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‘The Curfew’s Knell’: Anglo-Saxon England and the Tradition of Dissent in English Romantic Poetry

Rory Edgington

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Published Date:

January 2023


Joseph Cottle, Romanticism, Anglo-Saxons, Medievalism, Reformation, William Wordsworth


At the turn of the nineteenth century, the growing strength of medievalism in aesthetic and cultural discourse renewed interest in England’s Anglo-Saxon past. However, the tropes and motifs that came to define perceptions of pre-Norman society had a gestation period which already stretched back at least as far as the English Reformation. The Romantics, often coming from backgrounds of Protestant dissent themselves, found in these discourses many synergies with their own political and artistic projects. This article will therefore explore the representations of Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Yoke in Romantic poetry. It will do this by focusing on the work of two writers: Joseph Cottle and William Wordsworth. Though not nearly as well- known as many of his contemporaries and friends, Joseph Cottle was a key figure in early Romanticism. Moreover, his major work, Alfred; An Epic Poem, is one of the most substantial representations of Anglo-Saxon England in Romantic literature, combining many of the discursive elements passed down through the radical Protestant tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Ecclesiastical Sketches, Wordsworth similarly uses England’s pre-Norman past to explore the role of religion in the continuity of national identity. However, his treatment is more ambivalent, adapting the idiom of dissenting radicals in order to defend the established church. In exploring the aspects of Anglo-Saxon history represented in this poetry, the article seeks to uncover the roots of these discourses, analyse the innovations contributed by the Romantics, and point towards the directions these discourses would take in the future.

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31 - 54

Date of Publication:

January 2023

About the author

Rory Edgington

Rory Edgington is a second-year doctoral candidate at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He is currently investigating the political, philosophical, and theological legacy of the English Revolution and its impact on Romanticism. His research focuses in particular on the evolution of millenarian discourses in the work of the English Romantic poets. He has also carried out research on the political ramifications of the domestic sphere in the work of John Milton, and is interested in the use of the sublime to break ideological structures in the poetry of William Blake and P. B. Shelley.

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