Romantics at School
The Mind of the European Romantics
The differences between English and German scholarship provide some of the oldest wheezes in the academic trade; they ought not to be true, not any more, but, alas, they sometimes are, and the conjunction of the two books under review not only illustrates but exaggerates them. The English book is extravagantly amateur and casual, the Germanic (Dr. Schenk is Czech by birth) forbiddingly categorical; it is a matter of creampuffs and kartoffelklösse.
Morris Marples, a schoolmaster himself, has taken his topic as a hobby-horse to be ridden as moderately as the objectives of diversion and gentle exercise require. His title, Romantics at School, means certainly no more and perhaps a bit less than it says. By “Romantics” Mr. Marples means Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Keats, Shelley, and Byron; by “school” he means any pre-university educational institution. So we learn what happened to these six poets-to-be, up to about the period of their late teens, that is, just about to the point where they started to write poetry of some individuality. Not surprisingly, the story is full of holes; few observers, recognizing in these six urchins future stars of the Survey of English Lit., recorded their words or thoughts on crucial occasions. Mr. Marples is thus reduced, from time to time, to rather empty speculation; à propos Wordsworth’s sense of “huge and mighty forms” on the lake at Winander, all he has to say is:
These things are not easily explained. Was Wordsworth in fact a genuine mystic, in touch with a spiritual reality—if that is possible? Or do his strange experiences belong more properly to the field of the psychologist? Were they no more than illusions, hallucinations, figments of the poetical imagination? We shall not attempt to answer these difficult questions [p.31].
You don’t have to buy a book to learn this sort of thing.
But more distressing even than the frequent lack of information is the failure of whatever information the author has accumulated to mean anything in particular. The Romantic poets as he describes them were high-spirited, intelligent schoolboys; they all got into various sorts and degrees of trouble, they all learned something more or less from their books, but very little that they did or failed to do bears in any particular way on their poetry. Concerning any six successful lawyers of the period, or any six random Anglican bishops, there would probably be a very similar story to tell—of eccentric or brutal or (occasionally) interesting teachers, of bad institutional food, boyish fights, friendships and escapades, more or less uncomprehending parents, and mooncalf love affairs. To do Mr. Marples credit, he doesn’t strain a nerve to make more of his materials than they amount to in themselves. He tells his six stories with some sense for the local color and some sympathy for the young gentlemen; and then, having conducted them to the portals of the University and the threshold of their careers as poets, he bids each in turn a businesslike …