Writing Home: Depictions of Forced Displacement in Romantic Era and Contemporary Poetry

Rosane, Olivia 

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In Romantic Migrations: Local, National, and Transnational Dispositions, Michael Wiley argues that it was during the Romantic era that ‘the concept of migration acquired the complex semantic and ideological range familiar to the twenty-first century’. This dissertation builds on Wiley’s insight to compare depictions of forced displacement in British Romantic poetry to contemporary poetry written or circulated in the United Kingdom in response to the so-called refugee crisis of 2015-2016. I argue that these two periods can speak to each other meaningfully because the turn of the nineteenth century saw the development or acceleration of three key trends that still influence both displacement and poetry today: the linkage of rights to nation-state citizenship, the impacts of environmental change on ecosystems and communities, and the expansion of new communication technologies that generate(d) anxieties about the reach and purpose of poetry. At the same time, the Romantic period falls before the emergence of contemporary refugee law in the mid-twentieth century and the subsequent divide between asylum seekers and economic migrants that haunts current policy and debates. By focusing on how British writers responded to forced displacement in an earlier era of increased mobility, I hope to think beyond and outside these categories to show how people were falling through the gap between (hu)man and citizen as soon as it was first codified.

The first half of this dissertation focuses on Romantic era poets. I consider how Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth responded to the displacements prompted by the consolidation of the French and British nation states, how John Clare expressed his own loss of home in the wake of environmental change, and how Lord Byron represented the collective experience of upheaval in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The second half of the dissertation moves to the contemporary period to consider how poets responded to the Mediterranean Sea’s contemporary status as the world’s deadliest border through classical allusions reminiscent of Romantic Hellenism. Finally, I examine how contemporary poets have intervened in print and internet culture on behalf of refugees, considering how these interventions may reinforce or subvert the national and legal categories that attempt to determine who may move where, and why.

Wilson, Ross
English literature, Romantic poetry, Contemporary poetry, Forced displacement, Migration and refugees
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge