The Art of the Sublime

ISBN 978-1-84976-387-5

Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime

Christine Riding

At the height of the Romantic period there was much debate about the meaning of the sublime, with artists struggling with problems about its definition even as they worked to create sublime effects. However, as Christine Riding discovers in this study on shipwreck, just as the sublime cannot be easily captured, when confronted it is hard to dismiss.
The terrible is like the sublime: it is not to be abused.
Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 1857
Given the casual contemporary usage of aesthetic terms like sublime, beautiful and picturesque, any attempt to make theoretical distinctions between them may seem ultimately futile. After all, is there anything intrinsically wrong with describing a mountain range or a glacial terrain in terms of ‘sublime beauty’? Historically too, even as these concepts were debated, defined and applied by scholars, philosophers, and to a lesser extent by poets and artists – the treatises by the Pseudo-Longinus, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant being the most influential during the Romantic period – we find beyond that rarefied group of people a degree of vagueness, confusion even, when employing aesthetic terminology. A well-known anecdote recorded in the diary of Dorothy Wordsworth, relates a comical incident involving the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a lady and gentleman visiting the Falls of Clyde in Scotland in 1803:
Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William [Wordsworth] at some length the day before. ‘Yes, sir’, says Coleridge, ‘it is a majestic waterfall.’ ‘Sublime and beautiful,’ replied his friend. Poor Coleridge could make no answer, and, not very desirous to continue the conversation, came to us and related the story, laughing heartily.1
Evidently some two hundred years ago, the sublime was a slippery term, even in the post-Burkean world, when engagement with sublimity in British and European culture was arguably at its most pervasive if not profound. Indeed, many present-day scholars take the view that during the Romantic period (usually designated as 1780 to 1830), ‘insensate nature’ came to be seen as a vehicle for the expression of human thoughts and emotions, that ‘the connection between perception and inner being’ was explored, as was the idea that ‘the forms of nature could in themselves have deep significance’, and that nature was a primary site of the sublime and sublime experience.2 Furthermore, this is how the term ‘Romantic’, as a close partner of the sublime, has come (in part) to be defined. It is also clear, however, that by the early nineteenth century, the sublime in literature, the visual arts and elsewhere, had stock motifs, themes and formal qualities, which were regularly if not systematically employed by artists, poets and authors to achieve a ‘sublime’ register, irrespective of their familiarity with specific theoretical texts. In his appraisal of sublime subject paintings on exhibition at the Royal Academy during this period, Martin Myrone encourages us to think of artistic engagement with, and deployment of, the sublime as primarily market driven, thus categorising it as a somewhat knowing and cynical enterprise. ‘The reality of commercial spectacle and sensation,’ he states,
was accommodated to a revised notion of ideal art through the eighteenth century notion of the sublime, the aesthetic celebration of grandeur and horror for its stimulation effects ... By the late eighteenth century the term had become commonplace with improvised, informal and often half-baked writing that then passed as art criticism, where it typically functioned as a ‘buzzword’ that had a certain currency without being fully theorized.
He concludes that the sublime can ‘probably best be described as a certain kind of effect which had more to do with manipulating public and critical response than with attending to some pre-ordained theoretical prescription.’3
James Egan, after Theodore Gericault 'The Raft of the Medusa' 1837
James Egan, after Theodore Gericault
The Raft of the Medusa 1837
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Noting that what can be truly innovative in 1780, will, with repetition, be cliché by 1830, the question this paper shall explore is whether there is evidence that the public and critical response to large scale painting of scenes of terror and despair – the kinds of themes associated with the sublime – were understood in the terms set down by the theorists of the sublime. To do this I will explore in some depth one of the stock themes and motifs of the sublime, as the term was then understood and applied, that of shipwreck, taking as a case study one particularly notorious shipwreck event, that of the French frigate Medusa in 1816. My selection and rationale are based on the following criteria: first, as previously stated, the sublime was well established in British and European culture at that time and had accrued certain tropes and attracted certain audience expectations; second, that the shipwreck of the Medusa was well known in Britain and France through press reports and the publication of shipwreck narratives, such accounts being by 1816 an established and popular sub-genre of voyage and travel literature; and third, that the event is associated with two controversial (and now celebrated) representations of shipwreck, a painting and a poem, both of which reflect, articulate and challenge contemporary notions of the sublime, and shipwreck as a sublime motif and public spectacle. These works are Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (fig.1) and Lord Byron’s so-called shipwreck canto from his long poem Don Juan (Canto II), both from 1819 (Géricault’s painting was exhibited in Paris in 1819 and London in 1820). Although few scholars of the period would challenge the candidacy of these works as paradigms of Romanticism, the question to be answered concerns the centrality or otherwise of the sublime.

The sea, shipwreck and the sublime

To contextualise this case study it is first important to remember what a prominent and consistent role the sea has played in critical and theoretical discussions of the sublime. Indeed, throughout the history of the sublime, to quote the writer Barbara Freeman, ‘the sea has often served as its most appropriate, if not exemplary, metaphor’.4 For the anonymous author known as Pseudo-Longinus, who wrote the first-known treatise on the subject, the ocean’s majesty of scale and thus its sublimity were self-evident:
Hence it is almost an instinct that we follow in giving our admiration, not to small streams, though they be pellucid and useful, but to the Nile and Danube, or Rhine, and far more to the Ocean.5
It was equally self-evident to the politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was arguably the best known and most paraphrased (if not the most widely read) treatise on the sublime in Britain. In his oft-quoted summation of the sublime, Burke juxtaposes his key concept of terror with the vastness of the sea:
No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain and death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror, be endured with greatness of dimensions or not ... And to things of great dimension, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.6
He later concludes that, ‘These waters must be troubled before they can exert their virtues’, thus suggesting the added value of storm, as opposed to calm, for powerful effect.7 While Burke and other commentators acknowledged the power of nature, they also acknowledged that it had its limits when confronted by the unmodified power of God. In A Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job (1749), the poet Edward Young ‘quoted’ from God’s speech from the whirlwind, then appreciated as a paradigm of sublimity, in which God describes the experience of being the creator of the world, with particular reference to the ocean:
Who, stretching forth his sceptre o’er the deep,
Can that wide world in due subjection keep?
I broke the globe, I scoop’d its hollow side,
And did a bason for the floods provide;
I chain’d them with my word; the boiling sea,
Work’d up in tempests, hears My great decree;
‘Thus far thy floating tide shall be convey’d;
And here, O main! be thy proud billows stay’d.’
‘There is a very great air in all that precedes’, Young writes in response, ‘but this [excerpt] is signally sublime. We are struck with admiration to see the vast and ungovernable ocean receiving commands, and punctually obeying them; to find it like a manage-horse, raging, tossing, and foaming, but by the rule and direction of its master.’8 The ocean was, in Young’s estimation at least, the pre-eminent example via which the supremacy of God over nature could be evoked.
In his book Shipwreck with Spectator, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg explains mankind’s time-honoured fascination and unease with the sea and seafaring as follows:
Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of the perilous sea voyage. The repertory of this nautical metaphorics of existence is very rich.9
In this context, the appropriateness of the storm-tossed ship as a political and social metaphor, from the Roman poet Horace’s ‘ship of state’ analogy onwards, needs no further explanation. And perhaps one can say with equal confidence that for obvious reasons a shipwreck was an event eminently suited to a sublime treatment. However, the relationship between shipwreck and the sublime needs to be seen in the context of the spectacle-spectatorship dynamic, just as the undoubted impact of a shipwreck needs to be recognised as first and foremost a historical event and human tragedy, even when it was presented, marketed and thus exploited as a consumer product. 10
What was the relationship between the sublime – a complex and often contested term in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – and the role of spectatorship? For many commentators, the sublime was premised on the contemplation of powerful scenes or objects that aroused strong feelings of awe and terror in the spectator, primarily but not exclusively of natural phenomena (hence the centrality of the sea as a subject, and by association shipwreck). Thus the writer Joseph Addison, in his influential essay ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’ (1712), after listing the examples of ‘high rocks and precipices’, ‘a wide expanse of water’ and ‘huge heaps of mountains’, states that:
Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them.11
What is immediately apparent from Addison’s comments is that the viewer is not in any actual and immediate danger; there is a distance between the spectator and the scene or object, such that they are caught up sufficiently to feel overwhelmed but from a position of safety. Furthermore, there is pleasure in the process, as the writer and lexiographer Samuel Johnson put it, in the context of sublime language, from ‘sudden astonishment’ to ‘rational imagination’, when the mind relaxes in relief, precipitating what Addison had previously called ‘pleasing astonishment’ and Burke, ‘delightful horror’.12 The ‘sublime’ event is thus, by its very nature, a spectacle and the experience of that event a ‘spectator sport’. Evidently there is an important distinction to be made between ‘the object’ and ‘the subject’. Writing in the mid-1990s, the historian Jonathan Lamb noted the inappropriate use, as he saw it, of the term ‘sublime’ among some art historians. ‘Despite the frequent assertion to the contrary,’ he writes, ‘by eighteenth-century landscape specialists, there is no sublime environment, no phenomenon in nature that can claim an intrinsic part in these intensities, or pretend to be a cause or end of them’.13 The ‘crisis’, he asserts, must be within the subject (that is in the mind of the spectator). Lamb illustrates his point by quoting from Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790):
Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime ... All we can say is that the object lends itself to presentation of a sublimity discoverable in the mind. For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form.14
On these terms, we can perhaps appreciate the difficulty for artists and poets in manufacturing a sublime reaction in the spectator. Indeed, if the spectacle is to be persuasive, there is a crucial stage during the process of composing a ‘sublime’ work. The primary preoccupation of artists and poets in presenting shipwreck subjects is the attempt to immerse or transport the viewer out of their own time and space and into the description or composition. In Johann Joachim Ewald’s epigram (1755), entitled Der Sturm, the poet’s description ofthe distressed ship is clearly calculated to absorb the reader to such an extent that, when the textual flow is interrupted with the narrator’s presence – that is, with the introduction of ‘I’ – it effects an abrupt and thus powerful change of gear, what the critic Hans Blumenthal has called the ‘punchline’:
Suddenly it grows dark, the wind is howling loud,
And heaven, sky, and land appear a frightful jumble.
Toward the stars flies up the ship, then plunges down again,
Sails on washed by waves, with naught but ruin all around,
Here lightening, there thunder, the whole ether storming,
Swell towering up on swell, and cloud on cloud,
The ship is shattered, and I...nothing happened to me,
Because I only watched the storm from shore.15
As we shall see in Don Juan, Byron was similarly attentive to the potential of such devices to disrupt the experience of his readership for dramatic effect. In the visual arts, if we compare and contrast Claude-Joseph Vernet’s A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas 1773 (fig.2) with J.M.W. Turner’s The Shipwreck 1805 (fig.3, N00476), both works offer approximate evidence of the kind of dramatic effects and devices that have come to be expected of ‘sublime’ images, such as sharp contrasts in light and dark, battering winds, turbulent seas, buffeted ships, and struggling human beings. But what effect does the proximity of the rocky coastline (that is dry land as the sign of safety) to the viewing plane have on the spectators of the painting, as can been seen in Vernet’s composition, in contrast to its complete absence in Turner’s? In his painting the Raft of the Medusa, Géricault too was conscious of the spectacle-spectator dynamic, and sought to confuse, even problematise, this divide by ‘extending’ the edge of the raft out of the confines of the framed canvas and into the viewer’s plane. And given that many of the abandoned seamen are represented turning towards or facing the ‘horizon’ (that is, looking in the same direction as the viewer of the painting) the artist is clearly attempting to manipulate us into experiencing, if only temporarily, what they are experiencing. Have we now become participants on the raft?
Claude Joseph Vernet 'A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea' 1773
Claude Joseph Vernet
A Shipwreck in Stormy Sea 1773
National Gallery, London
Photo © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence 2012
Joseph Mallord William Turner 'The Shipwreck' exhibited 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Shipwreck exhibited 1805
Tate N00476

That this sensation was crucial to experiencing The Raft of the Medusa is underlined by the lowering of the painting during the Paris Salon of 1819 at the request of Géricault himself, from a prominent but high position in the Salon Carré to one that encouraged a more intimate engagement with the canvas. Commenting on this significant change of hanging height, the painter Eugène Delacroix noted that, with the new position, the viewer’s foot was already in the water, concluding ‘Il faut l’avoir vu d’assez près, pour en sentir tout le mérite’ (it is necessary to have seen it close enough, to feel all its merits).16 That Géricault was not the first in this context to appreciate the optimum height from which to view a work of art is underlined by The Wreck of the Centaur by James Northcote, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784. Although the painting is now lost, its scale (3656 x 2438 mm) and composition is known through an engraving by Thomas Gaugain (fig.4), published in the same year, and its prominent hanging position in the Great Room at Somerset House via a watercolour by Edward Frances Burney (fig.5). The ominous presence of the ship, just visible in the top left corner, and the steep, upward tilt of the boat, when viewed from below (as Burney’s watercolour demonstrates) was surely calculated to exaggerate the sensation of being in the line of impact, from the path of the ship, the boat and the crashing waves.
Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote 'The Wreck of the Centaur' 1796
Thomas Gaugain, after James Northcote
The Wreck of the Centaur 1796
Photo © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Edward Francis Burney 'West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts'
Edward Francis Burney
West Wall, The Great Room, Somerset House, the main space of the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts
© Trustees of the British Museum

Of course the sheer scale of the Raft of the Medusa (at seven metres long and five metres high), and of the over life-size figures represented, make the representation of human suffering more legible and thus more immediate and effective than in most marine painting or seascapes. After all, we can see the physical and emotional distress of the shipwrecked in Géricault’s composition, and Northcote’s, but this is miniaturised in Turner’s, and obscured in Vernet’s. As spectators, therefore, can we be absorbed with the human context of an event or scene, if we are distanced from the presence of human beings?
The relative merits of figurative and landscape formats in the spectacle-spectator configuration is perhaps most interesting and pressing in the context of sublime when we consider Edmund Burke’s emphasis in the Philosophical Enquiry on ‘pain’, ‘anguish’, ‘torment’ and ‘death’ as ‘productive of the sublime’, exciting the ‘passion’ of ‘self-preservation’:
The passions which belong to self-preservation, turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime. The passions belonging to self-preservation are the strongest of all the passions.17
In general terms, the fact that it is a subject that encourages the spectator to imagine ‘pain and danger’ and ‘self-preservation’, ‘without being actually in such circumstances’ may well be why shipwreck, as a potentially life-threatening event, was suited to the sublime in all its various literary and artistic manifestations, and why it was so regularly adopted by artists planning works for public consumption. Interestingly, when the Raft of the Medusa was exhibited to visitors at the Egyptian Hall in London, the printed description made available was prefaced by an excerpt from ‘The Voyage’, from Robert Southey’s poem Madoc (1805), which explicitly evokes the spectacle-spectator dynamic described above, demonstrating the absorption of Burkean and other theoretical formulations of the sublime into the mainstream of British culture:
‘Tis pleasant, by the cheerful hearth, to hear
Of tempests and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo terror to delight us; ... but to hear
The roaring of the raging elements, ...
To know all human skill, all human strength,
Avail not, ... to look round, and only see
The mountain wave incumbent with its weight
Of bursting waters o’er the reeling bark, ...
O God, this is indeed a dreadful thing!
And he who hath endur’d the horror, once,
Of such an hour, doth never hear the storm
Howl round his home, but he remembers it,
And thinks upon the suffering mariner!18

Shipwreck narratives and the Medusa

As a maritime and island nation, there was a broad-based fascination in Britain with the risks and challenges of seafaring, and with maritime disaster, whether Britons were directly affected by such events or not. As regularly claimed by the authors, compilers and publishers of shipwreck narratives, tales of shipwreck afforded the reader an opportunity for self-improvement and moral edification, via examples of virtuous behaviour and, above all, acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. The reverse, less laudable modes of behaviour, such as panic and cowardice, were promoted as being of equal benefit to the reader, if only as contrasts. Furthermore, such tales would, it was hoped, encourage feelings of empathy (that is, the capacity to recognise and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another) and sympathy (which includes empathising but further entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for another). Such feelings would be beneficial to notions of society, sense of community and common humanity. What is also evident, however, is that such narratives played to less ‘virtuous’ impulses in the reader; that prurient or voyeuristic pleasure of experiencing others’ misfortunes.
In the early nineteenth century, over and above the many thousands of shipwreck narratives, abridgements and further editions of varying quality and ambition that serviced a diverse market, deluxe compendiums were published such as Archibald Duncan’s The Mariner’s Chronicle (six volumes, 1804–8), J.S. Clarke’s Naufragia (two volumes, 1805), and J.G. Dalyell’s Shipwreck and Disasters at Sea (3 vols, 1812), the latter being the primary source for Byron’s lengthy representation of shipwreckin Don Juan. From an early age, Lord Byron (1788–1824) immersed himself in narratives of voyage and shipwreck and even promoted himself in adulthood as an adventurer or, more accurately, a misadventurer.19 His own grandfather, Captain John ‘foul-weather Jack’ Byron, from whom he claimed to have received an ‘inheritance of storms’, had authored a narrative of one of the most notorious and contested shipwrecks of the eighteenth century, that of the Wager in 1741.20 Byron was keen to underline that all the incidents incorporated into the shipwreck canto of Don Juan were based in reality, and referred to the Wager directly, almost (one might say) as a badge of honour: ‘his [Juan’s] hardships were comparative / To those related in my grand-dad’s narrative.’ (Don Juan, canto II, stanza 137, lines 7–8)
But Géricault (1791–1824) was neither a marine painter nor a traveller in the ‘Byronic’ mould – the Medusa shipwreck as a subject was simply opportune. To understand how the depiction of this one naval tragedy, in an era when such things were commonplace, evidences the pervasive presence of sublime sensations in Romantic art, we need to understand the historical background. The tragedy occurred in July 1816, off the west coast of Africa, and was due to the incompetence of the naval captain, Hugues de Chaumareys, appointed to his post by the Ultra-Royalist Minister of the Marine, Vicomte de Bouchage, on the grounds that he was an aristocrat and pro-Bourbon in his political sympathies. The wreck of the Medusa was thus a political as well as a naval controversy, highlighting corruption in the Restoration government and exposing tensions between Royalist and Liberal factions. The ensuing national scandal was fuelled by the publication in November 1817 of an account of the shipwreck by two of the raft survivors, Henri Savigny, a surgeon, and Alexandre Corréard, a geographer-engineer, the text of which was Géricault’s main source. Savigny and Corréard’s primary objectives were to apportion blame for the shipwreck and to highlight the treachery of those in command who abandoned one hundred and fifty soldiers, sailors and official passengers (many of whom had served under Napoleon) on a makeshift raft: only fifteen survived after nearly two weeks at sea. Through their publication, they hoped to gain public sympathy, even for the various atrocities, in particular cannibalism, which had been forced on them (in the authors’ opinion) by circumstances not of their making. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the proximity of this event to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, British commentators were largely unquestioning of Savigny and Corréard’s version of events, and readily subscribed to the authors’ conclusion that ‘the annals of the marine, record no example of a shipwreck so terrible as that of the Medusa frigate’.21 The opportunity to compare and contrast national character via the Medusa shipwreck was given an even greater boost, because at precisely the same time, in 1816, a potentially similar drama was unfolding for a Royal Navy ship, the Alceste. Returning from China, carrying the British ambassador, Lord Amherst, the ship ran aground on an uncharted reef. A raft was made for supplies, not people. And, despite the ensuing dangers including attacks from the Malays, order was maintained and everyone survived. In the same year as the first edition of Savigny and Corréard’s narrative of the Medusa, the ship’s surgeon, John MacLeod, published A Narrative of a Voyage in H.M.S. Alceste. From start to finish, the book celebrates the British character in adversity. ‘Under all the depressing circumstances attending shipwreck’, MacLeod enthused, ‘of hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and menaced by a ruthless foe; it was glorious to see the British spirit staunch and unsubdued’, the shipwrecked saved from ‘all the horrors of anarchy and confusion’ by the ‘personal example’ of Lord Amherst and above all the ship’s captain, Murray Maxwell.22 In 1818, the Edinburgh Review published a long article discussing both McLeod’s narrative and the Medusanarrative. ‘Never’ the author observes, ‘was there a contrast so striking, as in the conduct of the English and French sailors. On the one side, all is great and calm, and dignified. On the other, page rises above page, and event towers above event, in horror and depravity.’23
British reactions, such as those described above, underline the importance of shipwreck in defining national character at this time and how the depiction of rich narratives can bring the sublime in from the aesthetic margins to the ideological epicentre of spectatorship. But in the midst of such bold claims about the supremacy of the British naval character (despite ample evidence to the contrary), is it possible for us to detect a sense of unease about the wider human significance of the Medusa shipwreck as an event? After all, shipwrecks were by their very nature about survival, often under the most traumatic of circumstances, where, as the disaster unfolds, the social ties that unite the crews and passengers can begin to breakdown, even to the extent that unthinkable acts like cannibalism and the transgression of social taboos can become a reality. Thus, even as the reader derives a delightful terror (in a Burkean sense) from a shipwreck narrative, he or she is also confronted with the more awkward and unsettling reality of human behaviour in extremis. Furthermore, such episodes suggest that human behaviour, whatever direction it may take, may not be predicated upon nationality, age, race or gender. In his discussion of Romantic period shipwreck narratives, Carl Thompson has observed that the majority tend to follow similar lines and what emerges from perusing one after another is not only an impression of a generic shipwreck narrative, but a kind of ‘master narrative’ (to use the cultural historian George Landow’s phrase).24 The Medusa shipwreck, which spawned a number of competing and defamatory publications beyond Savigny and Corréard’s, combines both disaster and captive narratives and nearly the full gamut of events and possibilities that could possibly befall the shipwrecked. This may in part explain why a reviewer could describe Byron’s lengthy and eventful representation of a shipwreck in Don Juan as ‘neither more nor less than the dreadful tale of the French frigate, La Meduse, with the horrors of the Raft related verbatim.’25 (In fact, Byron ‘borrowed’ incidents from numerous shipwreck narratives, including the Medusa.) But while the assumption, quoted above, concerning Byron’s poem was largely unfounded, it does indicate that the Medusa narrative could, in itself, be readily appropriated as a master narrative of shipwreck and thus transcend its particular circumstances and outcomes to represent a common or universal theme, indeed a specifically sublime theme, an idea I shall explore later in relation to the Raft of the Medusa and Don Juan.
The motivation behind the production and consumption of shipwreck-related material is thus open to multiple interpretations. However, in terms of the present discussion, there is another level of potential meaning, which relates specifically to the process through which the viewer employs their imaginative and rational faculties before the sublime object. In her discussion on the cultural value of terror from the late eighteenth century, E.J. Clery reminds us of several key concepts from the Philosophical Enquiry: first, Burke states, ‘I know nothing sublime which is not some modification of power’; second, that ‘Society is the final cause of the pleasure of beauty ... Self-preservation is the final cause of the sublime’; and finally, that terror ‘is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’. ‘[O]ur delight in the sublime,’ Burke states, ‘is due to the fact that the weak or moderated states of pain or terror which sublime objects arouse are ones which cause a healthy invigoration of those finer bodily tissues upon which the mental powers act.’ In other words, the mind exercises, labours and ‘swells’, to use Burke’s choice of word.26 Beauty, according to Burke, does not stimulate the mind, but rather relaxes and softens it. Thus, he makes a direct correlation between the sublime and mental action, and ‘beauty’ and mental inaction. Indeed, Clery observes that Burke’s ‘aesthetic theory derives moral significance from an established opposition within contemporary political discourse, of private luxury versus public virtue.’27 And furthermore, reminding us of the gender hierarchy of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry, that is, the masculine Sublime and the feminine Beautiful, that the sublime experience is open only to a mind capable of understanding it (i.e. male) and thus could be seen to compensate for the decline during the eighteenth century of ‘the traditional valorised aristocratic functions of public service and military leadership’, defined as male, and the growth of a modern society based on consumer capitalism, defined as female.28 In his ‘Lectures on Jurisprudence’ (1762–3), the social philosopher Adam Smith had compared and contrasted ancient Rome and defeated Carthage as representative of martial and commercial nations respectively, noting that the disadvantage of commercial nations is that ‘The minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation, education is despised or at least neglected and heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished’.29 The use of ‘contracted’ and ‘rendered incapable of elevation’, as Clery has noted, echo Burke’s language in the Philosophical Enquiry.30 Immanuel Kant explored the idea of public virtue still further, and in the specific context of aesthetics and the sublime, in his influential The Critique of Judgment (1790):
And so, comparing the statesman and the general, men may argue as they please as to the pre-eminent respect which is due to either above the other; but the verdict of the aesthetic judgment is for the latter. War itself, provided it is conducted with order and a sacred respect for the right of civilians, has something sublime about it, and gives nations that carry it on in such a manner a stamp of mind only the more sublime the more numerous the dangers to which they are exposed, and which they are able to meet with fortitude. On the other hand, a prolonged peace favours the predominance of a mere commercial spirit, and with it a debasing self-interest, cowardice, and effeminacy, and tends to degrade the character of the nation.31
Perhaps here we can appreciate the particular resonance of shipwrecks and misadventure at sea, as events that find direct parallels with war, warfare and the ‘heroic spirit’, to quote Adam Smith; that is, the primal and often primitive circumstances experienced by the protagonists, as they struggle against the elements, each other and themselves. What I am suggesting here is that the consumption of shipwreck as a virtual ‘sublime’ experience could have been perceived as having a specific public benefit in view of the ongoing debate about public virtue versus private pleasure and therefore going beyond straightforward education, entertainment and market-led spectacle. But the question still remains: what purpose does such an event actually serve, if one is merely a spectator? E.J. Clery is clear on this point. ‘What Burke offers,’ she writes, ‘is a private war without consequences.’ She continues, ‘The sublime is a simulacrum of the external threat of violent death sufficient to arouse the strongest passions of self-preservation, while never requiring that these be surmounted in the name of public duty’, concluding that, ‘it remains essentially a mind game’.32

Byron and sublime misadventure

The fundamental difference between real and vicarious experience preoccupied Byron, often in relation to seafaring and misadventure at sea. Indeed, unlike William Wordsworth, who was also a renowned traveller, Byron deliberately ‘ran risks’, ‘courted dangers and discomforts’, and castigated what he saw as the small-minded, touristic scope and ambition of his fellow poets Wordsworth, Southey and even Coleridge.33 Thus to him they were ‘Lakers’ and ‘pond poets’. In his ‘Dedication’ at the beginning of Don Juan, he even called on them to ‘change your lakes for ocean’ (Don Juan, canto II, stanza 137, lines 6–8), a comment which, in itself, chimes with Longinian and Burkean sublimity of scale. There was, of course, a degree of competitiveness and self-dramatisation behind Byron’s self-identity as the reckless traveller. Writing in 1813, to his then fiancée Annabella Milbanke, Byron pronounces,
You don’t like my ‘restless’ doctrines – I should be very sorry if you did – but I can’t stagnate nevertheless – if I must sail let it be on the ocean no matter how stormy – anything but a dull cruise on a level lake without ever losing sight of the same insipid shores by which it is surrounded.34
This compunction to follow a deliberately danger-filled path seems to be the theme of an early portrait of the poet, aged just nineteen, entitled Lord Byron and a Companion, with a Boat by George Sanders (Royal Collection Trust).35 Painted in about 1807, it shows Byron standing in a heroic pose against a stormy, mountainous landscape (one that art historians would undoubtedly characterise as sublime), an image that has been described as ‘a remarkable anticipation of the wandering poet and hero of Childe Harold.’36 The juxtaposition here of the ‘wandering poet’, itself a Romantic trope, and Byron as the disaffected ‘hero of Childe Harold’ neatly underlines the assumption, made by contemporary and subsequent commentators, that his work was to a large degree autobiographical. Given this, reviews of his poetry also relate to his personal celebrity and burgeoning mythology. A commentator in the Literary and Statistical Review of February 1817, for example, noted that Childe Harold
partakes of all the grandeur and force of its author’s genius; – the rapid and interesting narrative, – the powerful depiction of human character, – the deep-wrought feeling and pathos, – and the exquisite and overpowering touches of tenderness, which so pre-eminently distinguish all the productions of Lord Byron ... we do not know, that the state of mind, reckless to the present, and careless of the future, was ever depicted with more force, nature, and poetical beauty, than in the following verse; –
‘Once more upon the waters! Yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider. Welcome, to their roar!
Swift be their guidance, wheresoe’r it lead!
Though strain’d mast should quiver as a read,
And rent canvas fluttering strew the gale,
Still must I on; for I am as a weed,
Flung from the rock, on Ocean’s foam, to sail
Where’er the surge may sweep, the tempest’s
Breath prevail.’37
Eventually the mapping of Byron’s image over appropriately ‘Byronic’ themes and subjects would become irresistible, even before his death at Missolonghi in 1824 in the cause of Greek independence. An example pertinent to the above quoted review (and in relation to the sublime) is Franz Ludwig Catel’s Night Piece from the Closing Scene of ‘René’ by Chateaubriand, painted in about 1820, which shows the shipwrecked ‘hero’ contemplating a sublime storm (The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen). The character of René, from the poem of 1802, was in fact the model for Childe Harold. And in the painting, Catel clearly represents him as a recognisable portrait of Byron himself.38
Ultimately, what drew Byron to shipwreck and ‘maritime misadventure’, as Carl Thompson has observed, was ‘a fascination with an intensity and extremity of experience’. ‘For Byron,’ Thompson continues, ‘it was only in moments of intensity and extremity – be they the highs of exhilaration or the lows of horror and despair – that one was truly alive, escaping the crippling ennui or melancholic introspection that was otherwise the human norm.’39 Byron’s thoughts on and employment of the sublime, is too complex and nuanced to be interrogated at length here. However, the following oft-quoted excerpt from his published correspondence comes close to articulating a Burkean understanding of the sublime (or at least, a description of the sublime that Burke would have recognised) with the then familiar juxtaposition of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’:
Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure, worldly, social, amorous, ambitious, or even avaricious, – does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow – a fear of what’s to come – a doubt of what is – a retrospect to the past, leading to a prognostication of the future? (The best of Prophets of the future is the Past.) Why is this, or these? – I know not, except that on a pinnacle we are most susceptible of giddiness, and that we never fear falling except from a precipice – the higher, the more awful, and the more sublime; and, therefore, I am not sure that Fear is not a pleasurable sensation; at least, Hope is; and what Hope is there without a deep leaven of Fear? And what sensation is so delightful as Hope? and, if it were not for Hope, where would the Future be? – in hell. It is useless to say where the Present is, for most of us know; and as for the Past, what predominates in memory? – Hope baffled. Ergo, in all human affairs, it is Hope – Hope – Hope.40
Clearly, Byron’s writings and enduring reputation were, like shipwreck, suited to a sublime treatment and interpretation. Indeed, as the curator David Blayney Brown has noted, ‘To read his poetry, or to follow the inspiring or shocking events of his life, was almost a species of the Sublime’.41 However, it is important at this juncture to clarify exactly what kind of poem Don Juan is. Byron himself described it as an ‘Epic Satire’, one that reflected his admiration of Italian burlesque writers and the ‘flexible ottava rima, with its clinching couplet, its colloquial diction, and its incongruities, achieved by alternating or juxtaposing the serious and the comic’.42 As Byron explained to his publisher John Murray, his aim in writing Don Juan was to prove that he could write ‘cheerfully’ (as opposed to sublimely?) and to answer the charge that had been levelled against him of ‘monotony and mannerism’.43 As written, Don Juan thus represents, to quote the literary critic T.G. Steffan:
how potent a force was Byron’s love of mischief – his relish of absurdity, his penchant for mocking affectation, pomp and folly; that is, his irreverent, facetious and satiric disposition.44
One might add, given his association with a type of sublime experience, that he was not only playfully bucking expectations of himself as the brooding, disaffected poet, but also satirising his audience’s expectations of the heroic epic and the poetic language associated with the sublime. Thus he continually changes the register of the poem, often within a stanza, disallowing a consistent and sustained build-up of ‘sublime’ effects (such as we read in Childe Harold, and in Robert Southey’s ‘The Voyage’, quoted earlier) before introducing what was much commented upon at the time as jarring and inappropriate cynicism and mirth. To make a brief example here, consider this sequence of stanzas from the ‘shipwreck’ canto, just as the Trinidada sinks:
Some trial had been making at a raft
With little hope in such a rolling sea,
A sort of thing at which one would have laughed,
If any laughter at such times could be,
Unless with people who too much have quaffed
And have a kind of wild and horrid glee,
Half epileptical and half hysterical.
Their preservation would have been a miracle.
At half-past eight o’clock, booms, hencoops, spars
And all things for a chance had been cast loose,
That still could keep afloat the struggling tars,
For yet they strove, although of no great use,
There was no light in heaven but a few stars,
The boats put off o’ercrowded with their crews.
She gave a heel and then a lurch to port,
And going down head foremost – sunk, in short.
Then rose from sea to sky the wild farewell,
Then shrieked the timid, and stood still the brave,
Then some leaped overboard with dreadful yell,
As eager to anticipate their grave.
And the sea yawned around her like a hell,
And down she sucked with her the whirling wave,
Like one who grapples with his enemy
And strives to strangle him before he die.
And first one universal shriek there rushed,
Louder than the loud ocean, like a crash
Of echoing thunder, and then all was hushed,
Save the wild wind and the remorseless dash
Of billows; but at intervals there gushed,
Accompanied with a convulsive splash,
A solitary shriek, the bubbling cry
Of some strong swimmer in his agony.45
The final two stanzas were praised by a number of critics and in such terms that Byron’s language here conformed to preconceptions of the poetic sublime. Thus the reviewer in the New Monthly Magazine stated that ‘This scene of horror and destruction is so finely described that our readers will not fail to do it justice. The perusal makes a shuddering chillness run over the frame’. He concludes, with comments that Byron would have found highly gratifying: ‘The whole course of this disastrous voyage is painted with a surprising force, and a detail of circumstances, which could only have been acquired by one who had often experienced the dangers of the sea.’ However, the critic’s disappointment and disapproval is palpable throughout, not least in the following lines, which tellingly evoke Burke’s treatise: ‘The effect of a sublime and beautiful description of the rainbow and sun is destroyed by one of those unaccountable turns of levity, which so frequently occur in this extraordinary production.’46
That Byron was knowingly taking on the sublime, linguistically at least, is suggested by his comments in a letter to his friend Douglas Kinnaird:
As to ‘Don Juan’ – confess – confess – you dog – and be candid – that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing – it may be bawdy – but is it not good English? – it may be profligate – but is it not life, is it not the thing? – Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world.47
In his discussion of Byron’s use of the English language, the historian Andrew Elfenbein has noted that ‘Whereas in Childe Harold, his solecisms manifested a cosmopolitan indifference to the rules of pure English, the language of Don Juan has become good English because Byron acknowledges the rules even as he breaks them.’48 One might equally suggest that in the ‘shipwreck’ canto, Byron specifically acknowledges and breaks the rules of ‘sublime’ language. That this suggestion is to some degree correct is underlined by the essayist William Hazlitt’s comments in The Spirit of the Age, published in 1825, but written before Byron’s death in 1824:
The Don Juan indeed has great power; but its power is owing to the force of the serious writing, and to the oddity of the contrast between that and the flashy passages with which it is interlarded. From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step. You laugh and are surprised that any one should turn around and travesties himself; the drollery is in the utter discontinuity of ideas and feelings ... After the lightening and the hurricane, we are introduced to the interior of the cabin and the contents of wash-hand basins. The solemn hero of tragedy plays Scrub in the farce.49
Interestingly, Hazlitt’s appraisal of Don Juan hinges on the idea that, by splicing the sublime and the ridiculous, Byron ‘travesties himself’ as a poet. In fact, Byron’s undoing of the sublime was quite deliberate, his targets being (at least in part) the conventions and expectations that then governed poetic treatments of shipwreck.

Byron, Géricault and the Medusa

Like Byron, Géricault’s posthumous reputation, developed in the nineteenth century and which still has currency today, is a work of fact and fiction: a powerful, independent, revolutionary spirit, railing against the art establishment, and a man beset with self-doubt, who was both drawn to, and haunted by, suffering and death.50 Géricault died after an agonising and protracted illness at the age of thirty three, a significant factor in his subsequent appropriation as a paradigm of ‘the Romantic Artist’.51 Furthermore, Géricault’s reputation and legend, both as an artist and a man, was clearly constructed with the Byronic hero in mind. Indeed the fact that Géricault and Byron both died in 1824, and comparatively young, may, in part, explain why French critics and biographers linked the two men. To give just two examples from nineteenth-century critics, Barbey d’Aurevilly identified Géricault as ‘le Byron de la Peinture’ (the Byron of Painting) and Jules Michelet described Géricault and Byron as ‘Ces deux grands poètes de la mort’ (these two great poets of death).52
The gestation of the Raft of the Medusa project, over a period of some twelve months, let alone the evidence of the painting itself, is a significant factor in both the direction this mythologising took and the tenacity with which it has attached itself to the artist’s biography. The art historian Albert Aladeff begins his study on the Raft of the Medusa, published in 2002, thus:
Legend has it that as the winter of 1818 was advancing Théodore Géricault closeted himself in a vast studio, cut his hair, and with an ascetic’s zeal commenced a huge canvas of men adrift on a ‘funeste radeau’ [sinister raft] ... a raft known to generations for its lurid tales, its mayhem, its loss of life.53
Theodore Géricault 'The Severed Heads' about 1818
Theodore Géricault
The Severed Heads about 1818
The National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm
A crucial part of this legend is the remarkable sequence of studies of severed heads and limbs painted by Géricault during this time (fig.6), none of which were used as studies for the final composition. According to Théophile Thoré, writing in 1843, Géricault ‘locked himself in with cadavers ... One evening, he entered his atelier in the dark; his foot of a sudden slipped on something round and sticky; it was a head rats had gnawed loose from a man’s trunk that had rolled on the floor’, a comment that seems to relate more to gothic horror than the sublime.54 If true, however, then the artist clearly sought to experience, as far as he was able, the conditions on the raft as detailed by Savigny and Corréard, to which I shall return. But the notion that Géricault’s art was specifically affected by Byron’s ‘sombre and terrible emotions and imagination’, as suggested in the Biographie Universelle (1856), and that the Raft of the Medusa itself was of ‘Byronic inspiration’, as posited by Michelet, seems to be apocryphal. 55 But it is worth interrogating further given Byron’s association with the sublime, and in view of the following comment made by D’Aurevilly, that ‘the painter of the Raft of the Medusa certainly has a glorious consanguinity with the poet who has given us the anguish and afflictions of another raft, in the shipwreck of the second canto of Don Juan’.56
As previously observed, the assumption that the Medusa was Byron’s primary model is completely unfounded. However, if the events of the Medusa shipwreck were condensed – the fear and confusion when the Medusa runs aground, the futile attempts to save the ship, the abandonment of the ship to board lifeboats and a raft, the impulse of the crew and soldiers to get drunk, madness, cannibalism, and so on – one would be left with an impression of a shipwreck that correlates with Don Juan, although arguably the most significant or Medusa – specific events, such as the abandonment of the raft by those in command, the bloody mutinies against the officers or the execution of the weaker survivors to save provisions, do not find parallels in the poem. If Byron omitted the episodes of abandonment and mutiny as described in Savigny and Corréard’s text, so did Géricault, although he certainly considered them while developing his ideas for the final composition.57 What the Raft of the Medusa represents in its final form is a deliberate avoidance of literalness by the artist, and hence a significant independence from Savigny and Correard’s narrative. Thus, Géricault progressively moved away from episodes of treachery and violence between men, so evident in the first part of the Medusa narrative and his own compositional studies, towards a visualisation of a monumental struggle to survive. Similarly in Don Juan, human beings on the whole react not to each other but to the external and internal forces of nature. The execution of Juan’s tutor Pedrillo is, of course, a violent act by man against man. But the act is not gratuitous but expedient. As Byron reminds us, ‘None in particular had sought or planned it; / T’was nature gnawed them to this resolution.’ (Canto II, stanza 75, lines 5–6).58 With the raft survivors cast as hapless victims of circumstance, Géricault also seems to suggest that none of their actions were sought or planned. The published criticisms levelled at The Raft of the Medusa in 1819, in particular its lack of an interesting narrative and mistakes in the choice of dramatic moment, are consequently more complex than simply denoting political or artistic prejudices. After all, most reviewers had little difficulty in discerning the Medusa shipwreck as the generic subject and inspiration. And they would have known the main events of the story, as relayed in press reports and by the survivors from 1816 onwards. Perhaps we can forgive the critics, therefore, for thinking that Géricault had selected a relatively obscure moment of hoped-for rescue, rather than the bold, unequivocal piece of artistic reportage they seem to have been expecting.
While it is likely that Géricault had a political agenda in selecting the subject in the first place, there is nothing to suggest that he maintained those motives up to the opening of the Salon in August 1819. Indeed, the artist’s creative decisions and innovations primarily challenged artistic conventions and issues around the function of public art, and perhaps even specifically sublime spectacle. Thus, his treatment of a genre subject on a monumental scale was criticised by some because, to quote the Annales du Musée, large-scale paintings were then ‘reserved for the representation of events of general interest, such as a national celebration, a great victory, or one of those instances of sublime self-sacrifice that are the glory of religion and of patriotism’.59 Here we should note the juxtaposition of ‘sublime’ and ‘self-sacrifice’, as opposed to (Burkean?) self-preservation. Interestingly, in response to critics’ complaints about a lack of specific narrative, Géricault made the following comment, where he defines the role of the artist as separate from the journalist, thus justifying his more abstract or universalising approach to the subject:
The artist ... must exercise a complete indifference for all that emanates from newspapers and journalists. The passionate lover of true glory must sincerely seek it in the beautiful and the sublime, and remain deaf to the clamour of [those who cannot be trusted].60
How familiar Géricault was with theoretical ideas of the sublime is not known. However, his reference to ‘le beau et le sublime’ in the quotation above explicitly recalls Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry, which was first translated into French in 1765, with subsequent editions into the nineteenth century. Burke was famously sceptical, if not dismissive, of the ‘imitative arts’, as he called them, in the production of an authentic sublime effect. He nonetheless gave some pointers in the Philosophical Enquiry as to how this could be attempted, by the imitation of core properties (as he saw them) of the sublime:
But painting, when we have allowed for the pleasure of imitation, can only affect simply by the images it presents; and even in painting a judicious obscurity in some things contributes to the effect of the picture; because images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions than those have which are more clear and determinate.61
The words ‘dark’, ‘confused’ and ‘uncertain’, as opposed to ‘clear’ and ‘determinate’, clearly chime with Géricault’s formal strategy in the Raft of the Medusa, although we should be cautious in evaluating what the effect of the painting would have been in 1819, given the well-documented deterioration and subsequent darkening of the painted surface up to the present. However, without making too many claims for Géricault’s direct appropriation of Burke’s ideas, a comment made in La Gazette de France, describing the Raft of the Medusa as ‘A work for the delight of vultures’, does suggest a way of aligning the primary focus of the painting, that is the representation of shipwrecked men, with particular concerns set out in the Philosophical Enquiry. The critic continues, ‘M. Géricault has please to offer us ... some twenty cadavers which death had already begun to devour, but to whose breasts a barbarous divinity has restored the breath of life only to plunge them again into an anguish of destruction’.62 In exploring this further, it is necessary to return briefly to the studies of severed heads and limbs by Géricault, mentioned earlier in this article, in relation to the Raft of the Medusa and Burke’s comments in the Philosophical Enquiry on power, pain and suffering.
More often than not, Géricault’s studies have been discussed in the context of the Raft of the Medusa rather than as a discrete but related project. In her article ‘The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold’, the art historian Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer sought to re-establish the connection between the sequence of studies and the ongoing debate concerning capital punishment in France. Thus, the studies could as easily represent the ‘power of the state’ in its exaction of ‘justice’ (that is, its power to inflict pain and suffering) as they are representative of the more local and highly personal preparation of an artist attempting to engage on a visceral level with the agonies of the raft. Indeed, given his previous engravings showing injured and mutilated soldiers of the Grand Armée, one might say that Géricault had made a study of the effect of state power, whether as a result of war or justice, on the bodies of its citizens.63 In his discussion of materiality, abjection and the Philosophical Enquiry, the literary critic Allen Dunn points to Burke’s primary focus on ‘cause and effect’, with particular attention to the reference made by Burke to the public execution of Robert Damiens, who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV in January 1757. The prolonged and highly symbolic manner of his execution involved (among other tortures over a period of hours) hanging, drawing and quartering by horses. ‘Without doubt,’ Burke writes, ‘the torments which we may be made to suffer, are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisite body could enjoy.’ He continues, ‘Nay I am in great doubt, whether any man could be found who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France’.64 It is through such ‘spectacles of sublimity’, as analysed by Allen Dunn, that Burke constantly draws our attention ‘away from the source of power’ and focuses it ‘on the effects of power, and ... chief among the “terrible objects” that are the effects of power is the abject body of the person who has been killed, tortured, or merely terrified.’65 How does this relate to the Raft of the Medusa? Can we say that Géricault, in representing bodies for ‘the delight of vultures’, was visually underlining the length of time they had been at sea (in actual time, nearly two weeks) as well as indicating what these men had endured? Is it the power of nature that has inflicted such pain and anguish? Or the power of the state? After all, according to Savigny and Corréard, these men were abandoned by representatives of the French navy, appointed by the French government. And does that draw us closer to an understanding of the Raft of the Medusa and Don Juan in relation, to use Allen Dunn’s phrase, to ‘spectacles of sublimity’?

Suffering, despair and the sublime: the case of Ugolino

Perhaps we may begin to answer the question posed above by exploring a related literary reference incorporated into the Raft of the Medusa and Don Juan, independently of Savigny and Correard’s text, that of Count Ugolino. The story of Ugolino is a cruel and, in the context of shipwreck, resonant episode from Dante’s Inferno, involving as it does incarceration (translated as isolation at sea), prolonged suffering, despair, cannibalism and death.66 Importantly, Ugolino experiences both a living and eternal hell. Dante and Virgil come across him in the level of hell reserved for various types of traitor, frozen into a pit with his jaws clamped onto the nape of his archenemy’s neck. Having been asked his story by Dante,
Lifting his mouth from his horrendous meal,
this sinner first wiped off his messy lips
in the hair remaining on the chewed-up skull, then spoke:
‘You want me to renew a grief
so desperate that just the thought of it,
much less the telling, grips my heart with pain’.67 (Inferno, XXXIII, 1–6)
Ugolino then relays the betrayal of his former collaborator, Archbishop Ruggieri, and ‘the inhuman circumstances’ of his and his innocent sons and grandsons’ deaths, locked up in a Pisan tower, where they were left to starve. Ugolino finishes his narrative with the distinct possibility that he resorted to cannibalism:
And I,
by then gone blind, groped over their dead bodies.
Though they were dead, two days I called their names.
Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.68 (Inferno, XXXIII, 72–75)
In Don Juan, the reference to Ugolino is explicit, in the Raft of the Medusa, implicit, but nonetheless remarked upon by both French and British critics and commentators. These remarks were directed primarily at the figure group in Géricault’s picture consisting of a white-haired and bearded man holding the outstretched body of a youth across his knee (situated in the centre foreground) which was immediately designated as ‘father and son’ (the fact that Géricault had this character in his mind is demonstrated by a drawing, Ugolino in His Prison, dated 1817, Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris.) In his study of the Raft of the Medusa, the art historian Lorenz Eitner notes that the older man as a type was, by the early nineteenth century, a cliché in French art of ‘the father’ or ‘the father in despair’.69 I would suggest that this was equally the case in Britain. Indeed, contemporary critics on both sides of the Channel noted the ‘father and son’ group’s resemblance to then familiar pictorial representations of Ugolino and his family.70 Furthermore, Ugolino had been central to the revival of interest in Dante and the Divine Comedy during the eighteenth century, in Britain and France, and a particularly rich and resonant theme in the context of the sublime. As the historian Frances Yates notes, ‘in following the history of Dante’s influence in England ... one cannot fail to notice the remarkable popularity of the Ugolino episode with translators.’71 As early as 1719, the artist and art theorist, Jonathan Richardson, in his Discourse on the Science of a Connoisseur, published a version of Canto XXXIII from Dante’s Inferno, with the express purpose of illustrating how the same theme, that is of Ugolino’s despair, was treated by an historian (Villani’s Chroniche Fiorentine), poet (Dante’s Inferno), sculptor (a relief depicting Ugolino and his family attributed to Michelangelo) and then painter, respectively. In Richardson’s summation, it was painting that had the potential to exceed the other arts in its ability to communicate the full meaning of the story: ‘Thus History begins, Poetry raises higher, not by Embellishing the Story, but by Additions purely Poetical: Sculpture goes yet farther, and Painting Completes and Prefects, and That is the utmost Limits of Humane power in the Communication of Ideas.’72 Given that no painting on that subject existed in 1719, Richardson imagined what Michelangelo might have done in the medium:
There we might have had all the Advantages of Expression which the Addition of Colours would have given, and the Colouring of Michelangelo was as proper to That, as his Genius was to the Story in general; These would have shewn us the Pale, and Livid Flesh of the Dead, and Dying Figures, the Redness of Eyes, and Blewish Lips of the Count, the Darkeness, and Horrour of the Prison, and other Circumstances ... These might be contrived so as to express the Quality of the Persons the more to excite our Pity, as well as to enrich the Picture by their Variety.73
The significance here of imagining Michelanglo’s painted response to the Ugolino story is first, the premium Richardson’s places on the representation of the abject body in paint, and second, that at various times Richardson associated the Renaissance artist specifically with the sublime. Thus, in his influential Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715), Richardson states that ‘there is not a more remarkable Example of the Force of the Sublime than that of Michelangelo’.74 And only a few years later, in An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it relates to Painting (1719), he notes that ‘Michel Angelo’s Great Style intitles [sic] Him to the Sublime, not his Drawing’.75 Thus we have, through Richardson, an early association between Dante, Ugolino, Michelangelo and the sublime. Indeed, by 1819, both Dante and Michelangelo were generally accepted as flawed geniuses of sublimity.
In his analysis of the critical reception of Ugolino during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the literary critic Piero Boitani points to the story’s representation of two distinct but overlapping tragedies, the ‘tragedy of evil’, and ‘the tragedy of dying’.76 That is the punishment of Ugolino as a sinner, and the agonies of death, especially of his innocent children. However, of the two ‘Ugolinos’, the emphasis in literature and art, prior to Don Juan, seems to have been on Ugolino ‘the despairing father’, rather than Ugolino ‘the cannibalising sinner’. Hence Sir Joshua Reynolds, in answering Richardson’s call for a painted response to the story, followed the scene from the sculpted panel mentioned in Richardson’s commentary (Ugolino 1773, National Trust, Knole). The resulting painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 with lines:
I did not weep, I turned to stone instead;
They wept, and my little Anselmuccio spoke:
‘What is it, father? Why do you look that way?’
For them I held my tears back, saying,
All that day, and then all of that night.77
James Barry 'King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia' 1786-8
James Barry
King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia 1786–8
Tate T00556
In relation to Reynolds’s Ugolino, the art historian Martin Postle has suggested that the artist was not only influenced by Richardson, in his choice and treatment of the subject, but also by ‘the common interest’ the Ugolino story ‘had recently aroused’ among Reynolds’ friends, including Edmund Burke.78 We may safely conclude, therefore, that Reynolds was at the very least mindful of Burke’s opinions on the sublime in the conception of his painting. Interestingly, Burke was the friend and mentor of another artist, James Barry, who as a young man had copied out the entire Philosophical Enquiry.79 Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1774, the year after Reynolds’ Ugolino. The proximity of these two paintings, with their distinct but clearly related subjects, cannot be accidental. Indeed Barry was the first to paint the death of Lear’s beloved daughter Cordelia and thus the tragic ending to Shakespeare’s play (the text had been adapted previously to give a happy ending). That this was a bold step on the part of Barry is suggested by Samuel Johnson’s comments, published in 1765, concerning her execution by hanging: ‘In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of [Nahum] Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate, I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.’80 Barry developed the theme still further in his monumental canvas for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (fig.7, T00556). Lear is surrounded by death, but, unlike in Reynolds’s Ugolino, he is observed and pitied by a group of onlookers, who, we may assume, act as surrogates to the actual spectators of the painting. Lear, then, is the British equivalent to the Italian Ugolino, as the personification of a ‘father in despair’. Thus we are invited to respond sympathetically to Lear’s pain, as denoted by his deranged appearance, despite the scenario having been largely, like Ugolino’s, of his own making.
Byron, no doubt with prior knowledge of the appropriation of Ugolino into British culture, engages with both parts of the Ugolino story. He thus details the casting of lots and Pedrillo’s subsequent execution, dissection and consumption, largely inspired by the Peggy shipwreck narrative, juxtaposed with a reference to Ugolino gnawing on the head of his imprisoner:
And if Pedrillo’s fate should shocking be,
Remember Ugolino condescends
To eat the head of his archenemy
If foes be food in hell, at sea
‘Tis surely fair to dine upon our friends
When shipwreck’s short allowance grows too scanty,
Without being much more horrible than Dante.81 (II, 83, v–viii)
No doubt this was one of those ‘lapses’ in decorum and taste for which Byron was castigated by the critics. But only four stanzas later, Byron begins a description of two fathers and their dying sons, a scenario taken from the Juno shipwreck narrative of 1798, which was highlighted by British reviewers as a rare passage of ‘deep pathos’. The description concludes with stanza 90, with one of the fathers mourning his son:
The boy expired. The father held the clay
And looked upon it long, and when at last
Death left no doubt, and the dead burden lay
Stiff on his heart, and pulse and hope were past,
He watched it wistfully, until away
T’was borne by the rude wave wherein ‘twas cast.
Then he himself sunk down all dumb and shivering,
And gave no sign of life, save his limbs quivering. 82
In response to the parallel incident in the Juno shipwreck, the author of the narrative noted,
This scene made an impression even on us, whose feelings were in a manner dead to the world, and almost to ourselves, and to who[m] the sight of misery was now become habitual.83
Savigny and Corréard do not mention a father and son in this context, but they do mention a boy, who ‘expired in the arms of Mr. Coudin, who had not ceased to shew [sic] him the kindest attention’.84 But despite the fact that the group in the painting was primarily an artistic invention with loaded literary associations, the identification of ‘the father and son’ continued in two descriptions of the Raft of the Medusa in 1820 and 1821. The entrepreneur and antiquarian William Bullock’s printed description, which accompanied the exhibition of Géricault’s painting at the Egyptian Hall in London, describes the group as follows:
a young man has just expired in the arms of his aged father, the violence of whose parental grief renders him insensible to the joyful tidings which wholly engross the rest; life is no longer desirable to him, he has lost all he loved on earth, his only child is dead! and horror and despair are irrevocably fixed upon his countenance!85
And Corréard appended a similar description (perhaps gleaned from Bullock’s text) to an engraved version of the Raft of the Medusa, included in the illustrated third edition of the Medusa narrative published in Paris (1821), in the knowledge, of course, that the ‘father and son’ identification was not faithful to his own version of events.86 His rationale in doing so is undoubtedly complex. What I would like to suggest here is the possibility that Corréard sought to emphasize the ‘father and son’ motif and its association with ‘Ugolino’s despair’, identified by Richardson as a specifically sublime subject, as a way of diffusing the rather more problematic association of Ugolino with personal guilt and cannibalism. After all, both Savigny and Corréard were all too painfully aware of the social stigma of cannibalism, as underlined by the manner in which they introduce the subject in the narrative:
But an extreme resource was necessary to preserve our wretched existence. We tremble with horror at being obliged to mention that which we made use of! We feel our pen drop from our hand, a deathlike chill pervades all our limbs; our hair stands erect on our heads! Reader, we beseech you, do not feel indignation towards men who are already too unfortunate; but have compassion on them, and shed tears of pity on their unhappy fate.87
Given these comments, it is important to state that Dante conceived Ugolino’s story, to quote Piero Boitani, ‘as the ultimate human tragedy, the last and the worst of the Inferno.’88
In broader terms, of course, references to Dante’s Inferno indicate, to a knowing audience, that they are experiencing an evocation of hell, and form part of an accumulation of appropriate references in both the poem and the painting. In Don Juan, for example, when the Trinidada sinks, ‘The sea yawn’d round her like a hell,’ (canto II, stanza 52, line 5) and the open boat is described as ‘Charon’s bark of spectres, dull and pale’(canto II, stanza 101, line 3).89 In the Raft of the Medusa, among the numerous artistic references employed by Géricault, art historians have detected the influence of The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Vatican) and the Fall of the Damned by Peter Paul Rubens, (as well as the large-scale Napoleonic works by Antoine-Jean Gros), indicating the kind of loaded analogies, biblical, literary and so on, with which the artist constructed and layered his painting.90 These particular artistic references would have been understood as sublime by Géricault’s contemporaries. In his discussion on ambiguity and scepticism in relation to the ‘shipwreck canto’, the literary critic Andrew Cooper has noted that Byron ‘articulates the descent [of the shipwrecked into Hell] as a series of mishaps in which hopes are raised only to be dashed.’ 91 This too, is integral to Savigny and Corréard’s narrative and to the Raft of the Medusa. For Géricault, the defining moment of Savigny and Corréard’s narrative was not the final rescue of the raft survivors on the thirteenth day of their ordeal but the first sighting of the Argus brig, prior to rescue. In the text, the men signal frantically towards the ship:
The sight of this vessel excited in us, a transport of joy which it would be difficult to describe; each of us believed his deliverance certain, and we gave a thousand thanks to God; yet, fears mingled with our hopes ... For about half an hour, we were suspended between hope and fear; some thought they saw the ship become larger, and others affirmed that its course carried it from us: these latter were the only ones whose eyes were not fascinated by hope.92
Géricault’s painting appears to be a faithful illustration of the event. What is crucial, in his interpretation, is emphasis. In earlier sketches of the Argus sighting, Géricault had clearly shown men on their knees in prayer in the foreground of the composition, in keeping with Savigny and Corréard’s line, ‘each of us believed his deliverance certain, and we gave a thousand thanks to God.’93 In the final painting, however, this signifier of their providential delivery (as the author’s described it) is considerably diminished: only one man appears to be praying and he is relegated to the background. Given these developments, it is possible that Géricault’s intention, by selecting a moment of suspense, was to subvert the viewer’s expectation of a scene of deliverance (after all, most attendees of the Paris Salon and the Egyptian Hall in London would have known that the men represented in the painting survived) and to emphasise not only the sheer physical effort of the men attempting to save themselves by signalling towards the ship, but also the uncertainty they feel in the outcome. As Savigny and Corréard state, ‘fears mingled with our hopes’. Importantly, the representation of uncertainty demonstrated by the variety of reactions adopted by the men in the Raft of the Medusa find parallels in Don Juan, above all towards the end of the shipwreck scene, when, to use Andrew Cooper’s phrase, ‘the law of attrition at sea’ has worked itself out, when ‘Famine, despair, cold, thirst, and heat had done / Their work on them by turns’ (canto II, stanza 102, lines 2–3)94:
The boat made way; yet now they were so low,
They knew not where nor what they were about.
Some fancied they saw land, and some said, ‘No!’
(canto II, stanza 96, lines 3–5.)
And the rest rubbed their eyes and saw a bay
Or thought they saw, and shaped their course for the shore,
(canto II, stanza 97, lines 5–6.)
And then of these some part burst into tears,
And others, looking with a stupid stare,
Could not yet separate their hopes from fears
And seemed as if they had no further care...
(canto II, stanza 98, lines 1–4.)95
And what of the Argus, the ship that rescued the men on the raft? If, in Don Juan, ‘the form of the [shipwreck] episode’, to quote Andrew Cooper, ‘is a vortex of diminishing possibilities’, then the same is true of the Raft of the Medusa, as represented by the ship. Again, in earlier versions of the composition, Géricault clearly depicted the Argus on the horizon. But as the project developed, the ship receded into the far distance, thus becoming, literally, a ‘diminishing possibility’. And the point is exaggerated by the enormous disparity in scale between the ship and the raft survivors, between, Géricault seems to suggest, their hope and their reality. In this sense, the ship in the Raft of the Medusa, functions in a similar way to the rainbow in Don Juan, which is interpreted by the shipwrecked men as ‘a good omen.’ But Byron is careful to add, ‘And so this rainbow looked like hope / Quite a celestial kaleidoscope’, in other words, an optical illusion. The sighting of the Argus brig is, in fact, the last of a number of sightings and ‘good omens’ experienced and interpreted by the raft survivors, as in Don Juan, all of which turn out to be illusions including the Argus, which, to quote Savigny and Corréard’s significant choice of word, ‘disappeared’.96 The Raft of the Medusa thus represents not the potential for rescue but the ultimate ordeal of the shipwrecked men. As Savigny and Corréard bitterly note, ‘From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief; we envied the fate of those whom we had seen perish at our side’.97
Here perhaps is the ‘consanguinity’, noted by Barbey D’Aurevilly, of the poem, the painting, and, I would suggest, the narrative. As Byron tells us, ‘Tis very certain the desire of life / Prolongs it...Because they [in this case the shipwrecked] still can hope’. (II, 64, i–ii, v)98 But in prolonging life, the survivors simply continue to suffer, even, in the case of the Medusa, to the point of desiring death. ‘Thus our destiny,’ concluded Savigny and Corréard, ‘on the fatal raft, was to be incessantly tossed between transitory illusions and continued torments, and we never experienced an agreeable sensation without being, in a manner, condemned to atone for it, by the anguish of some new suffering, by the irritating pangs of hope always deceived.’99 Given the potent juxtaposition of ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ in all three representations of shipwreck, it is worth reminding ourselves here of Byron’s comments, quoted earlier, in reference to the sublime:
I am not sure that Fear is not a pleasurable sensation; at least, Hope is; and what Hope is there without a deep leaven of Fear? And what sensation is so delightful as Hope? and, if it were not for Hope, where would the Future be? – in hell. It is useless to say where the Present is, for most of us know; and as for the Past, what predominates in memory? – Hope baffled. Ergo, in all human affairs, it is Hope – Hope – Hope.

Conclusion: spectacles of sublimity?

At the beginning of this essay I noted Edmund Burke’s emphasis in the Philosophical Enquiry on ‘pain’, ‘anguish’, ‘torment’ and ‘death’ as ‘productive of the sublime’, exciting in the spectator the ‘passion’ of ‘self-preservation’. I also noted the appropriateness of shipwreck in this context, as a specifically sublime subject or theme, the demarcation that theorists made between ‘the object’ and ‘the subject’, and that the sublime was ultimately a ‘spectator sport’. In a chapter entitled ‘Sympathy’, Burke wrote that it was by this ‘passion’, as he called it, ‘that we enter into the concerns of others; that we are moved as they are moved, and are never suffered to be indifferent spectators of almost any thing which men can do to suffer’.100 As we have seen, both Byron and Géricault were keenly aware of the spectator. In the case of Don Juan, the poet deliberately sought to disrupt the ‘pleasure’ experienced by his audience, and in doing so confounded his readers’ expectations and offended their sense of propriety. While his motives are complex, I have suggested here that he sought in part to satirise expectations of the poetic sublime and shipwreck as a sublime motif, and furthermore to focus attention on the motives of the reader. Indeed, we might conclude that the shipwreck canto of Don Juan represents a kind of anti-sublime.
In the case of the Raft of the Medusa, if we take the critical responses to the painting in London as indicative of reactions more generally, then it certainly had an effect, if not a specifically sublime effect in a Burkean sense, on its viewing public. As examples, a critic in The Literary Gazette observed, ‘In this tremendous picture of human sufferings the bold hand of the artist has laid bare the details of the horrid facts, with the severity of M. Angelo and the gloom of Caravaggio’.101 The Globe remarked that the artist’s ‘personification of horror ... baffles description’.102 And the reviewer in the Examiner confessed: ‘we have never been more penetrated in heart by any performance of the pencil ... We never left one more reluctantly, or thought of it more after we had left it, with a charmed melancholy. The impression can never forsake us.’103 But perhaps the most incisive observation made, given the present discussion, was that printed in the Globe concerning the moment from Savigny and Corréard’s narrative depicted in the painting: Géricault, the writer observed, had ‘selected a time when the ruin of the raft may be said to be complete’.104 By the standards of the time, then, the Raft of the Medusa succeeded as a sublime spectacle of shipwreck. But is that what Géricault intended? In Absorption and Theatricality, the art historian Michael Fried gives us reason to pause. Discussing the presence of the spectator or ‘beholder’ in negative terms as an ‘alien influence’ and even a ‘theatricalizing force’, he continues,
I think of Géricault as the first painter who found himself compelled to assume the burden of that problem in its insuperable or tragic form and of the Raft of the Medusa as the principal monument to that compulsion. By this I mean that the strivings of the men on the raft to be beheld by the tiny ship on the horizon ... may be viewed as motivated not simply by a desire for rescue from the appalling circumstances depicted in the painting but also by the need to escape our gaze, to put an end to being beheld by us, to be rescued from the electable fact of a presence that threatens to theatricalize even their sufferings.105


Quoted in Nicola Trott, ‘The Pictureseque, the Beautiful and the Sublime’, in Duncan Wu (ed.), A Companion to Romanticism, Oxford 1999, p.72.
William Vaughan, Romanticism and Art, London and New York 1974, pp.134, 132.
Martin Myrone, ‘The Sublime as Spectacle’, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780–1836, New Haven and London 2001, p.80.
Barbara Claire Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1995, p.17.
Longinus on the Sublime, trans. by Thomas Stebbing, Oxford 1867, p.136.
Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful and Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. by David Womersley, London 1998, p.102.
Ibid., p.100.
Edward Young, The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts, on Life, Death, and Immortality, to Which is Added, a Paraphrase on Part of the Book of Job, Edinburgh 1831, p.262.
Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, trans. by Steven Rendall, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1997, p.7. Joseph Addison uses the example of a ship in a storm in one of his discussions of the sublime published in the Spectator, no.489, 20 September 1712.
Carl Thompson, Romantic-Era Shipwreck Narratives, Nottingham 2007, p.15.
Joseph Addison, ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination’, Spectator, no.412, 23 June 1712, p.134.
Burke 1998, p.115.
Jonathan Lamb, The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century, Oxford 1995, p.10.
Ibid., pp.10–11.
Quoted in Blumenberg 1997, pp.41–2.
Quoted in Lorenz Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, London 1972, p.40.
Burke 1998, p.97.
Robert Southey, ‘The Voyage’ from Madoc, London 1805, pp.40–1.
Carl Thompson, The Suffering Traveller and the Romantic Imagination, Oxford 2007, p.234.
The Works of Lord Byron, with His Letters and Journals and His Life, London 1839, vol.3, p.291.
Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816; comprising an account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, London, 1818, p.vii.
John McLeod, Narrative of a Voyage in His Majesty’s Late Ship Alceste, London 1817, pp.192, 228.
Anon., article 5, Edinburgh Review, vol.30, September 1818, p.403.
Thompson, Romantic-Era Shipwreck Narratives, 2007, p.16.
Anon., ‘Don Juan’, New Bon Ton Magazine, or Telescope of the Times, vol.3, August 1819, p.236.
Burke 1998, p.96.
E.J. Clery, ‘Pleasure of Terror: Paradox in Edmund Burke’s Theory of the Sublime’, in Roy Porter and Marie Mulvey Roberts (eds.), Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century, New York 1996, p.180.
E.J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800, Cambridge 1995, p.102.
Adam Smith, ‘Lectures on Jurisprudence’, in R L Meek, D D Raphael and P G Stein (eds.), The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, Indianapolis, 1982, vol.5. The chapter is entitled ‘Of Police’. From accessed 26 September 2012.
Clery 1995, p.102.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, (ed.) Nicholas Walker trans. by James Creed Meredith, Oxford 2008, p.85.
Clery 1995, pp.104–5.
Thompson, The Suffering Traveller, 2007, p.233, p.236.
Lord Byron, letter to Annabella Milbanke, 26 September 1813, quoted in Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender, New York and London 1993, p.158.
David Blayney Brown, Turner and Byron, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.74–5. See also Simon Bainbridge, ‘From Nelson to Childe Harold: The Transformations of the Byronic Image’, Byron Journal, vol.27, 1999, pp.13–25; and Christine Kenyon Jones (ed.), Byron: The Image of the Poet, Cranbury, New Jersey 2008.
See Donald H. Reiman (ed.), The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers, 9 vols., New York and London 1972, vol.3, p.1270.
For further discussion of Byron in this context see David Blayney Brown, Romanticism, London 2001, pp.44, 47.
Thompson, The Suffering Traveller, 2007,p.239.
Quoted in Bernard Beatty, ‘“An Awful Wish to Plunge with It”: Byron’s Critique of the Sublime’, Review de Université de Moncton, vol.36, numéro hors série, 2005, p.267.
Brown 1992, p.11.
Quoted in T.G. Steffan, ‘Introduction’, in Lord Byron, Don Juan, London 1973, p.8.
Quoted in ibid., p.8.
Ibid., p.7.
Byron 1973, pp.114–5.
See Reiman 1972, vol.5, pp.1907–8.
Quoted in Duncan Wu (ed.), Romanticism: An Anthology, Oxford 2012, p.1065.
Andrew Elfenbein, Romanticism and the Rise of English, Palo Alto, California 2009, p.103.
Quoted in Theodore Redpath, The Young Romantics and Critical Opinion, 1807–1824, London 1973, p.303.
See Lorenz Eitner, Géricault, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles 1971, pp.7–15.
Ibid., p.8.
Barbey d’Aurevilly quoted in Albert Aladeff, The Raft of the Medusa: Géricault, Art and Race, London 2002, p.31; Jules Michelet, Géricault, 1848, revised edn, Caen 1991, p.51.
Aladeff 2002, p.9.
Quoted in ibid., p.9.
[B. de la Garenne], ‘Géricault’, in Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne, Paris 1856, vol.16, p.321; Michelet 1991, p.30 (Michelet’s comment reads ‘l’inspiration byronienne du Radeau’).
Barbey d’Aurevilly quoted in Aladeff 2002, pp.29–30.
For the various composition drawings by Géricault, see Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, pp.26–31.
Byron 1973, p.120.
Quoted in Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, pp.51–2.
‘L’artiste ... doit s’exercer à une indifference complete pour tout ce qui émane des journaux et des journalistes. L’amant passionné de la vraie gloire doit la rechercher sincèrement dans le beau et le sublime, et rester sourd au bruit que font tous les vendeurs de vaine fumée’. Quoted in Brian Grosskurth, ‘The Representation of Death in the Painting of Géricault and Delacroix during the First and Second Bourbon Restorations, 1814–1830’, unpublished MPhil dissertation, Oxford University, 2 vols., 1989, vol.1, p.145.
Burke 1998, p.106.
Quoted in Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, p.59.
Nina Athananassoglou-Kallmyer, ‘Géricault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold’, Art Bulletin, vol.74, no.4, December 1992, pp.599–618.
Burke 1998, p.86.
Allen Dunn, ‘The Mechanics of Transport: Sublimity and the Imagery of Abjection in Rochester, Swift, and Burke’, in James E Gill (ed.), Cutting Edges: Post-modern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol.37, Knoxville 1995, pp.103, 106.
See Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, pp.45, 155.
Dante, The Divine Comedy. Volume 1: Inferno, trans. by Mark Musa, London 1984, p.370.
Ibid., p.372.
Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, p.45.
An anonymous reviewer writing in the Globe noted that ‘there is one figure of an old man, who still retains at his feet the dead body of his son, that is full of appalling expression. It is the very countenance of Ugolino’s despair, which [Joshua] Reynolds poutrayed [sic] with an effect finely forcible indeed, though without the haughty distinction which Michael Angelo gave the Italian Nobleman’. (Anon., Globe, 12 June 1820, p.3.)
Frances A. Yates, ‘Transformations of Dante’s Ugolino’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.14, nos.1–2, 1951, p.93.
Jonathan Richardson, A Discourse on the Dignity, Certainty, Pleasure and Advantage, of the Science of a Connoisseur, London 1719, pp.34–5.
Ibid., p.34.
Jonathan Richardson, Essay on the Theory of Painting, London 1715, p.215.
Jonathan Richardson, An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as it Relates to Painting, London 1719, p.35.
Piero Boitani, The Tragic and the Sublime in Medieval Literature, Cambridge 1989, p.20.
Quoted in David Mannings, Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of his Paintings, New Haven and London 2000, p.569.
Martin Postle, ‘Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon’, in ibid., p.569.
Tom Dunne (ed.), James Barry: 1741–1806, ‘The Great Historical Painter’, exhibition catalogue, Crawford Art Gallery, Cork 2005, p.122.
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. by W.K. Wimsatt, New York 1960, p.98.
Byron 1973, p.122.
Ibid., p.124.
William Mackay, Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Juno, London 1798, p.20.
Savigny and Corréard 1818, p.117.
William Bullock, A Concise Description of Monsieur Jerricault’s [sic] Great Picture Representing the Surviving Crew of the Medusa French Frigate, London 1820, pp.13–14.
Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, Naufrage de la Frégate la Méduse, 3rd edn, Paris 1821, p.157, note 1. The engraving is taken from a watercolour by Géricault and is located between pages 152 and 153.
Savigny and Corréard 1818, pp.107–8.
Boitani 1989, p.39.
Byron 1973, pp.115, 127.
See Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, p.47.
Andrew M. Cooper, ‘Shipwreck and Skepticism: Don Juan Canto II’, in Keats-Shelley Journal, vol.42, 1983, p.67.
Savigny and Corréard 1818, pp.135–6.
For the sequence of preparatory drawings for the Raft of the Medusa, see Eitner, Géricault, 1971, pp.119–23, and Eitner, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1972, p.135–52.
Cooper 1983, p.67; Byron 1973, p.127.
Byron 1973, p.126.
Savigny and Corréard 1818, p.136.
Ibid., p.136.
Byron 1973, p.118.
Savigny and Corréard 1818, p.123.
Burke 1998, p.91.
Anon., Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Letters, 1 July 1820, p.427.
Anon., Globe, 12 June 1820, p.3
Anon., Examiner, 16 July 1820, p.3.
Anon., Globe, 12 June 1820, p.3.
Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1980, pp.154–5.

How to cite

Christine Riding, ‘Shipwreck, Self-preservation and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013,, accessed 25 April 2024.