Romanticism: the exotic
Following the military defeat of the Turkish Empire at the end of the 17th century, Europeans increasingly came to regard the Islamic world as a curiosity rather than a threat. A series of English editions of the collection of Arabic tales known as The Thousand and One Nights fed interest in this exotic civilisation. It was believed that the romances of chivalry had been inspired by oriental legends, and the 'Gothic novel' was rapidly followed by the 'oriental novel'.
An early example was Vathek. An Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford, the extravagant patron of J.R. Cozens, who built the colossal neo-Gothic mansion Fonthill Abbey.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also entertained fantasies of the luxurious east. His early masterpiece Kubla Khan or, A Vision In a Dream: A Fragment, was reputedly composed after an opium dream in 1797-8:
'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!...'
Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801) led to the foundation of the new discipline of Egyptology, and transformed European knowledge of the middle east. A flood of Egyptian antiquities entered Europe, and it was after contemplating a monumental head of the pharaoh Ramses II that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the sonnet Ozymandias, published in 1818:
'I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read…
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"'
Shelley's friend Lord Byron toured the Levant before settling in Italy, where he encouraged dissent against Austrian rule.
Turner's richly coloured paintings of Venice are comparable with Byron's highly coloured vision of the city from the fourth canto of his autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)-
'I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sat in state, thron’d on her hundred isles!'
The force and vitality of his poetry, his libertine behaviour and libertarian ideals, flamboyant taste in dress, and early death in the cause of Greek independence made Byron appear the epitome of a 'Romantic' to his admirers.