In our “Romanticism Beyond the Academy” series, we invite literature-lovers to reflect on the significance of Romantic-era writers and ideas in the contemporary world and/or in their own lives. In the following post, Brian Milthorpe argues that Romantic-sublime notions of limitlessness and metamorphosis in Blake, the Shelleys, and Keats underlie theories of animation. See more entries from this series here. To write for this series, contact us.
An untitled sketch (1946) by Sergei Eisenstein overlaying William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786
Sergei Eisenstein, the pre-eminent Soviet film theorist of the twentieth century, was fascinated by Mickey Mouse. Eisenstein believed this quirky anthropomorphic rodent embodied an obscure and radical power he called “plasmaticness” or “the ability to assume dynamically any form… like the primordial protoplasm.” In devising this concept, Einstein cherry-picked this shape-shifting substance and “carefully bracketed,” in Nicholas Sammond’s words, Disney’s ambitions to profit from the history of blackface minstrelsy through Mickey. In devising this concept, Einstein cherry-picked this shape-shifting substance and “carefully bracketed,” in Nicholas Sammond’s words, Disney’s ambitions to profit from the history of blackface minstrelsy through Mickey. Stacking line upon line, the director known for the gritty violence of Battleship Potemkin (1925) filled notebooks in the early 1940s, pushing himself to translate this freedom into words. But the premise of Eisenstein’s interest, like Mickey himself, was deceptively simple. In an America constrained by the mechanical patterns of its Fordist economy, the squash-and-stretch dynamism of mice-turned-men like Mickey or the shape-shifting animals of Disney’s Silly Symphonies (1929-1939) granted to tired (white) audiences a reprieve from the routine of mass production, and most importantly, the mirror of a desire to become something else, to transform and exceed limits.
Mickey as sublime substance, a limitless boundary-denying force? Certainly, there are difficulties here, foremost among them that this boundary-denying extended only to white performers and audiences appropriating racial identities. But I introduce Eisenstein’s Mickey-mania only to ask: is there not something distinctly Romantic in this framing of Disney? I don’t deny there’s a little silliness in asking this question. Even less do I deny there’s a slight provocation in that silliness that asks us to stretch the signifier “Romantic” more than its evident elasticity (or plasticity) might bear. Even so, it seems to me undeniable that Eisenstein knew how to detect what Romantics like the Shelleys, Blake, and Keats had captured in the century before: that metamorphic force pressing inside one thing that allows it to become another. More pointedly, there are intimations here of Percy’s living and shape-shifting winds, the “all-sustaining air” of Prometheus Unbound or the animate river running in “Mont Blanc” that “Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air.”
The lesson from Eisenstein shows that animation, much like Romantic poetry, exhibits a practice of finding or producing a breathlessness within the un-breathing, a state of excitation from out of the mundane. Whether flipbook or Hollywood blockbuster, the same principal reigns. Every so often, an animator makes this connection explicit by drawing on Romantic forebears. Consider, for instance, stop-motion animator Paul Berry’s 1991 award-winning short film The Sandman, which recreates ETA Hoffman’s telling; or Guilherme Marcondes‘ 2006 short film Tyger (below), a multimedia mix of bunraku-style puppetry, Godzilla-esque kaiju giantism, and Computer-Generated (CG) effect inspired by William Blake’s 1794 poem of the same name.
Two recent projects in animation continue to carry this trend forward and press on a shared commitment between animation and Romanticism that takes seriously the vital, productive, and metamorphic tendency of both imagination and matter.
In 2019, the TATE launched an exhibition on the life and work of William Blake. Included among commercial engravings and illuminated manuscript pages was a series of large-scale digital projections showing the scale Blake hoped his art might one day achieve in a style imitating ancient fresco murals. Writing in the Descriptive Catalogue to his 1809 exhibition, the poet-artist expressed his (ironically apocalyptic) aim to recreate similar images “on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation, who is the parent of his heroes.” The failure of his exhibition, however, dashed hopes of such public spectacle. In a belated realization of the poet’s ambition, introducing the TATE exhibition was a short multimedia animation film directed by Sam Gainsborough and animated by Renaldho Pelle, depicting just the immensity Blake wished for.
A brief minute shows Gainsborough using high-quality scans of illuminated pages to realize Blake’s aspiration to size through digital technique. Colors bleed and blend, flat-planed anatomies evolve and grow on inhospitable surfaces under rusted basketball hoops and along darkly-lit sidewalks. Much like Blake’s commitment to the repetitive interweaving of word and image through the caustic relief technique, Gainsborough’s framing shows a correspondence between the individual historical architectures of the London streetscape and the vibrant animacy rumbling just under the surface of Blake’s figures – a living graffiti that leaves the stanza and finds a unique comfort in the equally formal meeting of brick with brick. In this, Gainsborough manages to replay a glimpse of the material imagination that animated Blake, inviting a sense that line and form are not remote objects of vision but participants in an active history living within the everyday.
Ginevra (2017), a project from animator Tess Martin, confronts the metamorphic potential of this same material imagination by drawing on a poetic fragment from Percy Shelley inspired by the legend of Ginevra degli Almieri, a Florentine noblewoman who falls into a state of suspended animation confused for death after an incursion of plague into the city. Martin composes from a combination of the Ginevra story sourced from Marco Lastri’s 1776 L’Osservatore Fiorentino, Shelley’s posthumously published poetic remaking of it, and, as mentioned in a 2018 interview with Jonathan Kerr, the aesthetic composition of modern science fiction films, particularly the Blade Runner series (1982; 2017).
This last source is particularly fitting for its Shelleyan resonances: a short jump separates the promethean reanimation of Frankenstein from Philp K. Dick’s uncanny android replicants first brought to life on the screen by Ridley Scott. Martin’s technique of backlighting intricately-layered paper cut-outs slots itself immediately into this history by careful attention to form, aesthetics, and theme: the living-dead paradox of stop-motion, animal-human hybridity, and smoggy tonal lighting combine to make Percy’s retelling an atmospheric short that fits comfortably alongside the same principles of animation Eisenstein laid out in his reflections on Disney. The character appeal of Donald Duck is far behind, but the spirit of a transformation across the boundary between human and animal remains.
Gainsborough’s stuttering manuscript images in motion and Martin’s quivering paper feathers finally remind us that the moving image depends on static photography and pliant material – reflections which might lead us to pose in the midst of the medium of animation the same questions Keats asks in his imaginative reanimation of the Grecian Urn’s silent and immobile history. His ode contains, in any case, the same questions asking after a kind of animacy for which Eisenstein searched in his tributes to the frenetic energy of Mickey Mouse:
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
 Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney, trans. Alan Upchurch (New York: Seagull, 2017), 32.
 Nicholas Sammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 219.
 David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), rev. edn. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 531.
About the Author
Brian Milthorpe is a PhD candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research concentrates on Romanticism, working class poetry, and eighteenth and nineteenth century media technology. He is particularly interested in re-evaluating the tradition of natural genius and “peasant poetry” within the context of emerging divisions between mechanism and organicism. Brian also currently serves as co-chair of the Middle Modernity Group, an interdisciplinary research group at UW-Madison composed of faculty and graduate students dedicated to the study of literature and culture from 1700-190