• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Isn’t It Romantic?

Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection

edited by William Empson, edited by David Pirie
Schocken, 256 pp., $10.00


For the young who lived through it, the French Revolution remained a vision of a lost paradise. Chateaubriand was twenty-one in 1789, an impoverished aristocrat forced into the hosiery trade by his debts (when he wrote his memoirs, he omitted this shameful descent into commerce); he never forgot the exhilaration of that dawn when it was “bliss…to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.” More than thirty years later, he wrote about the beginning of the revolution in Paris:

Moments of crisis produce in men a heightening of life. In a society dissolving and reconstructing itself, the struggle of two spirits, the collision of past and future, the mixture of old and new ways of life, make up an unstable compound that leaves no place for boredom. Liberated passions and dispositions reveal themselves with an energy they do not have in a well-ordered polity. The infraction of laws, the freedom from duty, from custom and from propriety, even the perils increase the excitement of the disorder. The human race on holiday takes a walk in the streets, delivered from its preceptors, restored for a moment to the state of nature, and realizing again the necessity of social restraint only when under the yoke of the new tyrants engendered by license….

I could not paint the society of 1798 better than by comparing it to the architecture of the time of Louis XII and Francis I, when the Greek orders began to mingle with the gothic style, or rather by equating it with the collection of ruins and tombs of every century, piled up pell-mell after the Terror in the Cloister of the Augustinian Minors: but the fragments of which I speak were living and varied endlessly….

…duels and love affairs, friendships born in prison and the fraternity of politics, mysterious rendezvous among the ruins under a serene sky amidst the peace and poetry of nature, walks apart, silent, solitary, mingled with eternal vows and indefinably tender sentiments, against the muffled din of a world that was vanishing away, against the distant noise of a crumbling society, whose collapse threatened these felicities overshadowed by the events.

In these words there sounds an enduring nostalgia. It is the tone we hear today in the voices of many who were present at the riots of May, 1968, in Paris. They claim the same sense of excitement, of genuine fraternity between strangers in the streets (“here and there a face / Or person singled out among the rest, / Yet still a stranger and belov’d as such”), of enhanced vitality, of energy as eternal delight. The myth of the revolution will die hard. In 1968 the state of nature lasted only a few weeks: in 1789-1790 the redoubled intensity of life burned far more than a year. The betrayal of the revolution was a traumatic blow to the generation that had lived through it and was young enough to hope. These hopes had spread throughout Europe: for the century that followed, the brief glimpse of the possibility of happiness “in the very world, which is the world of all of us,” the brief appearance of what Hazlitt called “romantic generosity” dominated politics and art.

In this state of nature that appears unexpectedly at the moment of total corruption and final dissolution, there is a strange innocence, an innocence regained. The human race on holiday has no premonition of the terror that will follow license: for a brief moment, men and women have found once more the grace and naivete of the savage, of Adam before the Fall. The messianic program of the early Romantics, 1 a program in which politics and art cannot be separated or even distinguished, is to recapture and make permanent that state of nature which had proved to be so transitory.

After the failure, the betrayal, even, of the political and social dream of 1789, the Romantic program presented itself in increasingly religious terms, with the Nazarene painters’ revival of medieval imagery, the ecstatic cannibalism of Novalis’s vision of Christ’s sacrifice, the vocabulary of mysticism that reappears in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the fiercely irrationalist religious and political philosophy of Joseph DeMaistre. It would be a mistake to characterize the religious “revival” of the early nineteenth century as specifically antirevolutionary; the revival had already taken place within the heart of the revolutionary movement, when, under Robespierre, one could be imprisoned for speaking disrespectfully of the deity.

The revolution, in short, had already betrayed itself in reinstating God. The religious language of the early Romantic writers, however, has a curious and ambiguous significance. Two recent and important books touch on this problem: William Empson’s selection of Coleridge’s verse, in which perhaps the greatest of our critics attempts to rescue Coleridge from priestcraft, and M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism, published in 1971, which deals with the survival and transformation of religious patterns of thought in the Romantic period.

M. H. Abrams, whose Mirror and the Lamp is one of the most influential books on the early nineteenth century, is a master of the themes of Romanticism. It is doubtful if anyone has surpassed, or that many have equaled, the range and depth of his reading. His point of departure in Natural Supernaturalism is Wordsworth’s scheme for the great unfinished poem called The Recluse, a poem which was to crown the poet’s work and to which the rest of his verse was to stand as chapels to the main body of a cathedral.

From the “Prospectus” Wordsworth wrote for The Recluse, Abrams isolates the concept of the spiritual resurrection of mankind by the marriage of nature to the mind of man. For Wordsworth, mind or spirit here has become largely secular: God appears—if at all—only as within man’s mind, and Abrams recalls a rich seventeenth-century tradition that resists any attempt to place God outside ourselves (the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of a Digger community in Cromwell’s time, are particularly striking in their apparent similarity to Blake and Wordsworth). The wedding of man and nature is seen by Abrams as achieving its full meaning as a manifestation of the millennium, a vision of the apocalypse secularized into revolution, but he characterizes this union with nature as a consolation and a substitute for the shattered revolutionary dream.

From here, Abrams is concerned chiefly with Romantic metaphors of alienation—of man from nature, of man from himself. The marriage of nature to the mind of man is a metaphor for the overcoming of this inner and outer division. The most persistent metaphor Abrams finds is that of the “circuitous journey,” the vision of a regained paradise, a return through alienation to an original state of “organic” unity, now made transcendent by incorporating and resolving the contradictory forces of the journey itself. The circle is therefore generally a spiral, a return to the same point on a higher level. As the mature mind, in Wordsworth, returns to the child’s unconscious acceptance of the world, now transformed by experience, so Hegel’s spirit in reaching absolute consciousness attains the static condition, the complete repose of pure, undifferentiated, unalienated being. The juxtaposition of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind with Wordsworth’s Prelude is perhaps the most brilliant detail of Abrams’s book.

The image of the circuitous journey is, indeed, pervasive and persistent. Abrams does not discuss Romantic natural science, but the metaphor has its power there as well. J. W. Ritter, a young scientist who discovered ultraviolet rays and belonged to the Jena circle of the Schlegels and Novalis, delivered a talk to the Munich Academy of Science in 1809 entitled “Physics as Art.” He presented the original state of the earth as totally organic, and the present division into organic and inorganic matter as a late and degenerate condition. The earth has died, and the mineral veins of the earth are picturesquely the fossil remains of its former living skeleton. The task of physics is twofold: historical (the reconstruction of the decline into the present state) and apocalyptic (the retransformation of all matter into living organic form). Ritter was curiously enough both a serious scientist who did important work in galvanism and a brilliant, poetic, and erratic writer.

If anything, the image is too pervasive. It cannot be said to define Romantic thought if it characterizes so much else, including Candide, that masterpiece of the Enlightenment which is said to represent everything that Romanticism opposed. Like Wordsworth’s Prelude and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Candide is a Bildungsroman, a novel of intellectual development and progress toward maturity, and the garden that Candide cultivates at the end is as much the earthly paradise—the Garden of Eden found again and transformed by experience—as any of Abrams’s examples. It is also a “return”: Constantinople is not Westphalia, but then Wordsworth’s Grasmere is not Cockermouth; nevertheless, the little society of Thunder-ten-Tronckh is reconstituted. Doctor Pangloss philosophizes as before, and Candide is reunited with Cunégonde, grown ugly and ill-tempered but able to cook splendid pastry.

Are the patterns of Romantic thought, as Abrams believes, theological or even religious? These terms can be used loosely. Some years ago Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers found these same apocalyptic patterns in Voltaire and Helvétius. The influence of eschatology on Marx and of Old Testament morality on Freud are an essential part of the middle-brow vulgarization of these authors. We should be accustomed by now to posthumous attempts to convert the heathen. Nevertheless, if these patterns are to be found wherever one looks (as Abrams finds them from Saint Augustine to Proust), it may be that they are forms deeper or more general than theology, which has used them—as have poetry and science—as part of a repertory of expression.

Abrams, however, has precedent for his view from the Romantics themselves. Wordsworth, for example, spoke easily of “such religious feelings as cannot but exist in the minds of those who affect atheism.” This generous view of the meaning of “religious” is found often enough today, if only because the more precise and rigorous sense has come to seem unbearable to so many. But the significance of the early Romantics’ use of religion can only be assessed if we measure it against each poet’s relation to religion and morality proper—organized, established, or at least traditional.

The extent of the problem may be indicated by the following lines from Benjamin Constant’s diary of 1804, when he was in Weimar with Mme de Stael:

Goethe: Difficulty of all conversation with him. What a pity that he has been caught up in the mystic philosophy of Germany. He confessed to me that the basis of this philosophy was Spinozism. Great idea that the mystic followers of Schelling have of Spinoza, but why try to bring in religious ideas and what is worse, Catholicism? They say that Catholicism is more poetical. “I would rather have Catholicism do evil,” says Goethe, “than be prevented from using it to make my plays more interesting.”

  1. 1

    By “early Romantic” I mean simply the men who did most of their important work between 1795 and 1815: e.g., Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in England; in Germany the poet Hölderlin, the philosopher Fichte, the critic and philologist Friedrich Schlegel, the poet and philosopher Novalis, the novelists Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann (the last a half generation later than the others); and, in France, Chateaubriand and Senancour, author of that bible of French Romanticism, Obermann (1804), and the novelist Benjamin Constant. Beyond the fact that certain statements can be made about all of them, I have not found it necessary to assume here that they formed a movement or created a style, nor shall I try to clarify the relations among them.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print