1. Romantic Beginnings
. We’ll begin by saying something about the rationale for the course, about our own procedures and principles of operation. Next we’ll give some background and contextual information for the study of the poets and poems we’ve designed for you.
Those who have listened to the earlier course, How to Understand and Read Poetry, will already know that we prefer individual details and close readings, to large generalizations. In regards to poetry, we favor the old maxim that insists God is in the details, rather than in overarching theories or ideas or generalizations. Therefor, we’re much more concerned with matters of language, figures of speech, and musical effect, in poetry, than we are with themes, philosophies, and ideas.
The English Romantic poets effected the English language and the entire course of English and Romantic poetry so much, that we might legitimately claim 200 years after them, that we are still living in a Romantic Age, that we are still listening and responding to Wordsworth, Keats, Blake, and Byron, in vital ways.
We also take our lead from T.S. Eliot, who was no professed friend to the Romantics, perhaps because he recognized in them, the models for what he himself was and did. He said that we must treat poems as though they are poems, and not something else. Therefor, this will be a course that will deal primarily with certain great poems, by six great poets.
Secondarily it will give you some information about their lives, and the way those lives provided the necessary but not sufficient conditions for the writing of their poetry. At an even more subordinate level, the lectures will necessarily detail some of the background information in philosophy, history, politics, and what the critic William Hazlitt referred to as, the spirit of the age. The main focus will be on the work of the so-called canon of six:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge;
Let’s say something right away about this choice. Tastes are always changing, and one generation’s preferences are not guaranteed to be those of the next generation. In other words, a classic is not something inscribed in stone or marble, but is more like a mirror, something in which we see ourselves reflected. A great work will answer whatever questions are put to it, and those questions change with the times and identities of the questioners.
It’s a fact that the six men we’ve selected, who have been at the top of the list for the past 50 years, where by no means themost populat poets in England during their own lifetime. Blake was relatively unknown and obscure. Wordsworth was mocked, and with Coleridge, was attacked during his youthful days, for what was regarded with hostile critics as political radicalism and banal writing.
Keats was condescended to, for his affiliation with the radical writer Lee Hunt. Lord Byron didn’t have much respect for any of the others, with the exception of Shelley, and in this case the appeal was personal and class-based, rather than artistic. Byron was a runaway bestseller in the 2nd decade of the 19th century, but his status was due more to the scandals of his life, than the perceived merits of his verse.
The most popular writers of the day, were men and women who we tend to value much less than today:
Sir Walter Scott
Helen Maria Williams
We’ve included one lecture on the women writers who were popular in their day, then sank into lesser renown and later were revived within the past few decades by feminist critics and scholars who has performed interesting acts of retrieval.
The plight of the Romantics says something about the rise and fall of literary fashions. During the heyday of the high modern period, roughly the first half of the 20th century, when the tastes of Eliot and Ezra Pound ruled supreme in the Anglo-American world, the stock of the Romantics had sunk pretty low.
Yet after WWII, a new generation of critics and readers, led by professor Harold Bloom at Yale and Northup Frye in Canada, began an upward revaluation. Blake, who had been dismissed out of hand as a madman, was given a new and respectful look. Shelley, whose lyric pronouncements were dismissed as so much airy nonsense, came to look like a hard-headed, skeptical, radical thinker. Byron investigated changing ideas about gender, sex roles, and sexuality. And so it goes, tastes and fashion change.
Now we’ll say something about Willard’s subject, his terminology, and his tastes. It’s hard to say what Romanticism is, or even what it was. When did it begin, here, how, and why? No answers are available, and this is in fact the Romantic dilemma. How do we find starting places for practically anything in life? When Wordsworth in his autobiography, tries to think of beginnings and origins, he comes up against a solid brick wall.
No one can remember everything, and memory, it will turn out, both its glories and failures, is one of the great Romantic subjects. Wordsworth asks, how shall I seek the origin? This is of course the question that a person going through psycho-analysis, must also ask themselves.
Beginnings are not easy to identify, even for example, with respect to life. Consider the burning question from contemporary medical ethics, when does life begin? Is it birth, conception, some other point within the development of the embryo? These are Romantic questions.
Although everyone now uses the term Romanticism, it has many meanings. Yet the people to whom we now apply the term, never used it for themselves. Throughout much of the 18th century, it was used as reference to the Middle Ages, to anything that was not classical. Often it was used as a synonym for wildness, irregularity, even Gothicism. By the end of the century, in Germany, where Romanticism meant something different than it did in France and England.
, we find the first major philosophers and theorists using the term. Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel, along with their contemporaries, Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Schelling, which Willard often thinks of as Schlegel, Schlegel, Schiller, and Schelling, which sounds like an early German law firm. They all used it as a synonym for modern, as opposed to classical art.
Yet by 1830, even Goethe could say that classic means health, Romantic means illness. The American critic Jacques Barzon, long ago made a list of what Romanticsm is associated with. Some of them are:
a return to the middle ages,
a love of the exotic,
a revolt against reason,
a vindication or defense of the individual,
the liberation of the unconscious,
a reaction against science,
a revival of panthesism,
a revival of idealism,
a revival of Catholicism,
a rejection of all artistic conventions,
a worship of the emotions,
a return to nature,
The historian of ideas, A.O. Lovejoy, once said we must discriminate between and among Romanticisms, because so many movements go sloppily under one name. He said:
“Typical manifestations of the spiritual essence of Romanticism have been variously conceived to be a passion:
for red weskits,
for Gothic churches,
for futurist paintings,
for talking exclusively about oneself,
for hero worship, for losing oneself in an ecstatic contemplation of nature.”
Also of course, politically, especially through the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, has been held accountable for the origins of both fascism and communism.
All of these formulas represent at best, half-truths. Wordsworth consciously disavows the exotic in favor of the commonplace, Shelly was very interested in science, and the religious beliefs of poets are constantly unsettled. These poets, far from rejecting older poetic models, often emulated them. External nature was hardly something that a new generation of artists could be said to have discovered.
There is, in addition, a marked different between the German writers, from whom Coleridge learned and indeed plagiarized, and their younger English contemporaries. Friedrich Schiller, in his 1795 essay called Uber naive und sentimen talische Dichtung, or On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, distinguishes between what he calls the naïve or the Classic period, in which harmony with nature was possible, and the modern or sentimental period with such harmony is long gone. What the modern artist must do, he says, is to render the complexities of modern life. That is what modern poetry does.
In England, in the period we label as pre-Romantic, roughly the middle of the 18th century, a poet like Joseph Warton stressed the superiority of nature to art in his 1740 poem called The Enthusiast.
Even a word like natural, in England by the end of the 18th century, came to have two distinct kinds of meanings. It could mean wild, spontaneous, and irregular, which shows by the way, the importance of landscape gardening as a genuine precursor to literary efforts. If you think of what the word “jardon anglais” means in French, it means a forest. An English garden is anything not sculpted and topiaried with Classical geometric designs.
Or, natural could have meant naïve or unsophisticated, which is one reason the Romantics were really the first writers to glorify both the earlier stages of a nation’s identity in their worship of the folk, the people, and in their worship of ballads and other anonymous efforts that constitute the artistic heritage of any modern nation-state. As well as the blessedness of childhood as a special stage.
In this of course, Wordsworth anticipates Freud, who was the Romantic writer at the other end of the 19th century, the man who once said:
“The poets were there before me.”
Freud was thinking of Shakespeare and Sophocles, but the Romantic poets might as easily take their place.
So where does this leave us? Well it leaves us with certain key ideas, metaphors, and even issues that bring together the disparate strands that we’ve traced in the word Romanticisms. So these are things we’ll ask you to think about as we wind our way through the lives and works of the six major poets in the subsequent lectures.
We should say, by the way, that the best thing to do, the best way to listen to these lectures, is to have the poetry at hand. We recommend you read all of the poems listed in the outlines, and then attempt to follow the lectures with the texts of the individual poems before you. Then having heard the lectures, go back to the poems again and again, because only in repetition does genuine understanding come. Our aim in these lectures is to encourage you to explore the poems, the poetic language and the endeavor of the poets on you own. We may think of Willard as our guide, like Virgil leading Dante through the underbrush of a terrain.
Yet let’s go back to the four principles or kinds of issues that will be central to present divergent views. First of all, these poet’s view of the external world or of nature. There seems to be a move in their work from thinking of the universe as static, to conceiving of it as dynamic and always shifting. There was a new, organic way of conceiving the natural world, and humanity’s place within it. This dynamism has origins in, as well as consequences for, philosophy, science, and politics, and for works of art.
The key word here is organicism, suggesting that nature, and even works of art, are living things. Nature might be viewed as something beneficial, or as maternal, as something like a teacher or a nurse.
Yet there’s a counter-desire in many of the works of these poets, to escape from nature, to fly towards heaven, to sink into nothingness, or to defy and deny the connections of man to nature. In some cases, especially that of William Blake, there is a desire to regard nature as coarse and unreliable. For he always preferred the evidence of his imagination and the world it created, to the world of the senses and the external world. He also preferred the city to the country, thereby giving the lie to the dictim that the Romantics were pure and simple, tree-hugging nature worshipers!
Coleridge and Shelly were especially interested in philosophy, whereas Byron and Keats were not. Wordsworth absorbed the thought of his co-worker Coleridge, and in all cases, organicism, as we use it, means that the world and its human occupants exist as a kind of process, and a constantly changing relationship. It’s the idea of a mutuality between the outer and inner-worlds, and also in the realm of aesthetics, the notion of a work of art as a system that resembles a living thing, rather than a dead, mechanical one. That’s the first of my four issues.
The second would be views of society and of history. It goes without saying that the key event of the modern period was the French Revolution, and its consequences throughout European and England. This takes us from the storming of the Bastille in 1789, to the death in Greece of Lord Byron, 35 years later. This was almost a decade after Napoleon had been dispatched to St. Helena, and the Congress of Vienna established a conservative peace throughout Europe.
When Wordsworth remarked in the Prelude, his verse autobiography:
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”
He was expressing the idealism of a young Englishman at the outset of the Revolution in 1790 and 1791, before the innocence of motive and theory, gave way to the bloodshed and rapaciousness of the terror, the wholesale beheading of monarchs, aristocrats, and thousands of other supposed reactionaries.
The Romantic age, during its first period, which was the youth of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s, was essentially an age of revolt. The time of the second generation, Keats, Byron, and Shelly, 20 years later, was during an age of reaction, as the forces of France, under Napoleon, were finally defeated after 25 years of constant warfare on the European continent.
Yet all of our writers are young men, perhaps more sensible of change, energy, and evolution, than of older men, the men that some of them grew into, might be. Wordsworth and Coleridge were notoriously radical when young, and become progressively more conservative, politically and religiously, as they grew older. So did T.S. Eliot, although he’s another case although a parallel one.
Keats, Shelly, and Byron, all died young, before they had the chance to grow stiff and orthodox. Yet all of these poets were touched and inspired by political and social events.
Our third subject could be called views of the self, or of human psychology. All of these poets had to deal with the doctrines of empiricism, that native English philosophy, popularized by John Locke at the end of the 17th century, which held that the mind is a “tabula rasa” a blank slate upon which impressions are made or inscribed.
If sense experience is the primary foundation for all of our thinking, then how can we assert something like an independence of mind? This is the philosophical dilemma that turned the Romantics to notions of a transcendental or timeless realm, comparable to the realm of ideas that Plato had posited 2500 years before then. This is why they often relied, borrowing the language of the German philosophers, on “imagination,” which is a key word indeed. Imagination as the act of human faculty that makes the mind into more than a passive receptor of sense data.
Consider also in this third topic, the relationship between self-glorification and self-destruction. If one premise of modern life, from Schiller and other thinkers, is that human self-consciousness is what distinguishes us from the natural world, and from lower life-forms like trees and birds and children, then self-consciousness ought to be our highest glory. In the Romantic movement we call psycho-analysis, it certainly is that.
Yet there comes a counter-movement, the wish to escape from the weariness, the fever and the threat, here, as Keats puts it in the Ode to a Nightingale. We’re burdened by too much knowledge, too much consciousness, and too much of an awareness of our own mortality. Then we might yearn for the innocence of children or nature, and want to go, as Walt Whitman said:
“to go live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained.”
The last of our four subjects, is that as an extension of views of the self, consider different views of the poet and of his role. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth democratically proclaims the poet a “man speaking to men.” Or is he a seer, a visionary, like Blake? Or is he a hierophant, a priestly reader and receiver of ancient and mysterious signs and symbols, more like an ancient bard?
Shelly says it beautifully in the last line of his Defense of Poetry:
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Is this because they effect change, or make us see things that are new and different, or make us see things differently? Or because they are better than ordinary mortals? Each of our poets wrestles with this dilemma in his work. What kind of work should I be doing, they ask themselves? What should a poet do, and what is a poet
The Romantics had been burdened, as has long been known, by the shadowing presence of the giant race before the flood. Shakespeare, whom Keats referred to as the presider over his work, and Milton, the great Renaissance writer of epic, whose towering achievement in Paradise Lost, provoked, inspired, frustrated, and paralyzed history successors in equal measure.
The question is this, how can you write and epic when all the great works have been written? How can we compete with the noble heroic figures of the past? All of these poets ask themselves these questions, although each one comes up with a distinctive way of, as we now say in creative writing classes, “finding his own voice.”
“Make it new.” This is how Ezra Pound ordered his followers to write poetry at the start of the 20th century. Yet even here, note the awkwardness of this advice, and Pound’s admonition. For one, he’s repeating something that Confucius said millennia ago. For another, you can’t make “it” new, unless there’s an “it” already in existence. No creation comes “ab ovo” (from an egg). It doesn’t come from nowhere. Everything comes from somewhere.
In other words, all great poetry seems to exist in a conversation with the works of the past that have inspired it. This last issue is the one Willard is most interested. Matters of language and poetic form, shape the work and thought of these poets, at least as much as their thoughts about external phenomena, events, and ideas. For this reason, let’s end this lecture with a comparison of two poems involving a similar subject, yet with two entirely different concerns, styles, and effects.
Here’s a small work, an easy couplet by Alexander Pope, the great English neo-Classical poet, whose title is as long as its text! The title is:
“Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I gave to his Royal Highness”
The poem is:
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?
This 1737 epigram is quite literally meant to be thought of as an inscription on a collar, is public and witty. It’s a piece of political satire concerning sycophantic courtiers who kiss-up to royalty in the same way the dogs traditionally lick the hands of the masters that feed them.
The poem also exemplifies what the American poet critic John Hollander has called, the fictions of poetry. After all, a dog is not really talking, we are reading something written in a collar, and imagine that it stands-in as a speaking voice, In fact, we’re not even reading something on a collar, but on e printed page, which is supposed to reproduce something on a collar that reproduces the human voice or dog’s voice.
The label confers meaning, and makes demands on the audience. An epigram is two things, something literally inscribed on something else, yet of course also it’s the name of a witty, short poem
The audience of the poem is not rally another dog, although that would be the vehicle of the metaphor that’s at work here, but a person who is capable of reading, and therefore understanding the comparison that’s being made between a dog and a human being.
Now let’s consider another, perhaps we should call it “man and animal” poem. Thosone is written by William Wordsworth, called “To a Butterfly”(1802), so 65years after Pope’s witty couplet. It’s one of two poems with the same title on the same subject, written in the same two-day period. To a Butterfly:
I’ve watched you now a full half- hour.
Self-poised upon that yellow flower;
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!—not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!
This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister’s flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We’ll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.
This lovely, seemingly artless lyric, looks transparent, almost childish. Yet in fact its ease of means is only half of its story. Wordsworth, as we shall see in the subsequent lectures, should seem laughably simple. We might wonder and ask why a man would wish to talk to a butterfly? Why does any of us, talk to our pets? They won’t talk back. Although a dog or cat might acknowledge our presence, a butterfly will not.
Surely the man is mad, if he expects us to take him literally. So something else must be going on here. Whereas Pope’s poem was public and political, this one seems private and personal, like a quiet discussion with a gentle friend. It doesn’t seem to belong to any poetic genre we’ve seen before, historically speaking.
Yet it is written partially in easy octosyllabic couplets, and seems also to be courteous in the same way that Pope’s poem, also in octosyllabic couplets, is. Both poems are technically what we call apostrophes, direct addresses to a real or imagined listener. Whereas Pope’s speaker demands and answer, Wordsworth’s is happy merely to give assurances and extend an invitation to his butterfly.
There’s more as well. Wordsworth personifies his butterfly and to some extent, treats it like a frail child who needs protection from human power and wrong. The brother and sister between them have designed a bower, his trees, her flowers, in which the butterfly can be their honored guest.
Yet if this small insect is child-like, it is also close to preexistence, perhaps to death itself. The insect is so still, it seems to feed or sleep. The word sleep seems to resonate in the speaker’s mind with an association between that even deeper sleep of death. Motionless identify synonymous here with the infinity of death, “not frozen seas, more motionless,” something remote, obscure, or painful. A state of suspended animation which the butterfly lands until “found out” by the breeze, Note how the expression found out is ominous, as in “I found you out!”
One aspect of Romanticism that we’ll see reflected in all six of the major poets, is a respect for life, and a poetic desire to address, invoke, or otherwise encroach non-human creatures, as having some claims on our imaginations as well as our moral energies. A butterfly, a skylark, a rose, or a worm, can be an occasion for a poem, as we shall see.
In the first stanza, Wordsworth treats the butterfly as a child, and in the second he uses it to stand-for or represent childhood, which is of course something both motionless or dead or past in the life of an adult, and also living because it is held within memory.
As Wordsworth said in the same year he wrote this poem, in another short and simple lyric, “the child is father of the man.” He has made us aware of one of his great themes, the persistence of memory and the need for adults to recall, recollect, to reconstruct their past by relying on some talisman. Perhaps we might even use the word symbol, though that would be very heavy-handed. Along with Blake, Wordsworth was really the first English poet to treat childhood as a special state for psychological and emotional reasons.
Finally, note two other things he does with the form of the poem. In each stanza, two lines are actually shorter than the rest:
More motionless! and then
And calls you forth again!
Sit near us on the bough!
As twenty days are now.
Why is this so? Wordsworth is remarking on the differences between children’s and adult’s perceptions of time. We all remember when summers seemed endless, when a year was virtually infinite. Twenty of today’s days equal one sweet childish day!
So the long and the short of it, is reflected in the length of the lines. To cap it off, we note that whereas stanza one had nine lines, a five line sentence and then a four line sentence, stanza two has ten. Wordsworth has added something here, and proved by his poetic form that the two things which seem almost identical, one stanza and then another, are ion fact not. Time is both a subject in the poem, and also a means of operation within it.
So what does this come down to? Poets trying to find the proper words and form in which to communicate a personal vision., We shall see this in the next lecture, as we approach Wordsworth’s extraordinary achievement that comes down to one man’s effort to place himself within a context of nature, society, and most of all within a context of his own life.
Wordsworth is the first poet to make it his own autobiography, an excessive epic subject. He is also the first poet who taught and who teaches us, how to remember. The intersections between memory and imagination, between past and present, are his greatest theme and legacy.