Romantic Conversations: Some Things Romantic Writers Loved to Write About

The Poet: a figure with higher sensibility and sensitivity than the rest of us, born at least as much as—and maybe even more than—made. A kind of seer in our midst, and made so first by nature, and only then by education and training—though not any sort of traditional education. One is a poet, then, by sensibility first, and not by knowing the rules, the classical past, the “nature”—i.e., the general principles that underlie art and human nature—of things.

Poetry: What is poetry here? Not the imitation of men and manners. Contrast to something like “Come my Celia, Let us Prove,” which looks the same as a Romantic lyric, but which is a lot different. As a carpe diem poem it represents a dramatic speaker in a dramatic situation and makes human habits and action available for inspection and reflection. This is a representation of how someone might in fact act—showing a human foible even as it shows that foible dressing itself in fine and seductive language and logic. Its mode is in that sense realistic—and you can see how a definition of poetry as “a metrical mode of discourse that imitates life and manners in order to please and to instruct” would capture this work pretty well.

Blake by contrast isn’t just interested in representing life and manners. True, he gives us voices, but in “The Sick Rose” he invokes a kind of mysterious set of referents, using powerful words to encourage us to imagine possibilities for interpretation well beyond the “literal.” It is a kind of symbolic discourse whose end is in some sense a transcendent reality. Same thing with “The Tyger.” Blake’s not rendering a tiger, nor a “typical” human response to it. He’s using the tiger symbolically, creating a stance from which to take a metaphysical perspective on the presence of “tigers” of perverse and destructive power in the creation. So it’s not just tigers, but all the things implied by the language he uses for the tiger, that Blake has in mind, thus in turn challenging God and the notion of God itself. That’s modeling even a kind of transgression—an exploration of the dark side of creation, and what the existence of that side suggests about the creation itself.

So we could say poetry here is (with Wordsworth) “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” or “emotion recollected in tranquility,” or we could call it a symbolic mode of discourse heightened by sound and meter and aimed at representing to its readers insights of the poet exercising his or her poetic imagination to see more or differently than the rest of us.

Nature: A new understanding of Nature, replacing the neo-classical-and-before idea of “the rules and principles that underlie life, art and reality” with a new understanding of nature as the world of organic life outside of and opposed to the world of human life. In the old style nature (which we retain in phrases like “the nature of things” or “it’s just human nature”), you could not separate yourself from your nature—nature was what you were “born” to (from Latin, natus, having been born). In the new nature you almost certainly would become estranged from any oneness with it. To be human is to be outside of nature, and the trick is finding a way to regain the lost “primal sympathy.”

This represents a kind of new Platonizing of the world. Plato argued for a Real world behind the visible world; and the Romantics follow that, blending and transforming Christian and Pantheistic themes. Nature is a book again, a place to read for guidance. For Aquinas it was a book of signs to be read for insight to the divine, but it was a fallen world. Here, by contrast, it is as if the fall of man hit man alone, and left nature behind unchanged—at least, if you can locate it in its truly pristine state: that nook in the woods where peace and harmony reigns. No longer is the Moon the boundary of the damage. Now the boundary is the mind of man. And the cause of that fall is no longer simply the fall of Adam and our subsequent life under the physical conditions of a fallen universe, but the growth of humanity’s artificial and distorting institutions which our urge to adulthood encourages us to embrace. Thus another theme:

Corruption: The world has been corrupted by the artificial, the institutional, as the institutions of human life have channeled us into alienating roles and forms and functions: “shades of the prison house begin to form about the growing boy.”

Freedom by Recovery: As a result of the corruption we have endured, we have a task, too: that of freeing ourselves from the prison house of culture, reconnecting with our real identity. This is still so common as to be almost be invisible to us. The 20th and early 21st centuries generally see this not as a romantic theme but simply as the way things are. Of course, it is precisely the mythological status of any such “real” identity that underlies the postmodern argument about the self, and thus it sees romanticism’s quest for identity as a self-deceptive search for a will o’ the wisp. Worse, because the thing one finds in this search a) will be justified to you by its supposed authenticity, and therefore b) will likely be some sort of unexamined set of ideological positions that privilege some traditional and therefore reactionary mode of valuing of self and other, post-modernism sees this search for the inner self as a deception that may authorize a kind of racism or culture-ism or sexism that we’d like to see extirpated.

The Common, and Ordinary. If one needs to distrust the normal forms of adulthood, what is one to turn to instead? Four things at least, to begin with.

Real Language and Real Men. First, we must turn to the “real” language of “real” men—and, thus, to “real men” themselves, who turn out to be rustics—those who live solid lives of work and duty untouched by the fripperies of urban life. The leech-gatherer, for example, or Michael, the shepherd. These folks can become touchstones, as it were, for locating ways to ground the self.

Nature (again). As I’ve described above, nature is here seen as a repository of unspoiled forms. It is full of lessons that we can read, if we have the sensitivity of a poet, and the capacity to take what we see and process it through memory and reflection to locate its significance.

Childhood. In this way of understanding, if culture is what has deformed us, then we need to relocate our selves before the deformation—and that is in the form of the innocent child. No longer, as in the traditional Christian view, are we born into sin. Rather, we are “trailing clouds of glory” as we enter the world, even if that glory is very soon obscured as culture begins to transform us into (boring and corrupt) adults. But even if quickly extinguished, if we look to the child’s early glory, and look to locate that glory’s remnants within, we will again be finding path-markers as it were for recovering our lost innocence. Thus a cult of the child as a “mighty prophet, seer blest.” “The child is father to the man.” (As in Forest Gump!). The danger here, perhaps obviously, is a sentimental anti-intellectuality.

Tradition. Looking to the past, the romantics saw a different past from that which their neo-classical antecedents saw. The romantics’ was the past of the middle ages, of the folk, of tradition. This is sort of the “rustic-applied-to-history” effect. By means of this openness to tradition their dominant forms for English verse included the ballad and a number of other “ancient” verse forms. “Resolution and Independence” uses rhyme royal—used by Chaucer; AM uses ballad stanza.

The Dark Side. In Coleridge and Byron especially, but in lots of other dimensions of romantic culture (Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, for example), we see a new fascination with the dark side of human nature, a will to locate it, explore it, represent it, acknowledge it, see it not just as the effect of Satan (though it may be that too), but as one part of an inner self that is in all of us, that has an enormous power, that can be directed towards good, but is often because of social structures or conditions or simply fate channeled into deep destructiveness. Around this dark side grows a kind of fascination and attraction, a kind of perverse beauty (“the nightmare life in death was she”). Thus Bronte’s tortured character Heathcliff, thus Manfred the “Byronic hero,” and thus in these and in other figures some sense the ancestry of those parts of our own culture of transgression that glorify pain, or struggle, or depression or despair. Obviously, we don’t always glorify any of this suffering, but there is a strand of our culture that maintains this and has taken it beyond anything the romantics could have imagined. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still another exploration of this motif.

This darkness is often seen as problematic, often moved by unconscious motive, capable of giving us great power, of asserting self and a kind of natural rightness against those cultural and historical forces that would suppress it. But the resulting conflict is by no means always a success for either side. In Heathcliff’s case the result is twisted and convoluted—a “wuthered” nature whose origin can be acknowledged, but whose actions cannot be accepted or perhaps even allowed. This is one kind of tragic situation now: a man driven by his darker forces to explore and extend, but corrupted by his doing so even as he establishes new ways to see. There is a “romance” to those figures—by which expression we mean a kind of glamour or attractiveness. It also prefigures Nietzsche’s “Superman,” the “Übermensch” who thrives in a world of necessary and inescapable contradiction by embracing his own fate, being true to a “self” of a sort—a self that is the heart of feeling and commitment, a kind of honesty to its inability to be more than a stance of affirmation against the surrounding chaos of an unknowable universe.

But in the early 19th century we are not yet to the unknowable universe. There is lots of distrust of the perceptual manifold, much agreement with Kant that we cannot see anything as how in itself it really is (the “Ding an sich”), that human perception and thus the human mind and its many secret paths and inscrutable ways of making and distorting sense is fundamentally incapable of a direct perception of anything at all.

The Beautiful and the Sublime. This is again finally about human perception. For it begins in recognition that as human beings we respond to some things we see with a particular sort of state of feeling. Sometimes that state of feeling is something like a calming pleasure, a taking in of an expanse or a patterned surface—a response to a sense of purposeful purposelessness. That’s one way people have had of describing beauty. Or sometimes it’s a feeling of awe we get either as we look out at something like a series of mountain peaks ranged higher and higher around us, or even of terror as we behold the full power of a raging storm. The romantics tended to call those latter moments “sublime”—“that which goes beyond the limit.” It is again a democratizing theme—everyone has the power to feel these feelings.

The Symbol. Much romantic thought was also influenced by ideas of transcendent realities, of knowings that were beyond the limits of language or ordinary perception. Again this is a kind of Platonism, or even mysticism—a way of investing reality with a super-natural dimension that is beyond the experience or even perception of many people, especially those people who have become so accustomed to the ordinary that they no longer see much of value at all. The poet’s task is partly to restore to us a child-like capacity to “see” the extraordinary in the (apparently) ordinary; and it is also partly to find language that, even if it cannot express the truths of the world directly, can suggest them, intimate them, adumbrate them by a sort of insightful symbolism. Kant described a mode of discourse that made the “ineffable” available to the mind, and called the significance such discourse conjured up an “aesthetic idea.” It is an idea, obviously, but it is also something available not through rational thought, or through ordinary language. It is rather produced by the implications of metaphorical language used in just the right way. When Coleridge describes his task in the Lyrical Ballads as writing poems about the supernatural—like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner—he is exploring this theme. Keats and Shelley, too, are very attracted to the paradoxical and transcendent that this line of thinking privileges.

Freedom via transcendence: This I want to pair/contrast with Wordsworth. He, too, seeks Freedom, but he sees that as something like the recovery of the lost vision of the child, though focused through the newly found understanding of the adult. Or, more generally, freedom is achieved through the effort to free oneself of culture’s snares and delusions and to find the true inner self—and thus my label for Wordsworth's major theme: Freedom by Recovery.

But Shelley seems much less interested in the inner self or the child than he is in the freeing “power” of what he calls the “world spirit.” Thus whether it is the Skylark or Mont Blanc, each provokes from him a response to a sense of power and meaning beyond human reach—something sublime that transcends ordinary reality. Feelings evoked by looking upon such things lead Shelley into a kind of dialectic between his own mind and that external power, a dialectic that in turn not only informs and motivates his poetry but also promises a deep transcendent wholeness to which we all can belong. To be sure, it, too, involves a kind of recovery—it’s a way to reach a joy that can motivate us personally and politically, lead us back from depression or despair. It’s a kind of emotional awareness that should enable mankind to put aside the things that divide them (cf. to Beethoven’s similarly inspired use of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony—a poem that imagines the unity of all mankind emerging from a universal experience of joy: “Joy, beautiful spark of the Gods, daughter of Elysium, drunk with fire we enter your heavenly shrine ”).

That reach towards the other world, or to the supernal or even supernatural that inheres in this world, is in Coleridge too; he’s got a kind of world-spirit thing going as the poetic, or secondary, imagination is something of a human analogue to the cosmic act of creation, the divine “I am.” To be a poet is thus at some level to participate in divinity. Again, this implies a kind of freeing of the self—like the Mariner freed from the Albatross and from the curse of a dead man’s eye—but not through recovery. Rather it’s by a moment of transcendence—a feeling of the harmony and beauty of all living things.

Wholeness and organic unity: this the history book’s chapter stresses, and not wrongly. Again, it’s as if in reaction to a sense of the world flying apart, or human beings separated from their true selves, that poets undertake the project of recreating—or at least, holding out a model of—unity and wholeness. You see that in Wordsworth, in Coleridge, in Shelley. “Organic” matters here, too. Not that that hasn’t been a theme before. But there is a difference. For theirs is a new way of grounding the claim for the existence of the world's order and wholeness in nature. Looking to nature we see order everywhere—a whole array of orders. And we see those orders changing, renewing, all as the result of processes of growth and change—they are in this sense "organic." And thus organic growth becomes something like a new ideal for form, an ideal with a different justification from traditional ideals of artful balance and geometrical and rational structure. To be sure, that older, neo-classical version of “order” is also “natural” in a sense—by appeal to the mathematics of harmony and symmetry that earlier philosophers and poets saw at the center of the nature of things. Unlike the romantic understanding of natural order, however, the neo-classical ideal is static and abstracted from nature proper. The new romantic sense of order doesn’t abstract in the same way. Here we see a sense of order that grows and changes, that has imperfections even as it successfully sustains life, and one whose credentials are different from what is perceived as the stultifying reach of the old idea of order.

Nationalism: We need a little care here, since it isn’t quite true, as the book may seem to imply, that “nation” is a new concept in the 19th century. It’s been around and growing in one way and another for a couple hundred years by now. But Nationalism as a phenomenon may be new, at least in its extent and in its implications. Thus we now can get poems like "The Stately Homes of England" whose ostensible purpose is that of patriotic celebration of England and the English. Especially on the continent, where nations have been so remade, and redefined, by and following the French Revolution, nation does have a new meaning. At the same time, most of what the romantic poets we read are concerned with are transnational themes. Wordsworth certainly delights in the English countryside, but that’s not for its Englishness per se. All the major romantic English poets are more interested in “man” than in England. Indeed, Shelley, Byron and Keats are for their creative years as much outside of England as within it.

Of course, when you look at 19th century French painting you can see what Breunig and Levinger have in mind. Certainly in Delacroix, for example, patriotic themes are important. And we saw it (as I mentioned above) in Hemans, too. But while revolution and political change and the emergence of democratic ideals in the form of newly developed “nations” is certainly important as a backdrop to everything we read here, nationalism as a celebration of Englishness is not really a dominating theme for most of this course’s authors.