which makes use of “all the superstition of Arabia and all the most fantastic dreams of the Orient” (Brandes 1875a:144). Brandes’ specialized employment of the term “Romantic” is not unusual for his time, but it departs from Taine, who refers to the same group of authors treated by Brandes as “L’école romantique” [the Romantic School]. Brandes also distances himself from his Danish predecessors, such as the critic Knud Lyne Rahbek, who for example in an 1820 Tilskueren article had designated Byron, Scott, and Moore as “Romantics” in contrast to the “classical poets from the age of Queen Anne” (cited in Nielsen 1976:281).

Even though the authors adhere to the practice of describing nature in a manner faithful to reality, Brandes evaluates them differently, depending on what they esteem in the natural landscape and how they communicate it to the reader. For example, Brandes ties the rebelliousness in Byron’s temperament to his landscape portraiture in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. According to Brandes, these passages demonstrate how Byron loved nature for its wrath, which stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s affection for nature in its peacefulness (Brandes 1875a:423). Brandes points to a distinction here that could have been further supported by citing Byron’s lines from Canto II: “she [nature] is fairest in her features wild” (Byron 1833:81). Yet Brandes’ distinction between the two poets ought to be qualified by the fact that Canto III, 65-109, also contains a philosophical appraisal of nature in its peacefulness, and that often in Wordsworth we find descriptions of wild and sublime landscapes.

If we are to understand Brandes’ volume as a general overview of British writers at the beginning of the 19th century, then “Naturalism” is too narrow and too politicized a frame to represent the literature of the age in its fullness. As literary concept it is more properly understood as carefully selected focus that represents only a portion of the authors’ total production. “Naturalism” is an ideal Brandes desires to employ in order to pass judgement according to how well the writers fulfill its potential. At the same time, he outlines a developmental history that points to Byron as the literary figure against which all early 19th -century literature should be counterbalanced.

e. The Grand Narrative of Freethinking

In the introduction to the first volume of Main Currents Brandes had employed the classical metaphor of the teatrum mundi to describe the shift heralded by Byron: The Napoleonic Wars are the stage on which this poet “brings about the reversal in the great drama,” and when this great poet fell in the Greek war for freedom, his “hero’s death” makes “an enormous impression on all the writers of the continent” (Brandes 1875a:13). Byron’s poetry, especially the poem Don Juan, is the culmination of Naturalism, a trumpet fanfare for the awakening that brings back the lost spirit of rebellion to European cultural history. A Hegelian manner of thinking can be sensed in this drama (Ahlström 1937:36-7), and the direction is clear: it is a movement toward freethinking. It is this grand narrative that shall be discussed and evaluated in the following section.

In Main Currents we follow along with the European spirit that moved from revolution at the conclusion of the 18th century toward reaction at the beginning of the 19th and so turned back again toward an intuition of freedom. Brandes illuminates the same movement in miniature in British literary history. The early Lake Poets started out with radical intentions but quickly became anti-revolutionary and reactionary. The author of the Lake Poet School who receives the severest treatment is Robert Southey. Brandes begins with a characterization of his early years as “free-minded” (Brandes 1875a:141), but this freethinking is silenced, not the least because he accepts the position of Poet Laureate, which meant that he had been retained to compose “poems of adulation” for the royal house (Brandes 1875a:51). The year 1822 is a turning point, in which Byron through his biting satire The Vision of Judgement came forth before the public eye, delivering a “divine counter parade” to Southey’s servile poetry (Brandes 1875a:149). Southey was an obvious victim of Brandes’ critique of poets for hire who serve the elite. When he remarks that Southey was “reduced to living by his pen and thus necessarily wrote too much,” his judgement is not far from that of the reception of the poet following his death. Around 1900, for example, the famous English critic Leslie Stephen spoke positively of Southey’s character, but criticized him for being too mechanical in his poesy, which meant that his works were possessed of neither profound reflection nor much artistic merit (Stephen 1902:45-85).

Among the older generation of writers in the volume, it is Walter Scott who achieved the widest commercial success, and he alone acquired his renown through prose writing. His novels were translated into most European languages, in Germany translations were made in virtual “translation factories.” In Denmark Scott’s novels were published as competing translations, and they were reissued numerous times. Naturalism in England is wedged between two bursts of Scott novels in Danish translation, the first from 1855-71 and the second in the 1880s (Eriksen 1976:108-12). Yet Brandes writes at a time when Scott’s reputation as a serious writer was in decline. His popularity had made him the property of the masses, and in tune with writers of serious literature turning their backs on Romanticism and embracing realism, Scott’s novels were viewed as at best suitable for cheap entertainment. Brandes is clearly supportive of this development, yet it is Scott’s conservatism that he finds most alienating. Scott wrote historical novels that perhaps well enough addressed the violent religious and political conflicts that had marked Scotland’s past, but the sequence of the events focus on reconciliation and mark out a road toward the peaceful present. Scott’s support for the contemporary government, Church and the union between Scotland and England appealed to the broad readership and the conservative critics.

Yet such glorification of the political status quo is in conflict with Brandes’ ideal of literature as polemic: Scott had “still not, in the religious, political and poetic senses, reached the point of emancipating the personality from the peculiar traditions that hold it captive from birth.” Thus, his novels succumb to the Brandesian “law” according to which that which is not controversial in its own time inevitably will come across as “trivial and narrow-minded” to the next generation. Since Scott’s stories invoke universal “jubilance” rather than rebellious reflection, he must therefore leave for the “younger generation of poets an unresolved, yet from the historical perspective clearly defined task” (Brandes 1875a:190-1). Brandes thus does not regard Scott’s immense popularity and his many imitators as something that moved culture forward in either Denmark or Europe. In Emigrant Literature Brandes attacks B.S. Ingemann’s historical novels, which he designates as belonging to “an unsuccessful and now renounced genre imported from Scotland, the historical novel, which was instigated by a full-blooded Tory emanated from an intellectual state that found all its ideals in the past, just like ours” (Brandes 1875a:22). Brandes’ irritation at the popularity of the historical novel evidently stretches farther back than Main Currents, for already in October 1867 he had made his acceptance of a dinner invitation from the author Rinna Hauch conditional upon a promise that Scott would not be discussed (Fenger 1955:308).

English-language Romantic poets have traditionally been grouped into a canon of “the big six”: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, and William Blake. This canon (which has come under significant pressure in the 21st century) is for all practical purposes the same as is found in Brandes, with the exception of the English poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827). This is hardly surprising, for despite the increased attention devoted to Blake’s authorship in his homeland and through the second half of the 19th century, he was as an author seen as peripheral until the early 20th century, when his authorship was canonized. The first Danish translation of Blake appeared in 1897 (three nature poems), and a sustained critical interest in him first began to manifest in Denmark in the 1930s (Rix 2018). It would have been interesting to see how Blake’s lifelong radicalism would have shaken up Brandes’ distinction between the first and second generations of poets, since Blake debuted before Wordsworth and outlived Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Yet it is likely that Brandes (parallel with his analysis of Shelley) would have found Blake’s prophetic style too ethereal and his poetry too unknown to play any larger role in Naturalism in England.

In Brandes’ view, it is John Keats (1795-1821) who is first among the younger generation to lead the way forward toward what will become Byron’s revolt against petite bourgeois values. Yet it no easy matter for Brandes to fit Keats into his historical scheme, since his poetry is “l’art pour l’art” (Brandes 1875a:22) and a special kind of “pure art” that delivers sense impressions almost devoid of meaning. Keats died young, for which reason Brandes is unable to say in what direction his politics would have evolved had this “world shy child” reached manhood (Brandes 1875a:220-2). Yet Brandes does mention Keats’ embittered poem “To Hope” as well as his relationship with English radical circles, including the journal editor and radical Leigh Hunt (Brandes 1875a:220). In Brandes’ era, Keats’ political and social engagement was only rarely touched on and would only much later receive real critical attention, as in for example Marilyn Butler’s landmark Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (1981) and Jack Siler’s Poetic Language and Political Engagement in the Poetry of Keats (2008).

The next poet in the chronology is the Irishman Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who is not read much today but whose works awakened some interest in Denmark. Several of his poems were translated to Danish (see Eriksen 1976:146-7). Brandes presents Moore as a political poet, indeed the first to “lead English poetry, then recumbent in the contemplation of nature, into the camp of freedom, thereby signaling the poetry of political engagement” (Brandes 1875a:227). This provides Brandes with the opportunity to begin the chapter with a long description of how English domination oppresses Ireland, especially with respect to the execution of the rebels in 1803 (Brandes 1875a:224-8). This digression distracts from the literary focus, but is justified by Brandes in that “it furnishes an idea of the impressions received by Moore during the years when he was ripening into manhood” (Brandes 1875a:233). In this context it is interesting to note that Brandes indicates his intention to work against the grain of current historical accounts of the Rebellion and its suppression. Thus, a note indicates that his account of the events “is founded upon descriptions given by English patriots” (Brandes 1875a:228). This assertion of a critical approach to the source material ought to be taken with a grain of salt. The historical work Brandes cites here is William Nathaniel Massey’s A History of England under George III (4 vols., 1855-63), a moderate liberal interpretation of the period with little sympathy for the King’s politics.

Under the chapter heading “Republican Humanism” Brandes provides space for the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), the works of whom Brandes had become acquainted with through his contact with Edmund Gosse (Brandes 1875a:292 note). Landor is portrayed in Naturalism in England as a “friend and intellectual soulmate of the great European revolutionaries” (Brandes 1875a:294). In the same manner that the critic esteems Byron, Landor is praised for building a bridge between poetry and political activism, as Landor travelled to Spain to fight against Napoleon in 1808 (Brandes 1875a:23,284). Yet Brandes finds Landor’s poetry stodgy. His Latin vocabulary clearly falls outside the smooth and immediate style Brandes points to as a persistent and positive trait in the writings of the other Naturalist poets of the era. For Brandes Naturalism is synonymous with an anti-elitist orientation and a universal accessibility in the poetry that does not require knowledge of the classical tradition that the privileged classes so often go on about. Landor’s most well-known poem, the heroic-orientalist Gebir (1798), is described as “stiff and inferior” in spite of its “powerful republicanism.” Thus Landor is not the poet who can “bring about a freethinking rupture in European public opinion” (Brandes 1875a:298-9).

f. Shelley

Another politically engaged poet for whom Brandes provides more space is Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Brandes had already held up Shelley’s ideals of freedom and vision of love as a positive contrast to the German poetry and philosophy addressed in The Romantic School in Germany (Brandes 1873:121-2, 124-5, 239-40, 244). Shelley was a literary acquaintance who went back many years. The Royal Library’s records show that Brandes borrowed The Poetical Works in 1864 (Fenger 1955:118), after he had read a biography of the poet in Fædrelandet. In this context he notes that Shelley’s “unreal life” had made a “powerful impression” on him (Dagbog 17.9.1861:100). In Naturalism in England Brandes also emphasizes the resistance Shelley encountered in his life in the form of censorship and legal prosectution. In this way Shelley is made a supporter of Brandes’ idea that engaged art is born in opposition: Shelley’s fearless radicalism and atheism mandates that his “political poetry is written in his blood” (Brandes 1875a:335).

All through the 19th century there was a split between those critics who saw Shelley as a dedicated political poet and those who viewed him as a lyrical dreamer (Morton 2006:36). Brandes sees both possibilities. He notes in his travel essay “Impressions of London” that “Shelley is the brightest, finest expression of English freethinking, and for freethinking especially in the areas in which the English otherwise are typically unfree,” and yet at the same time he is also “the expression of pure lyricism” (Brandes 1896:307). Shelley’s lyrical grace is held up time and again in Naturalism in England, yet Brandes never lets his political side out of sight. In an acute formulation Brandes writes that Shelley’s poetry had “greater and more varied significance for the spirit of human emancipation than anything written in France in August of 1792 [when the monarchy was abolished]” (Brandes 1875a:302). It is his admixture of revolutionary spirit and lyrical virtuosity that is attractive to Brandes, and as the reader gradually begins to comprehend, Shelley functions as the very ideal of poetic art that Brandes seeks to define in Naturalism in England.

According to Brandes, Shelley sensually and passionately seeks in nature a refuge from the world of human beings. Brandes reads Shelley’s poetic treatments of nature’s movements, destruction and rebirth to a large measure as metaphors of social and cultural renewal. Shelley sees nature through his “world dominating imagination” or with “the eye of his soul,” thus elevating it into a stomping ground for Greek mythological figures such as Prometheus and Jupiter (Brandes 1875a:326-7). The Danish critic Aage Kabell has found just such a reading to be incompatible with Brandes’ own idea of Naturalism in the period. It is “a bad joke,” he writes, when Brandes praises the eye-witness accounts and scientific nature of Naturalism other places in the volume and yet insists on incorporating Shelley, who hardly at all delivers “any precise study” of the immediate physical world (Kabell 1944:204-5). Yet despite Kabell’s objection it is not difficult to see how Shelley must be included in order that Brandes’ continuous narrative of Naturalism as a progressive, freedom-seeking movement can reach its conclusion. Shelley’s poetry was in fact a direct source of inspiration to Byron – a connection that had already been underlined in Grimur Thomsen’s 1845 Danish biography of Byron, to which Brandes also refers (Brandes 1875a:432 note).

For Brandes, Shelley is not just a unique talent (as he also finds Moore to be), but “a genius . . . with all the powers of such” (Brandes 1875a:354). The presentation of Shelley as an enfant terrible, the untimely genius who cannot find a place in the prosaic world, introduces a familiar mythical construction of Romanticism to the analysis. Yet the fact that the ideals of this genius are ethereal and otherworldly is also Shelley’s weak point. Brandes for example describes Revolt of Islam as being “imprecise and vague, abstract and metaphysical” (Brandes 1875a:355), thus lacking in social impact. If Shelley had played a noble violin, says Brandes, a trumpet was needed to provide the “call to arms” against Europe’s intellectual tyranny (Brandes 1875a:356).

g. Byron

As many critics have noted, the great cultural narrative with Byron as its finale resembles the presentation of the German critic Georg Gottfried Gervinus (1805-71). Byron is inserted into history as a catalyst for the renewal of the revolutionary spirit, or as Gervinus describes it (in a contemporary Danish translation), it was believed that “the excesses of the revolutionary spirit” had been halted forever, since it suddenly seemed to happen that “American republicanism, German freethinking, French revolutionary enthusiasm, and Anglo-Saxon radicalism” had all been brought to life in this single intellect [Byron]” (cited in Elze 1876:449).

Byron’s mature poetry is inscribed in Brandes’ literary-historical narrative as “The Culmination of Naturalism” (the title of the last chapter of the volume). In the writings of the mature Byron one finds a trinity of characteristics, according to Brandes, for which the highest form of poetry ought to aim: the realistic portrayal of things, the perfection of aesthetic form. and an active political vision in the direction of human emancipation (see Kristensen 1980:17). Revolutionary poetry comes into form in Manfred and is sharpened in Cain, but it is not until Don Juan (the great, incomplete opus magnum) that Byron is “completely himself” (Brandes 1875a:503). Brandes believes that it is Byron’s earthbound style that paves the way for his immense influence. In his later study of the British reformer Benjamin Disraeli (who was prime minister twice in 1868 and 1874-80), Brandes notes of the statesman’s revolt against his hidebound homeland that “Disraeli believed that Byron was an intellect on the same level as himself; Shelley was too ethereal” (Brandes 1878b:165).

That Byron was the epitome of rebelliousness was also asserted by British critics in Brandes’ own time, including Matthew Arnold, W.E. Henley, and A.C. Swinburne (see Rutherford 1995). Yet there is a difference between how positively Byron’s literary achievements were received in Britain and on the continent. Brandes quite correctly notes that Byron was not buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey (a memorial stone was not erected until 1969). Yet his poetry had taken root in “the intellectual life of Russia and Poland, Spain and Italy, France and Germany” (Brandes 1875a:524). Byron’s participation in the Greek War of Independence and his struggle on behalf of oppressed nations resonated across Europe. For Brandes, Byron is a signal tower rising above the national. Whereas Wordsworth, Moore and Scott had each given their respective lands a national song, Byron’s focus on the “I” brought forth a newer and deeper understanding: “Byron’s I is the universally human, (and) its sorrows and hopes those of all humanity” (Brandes 1875a:432). Many years later Brandes writes that “Byron’s poetry [illustrates] the despair and the desire for freedom common to all Europe,” and further notes that he is a decisive influence on Slavic literature, since its brightest lights, Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz and Russia’s Alexander Pushkin, both began as Byronians (Brandes 1888:203,49).

Byron’s poetry was debated assiduously in Denmark, yet as Brandes observes the reception was often cool and, according to him, the meaning often misunderstood. His old enemy Hans Lassen Martensen had in his Christian Ethics (1871) argued that Byron was the exponent of a pessimism that rendered impossible “the realization” of the “ideal of freedom” and the “consolidation of true progress.” Brandes cites this attack (Brandes 1875a:433) as a starting point for a lengthy revision of this common interpretation. His reading of Byron comes off as more in harmony with the Italian patriot and writer Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72), who in a famous 1839 essay had declared Byron to be the author who would lead Europe forward toward political freedom and democracy (Mazzini 1970).

Byron had been translated into Danish numerous times, making it possible for contemporary Danish readers to assess Brandes’ readings against the primary texts. Knud Lyne Rahbek translated Byron as early as 1817, while the first Danish translation of one of Byron’s major works was Manfred in 1820. Simultaneous with Naturalism in England, Edward Lembeke’s two-volume Selected Dramatic Poems and Stories (1873-76) was published. Byron was viewed as a subjective poet, hence Brandes devoted much ink to excerpting from Byron biography. The chief references for Brandes’ presentation are the well-known works on Byron’s life: Thomas Moore’s The Life of Lord Byron (1835), Grimur Thomsen’s university thesis On Lord Byron (1845) and the Halle professor Kristian Elze’s great German monograph Lord Byron (1870), later published in Danish translation by Kristian Kroman in 1876. The biographies paint a picture of an apostle whose alternative lifestyle and ideas upset the sanctimonious self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Brandes views the agonies suffered by Byron at the hand of establishment England as mirrored in the sufferings endured by the heroes of his poetry. This supports the connection between life and work that is postulated in Naturalism in England. Brandes writes about Byron both as writer and as celebrity. With respect to the latter, interest in Byron’s escapades and public scandals was widespread in the European press. Already in 1815 a Danish newspaper commented on Byron’s private life, and parts of Thomas Moore’s Letters and Journals of Byron were published in Danish journals (Nielsen 2003:366).

Byron was by no means a new acquaintance for Brandes. We know that he read Manfred in 1860 (in Lembeke’s 1843 translation), commenting on that occasion that he finds the final scene “absurdly ingenious” (Fenger 1955:11). Thereafter he read Sardanapalus, Heaven and Earth, The Two Foscari, and Beppo, but in the Byron chapter it is primarily Childe Harold, Manfred, Cain, and Don Juan (in C.V.A. Strandberg’s translation) that are addressed in depth. It is these latter poems, with their focus on the individual and singular hero and his world encompassing agonies, that make possible Brandes’ thesis of the defiant subject’s emancipation from norms. Byron stands out as the incarnation of that which becomes a modern figure in literature, an archetype that Thure Stenström (1961) has identified as the “solitary one.” This positive reading of Byron’s subjectivity is in contrast to the charges of egotism that have often been registered against Byron. Taine, for example, views Byron as so self-centered that he was incapable of falling in love with another (Taine 1863:540). This was a critique that Danish critics had expressed earlier, for example Adam Oehlenschläger, who spoke of Byron’s “monotonous proud egotism” (Oehlenschläger 1833:109), and Johan Ludvig Heiberg, who held that Byron had allowed himself to be ensnared “within the web of his own dialectic” and thus could not “reach the unity” that the idealistic poet ought to (Heiberg 1833:43). For Brandes, it is Byron’s courage to embrace the subjective – the “I” that frees itself from the yoke of tradition – that constitutes his genuinely heroic achievement.

4. Reception and Afterlife

a. Editions and Changes

The second edition of Naturalism in England bears the publication year of 1892, but in fact came out in April 1893. Many small changes were made, among others the addition of new sections on Keats’ letters to his beloved Fanny Brawne. These were first made public in 1878 and thus not included in the original edition. Also added was a longer section on the Scottish-born poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), who is best known for his long poem The Pleasures of Hope, in which he reflects on political themes such as the French Revolution, the partition of Poland and slavery. Yet even though Brandes refers to Campbell as a political poet, he is most assiduously cited in the chapter on “Erotic Lyricism.”

Perhaps most noteworthy is the supplementary material on Shelley now included. Most important is that the introductory citation of the volume, which in the first edition had been from Johann Peter Hebel’s writing, is now exchanged with a citation from Shelley’s notebook poems: “I am as spirit.” This indicates that Brandes’ interest in Shelley remained ardent and even seems to have grown. In the book Impressions from Poland Brandes comments, quite significantly, that few had paid much attention to Shelley “while the name of Byron was on everyone’s lips.” This is stated in order to point, in his eyes, to an injustice he goes on to describe as “the general belief in all seriousness that Byron was England’s greatest lyricist” (Brandes 1888:201). This is most of all a comment directed against the technical virtuosity of Byron measured up against that of Shelley. Yet in the context of the 1892 German edition of Main Currents, Brandes composes a poem in which he comments on Naturalism in England in this manner: “In faith and blood red zeal it was written. / Shelley! Its spirit belongs to you. You I have lived” (cited in Brandes 1908:284). This upgrading of Shelley’s significance does not cohere with the actual content of the first edition of the volume, which undeniably stands under the sign of Byron (see Nolin 1965: 198). Further documentation of Brandes’ reevaluation of Shelley in relation to Byron is found in his Memoirs, in which Brandes reflects on how, in spite of his respect for Byron, “it was at that time Shelley who moved me, through the unselfish rebelliousness of his being against every contemptible rule in custom as in dogmas, that rebelliousness in irreducible unity with the purest poetry” (1908:383).

The third edition was published as a volume in his Collected Works (1900). There are few changes in comparison to the second edition. New bibliographic references are added, and Brandes includes a reference to Shelley’s “Song. Sorrow.” One of the changes worth noting is that many of the English citations are now translated to Danish verse (in the first edition the preference was for prose reproductions). This change received a mixed reception. Adolf Hansen comments specifically on a translation of Keats, asserting that Brandes just about “mutilates” the meaning with his erroneous translation (Hansen 1876:25-6). Otto Jespersen, the world-renowned grammarian, who took a special interest in the English language, praises the new renderings (Jespersen 1912:94), noting only a single exception that he finds unsuccessful. Much later, Aage Kabell suggests that the translations are often brilliant, but other places lack metrical sensibility (Kabell 1944:191-3).

The fourth edition from 1906 is identical to the third edition.

The fifth edition was published in 1924. With respect to the content it was more comprehensively revised, especially the Byron material. Otto Jespersen has suggested that already in the fourth edition Brandes had come to look more unsentimentally at Byron’s private life and “the lack of conscience in his behavior” (Jespersen 1912:91). This is taken a step further in the fifth edition. Many of the women are now discussed, which means that Byron’s love life and gender ethics are given greater emphasis; among other changes, a few pages are added on his incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh. Brandes is perhaps reacting to the complaints that he had painted too ennobled a portrait of Byron. There is also more material on the poet’s time in Switzerland and Venice. That the biographical material is expanded is commensurate with reception on the 1920s, in which critical treatments focused more on the life of the poet and his morality than the poetry (Stabler 2013:1-3). One change of a certain significance here is that many citations are now in the original language; especially with respect to verse lines from Shelley’s works.

The sixth edition from 1967 is a reproduction of the fifth edition but with modernized orthography, and the Danish translations of the poems are reinserted.

b. Danish Reception

That the publication of Naturalism in England did not receive much attention in the Danish press is surely enough a consequence of the fact Brandes was seen as persona non grata by the Copenhagen media, still dominated by national liberal ideas. Yet there were reviews in Morgenposten and Lolland-Falsters Stiftstidende, both of which had connections to Brandes.

Only a week before Naturalism in England appeared, Brandes published a translation of the literary realist Gottfried Keller’s Swiss Stories, which were regarded as daring and risqué. The reaction to what was interpreted as a commercial venture for Brandes may have functioned as a lightning rod for the polemic Naturalism in England might have provoked. In Carl Ploug’s review of Swiss Stories in Fædrelandet (Nov 20, 1875), Brandes is called a “literary businessman” who preaches “the gospel of pleasure” and contributes to the degeneration of youth; Vilhelm Topsøe accused him in Dagbladet of introducing the Danish reader to erotic scenes that would take root because of their “impurity and corruption” (Dec 13, 1875); and Dags-Telegrafen (Nov 21, 1875) published a sarcastic review which bemoaned Brandes’ decision to translate so base a work (cited in Friis 1965:59-61 and Knudsen 2008:137-8).

The lack of press reviews of Naturalism in England is to a certain degree made up for by the critic Adolf Hansen, who published in pamphlet form a 49-page review of the volume in 1876. In this review Brandes is praised for his profound insight into British literature, not least for his clear descriptions of Scott’s and Wordsworth’s contrasting views on nature. Even though it is evident that Brandes confers the poetic laurels on Byron and Shelley at the expense of Wordsworth, Hansen devotes much space to persuading the reader that Brandes actually views Wordsworth’s works positively; these were after all generally viewed as the masterpieces of the period. This was evidently important in order to avoid that Brandes should be accused of lacking critical intelligence. Hansen’s review functions most of all as kind of defense of Brandes in the Danish debate over him, and thus further concludes with an expression of anger that he had not been given the professorship that was his due. Even though Hansen disagrees with some of the details, his general praise of Naturalism in England is unaffected, for Hansen maintains that Brandes’ criticism is correct in its broad outlines and his observations accurate.

c. The English-Speaking World

Brandes was known abroad for among other things his readings of European authors, his support for Nietzsche and for having introduced Scandinavian literature, especially Henrik Ibsen, to the English-speaking public (see Waller 2008:322-3). But most of all it was his three-volume study of Shakespeare (1895-6, ENG 1898) that made his name in the Anglophone world and paved the way for the translation of Main Currents. The volume on Naturalism in England came out in English during the first half of 1905 (New York, Macmillan Co.; London, W. Heinemann) and was a translation of the second edition. Yet already when the Danish edition was issued a review was published in the well-known London journal The Spectator. The review primarily consists of a summary of Brandes’ main points as well as excerpts of his descriptions of Scott and Byron, here translated into English. The reviewer begins by calling Brandes “one of the most eloquent and enlightened of modern critics,” and even though the volume contains much that is generally known, the judgement nonetheless is positive: “his knowledge and accuracy are surprising, and . . . – except misprints of English words, which are too common – there is hardly any misstatement of fact upon which we have been able to lay our hand” (Spectator 1876:17).

When the English translation appeared the journalist and author Elia W. Peattie wrote an equally positive review in the Chicago Daily Tribune, which gives the impression that Brandes was already a known quantity: “never was Brandes more delightful. What gossip – what knowledge – what comparison – what deductions” (Peattie 1905:9). Peattie sees Brandes’ commentaries as a refreshing alternative to English-language criticism; it directs its attention toward the abstract as if it were music or pictorial art, whereas the Dane according to his nature demonstrates a protestant preoccupation with the morality and an emphasis on the good and the orderly in the literature. Yet not everyone esteemed Brandes’ radical freethinking when it came to the evaluation of English literature. Walter Raleigh, professor of literature at Oxford, thus writes in a 1905 private letter: “There’s nothing in Brandes; he’s just a Continental Jew culture-monger. He doesn’t know what poetry is. Keen about his sawdusty creed, namely rationalism, progress, enlightenment – all perfectly abstract” (cited in Waller 2008:323).

Both in Denmark and abroad the tendency among later critics is to comment on Brandes’ quite heavy-handed evaluation of the British poets. In a festschrift for Brandes, Otto Jespersen notes that while Brandes had perhaps taken sides in the volume, his “partisan judgement had only in exceptional cases damaged the presentation and never resulted in a distorted or stunted image of the personalities of the authors” (Jespersen 1912:87). Jespersen thinks that Brandes is perhaps hard on “a great poet like Wordsworth” but that Southey’s “lack of talent” receives its proper treatment, and that “this occurs in the most enjoyable manner and the finest form” (Jespersen 1912:88). Others were not so convinced of Brandes’ powers of judgement. It was especially his affection for Byron at the expense of Wordsworth that occasioned commentary. The politician and later Minister for Irish Affairs Augustine Birrell appreciates Brandes’ “hearty, honest delight in Byron’s beauty and daring and rank and reckless wit” (Birrell 1916:211), yet contends that Brandes is unjust in placing him above Wordsworth. The Norwegian-American critic Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen had already contributed an even more skeptical position. The lionization of Byron’s rebellion against the authorities is cause for special concern: “Dr. Brandes has so profound an admiration for the man who dares to rebel that he fails to do justice to the motives of society in protecting itself against him” (Boyesen 1895:205). The English literary critic George Saintsbury writes in the same vein on the hundredth anniversary of Byron’s death: Brandes was wrong about Byron and never managed to understand how destructive an influence the poet had been on the morality of his homeland” (Saintsbury 1924:50-1).

In Scandinavia, it was especially the analysis of the atheist and freethinker Shelley that drew attention. The Norwegian bishop Johan Christian Heuch thundered against Brandes’ attack on Christianity (which he saw as a part of a Jewish plot). The assertion is that Brandes promotes Shelley for his anti-Christian attitudes rather than for his poetry (Heuch 1877:67-72). Brandes’ quite out of hand dismissal of Southey further rubbed the author, nationalist and anti-Semite Harald Nielsen the wrong way. In an essay he refutes Brandes’ critique of the English poet, concluding with a castigation of Naturalism in England, which he argues does not deserve to be viewed as literary criticism because of “his cock and bull characteristics, his flagrant absurdities and psychological self-contradictions” (Nielsen 1922:83). Nielsen was the center of a “new youth movement” whose goal was to create an alternative to Brandes’ radical understanding of culture.

Brandes’ politically motivated attempt to revise the British canon provoked sharp commentary throughout the 19th century. His quite severe and personal critique of Wordsworth incited Aage Kabell to call his treatment of him “a masterpiece of perfidy” (Kabell 1944:205). Kabell also questions the use of biographical data in the context of Shelley’s flight from England. He argues that Brandes overplays the role of the social persecution of the poet, when there were other reasons for his journey to Italy, such as his miserable health (1944:189). Further skepticism of Brandes’ powers of judgement is to be found in the tone-setting literary critic René Wellek, who in his A History of Modern Criticism argues that Naturalism in England provides “a completely distorted picture” of the early 19th-century poets (Wellek 1968 [1955]:360). That on which other critics are in agreement is not appreciated by Brandes: Wordsworth’s merits are undervalued, Coleridge as a philosopher is practically never mentioned, Moore receives more attention than Keats and so on. Another misstep is that the impact of Byron is presented as the beginning of a new era, which at any rate in a literary historical sense is not the case (Wellek 1968 [1955]:360-1). Brandes’ fulsome praise of Byron has also motivated the Swedish critic Gunnar Ahlström to point out a contradiction: how can Brandes praise the individualism of Byron when he had condemned precisely the same among the German Romantics? (Ahlström 1937:97). Yet Thure Stenström argues that Brandes, when addressing Byron, establishes a separate and more action-oriented ideal of individualism than the empty reveries upon which the Germans fall back (Stenström 1961:99ff).

As mentioned above, Edmund Gosse believed that Brandes saw something of himself in Shelley. Later critics have read the portrait of Byron with its focus on the persecuted loner as a mirroring of Brandes’ own position in Denmark at the time Naturalism in England was written. Paul V. Rudow also offers a biographical interpretation of the material, referring to the analysis of Byron as an example of Brandes’ “characterization of the poets in which he mirrors himself, so that the critic and his object are blended together” (Rubow 1934:634). A similarly biographical observation is offered by Jørgen Knudsen, who writes that a more fully formed image of Byron – as a poseur defined by ennui – is underplayed by Brandes because it was evidently too uncomfortably close to the traits he could recognize in himself (Knudsen 1985:388-90).

d. Influence and Afterlife

One reason why Naturalism in England has had a relatively meager impact is because the book does not really bring anything decisively new to the treatments of the individual authors in relation to the existing English-language criticism. René thus formulates his status abroad: “the oblivion which has overtaken him is deserved, as he was only a middleman without originality and substance” (Wellek 1968 [1955]:357).

A less agreeable consequence of making use of the ideas of others is accusations of plagiarism. Already in 1876 Brandes was accused of borrowing from Elze’s Byron biography in “the sloppiest manner,” such that for example he reproduces a translation error when he does not check the original text against Elze (“S” 1876:3). Aage Kabell (1944:206-9) demonstrates that Brandes plagiarizes from William Michael Rossetti’s essay “A Memoir of Shelley” (1870).

If from the perspective abroad Naturalism in England lacks originality, then it is also such that the book can be said to have been important for the reception of British literature in Scandinavia. In connection with Edward Lembeke’s Danish translation of Thomas Moore’s great frame story Lalla-Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1878), for example, a reviewer refers to Brandes’ reading of the text as an analogy to the subjection of Ireland – a reading with which incidentally the reviewer (writing under the pseudonym “B”) is in disagreement (“B” 1878:2-3). Yet it is especially Brandes’ interest in the rebel poets Shelley and Byron that can be traced in his successors. An interest for the relatively unknown Shelley like that of Brandes can be observed in the Danish critics Karl Gjellerup and Valdemar Rørdam, Viktor Rydberg in Sweden, and Herman WIldenvey in Norway (Engelberg 2008:159-60).

Under the influence of Brandes, Adolf Hansen published translations of Shelley’s poetry in Poems Translated from English (1884) and provided a version of Prometheus Unbound (1892), and he also translated Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage under the title Junker Harold’s Pilgrimsfart (1880). In his grand English and North American Literary History in Outline, Hansen follows closely Brandes’ analysis of Byron as the active poet who stood “alone against scorn and hatred, held his head high, recklessly spoke what he saw as the truth, and made his words into action” (Hansen 1902:139).

Alfred Ipsen, an English language teacher, published Byron’s poems Manfred (1888) and Beppo (1891) in Danish translation. Since he originally gravitated toward Brandes’ revolt against Christianity, it is natural to assume that his interest in Byron was influenced by the analysis of Cain in Naturalism in England. Yet later Ipsen turned away from Brandes when he rediscovered his Christian faith. In one of his attacks on Brandes, he describes how the portrait of Byron as well as several others in the volume on British authors are consciously distorted and selective in order to “underpin precisely those facets and characteristics of their personalities and production that cohere with the tendency and plan of the work” (Ipsen 1902:103). Brandes’ good friend Holger Drachmann (1846-1908) achieved his literary breakthrough with a volume of poems dedicated to Brandes, Poems (1872), in which many of the verses express an interest in England’s revolutionary movements. This is particularly evident in “English Socialists,” in which he hopes that England will take lessons from the revolutionary Paris Commune. Drachmann also translated Byron’s Don Juan into ottava rima (published in eight parts in 1890-1 and as complete edition in 1902). Brandes has also perhaps inspired August Strindberg to read Byron’s Manfred (see Nielsen 2004:384), and it has been suggested that the concept of the superman in the Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding (1860-1911) can be traced back to Brandes’ interpretation of Byron (Sjöholm 1940:188ff).

Brandes suggests in Naturalism in England that the poet Frederik Paludan-Müller wrote “imitations” of Byron’s Beppo (Brandes 1875a:468) at the beginning of his career. This was, however. denied by the author in a reader letter published in the Brandes-edited journal Det Nittende Aarhundrede. Paludan-Müller protests that he had not read Byron’s poem (Paludan-Müller 1876:471-3). Brandes published an apology in response, yet at the same time argued that influence can be something indirect that exerts itself as something intangible through “the poetic atmosphere of the age” (Brandes 1876:474).

The German edition of Naturalism in England, which was reissued many times, played a certain role in discussions of 19th-century British literature in non-English-speaking countries. It is for example referenced by the literary historians Carl Bleibtreu (1887) and Ika A. Thomése (1923), but is also taken up as late as 1963 by the Slavicist Karel Krejöi. In conclusion it should also be noted that Brandes has had an influence in China, not least in the wake of the translation of his book on Shakespeare in 1935 (see Jensen 1980:233-4). Yet before that translation, Brandes made an impact on the productive translator of Western literature and later Chinese communist leader Zhang Wentian (1900-76), who nourished a profound fascination with Shelley and Byron. On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Byron’s death (1924), he translated a chapter on Byron from Brandes’ Naturalism in England to Chinese (see Gamsa 2010:22). A translation of the whole book by Han Shih-heng (from the English edition) followed in 1939, together with the first three volumes of Main Currents. The key word “Naturalism” was again taken up in the 1950s by the literary critic Li Zhichang in his essay “Naturalism in Chinese Literature,” which concerns a literary wave in China that had gathered inspiration from Japanese models. In this context, Brandes’ conceptual apparatus and his treatment of British authors are referenced (see Shotung 2002:299). In this way, Brandes seems to have set forth certain foundational principles in the love of nature that resounded in the understanding of literary movements outside the immediate circle of poets he wrote about.

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