Imposing on Napoleon: The Romantic Appropriation of Bonaparte
This article explores how major British Romantic writers perceived Napoleon in the early nineteenth century: the ideas they associated with him and the images they used to depict him. I argue that these perceptions have relatively little to do with the politics of the various writers, or with the chronology of Napoleon’s career. Instead, interest in Bonaparte is driven by aesthetic and philosophical concerns: especially the question of whether Napoleon is an ordinary man ‘within’ history, or a semiallegorical personage – a representative of some ideology or concept (like Liberty or Heroism). I also discuss how Napoleon is appended to the Romantic problem of the ‘overreacher’ who fails due to his glorious success, and who thus blurs the boundaries between triumph and failure. Lastly, I show how Napoleon influences Romantic concern about ‘imposing’ ideas onto analysis of the world. In this way, Napoleon exposes insecurities at the heart of Romantic self-perception.