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Isn’t It Romantic?

Romantics at School

by Morris Marples
Barnes & Noble, 206 pp., $5.00

The Mind of the European Romantics

by H.G. Schenk
Frederick Ungar, 327 pp., $9.00

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 farewell and turns to the next fellow. One moral emerges from the whole recital: that young poets are relatively independent of their education; they can usually get what they want from the worst schools and don’t necessarily profit from the best. But as this observation rather attenuates the rationale for Mr. Marples’s book, he steers clear of it, and doesn’t attempt a summary statement at all.

ON the other hand, Dr. H. G. Schenk in The Mind of the European Romantics undertakes a synoptic overview of a movement which, as he defines it, extends from Rousseau to Nietzsche, from the Ural Mountains to Concord, Massachusetts. With so much to cover, it is no wonder that the author is highly, and, it occasionally seems, arbitrarily selective. If Thoreau is admitted to the chapter on “Nature Mysticism,” why should Poe be omitted from that on “The Romantic Malady of the Soul,” and Whitman from that on “National Messianism”? Why—but here we embark on a long line of questions—why don’t Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal appear in the book, except incidentally? Why only a sparse phrase or two for le père Michelet, whom Flaubert considered the arch-Romantic of them all? Why are the only words spoken about Pushkin to the effect that he died young and in a duel—as if that summed up his contribution to Romanticism? Why only passing mention of Blake, Nerval, Baudelaire, Heine, Gautier, Hölderlin, and, for that matter, nothing but textbook clichés about Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Any one or two of these figures might be omitted without arousing comment; not to examine any of them is surely to overlook some of the major dimensions of Romanticism.

The problem is not that Dr. Schenk is unlearned; quite the contrary. The range of his reading is clearly enormous. The Swede Atterbom and the Portuguese Garret are of his familiar acquaintance; from Hemsterhuis to Mickiewicz’s evil genius Towianski from Oehlenschläger to Schlichtegroll and Franz von Baader, he spreads before us a rich tapestry of names, titles, episodes, concepts—the disjecta membra of cultural history. But, perhaps because he has so many names to cover, the author rarely says anything interesting about them. His Introduction disclaims any concern for “details of literary style or poetic diction”; in fact, he goes further, and rarely if ever considers a complete literary work or philosophical position. (A partial exception here for Lamennais and perhaps for Byron, who gets the nearest thing to a comprehensive discussion that the book offers; but no account of a single work by either which gets beyond the rudiments.) Dr. Schenk therefore puts himself in the position of presenting Romanticism as a series of topoi, of opinions on various matters. But one doesn’t have to look very deeply into these things to find that Romantics took such widely differing views on such an inordinate variety of topics that there is scarcely a characteristically Romantic view of anything. This profound truth our author stumbles on in the course of a discussion of religion. “Catholic devotion,” he tells us, “…was one of the potentialities latent in Romanticism, just as was the other extreme, nihilism, or a variety of half-way houses” (p. 96). In a word, the Romantics were just like people; they had differing ideas about religion. They were like people in other ways; they had friendships, they wrote letters, they carried on conversations. Dr. Schenk cannot really think they were unique in these respects—yet he tries in a somewhat embarrassed way to argue that friendships were warmer, letters better, and conversations longer between Romantics than between non-Romantics. Indeed, the argument is unnecessary. What distinguishes the Romantics is neither their general behavior nor their general ideas, but (perhaps) an attitude toward experience, conceivably one which, even as it perceives things, takes special account of the active resources of the mind doing the perceiving. But to see this attitude working involves a careful study of specific works of art, a readiness to enter into the “details of literary style,” in so far as that phrase includes the verbal and dramatic strategies of a mind confronting itself confronting experience. Anything like this task Dr. Schenk does not seem ready to undertake; at least he has not done so in this book.

His chief deficiencies as an intellectual historian stem from an extraordinarily literal mind. “The Lure of Nothingness” leads straight to a list of thirty Romantics who died young (p. 65). The proof that Scott was a Romantic lies, not in his novels or poems or the quality of his imagination, but in the house he constructed, Abbotsford (p. 35). The discussion of romantic love (a provocative topic if there ever was one) builds to the remarkable conclusion that in some respects it undermined the institution of marriage, “that cornerstone of Christian society,” and in other respects enriched it (p. 158). Because he is committed to characterizing the Romantics on the basis of relatively broad ideas, Dr. Schenk ends by attributing the most extraordinary farrago of opinions and attitudes to the non-Romantics, the generally unnamed “rationalists of the 18th century.” They “showed little interest in dreams” (p. 8), they shared the “prevalent 18th century belief in progress” (p. 9), they were “antagonistic to the spirit of medievalism” (p. 36), they “believed in the equality and interchangeability [sic] of human beings” (p. 151), they cultivated a dissociation of “sexual impulse and spiritual love” (p. 153), and since “a characteristic feature of Romantic love…was its hedonism” (p. 156), they evidently didn’t believe even in fun. That easy and obvious exceptions can be found for all these generalizations about the eighteenth century is less striking than the underlying assumptions—that Romanticism has to be defined in opposition to the eighteenth century, and that this must be an opposition of ideas about sex, religion, progress, and so on.

If Dr. Schenk’s book has a controlling thesis, it could probably be summed up in T. E. Hulme’s succinct phrase that Romanticism is “spilt religion”; a lot of commentary has grown up around this phrase, which points to some rather interesting psychological hypotheses. But putting it this way implies that the notion is more functional as a premise than as a conclusion.

No disposition is more useful to the intellectual historian of the nineteenth century than a healthy suspicion of facade. As if trying out a whole new wardrobe of identities, the century flung itself from its first days into a whirlwind of imitations: pseudo-Roman, pseudo-Greek, pseudo-Gothic, pseudo-Christian, pseudo-Egyptian, pseudo-Oriental, pseudo-Miltonic, pseudo-pastoral, pseudo-peasant, and pseudo-aristocrat—not to mention the vogue of the dandies, who were, and proclaimed themselves, pseudo-people. There were so many false-faces walking the street, it must sometimes have seemed that a man could find no better disguise than his own features. Of course there were interior as well as exterior disguises, fictive spokesmen and hypothetical observers, who enabled the Romantic soul to refract, distort, and isolate the spectacle of its own strangeness. Under the circumstances, no distinction is more important than that between the ostensible and the latent direction of a man’s thought. This anatomy, in fact, is precisely what modern criticism has been performing for men like Rousseau, Wordsworth, Stendhal, Blake, and Baudelaire.* Rousseau’s ambiguous attitude toward language (about the necessary inadequacy of which he wrote at uncontrollable length), Wordsworth’s intricate attitudes of love and antagonism toward nature, Stendhal’s conception of love as both self-delusion and a pathway to passionate truth, the special mythic vision of Blake, and Baudelaire’s complicated spiritual vaudeville, have come in for extended and wonderfully sustained analysis. Most recent work on the Romantic mind has been done precisely where Dr. Schenk declines to follow it, within the theater of the individual work of art. We have thus many brilliant studies, often using special terminology and more or less idiosyncratic concepts dictated by the peculiar problems of the author being studied. The prospect of writing a general account of Romanticism, such as Dr. Schenk has attempted, without resorting to the tired cliches that have brought him to grief is more formidable and more challenging than ever before.

For such a historian there remains the singular problem of defining his own locus standi—since nothing will get him into trouble quicker than the bland assumption that the Romantic movement is a completed historical event, which he is entitled to describe from the outside. Most of the slogans flung against “outworn Romanticism” represent refurbished ideals of Romanticism itself; the romantic attitude continues to flourish, more often than not under the guise of its own opposite. In theory at least there is no reason why a surpassingly subtle and informed historian could not trace the many ramifications and permutations of Romanticism from Rousseau through the various writers of nineteenth-century Europe to day-before-yesterday’s painter, poet, or playwright. But such a historian would probably soon come to feel that he was being victimized by a word, that the sinuous dialectic of selfconsciousness, becoming after a point universal, is not worth tracing very far as an object of study in itself. About the spectrum of artistic complexes into which the “Romantic” component can enter, about the multiple effects to which it can be turned and the multiple strategies it can generate, we can hardly say too much.

  1. *

    The for-instances listed here are not intended as even a preliminary bibliography of recent studies in Romanticism, nor is there any implication that they have much in common, methodologically or otherwise, except for that very general quality of tracing complex reflexive psychological patterns in the close texture of the writers’ imaginative achievements; Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton Press, 1947); J. P. Richard, Littérature et sensation (long section on “Connaissance et tendresse chez Stendhal”) (Editions du Seuil, 1954); Jean Starobinski, Jean-Jacques Rousseau; la transparence et l’obstacle (Plon, 1957): Harold Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking (Yale U. Press, 1959) and Blake’s Apocalypse (Doubleday, 1963); Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry (Yale U. Press, 1964); and Léon Bopp, three volumes on the Psychologie des Fleurs du Mal (Droz, 1964-66). An early and splendid cross-cultural study is that of Albert Béguin, L’Ame romantique et le rêve (Editions des Cahiers du Sud, 1937).

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