'Flashes upon the inward eye’ : Wordsworth, Coleridge and ‘Flashing Flowers’

Page 1

by Fred Blick
Few readers will be aware of the ‘Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon’ today; yet over a span of almost two hundred years botanists, gardeners and scientists speculated about it. Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the famous botanist, Carl Linné, known as Linnaeus.
Elizabeth Linneaus
One evening in the early 1760s, she was enjoying her father’s summer garden at Hammarby, near Uppsala, Sweden. She noticed how the “yellow … brilliant” flowers of the nasturtium appeared to gleam unexpectedly brightly in the half-light: so much so that they appeared to be emitting flashes or sparks.  So confident was she in her repeated observations that she shared them with her learned, botanist father and other philosophers and in particular with the celebrated electrical expert, Johan Wilcke. The latter concluded that the scintillations could be “related to ubiquitous Electric materials”. Although she was only nineteen, Elizabeth published her findings in an article entitled “Om Indianska Krassens Blickande” (“On the twinkling of Indian Cress”). This was recorded in the Acts of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for 1762.
 
In 1783, a Natural History lecturer, Lars Haggren, conducted further experiments and confirmed the phenomenon of ‘flashing’ flowers. He found that the marigold of “orange or flame colour” flashed light on dry, dusky evenings, as well as the “yellow … brilliant” nasturtium which had been seen by Elizabeth.  He also confirmed that  “…it might be conjectured, there is something of electricity in this phaenomenon”.  British journals also published the discovery and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) published his version of the findings in April 1789 in his The Botanic Garden. Many of these poems explore light, heat and electricity, their effects on plants and other living things:

On wings of flame, ETHEREAL VIRGINS! sweep
O’er Earth’s fair bosom, and complacent deep;
Where dwell my vegetative realms benumb’d,
In buds imprison’d, or in bulbs intomb’d,
Pervade, PELLUCID FORMS! their cold retreat,
Ray from bright urns your viewless floods of heat;
From earth’s deep wastes electric torrents pour,
Or shed from heaven the scintillating shower;
Pierce the dull root, relax its fibre-trains,
Thaw the thick blood, which lingers in its veins;
Melt with warm breath the fragrant gums, that bind
The expanding foliage in its scaly rind;
And as in air the laughing leaflets play,
And turn their shining bosoms to the ray,
NYMPHS! with sweet smile each opening flower invite,
And on its damask eyelids pour the light.

In the footnotes to this stanza, Darwin explains the scientific basis (as he saw it) of the influences of heat, “scintillating” light and electricity upon “vegetative realms”. This was directly influenced by Elizabeth Linnaeus and her ‘flashing flowers’.
 
In the autumn of 1793, Darwin’s poems and William Wordsworth’s newly published ‘An Evening Walk’ and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ were the subject of “a good deal of literary & critical conversation” between Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth’s brother Christopher Wordsworth, and their university friends at Cambridge. It was thus by means of Darwin’s poems that Elizabeth Linnaeus’ observations reached the pioneers of English Romanticism. Botany and Natural History had both a scientific and homely appeal to Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they could be enjoyed by all – men, women and children alike. Yellow and gold flowers would never seem quite the same again, having acquired mysterious qualities of vitality, light and electricity. Likewise light was now associated with electricity and took on a special significance for them, sometimes symbolic of Love, as in Wordsworth’s ‘Among all lovely things my love had been’ (also called ‘The Glow-worm’) of 1802 and Coleridge’s ‘A Day Dream’, stanza 3, of the same year.
 
Only two years after leaving Cambridge, Coleridge wrote ‘Lines Written At Shurton Bars, Near Bridgewater, September, 1795, In Answer To A Letter From Bristol’. It was a love poem for his future wife, Sarah Fricker, and was published in 1796 in his Poems on Various Subjects. In it, Coleridge combined passionate, sexual love with the influences of both light and electricity:

‘Tis said, in Summer’s evening hour
Flashes the golden-colour’d flower
A fair electric flame:
And so shall flash my love-charged eye
When all the heart’s big ecstasy
Shoots rapid thro’ the frame!

Coleridge appended an end note to the poem which he reproduced substantially from Darwin’s Supplement to The Loves about the flashing flower. Clearly, Coleridge was drawing on the electric effect described in Elizabeth Linnaeus’ article of 1762.
Poems on various subjects
 
By the late 1790s, light, electricity and electro-chemical processes were popular topics, thanks in part to the experiments of Galvani, Volta, and Humphry Davy. In September 1801, when he was staying with Coleridge in Keswick, Robert Southey wrote:

I miss the sun in heaven, having been on a short allowance of sunbeams these last ten days; and if the nervous fluid be the galvanic fluid, and the galvanic fluid the electric fluid, and the electric fluid condensed light, zounds! What an effect must these vile, dark, rainy clouds have on a poor nervous fellow, whose brain has been in a state of high illumination for the last fifteen months!

 
Over many years Wordsworth composed poems about golden or yellow flowers. One example which most readers will recall is the daffodils of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ of 1804, which was inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal record of daffodils at Ullswater on 15 April 1802. Though he described the daffodils twice as “dancing” in the printing of 1807, he changed the first “dancing” to “golden” in the 1815 version. Further, and crucially in this context, he accepted, his wife Mary’s suggestion of the lines,

They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

Not only did the flowers “flash” but “Out-did the sparkling waves in glee”. These golden, flashing and dancing flowers, recorded also as “ever glancing” in Dorothy’s journal entry, appear to have been derived directly from Elizabeth Linnaeus’s description of her “yellow … brilliant” nasturtiums as “blickande” (glancing or twinkling) and possibly affected by electricity.
Flashing flowers
 
Elizabeth Linnaeus also “consider[ed] for a while that this [flash] might derive from a positioning of the eyes” rather than from electricity within the plant. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge came to the conclusion that the flashing effect was indeed in the eye, and not the flower. They became persuaded that the phenomenon was in the nature of an “Ocular Spectrum” or “After Image”. In 1810, the poet and scientist J.W. von Goethe had also questioned whether the flashing seen in flowers was actually in the flower or in the eye.
 
Wordsworth later added a note of explanation about the “flash” to his ‘Daffodils’ poem in the 1815 printing: “The subject of these Stanzas is rather an elementary feeling and simple expression (approaching to the nature of an ocular spectrum) upon the imaginative faculty, rather than an exertion of it.” Coleridge later acknowledged grudgingly in his Literaria Biographia of 1817 that the concept of “visual spectrum” was indeed “a well known fact”, but at the same time he criticised Wordsworth’s lines about the “flash” as being “mental bombast”, inappropriate for describing the “joy of retrospection”.
 
So what does modern science make of the phenomenon? In 1914, Professor F.A.W. Thomas wrote in the scientific journal, Nature, as that the “Flashing Flowers” (or “Elizabeth Linnaeus phenomenon”) really did exist, and that it was caused by an image of red light moving across the retina of the eye. In 1937, Professor M. Minnaert classified the same phenomenon as an “After Image”. In other words, it has been established that Elizabeth’s “flashing” was an effect within the eye, exactly as Wordsworth and Coleridge eventually came to believe.
 
Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only “Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’” in Romanticism journal in October 2014, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the Sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

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15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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English Romantic painting: Samuel Palmer

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by Simon Court
 
Samuel Palmer’s contribution to Romanticism in painting lies in his highly distinctive portrayal of the English countryside. For Palmer’s interpretation of the ‘pastoral’ is not remotely conventional; rather, it is visionary and idealistic.  As he wrote in 1871: “I was always imagining and trying to draw”. What his imagination created was a mystical and idyllic English landscape.

Samuel Palmer, Self Portrait, c 1825, Ashmolean Museum

Samuel Palmer, Self Portrait, c 1825, Ashmolean Museum


Although Palmer was a great admirer of the paintings of his English contemporary J.M.W. Turner (who concluded his own Romantic adventure in the pure abstraction of colour and light), it was William Blake who was his most formative influence. Blake exemplified the Romantic’s idea of an artist as a genius creating a unique vision of the world which transcends common experience. Palmer shared Blake’s view that the deepest perception of the world was achieved through the exercise of the imagination, rather than observation. His own visionary style was heavily influenced by seeing the wood engravings of Blake’s Illustrations to Robert Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil (1821) and Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825-6). Palmer expressed his admiration for the Virgil woodcuts in one of his sketch-books of 1823-4:

“They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise: models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry….Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy….There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inner-most soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world.”

This quote could equally apply to Palmer himself because, although he didn’t share Blake’s radical politics or suspicion of organised religion, he did share with Blake a similar vision of rural life in magnified and distinct images, with the same vast monstrous moons, mushroom trees and figures cast in a low glimmering light.
 

William Blake, Four Illustrations to Virgil, 1821, Morgan Library

William Blake, Four Illustrations to Virgil, 1821, Morgan Library


 
It was on Palmer’s first visit to Blake in the autumn of 1824 that he saw the first plate of the Illustrations of the Book of Job, called ‘Thus did Job continually’, lying on a table where Blake had been working at it. Palmer recalled “How lovely it looked by the lamplight, strained through the tissue paper!” The imagery of Job and his family sitting under a tree, in devout prayer, with resting sheep before them, and sun and sickle moon behind them, left a lasting impression.
thus-did
Palmer’s own idyllic portrayal of nature falls within a broader artistic tradition, which is the ‘pastoral’. It is a world of shepherds, sheep and rural communities, protected by enfolding hills. In Palmer’s hands nature is both wonderful and inviting: as Simon Schama observes in The Face of Britain, “everything is a state of maddened fecundity or drowsy fullness”. This contrasts with the starker paintings of his older contemporary Friedrich, which emphasise man’s separation in the world. For there is something deeply comforting and loving in Palmer’s celebration of nature: a richness, intensity and sensuality of experience, and an overwhelming sensation of well-being and contentment.
The vivid imagery of Palmer’s distinctive rural vision is most clearly seen in his early works, spanning the period 1825-32, when he started visiting the Kentish village of Shoreham and eventually lived there permanently. It was a period d of outstandingly original output, culminating in depictions of the Kent countryside in feverish and explosive colour (see In a Shoreham Garden (c.1829) and The Magic Apple Tree (c.1830).
In a Shoreham Garden, Samuel Palmer, V&A

In a Shoreham Garden, Samuel Palmer, V&A


 
The Magic Apple Tree, Samuel Palmer, Fitzwilliam Museum

The Magic Apple Tree, Samuel Palmer, Fitzwilliam Museum


 
While living in Shoreham Palmer was regularly visited in Shoreham by a group of like-minded artists called – in repudiation of debased modern life – ‘The Ancients’. What has become known as the ‘Oxford sepia series’ of 1825 (the originals of which are in the Ashmolean Museum) show Palmer at his very best, a precocious genius of just twenty years old. These six drawings were startlingly unfamiliar and revolutionary: the illumination of a dream world. They possess what Palmer describes in his 1824 notebook as a “mystical glimmer….like that which lights up our dreams.”
Tom Lubbock points out in Great Works that in Early Morning “each living organism has been individuated, defined with emphatic shape.” And the same applies to all six of the gum and sepia cuttlefish ink drawings of 1825. Technically Palmer appears to want to achieve the effect of an engraving, as each image is finely drawn and articulated in minute detail. This is intensified by the sense of enclosure: as Lubbock puts it, “Nature is rounded up within firm curves, gathered into a flock of mounds.” The rounded thatched cottages which nestle within the landscape are as much a swelling fact of nature as the hills. Unlike the landscapes of, say, Constable, there is little interest in spreading land, in the far horizons and open skies. Unlike Turner, there is no concern for violent storms or angry sunsets. Rather, Palmer’s vision is highly personal, and inward looking.
 
A deeply religious man, Palmer understood himself to be using his heightened perceptions to reveal (at least partially) a divine reality in nature. The Kent landscape becomes a little heaven on Earth. His imagination creates things in nature which are sharp focussed and strange, yet warm and glowing, which possess what he called “a curiousness in their beauty”. For Palmer greatly admired a remark made by Francis Bacon that “there is no excellent beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” That visionary observation, which transcends the drabness of everyday life, is emphatically Romantic.
A Rustic Scene, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Musuem

A Rustic Scene, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Musuem


Amongst an abundant and fruitful landscape a smocked man and beast are standing together. The position of the sickle moon shows that it is either dawn or dusk: the ploughman is yoking or unyoking his ox, to begin or end their day of labour. That ambiguity about time emphasises the continual cycle of agricultural life. The image of the peasant and the ox is both heroic and innocent, as it expresses the virtues of honest toil and good husbandry. The ox represents vast strength and serviceability, and there is a dignity, simplicity and nobility in the man and beast working in harmony, as integral parts of the landscape. This reflects the Romantic idea of the ‘child in nature’
Early Morning, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

Early Morning, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum


 
In the stillness of dawn, it takes a moment to distinguish any figures, until we catch sight of a hare on the path, alert but unperturbed, casting its own shadow as the sun rises. We can be forgiven for thinking that this quiet rural scene in Early Morning is absent of humanity. Yet, on closer inspection, we are surprised to realise that there is, buried deep in a dell and, significantly, in the very centre of the composition, a gathering of men and bonneted women. They are sitting under a stylised, toadstool-like tree, which has the appearance of topiary and echoes the tree in Blake’s Job. Are they workers at breakfast, or perhaps a congregation in prayer? Their presence strikes us more as a symbolic, rather than an accurate, depiction of country life. It suggests that man can live peacefully in and with nature, sharing it with other creatures. And this sense of community in nature is heightened by the fearless hare whose presence introduces an animal consciousness to the woodland idyll. All is harmoniously framed: the distinctively curved cottage on the horizon echoes the shapes of the surrounding hills. All is innocent also, in that the picture constitutes what Schama describes as “the miraculous preservation of the innocently wide-eyed vision of the child.”
The Valley Thick with Corn, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum

The Valley Thick with Corn, Samuel Palmer, Ashmolean Museum


 
In The Valley Thick with Corn a man is lying nonchalantly against a hummock, propped up by his elbow and with an open book on his lap. The scene is one of glorious, almost overwhelming abundance, emphasised by the same vivid intensity of detail in the distance as much as in the foreground. Peculiarly, the dress and beard of the reclining figure appear to be Elizabethan, perhaps Shakespearian. He seems to be contented and peaceful: enveloped by heavy ears of corn, housed without a roof – exposed to, yet paradoxically, protected by, nature. The varnishing has aged the picture to produce a rich, yellowing brown, which suggests that it is daylight with kites or buzzards soaring across a setting golden sun, where below the man is absorbed in his reading and the bunched sheaves of wheat are toasted warm. Yet on further inspection we wonder whether the birds are in fact owls, or bats flitting across a distended orb of a harvest moon, and whether it is dark, and the man isn’t reading, but is sleeping instead. Then we notice the shepherd piping to his flock of sheep, and the figure with a crook looking at two hefty cows, and we conclude, albeit warily, that it is dusk. This shifting ambiguity about day or night contributes to the essentially unrepresentative nature of this mystical vision, whose central force, and only constant, is displayed in the quietude of the resting man. As Seamus Perry observes in ‘The Shoreham Gang’, London Review of Books April 2012,  “Palmer was always moved by the mysterious privacy of such self-enclosed figures.”
Coming from Evening Church, Samuel Palmer, Tate

Coming from Evening Church, Samuel Palmer, Tate


 
In Coming from Evening Church a congregation of villagers weave their way back home from Evensong, seemingly mesmerised by prayer. For there is an entrancing, dream-like quality to this scene: a delightful and enchanting vision in the languid richness of the twilight colours. The congregation comprises all ages, revealing the continuity of life in a devoted religious community. These grave villagers – quiet children, bearded sages, statuesque women – grip our attention. Here we also find, as Schama puts it, “Palmer the child comforted by the steeple on the horizon.” The group leading the procession, trees, cottages and spire are elongated, slightly extended; stretching upwards, perhaps to heaven, to meet their Maker. Framed by curving tree trunks, whose boughs form a primitive Gothic archway, everything is locked within a hazy distortion. Palmer said: “Blessed thoughts and visions haunt the stillness and twilight of the soul”, and Coming from Evening Church captures fully the essence of that sentiment.
 
Coleridge believed that the Lyrical Ballads demonstrated that it is “passions, which alone give any value to extraordinary Incidents…..of Common Life”. We can say the same of Palmer’s early paintings, which reveal the hidden wonder to be found in ordinary rural life, what Simon Schama describes as “a dreamscape of poetic magic”
 
Further reading:
Vaughan, Barker and Harrison: Samuel Palmer, Vision and Landscape (The British Museum Press, 2005).
 
A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and Romanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the Simon‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Romanticism in painting

Page 1

by Simon Court

What is it that distinguishes the Romantic view of the world from others? It is the importance which is placed on individuals who, inspired by the emotive power of imagination, perceive and order the world through their own senses. In doing so they reach an understanding of both nature and themselves. Whether it is manifested in the harmonies of the ‘child in nature’, the solitude in the mountains, or the destructive forces of a sea-storm, it is the Romantics’ feelings towards nature which determines their experience of it.
For the Romantic, the role of the artist is always active, never passive. As the German painter Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.” It is not that the Romantic denies the existence of an independent, objective reality: rather, it is that such reality can only be described through the subjective experience of the individual.
Whether grounded in the philosophical arguments of British empiricism or Kantian idealism, the conclusion drawn by the Romantic is the same: the world is only known to us through our imaginative responses to it, and artists, with their heightened receptiveness to feelings, are best placed to reveal it. Such emotions, however, must always be tempered by reason. As the Spanish artist Goya puts it in the subtitle to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1798), “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origins of their marvels”.
In seeking to express the world through imagination the Romantics looked beyond the confined and ordered interiors of royal palaces and stately homes towards the wildness and wonder of the landscape. As the German painter Philipp Otto Runge exclaimed in 1802, it is the landscape as “romantic field…..where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other”. For it is in contemplation of nature that man achieves his most emotional experiences and profound instances of self-awareness. The empiricist Edmund Burke provided an analysis of (and a vocabulary to describe) this sensation, and the revelation of the ‘sublime’ in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757).
Burke’s contribution to the Romantic understanding is his observation that what constitutes the greatest experience of the sublime is that which most disturbs and horrifies us – that which is not within our control or comprehension, but is hidden and beyond us. Further, two attributes of the sublime in nature – vastness and infinity – can only be understood in obscurity. For, Burke says, nothing can obtain to greatness if we can “see an object distinctly” and “perceive its bounds”. As such, “a clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” This view is confirmed by Friedrich: “when a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation…..The eye and fantasy feel themselves more attracted to the hazy distance than to that which lies near and distinct before us”.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

Unsurprisingly, then, we find the vastness and excesses of landscapes and natural disasters (especially shipwrecks) are a common inspiration for Romantic painters such as Friedrich and Turner. It is in this world of space, scale and motion where the artistic imagination is most excited: a world where, as William Hazlitt puts it, objects “hover on the brink of nothingness”.
But before confronting the extreme terrors of the sublime, we should note that there is a gentler (although no less radical) ‘pastoral’ form of painting developed within the Romantic tradition, notably by the English painter Samuel Palmer, who will be the subject of a later post. This relates to the idea of the ‘child in nature’. As Simon Schama observes in The Face Of Britain, “it was an article of Romantic faith that childhood was unsullied nature, adulthood all contrivance, commerce and artifice”. This faith led Coleridge, in ‘Frost at Midnight ‘(1798) to address his sixteen-month-old son Hartley:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,…
… so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters…

For Philipp Otto Runge (as for Coleridge), this faith in the unspoilt innocence of childhood, where feelings remain spontaneous and unspoilt, was quite literal: Runge was deeply Christian and believed that nature was the manifestation of the Divine, and viewed his painting as communicating the “sensation of our kinship with the whole universe”, where “everything harmonises in one great chord”.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1809

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1808, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Child in the Meadow (1809) Runge has placed a naked infant alone in nature, on its back and staring boldly up to the sky. It is dawn and the child is illuminated in golden, warming light. It looks like Jesus in a Nativity scene, but this it is not a specifically Christian image. Rather, as Tom Lubbock says in Great Works, “it’s a universal symbol of the miracle of birth….a divine baby, taken out of Christian theology, and laid in nature”. As the infant basks in the glow of the morning light, it responds, like a flower, opening its arms in welcome, its fingers stretching up and out like the plants beside it. The baby has apparently sprung from nowhere (or fallen from the sky); and although it is alone it is fearless and at one with nature, emphatically part of its landscape. Mankind and nature are in perfect harmony through the divine miracle of life.
We look at The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Friedrich, and see a man with his back to us, standing alone amidst a mountainous landscape, looking across the foggy vastness below. His stance suggests confidence, or at least defiance in the face of the elements, but we cannot see his face, and are therefore unable to fully gauge his feelings. Is he exhilarated, triumphant and all- conquering, or hesitant, uncertain of his next step into the hazy unknown? We want to be able to analyse his feelings and thereby understand the meaning of the painting, but we cannot do so.
Friedrich often employed the ‘Rückenfigur’ – a person seen from behind – in his landscapes and, as Lubbock points out (when discussing in Great Works a similar composition Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise (1817)), this conceit is crucial. The figures in our way and impose their own consciousness on us, but their feelings are closed to us. As Lubbock says, “The landscape experience is blocked and trapped in these rival viewers with their unfathomable minds.”
So if a total explanation of the Wanderer is impossible, can we at least seek a partial one? We may think that it leaves a contradictory impression, suggesting that man has mastered the landscape whilst remaining insignificant within it. We may be bolder and think that it portrays a single moment of man’s yearning for the infinite, whilst remaining always separate from it. But we cannot know for sure.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Sea of Ice (1823-4) there is no Ruckenfigur to interrupt our experience of what we see. We are witnessing directly a horrific site in a desolate world. A ship lies amongst the grinding slabs of sea-ice which has, in its relentless and powerful motion, ruined the ship and, presumably, all life on it is lost. The jagged ice-berg in the foreground is mimicked by another in the distance, both mountainous in shape. Are we seeing human aspiration crushed – like the frail bark of the ship – by a glacial indifference’? The impression is that whilst nature can destroy humanity, it remains permanent, and ultimately impenetrable to man.
In both the Wanderer and The Sea of Ice Friedrich is showing us an instant of sublimity as we contemplate nature, either directly or indirectly. But in doing so, have we understood, or do we realise that we can never fully understand, the world? That ambiguity is a Romantic achievement, and a Romantic condition of life.

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We stare, confused, at this chaotic scene: then, refocussing, details rise up and objects become visible. We start to pick out hands flailing in the turbulent waters, see a leg being devoured by monster-fish. The scene remains incomprehensible, but the horror of it has caught up with us.  In The Slave Ship (originally entitled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on) (1840), the English artist J.M.W. Turner depicts the moment in 1783 when the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard so as to be ‘lost at sea’ and thereby be able to collect for their loss on insurance. Here, the tragic impact of human moral irresponsibility is central to this natural carnage, in that the evil actions of the captain has started the causal sequence of the hellish drama.
Turner’s use of colour, and the frenzied brushstrokes which deliberately obscure the distinctness of the shapes, enhance the sense of nature overwhelming, and condemning, man. The violent reds and oranges, with the gold of the declining sun, makes the sky angry and sets the sea aflame. As the art critic John Ruskin observed, the ‘fearful hue’ of the sea frames the ‘guilty ship…its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood’, tossing helpless in the sea. The painting betrays both a morbidity and an impression of futility.

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

In Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843) Turner extends the dimensions of a human disaster to Biblical proportions. The aftermath of the great flood is represented as a whirlpool of colour: a darker outer rim with blurred figures swimming in blinding yellows creating a swirling circle of energy in which the eye strains to form any clear image. This vortex expresses the forces of nature drawing man down into its mass. The human figures are encased in earth-bubbles, whose transitory fragility reflects man’s own predicament. As Turner makes clear in his own verse (taken from The Fallacies Of Hope and published in the Royal Academy catalogue entry for the picture), the scene shows:

Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly,
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.

Turner has taken the Romantic landscape beyond the mountains and the seas into a cosmic vision. In doing so he has stretched out the sublime into pure abstraction: a visual impression of the powerlessness and ultimate insignificance of man in an indifferent universe.
So where has the imagination of the Romantic painters taken us? Are we living in glorious harmony in God’s earth, as Runge’s ‘child in nature’? Or staring out at the world continually seeking answers, like Friedrich’s wanderer? Or are we resigned, fatalistically, to our own powerlessness in the face of Friedrich’s sea of ice or Turner’s swelling waters? That is the distinctly Romantic dilemma.

Further reading:
William Vaughan: Romanticism and Art (Thames & Hudson, 1978)

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and SimonRomanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

William Godwin: Political Justice, anarchism, and the Romantics

Page 1

by Simon Court
William Godwin was a major contributor to the radicalism of the Romantic movement. A leading political theorist in his own right as the founder of anarchism, Godwin provided the Romantics with the central idea that man, once freed from all artificial political and social constraints, stood in perfect rational harmony with the world. In this natural state man could fully express himself. This idea was first articulated in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, and was immediately seized upon by Coleridge as an inspiration for his misplaced venture into ‘pantisocracy’. Later, it heavily influenced Shelley in his political poems.

Godwin’s impact was personal as well as intellectual. He married Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was one of the earliest feminist texts. He was good friends with Coleridge and later became the father-in-law of Shelley when his daughter, Mary, married the poet in 1816. Yet despite the idealistic ambitions of his principles, Godwin singularly failed to match up to them in his own life, behaving particularly hypocritically towards Mary and Shelley.

Godwin’s political views were based on an extremely optimistic view of human nature. He adopted, quite uncritically, the Enlightenment ideal of man as fully rational, and capable of perfection through reason. He assumed that “perfectibility is one of the most unequivocal characteristics of the human species, so that the political as well as the intellectual state of man may be presumed to be in the course of progressive improvement”. For Godwin, men were naturally benevolent creatures who become the more so with an ever greater application of rational principles to their lives. As human knowledge increases and becomes more widespread, through scientific and educational advance, the human condition necessarily progresses until men realise that rational co-operation with their fellows can be fully achieved without the need for state government. And, Godwin thinks, the end of the reliance on the state will also herald the disappearance of crime, violence, war and poverty. This belief in the inexorable perfectibility of man and progress towards self-government knew no bounds. Thus we find Godwin speculating that human beings may even eventually be able to stop the physical processes of fatigue and aging: for if the mind will one day become omnipotent, “why not over the matter of our own bodies….in a word, why may not man be one day immortal?”

On the other side of this sparkling coin lies the corrosive state, and here Godwin asserts that the central falsehood, perpetuated by governments themselves, is the belief that state control is necessary for human society to function. Rather, Godwin claims, once humanity has rid itself of the wholly artificial constraints placed upon it by the state, men will be free to live in peaceful harmony. For Godwin, “society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals”, whereas “government is an evil, an usurpation upon the private judgement and individual conscience of mankind”. The abolition of political institutions would bring an end to distinct national identities and social classes, and remove the destructive passions of aggression and envy which are associated with them. Men will be restored to their natural condition of equality, and will be able to rebuild their societies in free and equal association, self-governed by reason alone.
Godwin’s utopian portrayal may be highly radical, but he was not a revolutionary. He believed political revolutions were always destructive, hateful and irrational – indeed, the immediate impulse to write Political Justice came from the murderous bloodshed in the recent French Revolution. And whilst Godwin never called himself an anarchist – for him, ‘anarchy’ had a negative meaning associated with French Revolutionary violence – his vision was recognisably anarchist. For Godwin, social progress could only be obtained through intellectual progress, which involved reflection and discussion. This is necessarily a peaceful process, where increasing numbers come to realise that the state is harmful and obstructive to their full development as rational creatures, and collectively decide to dissolve it. He was convinced that eventually, and inevitably, all political life will be structured around small groups living communally, which will choose to co-operate with other communities for larger economic purposes.

In addition to the artificial constraints placed on man by political institutions, Godwin identifies the private ownership of land, or what he termed “accumulated property”, as a major obstacle to human progress. And here, like all utopian thinkers, we find that Godwin’s criticism of the present reality proves to be far more convincing that his predictions of the future. For he observes that “the present system of property confers on one man immense wealth in consideration of the accident of his birth” whilst “the most industrious and active member of society is frequently with great difficulty able to keep his family from starving”. This economic injustice leads to an immoral dependence: “Observe the pauper fawning with abject vileness upon his rich benefactor, and speechless with sensations of gratitude for having received that, which he ought to have claimed with an erect mien, and with a consciousness that his claim was irresistible”. For Godwin, only the abolition of private property and the dismantling of the hereditary wealth which goes with it will free mankind from “brutality and ignorance”, “luxury” and the “narrowest selfishness”. Yet once freed:

Every man would have a frugal, yet wholesome diet, every man would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would give hilarity to the spirits: none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropic affections of the soul, and let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. What a contrast does this scene present us with the present state of human society, where the peasant and the labourer work, till their understandings are benumbed with toil, their sinews contracted and made callous by being forever on the stretch, and their bodies invaded with infirmities and surrendered to an untimely grave?

In this utopia, or egalitarian arcadia, all the immoral vices of the present world, oppression, fraud, servility, selfishness and anxiety, are banished, and all men live “in the midst of plenty”, and equally share “the bounties of nature” – “No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, each would lose his own individual existence in the thought of the general good”, and “philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her”. In this agrarian idyll, “the mathematician, the poet and the philosopher will derive a new stock of cheerfulness and energy from recurring labour that makes them feel they are men” (a world, incidentally, in which only “half an hour a day, seriously employed in manual labour by every member of the community, would sufficiently supply the whole with necessaries”).

Another highly radical idea raised by Godwin in Political Justice is the immorality of marriage. For Godwin: “Co-habitation is not only an evil as it checks the independent progress of mind; it is also inconsistent with the imperfections and propensities of man. It is absurd to expect that the inclinations and wishes of two human beings should coincide through a long period of time. To oblige them to act and to live together, is to subject them to some inevitable portion of thwarting, bickering and unhappiness. This cannot be otherwise, so long as man has failed to reach the standard of absolute perfection.” As such “the institution of marriage is a system of fraud”, and “the worst of all laws”. Moreover, “marriage is an affair of property, and the worst of all properties” (although this didn’t prevent Godwin marrying twice, first Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 and then Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801). Inevitably, Godwin asserts, the institution of marriage will be abolished with all the other types of “accumulated property” in the new, free society. And although sexual relationships will continue because “the dictates of reason and duty“ will regulate the propagation of the species, “it will [not] be known in such a state of society who is the father of each individual child”, because “such knowledge will be of no importance”, with the “abolition of surnames”.
The vision of political society portrayed in Political Justice served as a direct and immediate inspiration for the Romantic ‘pantisocrats’ Coleridge and Southey, and contributed to their youthful flirtation throughout 1794 with the idea of migrating to North America to set up a rural commune (see Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream). On a personal level, Coleridge first met Godwin and wrote the appreciative poem ‘To Godwin’ in 1794, but it was from 1799 onwards, when Godwin’s public reputation had waned, that they became good and mutually supportive friends (see Coleridge and Godwin: A literary friendship ).

By contrast, Shelley’s personal relationship with Godwin was far more turbulent: beginning in adoration but ending in despair. In 1811, Shelley started corresponding with Godwin, who was now a bookshop owner with a modest income, and offered himself as both an admirer and provider of financial support, which Godwin accepted in equal measure. A year later they met. Unsurprisingly, Shelley took Godwin’s pronouncements on marriage and ‘free-love’ to be a rational justification for him abandoning his first wife Harriet and eloping to Europe with Godwin’s sixteen-year-old daughter Mary, in July 1814. But Godwin reacted as furiously and as disapprovingly as any protective father would, and he refused to see Shelley and Mary on their return (whilst still being prepared to demand that money be sent to him under another name, to avoid scandal). By August 1820 Shelley was in such extreme debt himself, having previously obtained credit on the (false) assumption that he would soon inherit the family estate from his father, that he was finally forced to refuse Godwin’s constant demands for money, writing “I have given you ….the amount of a considerable fortune, & have destituted myself.” Within two years Shelley was dead.

Yet at least in the permanence of the printed word Godwin’s influence on Shelley remains. It is most apparent in Shelley’s political poems, which echo Godwin’s views on the state and his anarchistic vision of society. For instance, in The Masque of Anarchy (1819), which was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, Shelley describes how non-revolutionary, passive resistance can morally defeat tyrants, and how men can become free:

“Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many – they are few!”

A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon SimonCourt indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More

Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream

Page 1

by Simon Court
One of the more spectacular experiments to emerge from the early Romantic movement was the idea of “Pantisocracy” which was the brain-child of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by his fellow poet and friend Robert Southey, who with youthful enthusiasm devised in 1794 a highly ambitious utopian scheme for an egalitarian society. Akin in many ways to setting up a hippie commune in the 1960s, the intention was to abandon the prejudices and constraints of life in England and, armed with the principle of anarchy and the assumption of human perfectibility which had been recently articulated by William Godwin in Political Justice, establish a community on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. That the project came to nothing, and remained confined to the purely theoretical, may be unsurprising, but its failure came at a heavy personal cost to Coleridge, and cast a shadow over the rest of his life.

In 1794, Coleridge, a twenty-one-year old studying at Jesus College, Cambridge, set out on his first walking tour and, on arriving in Oxford, first met Robert Southey in his rooms at Balliol College. Southey, a tall, forbidding and idealistic twenty-year-old, was studying anatomy, and had already become well-known for his radical republican and atheistic views. They took to each other instantly, discussing such “metaphysical subjects” as Godwin’s theory of publicly shared property, Joseph Priestley and the American emigration movement, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the “back to nature” movement. These discussions and influences led to what Coleridge was later to call “Pantisocracy” (derived from the Greek pant-isocratia, an all-governing society). It was an intoxicating cocktail of progressive ideas, which envisaged a society of commonly owned property, communal labour and equal government by both men and women, whilst all delighting in idyllic pastoral seclusion.

Within three weeks of their first encounter on 17th June, Southey and Coleridge were embarked on canvassing support for their venture: Southey would return to his native Bristol, Coleridge would go to Wales, with a view to meeting again to plan how to finance the scheme (initially earmarked for Kentucky) by selling their current literary works. Yet the differences in their characters had already become apparent: whereas Southey was all earnest seriousness, prone to despondency, who told his brother, with a desperate edge, how “this Pantisocratic system has given me new life new hope new energy”, Coleridge was expressing the vision with blistering exhibitionism, imagination and light-hearted flights of fancy.
Thus we find him at the King’s Arms, Ross, scratching democratic verses on the shutters and, he later recalled, speaking in “wine-cheer’d moments” to the locals who are “nobler than King’s or king-polluted Lords”, and at Llanfyllen, where he “preached Pantisocracy and Aspheterism [meaning general ownership of property] with so much success that two great huge Fellows of Butcher-like appearance, danced about the room in enthusiastic agitation”.

But for all that it was Southey who produced the most striking and ludicrously impractical image of the Pantisocrats in action, when he declared, with totally unguarded optimism (and reminiscent of the ‘Lumberjack Song’ in Monty Python):

“When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough.”

By mid-August further details of the Pantisocratic plan had been sketched out: there were to be twelve couples, who would set sail from Bristol the following spring, each man providing capital of £125, and expecting to labour on commonly held land for only up to three hours a days. A classically utopian picture was captured by a (sceptical) friend, Tom Poole:

“The produce of their industry is to be laid up in common for the use of all, and a good library of books is to be collected, and their leisure hours to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children”.

This generation of children, rationally educated with enlightened principles and untainted by the corrupting values of European civilisation, such as selfish materialism, would be freed from the main source of human evil, namely private individual property, and retain an innocence in the rural “cottag’d vale”. Even animals would live harmoniously with humans in this natural world: where, Coleridge enthuses, “I call even my Cat Sister in the Fraternity of universal Nature”.

The reality, of course, proved far more complicated to realise. Southey had introduced Coleridge to the Fricker family, who had all become engulfed by the Pantisocratic tidal wave, including the twenty-four-year-old Sara, who was handsome, witty and hot-headed. Although Coleridge was on the rebound from Mary Evans, he was attracted to Sara and, encouraged by Southey (who was himself pursuing Sara’s sister Edith) he and Sara became close. Southey clearly intended that both Sara and Edith were going with them to Pennsylvania, and what should, perhaps, have been merely a brief flirtation between Coleridge and Sara took on greater idealistic significance as, Coleridge later observed, it was easy to mistake “the ebullience of schematism for affection, which a moment’s reflection might have told me, is not a plant of so mushroom a growth”.

Coleridge returned to Cambridge for the autumn term, during which talk of Pantisocracy spread across the whole university as he argued furiously for his utopian vision. Yet one of Coleridge’s surprisingly practical recognitions was the need for all Pantisocrats to stop further “academic” indolence, and spend the winter getting their bodies into shape, “full tone and strength”, and learn the “theory and practice of agriculture and carpentry”. That this collective call to the gymnasium and the farm was never taken up is, of course, in itself revealing.

By Christmas the ideals of the project came under increasing strain. Southey argued that the servants who were to go with them should perform all the manual labour, and the women should exclusively raise the children and do the domestic work. Coleridge dismissed this succinctly enough as “nonsense”, and contrary to first principles. But Coleridge was himself clearly struggling with the commitment to go to the United States with Sara, and was still agonising over Mary Evans (who he continued to write to and who had argued against the plan) until Mary confirmed that she had got engaged, after which he agreed to live with Southey in Bristol.

Coleridge felt, with some bitterness, that Southey did not appreciate that the urgent push for emigration with the Fricker sisters had contributed to him forcibly breaking off his love for Mary, “as if it had been a Sinew of my Heart”. Sara herself considered another suitor, and Coleridge worried about marrying a woman he did not love. On 29th December 1794 he said that he would “degrade her, whom I call my Wife, by making her the Instrument of low Desire – and on the removal of a desultory Appetite, to be perhaps not displeased with her Absence!” However he said he was prepared to marry Sara as part, in effect, of the Pantisocratic cause: “I will do my Duty”.

During the course of 1795 the intensity of the friendship between Coleridge and Southey cooled, as they both faced continuing financial difficulties. The ambitions of emigrating had faded away, with Southey seeking the more modest task of purchasing a common farm in Wales, but Coleridge was dismissive, fearing that private resources would not be abandoned and that “we were to commence partners in a petty farming trade”. Yet although Coleridge angrily denounced Southey’s decision to leave Bristol in September to return to the financial security of his mother’s home as a “low, dirty, gutter-grubbing” compromise, and managed to convince himself that he would carry the mantle of the last of the true Pantisocrats, we find that all he achieves is to live in a cottage by the sea overlooking the Bristol Channel with Sara, whom he had married in October 1795. The pantisocratic pipe-dream was over, but the consequences of marriage remained.

Coleridge’s marriage to Sara quickly became an unhappy one (in 1799 he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of William Wordsworth’s wife), and in 1802, writing of his marriage, he lamented that “Never… did the stern match-maker bring together two minds so utterly contrariant… Alas!” He eventually separated from Sara in 1806.

It is ironic that although Coleridge and Southey never went to Susquehanna, by 1796 some 2,000 others had, though many returned disillusioned. Reflecting back on the “stormy time” when “for a few months America really inspired Hope, & I became an exalted Being”, Coleridge recounted in 1809 how he had placed his hope “in a small Company of chosen Individuals, and formed a plan, as harmless as it was extravagant, of trying the experiment of human Perfectibility on the banks of the Susquehanna; where our little Society, in its second generation, was to have combined the innocence of the patriarchal Age with the knowledge and genuine refinements of European culture: and where I had dreamt of beholding, in the sober evening of my life, the Cottages of Independence in the undivided Dale of Industry……Strange fancies!”
Simon
A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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John Thelwall and the idea of democracy

Page 1

by Geoffrey Bindman
John Thelwall (1764-1834), was a friend of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and one of the most radical political activists of his day. That radicalism was stimulated by his knowledge of English history and wide reading in philosophy and literature. He claimed to have been inspired by the prominent campaigner for political reform, Horne Tooke, whom he met in 1790, when Thelwall was already 26 years old, but it is clear that his political education had started much earlier. We know of his regular attendance at the debating clubs which flourished in his youth in London, particularly at the ‘Society for Free Debate’, which met at the Coachmakers’ Hall until it was closed by Pitt’s bully boys. Thelwall also spent three and a half years, between the ages of 18 and 22,  articled to an attorney in the Temple. His legal training alerted him to the great constitutional struggles of the past. Certainly it gave him a highly sceptical view of the profession. “Lawyers,” he said later in life, “have spread more devastation through the moral world than the Goths and Vandals who overthrew the Roman Empire”.

In the debates at Coachmakers’ Hall, Thelwall developed strong support for democratic reform, though he explained that he came to this view only by degrees, after careful study. He spoke eloquently against the slave trade. He spoke out for freedom of speech. He was energised by what was happening in France, not, according to his wife’s biography, by the triumph of an enraged populace over a military despotism, but by what he saw as an unprecedented attempt to form a government based on principles of reason and humanity.“Not upon expedients,” as  he put it, “but upon digested principles”.  Here we see an early attachment to human rights, before the concept achieved widespread usage. Thelwall contrasted an idealistic approach with the corruption of the British government and of the electoral process itself. He became active in  a bitter conflict in the parliamentary election for the Westminster constituency. This was one of the few in which there was real popular participation. All those who paid the parish rates had the vote. Elsewhere, elections were in ‘rotten boroughs’ where a single landowner cast the only votes. In growing industrial cities like Birmingham there were no elections at all. At Westminster in 1790 a deal was done between Whigs and Tories which would have made the election a sham, eliminating any democratic choice. Horne Tooke’s outrage led him to stand as a candidate. Thelwall met him and fell under his spell, describing him as “the first man of capacious and highly cultivated mind with whom he had ever been intimate.” Thelwall became his assistant in the election campaign and “modelled his style on Tooke who, while advocating lawful peaceful methods, used violent, emotive, rhetoric”.

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and for Thelwall, one of its most important features was the limits it placed on the autocratic power of the monarchy, though for many centuries successive monarchs fought to retain supremacy and cement their power.  The law of treason was formalised in the Statute of Treasons of 1351, which stated that the cardinal offence was “compassing or imagining the death of the King”. In the following centuries many prosecutions were brought for treason against those who sought to challenge or usurp the authority of the Crown. As time went on, the definition of treason was subtly stretched. For example, advocating constitutional change was considered indirect or ‘constructive’ treason. Even Charles 1st, paradoxically, was executed for high treason in 1649.

From about 1780, organisations began to be established to urge political reform. The aim was to expand the suffrage and increase the frequency of elections. The Society of Constitutional Information was formed in that year, and a London Revolutionary Society was formed in 1788 to commemorate the centenary of the Bill of Rights of 1689. These stirrings of discontent made little impact on Parliament itself. In 1785, William Pitt himself  had introduced a motion for reform which had been rejected almost without debate. In 1792, by which time the French revolution had caused consternation among the ruling elite, the London Corresponding Society was founded by Thomas Hardy, a Piccadilly shoemaker. This was arguably the first working-class political organisation. Thelwall became an early member and soon achieved prominence by his powerful oratory and charismatic energy. Pitt and his colleagues in government  perceived Thelwall, Hardy, Horne Tooke and the others as a threat. They saw them – to quote a commentator – as “wretches, vagabonds, and evil-minded men who were inflaming the minds of the ignorant, secretly providing them with arms, seditiously plotting to destroy the government of king, Lords and Commons in order to replace the constitution with French anarchy.”

It is at this point that the struggle for democracy confronts the claim of the monarch and parliamentary leaders to absolute authority.  Thelwall and his colleagues now found themselves at the centre of that debate, with their very lives at stake.

Remember that all they had done was to campaign for peaceful change, to be debated in a national convention, so that the people could choose their rulers. No one seriously threatened to kill the king. By charging them with high treason, the government raised the stakes. Those convicted could be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Unsurprisingly, the government thought it was on solid ground. When the judge, Sir James Eyre, invited to Grand Jury to indict Thelwall and his co-accused, this brought forth a powerful response from William Godwin, whose defence of the right to freedom of expression was widely published and may have influenced the jury to reject Eyre’s opinion and find the accused not guilty.

In effect the jury which acquitted Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall saved Britain from a legal regime in which democratic debate and the free expression of political opinion was permanently stifled. Thelwall played a vital role in achieving this result. Though he spurned the legal profession, he  understood the root of the problem better than the lawyers and judges. It is his biggest contribution to democracy.

After his acquittal, Thelwall did not give up the fight. The government had been humiliated by the acquittal and would have been delighted to find a pretext for locking up the Corresponding Society leaders again. Before the verdict the society’s membership had gone down from about 800 to a third of that number, but after the acquittals membership rose by up to 200 recruits a week until it reached a peak of about 3000. Thelwall was extremely active after his release – he gave public lectures and speeches and published them in his periodical Tribune. Then in October there was a dramatic development. It was the day of the state opening of Parliament. As a result of the war with France, food prices had soared and there was near famine   There were rumours that the King was going to announce increased taxation to pay for the war. Crowds gathered and stones were thrown at the King’s coach, breaking one or two windows but not harming any of the occupants. This was the government’s excuse for a crackdown. New legislation was introduced – the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill –  to restrict publications advocating reform and ban public  meetings in opposition to the government.

But Thelwall clearly did not want to repeat his experience in the criminal courts. Though for some time he continued to give lectures throughout the country, he disguised their political topicality by choosing subjects from Roman history. Eventually he made his peace with the legal system by abandoning political campaigning, retiring to a smallholding in Wales and devoting his intellectual energy to poetry and elocution. In 1795, it should be noted, he was still only 31 years old.

While Thelwall’s greatest practical contribution to democracy remains the defeat of Pitt’s quest for absolutism in the treason trials, his contribution to democratic  reform was broader. In his speeches and writings, he constantly attacked the violations of civil liberties and human rights which resulted from the government’s efforts to protect its power… Thelwall continually attacked arbitrary detention, the activities of government spies and informers, and all restrictions on freedom of expression.  Yet Thelwall never had formal political power and could only promote change by the force of his oratory and his writings.

Sadly we  know less of Thelwall in the 40 years of his life after the treason trial. That period covered a further long period of government repression after the Napoleonic wars, culminating in the Peterloo massacre of1819. And yet apart from the continuing influence of his writings and his personal example, Thelwall’s impact on future events was slight. In the 1820s he became the owner and main writer of a newspaper, the Champion, which covered contemporary politics, but he seems to have been much more interested in poetry and literature. “For poetry”, he says of himself in the preface to his collection of extracts from the Champion,  “was the first passion of his soul.”

Thelwall’s battle for the rights of man and woman was an important episode in the long development of human rights law in Britain and internationally. The challenges to human rights may differ in detail in each generation but the same themes recur, especially the fundamental conflict between government and governed. In that struggle we have much to learn from John Thelwall.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC is a fellow and former trustee of the Wordsworth Trust. The Bindman collection of Romantic literature is one of the treasures of the collection, and Bindman talks are given at Grasmere every year. Geoffrey founded the Bindmans law firSir-Geoffrey-Bindmam in 1974, and throughout his long and distinguished legal career, has specialised in civil liberty and human rights issues.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

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30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

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28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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Edmund Burke and the Sublime

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By Simon Court
The idea of the sublime is central to a Romantic’s perception of, and heightened awareness in, the world. It was Edmund Burke, who in 1757 published a treatise of aesthetics called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and therefore provided the English Romantic movement with a systematic analysis of what constitutes the sublime, and the various qualities which it possesses, and hence gave the English Romantics a theoretical foundation, and a legitimacy, to their artistic expression.

Burke (1729-97) was born in Dublin and educated there at Trinity College. He is best known for his political achievements: firstly as a Whig MP; and then as the founder of modern conservatism with the publication in 1790 of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he expressed mistrust in the rationalism of the French Revolutionaries, who believed that politics can be conducted according to a priori principles not rooted in previous experience and practice. Yet much earlier in his life, when only 28 years old, and whilst establishing himself in literary London, he wrote his Enquiry, which precedes the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, by 41 years.

Consistent with the dominant philosophical way of thinking in Britain during his life, Burke was an empiricist. That is, he believed that the formation of our ideas, and our knowledge of the natural world, is derived from our sensory experience, which is determined by our senses, perceptions or passions (feelings or emotions). This is to be contrasted with the rationalist school of thought, which asserts that knowledge of innate ideas can be arrived at through intuition and reasoning alone, independently of the passions. For Burke, it is the passions (as represented in our imagination), not reason, which determines how and what we see, hear and feel in the world.

Like most empiricists, Burke sought to apply a scientific method to his chosen subject-matter, so in the Enquiry he undertakes a scientific investigation into our various passions, and uses the collected evidence to explain the nature and power of the sublime. His Enquiry opens with an introductory discussion on taste, where he observes that although we have a shared sensory apparatus, our idea and knowledge of a particular taste (and whether we like it or not) is the product of our own individual physical experience, combined with our social and cultural context:
Thus opium is pleasing to the Turks, on account of the agreeable delirium it produces. Tobacco is the delight of Dutchmen, as it diffuses a torpor and pleasing stupefaction. Fermented spirits please our common people, because they banish care, and all consideration of future or present evils.

Burke then turns to his observations on the sublime. He asserts that ideas of pain are much more powerful than those of pleasure, and that the strongest pain of all is the fear of death, which causes terror. As such:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

The sublime, then, is our strongest passion, and it is grounded in terror. Yet it is not exclusively an unpleasant emotion, for danger or pain can, in certain circumstances, give us delight. And the sublime has other qualities: it overwhelms our faculty of reason, such that we are rendered incapable of rational thought. As Burke puts it:

The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror”.

This heightened state of astonishment, where reason is driven out by “an irresistible force”, and “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain another”, is more terrible to us when it is accompanied with a sense of the unknown (or what Burke calls obscurity). For Burke, obscurity is an absence of clarity, whether in the sensory darkness of sight (or blinding lightness), or mental uncertainty of thought. As he observes, “everyone will be sensible to this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread”. He notes how religions have used darkness to create fear, such that “the druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks”. Further, it is vastness, or “greatness of dimension”, which is “a powerful cause of the sublime”, where “looking down from a precipice” on a mountain has greater impact depending of its depth and steepness, and where “the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smooth and polished”. Finally, another source of the sublime is what Burke calls infinity, where the eye is not able to “perceive the bounds” of something, or “see an object distinctly”, and this gives rise to a “terrible uncertainty of the thing” perceived. For Burke: “Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime”.

Burke believed that poetic verse is the most powerfully effective art form in evoking an emotional response, and Milton’s Paradise Lost the finest example of “heightening, or of setting terrible things”. In Milton’s description of Death, says Burke, it “is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors. The other shape, If shape it might be called that shape had none Distinguishable,…….black he stood as night: Fierce as ten furies: terrible as hell:…… In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.”

It is, for Burke, “the terrible uncertainty of the thing described” which generates the fullest emotional force. Take Milton’s portrait of Satan:

…Stood like a tower; his form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruin’d, and th’ excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air Shorn of its beams;…..
485px-Paradise_Lost_14

For Burke, these “images raised by poetry” of Death and Satan are of an obscure and infinite kind and are “great and confused”, and only great because they are confused: to obtain clearness is to “lose much of the greatness”, such that “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” This leads Burke to assert that painting is inferior to poetry: “When painters have attempted to give us clear representations of these very fanciful and terrible ideas, they have I think always failed; insomuch that I have been at a loss, in all the pictures I have seen of hell, whether the painter did not intend something ludicrous.” (As with, perhaps, Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights, however impressed we may be with his imaginative vision.)
Terror, horror, darkness: we can see how Burke’s elucidation of the emotional power which these qualities of the sublime hold on us would have contributed to the later 19th-century English Gothic literature; but it is also the qualities of obscurity, vastness and infinity in the sublime, “which comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness”, which made an earlier, and more significant literary impact, on the English Romantic poets.
Burke image
The extent of Burke’s influence is well evidenced in Coleridge. His friend Carlyon later recalled a mountain walking tour in Germany in 1799:
“When we were ascending the Brocken, and ever and anon stopping to take breath, as well as survey the magnificent scene, a long discussion took place on the sublime and beautiful. We had much of Burke……Many were the fruitless attempts made to define sublimity satisfactorily, when Coleridge, at length, pronounced it to consist in a suspension of the powers of comparison”.
This contribution appears to be heavily drawn from Burke’s idea that the sublime comprises a state of astonishment, where “all its motions are suspended” and the power of reasoning is lost, coupled with the infinity of an object who cannot be seen distinctly, and therefore cannot be compared against others.
On the evening of 31st August 1800 Coleridge found himself on the ridge called Striding Edge, in the Lake District. It was getting dark as he wrote in his notebook:
Am now at the top of Helvellyn, a pyramid of stones, Ullswater, Thirlmere, Bassenthwaite, Windermere, a tarn in Patterdale. Travelling along the ridge, I came to the other side of those precipices, and down below me to my left no, no! no words can convey any idea of this prodigious wildness that precipice its ridge sharp as a jagged knife, level so long and then ascending so boldly, what a frightful bulgy precipice I stand on, and to my right hand, the crag which corresponds to the other! how it plunges down like a waterfall, reaches a level steepness and again plunges! The moon above Fairfield almost at the full now descended over a perilous peat moss, then down a hill of stones, all dark and darkling. I climbed, stone after stone, down a half crag torrent, and came out at the Raise Gap. And, O my God! How did that opposite precipice look in the moonshine, its name Steel Crags!
A wonderful illustration of the landscape, language and emotion of the sublime.
Simon
A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.

19.09.2018

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds   From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.     The changing […]

Read More
30.08.2018

Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve   Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus: As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or […]

Read More
28.07.2018

At home with the Wordsworths

by Pete May   It’s hard to enter the vale of Grasmere and not think of William Wordsworth. The village is dominated as much by the poet as by the contours of the Lakeland mountains. His old homes of Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount have long been open to the public, but they now have […]

Read More
23.07.2018

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone   A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his […]

Read More
15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
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