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Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

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8 How ‘Romantic’ is the Pavilion?

At first glance the Pavilion's exoticism might seem to have a good deal to do with contemporary Romantic writers’ fascination with the Oriental and exotic. A widespread public interest in these modes put Byron's ‘Oriental tales’ and Thomas Moore's romance Lalla Rookh at the top of the bestseller lists. Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan’, after all, is often regarded as the paradigmatic Romantic short poem. So, flouting the conventions of historians of architecture, who designate this period simply as ‘Regency’, in this section we're going to pursue the relations between the Romantic exotic as expressed in literature and the Pavilion in its final state.

Our investigation so far of the building's effects might already suggest some points of comparison.

Exercise 11

Make a list of some ideas and aesthetic effects that you would consider to be Romantic. (This is a way of looking back across your study to date, and should take you some time – it is not easy!) Then see if you can identify any of those ideas and aesthetic effects realized in the Pavilion.


Some of the principal tendencies that your study has identified as being Romantic include:

  • The abandonment of Enlightenment ideals of knowability and reason, politeness and social responsibility, typically expressed in the neoclassical aesthetic.

  • The increasing emphasis put on the unknowable and irrational, and, associated with that, an interest in dreams and fantasies, the development of certain stylistic features (notably the grotesque, the ruined and the fragmentary), and an interest in the sublime.

  • An assertion of the primacy of individual imagination and autobiography, and, connected with that, the cult of the strong individual (e.g. Napoleon as well as the Napoleonic-style celebrity of Byron), often associated with Romantic alienation and melancholy.

Some of these tendencies can, I think, be identified within the Pavilion. Its decor is quite strongly interested in producing dreamlike illusions. Just to remind you, these include jolts in scale and proportion, disorientating self-replicating corridors, unnerving shifts between place, obsessive repetition of motifs, the proliferation of the grotesque and the monstrous, and a general ambition to achieve the sensory overload typical of the sublime. These effects are ultimately designed as the intensely personal theatre of an individual imagination.

With this in mind, let's turn to Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh. Moore, as you will remember, was a member of the prince's circle and an enthusiastic admirer of the decorative illusions at the Carlton House ball. He was an Irishman, the friend and biographer of Byron, and Lalla Rookh was his first long poem to make a hit.

Expensively printed and (supposedly) intensively researched, it was extremely successful both as a poem and in the shape of numerous adaptations, including a lyrical, an equestrian and a spectacular drama, an opera, and a series of lavishly costumed tableaux vivants in the Royal Palace of Berlin in 1822 staged to celebrate the visit of the Russian Grand Duke Nicholas (later Tsar Nicholas I).

The frame narrative concerns the journey of an Indian princess to meet her future husband in Shalimar, beguiled by tales told by the handsome young poet Feramorz, in the fashion of the Arabian Nights. Deeply in love with the ineligible poet, the princess seems to be heading for tragedy. All ends happily, however, as the poet casts off his disguise and appears as the caliph himself.

There are four inset tales in all: ‘The Veiled Prophet of Korassan’, ‘Paradise and the Peri’, ‘The Fire-Worshippers’ and ‘The Light of the Haram’. Passion, sin, forbidden secret loves, suffering and yearning, mystery and disguise, vengeance, romantic death, fabulous feasts and Oriental interiors and exteriors combine to produce charmingly picturesque entertainments, themselves occasions for witty conversations between princess and poet.

Given Moore's connections with the prince (of whom he was a frequent guest), it perhaps isn't surprising that Lalla Rookh should belong to the same exotic fantasy world embodied in the Pavilion itself. In particular, Moore's poetry is studded with depictions of ‘vast illuminated halls’, ‘glittering Saloons’, ‘enamell'd cupolas’, vistas ‘sparkling with the play of countless lamps’, minarets, pagodas, grottoes, hermitages and voluptuous enchanted palaces, eclectically set in the Far East and the Middle East.

The spirit of Moore's best-seller seems very like the Pavilion: both are unashamedly and explicitly invested in aristocratic entertainment and sexual gratification enjoyed in fabulous and artificial settings. Here, for example, is part of the prose frame narrative describing the wedding party's arrival in camp:

On their arrival, next night, at the place of encampment, they were surprised and delighted to find the groves all round illuminated; some artists of Yamtchem having been sent on previously for the purpose. On each side of the green alley, which led to the Royal Pavilion, artificial sceneries of bamboo-work were erected, representing arches, minarets, and towers, from which hung thousands of silken lanterns, painted by the most delicate pencils of Canton. – Nothing could be more beautiful than the leaves of the mango-trees and acacias, shining in the light of the bamboo scenery, which shed a light round as soft as that of the nights of Peristan.

(Moore, 1879, p.229)

Like the poem, the Pavilion too could be said to be structured as a series of inset narratives – each room a different elaboration upon a theme, and each, like each story, designed as a form of seduction. And, like the Pavilion, the poem is consciously ‘heterodox’, ‘frivolous’, ‘inharmonious’ and ‘nonsensical’, as the disapproving comic Vizier Fadladeen remarks in his capacity as self-appointed literary critic (Moore, 1879, p.301). Above all, this is a pleasure-palace of a poem, dedicated to the endless renewal of delight and love:

Come hither, come hither – by night and by day,

We linger in pleasures that never are gone;

Like the waves of the summer, as one dies away,

Another as sweet and as shining comes on.

And the love that is o'er, in expiring, gives birth

To a new one as warm, as unequall'd in bliss;

And oh! if there is an elysium on earth

It is this, it is this.

(Moore, 1879, p.299)

For another, very different literary sidelight to illuminate the ‘feel’ of the Pavilion in its final state, we're going to turn to a friend and sometime protege of William Wordsworth, Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), whose fame for us rests principally on a remarkable prose work entitled The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821–2). In part, this is a diary recording dreams had under the influence of opium ‘in a solid and a liquid shape, both boiled and unboiled, both East India and Turkey’ (Lindop, 2000, p.58). It is at one dream in particular that we're going to look, a dream about the Orient which provided the literal source of De Quincey's narcotics.

Exercise 12

Turn to the extract from De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (below) It is written as a diary entry for May 1818. Compare and contrast De Quincey's vision of the Orient with Moore's.

Click on 'View document' to read an extract from De Quincey's The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

confessions.pdf79.2KB PDF document
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


If Moore's vision of the East is of endlessly picturesque, even Rococo, aristocratic pleasures, De Quincey views Asia with horror. In fact, he describes that continent in ways that you might recognize from your study of the sublime in Block 4, Unit 16: he uses the words ‘fearful’, ‘mad’, ‘horror’, ‘awful’ (in the sense of ‘filling us with awe’), ‘impressive’, ‘overpowers’, ‘sublimity’ and ‘terror’. He analyses his dream experience in part in terms of a Romantic theory of aesthetics.

This dream-sublime seems to flow largely from an anxiety about scale. First, Asia is frighteningly old (as ‘the cradle of the human race’ it has a superfluity of history). Such age gives rise to elaboration (the religions especially are ‘ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate’ – and, it might be remarked, many), and to the privileging of ‘race and name’ and caste over individual identity. Second, Asia is too large and too full of people, ‘swarming with human life’. Added to these problems of scale are those of unnegotiable difference and unrecognizability from a European standpoint.

Like Edgeworth's social satire, like Moore's poem and like the Pavilion itself, De Quincey's evocation of a dream experience productively confounds one part of the East with another: a dream China slides into the ‘tropical heat and vertical sun-lights’ of India, swallowing up Egypt for good measure.

Setting aside for a moment the evocation of guilt, punishment, flight and incarceration that De Quincey's prose achieves, I am struck by how elaborately architectural and thoroughly furnished this dream is with its confederation of styles: both Lady Clonbrony's party decorations and the Pavilion seem to lie like shadows behind this fantasy. Here are the pagodas, the sphinxes, the crocodiles, the ibises, the snakes, the Chinese houses with cane tables, and the fantasy animal feet so characteristic of Regency furniture.

These nightmare experiences of the exotic are explicitly counterposed to the properly domestic, responsible and filial, in the contrast between the dream and De Quincey's awakening to see his children ‘come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out’. This might well remind us of the contrast between the monstrous and the domestic played out in the Banqueting and Music Rooms, but for De Quincey it carries a moral weight quite absent from the Pavilion.

Thinking of the East as a dream of power and powerlessness, De Quincey unknowingly reflects Napoleon's meditations upon the East during his Egyptian campaign:

In Egypt … I dreamed all sorts of things, and I saw how all I dreamed might be realized. I created a religion: I pictured myself on the road to Asia, mounted on an elephant, with a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran, which I should compose.

(Quoted in Remusat, 1880, vol.I, p.149)

If Napoleon's fantasy of expanding empire finds an eerie, far-off echo in the prince's interior decor, as a discourse De Quincey's dream also has some similarities with the Pavilion, perhaps especially in its interest in physical disorientation, eclectic profusion and the unexpected expansion and contraction of scale.

But where the Pavilion suggests that these games are euphoric – with connotations of escape, holiday and the dreamlike – De Quincey rethinks them as nightmarish and grotesque. The Pavilion's effects are controlled and calculated, where De Quincey's dream reels away out of measure.

What the Pavilion lacks (understandably!) is what we might call, bathetically, the sheer discomfort of the Romantic as characteristically expressed in literature and painting. Though the prince ambushed his guests with dragons and serpents that seemed to grow out of the wallpaper, the Pavilion was inescapably and necessarily concerned with the provision of comfort. Holiday houses and evening parties, however sumptuous and however picturesque, are never, if successful, really sublime.

The Pavilion's deficiency in the ‘Romantic’ was directly addressed by two important essayists, William Hazlitt (1778–1830) and Charles Lamb (1775–1834). Hazlitt begins an essay in 1821 by explicitly counterposing the Romantic to the aesthetic of the Pavilion. He challenges an imaginary writer to ‘take … the Pavilion at Brighton, and make a poetical description of it in prose or verse. We defy him’.

Exercise 13

Read the extract from Hazlitt's essay, ‘Pope, Lord Byron, and Mr Bowles’ (1821). Identify Hazlitt's main reasons for insisting that the Pavilion is not poetical in itself, nor a suitable poetic subject.

Click on 'View document' to read an extract from William Hazlitt's essay ‘Pope, Lord Byron, and Mr Bowles’ (1821).

hazlitt.pdf79KB PDF document
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


The problem with the Pavilion is to do in part with the relation between ‘art’ and ‘nature’. ‘Art’, unless ruined, is overly complete and, in the case of the Pavilion, is new, successful, self-sufficient, over-blown, deeply vain. As property, the palace is imbued with the ‘practical prosaic idea’ of the haves and have-nots; because aristocratic exclusivity is built into it, it excludes ‘cordial sympathy’ of the sort that builds a community. Hazlitt seems to suggest that by contrast nature (and poetry) acts as something which can be had and enjoyed by all, even those who are not property owners. Poetry, too, can provide that which a building, according to Hazlitt, cannot: emotion, sentiment, and associations of melancholy, dread and decay.

This counterposing of art and nature, and of art and the sublime, is also addressed by Charles Lamb in an essay of 1833 entitled ‘On the barrenness of the imaginative faculty in the productions of modern art’.

Lamb amplifies his discussion of contemporary painting with a revealing (and possibly apocryphal) anecdote, sometimes dated to around 1806, about the Pavilion:

The court historians of the day record, that at the first dinner given by the late King (then Prince Regent) at the Pavilion, the following characteristic frolic was played off. The guests were select and admiring; the banquet profuse and admirable; the lights lustrous and oriental; the eye was perfectly dazzled with the display of plate, among which the great gold salt-cellar, brought from the regalia in the Tower for this especial purpose, itself a tower! stood conspicuous for its magnitude. And now the Rev. * * * * the then admired court Chaplain, was proceeding with the grace, when, at a signal given, the lights were suddenly overcast, and a huge transparency was discovered, in which glittered in golden letters -


Imagine the confusion of the guests; the Georges and garters, jewels, bracelets, moulted upon the occasion! The fans dropt, and picked up the next morning by the sly court pages! Mrs. Fitz-what's-her-name fainting, and the Countess of * * * * holding the smelling-bottle, till the good-humoured Prince caused harmony to be restored by calling in fresh candles, and declaring that the whole was nothing but a pantomime hoax, got up by the ingenious Mr. Farley, of Covent Garden, from hints which his Royal Highness himself had furnished! Then imagine the infinite applause that followed, the mutual rallyings, the declarations that ‘they were not much frightened,’ of the assembled galaxy.

(Lamb, 1912, p.259)

What interests me about this anecdote is that the ‘pantomime hoax’ (which reworks the biblical episode of Belshazzar's feast in which a tyrannous Persian king sees a hand writing on the wall a divine prophecy of his own utter downfall) provides in a comedic mode that Romantic drama which Hazlitt has described as being outside the range of the building itself. Here are the terrors of the sublime earthquake, here is the fearful disruption to the gay scene which might perhaps remind you of Byron's evocation of the premature end to the ball at Brussels on the eve of Waterloo (see Block 6, Units 29–30). Sublime nature in the shape of the earthquake, however, turns out to be merely elaborate artifice – a party piece.

If we turn once again, and for the last time, to Coleridge's poem ‘Kubla Khan’, we can see that Hazlitt's privileging of nature and poetry over architecture and wealth is echoed in it. Without giving a comprehensive reading of this poem, which must be one of the most famous, mystifying and intensively argued-over in the English language, it is possible to say that it takes as its protagonist a man whose name was for contemporaries a byword for oppression and cruelty, whose empire-building was associated by Coleridge with Napoleon's devastation of Europe. Within this poem about the nature of Romantic creativity, the chief preoccupation is the delicate balance of the Khan's astonishing architectural tour deforce with the forces of nature:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

The whole is a precariously stable confection of art and nature, of the solid dome shadowed on the shifting water, of domed roof and founding caves, of pleasure and privation. This pleasure-palace is, like the Prince Regent's, threatened by ominous rumours and echoes – ‘Ancestral voices prophesying war’ (‘Kubla Khan’, l.30). If we focus on the final section of the poem, however, it turns out that the Romantic poet challenges the power of the Khan himself, claiming to have the same power of creativeness through the wonderful and tyrannical power of song to capture the imagination of his audience and to strike them with sublime horror:

… with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

The power of the Romantic artist challenges and replicates the absolute power of the imperial tyrant. The poet faces off the prince, and this, parenthetically, returns us to our discussion in Block 6 of newly emerging Romantic notions of art and the artist.