Douglas Clark: The schizophrenia of the Romantics

The Romantic poets emerged from the Enlightment, where rational thought had superceded superstition and abasement to hierarchy, to encounter and be invigorated by the dawn of the French Revolution. Wordsworth, describing his emotions in The Prelude, catches the excitement of the day. It was to be a new dawn for humankind culminating in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The triumph of logical rational thought over the humbug of centuries.

But the early Romantics were quickly confounded by practicalities and retreated into the Imagination. Hence Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey talks about the ideas in his own head and doesn't discuss the dubious scenery. The reaction to the excesses of the French Revoltion, where Reason was made a God, was very swift and Burke was quick-followed by the poets. Out of this Conservatism only Shelley and Blake kept the red flag flying. The Romantics wanted it both ways. They desired the new revolutionary thought but the constraints of everyday living promoted the most reactionary feelings. This was because they came from privileged classes, even William Blake; see John Clare for a peasant view. Robert Burns was exceptional, being Scottish. A similar thing happened in Enlightenment Edinburgh where Thomas Reid's `Common Sense' philosophy replaced the earlier invigorating scepticism of David Hume. What survived was the Imagination.

Charles Baudelaire, the exquisite poet of the city, used the orthodox poetical patterns to describe his decadence as he struggled mid-19th century to find a new ethos. He invented the Dandy. Before him we see Hölderlin; who in his Romantic retreat attempted to redefine Classical Greece in his native Swabia in contemporary terms. But the effort was too much for his fragile mind. Goethe, teetering on the Neoclassic, preferred his science to his poetry. But realising that in Faust he had asked the necessary questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Do we have to invent new gods or are the old ones still sufficient?

Rilke came to find a new path for poets in the 20th century. He and Yeats have been the dominant characters. They espoused antiquity and by developing their thoughts of personal relationships created a structure in which a poet could write. Rilke is the loneliest writer who ever lived. It is an intimate poetry looking back to the Romans and the Greeks, which would have delighted Hölderlin;. The tradition is re-established. Married with the Imagination. Rilke and Hölderlin sought a Homecoming for man from the modern technological world. This is why Heidegger loved them so.

But to return to the title of these thoughts. There is a schizophrenia at the heart of these Romanticists. For while glorying in the pursuit of knowledge and education of the masses they deplore the lack of the ancient veneration of authority. This modern world is not for them. Will the modern world ever produce a great poet? The answer is Arthur Rimbaud who walked away from it all. He realised that Art is a nonsense. A necessary neurosis of humanity. We are so imperfect. It is necessary to be absolutely modern.