All together

December 24, 1999

In the popular imagination, the Romantics stand in solitary contemplation of an unknowable universe. But, argues Richard Holmes, Wordsworth was not lonely as a cloud - collaboration was central to the Romantic movement.

Exactly ten years ago I was asked to deliver the keynote address at an International Festival of Romanticism held in Amsterdam. It was of course the bicentenary of the fall of the Bastille, 1789, and so a festival of liberation. In their inimitable way the Dutch took Romanticism out of the classrooms and into the theatres (Friedrich von Schiller), concert halls (Hector Berlioz), art galleries (Eug ne Delacroix) and even the coffee houses of their beautiful city. (There was, I think, a Thomas De Quincey-Assisted Coffee Evening somewhere on Prinsengracht.) The message was that "Romanticism Lives!", and I have never forgotten it.

What I also remember is the opening of my address, tremblingly delivered in the old Leidseplein Theatre on the first evening.

"To deliver a cool and coherent lecture on Romanticism is a sort of paradox. A lyric poem, an agonised love-letter, a passionate confession - even a suicide on stage - would surely be more appropriate. (And indeed it may come to that.) Between 1797 and 1800, the great German critic and translator Friedrich Schlegel wrote some 125 papers in his journal Der Athenaum in his attempts to define the movement, finally falling back on the formula that it was something 'infinite and progressive'. He also wrote a semi-pornographic novel called Lucinde to prove that in the end Romanticism was simply about love.

"I cannot expect to rise to such heights this evening. I speak to you from the viewpoint of an English biographer, who is primarily concerned with 'passionate particulars' (as Dorothy Wordsworth once put it). I see Romanticism as certain recognisable 'modes of feeling and thinking' in the past lives of individuals, which still vividly affect us in the present. Our modern ideas of self, solitude, childhood, sexual passion, creative genius and the beauty of the natural world are central to this perception."

From there I went on to talk of the great autobiographers of Romanticism: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Italian Journey, William Wordsworth in The Prelude, Lord Byron in Don Juan, De Quincey in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Chateaubriand in Memoires d'Outre-Tombe.

My theme was Romantic self-consciousness and self-expression, and how hugely this had impacted on the modern world. My watchword was a wonderful remark from one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's lectures on the character of Prince Hamlet: "Suppression prepares for Overflow." This, I announced, was the essential dynamic of the Romantic revolt against the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It prepared us for everything from Freud's psychoanalysis to the Charter for Human Rights and the annual escape to the Mediterranean summer holiday.

All this had enough Sturm und Drang for the occasion, and I still believe it contains a basic truth about Romanticism. The overflowing of the autobiographical self, the new value put on the recording of intense subjectivity and solitary self-awareness, is a central feature of the movement, both in its art and in its philosophy. The Romantics were, if you like, the first Me Generation.

It is no coincidence that this was the first great age of diaries and intimate journals: those for example of Gilbert White, Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge, Delacroix or Charles Baudelaire. Publishing statistics show that more diaries were written or printed in the English language (including translations) in the 50 years after 1770 than had survived from the previous 400 years. The impulse behind them all reflects the bare, challenging, quintessentially Romantic declaration that opens Rousseau's Confessions: "My purpose is to display to Humanity a portrait in every way true to Nature: and the man I shall portray will be myself. Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand my fellow men. But I am unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different."

I am like no one in the whole world. It would be easy to pursue this declaration much further in its various Romantic manifestations. The Byronic hero, the cult of Napoleon, William Wordsworth's "egotistical Sublime", Percy Bysshe Shelley's "unacknowledged legislators", Coleridge's Ancient Mariner figure - "all, all alone". (One recalls another of Coleridge's definitions, this time a rueful one, that this was "emphatically the age of personality!") But I now wonder if this emphasis, with its strong contemporary appeal, is wholly justified. For it seems to me - after writing the lives of Shelley and Coleridge, among others - that there are some curious paradoxes about this popular view of the Romantic sensibility. The precise human focus of biography is often said to be opposed to abstract ideology, to the broad "history of ideas". But it could be that in the case of Romanticism it simply offers an alternative history. It certainly raises some unsettling questions.

Let me begin with a very simple example. One of the most powerful and defining images of Romanticism is surely Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist. The solitary traveller, frock-coated but hatless, pauses for contemplation on a high peak (probably in the Hartz or Riesengebirge mountains). The noble picture beautifully visualises and encodes much that is generally accepted about the Romantic sensibility. Here is the spirit of solitude, restless travel, yearning, reverence for nature, intense self-consciousness, the echo of folklore, a sense of the sublime, the lonely confrontation with a fundamentally mysterious and unknowable universe.

Although a characteristically German image, it can clearly be linked to a number of such moments in English poetry, and it expresses a familiar Zeitgeist, a "world-spirit". But suppose we link it, precisely and biographically, to one of the great, iconic lyrics of Romantic writing: William Wordsworth's poem set above Ullswater on 15 April 1802, which begins: "I wandered lonely as a cloud,/ That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,/ When all at once I saw a crowd/ A host of golden Daffodils."

Who can then forget the distinct, seismic shock of discovering that in fact Wordsworth was not alone on that Lake District walk of 1802? Or that far from being a unique moment of vision, the daffodils were first described in his sister Dorothy's famous journal entry: "I never saw daffodils so beautiful ... some rested their heads upon the stones ... the rest tossed and reeled and danced ..." Or that (according to Wordsworth himself in his 1845 notes to Isabella Fenwick) "the best two lines" of the poem - "They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude" - were provided by his wife Mary?

The process of biography is composed of such (often naive) shocks of recognition. Here is a very different Romantic "spot of time", in which the whole visionary and creative process can be seen, not as a unique moment of self-expression by the solitary artist, but in some fundamental way as a shared response, a communal exchange of feelings, a group phenomenon. And from there, one could begin to reconsider, biographically, the whole significance of the extended family structure round Wordsworth at Grasmere - his sister, his wife, his children, Coleridge - and their impact on his work. What are the implications? It could be that the notion of Romantic solitude, the isolated artist on his hilltop, or the lonely genius in his attic, are not what they seem.

Or take another version of Friedrich's Wanderer. In 1794, four years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the 22-year-old poet Coleridge was on a walking tour in Wales. Having climbed to the top of Snowdon (with a friend), he found it encased in mist. All was recounted in a series of brilliantly atmospheric, running letters, as he would afterwards do in the Lakes, and then in the Highlands. Coleridge was conscious, indeed self-conscious, about the Romantic nature of such tours. But what is remarkable is his tone.

Here is what he wrote to his friend Robert Southey: "At Denbigh is the finest ruined castle in the kingdom. It surpassed everything I could have conceived. I wandered there two hours in a still, misty evening, feeding upon melancholy. Two well-dressed young men were roaming there. 'I will play my Flute here,' said the first. 'It will have a Romantic effect,' said the second. O Bless thee, Man of Genius and Sensibility! I silently exclaimed. He sat down amidst the most aweful part of the Ruins - the Moon just began to make her Rays predominant over the lingering daylight. I pre-attuned my feelings to Emotion. And the Romantic youth instantly struck up the sadly-pleasing (Drinking) Song of Mrs Casey: 'The British Lion is my Pub Sign/ A roaring Trade I drive-oh!/ The British tars are there all mine/ And business does athrive oh! ...'" The unexpected humour of this is in fact wholly characteristic of the young Coleridge. (He once attributed the origins of The Ancient Mariner to setting mousetraps in his kitchen at Nether Stowey.) It suggests not flippancy, but high intellectual delight and playfulness. But it is not solemn, it is not sublime; and it suggests again a sense of (ironically) shared experience, a knowing participation in a group phenomenon.

It is also surprisingly modern in its social inclusiveness. Coleridge is already placing the "Romantic effect" as part of a mis-en-sc ne that includes not merely wild landscape and nostalgic heritage, but the phenomenon of self-conscious tourism to "historic" sites. Coleridge, one might say, predicts the one million members of the National Trust, which is certainly one of the great institutional offsprings of English Romanticism, as well as the singular, encastled magic of "Christabel".

So it seems possible to me that Romanticism, in its essence, was the product of an extraordinary group dynamic. It was not solitary; it was crowded, like the daffodils. It was a communal event, an intense sharing of experience, in which the exchange of ideas and feelings - and the very possibility of such exchange through the new doctrines of sincerity and empathy - were central features. Tears, letters, poems, keepsakes and confessions were its universal currency.

For the biographer, Romanticism can be reinterpreted as a history of crucial gatherings and momentary constellations, of collaborations and experiments, dialogues and discussions, of colloquies and confabulations, of friendships and love affairs. It can be redefined as sociable, crowded, communicative, hungry to discover and share knowledge and experience.

Once one begins to look for Romantic groupings through the period, they appear everywhere, and always at crucial moments of creative production. The group that formed round Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country between 1796-99, which included Charles Lamb, Southey, Humphry Davy and William Hazlitt on their various visitations, is of course the most famous, producing the whole series of collaborative works published by Joseph Cottle, culminating in Lyrical Ballads.

But one could point to many others: William Blake, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft grouped round the publisher Joseph Johnson in London; Goethe and Schiller collaborating on their own collection of ballads in 1797-99; the group that formed round Tieck and the Schlegel brothers at Jena in 1798-1800, contributing to Der Athenaum; the various declensions of the Lake District confederacy, not least during the period of Coleridge's weekly paper The Friend (1809-10), which published early fragments of The Prelude; Leigh Hunt's brotherhood of "Young Poets" on Hampstead Heath, 1816-19, including John Keats and Reynolds; Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley in Switzerland and Italy; or the petit-cenacle that formed round Victor Hugo in Paris during the late 1820s, including Theophile Gautier and Gerard de Nerval, before he retired to his madhouse in Passy.

All of these figures have been the subject of innumerable separate studies this century. (It is said that Byron's biographies alone run to over 200.) What is far rarer is to find them considered as such communal fusions of creative power, as such beehives of interactive ideas. It is one of the reasons that Marilyn Butler's Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (1981), which set out to do precisely that, has proved such an enduring source of new perspectives for Romantic scholars over 20 years; and why Rupert Christiansen's Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age 1780-1830 (1988) still reads with such vivid charm and freshness.

The implications of what I might call "the group theory" of Romanticism can only be sketched in here. On the one hand there is the creation of those shared Romantic landscapes, those communal topographies of emotions and ideas, which have effectively redrawn our modern maps of Europe, so that the Cumberland fells, the Hartz mountains, the Swiss lakes and alps, the Italian bays, the Greek islands have all become invested with a symbolic power, the Paradise Regained, where the "true primitive self" of modern urban life can be annually, ritually, recovered.

On the other hand, we have an equivalent transformation of the geography of Romantic texts. They can be seen not simply as isolated peaks and masterpieces, but as a labyrinth of interconnected paths and language trails. What sense does it make to read Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" without locating it as part of a great dialogue tradition of odes from Coleridge to Keats and Shelley?

Similarly, how can we read the great experiments of Romantic poetry without connecting them to the rich human inquiry - philosophic, political and significantly humorous - in the great letter sequences of Coleridge, Keats and Byron? The quicksilver mobility of these exchanges - mobility of tone as much as subject - is surely why Romanticism is such a rewarding, but difficult "period" to teach. Every text has a thousand reverberations; every cry has a chorus.

One may also begin to ask if the Romantics were so isolated from the great public institutions of their day. A number of great newspaper editors and publishers play a significant role in their creative development - Daniel Stuart of the Morning Post, Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review, Thomas Longman, John Murray, Taylor and Hessey. The careers of Lamb and Hazlitt are inconceivable without the London Magazine. The great revival of Romantic Shakespeare criticism was initiated by the new demand for public lectures, so that Coleridge and Hazlitt (like Schlegel in Germany) were first given the chance to explore their theories on public platforms sponsored by bodies such as the Royal Institution in Mayfair, the Philosophical Society in Fleet Street and the Surrey Institution in Blackfriars.

Most of all, perhaps, one may question whether the Romantic doctrines of sublime nature and imaginative genius really isolated them from the empirical world of institutional science.

This is currently a subject of intense debate, most recently explored in Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). The superior irony with which he handles the naive "wonder" of the Romantic poets surely does them less than justice. Coleridge's engagement with the chemical experiments of Davy, both at the Bristol Pneumatic Institute, and later at the Royal Institution; Keats's meditations on the "healing art" practised at the London teaching hospitals; Shelley's fascination with cosmology; Goethe's essays on colour and morphology; all suggest a very different kind of informed interest and deep curiosity.

One recalls Wordsworth's moving declaration in the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800): "The objects of the Poet's thought are everywhere ... If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed ..."

Indeed one might suggest that the Romantics championed an evolutionary concept of man's communal role in the natural universe that still challenges the hard, isolating, reductive materialism of modern neo-Darwinism. As Isaiah Berlin has argued in The Roots of Romanticism (1965/1999), the philosopher Friedrich Schelling's formative conception of an unconscious universe rising to become conscious in man and his creations, is traceable almost everywhere in Romantic thought. The physical stages of this "spiritual" evolution became enshrined in a series of dazzling metaphorical leaps in the general doctrine of "Naturphilosophie". Its implication for the artist, who redescends into his own unconscious to bring forth his conscious but inspired creations, is explored inSchelling's System of Transcendental Idealism (1800).

One can find these ideas perhaps most explicitly examined in Coleridge's late letters and his little-read Aids to Reflection (1825), where he speaks of the "ascent of powers" and the intensification and "individualising" of all life towards the human. This is a sacred notion of evolution, containing a strong sense of teleology - underlying purpose or design. Currently, this is scientific heresy. Yet it finds its echo in much contemporary "alternative" thinking about science, as, for example, James Lovelock's "Gaia" theory. It suggests the meaningful unity - rather than the meaningless isolation - of man's place in the natural universe. It is a Romantic tradition that perhaps waits to be fully recovered in the new millennium.l Richard Holmes is author of Coleridge: Early Visions; Darker Reflections (1989/98). His forthcoming book, Sidetracks, will be published in 2000 by HarperCollins.

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