Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Only Connect

Timothy Brownlow, Malaspina University-College


  1. The tapestry of the Romantic period is vast, so vast that it is perhaps impossible to find a wall anywhere, even in one's mind, big enough to contain it. I am reminded of the history of one Old Master painting: it was cut into many pieces and dispersed around the globe. Art historians have to date traced all but one segment of the painting, and the curators of the National Gallery, London (the owners of the central fragment) have paid handsomely to retrieve the missing parts, so visitors can now see an almost complete picture. The Director of the National Gallery recently announced on television: "If anyone knows the whereabouts of this remaining fragment, we would be most interested in hearing about it." Teachers and scholars of Romanticism seem to be always making a similar request (or re-quest): if anyone out there finds the missing piece of the great jig-saw puzzle called Romanticism, please get in touch immediately. We seem to be permanently out of touch with the subject. Romanticism often works by the method patented by Polonius in Hamlet: "by indirections find directions out" (2. 1. 65). Maybe we should not want the missing piece of the painting to be restored; its absence teases us out of thought as doth eternity. To put it in other words, Romanticism is a quest for wholeness that can never be completely achieved or satisfied: fragmentation and frustration are constant companions, which I believe only increases its relevance and importance.

  2. The great Romantics, for all their strong and idiosyncratic personalities, were basically humble in front of the givens of existence. Their language feels its way into perceived truths, rather than assaulting them with the battering rams of logic or the unearned certainties of abstract jargon. What needs to be restored, and there is every sign that it is slowly being restored, is intuition along with tuition, the touch described by Pope in "An Essay on Man": "The spider's touch, so exquisitely fine!/ Feels at each thread, and lives along the line" (Butt 512). The huge task awaiting contemporary critics is the perennial one of absorbing one's predecessors, re-experiencing the original works in all their nakedness, and living along the line with an informed but humble analysis. I use the word "nakedness" advisedly, as it seems that many works have been clothed with so many interpretations, or varnished with so many layers, that one of our first tasks is to patiently clean the canvas, restore the original colours, and discard the fashionable vestments of thought with which they have become encrusted. A. N. Whitehead once complained about the second-handedness of academic thought; today, thought is likely to have been more extensively shop-soiled.

  3. The Romantics had a similar task of renovation 200-odd years ago. They inherited a mechanistic language from the eighteenth century, which in their different ways, they set out to transform. Wordsworth's "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" is still a clarion call to exalted but pragmatic common sense. We need a similar revolution of the wheel of language to restore the place of each spoke in the economy of the circle, radiating outwards from a luminous hub of meaning. If the intellectual master-theme of the Enlightenment was Descartes's "I think, therefore I am," and Rousseau's reaction could be summed up as "I feel, therefore I am," the motto of the true Romantic teacher/scholar should be "I inter-relate, therefore I am." Too much has been made of the Romantic stress on solitude and a corresponding solipsism and "mystification"; the Romantics were also obsessed with community; the fact that few of them achieved satisfactory communal relationships while longing for a true community—Wordsworth's "Perfect Contentment, Unity entire" (Hayden I, 701)—is another way of saying how modern they are.

  4. In my experience, students in the past ten years have become increasingly disenchanted with some of the intellectual orthodoxies of the past thirty years. Although they don't always have the language to articulate it, they are saying: "Yes, there was a lot of dirty water to empty from the bath, but where has the baby gone?" I hope I will not be perceived as flippant in using this homely metaphor, as it reminds me of the Romantic watch-cry: "Back to Nature." These simple slogans are dangerously intoxicating, as the Romantic generation found out, but they contain a multitude of complex attitudes. So, let me make a start in defining what I perceive it entails to be a teacher of Romanticism in 2005 trying to restore the baby, or to get back to nature. I want to concentrate on three areas: avoidance of jargon; a restoration of orality; and a revival of sensuousness. I believe these three areas are inter-connected, and are highlighted by an awareness of ecological principles: the first returns us to linguistic origins; the second returns us to oral immediacy; and the third returns us to the physical.

  5. First, jargon. Two types of jargon should be distinguished: 1) the language of specialties and technicalities within any discipline, which practitioners will recognize and non specialists can learn, given some research; 2) the use of specialized language out of context, or in such a way as to obfuscate the issues and intimidate the reader, often expressed in long, abstract, and ugly words. Orwell's 1947 essay "Politics and the English Language" diagnosed the disease, but his insights have become more and more relevant with each decade. William Zinsser sums up this issue with admirable clarity: ". . . no one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief" (62-3). One could add an adaptation of Keats's remark about poetry: "We hate [writing] that has a palpable design upon us" (Wu 1021). Much of the criticism of Romanticism over the past thirty years has had very palpable designs on us, and whether the writers were up to mischief or not, they are often obscure. One of the first tasks of the teacher in the field, therefore, is to point out the difference between the types of jargon outlined above. Most students nowadays read little enough, after all, so we should be alert to guiding them towards the bracing complexity of good scholarship and away from the opaque inertness of vague or pretentious writing. The principles of feng shui, that everything has a field of energy, surely applies to words as well: good writing is full of energy, it generates the electricity of meaning. Bad writing blocks the energy flows of thought, creating a toxic build-up.

  6. Aggressive language seems to sweep all before it in majestic generalizations. Academics have their "buzzwords" as much as any other group. Buzzwords immediately separate the sheep from the goats, the "us" from the "them"; they seem to say, are you a paid-up member in our club? Academics are particularly adept at playing this game, forgetting that the country of knowledge is the birthright of every intelligent being, not the province of self-selecting illuminati. When Wordsworth wrote about wanting to return to the language really used by men, I believe he had in mind something analogous to the situation described by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine in Vanishing Voices: the Extinction of the World's Languages. The authors present a powerful thesis to show that biodiversity has always been linked to linguistic diversity. "Traditional fishermen, particularly on small islands (in Micronesia) where the people still depend on the sea for most of their food, are still rich sources of information unknown to western scientists" (72). This vastly intricate knowledge is internalized and memorized:

    The tides are also timed in relation to lunar phases, and these too were committed to memory. Most of the languages and dialects have specific terms for the paired currents which form on either side of the islands, a region in which these currents converge downstream, and a back current flowing toward the island from this convergence point. The islanders were using their knowledge of current patterns in both fishing and navigation long before they were documented by oceanographers. (Nettle and Romaine 75)

    Wordsworth, in admiring the linguistic richness and biodiversity of the Lake District, is tuning in to frequencies that, once silenced, can never return. During the recent outbreak of foot-and- mouth disease in England, there was great concern in the Lake District that the ancient breed of fell sheep would be infected. If so, the instinctive knowledge of thousands of years would be lost, as those sheep are famous for knowing their boundaries without any fences. The internalized knowledge of many peoples whose habitat is at risk has a comparable vulnerability, not just to disease, but to the juggernauts of modernization, allied with the arrogant certainties of the trained experts.

  7. In her 1977 book, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, (whose very title contains three of the key words in this area), Edith Cobb laments the lack of mutuality in the language of scholarship in her time:

    Unfortunately, the language of conquest still maintains a supreme hold on our social and political theory, our medical policies, and most serious of all, our teaching of ideas about nature and man. Even among naturalists and biologists the realization that in ecology as a biological science we have, for the first time in the history of thought, an instrument for the study of reciprocity and mutuality among categories of thought, as well as among divisions and levels in nature, seems strangely lacking. (24)

    Much of the ensuing "discourse" of the final decades of the twentieth century intensified this lack, for all its protestations of "multi-culturalism," most of it showing little awareness of, even a contempt for, the kind of humble precision that Cobb describes.

  8. Richness of language accompanies variety of occupation. When one is eroded, the other is impoverished. The diminishment of Gaelic in Ireland followed the decay of traditional crafts and the obliteration of much of the flora and fauna, as explained by Desmond Fennell in "The Last Years of the Gaeltacht" (1981):

    The Gaelic which is spoken today in the Gaeltacht, and which is gradually being abandoned, is a very thin language compared with the spoken Gaelic of three hundred, a hundred, or fifty years ago . . . a huge loss of vocabulary occurred when the craft industries largely disappeared from the countryside in face of competition from factory products . . . today you see people working in the fields, fishing, gathering seaweed, building houses and making boats. Eighty years ago there were coopers, nail-makers, sail-makers, weavers, tailors, cobblers, and so on. . . . (qtd. in Foster 442)

    These languages are idiomatic and full of the vivid particulars of a way of life, just as the voices of these people are distinctive and individual. Jargon, on the other hand, strings together ready-made thoughts. Under the guise of profound meaning, it delivers a stale monotony rather than the freshness of perception admired by Wordsworth in the Lake District:

    . . . because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. . . . The language, too, of these men is adopted . . . because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived. . . . (Wu 357)

    Although Wordsworth and Blake approach nature from very different perspectives, Wordsworth in such passages is close to the Blake who wrote: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit" (Johnson and Grant 440). The Greeks have an expression pointing up a similar contrast: "the poet or the idiot" (Kirkpatrick 532). In other words, if one does not have a touch of the poet, seeking the universal in tiny details, one is likely to string generalities together, losing sight of the roots of meaning. Wordsworth's "spots of time" (Wu 307), Dorothy Wordsworth's incomparable descriptions of the "simplicity, unity, and life" of her environment (Wu 434), Coleridge's acutely observed nature notes—"A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder-flowers" (Hudson 24)—Byron's flippant down-to-earthness: "And so, for god sake, hock and soda water" (Wu 807), Keats's evocation of the "Season of mists" by making us see and hear "the small gnats" mourning "among the river sallows" (Wu 1080), and Clare's teeming universe of outer and inner weathers—all these are part of the Romantic revolt against what I have called aggressive abstractions.

  9. The French historian, Hippolyte Taine, in his description of Robespierre's use (or misuse) of language, strikes a contemporary disenchanted note. Robespierre, according to Taine, has a

    . . . hollow, inflated mind that, filled with words and imagining that these are ideas, revels in its own declamation and dupes itself that it may dictate to others. . . . It might be said he never saw anything with his own eyes, that he neither could nor would see, that false conceptions have intervened and fixed themselves between him and the object; he combines these in logical sequences, and simulates the absent thought by an affected jargon. (McFarland 137-8)

    This is strikingly similar to Orwell's diagnosis in 1947:

    The writer [of jargon] either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as any topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. (Stubbs and Barnet 267)

    Northrop Frye once wrote about a "high authority in the field" of education, whom he describes as "fluent without being articulate." He "cannot break out of an armour of ready-made phrases when he tries to express his real convictions. Once again, nothing can now be done for him: there are no courses in remedial metaphor" (www.mrbauld.com/fryepoet.html).

  10. One of the most productive areas of recent scholarship in the Romantic field has been the turn towards an ecological criticism, by scholars such as Jonathan Bate and James McKusick. A further fruitful development is the return to the extensive quotation of original texts, epitomized by the criticism of Thomas McFarland. And in The Gang, John Worthen effectively counters the too-easy assumption that the Romantics worked in solipsistic isolation. These approaches enable one to escape the twin boxes of left-wing or right-wing ideologies, or of old-fashioned humanist versus avant-garde theorist, and find one's bearings in "a language that is ever green" (Bate, "I AM," 147), a line of Clare's that characterizes the new approach. Clare's work especially disproves the contention of some recent critics that the immersion in nature entails a retreat from, or falsification of, political awareness. The political issues shift into what McKusick calls "a zone of ecological conflict" (McKusick 226). For ecocritical scholars, the contemporary relevance of the Romantics, in every sense including the political, is precisely their passionate awareness of the inter-connectedness of natural and human phenomena. The Romantics knew and exemplified the paradox of returning to the origins (and therefore seeming to be archaic) in order to be original. They were, in Kant's phrase, the "favourites of Nature" (Gadamer 21). In discussing Clare as "an increasingly influential model for the current generation of ecological writers," McKusick writes:

    Clare's historical priority in generating a poetic ecolect suggests that modern ecological consciousness did not emerge gradually from an antecedent configuration of scientific concepts, but constitutes a radically new conceptual paradigm that demands a distinctive form of expression. (245, 243)

    Contemporary critics espousing an ecological approach are creating "a radically new conceptual paradigm" to restore the origins. They are thus enacting the Romantic quest themselves, by indirections finding directions out.

  11. Another way that teachers and critics of Romanticism can anchor their material in the specific is to remember the connections between literacy and orality. The real language of men is colloquial, idiomatic utterance. It is essentially anecdotal. The word anecdote comes from a Latin stem meaning unpublished material, usually of a personal nature. The pressure of "publish or perish" for professional academics has been so pronounced in recent decades that many scholars have eschewed anecdotal material as unprofessional. The great Romantics, of course, had no such qualms. That sublime egotist, Wordsworth, was steeped in Rousseau, who led the way in substituting the confessional (the personal, emotion-driven) for the professional (the impersonal, fact-driven). This confessional tradition, of course, can lead to triviality and excess, but part of the greatness of the Romantics is their ability to blend the personal with the impersonal. It is not unconnected that many of them were prolific talkers. Coleridge's talk was legendary, and his notebooks often read like overflow conversations (or monologues). Wordsworth, while not possessing the gift of the gab like Coleridge, nevertheless had a very distinctive utterance; who can forget Hazlitt's description of Wordsworth's voice: "a deep guttural intonation, and a strong tincture of the northern burr, like the crust on wine" (Wu 607)? And Benjamin Robert Haydon describes "Wordsworth repeating Milton with an intonation like the funeral bell of St Paul's and the music of Handel mingled. . . ." (Wu 660) at the "immortal dinner" of 28 December, 1817. Byron, especially in Don Juan, catches the idiomatic immediacy of colloquial conversation at all levels of society. And the reader of Keats's letters regrets not to have heard those searing asides as part of the poet's social conversation.

  12. If the printed word is allied to the linear and the eye, the spoken word is intuitive and auditory. Walter J. Ong writes:

    By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart (Descartes's campaigning for clarity and distinctness registered an intensification of vision in the human sensorium). The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together. (72)

    And Ong could be describing the Romantic enterprise in the following: "Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, as interior condition, the psyche is in bad health." (72).

  13. The importance of the auditory to Wordsworth is well known. In fact, for a poem ostensibly so much about seeing, "Tintern Abbey" starts with auditory memories:

    Five years have past; five summers, with the length
    Of five long winters! And again I hear
    These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
    With a soft inland murmur. (Wu 265)

    To see into the life of things is to engage in a unified sensuous response, in touch with the ancient rhythms of nature, and modified by the imagination. [See attachment: "Craftsmanship."]

  14. In a defining Romantic gesture, Wordsworth read the completed Prelude aloud to Coleridge and others at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire in 1806. Reading aloud, like truly engaged conversation, is badly in need of revival. I recently read "Tintern Abbey" aloud to my first-year course. In the discussion afterwards, one student picked up the line "For thou art with me here upon the banks / Of this fair river. . ." and asked whether Wordsworth was quoting Psalm 23: "For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me." I replied that Wordsworth is very likely doing so, especially as an earlier verse of the Psalm goes: "He shall feed me in a green pasture: and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort." Wordsworth and Dorothy are walking in a "green pastoral landscape" beside the River Wye. In my experience, students are more likely to pick up such echoes, allusions, and textures when they listen as well as read. Marshall McLuhan describes the difference cogently. In oral interchange,

    . . . there are numerous simultaneous vistas of any topic whatever. The subject is looked at swiftly from many angles; classic notions and insights concerning that subject are, via memory, on the tip of every tongue in the intimate group. (Hawkes 52)

    In processing the written word, however,

    . . . the reader's eye not only prefers one sound, one tone, in isolation; it prefers one meaning at a time. Simultaneities like puns and ambiguities—the life of spoken discourse—become, in writing affronts to taste, floutings of efficiency. (Hawkes 52)

    Federico Garcia Lorca, writing about the peculiarly Spanish concept of "duende," that gut feeling of authenticity, which "squeezes lemons of daybreak," is close to McLuhan's "simultaneous vistas":

    All the Arts are capable of possessing duende, but naturally the field is widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require a living body as interpreter—they are forms that arise and die ceaselessly, and are defined by an exact present. (Gili 132-3)

    This tip-of-the-tongueness in an exact present is a timeless moment, what Blake called the "Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find" (Johnson and Grant 295). Of course, in art of any worth, there is an intellectual cement, a fluid architecture. But one is inclined to agree with Terence Hawkes when he observes that writing, far from being a reproduction, is more a reduction, of living speech (51). The Romantics struggled with this enigma: that to commit a thought to paper is to "sentence" it to a kind of death. Shelley, in morbid but brilliant mood, sums up this aspect of writing: ". . . this jingling food for the hunger of oblivion, called verse" (McFarland 168). That so much of the work of the Romantics has cheated oblivion and lives in our memories is testimony to their arduous struggle with this demon. One is tempted to exclaim with Dante in the Purgatorio: "And here let poetry rise again from the dead" (Canto 1. 8). That would be a "dolce stil nuova" indeed.

  15. Another neglected aspect of oral culture is the premium it puts on a ready memory—the story-teller or reciter can call on an extensive repertoire of paradigms and plots and narrative tricks, enabling a change of direction, if desired. From what we know of the composition of "Tintern Abbey," it was carried in the poet's head for days, and written down when the walkers reached Bristol. One can imagine, on the one hand, relief in consigning it to paper; on the other, reluctance to lose the immediacy of the fructifying moments near the abbey itself. This Mozartian process of composition probably felt like moving from "wild ecstasies" to "sober pleasures." In several classes recently, I have set assignments where, instead of a written task, students can opt to learn a poem by heart, recite it to the class, and comment on it orally. Those who chose this option were pleasantly surprised at how relatively superficial most silent readings are. They were intrigued and thrilled by the process of reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting that this necessitated. Furthermore, the rest of the class were charmed and surprised at how differently the poems sounded, coming as they did from the body of the learner, not just the head. In this way, students can build up a "body of knowledge" as opposed to a bunch of facts. And it certainly helps if the teacher enjoys weaving spontaneous quotations and allusions and echoes into the warp and weft of the content-driven discourse.

  16. To come to the third segment of my argument: the return to the sensuous. Thomas McFarland, in his book Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau, uses throughout the book the metaphor of touching the weave of the great tapestry of Romanticism (I allude to this in my first paragraph). The ramifications of the word "touch" are relevant to my theme as well. For example, when someone has lost perspective, we say that he or she is "out of touch"; when we want to continue in communication with someone, we say: "keep in touch"; when performers are below par, we talk of them "losing their touch"; a musical toccata "was originally a piece intended to show touch technique, and the word comes from the feminine past participle of toccare, to touch" (Ackerman 71); when we are moved by a generous gesture, we say we are "touched"; it is no coincidence that mentally disturbed people are sometimes described as "touched"; we talk of "the touch of the poet," of the "common touch," of the "natural touch," and of over-emotional people as "touchy" (Rousseau was a typical example). I have already quoted Pope's lines on the "spider's touch"; when reading those lines, we can picture the filigree of a spider's web, that natural and fragile mandala. In the mandala of Romanticism, an adjustment to any one part sends a quiver throughout the whole design. Teachers of Romanticism should become like Whitman's "Noiseless, Patient Spider" launching forth "filament, filament, filament. . ." "Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul." Finding and imparting this true sense of touch keeps us what Whitman in another poem calls "Aplomb in the midst of irrational things" (Hall 158, 132).

  17. In The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, the philosopher and ecologist David Abram presents a powerful argument for coming to our senses. Although his emphasis is not literary, many of his paragraphs read like cogent analyses of the way Romantic authors process their awareness of nature, especially John Clare:

    Such hierarchies [intellectual assumptions that put human experience "above" nature] are wrecked by any phenomenology that takes seriously our immediate sensory experience. For our senses disclose to us a wild-flowering proliferation of entities and elements, in which humans are thoroughly immersed. While this diversity of sensuous forms certainly displays some sort of reckless order, we find ourselves in the midst of, rather than on top of, this order. We may cast our gaze downward to watch the field mice and the insects that creep along the bending grasses . . . yet, at the same moment, hawks soaring on great winds gaze down upon our endeavors. Melodious feathered beings flit like phantoms among the high branches of the trees, while other animate powers, known only by their traces, move within the hidden depths of the forest. . . . Does the human intellect, or "reason," really spring us free from our inheritance in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us? [Abram's emphases]. (48)

    That passage also reads like an elaboration of Keats's doctrine of Negative Capability, as exemplified in passages such as the following from his letters: ". . . if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel"; "I lay awake last night—listening to the Rain with a sense of being drown'd and rotted like a grain of wheat"; ". . . let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive" (Gittings 38, 89, 66). [See attachments: "John Clare (1793-1864)" and "Keats on Poetry."]

  18. And in an article lamenting the Enlightenment neglect of "the rights of nature," Jonathan Bate makes a point similar to Abram's:

    Postmodernity proclaims that all marks are textmarks, but I believe we must hold fast to the possibility that certain textmarks called poems can bring back to our memory humankind's ancient knowledge that without landmarks we are lost. (Rights 6)

    In the shortest and most haunting of the "Lucy" poems, Wordsworth uses the word "touch" with exquisite aptness, first, to imply immunity from change and suffering, second, to rub in the radical change in the second verse when Lucy is like one of nature's inanimate objects—out of touch indeed:

    A slumber did my spirit seal,
    I had no human fears;
    She seemed a thing that could not feel
    The touch of earthly years.

    No motion has she now, no force;
    She neither sees nor hears;
    Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
    With rocks and stones and trees. (Wu 327)

    I once heard M. H. Abrams lecture for an hour on these lines. His respectful tracing of the web of meanings in this miniature masterpiece kept the listeners in touch with the mysteries of the poet's craft and art, and the lecture was a model for good teaching of Romanticism. In one of the best recent books about teaching, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, Parker Palmer writes: "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." This community "is a complex and eternal dance of intimacy and distance, of speaking and listening, of knowing and not knowing" (90, 106). This "eternal dance of intimacy and distance" is a hallmark of Romanticism, and teachers and scholars in the field should cultivate it.

  19. Touch is the foundation stone of Wordsworth's description in the Two-Part Prelude of his whole development, not just physical, but also mental and spiritual:

    From early days,
    Beginning not long after that first time
    In which, a babe, by intercourse of touch,
    I held mute dialogues with my mother's heart,
    I have endeavoured to display the means
    Whereby the infant sensibility,
    Great birthright of our being, was in me
    Augmented and sustained. (Wu 319)

    The mature human being and artist is able to relate to the world because of that early "intercourse of touch":

    No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
    Along his infant veins are interfused
    The gravitation and the filial bond
    Of nature that connect him with the world. (Wu 318)

    A similar maternal and homely image is used by Dante at the climax of the Paradiso to convey the ineffability of the beatific vision:

    Omai sara piu corta mia favella,
    Pur a quell ch'io ricordo, che d'un fante
    Che bagni ancor la lingua alla mammella.

    [Now my speech will come more short even of what I remember than an infant's who yet bathes his tongue at the breast.] (Sinclair 482)

    This swoop from the sublime to the meticulous detail is a function of that "grand elementary principle of pleasure" that Wordsworth celebrates in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads." (Wu 361) Another heir of authentic Romantic sensuousness—Gerard Manley Hopkins—who could not be accused of wallowing in the sensual, wrote a sonnet "To R.B." [Robert Bridges], whose first line exalts "The fine delight that fathers thought. . ." (Gardner 68). Delight is the "gravitation and the filial bond" that bathes the infant's and the poet's tongue.

  20. Jonathan Bate reminds us that the word "environment" did not appear until 1830, at a time when the two meanings implicit in the word "culture" were beginning their irrevocable divorce—the cultivation of the earth and the cultivation of our minds (Song 3-8). Contemporary teachers and scholars in the "field" of Romanticism are attempting to effect a reconciliation between these "two cultures"—and it is from the great Romantics that we can learn the art of this humane husbandry.

  21. In the Romantic quest for inter-relationships, symbolic utterance plays a key role. The nature of reality as these writers saw it cannot be reduced to a set of rules or formulae; the swerve from minute particular to the vast unknown is the province of symbol. Hans-Georg Gadamer, in "The Relevance of the Beautiful," explains the function of the symbol:

    What does the word "symbol" mean? Originally it was a technical term in Greek for a token of remembrance. The host presented his guest with the so-called tessera hospitalis by breaking some object in two. He kept one half for himself and gave the other half to his guest. If in thirty or fifty years time, a descendant of the guest should ever enter his house, the two pieces could be fitted together again to form a whole in an act of recognition.

    . . . for our experience of the symbolic in general, the particular represents itself as a fragment of being that promises to complete and make whole whatever corresponds to it. Or, indeed, the symbol is that other fragment of being that has always been sought in order to complete and make whole our own fragmentary life . . . the experience of the beautiful, and particularly the beautiful in art, is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things, wherever it may be found. (31-2)

    The nature of Romantic experience is fragmentary, but, paradoxically, that is what gives it meaning, because the fragment is always engaged in the desire and pursuit of the whole. This should be good news to today's students, who feel overwhelmed with "information overload" and often find difficulty making connections between their often impressive areas of knowledge. William James in Principles of Psychology (1890) uses a vivid image of the reductionist mentality, which claims "a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful" of water. Romantic symbolism, as McFarland points out, is close to the authentic image as defined by James:

    Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it. (McFarland 298)

    This "dawning sense of whither it is to lead" is close to Wordsworth's "something evermore about to be" in the Crossing the Alps section of the Thirteen-Book Prelude:

    Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
    Is with infinitude, and only there—
    With hope it is, hope that can never die,
    Effort, and expectation, and desire,
    And something evermore about to be. (Wu 391)

    Skilful teaching of Romanticism should always nourish this "dawning sense" of an active imagination. For example, the Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, were fascinated by rivers. Rivers, streams, waterfalls, springs, and fountains constantly irrigate the landscape of their work. Their awareness of moving water in all its manifestations, both philosophical and sensuous, has come to permeate our awareness of their own work as fluid, meandering, circular, powerful, and at times destructive. In short, since the Romantics, we cannot step into the same poem twice. [See attachment: "The Riparian Muse"].

  22. McFarland quotes a passage from Goethe (1797) distinguishing allegory and symbol, which will bring us full circle to our theme of indirections:

    Today there are also works of art that sparkle by virtue of reason, wit, gallantry and we include in this category all allegorical works as well; of these latter we expect the least, because they likewise destroy our interest in representation itself, and shove the spirit back upon itself, so to speak, and remove from its field of vision all that is truly represented. The allegorical differs from the symbolic in that what the symbolic designates indirectly, the allegorical designates directly. (299)

    We all know those superficially "sparkling" works, often couched in jargon, which "shove the spirit back upon itself" and "remove from its field of vision all that is truly represented." Or, to revert to my homely metaphor, works that empty the baby with the bath water. Students today want to be in touch with the world and themselves, they want to be touched by works of art; they admire the common touch, but need to be shown the difference between the sublime simplicity of true works of art and what Wordsworth in the "Preface to Lyrical Ballads" calls "gross and violent stimulants" (Wu 359) that so often pass for profundity. While touching the weave of the fabric, they also want to feel connected to those invisible looms whose shuttles are forever stitching and unstitching our lives.

  23. One of my earliest pupils, the Irish sculptor, Michael Warren, recently gave a lecture in Galway culminating in his artistic credo. While Warren works in an idiom ostensibly far removed from the Romantic, nothing could demonstrate the fundamental retouching and cleansing of the doors of our perceptions effected by Romanticism in every corner of modern art:

    It is precisely when a creative intelligence at its most attentive is directed at matter here and now, in all its density and intractability, and an attempt is made to express what is always inexpressible, to hear what is always silent, that the object is transcended and a reality beyond the immediate is touched.

LIST OF ATTACHMENTS

Course outline for ENGLISH 382, Studies in Romanticism at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia.

LOST VOICES, a proposal for a course on John Clare and other "self-taught" poets, and the women poets of the Romantic age.

"Craftsmanship." A poem by Timothy Brownlow.

"John Clare (1793-1864)." Class handout.

"Keats on Poetry." Class handout.

"The Riparian Muse." Class handout.

ONLINE RESOURCES

"Elementary Teaching" by Northrop Frye: <http://www.mrbauld.com/fryepoet.html>.

Michael Warren's website is: <http://www.michaelwarren.ie>; see also retrospective catalogue listed in PRINTED SOURCES under Peter Murray.

PRINTED SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1990.

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

---. Romantic Ecology. London: Routledge, 1991.

---. "The Rights of Nature." John Clare Society Journal 14 (July 1995): 7-15.

---, ed. "I AM": The Selected Poetry of John Clare. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Brownlow, Timothy. John Clare and Picturesque Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Butt, John, ed. The Poems of Alexander Pope. London: Methuen, 1965.

Cobb, Edith. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Foster, J.W. ed. Nature in Ireland. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1997.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Gardner, W.H., ed. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

Gili, J. L., ed. Lorca. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Gittings, Robert, ed. Letters of John Keats. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Hall, Donald. A Choice of Whitman's Verse. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.

Hawkes, Terence. Metaphor. London: Methuen, 1972.

Hayden, John O. ed. William Wordsworth: The Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Hudson, Roger. Coleridge among the Lakes and Mountains. London: Folio Society, 1991.

Johnson, Mary Lynn and John E. Grant, eds. Blake's Poetry and Designs. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Kirkpatrick, Betty, ed. Brewer's Concise Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Oxford: Helicon, 1992.

McFarland, Thomas. Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

McKusick, James. "The Ecological Vision of John Clare." University of Toronto Quarterly, Winter 1991-2.

Murray, Peter. Michael Warren: Light, Gravity and Distance. Cork: Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, 2002.

Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000,

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge, 1982.

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Sinclair, John D. Dante's Paradiso. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Stubbs, Marcia and Sylvan Barnet. The Little, Brown Reader. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Worthen, John. The Gang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Wu, Duncan. Romanticism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

About this Page

Published @ RC

December 2006

City