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Isn’t It Romantic?

Abrams, nevertheless, views the Romantic movement as a rescue operation, an attempt to salvage the debris of religion torn apart by science and the Enlightenment, to conserve the lost values of religion while giving them an acceptably secular form. “Much of what distinguishes writers I call ‘Romantic’ derives from the fact that they undertook, whatever their religious creed or lack of creed, to save traditional concepts, schemes and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation,5 but to reformulate them within the prevailing two-term system of subject and object, ego and non-ego, the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature.” But if writers from Goethe to Proust used theological values to save them, what are we to make of the beautiful quotation from Proudhon that Abrams cites?

[I am] forced to proceed as a materialist, that is to say, by observation and experience, and to conclude in the language of a believer, because there exists no other; not knowing whether my formulas, theological despite myself, ought to be taken as literal or figurative….

(The theological formulas have here been reduced to the status of nouns and verbs, and the process by which they were so neutralized is one of the most revolutionary in the history of style.)

The Romantics inclined often enough to Abrams’s view of their work, but what they performed was more often than not a wholesale act of seizure and destruction. Blake’s little child contrasts the warm ale-house with the cold church, and says:

But if at the church they would give us some ale
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,…

The word “soul” has been almost totally expropriated in order to affirm its absolute identity with the body: yet the meaning of “soul” depended traditionally upon a radical opposition with the body. Blake is not conserving a traditional theological concept but destroying one that his hated manyheaded monster, Voltaire-Newton-Gibbon, had been powerless to touch. It cannot be said that Novalis, Hölderlin, and Wordsworth (at least before 1807) were less radical than Blake.

The belief that an earlier concept can remain essentially unchanged in a later reformulation of it is the original sin of the history of ideas. It is especially unfortunate as an approach to the early Romantics, who were the first to insist so fully upon the inseparability of thought and expression. (Language and thought, said Friedrich Schlegel, must in theory be distinguished, but in practice we can only do so when one of them malfunctions.)

Abrams expounds ideas in Romantic poetry that lose all vitality when reduced to plain prose that cats and dogs can read. He outlines the concepts of alienation and reconciliation with nature as they were derived from a long theological tradition by Wordsworth and Coleridge, which he believes still useful today, and adds: “These ideas are shared in our time by theologians, philosophers, economists, sociologists, psychologists, writers, critics and readers of Life magazine and the Readers Digest….” What a crew! Abrams’s tone is ironic, but the irony is sadly aimed at the rejection of ideas so universally admired instead of at the reduction of Wordsworth, and us, to so common a denominator.

However vulgar the romantic notion of alienation could become, it was not that of the popular twentieth-century evangelist—and I do not mean to imply that Abrams does not know this, but only that his thesis of Saint Augustine, Wordsworth, and the bereft readers of Life reaching out to each other over the ages will not permit him to express it. Alienation played a large role in Romantic thought and it is finally expanded so far as to destroy itself. From Rousseau the early Romantics inherited the idea that self-consciousness is a disease, an alienation of oneself from oneself, a loss of unity. This view of self-reflection was most powerfully delineated in 1794 by Fichte, who influenced all the German and (through Coleridge) the English writers of the turn of the century. As Abrams points out, they regarded “philosophical reflection, the very act of taking thought,…as in itself, in Schelling’s words, ‘a spiritual sickness.’ ”

This division of the self is, indeed, a fall from grace; the act of reflection is the knowledge of good and evil. But Abrams does not carry it far enough. For Fichte, the ego (the self) does not exist except as the act of self-alienation, and comes into being only at the moment of the act. I can be myself only in so far as I am aware of myself as something distinct from the totally subjective, only as my own mind takes a part of itself as an object; otherwise there is no “I.” The Fall from grace continuously re-enacted at every moment is the condition of life. Alienation, for Fichte and for Coleridge, is synonymous with existence.

When the concept of alienation is expanded illimitably—is made absolute, to use the Romantic term, then the status of the impulse to heal the division, to integrate the ego with itself and with Nature, is threatened. If alienation can be seen as existence itself—the continuous effort to be what one is, to affirm the “I” as distinct from everything else, integration becomes death. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla,6 there is a ministerial council meeting at which the treasury of wit is to be replenished for a time of need. The king makes his contribution: “The moment in which a man dies is the first in which his true ego arises,” and he drops dead at once.

This is the ambiguity at the heart of the “circuitous journey”; the lost paradise regained is death. Abrams interprets the end of Hölderlin’s Hyperion as a renewal of joy and life. When the hero gives himself up to Nature after his defeat, his rejection by his father, and the death of his love, that is indeed how Hyperion himself appears to present it. Yet his reconciliation with nature and his new found joy have a secret and bitter despair:

And yet once more I looked into the cold night of men and shuddered, and wept for joy that I was so blessed, and I spoke words, it seemed to me, but they were like the rushing sound of a fire that flares up and leaves ashes behind.

As Geoffrey Hartman has recently written about a similar identification of the self with Nature by Coleridge: “Nothing is lost by this sublimation except all.”7 Abrams recognizes in Hyperion the inevitable return of alienation after this “renewal,” but in trying to impose on it his theological doctrine of redemption and resurrection,8 he does not see that the resurrection itself is a new form of death.

Abrams also omits as irrelevant all mention of the explicitly ironic Romantics like Byron and E.T.A. Hoffmann; but their comic sense is not an aberration from the Romantic tradition but an illumination of patterns implicit in Hölderlin and Wordsworth. Hoffmann’s ebullient and fatuous young cat Murr shows how “alienation” can be made to signify almost anything one wants. When he meets his long-lost mother (“come to my paws,” she cries) he goes to get her a herring-head he has hidden after dinner. On the way back he gets hungry, but relates this pedantically in the language of Romantic idealistic philosophy: “My ego was alienated from my ego in a strange way so as to remain still my ego and I ate the herring-head.”

Alienation is here the instinct for life. In the ironic movement necessary to Romantic art—to Wordsworth as to Byron, to Novalis as to Hoffmann—the “suspension of disbelief” is never a completed act of integration. We accept the supernatural without believing it, we allow what is strange to keep its alien identity, “a stranger and belov’d as such.” It is not unity and reintegration, not the return to the lost paradise that is sought, but division and estrangement. In fact the early Romantics conceived the act of poetry as essentially a technique of alienation: for Novalis, it is the power of making the familiar distant and strange; for Coleridge, the “power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of the imagination.”

The uncontrolled expansion of concepts until they referred potentially to everything and therefore to nothing so that their powers of association were completely liberated and magnified was a process repeated until it could seem like a vulgar and maddening trick. “Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything that is both good and great” (Friedrich Schlegel), “Thinking is speaking. Speaking and doing or making are only modifications of one and the same operation” (Novalis), “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth” (Keats)—examples are numberless. This technique of expansion contributed to the instability of meaning that made Byron compare the philosophy of August Wilhelm Schlegel to a rosy and agreeable mist cast over everything. But it is a trick based upon a profound comprehension of speech, a realization that there is no possibility of authentic and direct communication without some looseness, some play in the mechanism of language.

This new freedom in the use of meaning is the revolutionary achievement of the early Romantic generation, the men who turned twenty at the time of the French Revolution. “The situation is overripe and stinking and needs to be shaken up,” the great linguist and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote about the contemporary state of poetry, and he tentatively praised the efforts of the Schlegels and Novalis to revolutionize art. “I do not like what they are doing…but they are the only hope we have.” For Hazlitt, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge was the literary analogue to the French Revolution,9 and he remarked in an amusing image that the infrequency of personification in the poetry of the new school compared with that of Pope and Johnson was a reluctance to bestow the undemocratic dignity of a capital letter.

The newly released power of association created by the whole or partial destruction of the central meaning of words made possible the nonsense verse of Kubla Khan and the late poems of Novalis. Empson convincingly says that Kubla Khan is about the role of the artist as conqueror, as spokesman for the unconscious desires of his society. But Empson oddly refuses to see the importance of presenting this theme as if it were a vision, as a kind of involuntary nonsense. Coleridge was not, as Empson claims, pretending that he did not know what the poem was about when he added his introductory explanation of the interrupted attempt to write down his dream. Kubla Khan is the great Romantic example of the fragment, the created ruin, and the “person on business from Porlock” who broke into Coleridge’s inspiration is an essential part of the work. Coleridge’s achievement is like a realization of Novalis’s contemporary program for writing poems and stories “without sense or logic, but only with associations like dreams or music.”

What then was the use of religious frames of thought to men who could be atheists or, like Coleridge when he wrote his great poems, so little a Christian that he refused to accept even Unitarian doctrine? Why did they persist in using religious terms which they often rendered so vague as to accommodate any meaning? A letter of 1803 by Wilhelm von Humboldt may suggest an answer. He wrote about the interrelationship, the “belonging-together” of all intellectual beings, not in a single totality but in

a unity in which all concept of number, all opposition of unity and multiplicity disappears. To call this unity God would be absurd, I find, as it throws it outside of the self for no good reason.

This unity which itself swallows up the concept of unity is an explicit image of infinity. Humboldt settles for calling this infinity “Humanity” instead of “God” after rejecting “Universe,” “World,” and “World-Soul.” (It is extraordinary how he could try out different words as if they were hats.) Most of the Romantics called it “God” without hesitation. The fund of religious imagery and concepts provided a copious (and, at worst, a cheap) source of “innumerable analogies and types of infinity.”

This is Wordsworth’s phrase for the fundamental virtue of Romantic style; in another place, where he explains the significance of his images, he calls them the “types and symbols of eternity.” It is for his generation the basic figure of speech, or, better, figure of thought, since the old rules of rhetoric had been dissolved in a more generalized and fluid concept of language. Type and symbol (or analogy) are not synonymous for Wordsworth: although type had still the old meaning of “emblem” or “symbol,” it already meant example or model.10 Images like

   The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decay’d,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls

are both examples (metonymies) of eternity and metaphors for the secret invariance at the heart of constant mutability. They are therefore examples of what they themselves signify by analogy, embodying that contradiction that Coleridge saw as essential to every symbol, which “partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible…abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative.” Such types and symbols of eternity are like the

…Yew tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness

These types of infinity are images of freedom. The early Romantic’s battle against atheism was essentially against the new authoritarian, religious tyranny of mechanistic thought. The Infinite was a medium in which the imagination could allow for the free expansion of associations, dreams, music—all that the calculating mind held senseless. Yet the early Romantic Infinite is illuminated by the light of common day. As the French émigré Etienne de Senancour wrote in 1804:11

Love is condemned as a completely sensual affection, having no other principle than an appetite that is called gross. But I see nothing in our more complicated desires of which the true end is not one of the primary physical needs: sentiment is only their indirect expression: Intellectual Man was never anything else than a phantom. Our needs awaken in us the perception of their positive object, as well as the innumerable perceptions which are analogous to them. The direct means would not fill life by themselves, but these accessory impulses occupy it fully, because they have no limits. [My italics]

The metaphysical activity (the “analogous perceptions”) is life itself and cannot be limited or fully determined: the medium of its action is God, to employ the Romantic significance of this much used word. It is in this medium that the individual ego which is only an abstraction rejoins the unconscious and the involuntary that the poets realized they had to master. To this end they abandoned a specific and limited kind of control over meaning to look for a more efficient way of commanding the marginal phenomena of significance that the eighteenth century had appeared to renounce.

That God is the unconscious of humanity is explicit in Wordsworth (although we must be careful not to read back into him Freudian or Jungian meanings). In some lines, unpublished until 1925, he dismisses both passive and active forms of consciousness:12

Such consciousnesses seemed but accidents
Relapses from the one interior life
In which all beings live with god, themselves
Are god, existing in the mighty whole
As indistinguishable as the cloud- less east
Is from the cloudless west, when all
The hemisphere is one cerulean blue.

Wordsworth never printed these daring lines written when he was producing his finest poetry: perhaps he would not have subscribed to them some years later. In these lines, the ego is dissolved in the interior life, which is in no sense an individual unconscious: it is the interior life of all beings, and God is here an image of fraternity as well as liberty.

These images of infinity had therefore a political significance as well. When the ideals of the revolution were corrupted, the political vocabulary became corrupt too: to use it without irony was to support betrayal on every front. The vocabulary of mysticism and religion offered refuge, but only briefly. The old traditional meanings soon returned. By 1810 most of the early Romantic writers had abandoned their mixture of free-thinking and mysticism and moved toward orthodoxy.

This is, no doubt, a coarse view of a history that needs more caution, greater reserve: it is offered as a corrective to a portrayal of the early Romantics as hopeful and optimistic. Their poetry is the greatest poetry of despair that survives today, the greatest because entirely untouched by resignation. The messianic revolutionary ideals are kept alive in the hyperbolic language of mysticism because they had been proven hopeless to a generation that refused to accept their final defeat. Not until the 1830s did one find the poignant and melancholy resignation of Tennyson or the magnificent and fatuous optimism of Hugo. The writing of the early Romantics could be sustained for only a brief time; they died young like Novalis, lost courage like Coleridge and Wordsworth, went mad like Hölderlin, or became apologists of the most reactionary regime in Europe like Friedrich Schlegel. The fundamental aesthetic doctrine of the Romantics is an identity of work and life: their failure is already acted out within their poetry.


The Rights of Editors September 20, 1973

  1. 5

    One of the dogmas of Christianity that Wordsworth disliked most of all was that God created the universe. At least, he felt that one shouldn’t talk about it, probably because it was the only thing about God that Voltaire believed.

  2. 6

    See the comment on this passage by Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Interpretation, Theory and Practice, edited by Charles S. Singleton (Johns Hopkins, 1969).

  3. 7

    Reflections on the Evening Star,” in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth edited by Geoffrey Hartman (Columbia, 1972).

  4. 8

    The reader is warned by Hölderlin in a preface that if he reads the book for the doctrine he will not understand it.

  5. 9

    Hazlitt saw this aspect of the poem more clearly than Empson when he said that he could repeat certain lines of Kubla Khan forever with delight without knowing what they meant.

  6. 10

    In spite of the OED, which dates this use much later, English-French glossaries give the meaning “example” as early as 1815. Wordsworth generally uses “type” as an element in a pair (“types and symbols,” “type or emblem”), and it is kinder to him to believe it is not always a tautology.

  7. 11

    Obermann, eighth year, Letter LXIII.

  8. 12

    The Prelude, edited by Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford University Press, second edition, 1959), p. 535.

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