My “Topics in Romanticism” course met last Thursday evening for the first time this semester. Since we convene only once a week, I decided we should use the first class to introduce ourselves to the term “romanticism” and to the topics we will be investigating over the next several weeks.
After going over the syllabus and the required texts, I shared an excerpt from The Oxford Companion to English Literature‘s entry “Romanticism”:
In the most abstract terms, Romanticism may be regarded as the triumph of the values of imaginative spontaneity, visionary originality, wonder, and emotional self-expression over the classical standards of balance, order, restraint, proportion, and objectivity. Its name derives from romance, the literary form in which desires and dreams prevail over everyday realities. (7th edition)
To get a taste of these qualities, we read William Wordsworth’s, “Old Man Travelling” (1802).
Old Man Travelling
Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch
The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought—He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect, that the young behold
With envy, what the old man hardly feels.
—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
‘Sir! I am going many miles to take
A last leave of my son, a mariner,
Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,
And there is dying in an hospital.’ (Major Works [OUP], pg. 29)
Students were quick to pick up on the qualities indicated in the OCEL; indeed, the subject matter is presented as spontaneous, unexpected, accidental. The speaker has apparently just stumbled across an “Old Man Travelling” and expresses strange wonder at his form, physique, and disposition. In these lines, the old man becomes a vision of something just out of reach, a patience, peace, or tranquility so extreme that it is “animal,” nonhuman. We have all the key features illustrated above: “imaginative spontaneity, visionary originality, wonder, and emotional self-expression.”
And yet, as I then pointed out, we also see two additional features that are not mentioned in this excerpt (though they are touched on elsewhere in the OCEL entry on romanticism): namely, a profound humanitarianism and an emphasis on nature. Regarding the latter, it is noteworthy that the speaker first notices the old man by noticing that “[t]he little hedge-row birds” do not notice him. Moreover, he sees the old man as an animal, a creature that easily belongs to—fits in with—the natural environment around him. We see evidence of the former in the revelation that closes the poem. The speaker shares his vision for sixteen lines, only to have his vision undercut by the material and familial hardship of the old man. He is not merely the ideal image of a patient creature; he is a father travelling with all the painful speed he can muster to bid farewell to a fatally-wounded son. Wordsworth expertly leaves us without poetic commentary, and by doing so seems to interfuse the speaker (and the reader) with the old man. A nonverbal but sympathetic relation is established. After the aesthetic boldness of the earlier lines, we are left with no more words. “Shit… I’m just so sorry,” is all I can muster.
Over the next several minutes, I contextualized this humanitarianism. Leaning heavily on Aidan Day’s Romanticism (1995, 1st edition), I suggested that “humanitarian sympathy” was actually quite fashionable in the decades leading up to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) and, as such, “was part of the ground-swell of radical political feeling in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the period that saw first the American War of Independence and then the French Revolution” (Day 12). Whether this “radical political feeling” opposed state tyranny or the evils of slavery, championed the rights of women or the poor, it serves as the historical backdrop to a poem like “Old Man Travelling” and evinces a widespread desire to break free of chains: physical, mental, and symbolic.
At this point we transitioned to two poems I had asked students to read beforehand. Though many had not even known they were supposed to read the poems, I passed out copies of the first epistle to Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733) as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” (1816). Might the differences between Pope and Shelley relate to this radical political feeling? To a desire to bring about social revolution and change?
An Essay on Man (Epistle I, Section X)
Cease then, nor ORDER Imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: This kind, this due degre
Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.
Submit — In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony, not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, “Whatever is, is RIGHT.”
Though we certainly talked about more than this section of Pope’s first epistle, this last section serves as a good illustration of the ideas and values that romantic poetry and the radical politics that preceded it turned against. Indeed, this stanza embodies—in both form and content—the values indicated in the OCEL excerpt above: “balance, order, restraint, proportion, and objectivity.” Instead of breaking chains or aspiring to be or to know more than one might think possible, Pope attempts to prove the famous eighteenth-century notion that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Though we might not be able to see or sense its perfection or its rightness, “Whatever is [must be] RIGHT.” This is not just a claim about humankind’s place in “the great chain.” It is also a claim about the natural world itself. It is hierarchical, ordered, eternal, and unchanging. Pope doubles this sentiment in the very metrical and sonic balance of his masterful couplets.
And what image of humankind and nature appears in romantic poetry? We’ve already seen a bit of it in the Wordsworth poem. But what about something a bit more challenging?
Mont Blanc (Section 5)
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: — the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them: — Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
Students were rightly intimidated by Shelley. While Pope’s language might require a bit of work for the 21st-century reader, his figures of speech and his arguments are not very complicated (at least on a first read). They are easy to summarize. Indeed, he wants them to be concise and clear.
But what ideas are at work in this closing stanza of “Mont Blanc”? As soon as we ask this question upon reading these lines for the first time, we confront a difficulty not only of two-hundred-year-old English but of ambiguous figures of speech and a more robust, less restrained and far less proportionate view of the human mind and its relation to nature. What is “the power” to which the opening line refers? What is “[t]he secret Strength of things”? Is it out there? Or is it within “the human mind’s imaginings”? What is nature, its power, or its activity, without the mind’s capacity to do something with “[s]ilence and solitude”? In the coming semester, we’ll investigate such questions and how they might relate to and have implications for the issues of morality and justice, of radical sympathy and brutal murder, and of the crucial tension between beauty and sublimity.