‘Poetry turns all things to loveliness’: The Counter-Aesthetics of Disgust in Shelley’s ‘Julian and Maddalo’ and Byron’s ‘Don Juan’

Mimi Lu


Romantic literature is undergirded by an aesthetic disgust that is generated by the consciousness of the impossibility of transcending the grossly corporeal and irreparably fragmentary real world and returning to an ideal condition of organic unity. The Romantic writers often self-reflexively dramatise the failure of poetic language to transmute reality’s disgustful excrescences, which perennially threaten to jeopardise the texts’ neatly dichotomous aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime. This essay aims to enrich current understandings of Romantic disgust by examining the dynamic dialogue about the imperfect, the ugly, and the monstrous that is sustained between Percy Shelley’s ‘Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation’ and the first two cantos of Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’. The close readings of the poems discuss how Byron’s mock-epic responds to and innovatively mollifies the existential queasiness underlying Shelley’s quintessentially Romantic anxiety that neither the social perfectibilian’s idealism nor the poet’s imagination has the power to re-beautify a postlapsarian proto-modernity.

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