Wednesday 29 August 2018

The corruption of romanticism - Wordsworth and Coleridge versus Byron and Shelley

It is salutary to compare the character and achievement of the first and second 'generations' of English romantic poets and philosophers - of whom the leading spirits were Wordsworth and Coleridge (born 1770/2) and Byron and Shelley (born 1788/92).

In terms of achievement we could say that W&C were each first rate of their kind - Wordsworth ranked behind only Shakespeare and Milton as a poet; and Coleridge being the leading all-round intellectual of the early 19th century as well a a poet of the second rank. Byron was extremely famous/ notorious/ influential - but a far lesser poet than W; and Shelley wrote some important essays (and great poems) while never matching the extraordinary depth and range of C.

In terms of virtue - there is no comparison. Wordsworth was a good man, and Coleridge a repentant one. While Byron and Shelley pioneered the inverted morality of the modern global celebrity elite - especially in terms of exploitative promiscuity and self-gratification.

Politically, after the transitional experimentation of adolescence; Wordsworth and Coleridge were conservative Christians; but Byron and Shelley were radical leftists and atheists. (Byron - as licentious aristocrat - being an archetype of the later communist leadership.)

There, in a nutshell - compressed into four persons and a gap of less than two decades - was the decline of Romanticism into modernity; and the point at which the developmental evolution of human consciousness took a wrong turn into incoherence, self-hatred, despair and active self-destruction.

Those who affected to live For the people and poetry were lesser people and poets than those who lived for God. When God had faded even from memory - then so did poetry. 

Note: A further comparison might be made between the women: Dorothy, William's sister; and Mary, Shelley's second (de facto polygamous) wife (until the first had been driven to suicide). Dorothy was surely one of the kindest, most generous and most loving of people I have ever encountered in literature; as well as one of the very greatest diarists. Mary was an important pioneer of Gothic fiction (with Frankenstein) but spoilt and selfish; the precociously seductive wild child of notorious radical atheist celebrities. 


Wurmbrand said...

Dr Charlton, if you have read Malcolm Guite's Mariner (about STC), would you recommend it?

Dale Nelson

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Due to the spotty nature of my literary education (almost entirely self-taught), the only Romantics I know at all well are Blake and Byron. Wordsworth is a pretty major writer to have overlooked, and I should probably rectify the omission!

William Wildblood said...

This post is like a blast of clean refreshing air because it makes clear how English romanticism turned decadent in the hands of men who may have been great artists but lacked a proper humility and forgot the Creator.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - No. But, so far, I haven't found anything helpful to me in MG's work.

@WmJas - Yes, give it a try - but you may find Wordsworth is not for you; as Milton is not for me.

@William W - The decadence was so swift, and so complete, that it is breathtaking. Mainstream literary critics have - of course - confused the obvious; for example by depicting Blake as anti-Christian 'apostate', rather than being intensely - albeit 'heretically' - Christian.

But, as Barfield makes clear in his book on Coleridge, there was a real diffculty about Romanticism, that was left unsolved - which was the need to explain in what sense imagination could lead to knowledge; in what sense imaginative writing was true.

For example, to explain why the supernatural themes of Coleridge were necessary ways of writing truth; or how the nature writings of Wordsworth were not merely subjective daydreams - but that W was actually writing truths about the natural world.

Because this explanation/ understanding was (and mostly is) lacking; Romanticism became regarded as a self-delusion, a day dream - and parasitic upon the 'realities' of materialism, economics, politics... It became a matter of instinct rather than thinking - for instance, surrealism in art took this to an extreme.

And this made Romanticism seem necessarily anti-Christian. Whereas the reality was, originally, the opposite!

By this account, Tolkien is the greatest modern Romantic writer, and we see many of these same issues replayed in trying to understand Tolkien - and among Tolkien's later (anti-Christian) imitators.

Wurmbrand said...

Has anyone here explored the writings of George MacDonald? I have wondered if the mantle of Wordsowrthian-Coleridgean Romanticism didn't fall in his shoulders, but I wouldn't be equipped to go into a lot of detail about the matter myself. However, if anyone wants to pursue this, good places to go would include these works of MacDonald's:

His essay "The Fantastic Imagination"

The section in his book England's Antiphon on Wordsworth

The novel Wilfrid Cumbermede -- as I recall from reading this thirty years ago, MacDonald refers to Wordsworth and Coleridge as prophets, and works with their legacy here

Some of his tales as works of imagination in high degree, such as "The Day Boy and the Night Girl" (aka "Photogen and Nycteris") -- but not, I think, "The Wise Woman"/"The Lost Princess," which seems to have been written in a bad mood

MacDonald was of Scottish birth but became part of the English literary scene. His importance for C. S. Lewis is well known. In an interview, Owen Barfield spoke very highly of his romance Phantastes. (I think this was the very long interview with G. B. Tennyson.) MacDonald is often regarded not only as an inheritor of Wordsworth and Coleridge but of Blake, perhaps especially in his remarkable novel At the Back of the North Wind.

MacDonald seems to me to have been, to some extent appropriated by two groups of readers (who sometimes overlap) and whose dispositions don't always seem sound to me: Christians reacting against what they regard as too much fundamentalism or Calvinism, etc.; and Jungians. I think one might do well to avoid their writings until such time as one is really well-grounded in MacDonald's own writings. I myself have been away from him for a while but intend to return....

Dale Nelson

William Wildblood said...

I read The Princess and Curdie and the Princess And the Goblin as a child and loved them. Then in adolescence in a post Tolkien read lots of fantasy mood I read Phantastes and Lilith which I was also very struck by but nothing since.

Wurmbrand said...

England's Antiphon and other GM books are available on Project Gutenberg:

Seijio Arakawa said...

I appreciated George Macdonald’s “Unspoken Sermons”, which set out explicitly and at length many of his views and much of his reasoning e.g. on what it means to become a ‘child’ to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, how the punishment of “outer darkness” might work, what it means to make proper atonement for a sin, in what sense Heaven may be a fulfillment of earthly desire, and whether human beings are children of God in an essential sense or only a metaphorical one through “adoption” (Macdonald argues for the former). There are a couple of areas where he resorts to textual criticism (i.e. comparing the KJV vocabulary to the original Hebrew) from an apparent expectation that the audience won’t respond to the same argument made from intuitive premises. But otherwise the whole sermon book is an exercise in taking the basic intuitive assumption that God is a loving Father and carefully deriving explicit implications.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - I'll take another look at it - I tried reading it a few years ago but couldn't get more than a few pages in.