Reading Romanticism Today: Artistry of the Sublime

In my last post, I previewed my newest introductory-level literature course, “Reading Romanticism Today,” where my freshman writing students and I have just wrapped up a unit on “Nature and the Sublime.” As Seth Wilson recently reminded us, the concept of the “sublime” can be a wily one to pin down, even for (or maybe, especially for) scholars who study authors that were themselves fascinated by this aesthetic and philosophical notion.

For the purpose of this course, we’ve been exploring the “sublime” by mashing together some of Romanticism’s greatest hits—Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”—with contemporary media pieces, such as a recent documentary on the Cosmos hosted by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (discussed in September’s post). The paper assignment that culminated this unit asked students to find their own example of the sublime in an artwork they would choose from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The pieces could be from any historical moment, but each one had to connect to a Romantic poem. Here, I offer some of the students’ fascinating finds: 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many students gravitated towards traditional landscape paintings. Though the students didn’t know what their peers would select as their chosen artworks, many of the pieces congregated around the same forty-year period, from about 1800 to 1840.

Several of these paintings paired well with Wordsworth’s more idyllic poems on solitude and seclusion, like the celebratory “I wandered lonely as a cloud” or “My heart leaps up.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze …

1804_Smith_LandscapeLake
Washington Allston, “Landscape with a Lake” (1804)

… Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such jocund company;
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought: …

John Constable, "Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills" (c. 1816)
John Constable, “Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills” (c. 1816)

… For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Though there are no daffodils in sight, per se, many of the artworks students chose, like Constable’s and Allston’s above, exhibit the same engagement with a single subject surrounded by an all-encompassing natural expanse. Almost amusingly, both paintings contain peaceful clouds buoying across the center of the compositions, wandering aimlessly and gently just like Wordsworth himself. In future courses, I might bring these works into the classroom and query with the students why and how such apt illustrations portray a Wordsworthian “sense sublime”—and how this imagery correlates with, or opposes, the kind of “sublime” articulated by the likes of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

While these particular paintings remain calm and harmonious, others did resonate with the students’ understanding of a more awe-inspiring and terror-inducing sublime. Even with Allston’s and Constable’s more quaint portrayals, they suggested that the grand immensity of the scenes resonated with the more dramatic and overwhelming idea they had of the sublime. Wordsworth, enthralled with the never-ending “ten thousand” daffodils, suggested to them the wide expanse of natural beauty and the unending horizon, producing a sense of all-encompassing size that makes the lonely human figure desolate and insignificant.

Other seemingly innocuous portrayals of “beautiful” or “picturesque” landscapes disclosed a subtle Burkean sublime—a lingering terror and apprehension that, the students found, might rest just beneath the surface.

1835_Cradock_Niagara Falls
Samuel Finley Breese Morse, “Niagara Falls from Table Rock” (1835)

For some, this meant finding a clash of dark and light chiaroscuro
elements that seemed to forebode an oncoming threat, one creeping in from the edges of an otherwise balanced scene. They especially felt this threat emerge in depictions like Morse’s “Niagara Falls,” where the human figures traipse along a precarious ledge, overtaken by the immense waterfall, itself encircled by dark and stormy clouds. A gloomier work like Doughty’s (below) seemed to mask the sunlight, the student suggested, as if masking the unknown—the light draws us towards it with equal parts curiosity and terror.

1820_Rachko_Doughty
Thomas Doughty, “Lake and Mountains” (1820s)

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” — Edmund Burke, Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

In works like these, the students felt danger intermingled with the otherwise peaceful serenity. Interestingly, they didn’t select works that outright screamed to be categorized into a Burkean mode of the sublime, where the mental processes of pain and danger (without immediate threat to one’s bodily self) produce this aesthetic pleasure. The sublime was not, for them, necessarily an overwhelming sense of fear smacking them upside the head with its horrific apprehension, but rather a more subtle, impending doom that threatened to overtake the physical world—and the imagination. Perhaps they were looking for a more Kantian notion, after all…

When some students moved away from the Romantic period entirely, unexpected pairings suggested surprising combinations.

John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo was matched with the boat-stealing episode in The Prelude. Both scenes, the student suggested, utilized a cunning sense of scale to create their sublime effects. While El Jaleo is, of course, not nearly as frightening as were the cliffs that strode after Wordsworth as a young eight-year-old boy, the visual effects may have been similar.

1882_Devereux_ElJaleo
John Singer Sargent, “El Jaleo” (1882) – Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

The dancer in the foreground of Sargent’s painting casts an ominous shadow across the entire scene, itself an almost terrifying and ghost-like entity. Her sense of movement and imbalance connotes, perhaps, the same emotional imbalance the young Wordsworth felt when confronting the cliffs that suddenly burst upon him, cutting off the stars and sky.

Paul Gauguin’s Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? was also paired with Wordsworth’s “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned.” This student saw Gauguin’s portrait as a representation of Wordsworth’s philosophy: nature needs to be explored first hand, out in the woods, not through books, education, or other men. Gauguin’s pictorial style—not only his subject choice of “primitive” non-Western figures but also his flattened perspective—conveys Wordsworth’s commitment to a direct engagement with nature. Gauguin’s work also challenges the Western sensibility, which wants to peruse the image from left to right and which expects a more traditional three-dimensional impression. In this way, the student offered, Gauguin mirrors Wordsworth’s objectives in his two paired poems, wherein he challenges his friend “Matthew” and his conventional understanding of book-learning and education.

1897_Rush_Gauguin Tahiti
Paul Gauguin, “D’ou Venon Nous / Que Somme Nous / Où Allons Nous” (1897)

Chronologically, we traveled from landscape portraiture to symbolism and ended up, finally, at abstract contemporary art. Last year, the MFA installed a new exhibit entitled Landscape, Abstracted, for which artist Jason Middlebrook has created an enormous 20 foot by 80 foot installation along one wall of the gallery. He discusses this project, “Tread Lightly,” as an intimidating and overwhelming endeavor:

Comparing this geometric rendition to Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” the student pointed to the transitional nature of the objects. From vivid colors to muted monochromes, from divergent lines to compressed pinnacles, from striking abstracted invocations of mountains and sky to the deathly grays of a flat expanse—these alternating tones and shapes provoke the same kind of experience as that of Wordsworth standing a few miles above the famous abbey.

2014_Reeve_Landscape Abstract_TreadLightly
John Middlebrook, “Tread Lightly” (2014)

Wordsworth, too, was rooted in a world of oppositions and transitions: comparing his young naïve boyhood days to his mature adulthood sense sublime; contrasting the winding hedgerows to the single plume of smoke from the hermit’s respite; tracing the progress of his own self—and Dorothy—over the course of time. Middlebrook’s two-dimensional world of lines, triangles, and rectangles mimics Wordsworth’s competing and layering doubled consciousness, the self that is his past comingled with the self that is his present. Both are distinct yet somehow unified.

As part of this assignment (which was a pedagogical experiment both for me and for them), we dedicated one day of class to a presentation series. As we walked through the artworks chronologically, we saw as a class the development of these overlaps and engagements between Romantic poetry and other media. And while my introductory-composition students may not have written about these comparisons exactly through the terms I pose here, their instincts did gesture importantly towards such relations between our poets and the visual arts. Wordsworth’s sublime, in all its multiple dimensions, could be found alive and well, both then and now—and my millennial students found a reason to look for it in the creative works we produce today.