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Romanticism: a legacy

By Michael Ferber

William Wordsworth


The Very Short Introductions are indeed very short, so I had to cut a chapter out of my volume that would have discussed the aftermath or legacy of Romanticism today, two hundred years after Romanticism’s days of glory.  In that chapter I would have pointed out the obvious fact that those who still love poetry look at the Romantic era as poetry’s high point in every European country. Think of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Pushkin, Mickiewicz, Leopardi, Lamartine, Hugo, and Nerval. Those who still love “classical” music fill the concert halls to listen to Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner; and those who still love traditional painting flock to look at Constable, Turner, Friedrich, and Delacroix. These poets and artists are still “alive”: their works are central to the culture from which millions of people still draw nourishment. I can scarcely imagine how miserable I would feel if I knew I could never again listen to Beethoven or read a poem by Keats.

But more interesting, I think, is the afterlife of the Romantics in more popular culture.  Take William Blake, for instance.  Almost a century after he died, Charles Parry set Blake’s sixteen-line poem “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green” to a memorable hymn tune.  It was first intended for a patriotic rally during World War I, but it was soon taken up by the women’s suffrage movement and the labour movement because of its moving evocation of a once and future Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant land.”  It is now England’s second national anthem, and is sung in America too: a Connecticut friend of mine always sings “in New England’s green and pleasant land.”  It also inspired the title and the music of the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer have recorded an acid-rock version of the hymn in Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Billy Bragg  made a more restrained but eloquent one in 1990.  In 1948 William Blake “appeared” to Allen Ginsberg in a hallucination, and thus takes much of the credit (or blame) for the Beat poet’s immense poetic works.  I often see Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” as grafitti on walls or as slogans on bumper stickers.  When I was an underpaid teaching assistant I joined a picket line carrying a sign I had made: “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”  Even as a well-broken-in horse of instruction today I still see much truth in that proverb.

A major legacy of Romanticism is the environmental movement.  John Muir (1838-1914), the great pioneer of the wilderness preservation movement, and founder of the Sierra Club, combined a Romantic sensibility with an outlook based on the Bible.  He absorbed Burns from his native Scotland, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley from England, and Emerson and Thoreau from his adopted America.  Thoreau himself, who was close to the Transcendentalist group, which grew in large part out of German and British Romanticism, was the first great nature writer in America; his Walden is still required reading not only in universities but among those who are devoted to conservation and sustainability.  Wordsworth himself, of course, deserves some credit for his role in preserving the Lake District; he is sometimes called the grandfather of the National Trust of the UK

It is true that the environmental movement owes much to modern science, and most modern scientists no longer consider Romanticism a useful source of concepts. However it is also true that without something of the Romantic sensibility, especially the feeling of connectedness to nature or rootedness in the earth, it would not be much of a movement.  “Organic” metaphors were common among the Romantics, notably the idea that nature is not a mechanism but a living organism and that in an open and imaginative state of mind we can, as Wordsworth put it, “see into the life of things,”.  It seems to me that the holistic and ecological outlook owes much to this spirit.  Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), famous for his best-selling Sand County Almanac with its “land ethic,” writes of the “biotic community” and the importance of “thinking like a mountain” to understand the complex interrelationships of humans and nature.  And what could be more holistic than the “Gaia” theory of James Lovelock (born in 1919), according to which the whole earth acts like one huge organism or ecological unit?

“Romantic” is often a pejorative term, used to dismiss unrealistic, escapist, woolly, or dreamy ideas.  But it now seems likely that if we don’t soon become a little more Romantic, the earth will dismiss us.

Michael Ferber is Professor of English and Humanities and English Graduate Director at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of several books including Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image Credit: A portrait of William Wordsworth from Portrait Gallery of the Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

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