Romanticism and Pantheism

Posted on January 14, 2010

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Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, The Emergence of Romanticism (Oxford: OUP, 1992) is a fascinating little book that I wish I tripped over before. Apart from anything else, any author with the guts to start a book ‘To quote Wordsworth:’ and to follow that line with seven pages of poetry excerpts deserves some respect! The book offers readings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Schlegel, together with some analysis. The readings of the English poets are convincing to me, but perhaps incomplete (see below); I don’t know enough about the Germans to judge.

Riasanovsky suggests that Romanticism in its original form is a remarkably brief movement, arising roughly simultaneously in England and Germany in the mid-1790s and lasting less than a decade. This is just right – for me, one of those satisfying moments of scholarship where you find someone naming and nailing something you always sort-of knew, and had groped towards. Byron and Keats and Shelley (and the rest) are just different from Coleridge and Wordsworth – if they are still ‘Romantic’ (and of course they are, because self-denominated and generally recognised), then it is a fairly fundamentally different Romanticism to that of the Lyrical Ballads.

The book also highlights something of the communal nature of these projects. The astonishing symbiosis of Wordsworth and Coleridge is known and endlessly analysed, of course (even if all the analysis gets us no nearer to understanding what went on in those few years); Riasanovsky also points towards gatherings at August Wilhelm Schlegel’s house in Jena, where the dinner guests would routinely include of his brother Friedrich, Novalis, Tieck (who published with Wackenroder), Schleiermacher, and, occasionally, Goethe. If you could be at one dinner party in history… (yeah, I know, it would be the one with Socrates at Agathon’s house – but this must be a close second!)

What sets these early Romantics apart? Riasanovsky suggests it is basically something theological: the original Romantics were gripped with an overwhelming pantheist, or panentheist vision, which was the intellectual and spiritual engine that led them to overturn and transform received ideas about nature, language and art. But each, in his own way, was quickly overwhelmed by the vision – Wordsworth becoming a crusty reactionary, trying to edit out everything that was genuinely brilliant from his poetry; Coleridge descending into drug addiction; Novalis doing the proper Romantic thing and died at the height of his power from TB; Wackenroder dying even earlier; Schlegel becoming as reactionary, if in somewhat different ways, to Wordsworth. Schlegel never finished Lucinde, let alone the larger project it was to be a part of, and valued it so little later on that he left it out own his own 1823 edition of his collected works; The Prelude remained alone, and was successively mutilated; the work it was to be a, well, ‘prelude’ to, The Recluse, never appeared; Coleridge, famously, never finished anything (this is unfair!). For a few years, a fire burned with such heat and brilliance that it transformed European literature and culture; for decades afterwards Wordsworth and Schlegel, in particular, remained as only charred timbers. As T.S. Eliot had it of Coleridge, ‘[f]or a few years he had been visited by the Muse … and henceforth was a haunted man.’

Even the casual reader of the poets will know the sense of loss of vision that afflicts them all in different ways. Consider this, from Wordsworth’s Intimations:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it has been of yore;–
Turn whereso’er I may,
By night or day
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Or this, from Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me…

What is lost? For Riasanovsky, it is the consuming pantheist experience described by Wordsworth in his note on Intimations: ‘I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times when going to school have I grasped at a wall or a tree to recall myself from the abyss of idealism to reality…’ (q. on p.75) This felt pantheism, or at least panentheism, is at the heart of the Lyrical Ballads, of the original version of The Prelude (& it is what Wordsworth attempts to edit out in successive editions), of Lucinde, even of the Hymnen an die Nacht – try this:

Die Lieb’ ist frey gegeben
Und keine Trennung mehr.
Es wogt das volle Leben
Wie ein undendlich Meer,
Nur eine Nacht der Wonne–
Ein ewiges Gedicht–
Und unser aller Sonne
Ist Gottes Angesicht.

It is also at the heart of the vocation of the poet described in the Biolgraphia Literaria and Athenaeum (and even more so, perhaps in Schlegel’s fragments – see fragment 116 especially).

Coleridge’s drug addiction, Wordsworth reactionary politics, Schlegel’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, the self-neglect that perhaps contributed to Novalis’s early death – all were in different ways grasping at walls and trees to recall themselves from the abyss.

I find this broadly convincing, but incomplete. A minor question would be whether this analysis, based as it is on the poets, can be extended to other forms of Romantic art. Friedrich was painting his Wreck in the Sea of Ice at about the time Coleridge was describing another such wreck in the Rime, after all, but Friedrich’s full Romantic vision was only achieved later (The Tetschen Altarpiece of 1808 is generally classed as his first major painting), and did not wane until his stroke in 1835. Again, after dinner at the Schlegel’s you could go to take in the premiere of Beethoven’s latest piano sonata – maybe the Pathetique (OK, it would probably have been a bit of a trek…) – the Eroica was not premiered until 1805, however (it seems at the same concert he premiered Fidelio – of you could be at one concert in history…), and who will say that the choral conclusion to the Ninth (first performed 1824) is one whit less Romantic – indeed, less Frühromantik – than Novalis?

(Schiller’s An die Freude had been written in 1785, but surely, at least in Beethoven’s hands, captures some of the religious ecstasy of the early Romantics. It could not be described as ‘pantheist’, though – ‘Ahndest du den Schoepfer, Welt? / Such ihn ueberm Sternenzelt. / Ueber Sternen muss er wohen.’)

My more major question: it seems to me that there is, in Coleridge and Wordsworth at least, a reason Riasanovsky does not notice for the loss of this experience of pantheist ecstasy. He traces (with the help of McFarland’s great book on Coleridge) the inherent instability of Romantic pantheism (roughly, if pantheism is true, human individuality cannot exist, a conclusion intolerable to any Romantic – Coleridge, in a letter: ‘make yourself thoroughly, intuitively master of admitting a one Ground for the Universe (which however must be admitted) and yet finding room for anything else.’ Certainly this is a reason for the loss. But there is also, in the two English poets at least (I don’t know the Germans well enough to comment), a fundamental loss of confidence, which I have traced in a couple of writings on Coleridge. He once believed he could grasp the truth of things in his pantheistic ecstasies; in the daemonic poems ecstasy is still a reality, but the possibility is raised of it being profoundly misleading (is the report of the Mariner true? How can Christabel’s father be so wrong about Geraldine? And the right way to treat the ecstatic mystic? ‘Beware – beware his flashing eyes, his flowing hair – weave a circle round him thrice and shut your eyes in holy dread…’). Coleridge is not just afraid of loss of self in ecstasy, he is afraid of hallucination, of being wrong.

He finds his answer, and recovers his confidence, through a stunning construction of a Christian Platonist vision. But I’ve written about that elsewhere.

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