Into the Wood: Dante, Byron and James in "Ravenna"
Abstract: This article performs a close reading of James’s 1874/1875 neglected Italian travelogue “Ravenna,” approaching it as a disguised parable of difficulties he confronted as an aspiring writer, in particular those provoked by the simultaneous enticements and threats of movement and stability, home and homelessness, caused by expatriation. It explores how James’s impression of Ravenna as a stagnant backwater can be aligned with anxieties that the artist might suffer a loss of creative vitality amidst the historical and aesthetic density of Europe, making reference to his fiction of this period, but also how his late expressed belief that adverse circumstances could be beneficial to the writer may recapture this period in his career. In particular, it looks at James’s references in this travelogue to Byron and Dante, both exiles temporarily resident in Ravenna, and both of whom interwove the nearby famous wood, the Pineta, into their works. Examining Bryon and Dante’s allusions to the wood as a hallowed place of spiritual and creative renewal, I suggest that James may have felt a companionship in exile with these predecessors that allows him to attain, at the end of his journey, a similar sense of rejuvenation. And through tracing an allusion to Ravenna in The Wings of the Dove I also propose that the scenes and figures of Ravenna may shed new light on that novel, as well as revealing the circuits by which a particular place, for James, could become transformed from a geographic reality into a nourishing space of introspection, infusing imaginative invention long after departure from the physical realm.