The Romantic Fallacy


English romanticism has no readily identifiable provenance. It has, of course, been traced back to the ancient sources of the native imagination. In particular the melancholy of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poets may have been transmitted by indirect means to the poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Certainly the interest in an ancient national poetry, in England no less than in Germany or Russia, was deemed to be at the expense of the classical tradition derived from Greece and Rome. Hence the division between the classic and the romantic. The romantics, unlike such predecessors as Pope and Dryden, were believed to be returning to some native source of eloquence. There are cultural historians who will then wish to establish their connection with the national Church which emerged after the Reformation. It is argued that the doctrinal emphasis upon individual conscience and private moral duty materially influenced the development of the romantic “I”; Wordsworth is then the direct heir of those religious enthusiasts who were moved by the “inner spirit.” The romantic movement in Catholic Europe took on a very different aspect. It became elaborate and symbolic, clothed in allegory and invaded by intimations of strange sins; it became, in other words, intensely Catholic. The image of Wordsworth striding across the rocks and vales of the Lake District is quite another thing. He epitomises that strain of moral earnestness, of right thinking and right feeling, which characterises the Dissenting Protestant tradition.

If we look for earlier and perhaps less orthodox intimations of the romantic sensibility, however, we are sure to find them. The plight of the solitary poet, whose genius is akin to madness, can be witnessed in the unhappy experience of John Clare, Christopher Smart and William Cowper, whose respective lunacies offer a disquieting footnote to the literary history of the eighteenth century. The cult of sentiment, the passion for antiquity, the attention to “Gothick” and supernatural effects, the vogue for the ballad—all have their origins in that century, even if they found their apotheosis in the works of Wordsworth and his successors. The fixed production of generic verse upon classical models was replaced by an organic process of human transference and sympathy; poetic diction itself became “less precise, more generally suggestive.”1

The retreat from statement and sententiousness, and the eighteenth-century movement towards a romantic sensibility, were marked by the fashion for sentimental feeling as exemplified by such novels as Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling; sensitive sentimentality became known as “the English malady.” The man of feeling dies because he is too good for this cruel world, and Mackenzie’s novel was published just a year after the death of Chatterton. The harsh laughter of Congreve and Wycherley is replaced by the gentler amusement of Sheridan and Goldsmith.

Yet the lineaments of the romantic image were most decisively executed in the nineteenth century. The artist is then one surrounded by invisible powers, which by an act of rapt attention may be transformed into a permanent image or symbol. The poet is one set apart, the conscience and unacknowledged law-maker of human society who as a consequence of his solitariness is doomed to be misinterpreted and mistreated; he does not endure the world but re-creates it in the act of imagination, and must place his own sensibility at the heart of this enterprise because there is no other sure foundation of knowledge. The romantic poet is a lamp rather than a mirror, to use a celebrated antithesis, the source of illumination within his or her own breast. If this entails the re-creation of the self as well as of the world, then the divine afflatus of the bard may also be a mode of private transformation. A human being may be transfigured by god-like powers of the imagination. “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory,” Keats wrote. “Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.”

We may lower the temperature a little by recalling Coleridge’s comment upon the acting of Edmund Kean; watching him upon the stage, he remarked, was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” It is of some interest in this context that the romantic image, or at least the image of the romantic hero, was largely embodied in actors and in paintings of actors. They, rather than the poets themselves, seemed to fulfil the prerequisites of the part. Kemble as Coriolanus and as Hamlet, painted by Thomas Lawrence respectively in 1798 and 1801, set the mood and tone with “these heroic figures, dark cloaked against murky skies” exhibiting “Hamlet’s introversion” and “Coriolanus’s humiliated pride.”The connection of the romantic poets with the theatre is not confined to portraiture alone. All of them wrote verse dramas, and most of them speculated upon the nature of theatrical passion and dramatic performance. They associated their art with the techniques of impersonation. Coleridge may be said to set the scene of the dramatic action with his remark upon Shakespeare that “he had only to imitate certain parts of his character, or exaggerate such as existed in possibility, and they were at once true to nature, and fragments of the divine mind that drew them.” In this passage the notion of imitation, and of exaggeration, is indistinguishable from that of creation.

The renown of actors such as Kean and Kemble, Macready and Mrs. Siddons was such that the nature of dramatic poetry itself was seen in the context of their art. Charles Lamb wrote even of a relatively minor actor, Robert Bensley, that he “had most of the swell of soul, was greatest in the delivery of heroic conceptions, the emotions consequent upon the presentment of a great idea to the fancy. He had the true poetical enthusiasm.” Yet the terms of approbation are precisely those which were awarded to the poets themselves, so that there seems to be no difference at all between the poetic and theatrical “delivery” of feeling. That may perhaps be sufficient cause for the ready identification of Shelley and Coleridge with the character of Hamlet, as if somehow their finest or most fugitive feelings were most nobly expressed by a dramatic persona. Coleridge described Hamlet as “forever occupied with the world within him, and abstracted from external things; his words give a substance to shadows: and he is dissatisfied with commonplace realities.” This might be a definition of Coleridge himself. Poetry itself is then fully explicated in the processes of the theatrical imagination. What is real, and what is feigned? As Coleridge puts it in Table Talk, “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.”

If we turn from the part to the actor, then there is evidence of further confusion or conflation. Hazlitt comprehended the performance of Kemble as “intensity”; he was able to seize upon one feeling or one idea, “working it up, with a certain graceful consistency, and conscious grandeur of conception, to a very high degree of pathos or sublimity.” Kemble “had all the regularity of art” and lent “the deepest and most permanent interest to the uninterrupted progress of individual feeling.” A casual reader might be forgiven for believing that Hazlitt was describing the imaginative procedures of the poet rather than the stage life of the actor. It is so common an identification in the period that it often passes without comment, but it is suggestive nonetheless. When Keats celebrates the “sensual grandeur” which Kean brings to the “spiritual passion” of Shakespeare’s verse, he might have been describing his own practice; the poet then confirms and elaborates upon his point with the suggestion that “Kean delivers himself up to the instant feeling, without a shadow of thought about anything else. He feels his being as deeply as Wordsworth. . . . We will say no more.” Enough has been said, however, to provoke the student of Wordsworth or of Keats himself into speculations about the theatrical management of passion.

The language of dramatic criticism was similarly of a piece with the language of literary criticism. Kean, as Iago, was praised for “the ease, familiarity and tone of nature” of his delivery; as Timon of Athens he was criticised for want of “sufficient variety and flexibility of passion.” The same vocabulary, and the same sentiments, were applied to the latest poetical productions of the period. Romantic acting, and romantic poetry, were considered to be equivalent. It throws curious light, too, upon Keats’s conception of “the poetical character” which “is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing . . . the camileon poet”; to which definition he adds: “A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually . . . filling, some other body.” This might stand as a definition of the actor, too, as if the poet and performer shared the same identity—or, rather, shared the same absence of identity.

The equivalence may help to account for the modern critical assumption that in the romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century, particularly in that of Wordsworth, there exists “artifice behind the postulate of nature.”3 Just as an entire dramatic system lies behind the apparently unpremeditated art of Kean or Mrs. Siddons, so dwell “tradition, convention and genre behind the appearance of romantic spontaneity.” 4

The claims of the romantic poets, however, were grand indeed. In his Defence of Poetry Shelley celebrated poets as themselves “the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men . . . men of the most spotless virtue, of the most consummate prudence.” It is not clear, however, if these remarks were made in the spirit of deepest irony. Wordsworth considered the poet to be a man “endowed with a more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness . . . a more comprehensive soul,” so that “the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society.” The natural virtues of the poet are here asserted in the spirit of what Keats called “the Wordsworthian, or egotistical sublime,” but the full ramifications of that phrase have not been properly understood. What, precisely, is egotism in the sphere of the imagination?

The term itself implies some weakness or insufficiency beneath apparent strength. It implies a trust in a deep and powerful subjectivity, but one which is also obsessive and defensive. Johnson defines an egotist as “a talker of himself,” and in his Lectures on Shakespeare Coleridge called egotism “intense selfishness.” As one critic has remarked of the romantic poet in general, “he is thrown back on himself, his status and nature.” In the case of Wordsworth, “his chief preoccupation is with the question of the poet’s function, his role, his power, his obligations.” 5 In turn the pose, or poses, which Byron adopted were “a logical continuation of the Wordsworthian preoccupation with role.”We revert inevitably to the vocabulary and manner of the stage.

In the largest sense romantic literature is the literature of personality, in which the writer imposes upon an unchanging landscape or a passing scene the contours of his or her own preoccupations; the world becomes an echo-chamber of the solitary voice. But this also may lead to a form of imposture, as if the romantic poet were indeed an actor trying to project to the “gods” as well as the “pit.” We have noticed how fragile the romantic image may become, touched with intimations of forgery and plagiarism as well as theatricality, but there is a subtler frailty. The cult of the “egotistical sublime”—or, in a philosophical context, individualism—effectively destroyed, in the words of one eighteenth-century cultural historian, “the organic metaphysics of earlier centuries and the archaic belief in the unity and wholeness of experience.”It promulgated instead the instincts or doctrines “of a solitary, increasingly alienated individual.” 8 Just as the Reformation severed the national Church from the consensus of a thousand years, so its natural child of romanticism abrogated the alliance between the artist and the larger settled community. That is why it has been argued that the “central truth of romanticism is not joy and fulness of being but what Hegel . . . called ‘the unhappy consciousness ... the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being’ ” 9 relying upon the artificiality of language and its constructs to exemplify its dubious status. It is not irrelevant that Robert Browning parodied romantic sentiment through the voice of “Mr. Sludge,” a fake spiritualist medium. One critic has discovered, in the narratives of British romanticism, a “problematical self-consciousness” and a “division in the self ”:10 the main thematic and imaginative drift is not towards the affirmation of a certain and simple selfhood, but the nostalgia incumbent upon its loss of connection with the larger world. The solitary wanderers of Coleridge or Wordsworth or Byron are forms of self-projection and self-alienation.

To read through Wordsworth’s collected works is to encounter strange stories of grief and loss, of death and forgetfulness, of isolation and failure, of dissolution and despair. In one edition of his poetry the “Fragment of a Gothic Tale” is followed by The Borderers—A Tragedy, succeeded a few pages later by “The Three Graves,” “Address to Silence” and “Incipient Madness.”11 In The Prelude Wordsworth invokes the burden and the mystery of the “Imagination”; the vision occurs at a moment when he and his companion are told they had crossed the Alps without realising that they had done so. In this moment of bewilderment and loss, the “Imagination” wreathed itself around the poet

Like an unfather’d vapour; here that Power, In all the might of its endowments, came Athwart me; I was lost as in a cloud, Halted, without a struggle to break through

The “Imagination” here isolates and imprisons him; he is trapped in its vaporous obscurities. It is a power which seals off the world, leaving the traveller susceptible only to “the might of its endowments.” The imaginative power is “unfather’d”; it is not a natural force, and can be seen to work against the experience of the natural world as somehow irrelevant to its concerns. What Wordsworth is experiencing are the rising currents of his highest self, which lead in turn to anxiety and vertigo. There are times when he tries to flee from the reaches of his most profound mental consciousness but then he is confronted with images of death, loss and silence. The romantic image—the image of the romantic selfhood—was more fragile than its exponents seemed willing to comprehend.

It is perhaps appropriate that the great avatar of the romantic poets was Cain himself. He is invoked by Shelley in Adonais, by Byron in The Giaour and Cain: A Mystery, and by Coleridge in The Wanderings of Cain. The biblical murderer was one in whom the “egotistical sublime” had dared to rear itself against God. When Cain became “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth” he set out upon a path of wandering and in his steps followed such great exilic romantic heroes as Manfred and Melmoth the Wanderer. But it was also decreed that “thou art cursed from the earth.” The romantic personality can indeed seem curiously at a loss, sensitive of “cultural discontinuity, of being nowhere in the movement of history, of being useless, ignored, misunderstood.” 12 As Schopenhauer wrote, “we are lost in a bottomless void; we find ourselves like the hollow glass globe, from out of which a voice speaks whose cause is not to be found in it.” Or, as one historian of the romantic movement has put it, there emerges “an infinite series of displacements of meaning” attendant upon “incompleteness, fragmentation and ruin.”13 Yet flowing beneath them, supporting them and moving them forward, is the steady current of English music itself.

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