So, without further adieu, I will discuss the two working axioms and further elaborate on my reasons for loving the Romantics.
1. They were audacious and/or eccentric (perhaps I should just say “outrageous.”)
Some representative statements and exploits should suffice.
- Coleridge and Southey‘s desire to establish a pantisocracy in America. Who does this? But how noble and grand that before Marx, some people did (or proposed doing it): an egalitarian commune. Wow. And these people are those we now call the Romantics.
- Coleridge on Hume (after the young Hazlitt asks for his take): “‘Hume? He stole his essay on miracles from South’s sermon!’ replied Coleridge. ‘He can’t even write. He’s unreadable’” (Wu 6). Yes, one of the 18th century’s greatest philosopher is summarily dismissed by the young Coleridge. Only someone with immense belief in their own talent would say such a thing and at the end of the 18th century when Hume’s status as a world-class philosopher was by then established.
- The actress and writer Mary Robinson’s outrageous dalliance with the teenaged prince regent. Playing the role that made her famous, Perdita, in an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, she speaks the following lines at a royal command performance: “… how to put on/This novel garment of gentility…/ …I shall learn/ I trust I shall with meekness, and an heart/Unalter’d to my Prince, my Florizel.” (Byrne 99). Her performance draws tears from the prince, as well as several bows–and his heart. After suffering bad press (though her ability to manipulate it was uncanny) due to her romantic attachments to the prince and to other powerful men (whom, it does not appear, the press smeared for their indiscretions though certainly for their politics), she is audacious enough to re-invent herself as a master poet and novelist. Of her, Coleridge said, “She is a woman of undoubted Genius…I never knew a human Being with so full a mind” (Byrne Epigraphs). From one genius provocateur to another.
- Lady Caroline Lamb, the ultimate femme fatale. She is known for writing the famous lines that have immortalized Byron: “[He was] mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (Hay 13). After their romance comes to an end (for Byron, that is) the aristocratic Caroline will not be ignored *cue Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction*. She forcefully makes herself known by breaking in to Byron’s residence and inscribing the following words in his copy of Vathek (an action filled with significance given Byron’s championing and practice of Greek Love and Beckford and his novel’s notoriety): “Remember me! Remember me!” Oh, and she also writes the novel Glenarvon–the titular character is a Byronic hero who is actually based on Byron…(wait, how does that work?)–quite possibly the first tell-all book written in the Gothic mode. Byron claimed that, upon her betrayal of him, he would pursue Caroline like Falkland had pursued Caleb. It appears that Lady Lamb turned the tables on this scenario.
- Claire Clairmont, the not-so-famous family member (but look at the competition, though). I had always assumed she had been introduced to Byron by Mary and Percy in Switzerland but no: she wrote him before the famous trip. In an intrepid fan letter to Byron, the eighteen year old Claire commits the following lines to paper: “If a woman, whose reputation has yet remained unstained…if with a beating heart she should confess the love she has borne you many years…if she should return your kindness with fond affection and unbounded devotion could you betray her, or would you be as silent as the grave?” (Hay 78). He takes her up on her offer, though I’m not sure he didn’t betray her. But still, her letter and its fine sentence constructions render her boldly interesting.
2. They were pretty good writers too.
Whatever the criteria used to establish literary merit, their writing can be sharply ironic, lyrical, polemical, rhetorically persuasive, and often multi-generic. I’m not saying that each Romantic writer totally evinces these qualities (though I think some do) but, certainly, each exhibits mastery of at least one genre, if not two (or more). And even those that are associated with one genre, such as Wordsworth (though the 1802 Preface is pretty masterly as an essay if you ask me), are top-notch in that genre. As such, on any given day, I read the Romantics purely for their aesthetics or politics, though when writing papers, for both. But the point is that their writing is always engaging, wholly absorbing, whatever its genre, content, and politics.
(Is there an un-interesting Romantic writer? I’ve yet to find her or him. Let me know, though I suspect whoever this enigmatic figure is, something of major interest will be found in terms of their biography, writing, or political affiliations, watch.)
Politics: Conservative or liberal, Tory or Whig, the manifest political tendencies in the writing of several authors show Romantic writing to be irrevocably enmeshed with the political concerns of its day. Whether we are discussing Burke’s defense of the French monarchy (all monarchy, really) or Wollstonecraft’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or Byron’s impassioned poetic defense in “Song of the Luddites,” the intersection between history, polemical writing, and aesthetics is tightly welded together: one cannot have one without the others.
Lyricism: I was struck by Wordsworth’s lyricism. Now, I know about the sort of anti-Wordsworthian turn in Romantic studies (or so it seems to me). Or, I think scholars are perhaps reacting to the once powerful, institutionally-sanctioned equivalence between Romanticism and Wordsworth (or any of the Big Six at different times). I get it. But still. Never mind his so-called “conservative turn”: his poetry is so lyrical. The first lines of the Intimations Ode are etched in my memory: “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream…did seem/apparell’d in celestial light….” And it gets better: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” Wow. This longing for the luminosity of the past. Beautiful. (And I’m aware of the French Revolutionary undertone but, nevertheless, I still sometimes just want to read it for its cadence and beauty, its power to stir something melancholy and ineffable in me…) And I am one to be seduced by style, easily, as my obsession with Ayn Rand in my early twenties proves. She, by the way, wrote a book titled The Romantic Manifesto…talk about misreading (though Rand and my eventual turning from her writings and teachings are subjects for another day. Suffice to say that I do not consider her a Romantic nor do I now consider myself a Randian.)
Anyway, to conclude I’ll say that as with all obsessions, scholarly and otherwise, I believe they originate in some primal scene, in a trauma experienced during one’s formative years. Discussing what such primal scenes might be in my life are beyond the scope of this blog, though I have no aversion to discussing them—ask me at a conference sometime. I will say, however, that I am continually propelled and assailed by contradictions, that is, I am almost always besieged by contradictory impulses. For instance, some days, I want to live in a world where transcendence is possible. On such days, I happen to believe in extraterrestrials and want to experience what some UFO specialists designate as Theophony (a connection with all and with God) which occurs in one of the stages following an alien abduction. I’ve even thought about camping out and keeping a night’s watch for sight of aliens. I sometimes converse with my ancestral deity, Ometeotl Moyocoyani (“He who invents or gives existence to himself”), as if I were chatting with my neighbor about the weather. And I’ve also thought about reading Hermetic scrolls in order to discover the ritual, symbolic steps I need to take in order to lose consciousness of myself while entering into communion with the plenitude of the Universe. Transcendental knowledge. Yes, I seriously have thoughts about this. And, so, there are the Romantics whose lyricism and content provide somewhat of transcendental moments.
On other days, the political unconscious aggressively asserts itself: not only Romantic texts but also newspaper headlines, advertisements, the idea of transcendence, and the unjust social order all scream out their ideological construction. It is with Jacobinical fervor that I begin to re-focus on political and economic crises and on the privations suffered by various underclasses. When I do, my pursuit of transcendence seems a tad misguided and quietistic. I struggle, always, with my decision to pursue graduate school while several communities I hold close to my heart continue to struggle, while I’m writing seminar papers on Percy’s “Alastor”. But I’m ok with this. Now. And this is because the Romantics are (incredibly!) with me on all these issues, as well. In fact, I audaciously venture to say that the Romantics speak not only to these contradictory impulses but to every desire (earthly or transcendental), impulse (political or artistic), occurrence–momentous or mundane–under the sun.
Folks, I can’t wait to start the English PhD program this fall.
Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson.
New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest
Generation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.
Wu, Duncan. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press,