Volume 20, Number 10 · June 14, 1973

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Isn't It Romantic?

By Charles Rosen

William Wordsworth
(click for larger image)
William Wordsworth by David Levine
Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature
by M.H. Abrams

Norton, 550 pp., $10.00

Coleridge's Verse: A Selection
edited by William Empson, edited by David Pirie

Schocken, 256 pp., $10.00


For the young who lived through it, the French Revolution remained a vision of a lost paradise. Chateaubriand was twenty-one in 1789, an impoverished aristocrat forced into the hosiery trade by his debts (when he wrote his memoirs, he omitted this shameful descent into commerce); he never forgot the exhilaration of that dawn when it was "bliss…to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven." More than thirty years later, he wrote about the beginning of the revolution in Paris:

Moments of crisis produce in men a heightening of life. In a society dissolving and reconstructing itself, the struggle of two spirits, the collision of past and future, the mixture of old and new ways of life, make up an unstable compound that leaves no place for boredom. Liberated passions and dispositions reveal themselves with an energy they do not have in a well-ordered polity. The infraction of laws, the freedom from duty, from custom and from propriety, even the perils increase the excitement of the disorder. The human race on holiday takes a walk in the streets, delivered from its preceptors, restored for a moment to the state of nature, and realizing again the necessity of social restraint only when under the yoke of the new tyrants engendered by license….
I could not paint the society of 1798 better than by comparing it to the architecture of the time of Louis XII and Francis I, when the Greek orders began to mingle with the gothic style, or rather by equating it with the collection of ruins and tombs of every century, piled up pell-mell after the Terror in the Cloister of the Augustinian Minors: but the fragments of which I speak were living and varied endlessly….
…duels and love affairs, friendships born in prison and the fraternity of politics, mysterious rendezvous among the ruins under a serene sky amidst the peace and poetry of nature, walks apart, silent, solitary, mingled with eternal vows and indefinably tender sentiments, against the muffled din of a world that was vanishing away, against the distant noise of a crumbling society, whose collapse threatened these felicities overshadowed by the events.

In these words there sounds an enduring nostalgia. It is the tone we hear today in the voices of many who were present at the riots of May, 1968, in Paris. They claim the same sense of excitement, of genuine fraternity between strangers in the streets ("here and there a face / Or person singled out among the rest, / Yet still a stranger and belov'd as such"), of enhanced vitality, of energy as eternal delight. The myth of the revolution will die hard. In 1968 the state of nature lasted only a few weeks: in 1789-1790 the redoubled intensity of life burned far more than a year. The betrayal of the revolution was a traumatic blow to the generation that had lived through it and was young enough to hope. These hopes had spread throughout Europe: for the century that followed, the brief glimpse of the possibility of happiness "in the very world, which is the world of all of us," the brief appearance of what Hazlitt called "romantic generosity" dominated politics and art.

In this state of nature that appears unexpectedly at the moment of total corruption and final dissolution, there is a strange innocence, an innocence regained. The human race on holiday has no premonition of the terror that will follow license: for a brief moment, men and women have found once more the grace and naivete of the savage, of Adam before the Fall. The messianic program of the early Romantics, a program in which politics and art cannot be separated or even distinguished, is to recapture and make permanent that state of nature which had proved to be so transitory.

After the failure, the betrayal, even, of the political and social dream of 1789, the Romantic program presented itself in increasingly religious terms, with the Nazarene painters' revival of medieval imagery, the ecstatic cannibalism of Novalis's vision of Christ's sacrifice, the vocabulary of mysticism that reappears in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the fiercely irrationalist religious and political philosophy of Joseph DeMaistre. It would be a mistake to characterize the religious "revival" of the early nineteenth century as specifically antirevolutionary; the revival had already taken place within the heart of the revolutionary movement, when, under Robespierre, one could be imprisoned for speaking disrespectfully of the deity.

The revolution, in short, had already betrayed itself in reinstating God. The religious language of the early Romantic writers, however, has a curious and ambiguous significance. Two recent and important books touch on this problem: William Empson's selection of Coleridge's verse, in which perhaps the greatest of our critics attempts to rescue Coleridge from priestcraft, and M. H. Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism, published in 1971, which deals with the survival and transformation of religious patterns of thought in the Romantic period.

M. H. Abrams, whose Mirror and the Lamp is one of the most influential books on the early nineteenth century, is a master of the themes of Romanticism. It is doubtful if anyone has surpassed, or that many have equaled, the range and depth of his reading. His point of departure in Natural Supernaturalism is Wordsworth's scheme for the great unfinished poem called The Recluse, a poem which was to crown the poet's work and to which the rest of his verse was to stand as chapels to the main body of a cathedral.

From the "Prospectus" Wordsworth wrote for The Recluse, Abrams isolates the concept of the spiritual resurrection of mankind by the marriage of nature to the mind of man. For Wordsworth, mind or spirit here has become largely secular: God appears—if at all—only as within man's mind, and Abrams recalls a rich seventeenth-century tradition that resists any attempt to place God outside ourselves (the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of a Digger community in Cromwell's time, are particularly striking in their apparent similarity to Blake and Wordsworth). The wedding of man and nature is seen by Abrams as achieving its full meaning as a manifestation of the millennium, a vision of the apocalypse secularized into revolution, but he characterizes this union with nature as a consolation and a substitute for the shattered revolutionary dream.

From here, Abrams is concerned chiefly with Romantic metaphors of alienation—of man from nature, of man from himself. The marriage of nature to the mind of man is a metaphor for the overcoming of this inner and outer division. The most persistent metaphor Abrams finds is that of the "circuitous journey," the vision of a regained paradise, a return through alienation to an original state of "organic" unity, now made transcendent by incorporating and resolving the contradictory forces of the journey itself. The circle is therefore generally a spiral, a return to the same point on a higher level. As the mature mind, in Wordsworth, returns to the child's unconscious acceptance of the world, now transformed by experience, so Hegel's spirit in reaching absolute consciousness attains the static condition, the complete repose of pure, undifferentiated, unalienated being. The juxtaposition of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind with Wordsworth's Prelude is perhaps the most brilliant detail of Abrams's book.

The image of the circuitous journey is, indeed, pervasive and persistent. Abrams does not discuss Romantic natural science, but the metaphor has its power there as well. J. W. Ritter, a young scientist who discovered ultraviolet rays and belonged to the Jena circle of the Schlegels and Novalis, delivered a talk to the Munich Academy of Science in 1809 entitled "Physics as Art." He presented the original state of the earth as totally organic, and the present division into organic and inorganic matter as a late and degenerate condition. The earth has died, and the mineral veins of the earth are picturesquely the fossil remains of its former living skeleton. The task of physics is twofold: historical (the reconstruction of the decline into the present state) and apocalyptic (the retransformation of all matter into living organic form). Ritter was curiously enough both a serious scientist who did important work in galvanism and a brilliant, poetic, and erratic writer.

If anything, the image is too pervasive. It cannot be said to define Romantic thought if it characterizes so much else, including Candide, that masterpiece of the Enlightenment which is said to represent everything that Romanticism opposed. Like Wordsworth's Prelude and Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, Candide is a Bildungsroman, a novel of intellectual development and progress toward maturity, and the garden that Candide cultivates at the end is as much the earthly paradise—the Garden of Eden found again and transformed by experience—as any of Abrams's examples. It is also a "return": Constantinople is not Westphalia, but then Wordsworth's Grasmere is not Cockermouth; nevertheless, the little society of Thunder-ten-Tronckh is reconstituted. Doctor Pangloss philosophizes as before, and Candide is reunited with Cunégonde, grown ugly and ill-tempered but able to cook splendid pastry.

Are the patterns of Romantic thought, as Abrams believes, theological or even religious? These terms can be used loosely. Some years ago Carl Becker's Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers found these same apocalyptic patterns in Voltaire and Helvétius. The influence of eschatology on Marx and of Old Testament morality on Freud are an essential part of the middle-brow vulgarization of these authors. We should be accustomed by now to posthumous attempts to convert the heathen. Nevertheless, if these patterns are to be found wherever one looks (as Abrams finds them from Saint Augustine to Proust), it may be that they are forms deeper or more general than theology, which has used them—as have poetry and science—as part of a repertory of expression.

Abrams, however, has precedent for his view from the Romantics themselves. Wordsworth, for example, spoke easily of "such religious feelings as cannot but exist in the minds of those who affect atheism." This generous view of the meaning of "religious" is found often enough today, if only because the more precise and rigorous sense has come to seem unbearable to so many. But the significance of the early Romantics' use of religion can only be assessed if we measure it against each poet's relation to religion and morality proper—organized, established, or at least traditional.

The extent of the problem may be indicated by the following lines from Benjamin Constant's diary of 1804, when he was in Weimar with Mme de Stael:

Goethe: Difficulty of all conversation with him. What a pity that he has been caught up in the mystic philosophy of Germany. He confessed to me that the basis of this philosophy was Spinozism. Great idea that the mystic followers of Schelling have of Spinoza, but why try to bring in religious ideas and what is worse, Catholicism? They say that Catholicism is more poetical. "I would rather have Catholicism do evil," says Goethe, "than be prevented from using it to make my plays more interesting."

Goethe has still the grand cynicism of the eighteenth century; a few months later Constant notes about August Wilhelm Schlegel:

…strange system of Schlegel who regrets a religion in which he does not believe, and who believes that one can remake a religion once it has fallen.

As for Friedrich Schlegel, he wrote, "To have religion is to live poetically": the violent dislocation of the concepts of both religion and poetry is evident. Coleridge considered himself deeply religious, and called Wordsworth "at least a semi-atheist," whatever that may mean; but the dirtiest word in Coleridge's vocabulary was "priest," and he included in that category all Protestant (as well as Catholic) ministers who assumed the role of religious authority.

Most of the early Romantics came from conservative, Protestant, Pietistic families, from which they derived much of their language and imagery and their views of the world. Their magnification of the purely inward, personal elements in Pietism was turned not only against the "atheistic" Enlightenment—they were all deeply influenced by Hume and Voltaire—but against their own background as well. Their early reading in seventeenth-century mystics like Jakob Boehme provided them with ammunition in this battle on two fronts. The mystical philosophy of the seventeenth century had often been conceived as an attack on organized religion and even as part of a program of social and economic reform. (For example, Winstanley's refusal to accept any Christ outside the inward Christ that was in each man's heart was inextricably bound up with his revolutionary movement to seize the common land of England and turn it over to the poor.) Abrams is right to maintain that the Romantic poets' need of a theological vocabulary was independent of their religious creed or lack of one, but the meaning of that vocabulary cannot be understood except through its relation to organized religion and society.

Empson, on the other hand, is very much concerned with Coleridge's social and religious thought, above all with the changes that his religious creed underwent during his lifetime. Empson is a large-spirited critic, and it pains him to see his poet gradually succumb to the horrors of orthodoxy. To restore Coleridge to himself, Empson and his co-editor, David Pirie, have rewritten the Ancient Mariner. Except at one place, they have not actually changed any of Coleridge's words, but they have produced a text that does not look precisely like any of the different versions that Coleridge published. In a way, this serves Coleridge right: he had himself proposed a selection of the great English poets rewritten by himself as a great improvement over the originals; and when he was asked to translate Goethe's Faust, he considered whether he should remodel it, adding that it would be even "more easy to compose the whole anew."

Empson and Pirie have divided the changes that Coleridge made to his poem of 1798 into two parts: those that merely refine and clarify the original conception, and those that seriously alter it, and even conceal it behind a smoke screen of Christian allegory. In other words, for Empson, Coleridge afterward "ratted on the poem" and tried to pretend that it was about something else, just as he spent the later part of his life insisting that he had never been a "Jacobin" revolutionary. There are, indeed, serious cuts in the 1800 version of the poem, and the marginal glosses of 1817 give an interpretation based on sin and redemption through suffering that is gravely at odds with the text of 1798. Empson believes that redemption by torture is wicked, and that for God to redeem the human race by torturing His son is even more shockingly wicked; the Coleridge of 1798 and even later was enthusiastically and courageously of the same opinion and risked his career and his livelihood for this belief.

Empson and Pirie's treatment of the text may be high-handed, but any edition with variant readings invites every reader to form just such a text for himself. In their great edition of the Prelude, de Selincourt and Darbishire called upon the reader to form his "ideal text" from the material they provided. However, it is not, strictly speaking, the "ideal" text that Empson and Pirie seek, but the one truest to the original idea of the poem.

Their search implies an idealistic (and Romantic) view of literature in which none of the various stages of the text is the poem itself, but only approaches to it. This is indeed the only coherent view that permits genuinely interpretative criticism. (Only a sacred text cannot be otherwise than it is, and when the form has become totally rigid, the meaning becomes unattainable—i.e. untranslatable and unparaphrasable—and the possibility of interpretation is either zero [the text is a magic formula] or multiplies uncontrollably.) The poem is the idea (Coleridge would have put a capital I) which the text seeks to realize, and which the text may therefore betray and falsify as well as reveal.

This idea of the poem is placed by Empson squarely in the poet's mind, and he equates it with the poet's intention, which is partially misleading. Coleridge knew better when he put the capital I: the poet's intention is itself only an approach to the idea. Empson has (in an earlier essay on the Ancient Mariner) exploded his own position with an irresistible joke about "four times fifty living men…, They dropped down one by one," when he wrote, "I do not believe that there were two hundred of them; Coleridge or the Mariner invents this number to heighten the drama of their all dying at once." As usual Empson is right, four times fifty is clearly an exaggeration, and it is impossible and irrelevant to decide whether the author or the poem is inflating the figure.

Empson treats Coleridge's betrayal of his poetry with generosity and sympathy, and he is wonderfully free of the pious moral airs expressed by recent critics faced with Coleridge's weaknesses. Opium, cowardice, plagiarism, and procrastination make a formidable array, but they seem to have touched Coleridge's nobility of spirit very little in the end. For Empson, indeed, the theme of the Ancient Mariner is the very reason that Coleridge betrayed the poem and tried to convince his readers and himself that it was about something else. The theme is a sense of guilt and revulsion from life greater than any possible motivation. The disparity between the shooting of the albatross and the subsequent horrors visited upon the Mariner and the crew is the most terrifying aspect of the poem.

When the Mariner is able for a moment to conquer his disgust for the slimy creatures of the deep and to bless them, it is not true that "at once the terrible spell snaps," as Abrams writes in the wake of the majority of critics. The relief is only temporary when the albatross hung round his neck slides off into the sea and the Mariner is able to pray. Greater penance is still to be exacted from the Mariner, as Empson points out, and even more terrible horrors are to appear. There is never, in fact, any final release: the Mariner is condemned to tell his story obsessively over and over again without obtaining absolution. The poem affirms ambiguously the love that should unite all creatures of the universe and the irrational terror of being unable to sustain and meet that love. Almost as much as anything else, the Ancient Mariner warns us of the awesome consequences of religious guilt, and it is in this sense a deeply antireligious poem.

The religious imagery and language of the Ancient Mariner are, of course, essential and even obsessive. But Abrams stands things on their heads when he writes:

The Ancient Mariner is neither an allegorical fable nor a symbolist poem. The persistent religious and moral allusions, however, both in the text and in the glosses which Coleridge added to assist the bewildered readers of the first unpublished version, invite us to take the Mariner's experience as an instance of the Christian plot of moral error, the discipline of suffering, and a consequent change of heart.

The Christian plot is not an inward meaning, it is the outer shell. The poem use religious semi-Christian, semi-pagan narrative patterns openly, and invites us to read into them feelings of a different order. As Coleridge himself wrote about the poem, he treated the supernatural characters "so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith."[4] It is to Coleridge's conception of "our inward nature" that the reader's attention is drawn, and to this end the religious images are drained of their specifically religious content and filled with something new.


This is the process of secularization with which Abrams's book deals, and he is deeply aware of its presence without, however, being able to elucidate its action. That is because he appears to claim for his theological forms and images a fundamental and inalterable meaning—a significance which remains constant even when they are reformulated in radically different contexts. What the Romantics discovered, however, was the possibility of stripping forms of their original significance and of giving them a new sense almost diametrically opposed to the original (as Tieck, for example, begins a play with the epilogue).

What they looked for was the tension between the new meaning and the inevitable residue of the old. This was the tension that enabled the Romantics to carry out their program of reconceiving art and literature as a dynamic and endless process that was to reach a static and resolved form only at the point of infinity. For "point of infinity" read "God," and for "God"—as far as that word was given a specific meaning by the Romantics—read nothing more than the immediate use that each writer might have at the moment for Him: the resolution of the dynamic process of life, the realm of the unconscious and the unknowable, humanity realizing itself as absolute Mind, and so forth. In this way, Hegel can be an atheist who talks freely about God and identifies Christ not with Jesus but with Napoleon-Hegel. This free use of language enables Wordsworth to change his religious beliefs over the years without finding the need to alter their expression except in minor details.

The fundamental importance of Spinoza for this period provides an example of these shifts of meaning. For most of the eighteenth century Spinoza was simply an atheist. If you were accused of atheism yourself (as Pierre Bayle and Voltaire were), you could always set up a splendid smoke screen with a violent attack on Spinoza. The break came in 1785 when the German philosopher Jacobi disclosed the great critic Lessing's secret Spinozism. By the last decade of the century, Spinoza had completely changed from an atheist to a "God-intoxicated" philosopher, and it is a question who had been converted, Spinoza or God. To some extent, the religious revival was only a further secularization.

Abrams, nevertheless, views the Romantic movement as a rescue operation, an attempt to salvage the debris of religion torn apart by science and the Enlightenment, to conserve the lost values of religion while giving them an acceptably secular form. "Much of what distinguishes writers I call 'Romantic' derives from the fact that they undertook, whatever their religious creed or lack of creed, to save traditional concepts, schemes and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation,[5] but to reformulate them within the prevailing two-term system of subject and object, ego and non-ego, the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature." But if writers from Goethe to Proust used theological values to save them, what are we to make of the beautiful quotation from Proudhon that Abrams cites?

[I am] forced to proceed as a materialist, that is to say, by observation and experience, and to conclude in the language of a believer, because there exists no other; not knowing whether my formulas, theological despite myself, ought to be taken as literal or figurative….

(The theological formulas have here been reduced to the status of nouns and verbs, and the process by which they were so neutralized is one of the most revolutionary in the history of style.)

The Romantics inclined often enough to Abrams's view of their work, but what they performed was more often than not a wholesale act of seizure and destruction. Blake's little child contrasts the warm ale-house with the cold church, and says:

But if at the church they would give us some ale
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,…

The word "soul" has been almost totally expropriated in order to affirm its absolute identity with the body: yet the meaning of "soul" depended traditionally upon a radical opposition with the body. Blake is not conserving a traditional theological concept but destroying one that his hated manyheaded monster, Voltaire-Newton-Gibbon, had been powerless to touch. It cannot be said that Novalis, Hölderlin, and Wordsworth (at least before 1807) were less radical than Blake.

The belief that an earlier concept can remain essentially unchanged in a later reformulation of it is the original sin of the history of ideas. It is especially unfortunate as an approach to the early Romantics, who were the first to insist so fully upon the inseparability of thought and expression. (Language and thought, said Friedrich Schlegel, must in theory be distinguished, but in practice we can only do so when one of them malfunctions.)

Abrams expounds ideas in Romantic poetry that lose all vitality when reduced to plain prose that cats and dogs can read. He outlines the concepts of alienation and reconciliation with nature as they were derived from a long theological tradition by Wordsworth and Coleridge, which he believes still useful today, and adds: "These ideas are shared in our time by theologians, philosophers, economists, sociologists, psychologists, writers, critics and readers of Life magazine and the Readers Digest…." What a crew! Abrams's tone is ironic, but the irony is sadly aimed at the rejection of ideas so universally admired instead of at the reduction of Wordsworth, and us, to so common a denominator.

However vulgar the romantic notion of alienation could become, it was not that of the popular twentieth-century evangelist—and I do not mean to imply that Abrams does not know this, but only that his thesis of Saint Augustine, Wordsworth, and the bereft readers of Life reaching out to each other over the ages will not permit him to express it. Alienation played a large role in Romantic thought and it is finally expanded so far as to destroy itself. From Rousseau the early Romantics inherited the idea that self-consciousness is a disease, an alienation of oneself from oneself, a loss of unity. This view of self-reflection was most powerfully delineated in 1794 by Fichte, who influenced all the German and (through Coleridge) the English writers of the turn of the century. As Abrams points out, they regarded "philosophical reflection, the very act of taking thought,…as in itself, in Schelling's words, 'a spiritual sickness.' "

This division of the self is, indeed, a fall from grace; the act of reflection is the knowledge of good and evil. But Abrams does not carry it far enough. For Fichte, the ego (the self) does not exist except as the act of self-alienation, and comes into being only at the moment of the act. I can be myself only in so far as I am aware of myself as something distinct from the totally subjective, only as my own mind takes a part of itself as an object; otherwise there is no "I." The Fall from grace continuously re-enacted at every moment is the condition of life. Alienation, for Fichte and for Coleridge, is synonymous with existence.

When the concept of alienation is expanded illimitably—is made absolute, to use the Romantic term, then the status of the impulse to heal the division, to integrate the ego with itself and with Nature, is threatened. If alienation can be seen as existence itself—the continuous effort to be what one is, to affirm the "I" as distinct from everything else, integration becomes death. In E.T.A. Hoffmann's Princess Brambilla,[6] there is a ministerial council meeting at which the treasury of wit is to be replenished for a time of need. The king makes his contribution: "The moment in which a man dies is the first in which his true ego arises," and he drops dead at once.

This is the ambiguity at the heart of the "circuitous journey"; the lost paradise regained is death. Abrams interprets the end of Hölderlin's Hyperion as a renewal of joy and life. When the hero gives himself up to Nature after his defeat, his rejection by his father, and the death of his love, that is indeed how Hyperion himself appears to present it. Yet his reconciliation with nature and his new found joy have a secret and bitter despair:

And yet once more I looked into the cold night of men and shuddered, and wept for joy that I was so blessed, and I spoke words, it seemed to me, but they were like the rushing sound of a fire that flares up and leaves ashes behind.

As Geoffrey Hartman has recently written about a similar identification of the self with Nature by Coleridge: "Nothing is lost by this sublimation except all."[7] Abrams recognizes in Hyperion the inevitable return of alienation after this "renewal," but in trying to impose on it his theological doctrine of redemption and resurrection,[8] he does not see that the resurrection itself is a new form of death.

Abrams also omits as irrelevant all mention of the explicitly ironic Romantics like Byron and E.T.A. Hoffmann; but their comic sense is not an aberration from the Romantic tradition but an illumination of patterns implicit in Hölderlin and Wordsworth. Hoffmann's ebullient and fatuous young cat Murr shows how "alienation" can be made to signify almost anything one wants. When he meets his long-lost mother ("come to my paws," she cries) he goes to get her a herring-head he has hidden after dinner. On the way back he gets hungry, but relates this pedantically in the language of Romantic idealistic philosophy: "My ego was alienated from my ego in a strange way so as to remain still my ego and I ate the herring-head."

Alienation is here the instinct for life. In the ironic movement necessary to Romantic art—to Wordsworth as to Byron, to Novalis as to Hoffmann—the "suspension of disbelief" is never a completed act of integration. We accept the supernatural without believing it, we allow what is strange to keep its alien identity, "a stranger and belov'd as such." It is not unity and reintegration, not the return to the lost paradise that is sought, but division and estrangement. In fact the early Romantics conceived the act of poetry as essentially a technique of alienation: for Novalis, it is the power of making the familiar distant and strange; for Coleridge, the "power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of the imagination."

The uncontrolled expansion of concepts until they referred potentially to everything and therefore to nothing so that their powers of association were completely liberated and magnified was a process repeated until it could seem like a vulgar and maddening trick. "Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything that is both good and great" (Friedrich Schlegel), "Thinking is speaking. Speaking and doing or making are only modifications of one and the same operation" (Novalis), "Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth" (Keats)—examples are numberless. This technique of expansion contributed to the instability of meaning that made Byron compare the philosophy of August Wilhelm Schlegel to a rosy and agreeable mist cast over everything. But it is a trick based upon a profound comprehension of speech, a realization that there is no possibility of authentic and direct communication without some looseness, some play in the mechanism of language.

This new freedom in the use of meaning is the revolutionary achievement of the early Romantic generation, the men who turned twenty at the time of the French Revolution. "The situation is overripe and stinking and needs to be shaken up," the great linguist and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote about the contemporary state of poetry, and he tentatively praised the efforts of the Schlegels and Novalis to revolutionize art. "I do not like what they are doing…but they are the only hope we have." For Hazlitt, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge was the literary analogue to the French Revolution,[9] and he remarked in an amusing image that the infrequency of personification in the poetry of the new school compared with that of Pope and Johnson was a reluctance to bestow the undemocratic dignity of a capital letter.

The newly released power of association created by the whole or partial destruction of the central meaning of words made possible the nonsense verse of Kubla Khan and the late poems of Novalis. Empson convincingly says that Kubla Khan is about the role of the artist as conqueror, as spokesman for the unconscious desires of his society. But Empson oddly refuses to see the importance of presenting this theme as if it were a vision, as a kind of involuntary nonsense. Coleridge was not, as Empson claims, pretending that he did not know what the poem was about when he added his introductory explanation of the interrupted attempt to write down his dream. Kubla Khan is the great Romantic example of the fragment, the created ruin, and the "person on business from Porlock" who broke into Coleridge's inspiration is an essential part of the work. Coleridge's achievement is like a realization of Novalis's contemporary program for writing poems and stories "without sense or logic, but only with associations like dreams or music."

What then was the use of religious frames of thought to men who could be atheists or, like Coleridge when he wrote his great poems, so little a Christian that he refused to accept even Unitarian doctrine? Why did they persist in using religious terms which they often rendered so vague as to accommodate any meaning? A letter of 1803 by Wilhelm von Humboldt may suggest an answer. He wrote about the interrelationship, the "belonging-together" of all intellectual beings, not in a single totality but in

a unity in which all concept of number, all opposition of unity and multiplicity disappears. To call this unity God would be absurd, I find, as it throws it outside of the self for no good reason.

This unity which itself swallows up the concept of unity is an explicit image of infinity. Humboldt settles for calling this infinity "Humanity" instead of "God" after rejecting "Universe," "World," and "World-Soul." (It is extraordinary how he could try out different words as if they were hats.) Most of the Romantics called it "God" without hesitation. The fund of religious imagery and concepts provided a copious (and, at worst, a cheap) source of "innumerable analogies and types of infinity."

This is Wordsworth's phrase for the fundamental virtue of Romantic style; in another place, where he explains the significance of his images, he calls them the "types and symbols of eternity." It is for his generation the basic figure of speech, or, better, figure of thought, since the old rules of rhetoric had been dissolved in a more generalized and fluid concept of language. Type and symbol (or analogy) are not synonymous for Wordsworth: although type had still the old meaning of "emblem" or "symbol," it already meant example or model.[10] Images like

   The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decay'd,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls

are both examples (metonymies) of eternity and metaphors for the secret invariance at the heart of constant mutability. They are therefore examples of what they themselves signify by analogy, embodying that contradiction that Coleridge saw as essential to every symbol, which "partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible…abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative." Such types and symbols of eternity are like the

…Yew tree, pride of Lorton Vale,
Which to this day stands single, in the midst
Of its own darkness

These types of infinity are images of freedom. The early Romantic's battle against atheism was essentially against the new authoritarian, religious tyranny of mechanistic thought. The Infinite was a medium in which the imagination could allow for the free expansion of associations, dreams, music—all that the calculating mind held senseless. Yet the early Romantic Infinite is illuminated by the light of common day. As the French émigré Etienne de Senancour wrote in 1804:[11]

Love is condemned as a completely sensual affection, having no other principle than an appetite that is called gross. But I see nothing in our more complicated desires of which the true end is not one of the primary physical needs: sentiment is only their indirect expression: Intellectual Man was never anything else than a phantom. Our needs awaken in us the perception of their positive object, as well as the innumerable perceptions which are analogous to them. The direct means would not fill life by themselves, but these accessory impulses occupy it fully, because they have no limits. [My italics]

The metaphysical activity (the "analogous perceptions") is life itself and cannot be limited or fully determined: the medium of its action is God, to employ the Romantic significance of this much used word. It is in this medium that the individual ego which is only an abstraction rejoins the unconscious and the involuntary that the poets realized they had to master. To this end they abandoned a specific and limited kind of control over meaning to look for a more efficient way of commanding the marginal phenomena of significance that the eighteenth century had appeared to renounce.

That God is the unconscious of humanity is explicit in Wordsworth (although we must be careful not to read back into him Freudian or Jungian meanings). In some lines, unpublished until 1925, he dismisses both passive and active forms of consciousness:[12]

Such consciousnesses seemed but accidents
Relapses from the one interior life
In which all beings live with god, themselves
Are god, existing in the mighty whole
As indistinguishable as the cloud- less east
Is from the cloudless west, when all
The hemisphere is one cerulean blue.

Wordsworth never printed these daring lines written when he was producing his finest poetry: perhaps he would not have subscribed to them some years later. In these lines, the ego is dissolved in the interior life, which is in no sense an individual unconscious: it is the interior life of all beings, and God is here an image of fraternity as well as liberty.

These images of infinity had therefore a political significance as well. When the ideals of the revolution were corrupted, the political vocabulary became corrupt too: to use it without irony was to support betrayal on every front. The vocabulary of mysticism and religion offered refuge, but only briefly. The old traditional meanings soon returned. By 1810 most of the early Romantic writers had abandoned their mixture of free-thinking and mysticism and moved toward orthodoxy.

This is, no doubt, a coarse view of a history that needs more caution, greater reserve: it is offered as a corrective to a portrayal of the early Romantics as hopeful and optimistic. Their poetry is the greatest poetry of despair that survives today, the greatest because entirely untouched by resignation. The messianic revolutionary ideals are kept alive in the hyperbolic language of mysticism because they had been proven hopeless to a generation that refused to accept their final defeat. Not until the 1830s did one find the poignant and melancholy resignation of Tennyson or the magnificent and fatuous optimism of Hugo. The writing of the early Romantics could be sustained for only a brief time; they died young like Novalis, lost courage like Coleridge and Wordsworth, went mad like Hölderlin, or became apologists of the most reactionary regime in Europe like Friedrich Schlegel. The fundamental aesthetic doctrine of the Romantics is an identity of work and life: their failure is already acted out within their poetry.


[1] By "early Romantic" I mean simply the men who did most of their important work between 1795 and 1815: e.g., Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in England; in Germany the poet Hölderlin, the philosopher Fichte, the critic and philologist Friedrich Schlegel, the poet and philosopher Novalis, the novelists Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann (the last a half generation later than the others); and, in France, Chateaubriand and Senancour, author of that bible of French Romanticism, Obermann (1804), and the novelist Benjamin Constant. Beyond the fact that certain statements can be made about all of them, I have not found it necessary to assume here that they formed a movement or created a style, nor shall I try to clarify the relations among them.

[2] The poet's understanding of his inspiration is not privileged: this is perhaps the oldest critical tradition we have, going back to Plato. For Plato, the poet was the last man to be able to explain his own work. This paradox was already understood then as a hard nut to crack, but essential to literature. But Empson is right to claim what we can reconstruct of the poet's intention as evidence for the meaning of his work. For all Empson's sniping at the Intentional Fallacy (which means largely that the main evidence for the meaning of a poem is the text, whatever the poet may have had in mind), he has a conception of intention grand enough to accommodate any theory of interpretation.

[3] The Critical Quarterly, 1964.

[4] Biographica Literaria, Chapter XIV.

[5] One of the dogmas of Christianity that Wordsworth disliked most of all was that God created the universe. At least, he felt that one shouldn't talk about it, probably because it was the only thing about God that Voltaire believed.

[6] See the comment on this passage by Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Interpretation, Theory and Practice, edited by Charles S. Singleton (Johns Hopkins, 1969).

[7] "Reflections on the Evening Star," in New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth edited by Geoffrey Hartman (Columbia, 1972).

[8] The reader is warned by Hölderlin in a preface that if he reads the book for the doctrine he will not understand it.

[9] Hazlitt saw this aspect of the poem more clearly than Empson when he said that he could repeat certain lines of Kubla Khan forever with delight without knowing what they meant.

[10] In spite of the OED, which dates this use much later, English-French glossaries give the meaning "example" as early as 1815. Wordsworth generally uses "type" as an element in a pair ("types and symbols," "type or emblem"), and it is kinder to him to believe it is not always a tautology.

[11] Obermann, eighth year, Letter LXIII.

[12] The Prelude, edited by Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford University Press, second edition, 1959), p. 535.



September 20, 1973: William Empson, THE RIGHTS OF EDITORS