By Matthew Sangster, Emily Bernhard Jackson, Joanna Taylor and Beatrice Turner
In thinking about the developments of the Romantic period, scholars often place a great deal of emphasis on examining works’ receptions around the time of their original composition or publication. However, in re-inscribing the importance of Romantic-period developments, it is important to acknowledge the continuing power that Romantic authors and works exert in the present, where they continue to foster moments of inspiration, re-engagement and reconfiguration. As the Wordsworth Trust’s ongoing work demonstrates, Romanticism is in many respects a movement that continues to happen, shaping the ways in which we think about nature, consciousness, art and selfhood. While the ideas developed by writers like William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Jane Austen and John Clare have been altered and modified in the centuries since their deaths, their influences linger on in modern art in diffuse but potent manners.
Our panel at the British Association for Romantic Studies conference sought to explore these enduring patterns of influence by focusing on an artist who seemed to us to be both powerfully inspired by elements of Romanticism and capable of realising new aspects of its potential. If the rock stars of the sixties presented themselves in manners that were often unreconstructedly Romantic, David Bowie offered a series of self-aware alternatives to this model, challenging many of its underlying assumptions about masculinity, sexuality, genius, aesthetics and performance. His oeuvre engages with a number of common Romantic-period themes – including desire, drugs, innocence, space, death, identity and the nature of childhood – but it also pushes forward in manners that iterate on, improve and sometimes reject previous Romantic conceptions. Through examining this multifaceted and self-consciously constructed artist and his works, we sought to consider how Romantic-period modes of making art and selves constitute a living tradition that later artists have drawn upon and challenged in their seeking to improve our ways of being, seeing and understanding.
The accounts below give a sense of the angles from which each of us approached Bowie’s engagements with Romanticism.
Hunky Dory (1971) is a record in which things are everything but, voiced from the caustic perspective of the kids who have been left, as ‘Changes’ has it, ‘up to our necks in it’ by their parents’ generation. At its centre, however, is ‘Kooks’, a track which I’ve always found far more compelling than it seemed to deserve, and a strange choice to place at the album’s heart. Set against the lyrical cynicism and extravagant orchestrations of ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ or ‘Life on Mars’, or the visionary anti-prophecy of ‘Quicksand’, ‘Kooks’’ simple, jaunty arrangement and twee sentimental parental address feels wilfully naïve, at odds with the rest of the album’s grim sense of history unfolding.
In my paper, I tried to resolve this apparent contradiction in tone by suggesting that we understand ‘Kooks’ as belonging to the same Romantic lineage as poems like Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, or Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, or the Immortality Ode. These are Romantic poems in which a ‘real’ child is overinscribed by the adult speaker as an idealised figure, preserved in eternal innocence and as a creative potential by its seclusion from formal education, society, the city, or any other form of experience that might taint its intuitive connection to nature. If you know the song, perhaps you might agree with me that the adult speaker’s feelings in those poems belong to the same order as ‘Kooks’, warning that ‘If you ever have to go to school ǀ Remember how they messed up this old fool’, and its gently anarchic suggestion, ‘If the homework brings you down ǀ Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.’
With its appeal to the holding-off of adult experience and induction into the social order, ‘Kooks’ imagines Bowie’s baby son as the same Romantic child, who, as Wordsworth says, comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’ before adulthood regretfully sets in, and who, as Coleridge says, can read in nature the ‘eternal language’ of God. This image of the child, and the adult speaker who doesn’t want him to grow up, gives force to Bowie’s surrounding cast of angry, knowing adolescents and their rejection of Romantic innocence. While the Blakean awakening into nightmare reality of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (‘look out the window, what do I see? ǀ a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’) represents one of the album’s many authentic moments of anger, ‘Kooks’ ventriloquises a reactionary adult incursion into teenaged self-awakening that renders all the sharper the rest of the album’s call to ‘wake up, sleepyhead’. The adult speaker, who repeatedly entreats his baby son to ‘stay’ in the adult lovers’ ‘story’, can’t or won’t see that the adolescent generation who’ve inherited his world have far more urgent concerns than simply ‘driving their mamas and papas insane’, as the bathetic chorus of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ has it. Like the children, biological and literary, of the first Romantic authors, I think Bowie understood himself and his generation at this moment as poised finely on the cusp of a new world that would turn away from Romantic optimism in the post-1960s comedown to face painful knowledge instead.
Emily Bernhard Jackson
Writing about David Bowie’s habit of slipping in and out of different personae over the course of his career, David Buckley stated that ‘before Bowie…nobody had ever…conceived of his or her career as the adoption of a succession of masks and alter egos.’ But as Romanticists know, someone had: Lord Byron. My paper explored the connections between the ways in which Byron and Bowie stretch the concept of identity.
In the video for his 1984 song ‘Jazzin’ for Blue Jean’, Bowie gestures backward to Byron by donning a costume that obviously draws on Thomas Phillips’ portrait of the poet in Albanian dress.
However, it is possible to read Bowie’s entire career – certainly between 1972 and 1983, and possibly later – as a continuation of Byron’s exploration of the concept of self, and as building on the poet’s eventual conclusion that there was no such thing as a single or stable ‘self.’
For one thing, both men had no trouble seeing, and announcing, that there was a difference between the poet or singer and his productions. While Byron was fully complicit in spreading a manufactured version of himself, for instance demanding alterations to portraits he found unflattering, Bowie created public selves that could possibly be taken as real as an acknowledgement of fundamental falseness involved in being onstage. At the same time, however, both men smeared the line between their fictional and actual selves, as well as their selves and their characters, suggesting through doing so that it is a mistake to think of the self as a single entity.
Where Bowie appears to build on Byron is in extending Byron’s conception of the self as multiple (expressed most clearly in Don Juan) out of multiplicity and into absence. For Bowie, during the period a persona exists, it is the self: when Bowie assumes a persona, there does not seem to be any other person underneath. Interestingly, Byron himself suggests something similar in The Vision of Judgement, although he does not explore the idea in any depth. It took a hundred-and-fifty years for David Bowie to live its truth.
The Romantic period witnessed a profound shift in understandings about lived experiences of everyday spaces. This change was attributable to a number of factors, not least – as Norbert Lennartz points out – political events in France and enclosure in Britain. For writers like the Wordsworths, Charlotte Smith, John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, liberty depended upon the knowledge of the limits which contained the self.
It was Coleridge, though, who thought about this relationship most extensively. In Biographia Literaria, that tension was central to his conceptions of selfhood and poetic creation. He declared that ‘[w]here the spirit of a man is not filled with the consciousness of freedom (were it only from its restlessness, as of one still struggling in bondage) all spiritual intercourse is interrupted, not only with others, but even with himself’. Coleridge suggests that knowledge of freedom can only exist with an awareness of ‘bondage’. The boundaries themselves, though, are not self-evident; what makes the ‘spirit of man’ aware of his entrapment is his struggles against it. It is his ‘restlessness’, or what elsewhere Coleridge would call ‘motion’, that elucidates the connection between containment and expansion. In my paper, I suggested that David Bowie’s music enacts restlessness with a similar aim; that is, to elucidate a spatial oddity whereby close confinement can – and in Bowie’s corpus usually does – result in freedom.
In my reading, Bowie emerges as an artist who self-consciously engaged and played with Romantic spatial strategies. Tracks from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Blackstar’ make clear that Bowie considered questions about expansion, containment and their effect on the self throughout his career. ‘Space Oddity’, for instance, mingles the fictional spatial narrative with the listener’s experience of the song as a spatial construct, and immerses the listener in the dialectics of containment and expansion that ‘Space Oddity’ both describes and enacts. The oddity is both Major Tom’s experience of outer space, and the strange way that the song uses and engages with spaces. This oddness is inherited from Romantic writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth – but it might also offer us new ways through which to understand Romantic spatialities.
The Romantic period saw the reification of the modern idea of the artist, as poets brought their own identities to the centre of their works by making heightened claims for the special nature and implications of their sensibilities. In no previous era would it have been possible to conceive of an epic poem whose central subject was the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. In defining powerfully what an artist should be – albeit in various and often conflicting manners – the poets of the early nineteenth century and the Victorians who synthesised their ideas created kinds of cultural authority that served powerfully to legitimate their heirs, but which also imposed considerable obligations upon them.
My paper explored the ways in which David Bowie engaged with the legacy of the heroic Romantic artist by showing it simultaneously to be absolutely ersatz and absolutely true. His work built on one of the Romantic period’s unquestionably great legacies – the radical expansion of the boundaries of representation in literature – by including previously marginalised figures, modelling new kinds of language and defending the value of oft-neglected subjectivities. As he put it in ‘Changes’, ‘These children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ They’re immune to your consultations/ They’re quite aware of what they’re going through’. The affordances of modern mass media allowed Bowie to reach audiences on a scale that was almost unimaginable in the Romantic period, performing to thousands in theatres and projecting himself to millions through carefully-designed records and TV appearances that deliberately distorted the line between stagecraft and self. As Shelley once wrote enviously of Byron, Bowie’s representations ‘touched a chord to which a million hearts responded’.
However, Bowie was deeply suspicious of another key Romantic paradigm: that of the visionary artist’s transcendent capacity for communication. For Bowie, as he worked through a series of characters and selves compromised by recognisably Romantic maladies, such as self-love, madness and addiction, the artist was simultaneously a visionary and a fraud. He was fully capable of ‘play[ing] the wild mutation as a rock & roll star’, but in showing this to be play, albeit of a serious kind, he argued implicitly for more fluid notions of genius that recognised the roles played by change, chance and foolishness. Over the course of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, it becomes clear that the title character is at least in part a terrible person, self-absorbed and self-regarding. Crucially, however, this does not mean that Ziggy’s project is necessarily a failure. What matters is not so much the artist himself, but the inspiration that other people draw from him and build upon. What’s reported of the Starman’s ‘hazy cosmic jive’ is pretty vague and garbled; what’s important is how his transmission makes his listeners feel, creating a community united for a moment in the ecstasy of shared excitement. Bowie shows both the medium and the message to be fallible, but their human fallibility is intrinsic to their effectiveness as a form of art that can mean something for others, saying with certitude, ‘Oh no love, you’re not alone.’
This post arose from a panel at the recent British Association for Romantic Studies ‘Romantic Improvement’ conference, held at the University of York.