Posts Tagged ‘William Wordsworth’

journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

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fingerless watchIn the closing stages of my novel “By Fall of Night”, lovers Tim and Rebecca linger in a world between realities, a world of mutual dreaming where time has no meaning and from where they’ve discovered they can wake back to any previous moment in their lives. This is just as well because they’ve also discovered that to return to their original lives means certain death, because an asteroid is about to strike the earth. But to avoid it by skipping realities is also to risk waking in separate branches of the multiverse, where Tim and Rebecca don’t exist for one another any more.

So, they bide as long as they can in the interstitial dream domain, resisting the call to wake up while they wrestle with the dilemma. They visit a cafe, as you do, because, as the saying goes – if in doubt, have a brew. Here they meet up with fellow dream-traveller William Wordsworth who, in the course of a somewhat poetical conversation over tea and scones, draws from the pocket of his waistcoat a watch with no fingers.

What time is it? Who can tell? And does it really matter?

This slightly Dalian dream-scene is taken from free-running imagination. It was not consciously plotted, and like much of my fiction needs to be interpreted with the looseness of a dream counsellor, rather than the clinical precision of the literary critic. What you get with me is something irrational, but since I’m just a different version of you, such things are not entirely meaningless to either of us. They are archetypal, and therefore infuriatingly obtuse to us both – yet I hope as intriguing and attractive to you, as they also are to me.

In my own version of reality a fascination with time – and in particular time-pieces – leaks through from the dream world. I wrote before Christmas about buying a broken clock, then spending a day or two cleaning it up and getting it going. Well, I went back to that same junk emporium after Christmas and found another worthless hunk of brass – this time a proper clock with springs and gears and such, this time more properly broken.

And here it is:

koma clock1It’s a torsion clock, more commonly known as an anniversary clock. They were designed to run for about 400 days from a single wind. You can usually spot them by the spinning balls. I think there’s something rather grand about them, but most of them you see these days are battery driven plastic fakes. With the original design the idea was you’d be given the clock as a gift – retirement, wedding, birthday and such, and each year, on the anniversary, you’d wind the clock to keep it going for another year. It’s a quaint idea, though now somewhat out of date (changing the battery on your birthday doesn’t have the same romantic appeal). They’re obsolete of course, though there are still plenty of these old tickers around. It’s just that the skills for maintaining them are increasingly rare and terribly expensive.

This one carries the brand “Prescott” crudely glued onto the dial, and is a bit of a misnomer – hinting at the long tradition of clock and watch making that went on in Prescott, near Liverpool, up to about 1912. But the mechanism is by Konrad Mauch, a German company who manufactured anniversary clocks from 1950 to 1958, so the Prescott thing is a bit of a mystery for now. I bought the clock with a label telling me it “needs attention” i.e. “bust”, but that was all right. In truth, I thought the clock was ugly, and I wanted it only to strip it down and learn what I could about this type of movement.

Although rather delicate and precise in their construction, there’s actually not much to go wrong with a torsion clock. They move so slowly, even ancient examples show little wear. What usually happens is the oil turns to gum over time and the torsion wire that holds the spinning balls gets kinked or broken. Either way the clock stops. So, the original owner contacts a professional clock-maker for an estimate for repair, gets quoted an eye-wateringly huge figure, and the clock goes in the attic, and later for junk.

To be honest, professional clock-makers can be a bit stuck up – I know because I’ve spoken to a few. They rightly value their skills, honed at the bench over a lifetime, but that was most likely a long time ago, and with maintenance free black-box  movements nowadays being churned out by the billion, one must be realistic. It means mechanical clocks are nowadays only for the rich, or the interested tinkerer. And tinkerers don’t always have the skills or the patience for work like this.

With my clock, the torsion wire was both busted and kinked, and the key was missing. I cleaned it all up by hand, degreased it with Methylated spirits and a little brush, cleaned up the holes in the plates with sharpened match-sticks, replaced the wire with the help of online info, oiled it all sparingly with proper clock oil, ordered a new key from the Bay, and got it running nicely, those little balls spinning slowly, mesmerisingly for days on end. But if I put the fingers back on, it stops.

It reminds me of Wordsworth’s watch – dreams leaking into fiction, and leaking into fact.

Oh, I know – in dull, practical terms it means I’m still missing something with the mechanism, that there’s something about it I don’t yet understand. But still, the metaphor is interesting. The anniversary clock marks time. The spinning balls rotate, they oscillate slowly – 8 beats a minute in the case of this little mechanism. But at such a leisurely pace, even small errors add up to something significant – the anniversary clock is not renowned for its accuracy. By contrast the quartz resonator in your modern clock operates at nearer 546 beats a minute, a pace at which small errors don’t make so much difference – seconds a month as opposed to minutes – but both are essentially mechanisms that approximate to an arbitrary unit of time. My mechanism runs, but what is it counting as its little balls spin? I put the fingers on, and the clock stops. It counts nothing, actually. And I can’t help wondering about that.

As I spend time cleaning it up and fiddling with it, the old clock begins to grow on me. I wonder what anniversary it was originally bought to celebrate. If it was a retirement in the 1950’s, its original owner probably died in the 1970’s and the clock might have been through several hands since then, or lingered lost in some damp old attic. Or was it a family piece perhaps? In one sense, it’s a shame such memories are lost, yet equally, I prefer to avoid timepieces that are clearly marked with a memorial engraving because to me that full stops the device in time and prevents me from adding something of my own momentum to it.

It may take me much of 2015 to get this old clock running properly and marking time as it should, but already, it’s taught me a lot – not just about torsion mechanisms and their idiosyncrasies. It reminds me that time is, in essence, simply we what make of it, and four hundred days is really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things – a key wind or two, an accumulation of slow swings of the pendulum, but always an approximation to a reality we can never hope to fully grasp.

Happy New year to all.

Thanks for listening.

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lady of the lake ullswater



I carried the Prelude,
As The Lady slit the waters of the lake.
Black they were, like tar,
Unrippled in stillness.
And the hills sweated in white wreaths,
Hung, and slipping down,
To touch shy fingers to a silver shore.

How much of this memory is mine?
How much is his?
Here, he tells me,
Look at this, from long ago,
And know,
Thy God as love.

But it was not love.
Not then.
Loneliness was more my muse,
Cold hands wrapped around my heart,
So with each breath
I was reminded of my separateness.

Beloved of none.
No Dorothy,
No Sara to warm the empty ways,
Where light of love has never shone,

And where I was bound that day.

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Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. So said Lady Caroline Lamb of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Self centred, caring only for their art, living lives of outrageous sexual excess, racking up stupendous debts, dying young amid a sickly opium haze, and leaving behind as much scandal as is humanly possible,… all these things conjure up the image of the  archetypal Romantic poet. But it wasn’t just the poets; Romanticism was a way of thinking that informed all of the arts, and even the spiritual beliefs of its devotees, who veered away from mainstream Christianity into the realms of mystical apostasy.

The Romantics have always interested me, and my interest is explored in this piece, but I warn you, I failed English Literature at school. I hadn’t a clue what the subject was supposed to be getting at, and even after forty years, I still can’t look at copy of Dickens’ Great Expectations without feeling sick (sorry Charles). So, if you’re looking for something to copy in your homework essay, I’d be careful cutting and pasting any of the following, or you’re most likely heading for a “D”.

This isn’t about an examination for me, nor a line by line analysis of what the Romantic poets wrote. It’s about something more important – understanding what it was they were on about, and how it might shine a light on the texture and the moods of my own life. That’s not literature. It’s survival.

I started this quest long ago by going back in time to the early  twentieth century, and to the work of that great European thinker: Carl Jung. Jung took me in hand for a while and led me further back in time, to the East, to China, to the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism, to the enigmatic wisdom of the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching.  But at the same time, sitting on a stone, half way up an English mountain, there was this other old guy whose acquaintance I kept nodding to as I passed him on the path up into the clouds. His name was William Wordsworth. I liked the look of him, but I never really engaged with him because there was also something formidable, something inaccessible in his gaze.

But the serendipitous turns of the way that have led me through Eastern mysticism and are now bringing me back to the native mysticism of the European Romantics. I’ve had my chat with Jung, and Lao Tzu, and now I see Wordsworth nodding, beckoning me with a fatherly smile, to follow him up into the mists of Helvellyn for a long walk and a talk about this and that, and I think I trust him to be a reliable guide. Romanticism, like the mountain scenery they revered, can be a dangerous place to wander unprepared, and you need to watch where you put your feet.

You might say all of this makes me a little out of date, possibly also a little mad, and if you’re a Lit student you can no doubt come up with a learned analysis, plagiarised from some recognised academic authority on the subject of human folly, supported by relevant quotations of course, which proves I’m no more knowledgeable than the bumpkin my exam result says I am. Being a Romantic however, I hold the trump card, because I view the world from the centre of myself, and through the peculiarly distorted optical apparatus of my own imagination, which may indeed colour things somewhat, but also makes my quest for the Romantics a Romantic quest in itself. I am a Romantic.

I therefore blow a raspberry, and continue with impertinence.

I believe the romantics were really onto something and I’d like to share with you my reasons for that belief. In the early nineteenth century,  human potential in western Europe seemed poised, ready to take a different path altogether to the one it ultimately took. It spat in the face of Materialism, of established religion, and the hypocritical moral values of the day, and we can only wonder what would have emerged from the Romantics if their fever had been only a little more infectious. These are timeless themes, old lessons you might say, as valid today as they ever were, but now, as then, although we nod sagely at the wisdom and the sentiment of the Romantics, we also dismiss them as unrealistic, and instead we embrace the Materialist world as being the only valid reality, the only reality that is in any way practical.

And look where that’s got us.

By contemplating the world from the centre of one’s self, in the Romantic fashion, one realises there is no difference between what one is looking at, and what any of us actually is, that we are all connected through this dream of the world, that the world is nothing, yet everything at the same time. Would we by now have had a western tradition of contemplative, non hierarchical mysticism, something akin to philosophical Daoism, or Buddhism? Would we have had a much greener world by virtue of our deeper connection with Nature?

The official closing date for the Romantic period was the accession of Queen Victoria, in 1837, but the Romantics weren’t consulted about this and carried on regardless, their influence informing the work, and the Bohemian ways of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who began painting in the late 1840’s and went on, right through to the early 20th century. Indeed, their influence can still be found in the arts today, and also in the blogs of a certain kind of dreamer who writes essays like this one.

But from the middle nineteenth century, the voice of Romanticism was increasingly a voice without influence, as the rest of the world chose a path of unbridled Materialism: industrial development, urbanisation, and economic expansion, which led to the interconnected and thoroughly globalised world we live in today. Landscapes were transformed; Sylvan vales were lost beneath the sulphurous slag heaps of collieries, skylines were obliterated by forests of factory chimneys, and the countryside was drained of its population,  sucked by economic necessity into the mills where hands that had once steered horse-drawn ploughs or wielded a scythe, now became the hands of slaves, tied to machines. It happened across Europe in the nineteenth century. It’s happening all over the far east today.

I don’t think we had a choice really; this dark path was inevitable, but we seem to be reaching the end of it now – not because we’re waking up from the madness, but because the earth itself is showing signs of impatience, and is forcing our hand, making us look hard for different ways of living that are more in harmony with the natural heartbeat of the planet we’re sitting on. So, it’s time to be thinking of other things, before we destroy ourselves completely. Perhaps the Romantics still have something worth teaching us about the world?… but they lived so long ago: if only we could remember what it was they said!


From my armchair, here in the early twenty first century, I can see we’ve given birth to an age of machines that are capable of doing anything. A look at the sophistication of the humanoid robots we’re building tells us Asimov’s future is almost upon us, but none of these machines will ever tell us what it means to be human, nor indeed even how to be happy. Our machines are marvellously adept, but although they each have an apparent purpose in material terms, in a greater sense, there is no point to them at all.

The Romantics still feature large in the collective imagination; I read their poems at school, in the 60’s and 70’s but we need to be careful in unwrapping the neat packaging they’ve been presented in.  In Materialistic terms, they’re marketable, because there’s something in Romanticism that is easily confused with sentimentality, or cheap nostalgia. And then there’s all that sex! We listen to the soundbites of their poetry and fancy we hear in them the lament for a lost Arcadia. This is a sure-fire till-ringer, so the Romantics find themselves boiled down to just another stop on the conveyor belt of potted culture. Look too closely and you’ll find  their language difficult, their forms of verse too twiddly for the impatient modern ear, but back up a bit, look at them through half closed eyes and you might find you rather like the foppish clothes they wore, you might find the country houses they lived in rather quaint.


Arcadia was never a place, never a lost paradise. No one understood this more than the Romantics. Arcadia is here and it is now, but the only way to see it is to go inside your head. For that you need to know how to look – and they knew how to look. The Romantic sees Arcadia, where others see nothing, and therein lies the vulnerability of genuine Romanticism, and Romantics, for in an otherwise tainted world, where others see nothing, the blind have a habit of stomping all over the Romantics’ Arcadia and rendering it about as magical, mystical and meaningful as a graffiti-sprayed bus shelter.

I tend to think of Wordsworth as the most successful of the Romantics. I say “successful” because unlike many of his illustrious contemporaries, he managed to remain sane, coherent and genuinely beloved of others, into ripe old age.

If you visit the UK from overseas, on a packaged tour, and you come to the Lake District, you’ll no doubt find yourself in Grasmere and at the door of Dove Cottage, home to Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808 –  what are claimed to be, poetically speaking, his most fertile years. Be warned though: there may be a long queue, because you’re just one of the 70,000 pilgrims who cross the threshold every year in search of the Wordsworth vibe. For your £7.50 admission (2010 season), you’ll get a  thirty minute tour of the hallowed walls, of this rather gloomy little place, and then you’re out of the back door,  the next lot comes in, and there you are: everything you possibly need to know about the sage of Grasmere and his muses.

But to my mind the most poignant memorial to Romanticism, and Wordworth’s legacy, lies hidden away behind Dove Cottage. It wasn’t mentioned in the tour I made of the house, though I had gone there specifically to seek it out, and I had to ask the tour guide for directions; it is the Rock of Names. There’s  no charge to see it, and you get to it by wandering up by the side of the visitor centre, so when you’ve shuffled around the cottage, and before you empty your wallet on Romantic memorabilia in the shop, be sure to go and have a look at it. The Rock of names is interesting, and in its story I see a metaphor for both the story and the meaning of  Romanticism itself. Here’s a picture of it:

I think I’m okay showing this. There were no signs saying I couldn’t take it, but you have to be careful around museums.

What is it? Well, it’s an  outcrop of rock, worn smooth, glistening with water that spills down from the fellside. If you look more closely you’ll also see, chiselled into it, a kind of graffiti, but we’ll forgive the vandals on this occasion. The initials were carved with the blade of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s penknife in the summer of 1800. I’ve printed them here for clarity:


See if you can spot them!

WW  – you can probably guess is WiIlliam Wordsworth himself. M.H. is Mary Hutchinson, who just a few years later became William’s wife. D.W. is his sister Dorothy, mysterious muse, unsung heroine of the Romantic movement, and the maker of two of it’s finest poets – Wordsworth and Coleridge. STC is  Coleridge himself. JW is John Wordsworth, William’s brother who would be lost at sea in 1805. SH, is Sarah Hutchinson, Mary’s sister, and the love of Coleridge’s life, though not to be confused with his wife, who was also called Sarah.

It looks like it’s been there for ever, but the stone originally sat some six miles north of Grasmere, at Wythburn, in what is now a lost valley. The Wordworths would set off from Grasmere, in the south, Coleridge from Keswick, in the north, and they would rendezvous at a place equidistant from their respective abodes. On this particular occasion they were also moved to immortalise the spot and their presence in it. Here’s what Wordsworth wrote about it:

Rock of Names

Light is the strain, but not unjust,
To Thee and thy memorial tryst,
That once seemed only to express,
Love that was love in idleness,
Tokens, as year hath followed year,
How changed, alas, in character!
For they were graven on thy smooth breast
By hands of those my soul loved best;
Meek women, men as true and brave
As ever went to hopeful grave:
Their hands and mine, when side by side
With kindred zeal and mutual pride,
We worked until the initials took
Shapes that defied a scornful look.
Long as for us a genial feeling
Survives, or one in need of healing,
The power, dear Rock, around thee cast,
Thy monumental power, shall last
For me and mine! Oh thought of pain,
That would impair it or profane!
Take all in kindness then, as said,
With a staid heart but playful head;
And fail not Thou, loved Rock to keep
Thy charge when we are laid asleep.


Wordsworth died in 1850, but the mystical spell that he seems to have cast around this monument was later broken by controversy and the rising spectre of Victorian Materialism. By the 1870’s the city of Manchester, undergoing a stupendous expansion, and in desparate need of water for its factories, hatched a plan to create what is now known as the Thirlmere reservoir. This would mean the flooding of Wythburn, and submerging the Rock of Names. Reading contemporary accounts of the original vale, it was a place of great beauty, where two smaller natural lakes, Leathes Water and Wythburn Water, nestled among dramatic craggy outcrops. There was a public outcry, but  the reservoir scheme went ahead anyway and was finished in 1894.

When you visit Thirlmere today it’s easy to see you’re looking at a reservoir. In the dry months, it has a tide line all around it, and of course there’s a massive dam at one end. Time has softened its impact somewhat, and the surrounding mountain scenery still lends it a measure of dramatic power, but the truth of what was lost here will never really be known or understood by the modern writer. As for the Rock of Names, the solution was simple: if engineers could flood a valley and relay its water via an underground pipe some ninety four miles south, to Manchester, they could surely hack out a simple piece of rock and set it up somewhere else,… couldn’t they? Well, they tried but the rock shattered, like the romantic dream itself shattered under the inexorable pressures of technological progress, and materialism.

The pieces were gathered up and found their way to Dove cottage which, even as early as the 1890’s, had already become a shrine to all things Wordsworthian. They were reassembled  as neatly as possible, and that’s how you see them today (the joint lines are clearly visible in my photograph). Writing in 1887,  the historians Harry Goodwin and William Knight described the Rock in its original setting as “an upright mural block of stone, moist with pure water tricking down“. As a resting place then, the current site is as near perfect as can be, but in a crucial sense it’s not really the same, because the romantic spell is broken.

There’s something in Romanticism we think we should value, but in trying to fit it around our Materialist ways, we only end up breaking it. There is something uncompromising in its ideals, and the places you find its mysterious wisdoms aren’t always convenient or negotiable. The Rock of Names meant something, once, but only as Wordsworth meant it, in Wythburn, in the trysting place it once stood, as those his “soul loved best” saw, and felt it in the summer of 1800. To think you can pick it up and push it around like a trinket on a shop counter is simply to corrupt it. Though it remains today a fine and emotive memorial to the Lake poets, well worth seeking out, it would possess far more raw Romantic power had it been submerged and remained at the bottom of Thirlmere to this day.

If you’re visiting Dove Cottage, be sure to pester the tour guide and ask for directions to it. Unpot your Romanticism for a moment, and start feeing it!

So,… the Romantics lived in the Lakes, and nobody really got them, and the spectre of Victorian materialism rendered them obsolete? Well,… actually, no. Romanticism was a philosophical movement, not confined to the English Lakes. The only reason the Lakes is associated with Romanticism is because Wordworth and Coleridge, (and Robert Southey of course) decided to hang their hats there. Some would say Romanticism’s most revered academic and guru was Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher upon whose thesis, “The World as Will and Idea”, the whole of the Romantic credo can be said to rest.

You cannot ignore Materialism, any more than you can hide from it. It’s like life; there’s an inevitability about it, like the growth of Manchester in the nineteenth century, and it is motivated by nothing more complicated than the will to live, for life to  simply perpetuate itself, from the seething swamp, to the mightiest of cities. The theory of Evolution provides the scientific bedrock for what Schopenhauer defined as this “will” to live. Nature simply is, says Darwin; it swarms, it survives, it is red in tooth and claw, and by inference if something can be sold for even a penny profit, then it will be sold, because such is the natural law. However, human desires, engendered by this instinctive will are doomed to end only in spiritual bankruptcy, boredom, or in the birth of some new, equally shallow or self defeating desire. The Romantics, like anyone else, had no choice but to accept this, but while they agreed you could live this way, they were contemptuous of it,  and warned us that there was simply no point to it.

Schopenhauer’s “Will” is like “Maya”, the world of suffering and delusion described by the Buddhists, in which we identify ourselves through our Ego, through the false image we have of ourselves and its all-consuming wants. Living our life in thrall to the world of will, is to live a life constantly chasing gratification while remaining for ever unsatisfied. It is the instinctive anticipation of gratification that drives the machine of Materialism, and our instinctive blindness that renders us incapable of realising this machine will never deliver what it is we want.  But the Romantics were far from pessimistic in their vision; there was another way, they said, and this was what Schopenhauer called the world of “idea”, or “representation”.

This is a difficult concept for one steeped in a Materialist tradition to grasp, and it will sound like nonsense, but it essentially involves a more aesthetic experience of the world, an experience owing more to the imagination, and the inner sense, or by indulging what the psychoanalysts a hundred years later would come to understand as the psyche. It was only through this pursuit of the aesthetic experience, the Romantics believed we could open the door on our highest potential as human beings, something that raised us above the level of beasts and freed us from the shackles of Darwin’s Godless universe.

This was and still is the central paradox of the human condition: the more closely we look at the world, the more we must conclude we are nothing but a sophisticated kind of animal, yet ultimately of no greater nor less importance than all the other animals that roam the earth, that the light of our lives will eventually go out and everything we’ve known and felt will be as nothing in the void,…

And yet,… and yet,…

There is also something in us that disregards the evidence of our eyes and our intellect, and tells us it is not so, that there is something else underpinning the reality we see, and there is something telling us also that such speculation is not merely the result of wishful thinking. And then, occasionally, curious things happen, or can be made to happen, that reassure us we are not merely deluded.

This was the ground the Romantics trod.

At its most basic level, the aesthetic experience involves the contemplation or the expression of beauty, either through the arts or by going out into the natural world where you can find it freely, and in abundance.  A meadow of wild flowers, a sunset, or something more subjective – like the way sunlight filters down through autumn leaves, or the rising of morning mist from the still surface of a lake –  or subtler still – a romantic could look at an empty valley, or a ruined cottage and imagine the lives that had been lived there in the past, the more bucolic the better, a thing that would colour their imagination and transform an otherwise bleak wilderness into a place of warmth and inspiration. Such things are revealed by the sensitive eye, and felt in a meaningful way by a sensitive heart. The world we experience then, say the Romantics, is only half perceived through the physical senses – it is also half created through the higher the faculties of the mind.

The contemplation of beauty is without risk, but its rewards are limited. The serious Romantics, the Byronic heroes, were looking for more. What they sought went beyond beauty into the realms of a powerfully moving experience they called the sublime. To encounter the sublime, there had to be an element of danger, and the Romantics found this among the mountains, or anywhere where nature could be experienced in the raw, where the scenery had a dramatic or even terrifying effect on the observer, and where the rugged nature of the landscape, and one’s tenuous presence in it became altogether more challenging. To feel nature in this way, to feel one’s insignificance in the face of it, is paradoxically the key to glimpsing the underlying nature of reality, where one’s sense of “self” dissolves and we enter what some have described as the consciousness of the universe,… what in Buddhism is called “the big mind”. While one’s individuality may be said to be lost in such an experience, there is in fact no “sense” of that loss, more simply an awakening to the true and full nature of one’s own identity.

The quest for the sublime has its risks – not just the physical ones of falling to your death by slipping off a mountain. There are also psychological dangers. Touching “big mind” can generate a form of megalomania. It can also become compulsive, generating an insatiable thirst for ever more intense experiences, a kind of Materialistic Romanticism, which some devotees  greedily sought in opium-induced distortions of reality, with all its attendant side effects.

The sublime experience has its parallels in the form of psychological awakening that  eastern cultures explored a thousand years earlier, by a systematic analysis of the mind, and by formulating meditative techniques by which adepts could reliably attain the same insights as their teachers. It also has its parallels in Jungian analysis, his theories of the collective unconscious, and in the human development movement it spawned. All of these things are pointing in the same direction, like an innate sense, like a mystical compass.

The Romantics found this compass at the dawning of the nineteenth century, and used it to navigate around the edges of their known world. They concluded that there is a hard edge to reality. It obeys scientific principles, which, with patience and ingenuity can be gleaned from nature’s copy-book and used to our material advantage – but this version of reality is Godless, and empty, and if we submerge ourselves in it fully  it will leave us only half fulfilled, because we only half belong in it.

The strength of the Romantic is in their ability to look at the world and see it through the lens of their imagination, as well as their eyes. The result is a personal vision, one which might not be shared by others – nor even by fellow Romantics, because the thing about the Romantic lens is its individuality. The only common thing about it is its inability to function at all in a world that has been turned into a dustbin, or an aesthetic desert.

The nightmare of the Romantic is a world consisting of a single, giant Materialist construct, half city, half machine in which we are reduced to functioning as biological extensions of a mindless man-built pseudo-deity, something that acts without rhyme or reason, and sweeps us along in its own purposeless wake – something like “the globalised market-place” for example? The nightmare of the Romantic is also to see the last clean hillside obliterated by a forest of utilitarian wind-turbines, or the last Sylvan vale bunged up and flooded to feed the thirsty mouths of those gathered in cities hundreds of miles away, and who labour in soulless ignorance of the Romantic values sacrificed in order to sustain their unnatural existence.

But the psyche of man, infinitely older and wiser than man himself, will not stand for it. It will only take so much of a life void of the Romantic sense, void of the need to honour what is good and Godlike in itself, before it erupts into incomprehensible fits of madness. We are each of us God-like beings, crippled by the abiding delusion that we are only machines. This is what the Romantics saw, while lamenting that none but a handful of their fellow beings could ever share this vision, being too busy with the pursuit of wealth and other kinds of learning.

To be sure, the twenty first century is a hard time to be a Romantic, but then it always was. If you’re a Romantic, take courage – you’re the only hope we’ve got. Take courage also that, no matter how bad things might yet become, there will always be somewhere left on earth you will find your Arcadia, because there’s only you who knows how to find it.

Enjoy yourselves and keep safe.

Graeme out

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