Romantic Beauty

The Romantic era heralded the arrival of a conception of beauty to which many poets still subscribe, in a time of ‘profound and irreversible transformation in artistic styles, in cultural attitudes, and in the relations between artist and society’.[1] Romanticism, perhaps most importantly, rendered emotion a category by which to measure poetry, and indeed under the stewardship of Wordsworth it becomes a crucial aspect of verse for the first time. The concept of ‘the sublime’ first brought into the public consciousness by Burke, and latterly adopted in poetic discourse by Wordsworth, forged a wholly new manner in which many authors and readers began to approach poetry and its inherent beauty. These founding documents of Romanticism, most notably Wordsworth’s Preface and ‘Essay Supplementary to the Preface’ are theoretical agendas for poetry – discussions of attitude, and recommendations of conduct that align themselves with the principles of these young writers, who were reacting to the political and cultural turmoil of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The French revolution in particular fuelled the widespread, fervent upheaval of established institutions both physical and theoretical.

Dr Johnson and his structured approach to poetic diction was overturned by Coleridge, Shelley, and particularly Keats, who quite deliberately reached beyond the previous century of poetry to the writings of Shakespeare and Spenser, seeking to re-ignite their brand of beauty – one concerned chiefly with the raw passion of the human spirit, and not concerned with the manners of Neoclassical society. Beauty, in the Romantic era, reverted back to its original form, being considered as a thematic rather than technical attribute of poetry. This rebirth of spontaneity, imagination, and mystery manifested itself in the Lyric form, ‘the spontaneous contingencies of the vocal utterance’,[2] with only Lord Byron remaining significantly inspired by the heroic couplet. The Rape of the Lock becomes replaced by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, sophistry and social satire being usurped by a return to the human propensity for classic storytelling, a tale steeped in the supernatural, curses, and the morbid consequences of ignoring wild superstition. To the writers of the age, the formal modes had become exhausted, as had the mundane subjects of politics or societal manners, prompting a sharp move back to poetry that dealt with the primal human passions and instincts. ‘Love and nature have always had their place in English Literature […] but only in modern romanticism, in the writings of Lawrence or Shelley or Blake, are there serious attempts at the deification of woman or the procreative forces’.[3]

Where before, in the writings of Marlowe, Faustus found ‘heaven’ in the lips of Helen, Yeats now lays his dreams beneath the feet of his lover in verse surely as breath-taking and beautiful as is achievable in the English language. In many ways, Yeats’s ‘Cloths of Heaven’ represents the pinnacle of conventional aestheticism. Combining influences of classical education, echoing a passage from the Qur’an, with the Neoclassical notion of poetic diction crucially as interpreted by the Romantics, and utilising forms and ideas of rhythm first conceived in the Renaissance, the verse moves with grace and elegance, expressing a deeply profound sentiment that resonates with lovers across generations and cultures:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.[4]

 

We firstly recognise the recurring theme of dreams in traditional aesthetic poetry, being present in all the extracts in this section. A latent inspiration from the earlier Romantics, the consistent presence of dreams constitutes a connection between the beautiful and the impossible, or the fanciful. In many ways, beauty is life as rendered by the improbable and hopeful spirits of human desire. In poetry, this manifests itself through imagery of things such as dreams and stars – far away concepts of which we hold the barest of understandings, and thus that can serve as canvasses for our emotional appropriations. Shelley believed that ‘to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful’,[5] and this notion of truth, in late Romanticism, becomes expressed through an emotional outpouring unlike any seen before in verse – in many ways paving the way for the confessional poets of the mid twentieth-century. The idea of beauty, however, remains rooted in thematic integrity, and the Aquinian notion of ontological reflection.

While the early Romantic period, politically speaking, was one of stark paradigm shifts and revolutionary thinking, Aidan Day warns that ‘to characterize Romanticism as the revolutionary movement overturning Neoclassicism in general is to oversimplify what was happening in the late Enlightenment culture of Europe in the later eighteenth century’.[6] Indeed, for the purposes of analysing the Romantic’s approach to poetic beauty, it is better to look at the later products of the era, when the tumultuous period of politically subversive authorship had waned, and the induction of the truly sublime aesthetic had fully taken hold. Many critics still argue that the influence of Romantic aestheticism was alive until even after the Great War,[7] with the relatively little-known poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. composing his enchanting sonnet ‘High Flight’ in 1941, before Modernism had begun to eradicate notions of artistic pursuit for its own sake brought on in particular by the Victorian aestheticism of Pater and Wilde:

 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds

(ll. 1-4)

 

In ‘High Flight’, Gillespie champions the return of unrhymed iambic pentameter, as other aspects of form and structure responsible for aesthetic construction re-emerge from their Renaissance resting places. Sibilance, and the accompanying repetition of ‘t’ sounds, construct a phonetic mood reminiscent of the Elizabethan stage, as the reader is swept along the five stresses of the line, peaking with a scintillating sound making the word one to relish, to savour. We can find another example of this pairing of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds in close proximity in the final three lines of Clare’s ‘I Am’:

 

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie

The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

(ll. 16-18) [8]

 

Phonaesthetics aside, thematically these poems all share a sentimentality and philosophical awareness, a discourse of the human experience rendered in poetic verse. The spontaneity, imagination, strangeness, mysteriousness, and sublimity of early Romantic verse gave life to emotionally literate poetry, which explored and expressed the inexpressible. The aestheticism of Pater and Wilde, makes sense in the context of Clare and which precedes Gillespie, sees art ‘as a combination of emotion, intellect and imagination, as the expression of the noblest human spirit’,[9] and as a result tempered the aggravated and revolutionary attitudes of the earlier Romantics to provide a more stable atmosphere in which aestheticism could truly flourish.

Of all ages of literature, the Romantics produced the most explicit, enduring examples of poetry that conformed to conventional Aquinian aestheticism. Writers continue to be inspired by the purity and pathos of Romantic verse, even after the highly skeptical modernist revisions to aesthetic theory.

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.

 

References

 

[1] Margaret Drabble ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 872.

[2] Bradford, p. 98.

[3] Lever, p. 9.

[4] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 81.

[5] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’ in Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. by Zachery Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 697.

[6] Aidan Day, Romanticism (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 76.

[7] See later section on Modernism.

[8] John Clare, John Clare: Selected Poems ed. by J. W. Tibble and Anne Tibble (London: Dent, 1975), p. 297.

[9] Hilary Fraser, Beauty and Belief (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 186.

 

Copyright (C) The Composite Review 2016.

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