Romantic Fallacies

What springs normally to the mind of young readers when the word "romantic" is mentioned? Certainly the prevailing opinion is that this word conveys aesthetic feelings compelling balanced reformer aspiring to overthrow the institutions the words of love and song enunciated with upturned eyes and a febrile forehead, romantic adventures, valorous knights in spotless white, passionate proposals to ladies pining with love, all culminating in a march to the enchanting tune of Lohengrin, etc., etc.

However, one must accept that this is a one-sided and almost entirely contorted image of romanticism. The romantic authors of the early nineteenth century in England too sincerely and regarded themselves reformers and innovators -- they thought of themselves as very wise, but unluckily, some of them lacked almost wholly the essence of wisdom.

Take Wordsworth for instance. He regarded the world's eminent interpreter of nature, sometimes called the high priest of nature. The beginning of this nature love may be search out back at Hawshead, the unroofed school of nature, where he has said to have "learned more eagerly from flowers and hills and stars than from his books." His aesthetic poems, the shorter ones especially, with lines that procrastinate ever in our memories bear his notable attributes - his sensitiveness as shown in the Prelude; the genuineness of his expression as he gives us the bird, the wind, the flower and the rivulet just as they are; his sight and insight into the lavishness of loveliness in the common world and the full acknowledgment of life in nature. He has given us lines which strike us intensely and impressively. Out of a heart full of compelling love he wrote:

"The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love..."

With a certain flourishing wisdom he heard "the still sad music of humanity"; he learned:

....The nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead,
From joy to joy:..."

With powerful almost disturbed emotionalism he gave us the lines:

"Great God! I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed
So might I, standing in this pleasant lea
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."

There you have a romanticist, a composite of good and bad, a mortal who tried to scale the "gateway of the stars" but could not enter the "golden bar" of heaven because his feet were decidedly of clay.

Wordsworth's philosophy of nature seems, at first sight, very appealing, but examine his lines further and you shake your head in censure and outright dispute. As Catholics we cannot fail to see how his true and genuine paganism crops out constantly and mars the radiance of many of his more purposeful poems. The reader, upon serious deliberation of his works will find doctrines which are for us indefensible. In the keenly sensitive ode "Intimations of Immortality" the doctrine of pre-existence is alluringly shown:

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,
The soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath and elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

Sounds enticing, does it not? But then he follows this with ideas.

"Earths fills her lap with pleasures of her own;--
To make her foster child, her innate man,
Forget the glories he has known
In that imperial palace whence he came."

Later still in the same poem he says:

"Hence in a season of calm weather
Through the land far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And can see the children sport upon the shore."

How peculiar this is! He is impressing us that there is an authentic occurence before our temporal life. He says nature can make us forget God and is a supplant for the magnificence of God. Romantic fallacies! Yes and very serious ones for us Catholics; and these ideas do seriously mar the works of Wordsworth.

Very far from Wordsworth is Shelley, the visionary, the radical, the revolutionary, and anarchist. We see in him the incapability to see men and society as they are. He is the unhinged reformer searching to topple the institutions he obscurely identified only in the later years of his life.

His poems are filled with a strange sadness- - -

" Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight;
Fresh spring and summer and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more - - oh! never more!"

Shelley's revolutionary works like "Prometheus Unbound," "Revolt of Islam," "Hellas," etc., depict a decided revolutionary radicalism. The reforms they encourage are both stupefying and imaginable. One can only speculate at the widespread beauty that abounds in his passages. He should, I suppose, not be remembered for his vain, foolish rebellion. He shows himself a true poet - a wanderer aspiring perfect beauty though forever sad. The spirit of nature which appeals to us in the sweet-scented flower, the blowing wind, the amber sunset, the magic moonrise - we find reflections of these in his poetry. The emotion that rises and harmonizes into the object beheld, because of the transcendent power of love:

Make me thy lyre even as the forest is
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tune
Sweet though in sadness! Be thou spirit fierce
My spirit! Be thou me impetuous one!

He indented himself against all authority. Down with the laws, these only serve to limit the actions of men and cause impediment and happiness; down with religion, priests from ancient times have led men astray; down with the conventions of society; down with the authority of parents over their children! Let us do away with marriage - the marriage contract, all forms of contract are at the root of all social evils. One cannot take this part of Shelley seriously. He appears like a disrespectful, grumpy, narrow-minded, unpleasant, child moved by such vehemence of indignation as he cannot restrain.

The tragedy of Shelley is the tragedy of the Romanticists - thinking themselves so wise but so inappropriate; trying to voice a philosophy fashioned by the commands of fancy not the lucid light of the intellect.

But he was a lyric poet of aesthetic and comely nuances.

Bombastic Byron forever parading his grief and his loss, weaving out of his disenchantment a texture of poetry and beauty - the romantic pilgrim forever sad, yielding in Comus-like rejoicing in an attempt to forget all. Alternating between satiety and contrition. Such a proud sardonic disillusioned man. What bitterness and grief he reveals in the lines:

"My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flowers and the fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker and the grief
Are mine alone.

A strange indescribable nature. Byron was. Capable of reliable remarkableness (notice his death) but rarely utilizing the regal privilege..

So there you have the romanticists. More bad than good? Surely not. Although their works have some very intricate faults. This might be because they inspired themselves to discern too much and speculate too little; that they, although philosophers, were all too often improper; that out of frustration with human commonality, they wanted to rip up and shatter that society. If one's house leaks, one must repair it, wisely and economically. Surely there is no need to shatter a house just because it leaks here and there.

The final tragedy of the three English Romantic poets we have taken up in this disquisition is that their best work lies in their minor works. Their major works are marred by unreal thoughts, prodigious, extreme narcissism, and hypocrisy. But their lyric power is above reproof. What loveliness in the common place revealed by Wordsworth; what melting liquid word consistencies in Shelley; what vibrant, oscillating emotions in Byron; what a prowess of consonant values and vowel sounds in all of them.