Reflections on English and German Romanticism and the Revolt of Poetic Form
What we have here a series of notes written in an intentionally put-on academic style - though it is hoped with rather more edge - relating to English romanticism highlighted through a comparison with the different, more theoretical approach of German romanticism. It emphasises the sheer experimental revolt of poetic form inherent in the English experiment; an experiment that clearly pointed towards the transcendence of poetry. Although in Germany, Hegel provided a profound theoretical framework clearly pointing out abstractly that 'the arts were dying', in England that revolt was experienced in a more visceral, subjective way though no less profound. As a line of enquiry pointing to the final destruction and realisation of the historic endeavour alienated within art right up to the present day, these beginnings still remain an unwritten history cut short by the death of William Hazlitt in 1830 and lingering on somewhat in De Quincey only to be entirely extinguished in the Victorian era. This colossal reaction, though on the surface extensively modernised, is still powerfully present overwhelmed by the diktats of the Eng Lit pantheon with its vested interests in the immutability of form furiously dismissing any more accurate interpretation which would certainly point to something very different leading towards an entirely different world free of the ravages of capitalism. It is surprising that no aspiring young academic eager to challenge the petrified fossil of Eng Lit and maybe claiming a bit of notoriety in the process, hasn't risen to the occasion, even if the constraints of academia would require punches to be pulled. Nonetheless, like Writing Degree Zero fifty years ago in France, a kind of cat could be let out of the bag even if somewhat limping, as all this should have been said years ago in the immediate aftermath of the revolt of the late 1960s in these islands. It is still not too late to begin.
Recently (Jan/Feb 2006) there was a much praised TV series on romanticism put together by Peter Ackroyd, an academic who has written a few novels and at least one biography on a a major romantic figure in the shape of William Blake. Like his compatriot Richard Holmes who has studied the romantics more exclusively and who obviously has quite an influence on Ackroyd in emphasising the republican and social/political persuasion of the protagonists - hardly surprising seeing the TV survey often substituted the French revolution of 1789 with footage from May 1968 in France which both had experienced in their youth - Ackroyd fell well short of an all-rounded radical take on his subject. Instead of giving equal emphasis to the revolt of form at the heart of English romanticism he fell back finally on the usual Eng Lit homilies (yawn) about all the great poetry and art produced after initially pinpointing tantalising asides (e.g. how Coleridge and Wordsworth preferred their writings to remain anonymous at the first publication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798) the significance of which he then could make no apposite comment on. Didn't such a gesture question the role of the artist deliberately disavowing any personality cult or special privilege and more than pointing to Lautreamont's later maxim: 'poetry must be made by all and not by one''
Nonetheless Ackroyd must be aware of such a drift as you couldn't fail but notice more than an echo of the English situationist group King Mob in the late 1960s. Some period piece re-enactment of Coleridge in a Quantocks' fishing village sees digitally imposed lines of romantic verse on the sea walls in the form of large, agitational slogans courtesy of some computer software programme. Hadn't King Mob originally done just this - though in raw spray paint - on the streets of Notting Hill in 1967/8? What King Mob had significantly failed to do or follow up with was a revolutionary critique of English romanticism emphasising the tendency towards formal dissolution at its very heart; a failure Ackroyd has merely compounded. It's hardly surprising that Ackroyd's conclusive comments at the end of his four part TV series were lame, even abysmal especially in seamlessly blending Byron's personality cult with the very lucrative media banalities of the modern day pop icon. In lightly skipping over the demonic impulse and outrage, which Byron let rip in his everyday life, the essential connection between such self-expression and the dissolution of artistic form is lost. It was a montaging or plagiarising which a few decades later was to find more coherent expression in Lautreamont's 'Songs of Maldoror'. Moreover, the plagiarism did not stop there as another Englishman had in the meantime made a further contribution in the shape of Charles Darwin. If you like Lautreamont blended the demonically hideous with the mutant transhuman having taken from Darwin not the origin of the species but where the species was horrifyingly going (see Fabre, Darwin, Dalton & 'DNA' Watson meet Lautreamont elsewhere on this website). It is an essential connection which all previous excellent comments and appraisals of Lautreamont from Andre Breton to Guy Debord have missed''.
In dredging up memories of the influence the French avant-garde of the 19th and early 20th century had on me (Lautremont, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Duchamp, Picabia, Vache, the Dadaists and the Surrealists like Andre Breton, Peret, Bataille etc) - and then my enthusiasm for the Russian avant-garde - I also was forced even farther back....
Somehow at the back of my mind there lingered the influence of the romantic tradition in this country. Over the years its revolutionary implications had become lost and it was this I have been struggling to bring to light. I needed to have some external frame of reference from which to judge it. And the only country that was remotely comparable was Germany. France was undergoing revolutionary upheaval and no literature of any consequence survives from that era. It had been left behind temporarily and only the image making of David survives and his designs for public spectacles enthroning the rule of reason and as a homage to Robespierre. Germany was not comparable to England economically because Germany was then merely an idea, the reality a pre-capitalist entity of squalid dukedoms and principalities, ruled by petty tyrants. England was on the verge of the greatest change since the Neolithic revolution of settled agriculture and city states, possessing freedoms (though not revolutionary freedom) that were the envy of the rest of the world. As a consequence the subversive potential of the arts was much reduced in scope and the gap between art and revolution much narrowed, with art struggling to find an ever diminishing role in the service of a more fundamental revolution that affected all pre-existing forms of art. Their place was increasingly occupied by passion, spontaneity, the revolutionary moment, confession and critique (see 'Confessions of an Opium Eater';'The Spirit of the Age'; parts of 'The Prelude'; 'In Defense of Poetry' in which poetry is viewed essentially as a progressive act and not merely the prerogative of metre and verse. Today we would say it is anything but the prerogative of metre and verse and unable to supercede art in its entirety has lapsed into meaningless acts or acting).
I can think of no more relevant words on Wordsworth than those of Hazlitt and which also applies to practically the whole of the English romantic movement from 1789 to the death of Shelley and Byron. He says in the 'Spirit of the Age' that Wordsworth's 'genius is a pure emanation of the Spirit of the Age ' it partakes of the revolutionary movement of the age: his muse is a levelling one, (he) tramples on the pride of art with greater pride. The Ode and Epode, the Strophe and anti Strophe, he laughs to scorn. The harp of Homer, the trump of Pindar and of Alcaeus, are still.' How different then is Schiller's historical approach and his efforts to categorize the forms of poetry by giving them a time and place within history, an approach that later on, Hegel was to greatly elaborate on. In 'Naive and Sentimental Poetry'. Schiller seeks, by historicising form, to establish the difference between ancient and modern poetry. Apart from anything else he sees it is man that has changed, losing over time a naturalness which henceforth it will be Schiller's appointed task to reclaim. (This historical categorisation of the arts, which Schiller initiates, may well have been prompted by the example of Linnaen systematics in the field of natural history. Rejecting this formalism, in which the part tends to separate from the whole, leads Goethe in the direction of evolution). Compared to Wordsworth's lack of sympathy for the arts, bordering on outright hostility, we cringe at Schiller's virtual deification of the Artist (see his poem 'Die Kunstlers') as would-be aesthetic supremo. And yet here is a much more concrete, fully worked out, critique of the growing division of labour than anything that can be found in Wordsworth or indeed the rest of the English romantics. Our lack of naturalness is solely due to that: 'They (the ancients) felt things naturally: we feel what is natural.(!) Our feeling for nature is like the longing of a sick man for health. (!) Nature makes the human race one with itself; art separates and divides.' However don't be deceived by this insightful bluster of radicalism: for Schiller it is only by being guided through the modern arts - nature 'as an idea and an object' - that man becomes whole again. In fact taken to its logical conclusion it does imply a certain transcendence and this possibility continually haunts, and runs away with Schiller, not least in his 'Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man'. Though inspired by Kant's 'Critique of Judgement' that appeared in 1787, and which is the most exhaustive examination of the aesthetic faculties residing in man and up to that point without precedent in human history in terms of its concentration and scope, it was the world shaking event two years later that was to concentrate Schiller's mind.( The 'Critique' is not an art history: one had to wait for Hegel for that who criticises Kant for not including 'becoming' amongst his categories of mind: had he been able to do so history would have played a much greater role in Kant's system). Appalled by the Terror, Schiller needed to settle accounts with it. And this he found in his rejection of the cultivation, or cult - of reason to the exclusion of all other faculties. Immoderate reason is responsible for the division of labour, the sensuous in alliance with a chastened reason, on the contrary, overcomes it. And its chief ally in this battle of the faculties, which puts an end to the distressing consequences of the division of labour, is the cultivation of the arts. Though unwittingly, Schiller was anticipating a response which henceforward was to become commonplace, particularly in the latter half of the 20th Century, where ever capitalist society breaks down: either cheap narcotics or a blitz of the arts or a combination of both and which nowadays is fundamental to the restoration of a threatened division of labour and workaday world, and, as it is now 'lived' the none-workaday world. In fact Schiller willy nilly both though his dramatic productions and grudging fealty to the German aristocratic courts of his time was dragged into becoming an artistic impresario in which stage craft and the mounting of public spectacle became uppermost. 150 years before the age of television he wanted a world of perfect illusion, the better to stage the illusion of freedom. (By appearing to be the consummation of drama in terms of staged illusion, TV is the denouement of drama, destroying once and for all its claims to be an agent of change and real liberation). Finally by assiduously recruiting the arts to his protest against the division of labour, Schiller's cause turns against him: he can be seen as founding an ever more complex, intertwined and, to capital, ever more necessary division of artistic labour whose ramifications are now so immense the problem is knowing where to begin - and end. Capital is now at a permanent stage of 'Homage to the Arts', the title of a dramatic, processional production written and staged by Schiller in honour of a royal marriage in Weimar in 1804.Today this permanent homage-to-the-arts economy is increasingly global in scale and is an aspect of globalisation that is never subjected to critique or, worse, even recognised, its grip is so pervasive and all powerful. Beyond that of making a lot of money, the purpose of this aesthetic economy is to pacify, distract and alienate a person ever further from their real, natural self and potential. Schiller never fully squared up to this dilemma though he was aware of it. To do so would have meant abandoning art and finding another path to the nature that modern man yearned to recover and that lay beyond the division of labour.
How different things are with Wordsworth who is at once less precise but more consequential and finally total in his approach to nature.The appreciation of nature is not to be prefaced by a prolonged tuition in artistic appreciation. Rather nature perpetually remonstrates with the arts and scorns them, needing no further adornment. However Schiller's critique of the division of labour is far more anchored in reality and history than Wordsworth. At this point Wordsworth's apriori nature really does get in the way of a more developed, historical understanding of the division of labour.The relationship which he postulates between man and nature is primal and no social arrangement will ever make good in the life of the individual the sense of loss an individual feels in the presence of nature when compared to how he or she responded to nature as a child. However in the 'still, sad music of humanity' which as an adult he hears in nature, it is the betrayal of his revolutionary ideals he is bemoaning. His abhorrence of the Terror throws him into the arms of nature but not before he is detained for a time by the certainties of mathematics, a compensation for that 'revolutionary reason' that has laid him low. But scientific reason is not good enough finally, because it cannot apprehend the higher reason, the 'very heaven' of youth and revolution, that was expressed in his thwarted revolutionary hopes. And so it is in the Lake District of his childhood he finds this reason once more, shorn ultimately of revolutionary rapture. And so he gives the lie to his own nature mysticism as expressed in his 'Intimations of Immortality' which rather suggests our most intense experience of nature had to be in the womb!
Wordsworth is the first anti poet/poet. He is just one among many and claims no special privileges. There are others, 'silent poets', like his brother who was lost at sea. Poetry is woven into the landscape of the Lake District and its peoples. It has no name: it just is. It spills over into everything. It is in a heap of hewn stones rather than in the 'outrage' of architectural madness it is destined to become. It is in the bower made of withered fern in which to lie down during summer in the company of sheep and from there through the 'open door place' (a hitherto unimaginable architectural term by the way) to gaze and gaze until the vision of what is, no dream can ever equal. And as for stone monuments what better than Ralph Jones, a giant made of stone, constructed as a lark by three lads on Great Howe at the foot of Thirlmere. Wordsworth would gladly have participated in its making because of its lack of pretence and the playful spirit in which it was conceived. This conception of poetry is absorbed in the everyday: it neither needs or knows of poetry in the customary sense.
Matters do not rest here. It is only logical Wordsworth should find encouragement and resolve not in the lives of the poets but in the lives of those who daily trod the fells. He would rather choose a leech gatherer as a guide than Virgil. This is the antithesis of Schiller's approach where art is midwife to the birth of a greater nature and the artist is on a higher plane to that of the life of the common people. Call it humility, call it what you like but I see a link between Wordsworth's attitude and the utter failure of revolutionary vanguards in this country.
Yet it is legitimate to draw comparisons between Goethe and Schiller and Wordsworth and Coleridge. However there is in England an absence of that mighty philosophical dimension which stretches from Kant to Hegel with in between the lesser figures of Schelling, Fichte and Schlegel. Poets in Germany, particularly Schiller turn their hand to philosophy. Goethe did not regard himself as philosophically minded, evolving an intuitive dialectic that is the antithesis of Kantian dualism and hence that of his friend Schiller who was also, despite himself, not comfortable with Kant. This intuitive dialectic also bears striking similarities to Hegel and springs directly from his scientific endeavours, Abandoning painting (as Hazlitt was to do in this country) he also turns his back on verse temporarily to grapple with a larger problem, that of the need to redefine science by imbuing it with the unwritten of poetry. Through awakened eyes that over time have narrowed to a squint bordering on blindness, Goethe seeks to poeticise science by magnifying its visual reality. Observation, by inheriting the artistic tradition, reclaims its rights, replacing a withered observation that is now dead to beauty and the cognitive power of beauty - hardly a Kantian conception. (Apart from its epistemological wrongness it introduces history which, if not entirely alien to Kant, played a small part in his total system. In fact Goethe was to write one of the very first histories of science. See his remarkable preface to his anti Newtonian, 'Theory of Colours') Hazlitt in fact does not take this path. Rather, abandoning painting he next writes a thesis 'An essay on the principles of human action'. Time and again in English romanticism we confront the question now open now hidden of human praxis as if beyond the arts, which have had their time, as beyond there lay more productive, fulfilling occupations. Compared to the potentialities of the whole man the arts are just a hindrance and an embarrassment. The plough is mightier than the pen and without mentioning Burns and his poetic production Wordsworth opts to heap praise on the Burns who knew how to plough a furrow, as if regretting he lacked the skill himself and therefore excluded from the truth of his own versifying which never should have become verse in the first instance. The cult of science and Goethe's challenge to that cult by stressing a more inclusive, rounded science which concentrates all human endeavour by transcending all art and science in a new unity never takes off in this country. Rather it is subsumed by the question of praxis of which science is but a part.
There is no philosophical resonance in England to match that of Germany. However the theoretical stabs and searching's of the English romantics are much more sui generis and can be found wanting if subjected to the tedium of a more strictly logical mind which however continues to remain haunted by the truths they have dismissed after a more discursive examination. In particular, I am thinking of the preface to the 'Lyrical Ballads' of 1797, composed jointly by Wordsworth and Coleridge but really Wordsworth's own. In this preface Wordsworth yearns to leave art behind and to find fulfilment in nature. Ever afterwards these views torment Coleridge and he must seek out an adequate rebuttal by rendering it more palatable and thus rescuing art. In his 'Biographia Literaria' composed many years later he goes to considerable pains to correct Wordsworth views which on more sober reflection are totally overstated and in need of correction. That he goes to these lengths does suggest the Preface was having an enormous influence, an influence not to Coleridge's liking who by this time wanted a commissariat of cultural continuity, a super-ministry entrusted with the safe guarding of the heritage of words (and the things created by words) of which he would be the soul presiding judge. To the Wordsworth of 'The Preface' the passionate language of common people is poetry though it must be understood this passion is linked to the unfolding of reason in its highest sense and illumined through and through by the imagination which is unleashed by sensuous apprehension at its most intense.
But had not Coleridge done the same and this time in a trance which dissolved the boundary between poetry and reverie, anticipating surrealism' 'Kubla Khan' renders his famous distinction between the primary and secondary imagination as set down years later in his 'Biographia Literaria', null and void. It is the one poem of his entire oeuvre he could not reconcile himself to or believe possible. And its creation continually reminds Coleridge of the days when poetry, unrepressed spontaneity and reverie were as one.
For once upon a time this to Coleridge was the bridge between 'art' and 'science' (again there is the same need for italics as in Goethe's case) and the unspoken basis of his relationship with the chemist Humphrey Davy. For a time they were as one. Davy's discovery of the intoxicating properties of nitrous oxide not only narrows the gap between poetry, reverie, spontaneity and science (the discovery of the gas was patiently arrived at through rigorous experiment) it is also in its way a concrete example of the central quest of Germanic absolute idealism, the unity of art and science and hence subject and object by the action of mind and body whose own internal make up reflected that of the external world and vice versa.(The unease this conception gives rise to - we need only think of Lebens Philosophie and the drag it exerted on evolutionary theory even as it strove to recognize evolution within the boundaries of the fixity of the species - this paradox is evident in both Goethe's Ur phenomenon and Hegel's Philosophy of Identity - could only be resolved by dialectical materialsm and its more grounded approach which views mind as a historical creation.) It is also given a characteristically English twist at odds with the sober rigidities of German abosolute idealism, that of intoxication from substance abuse: nitrous oxide became known as 'laughing gas'. Davy himself writes down his experiences on the drug, his descriptions possessing an unfettered richness like they were from the hand of Coleridge. Even to this day they are regarded as unsurpassed descriptions of drug highs. Davy and Coleridge compare notes and one is reminded of the close collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge and Goethe and Schiller to the point where none of them could be completely sure as to who wrote what. The collaboration between Davy and Coleridge is a completely new domain in comparison to which the experiments by Schelling comprehensible only in terms of his desire to get beyond the antinomies of Kant with the 'science' of mesmerism really are laughable. It took some time for Germany to make good this absence of hard science in contrast to England poised as it was on the brink of the earth shattering industrial revolution in which science as objectified through capitalist industry would increasingly hold sway. All that Germany had to offer instead were the mythologies of absolute idealism and the deceptive, easily derided, 'subjectivism' of Goetherian science, which could have yielded fruit, but not in the way its progenitors thought.
Once this particular collaboration between Coleridge and Davy ceased the antinomies of art and science would assert themselves once more. Yet both would continually strive to understand the other, Coleridge forever seeking to give a more comprehensive account of Davy's discoveries fitting them into a larger philosophical whole. And Davy, in turn, was flattered by Coleridge's attention using it as an entre into polite society He learns what it is to be a cultural snob for Davy plays second fiddle to Coleridge deferring to his self-appointed role as superior pedagogue to the practical experimenter. Through his acquaintance with Coleridge, Davy gains social ease, acceptance, and class haughtiness including the rancour that goes with it, particularly when a member of the lower class comes within their orbit, and proves to be better than they are, as happened with Michael Faraday, the blacksmith's son. In fact this relationship was to be of enormous consequence to the history of science in this country, and which was still being played out over a century and a half later in the late 1960s and with the question of revolutionary overthrow still dominating events and to the exclusion of all else this time, for now there were no privileged areas immune from upheaval.
As is well known, Coleridge single handed brought German idealist philosophy to this country. Interest in Kant and particularly Schelling and Schlegel dates from Coleridge's visit to Germany. He brings back dialectic in his suitcase though significantly he appears never to have heard of or ever mentions Hegel. He was slow to fulfil his early promise and meanwhile looked on as friends from his youth rose to stardom like Schelling and Holderlin. He had felt stirring within him a much deeper more thoroughly historical way of perceiving everything that lay before him and which took time to realize.
Pushing Coleridge to onside for the moment I believe I detect a link between Hegel's dialectical idealism and the part played by nature in Wordsworth's scheme of things. It is still I believe operative to this day and could be of major consequence to the conservationist and eco movements though this time the reason unleashed by contact with nature would necessarily involve a critique of political economy, consumer society, the state and wage labour. Hegel the atheist was a believer to the extent that he held that god, in other words the dialectic of theory and practise, was realized in the unfolding of history. Hence there was no prime mover, only the ever deepening profundity of dialectical thought in which god becomes, rising from inert matter through the vegetable and then animal kingdom and finally to man all unfolding within the universal history of a dialectical pan logicism but which by far the most interesting part is that of human history. Of all of Hegel's work that of the 'Philosophy of Nature' is the least interesting despite going to infinite pains to master his subject. The same can not be said of his 'Philosophy of the Fine Arts' which is still richly rewarding and is in every respect remarkable and profoundly innovatory. The dialectic gains strength over time. Thus nature is weak - in fact Hegel speaks of 'the impotence of nature'. But for Wordsworth it is strong and like Hegel ultimately the fount of reason. However this reason can only come about as a result of a passionate feeling for nature and it is only through contact with nature that we can discover this reason. And to find it we must become immersed in it its outward forms unleashing the imagination and laying bare mere appearances allowing us to connect with that reason which had been so cruelly betrayed by the French Revolution. For Wordsworth comes to nature after the destruction of his hopes in the French Revolution, that is why he hears in it the 'still sad music of humanity'. Though still retaining his commitment to equality it is the right of the dandelion that is proclaimed before that of the rights of man. We on the contrary have no choice other than to reject this truncated reason and go directly from nature to man which means confronting the capitalist mode of production and its abolition. Without that all life down to even the merest microbe is in jeopardy and what could be more irrational than assenting to that.
The conservation of Nature today should lead to a profounder line of reasoning than was ever the case in the past. This is the next and greatest addition to the Wordsworthian spirit articulated by him but never fully developed It should also lead to a reappraisal of history, of modes of production and of forms of art because all in some way or other are present in Wordsworth. But unlike Wordsworth, conservationists today don't seek in conservation an antidote to revolution but rather should find there a stimulus to revolution. And all are in one way or another being propelled in this direction. Beginning with nature, dialectical reason seeks to reclaim its rights.
Dialectical lines for insects:
Goethe: Das Lebendge will ich preisen,
Das nach flammentod sich sehner
'I would praise the living thing that longs for death by fire'
'You no longer remain a prisoner in the shadowing darkness and a new desire snatches you up to a higher union. No distance can weigh you down, you come flying, fascinated, and at last, lusting for the light, poor moth, you perish in the flame. And until you possess it, this commandment: die and become! you will be but a dismal guest on the dark earth.'
c/f. Shelley: 'The desire of the moth for the star'
Keats: Imagination (fancy) as an antidote to the failure of pleasure at least as then understood by the prevailing utilitarianism and its crude psychology of what constitutes pleasure. Pleasure is perishable and domestic, the imagination is not: 'ever let the fancy roam, pleasure never is at home' i.e. real pleasure knows no home comforts, it must stray far and wide. However the imagination (or fancy) is an interior affair; it rarely struggles to become real in Keats. Imagination 'opens wide the mind's cage door': properly understood butterflies liberate the mind or rather overawe the mind, unleashing a limitless inventiveness in thought (which wants to become real and has need of practical realities). Like the spider or the caterpillar, the imagination weaves a silk thread but one that has to be broken in order to truly liberate the mind: 'break the mesh of the fancy's silken leash; quickly break her prison string,'(Fancy) And so to 'Ode to Psyche'. Keats builds a sanctuary to Psyche in his heart. But like the intruder in the virgin undergrowth of Epping Forest who finds a pair of mating Ringlet butterflies in the grass - I have come to the conclusion they were Ringlets that Keats saw and I'm also convinced the location had to be Epping Forest - Psyche appeals to the 'untrodden region of my mind' from which branch 'shadowy thoughts', thoughts that no one has ever had before, wrenching the mind from its accustomed pathways and therefore sweetly painful. Thought becomes like nature ever creating ever changing, and the window left open at night with a light behind it that attract moths becomes a symbol of that process. For Goethe this desire of the moth for the flame becomes a desire for a higher union. It arises from the fulfilment of sexual desire and is released by it, an act of procreation that also procreates us, 'begetting as we begat'. It is a higher, more total, union though not qualitatively different from the 'warm love' of Keats though it requires we die in order to become. ('Stirbe und Werde!')
The hidden message of entomology is love not hate: it is about union and communion, an understanding and love of what is different - and what could be more different than insect anatomy -; it is about the liberation of desire, the greater dissatisfaction that desire brings, it is an anticipation of the higher person, an anticipation of the human community that reaches for the stars.
Keats says he recognises Cupid but that Psyche puzzles him. In the mating Ringlets he espies both Cupid and Psyche but significantly it is Psyche 'with awakened eyes'. (In the myth Psyche's eyes are closed when Cupid makes love to her).The eye is of primary importance to Keats: his first major work is 'Endymion', based on the mythical youth who dreamed whilst awake. It cannot therefore be the eye of the scientific empiricist but a fuller eye and one the optician needs to recognise is just as real. In 'Ode to Psyche' Keats' eye becomes not just an instrument of sight but a musical instrument though which he can sing for the first time the beauty of butterflies: 'I see and sing, by my own eyes inspired'. The Lyre ' 'the fond believing lyre'- belongs to the past of an enchanted nature that can never return, in the same way as the Greek gods can never return. Psyche was originally a mortal but a mortal who has outlived the Greek gods and is still alive, her 'lucent fans' (wings) still 'fluttering', because saved from the aging process of repetitive ritual. She lives because she symbolises that which is new and innovatory and seeking ever greater unity in a difference bound by love. Psyche then becomes the negation of myth, the embodiment of free thinking and the realisation of history.
Entomology should have made the best science because the last, the one that was most in step with the maturing of humanity. But entomology was always something of an afterthought; a leftover after everything else had been dealt with. Other than Aristotle, no other philosopher gave it the time of day and his basic nomenclature of head, thorax, abdomen still stands. John Ray's (1628/1705) last book was on insects and not published during his lifetime. Having described nigh on 19,000 plant species he then sought to bring order into the animal kingdom based chiefly on toes, hoofs and teeth. Insects were a poor third though Ray's refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to a restored king, Charles 11, and a newly arisen state religion, bequeathed to scientific natural history in this country an independence and anti-state cast of mind it has never been able to wholly rid itself of. This is still powerfully present in Keats and other romantics.
So overall there were no dead generations to weigh entomology down; it did not evolve throughout successive millennia to the same degree as the other sciences. Entomology was almost new born and never underwent a Copernican revolution. The lion and the lamb are more potent biblical symbols than the locust and the locust never did get to lie down with the lion and the lamb. For there was to be no redemption for insects in mainstream thought. But insects were everywhere and the scientific study of insects mirrored more faithfully the contradictions of the society it grew up in both as a reaction to it (the initial uselessness of entomology and therefore attractive to many who felt marginalized and rejected like cockroaches, a fugitive discipline for fugitive minds) and as most embodying the goals of industrial capitalism by eventually bringing about the destruction of all insects - the utter folly of GM foods and ever more powerful pesticides - and hence entomology as a branch of learning. Applied Entomology also encapsulates the most suicidal tendencies of modern capitalism.
Keats had an uneasy relationship with music and the Ode to Psyche is the least tuneful of his great odes. It could not be other. ' The Ode to a Nightingale' is a song to the nightingale but a song in which the nightingale's song outdoes the poem, if we could but hear it. But in the 'Ode to Psyche' we don't know what song is being sung. It is a song without a tune lacking any frame of musical reference. Not words set to music, rather something akin to musical eyesight. In that sense it takes up where the 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' left off: 'Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter'. They are, of course, heard in the inner ear of the imagination and so are similar to the atheist Shelley's craving for 'the music that is divine' and different from what we can now hear because it means fulfilment and not the promise of fulfilment. Keats found an intimation of this in the music of nature and from an early age his ear must have been highly attuned to natural sound for in his teenage 'Hymn to Pan' ( the spirit of nature) he refers to Pan as the 'strange ministrant of undescribed sounds, that come a swooning over hollow grounds, and wither drearily on barren moors'. Are there such unexplained sounds that travel for miles? Have I missed them because I have become deaf in the same way as I am afflicted by partial blindness and am losing my sense of smell, taste and touch? In any case it makes me realize how little I have listened and need to listen in the future.
Why did Keats concentrate on Psyche and not continue to treat Cupid and Psyche as a couple? In isolating Psyche like he did I think he was feeling his way back, like a scientist and dreamer combined in the same person, to a first principle on which to found everything else. He needed to separate Psyche from Cupid who had been bound together throughout history, though in fact the unlike resonances that Keats is describing could apply to Cupid's darts. Rather I think the number of illustrations of Psyche on her own and looking more like a human butterfly than ever must have become more frequent in children's books and elsewhere because of the growing interest in Lepidoptera. Keats had perhaps unconsciously registered this. He was fragmenting myth in order to create a more plausible riposte to modern scientific empiricism which was leaving too much out. He was unweaving the rainbow to weave a better one.
What is the love Keats outlines between a male and female butterfly, Cupid and Psyche, and the rest of humanity? For this is about picture thinking and outlines. The butterflies are not clinched in a passionate embrace, rather they are sleeping in each others arms with merely a promise of kisses in the new dawn and the morrow which never comes. Though wrapped around each other they are 'disjointed' and 'their lips touched not', a posture which makes me think it could only have been a pair of mating Ringlets that he had seen in the woodland, for theirs is a triangular form of mating almost as if they were about to embrace, like humans, and they tend not to fly off when approached as do Meadow Browns. What other woodland butterfly could it have been? Mating Speckled Woods are an uncommon sight and probably do so in trees rather than in the grass. This aside, I think Keats was hinting at the growing apartness of modern love, that it exists (and exits) increasingly as an ideal, something much thought about but never experienced directly. There is sex and little else. Real love is then a separation, an alienation and a yearning. It also flies off into other realms and is quickly sublimated, displaced onto thought that is more than mere reverie, at once reasoned and highly imaginative. However it needs a living symbol, a practical act to express itself through. And this is achieved by opening the window at night so that moths, attracted by the light, can fly in. How much has yet to be rightfully attributed to entomology like species still awaiting identification, though different in kind from the conventional classification of insects!
Marx and Heine in relation to Keats, Shelley, John Ray, Von Frisch and Mallarme - among others.
Here in England there is nothing to compare with the encounter between Heine and Marx. There is a far reaching interplay between the two and both are deeply affected by the rising tide of revolt in Germany (or what was to become Germany) and the rest of Europe. By the 1840s' Heine is asserting that prose, not poetry, was a more appropriate form of expression going so far as to announce the imminent demise of poetry. Replying to a poetry competition in 1837 offering as a prize a golden quill, Heine sent four lines declaring the songbird is dead never to be re-awakened concluding with the recommendation 'to stick the golden quill up your ass'. (Such a blunt statement is unimaginable in England at the time but there was no one approaching Heine's stature either) However the young Marx, picking himself up from his failure as a poet, is able to formulate the beyond of poetry in so striking a manner that Heine is easily outclassed. He is writing at length about his love for Jenny and his failure to find a poetic form adequate to the emotions coursing through him. It is worth quoting at length:
' a remote beyond, such as my love, became my heaven, my art. Everything grew vague, and all that is vague lacks boundaries; onslaughts against the present, broad and shapeless expressions of unnatural feeling, constructed purely out of the blue, the complete opposition of what is and what ought to be, rhetorical reflections instead of poetic thoughts but perhaps also a certain warmth of sentiment and a struggle for movement characterises all the poems in the first three volumes I sent to Jenny. The whole horizon of a longing which sees no frontiers assumed many forms and frustrated my effort to write with poetic conciseness.'
It is, you will agree, richer and more eloquent than poetry and could equally apply to the hopes aroused by class struggle.
Echoes of Heine abound in Marx's early writings but undoubtedly the best-known example is Heine's characterization of religion as 'spiritual opium'. Marx refers to religion as 'the sigh of the oppressed creature ---- the opium of the people'. This also is a definite improvement on Heine.
We can also see the contrast between them when we compare what both of them have to say about the armed uprising of the Silesian weavers in June 1844 which was bloodily put down by the Prussian army. Heine wrote a short, very compact, poem on the uprising in which the desperate weavers weave the motto of the Prussian military God, King and Fatherland into a shroud. But there is no mention of brotherhood, freedom and private property. Though the poem was learnt by heart by generations of German workers finally we are more satisfied and cheered by Marx's comments which, though less melodious, have a distinct bearing upon the theory and practise of the proletariat that is directed toward a social totality and looks far beyond the immediate. In the 'Song of the Weavers' Marx sees a 'bold battle cry which does not mention the hearth, factory or district but which the proletariat immediately proclaims its opposition to private property in a forceful, sharp, ruthless and violent manner ------ whereas every other movement turned initially only against the industrialist, the visible enemy, this one attacked also the hidden enemy, namely the banker. (Critical notes on 'The King of Prussia and Social Reform').
There is a degree of impersonality to the 'Silesian Weavers' which is unusual for Heine. It is influenced by the ballad form like much of the 'radical' poetry of this era. Heine disliked conventional verse forms and is very specific in his condemnation of 'political poetry' which is also formally conservative. He is now able to pose the question of form in a more pertinent manner than Marx who is now on the point of dismissing the question as all but irrelevant having nothing further to say on the subject except for a few lines in the Grundrisse. 'Freedom', Heine declared, should manifest itself, 'in the treatment, in the form, by no means in the subject' and, 'artists who choose freedom itself and emancipation for their subject are usually of limited shackled spirit, truly unfree'. We can already see here how potentially explosive the issue is because it implies the artist is unfree who opts for moribund forms.
There is even the hint that precisely the form of poetry compromises the poet. Popular poetry of the late 1830's and 1840's represented an escape from the obscurantism of the Young Hegelians and it had the added advantage of not being subject to the same stifling censorship as critique. Its radicalism was therefore merely apparent even though Georg Herwegh tried to invade Germany from France at the head of a few hundred German exiles that were instantly routed. Another 'political poet' Freiligrath, who had been awarded a pension by the King of Prussia, is also only known to us from his contact with Marx. His chief claim to fame comes from handing on to Marx the three volumes of Hegel's 'Science of Logic' which had once belonged to Bakunin. And thereby hangs a tale. Maybe it is possible to rescue Hegel's 'Science of Logic' from the mortal blows dealt it by Engel's 'Dialectics of Nature' and its enthronement as a state religion in that dark farce of a communist society, the former Soviet Union and which could have ended once and for all any hope for humanity in that its shadow still falls over all who fight for social revolution today.
(Marx subsequently would only fleetingly refer to art, an oversite which could only have the most negative consequences: henceforth art would rise above history and take on the aspect of the eternal, stepping in for a fading religiosity. However Hegel gets the last laugh because his historicisation of form though wrapped in an idealist dialectic provides a more convincing account of the rise and fall of form).
Though Marx was the first to treat philosophy and religion as an alienation of humanities essential social power he did not apply the same criteria to art. Hegel did precisely that by absorbing and overcoming art within a greater philosophy at the very moment of its transcendence. It is to be sure a breath-taking concept with a reach that anticipates the avante garde of the early 20th Century. Hegel's Philosophy of the Arts is still viable and remains the only valid approach to the moment of art and its potential for transcendence up to that time. I well recall my astonishment on reading the concluding paragraphs in the section on painting where quite unequivocally he declares the task of painting to be complete. All that is left at best is illustration. There is even a touch of philistinism in Hegel's approach particularly in his emphasis on photographic realism. It was to be a white square on a white background painted in Russia a hundred years later that announced the lingering death of painting.
Hegel here is at his most direct. His books on architecture, sculpture/music and poetry are less forthright in their conclusions and it was left to history to provide the detail. The section on music ends with extravagant praise for a musician, possibly a gypsy, overheard improvising on a guitar and exceeding all the other pleasures Hegel has previously derived from music. Gone are the orchestras and choirs numbering hundreds of musicians and singers and all performing by rote.
The preface to the 'Philosophy of Art' begins with a unique and highly contemporaneous, analysis of situations. The first condition is a general world condition meaning really that though history has always existed it has not always existed as world history.The missing factor is in fact the world market. Out of this first condition indeterminate and determinate situations arise leading in the latter case to the creation of new values. The determinate situation alone involves meaningful action and the clarification of the situation is 'necessary to any enquiry into the true constituents of action'. It is the job of art to bring out the essentials of action in the sense of a genuinely historic action. But once humanity has fulfilled its destiny art is consigned to the prehistory of alienation and in its place the Hegelian concept reigns. Read critique for this concept and the dialectic of theory and practise in the act of revolution and we are a step nearer the truth. For Hegel art remains forever behind events but given his emphasis upon action he prefers forms that move (also reflected incidentally in his preference for animal life above the vegetative and inanimate) and have a beginning, middle and end. Architecture is superceeded by sculpture and then painting and all are static forms. Next comes music in this ascending scale and then finally poetry and drama.
When one looks at England in the 1840s' there is not even an inkling of a debate on form, nor even the merest hint that to raise such a question also raises the question of freedom. The possibility of any such debate had ended with the death of Hazlitt though Emily Bronte was to turn the ordered sequence of the novel inside out with her use of flashback.
Chartism is accompanied more by poetic bombast than verse not even remotely comparable to Heine's. And yet Chartism must also have had its popular songs and forms of expression. There is evidence to suggest these forms were losing their traditional cohesion and were coming apart at the seams. Both Coleridge and Shelley had stretched the ballad form almost beyond recognition, which is not the case with Heine. One wonders how much it reflected a more general undermining of popular forms. Given the speed of the changes taking place in agriculture and the beginnings of large scale industry it is unlikely that popular forms of expression would not also have bent under the strain.
It is not too much to say that Shelley became a reborn icon of revolt the moment he was introduced to radical Chartist workers. The slow uncovering of the amazing truth about Shelley subsequently became linked to the rise and the fall of the workers' movement. On top of the green Shelley there is now a red Shelley though both advance together.
The massacre of unarmed men, women and children in 1818 on St Peter's field in Manchester was an event no less important in England than the uprising of 1848 in France. Though exiled in Italy, Shelley's response on hearing the news, was immediate and furious. However the greatness of 'the Mask of Anarchy' taken out of context obscures the extent to which in the two months following Peterloo, Shelley was pushing at the limits of poetry, He was a 'modern' before his time easily some 80 years in advance of what was to occur and possessing a power of synthesis which in many ways outstripped it and would take even longer to catch up with.
One could analyse at length 'the Mask of Anarchy'. Suffice to say there is an anticipation of the form of the workers and soldiers council but only in terms of a mass presence, eventually, of both. It is a passive body that passively resists and not an anticipation of how historically they actually did move to take over. What prompts the soldiers to take the side of the oppressed gathered in a 'Great Assembly' is shame and the fact no woman would look at them. Nor is Shelley's notion of a great assembly taken a stage further: it does not take matters into its own hands becoming both a legislative and executive organ. Like no other poet before him he recognizes the power of the masses but then cannot conceive of an anti-statist legislative body. Though the son in law of William Godwin 'the father of English anarchism' the latter's theoretical anarchism remained a dead letter because it was built around the enlightened teacher who dispensed emancipation through the power of reason rather than being disarmed enough to receive it. Thus emancipation was known in advance and held no surprises. (Remaining aloof from the French Revolution and Peterloo, Godwin's legacy has bedevilled English anarchism ever since - wooden in its responses, insular, unable to move with the times and several steps behind the real movement).
In the 'Mask of Anarchy' there are undeniable pointers that could have led to a critique of political economy. Had he not died so young one wonders how the ageing Shelley might have responded to the young Marx. Possibly with an even greater enthusiasm and understanding than Heine: apart from the first 40 pages the rest of 'the German Ideology' remains uncut in Heine's copy.
In Heine's 'Silesian Weavers' there is no mention of money - or lack of it - but which is of course implied. However in Shelley's tract things are far more explicit. He speaks of the 'ghost of gold' meaning paper money ('paper coin') and though it may look as though he is arguing for an early form of the gold standard in fact his grasp of the significance of paper money is uncanny and opens up a rich vein of potential enquiry. 'Paper coin ' that forgery' could refer to the practise of printing money and its increasingly fictive character as time went by. As conceived by Shelley and also born out by reality it also leads to an increase in the rate of exploitation taking 'from toil a thousand fold more than e'er its substance could/ In the tyrannies of old'.
However Peterloo was a catalyst for so much more. It brought everything to a head. As one of the more responsible biographers of Shelley has rightly said his output that ran 'in an unbroken curve from 6th Sept 1818 when he first received news of Peterloo until 5th Nov ' suggest a state of exultant energy and vision 'that it is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms'. Shelley is frequently able to hit the nail on the head more in his 'prose' (e.g. letters etc.) than in his poetry. In a dedication letter he looks forward to a London that 'shall be an habitation of bitterns; when St Paul's, Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream'' This London may look empty but really Shelley is reclaiming nature for the people: the ruin of Waterloo Bridge is also a reprisal for Peterloo. In this fantasy of destruction and renewal Shelley has touched on the question of 'town and revolution' that a hundred years later was to become of such burning importance.
There is no doubting that Shelley's innovations outstripped his theorising and only now can we see where they were leading. In 'Peter Bell the third' which is a piss take on Wordsworth and Coleridge he writes about hell (i.e. London) reducing 'poetry' to an incantation of names that is almost pre-lettrist and yet also very powerful: 'German soldiers ' camps - confusion - tumults - lotteries - rage - delusion - gin - suicide - and Methodism'. No punctuation either, just dashes. And in a letter to Leigh Hunt outlining his defence of Richard Carlile on trial for sedition for defending the Peterloo demonstrators he was both aware of how the meaning of words could be turned in to their opposites by power ('though oppression should change names and names cease to be oppressions') and of the need to rescue language for the sake of 'liberty and the oppressed'. Note that this crisis of language was not just an aesthetic dilemma as it had a tendency to become in Mallarme but was central to the fate of humanity. In the same letter to Hunt he reflects on their respective differences of 'theory and practise' which he then crossed out almost as if he sensed he was running dangerously ahead of his time.
During this period Shelley writes the death certificate of English nature poetry: 'Ode to the West Wind'. Never again could it acquire the same degree of urgency and uplift us quite so much. Henceforth nature was to become something split-off but into which we could read the failed hopes of humanity and even for those who have an ear and eye for it, the formal transcendence of art into life though it would be more correct to say the 'life sciences'.
If read consecutively the 'Mask of Anarchy' and the 'Ode to the West Wind' seem to almost blend. 'The Ode to the West Wind' conceived within days of the 'Mask of Anarchy' could not but also be a reflection on Peterloo but this time within a natural setting. The very words become superimposed. The leaves driven by the wind like 'ghosts before an enchanter fleeing ' yellow red pestilence stricken' aren't simply sickly, poverty stricken mill workers but also the 'ghosts of gold ' paper money' which was already beginning to turn nature inside out.
Natural imagery would never again acquire this degree of unspecific generality open to a number of interpretations but whose bottom line, in any case, was the need for revolution. This combining of social struggle and wild nature corresponded to a deep undercurrent in the rapidly forming industrial working class and which left an indelible imprint upon it never to be entirely effaced. Shelley echoed this apparent contradiction though in a very striking way. That is why it is mistaken particularly in this country to view the proletariat as a cog in a machine that would inherit the world on the basis of large-scale industry laid down by capitalism. Ecologists who have viewed the 'workers' from outside as slaves to consumption have consistently failed to acknowledge this.
Nature and political revolution had formed an indissoluble whole in Romanticism. Hazlitt had unforgettably described Wordsworth's muse as 'a levelling' one. Nature was for the people, by the people and representative government was its direct consequence. However Shelley is the first to see that nature is also riven by class antagonism. Even worse, despotism could eventually cause nature to perish. He writes of the 'fish ' poisoned in the streams; the birds in the green woods perished' and finally with outstanding prescience and most alarmingly of all 'the insect rave ---- withered up' and 'avarice died before the god it made'.
We are getting perilously close to the situation described by Shelley and that grants significance to insects never previously accorded to them. In fact this belated but growing appreciation of the indispensable role small organisms play in sustaining life also unfolds against a background of increased commoditisation in which money strives to be the sole necessity even if that means its eventual annihilation because of universal destruction. Beside this nightmare scenario the abolition of money by means of concious peoples' uprising is beginning to look increasingly unlikely.
Shelley's 'Revolt of Islam' from which the above quotes come was written in Jan 1818, a mere eight months before the Peterloo massacre. We are perhaps reading too much into these words of Shelley twisting them into the strait jacket of political economy when perhaps he held to a more simplistic, more political view of liberty as representative government. However Shelley was never specific on this point and designing constitutions was of scant interest to him enough to make one think he was at odds with the idea. There is nothing about votes for all, an elected parliament with a fixed term of office, an independent judiciary and whatever else takes the fancy of the typical constitutionalist, in 'The Mask of Anarchy'.
It has been said that Keat's 'Ode to Autumn' is also a commentary on Peterloo reflected through the prism of nature. If so it becomes a strain to penetrate the layers of allusion to get at the truth and even then we cannot be entirely sure. However more on this later. Enough to say that Keats' mode of poetical encryption was taken up by naturalists in their unconscious manner of alluding to something vague beneath the hard science of the text. Science, particularly natural science, was becoming enveloped in an all encompassing nebula of values and meaning that was almost impossible to decipher and doubly so once it became regarded as unhinged to draw attention to it. This 'symbolisation' of science and not just literature, which also heralded its end, has never received the attention it merits.
Far more so than Shelley who modelled himself at least partly on the materialism of Lucretius, the key to this splitting off of the natural from the social is to be found in Keats. This forking is given a far clearer expression in the 'Ode to a Nightingale' than in the 'Ode to Autumn'. In the former it is the bird (i.e. the study of birds - ornithology) that is able to escape the present condition of man and the desire for the peace of the grave: 'no hungry generations tread thee down' that is the generations of men, women and children that were shortly to assemble at Peterloo.
In the 'Ode to a Nightingale', perhaps the most famous of all time, Keats mapped out the territory on which the science of animal ethnology was set to unfold. Beyond certain limits transgression was henceforth forbidden. (In a rather different vein he was to do the same for entomology in his 'Ode to Psyche', only this time the jumping of fences into other fields was encouraged. Indeed it was the floating essence of entomology because its uselessness and scientific marginality implied it was not open to conscription by power having, 'no voice, no lute, no pipe').
Keats would have sung a different tune had he seen how entomology was to be transformed particularly by Pasteur and the growing acknowledgement of the role played by insects in the transmission of diseases. And also how along with worms they acted as a morphological bridge to the world of the 'infinitely small'. He might also have divined how insects would become a bogeyman of modern capitalist agriculture prepared even to destroy the pollinators and therefore agriculture, creating unprecedented famine.
That entomology has long ceased to be a discrete discipline, ramifying now into the chemical industry, bioengineering and genetic modification does not completely overturn the ground plan laid down more generally by Keats. In a book - one picked at random ''The Discovery of Animal Behaviour' by John Sparks the separate worlds of animal and human 'behaviours' are viewed less as a break in continuity between the human and the animal kingdom but rather as a fundamental division between town and country. All the great animal ethnologists of the 20th Century, Lorenz, Tinbergen, Von Frisch were brought up in a country setting and were stimulated by the presence of nature from an early age. But this enviable head start also produced a grotesque social retardation. It was a joy to find Von Frisch's memoirs 'A Biologist Remembers' in a second hand bookshop but very distressing to learn of his deeply conservative responses to the Bavarian Soviet in 1918-19. And this by a biologist who did more than any other in the 20th Century to puncture the overweening anthropomorphism of the human species when he discovered the Honey Bee possessed a subtle language, the most complex so far known outside that of humans. Social turbulence, the unnatural life of the great conurbations - this is the forgetfulness of the great animal ethnologists, - that forgetting of the human condition which involved social warfare so ardently desired by Keats in the 'Ode to the Nightingale'. And by a bewildering reversal of perspective, animal behaviours are given an abiding relevance outside their proper employ by being uncritically superimposed upon the human. The 'immortal bird' of Keats' ode becomes an inverse anthropomorphism destined to live on in us because of a wilful refusal to face up to what really happened in human history.
Shelley's idea of love is not that different from Keats. Yet it has more to do with transcendence, the flight of thought as a prelude to action than in bringing opposites together or merely conjuring with the new in one's mind. And for that purpose insect analogies come to mind and yet they are more then mere analogies, they are living symbols: we take to the air with them and not merely by way of illustration.
The poem in which the memorable line 'the desire of the moth for the star' occurs is simply entitled 'To what' - To nothing in particular and everything. For it is also about the failing power of words which have lost there meaning not merely through repeated use but because their use has become devalued as the object of the word has become devalued. It is never recognised the author of 'In Defence of Poetry' - incidentally Shelley's view of what is poetry far transcends the written word having already escaped the page in the introductory sentences - increasingly had a problem with language, frequently pushing it beyond the limits of comprehension as language broke under the strain of what he really wanted to say. The ethereal Shelley was strangely rooted in the empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, struggling to create objects through words in a way inadmissible to empiricism, before they became a fact, He was lettriste avante la lettre, rejecting the conventional division of writing into poetry and prose as 'a vulgar error' and going so far as to maintain poetry could be reduced to just one word or, come to that, none at all, like in the absence of a predicate in the above title. Where words failed only a moth aspiring to reach a bright star could restore the meaning of the word love, a love he could no longer give outside of a new society.
Shelley finds love in nature because he can no longer find it in man. It is nature that responds to his thoughts and moods not man and is the more sentient of the two. Only when humanity is restored to its full self will he find himself in humanity and not merely nature. And when it does come he finds the desire of the moth for the star in the events of Peterloo.
The standard treatment of John Ray, the founding father of English natural history is typical. That Ray was formerly a clergyman always receives a mention accompanied by the rider we are indeed fortunate because he was then able to devote his entire life to the study of natural history. John Sparks in 'The Discovery of Animal Behaviour' goes even further and says that after the bloody civil war of the 1640s' Ray sought in the peace of nature a refuge from all this turmoil. It is much more complex than that. Ray refused to swear an oath that would have compromised his independence and made a state religion out of his puritan faith. He was sacked from his job because of his principles. The struggle for the recognition of nature goes to the heart of the English revolution. Not only did it signify equality but independence of mind. Even if there is not one sign of the tumultuous pleasures of the flesh in Ray set free by the civil war of the 1640s' it does not mean Ray did not regard them as also part of creation just as birds flowers fish and trees were: only that his passions were channelled in to soberly recording and describing the flora and fauna of England. But he is not the detached recorder of the bio-biographers, the ascetic scientist probing an external nature, a subject as lifeless as the object of enquiry. And nothing much is ever made of Ray's collection of country sayings and local dialect, except to note it. Did this not also imply a resistance to a state leviathan that was imposing uniformity on language that was capable of destroying minority speech even down to the local names for plants and animals? These frequently are extraordinarily deft and may even have contained the outlines of a superior certainly more memorable system of classification.
Ray was a great classifier but one cannot help but feel that in his descriptions he was seeking a beyond that if pushed invites comparison with Shelley: 'he will watch from dawn to gloom/ the late reflected sun illume/ the yellow bees in the ivy bloom/nor heed nor see what things they be/ but from these create he can/ forms more real than living man' etc.
The blurring of the outlines of the species can also be given a completely opposite treatment where the characters acquire a clarity of outline they do not possess in reality. And they appear bigger to our eyes. This is Mallarme's approach. His botanical descriptions belong to a changed, better world in which geography has been reborn even as it assimilates and transforms the most advanced geological thinking:
'Yes, in an island that the air loads with sight and not with visions, every flower showed itself to be larger without our discussing it.
Such huge flower that each one was invariably adorned with a lucid contour, a hiatus that separated it from the gardens'.
As is made plain this is not a visionary state: it could be an everyday reality. But it requires action to get there and typically Mallarme veils this recognition in the almost impenetrable obscurity of little known Greek and Latin names (uttered by a child that has 'abdicated from his ecstasy' in the passage to adulthood) that means 'arise'(the wild praxis of Dionysus possibly} and 'beauty', but a beauty 'hidden by the too large gladiolus'.
Mallarme's recoil from the endless hybrids and varieties of horticulture is also a search for a primal language free from social deceit and which also simplifies nature and renders it less artificial. When he says, 'flower' he wants us to see a flower different to those found in bouquets and in the 'hiatus (of) gardens' or in 'gladioli'. The great classifiers such as Ray and Linnaeus never deigned to describe garden varieties even though hybrids in nature were a problem for them: this would be left to the aestheticians of horticulture writing in garden catalogues and which in the late 19th century was already becoming an industry.
Mallarme's generic flower concludes 'variation on a subject', a rambling enquiry into the crisis of versification. Though wreathed at times in inpenetrable obscurity, Mallarme in this text and others was demolishing with soft hammer blows, a facade that had stood firm since Homer. Read carefully it also says something about the state of commodification then reached where 'to speak has no connection with the reality of things except commercially'. But this primitive accumulation of words by the commodity had yet to seize the inner world of reveries and it this symphonic parallel discourse of layered meanings that Mallarme (forever ambiguously) finds 'nothing or almost an art'. Mallarme's investigations into language has attracted the attention of professional linguists, particularly his observations on word tonalities, but it always comes as a disappointment to find it ends there. The division of mental labour is so ingrained that Mallarme's search for a language that means what it says and the fundamental crises of literature and so much else he spent a lifetime proclaiming is not just passed over in silence: it just does not go in.
For a brief moment in the UK, say from 1965 to the early 1970s', the real Mallarme, as distinct from the uncomfortable litterateur, began, though only just, to be recognised. Investigating the tools of his trade with a dimension and depth no other poet had even thought of doing, Mallarme found himself on the threshold of a new age: the age of revolution which posed all things anew.
This other Mallarme and what it was to lead to, transcends the fixed terms of the 'two cultures'. No other Situationist influenced grouping anywhere in the world in the late 1960s had so many ex-scientists as King Mob in the UK. Why this was so is a question that not only has never been raised but never gone into. That moment has now gone and we can't now ask the questions we needed to then when we were all in full flow simply because the individuals involved have dispersed far and wide and no longer have any relevant contact with each other. All that remain are memories of tantalising conversations and probings cut short during moments of passionate invention. The only ex-scientist fully congnisant with the death of art and yet able to write a critique of science was Phil Meyler in his book 'And Yet it Moves'. Though now out of print this book has recently been published in Spanish by Campo Abierto and as a poor substitute can be read on the www.revoltagainstplenty.com web).
Instead we are left with C.P. Snow's naive opposition from the 1950s' and which still forms the basis of Richard Dawkin's book 'Unweaving the Rainbow'. Dawkins is a militant atheist but as far as capitalism is concerned he is not even agnostic: he is an out and out believer. Not one word escapes his lips on the social utilization of science. The merest flickerings of revolt are entirely absent. So it is not surprising if his conception of art is limited by an almost quaint aestheticism, which belongs - and only just - to the 19th century.
Stuart Wise: 2005
Last Updated on Thursday, 05 November 2009 17:55