WHAT IS ROMANTICISM? MORE THAN YOU THINK.

Romanticism is the attempt to bring what is important in life into poetry.

It is about love and romance only indirectly.

Take the following poem. The author is Edmund Waller, imprisoned for a year in the Tower of London for a political plot; born in 1606, he does not belong to the group of 19th century poets known as “the Romantics,” advertised as rebelling against 17th and 18th century poetry. The poem, however, is pure Romanticism—the much anthologized “Go, Lovely Rose:”

Go, lovely rose!

Tell her that wastes her time and me

That now she knows

When I remember her to thee,

How sweet and fair she  seems to be.

*

Tell her that’s young,

And shuns to have her graces spied,

That hadst thou sprung

In deserts where no men abide,

Thou must have uncommended died.

*

Small is the worth

Of beauty from the light retired;

Bid her come forth,

Suffer herself to be desired,

And not blush so to be admired.

*

Then die, that she

The common fate of all things rare

May read in thee;

How small a part of time they share,

That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

~~~

In examining this poem, we need to recognize some important things which will be missed if we merely list its formal properties—the worst way, obviously, to understand the essence of anything.

Facts defeat the fact, and this is why Socrates belongs to poetry’s wisdom more than Aristotle.

Moderns will be put off immediately by “Go, lovely rose!” But this is to fall into the error just mentioned—the facts cloud the fact.

“Go, lovely rose!” is, in its essence, a fact which eclipses the facts.

The facts are these: Poems say “Go, lovely rose!” but people, especially people today, do not.

The sounds of “go” and “lovely” and “rose” placed together are no accident, and therefore contrived, therefore limiting, and therefore insincere. It is a person speaking through a poem, and not a poem speaking as a person. So say the scholars, with their facts, today.

The facts of “Go, lovely rose!” point to technique—forced resemblances viewed throughout the poem, a damning list of rhythms and rhymes.

But the mystery is this. The following, too, is from another 17th century poet, James Shirley, from his book, Poems, published in 1646—when poets called their books “poems,” since this is what everyone happily understood them to be:

Within their buds let roses sleep,

And virgin lilies on their stem,

Till sighs from lovers glide and creep

Into their leaves to open them.

(from “The Garden”)

The facts, here, point to poetic language, too—sound similarities of great beauty. The rhythm of “into their leaves to open them” is exquisite. Whole libraries of 21st century poems don’t contain poetry like this.

Romanticism, as generally understood, began with Wordsworth’s revolutionary decree that poetry should speak as people do; but looking back, this is confusing, because Wordsworth’s poetry has much more in common with the 17th century poets than with poets of the 20th century.

OK, the scholars admit, Wordsworth said it, but didn’t do it; that came later.

And since poetry of the moderns established itself in the universities, as poets in the 20th century began to teach creative writing, poetry gained an educated sheen surpassing even the 17th century bards (think of Eliot’s footnotes, etc) before poetry finally succumbed to Wordsworth’s homely advice—in the far looser, award winning, efforts published under the name of “poetry” today.

So again, what is Romanticism?

Is Romanticism finally rhyming about flowers?

And if so, how can such a narrow definition even concern us today?

Well, here’s the fact that defeats the fact.

Romantic poetry is poetry which imitates life.

Modern poetry has only an accidental connection to life—for modern poetry is an activity in which self-expression is primary; and the individual, to be an individual, owes nothing to life—within any framed expression (poem) of an individual as an individual. Life, here, is meant in the sense in which it is always meant—life for everybody, and not for the individual. Not everyone is romantic. But life is romantic. Life is a set of conditions which furthers itself. Just as romantic conditions are necessary for romance, so the romantic poem is a set of conditions for romantic responses. The conditions created by romantic poems—beauty, the awareness that beauty quickly dies—are therefore sincere; they reflect life.

The connection between life and poetry is important. Why? Because we have seen, in the last 100 years or so, how poetry can get away with all kinds of shit—and this is one of the things we moderns admire about poetry: it can do whatever the hell it wants. It can be disorderly, and be simply for itself, and not a condition for anything. It can raise its voice. It can be vulgar. It can attempt to frighten, or shock. And it pretty much does this all the time now, even in, and especially in, the academically lauded sphere.

Once license becomes licensed, license tends to become all there is. And nothing will be protected once license is king, except license, since license is the end of all activity qua activity. Poetry is an activity. Life, which completely surrounds us, is not. The moderns are acutely aware of how efficient, modernized existence is a nexus of supporting activities—oil drilling is an activity which supports driving cars, and driving is an activity which supports commuting to work. Protesting oil drilling is also an activity, caught in the great activity nexus, a corrective response to oil drilling—and the correction itself is an activity. Education is an activity which carefully separates itself out into other activities, and one of these activities is poetry. And so on.

The activity, separated out from life, becomes, by the further activity of advertising in the modern world, an activity which is an end in itself. Advertisements for automobiles do not include scenes of cars being driven to work, or for errands—though this is what automobiles are mostly for; no, the advertisements always show driving as a beautiful and exciting activity, reveling in the self-contained activity of driving itself. This is how the advertising industry (the new poetry) depicts driving. Advertising, like any other activity, is not life.

Poetry, then, or modern poetry, is an activity, and known, and defended as such, as an activity which is for itself, just like any virtuous activity, such as driving, of which modern society tacitly approves. It is not quite accurate, then, to say “poetry can get away with all kinds of shit.” Poetry is free, as a modern activity, to be free within its identity as the activity which defines it as a modern activity, supporting, in otherwise unrelated ways, other activities which comprise the modern world. Poetry is an educational activity which promotes linguistic self-expression, and just as a car in an advertisement is never depicted as a commuting tool stuck in traffic, poetry advertised as such by those who nurture its existence in the university, present poetry as an activity which seeks license for its activity: linguistic self-expression in the free and experimental mode. The poetry is not “doing whatever it wants,” but is free in a different manner. It is by the approved nature of its activity qua activity, defined as self-expression in words, practiced experimentally and freely, that it can do anything at all. And since within this framework, it pursues license as an end in itself—which all activities, as advertised, do, and since license always promotes more license, poetry has become increasingly disorderly, since only life is truly conditional and contingent in a manner which requires order (intra-semblance) as a necessity.

Poetry today is highly disordered. It no longer has specific conditions, because this would get in the way of its hard-earned freedom. Romantic poetry, however, is a condition, and this is the whole point of Romantic poetry, and why it does not resemble license-seeking modern poetry.

I don’t like disorderly poetry.

Even if its disorderliness allows it to be about anything it wants.

Orderly and comely poetry is the effect which literary Romanticism promotes, and this orderly condition, like a pleasant bedroom with a fireplace, this atmosphere (merely atmosphere to the modern reader who is quick to find overt romanticism superficial) belongs to the very process which makes conditions infinitely multiply, which makes romantic poetry a reflection of life—due to that very conditionality.

I like beautiful lines of poetry intentionally made, thus made with greater frequency than in colloquial poetry, in which poetic lines emerge accidentally from the prose—and I read entire books recently published in which not one line of poetry can be found, so dense is the book with the honest and colloquial prose of self-expression.

But the Romanticsm we are seeking in this essay is not merely what might be called the sonorous, superficial beauty of “Go, lovely rose!” Once we reject license in self-expression, which includes the commandment to sound how “real” people talk, as the primary criterion of poetry, the poem is now, ironically, free to imitate life, with all its contingencies, with greater facility.

Life, after all, continually alters things, enforces things, and imposes conditions, from without, on what we are doing; it isn’t Waller, then, who artificially approves of “Go, lovely rose!” Life  demands it; Waller isn’t permitted to speak colloquially (though he could) because a higher end is demanded—and higher ends are hidden within the conditions necessary to life. The concision of the poem’s opening, the lovely concision of its drama, like a simple pawn move in chess, operates beyond self-expression and towards conditionality itself. In order for the poet to speak, he sends “a lovely rose” to speak for him. The single word, “rose,” becomes a character in a drama. Self-expression, by any means possible, is replaced by a concise imitation of life, by any means possible. The poem’s message is enforced by the poet telling the rose what to say to his potential beloved. Waller is not expressing himself. He is writing a poem. “Go, lovely, rose!” achieves three things quickly and simultaneously; the swift expression of: beauty, drama, and theme. Mathematical expression annihilates self-expression. Romanticism is not the point at all. Conditionality is. The wooed, in every instance, must be won. The poet is presenting the example of the rose to the reader, by comparing rose and beloved; the alacrity of the expression itself matches the urgency of the message: beauty (rose, person) fades. One aspect of the poem is necessitated by other aspects of the poem, and all of these aspects are dependent on life, or wisdom about life, which gives rise to the poem as poem.

To illustrate Romantisicm from another angle, let’s look at its typical pejorative treatment by a 20th century critic: Delmore Schwartz on the romantic Yeats.

“…some of Yeats’s poems are full of a wisdom which must commend itself to and convince every man, Buddhist to Seventh Day Adventist. The second part of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is a passage the equal of Dante and Shakespeare at their best. But in general, the point of view of Yeats’s verse is romantic in its assumptions and its conclusions.”

Note the assumption that “romantic” is bad, while the authors who gave the world Beatrice, Juliet, and Ophelia are held aloft as the highest standard.

Schwartz continues:

“Even when he sees and understands much more than the romantic poet, the lurid glow of romanticism nevertheless hangs over the scene.” …

“An easy instance is such a poem as “The Scholars.” These academic figures, bald-headed, coughing and respectable, would be dumbfounded, the poet suggests, if they met Catullus or the other poets whom they edit and annotate, making a learned text of the lines

“That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair

To flatter beauty’s ear”

“How utterly banal a view! No doubt, some scholars are worthy of contempt for the reasons advanced by the poet. It is not a question of the character of the scholar, past or present, nor is it necessary to suppose that scholars are handsome and heroic figures. What one finds essentially wrong here is the romantic triteness and stupidity of the attitude, the implied contempt for learning because it is painstaking and not spontaneous, the schoolboy’s view of the absentminded professor, and the Bohemian’s notion of academicism: ‘All (that is, all the scholars) think what other people think,’ Yeats wrote, thinking what other people think.”

—Delmore Schwartz, “An Unwritten Book,” from Selected Essays; originally published 1942, The Southern Review

Schwartz, the Modernist, thinks of scholars as contributing to an important and valued activity, complete and worthy in itself. He concedes there might be some inferior scholars, as Yeats depicts them, but not all of them can possibly be that way—otherwise the “activity” of scholarship would be invalid, which, as Schwartz understands it, is impossible.  But when Socrates said he could not automatically transfer his wisdom to another person who happened to sit down beside him, the Athenian did not mean some, he meant all. The romantic poet, according to “The Scholars,” owes his poetry to desire, not scholarship—the former writes the poem; the latter merely edits it.

The “spontaneous” is the immediacy of beauty, the glory of unhindered free speech, the brevity of wit, the quickness and certainty of love, the leap of understanding (eureka) by the  scientist, and yet this term is the object of Schwartz’s scorn; the “painstaking” is a scholarly virtue, for Schwartz, attempting at a young age to please his New Critic masters, as he calls Yeats’ theme “trite” and “stupid.”

Here’s the thing. The “activity” is always “painstaking,” and sometimes evil, whereas romanticism never is. Schwartz, a brilliant short story writer, poet, and critic, currently enjoying a revival thanks to Ben Mazer and others, is nevertheless wrong in this instance, poisoned by the Modernism of his time.

It is true that the “painstaking” is often for the good—laying transatlantic cable, Mozart hand-writing his music, etc—but life in poetry is always a good, while any painstaking activity, weighed in the balance, is always, in itself, bad. “The Scholars” is a great poem.

The romantic poet participates in life, which includes love. The scholar belongs to an activity—which is different. This Schwartz view sees only a series of activities, with practitioners sometimes more, or sometimes less, skilled at the activity at hand. Romanticism is not an activity, however; it is life. Yeats does not say there should be no more scholars—there will always be scholars, just as there will always be cakes and ale.

Even as the occasional poet will avoid cakes and ale—and be the much better poet for it.

Life is finally the critic. Life is finally the poet.

Romanticism, a term which arose, in fact, as a subtle form of abuse by modernist scholars, happens to describe, quite often, the true poetic effect—which the painstaking, modernist scholar is unable to grasp.

Sometimes the light does not go on.

 

%d bloggers like this: