Romantic poetry and antiquity

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In "The Four Ages of Poetry" (1820), Thomas Love Peacock archly complained that contemporary poetry was absurdly derivative of ancient models of inspiration and composition: "While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws [toys] and rattles for the grown babies of the age."1 He castigates Scott, Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Moore, and Campbell for their cannibalistic and anachronistic efforts, which he sees as no more than patching together "disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-hand observation" to produce "a modern-antique compound of frippery and barbarism."2 It was indeed confidently believed that ancient societies, whether British, Greek, or Roman, shared virtues of originality and genius, and that modern poets should mine these seams. Southey's preparation before writing his epic Madoc was to "study three works . . . the Bible, Homer, and Ossian," and Hazlitt argued that the four prototypes of poetry were, similarly, the Bible, Homer, Ossian, and Dante.3

There is of course nothing new in Peacock's attack: The Dunciad Variorum (1729) and the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741) set the tone in the eighteenth century for satirizing the enervated taste of antiquarians and connoisseurs, and this mockery was carried through into the engravings of Hogarth and Gillray. But there is something new in Peacock's criticism of the ubiquity of the antique and the arcane. Rather than disappearing before the advance of science and the "march of mind," ancient esoteric mysteries seemed to have taken up permanent residence in the arts:

A poet in our times . . . lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours.4

Had poetry lost its way, becoming opaque or simply irrelevant to the "common readers of poetry," separated from humanity and the humanities? The clue is in Peacock's contrast of barbarity with the "civilized community." His template for this thinking is in the tension between the classical and the Gothic, the civilized and the savage, and the larger question of British identity (here disparagingly referred to as "Cimmerian" - an ancient barbarian race thought to be a proto-Celtic or proto-Germanic tribe). Throughout the discussions and deployments of antiquity during the period there is a rumbling anxiety over national identity: what does it mean to be British?

The contrast between the classical taste and the Romantic or Gothic taste had occupied critics for most of the eighteenth century - and continues to exercise opinions. The pioneering literary antiquarian Thomas Warton, for instance, had adapted his neoclassical training for the analysis and criticism of indigenous British literature, first outlined in Observations on the "Fairy Queen" of Spenser (1754) before being profoundly developed into an identifiable canon and recognizable national literary culture in his monumental History of English Poetry (published from 1774). Very early in his career Warton drafted possibly the first "Essay on Romantic Poetry" (1745), which asserts that Romantic taste is "entirely different" from the classical because it imitates "the actions of spir[i]ts, in describing imaginary Scenes, & making persons of abstracted things," although it had "more Judgement and less extravagance" than the writings of antiquity, by which Warton meant principally medieval romances.5

Eighty years later, Hazlitt was paraphrasing the German writer A. W. Schlegel on the same topic, identifying the classical with universal human associations, and the Gothic with the individual imagination: "A Grecian temple, for instance, is a classical object: it is beautiful in itself, and excites immediate admiration. But the ruins of a Gothic castle have no beauty or symmetry to attract the eye; and yet they excite a more powerful and Romantic interest from the ideas with which they are habitually associated."6 And yet the two styles are often less opposites in the aesthetics of the period than different strands of antiquity twisted together. Percy Shelley's famous response to Peacock (his A Defence of Poetry, written in 1821) indicates as much. In a sense, Shelley confirms Peacock's criticisms by claiming that culture and hence artistic conception were accumulative and organic. Shelley called for an acknowledgment of and responsiveness to the literature of earlier cultures, arguing that the poetry of chivalric society came into being only after properly incorporating "the poetry and wisdom of antiquity," which he summed up as Platonism, Christianity, and Celtic mythology - in so doing combining ancient Greece with ancient Britain. "The result," he concluded, "was a sum of the action and reaction of all the causes included in it."7

In the first decades of the nineteenth century there seemed to be a great deal of history leading up to the present and following advances in a whole range of new fields - from archaeology to comparative religion, from pottery to vulcanology (the study of volcanoes). More history was being discovered all the time. Writers, artists, historians, and critics became sensitized to the inescapable presence of the past in everyday life - whether in the medieval rights-of-way and boundaries of London, or in the enigmatic standing stones and elusive oral folk traditions of the countryside. Moreover, history was happening every day, persistently felt and lived through in explosive international events such as the French Revolution and the ensuing upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars.

Antiquity in the general sense of "ancientness" therefore became integral to many features of intellectual and cultural life in the period - in politics, poetry, interior design, and even the erotic (the principal definitions of "antiquity" in Johnson's Dictionary [1755-6] are "1. Old times; time past long ago. 2. The people of old times; the ancients. 3. The works of remains of old times"). Antiquity therefore covers classical Greece and Rome (and Egypt), ancient Britain, and the medieval or Gothic. Considering the poetry of antiquity in this way presents a challenge to the proposition that Romantic poets rebelled against the neoclassical straitjacket of eighteenth-century Augustanism in a bid for the imaginative freedom of the Gothic - as if taste evolved "from a reptilian classicism, all cold and dry reason, to a mammalian Romanticism, all warm and wet feeling."8 Critics today are in danger of replicating the split made at the time by commentators such as Hazlitt. Rather, classical taste and Gothic taste were less in competition to become the spirit of the age as complementary movements, both being literally rooted in the past, and in the idea and uses of the past. If Scott's comments in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803) suggest an opposition between the Greeks and Romans on the one hand, and the Goths and Celts on the other, and in the next year Joseph Cottle remarked that "whoever in these times founds a machinery on the mythology of the Greeks, will do so at his peril," Byron had no qualms about combining, for example, Scotland with Homeric Greece in lines such as "And Loch-na-gar with Ida looked o'er Troy" ("The Island," Canto II, l. 291).9 Classical literature was certainly valued differently at the end of the eighteenth century than at the beginning, but still formed part of the story of Britain and provided valuable commentaries on the activities of the so-called Goths and Celts.

"Gothic" has come to cover everything from the florid novels of Ann Radcliffe to the architectural visions of Augustus Welby Pugin, and it is still rapidly mutating today - as is clear from its ongoing popularity as an "alternative" fashion. Mid-eighteenth-century meanings of the term are, however, fundamental for understanding attitudes toward ancient Britain in the period and for the Romantic reception of ancient societies more generally, and the most appropriate place to begin an account of the Gothic aesthetic is of course in a graveyard. Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country ChurchYard" (1750) is particularly apt. Gray wrote much in the neoclassical style, and shares many of the same concerns as his contemporary, Pope, such as the death of meaning in the new age of capitalism and mass-print culture, and "universal darkness" covering all. But Gray does not share Pope's Schadenfreude at the descent of society into Dulness; rather, he fears this annihilation, and his fear becomes intensified through the lens of medieval history until he is facing utter extinction. Here is the genesis of the figure of the Romantic poet: writers gradually left their place within the witty and urbane circles of Augustan social commentary and became outsiders, haunted by an obsessive historical imagination.10

In the "Elegy," the poet's anxiety is expressed by the poem moving from the neverland of counterfactual or speculative English history (those "mute, inglorious Miltons" - what never was and what will never be) to an oral rhapsody, and finally to the written word carved on a stone in the country churchyard: "graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn" (l. 116). The poem is itself an epitaph, and establishes a convention of mortal epigraphy in later Romantic poems, where, as we shall see, fragments of text are discovered and deciphered, either written on gravestones or other pieces of memorial furniture, or actually inscribed into the land in more suggestive ways. It is also a poem that struggles to find its own voice, and its expressly allusive style has been accused of being "an anthology of literary cliches available to every minimally educated reader."11

So already in Gray we have recognizable themes of what was to become characteristic of the Gothic: graves and funerary monuments, memory and loss, mortality and melancholia, all combining in an acute awareness of the transience of human endeavour, of loneliness, of the weight of the past, of antiquity, and of an inability to write. But Gray's most influential mouthpiece for this fear of history, and the strange terror of not-being and never-having-been, was the figure of the bard, who briefly stands proud of history atop Snowdon in one of the most spectacular images of the period - Thomas Jones painted "The Bard" in 1774, and the subject was still popular in 1817, when John Martin produced his iconic depiction. In Gray's poem "The Bard" (1757), the central speaker gives voice to Gray's fear in a wild fugue of inspiration. He is the last of his race, recording the extermination of his people - the Welsh druidic society - by the invading Anglo-Norman king Edward I, while also predicting the eventual extinction of Edward's line and the triumph of the Tudors. His is a lone voice in the devastation: no one will hear his death-song, but it will nevertheless reverberate, both a prophecy and a curse, through history. The poem finishes with the poet plunging suicidally from his mountaintop into "endless night" (l. 144).

This is the magnification of elegy to the level of apocalypse. Gray recognizes the savagery of English history, hitherto repressed. The need for a national British history posed fundamental questions about how the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish could write about the British past and the bloodshed that characterized it and that had made Great Britain. How could these social and cultural extirpations be described? Certainly human torture and sacrifice were already the stuff of poetry and art in many classical and biblical precedents - most obviously in the depiction of the crucifixion and other martyrdoms - but this sort of aesthetic material had yet to be tested in the British Isles. In other words, the Gothic is about much more than domestic horrors and melancholy lamentations: it is a historical theory, and Peter Ackroyd comes closest to it when he describes Gothic literature as "a rancid form of English antiquarianism."12

There are three elements to the Gothic imagination: the history of the Germanic tribes, an ensuing political ideology, and the medievalist aesthetic. Historically speaking, the Goths were a tribe who crossed the Danube in the fourth century ce on their way to sack Rome, and were therefore identified as the resistance to the Roman empire: rude Northern freedom-fighters overcoming the classical tyranny of the South. By the sixth century, the word was used to describe the Germanic tribes in general, and was applied to the Angles and Saxons settling in England, and to Hengist and Horsa, who allegedly landed in Kent in the fifth century. Gibbon noted that the sack of Rome presented the opportunity for Britain to separate itself from the Roman Empire, and hence Goths were considered to be constitutive of the nation, as distinguished from the Romano-British.13 By similar means, they were also erroneously associated with the later pointed Gothic and English perpendicular architecture of the Middle Ages because of the apparent independence of these styles from classical models prevalent on the Continent.

In other words, the Goths seemed to represent an alternative historical dynamic to the classical movements revived in the Renaissance and Augustan periods. The Goths were considered to be the purest of the northern races, possessing an instinctive love of liberty that was antagonistic to the imperial pretensions of Rome, and later of other forms of despotic rule such as Catholicism. So it is not difficult to see how the Goths appealed to the emerging sense of English identity. Indeed, the English constitution's apparent progress through granting increased liberties and rights seemed to be in the Gothic spirit - hence episodes from the signing of Magna Carta to the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 were presented as inherently Gothic.

Protestants stood up to Roman Catholics just as Parliamentarians had stood up to the absolutist claims of the monarch, and as the Anglo-Saxons had rebelled against the "Norman Yoke." It was as if the English constitution that emerged from these antagonisms was a product of the Gothic dynamic: negotiated in a spirit of compromise, balanced between extremes, latitudi-narian, progressive, organic, pragmatic, responsive - what by the nineteenth century was known as the "Whig theory of history."

Yet there were also highly pejorative associations of the Gothic myth. The sack of Rome was a cultural and intellectual disaster that had resulted in the advent of the "Dark Ages," a term coined in the seventeenth century. The Goths did not replace the Roman system with one of their own - instead they simply laid waste to the civilization and displaced classical learning for a thousand years. Their taste was barbaric, crude, violent, obscure, and dark, and what monuments they did leave before the Middle Ages were inexplicable and eerie, carrying associations of death and destruction.

Neither did the bloodletting end there. The acknowledged liberal development of the English and subsequently the British constitution repressed the disturbing truth that it had come out of centuries of civil bloodshed on a terrible scale. The progress of British political freedoms - the "Whig" theory of history - was steeped in blood: it condoned, for example, the execution of Charles I and the ensuing Civil War; and even the so-called "Bloodless Revolution" of 1688, when William III and Mary II took the throne, saw protracted fighting in Ireland (the Battle of the Boyne was not fought there until 1690). Before the accession of James I and VI in 1603, England had been warring with Scotland for 300 years, and attempts to make the Welsh and the Scottish part of the union had been characterized by clinical state violence (such as the liquidation of Welsh culture dramatized by Gray's "Bard," or the Highland clearances of the eighteenth century) and acts of wild and capricious retaliation (such as the massacre at Glencoe).

Repressed guilt and horror therefore lie behind the aestheticization of the Gothic and medieval in the eighteenth century. Although Walpole may have commented that it was a relief for him to turn from politics to write his pioneering Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), it was of course simply a displacement activity: a way of dealing with the butchery of the British constitution by condensing its violence into dreamlike scenes of medieval romance. Walpole might have been literally living in a fantastic pseudo-medieval mansion at Strawberry Hill (building began in 1748), but it should be remembered that he slept with a copy of the execution order for Charles I over his bedhead. By half-acknowledging the fearful slaughters at the heart of British identity, writers and artists began to explore how the imagination dealt with such fearsome cultural memories - often in the least expected places. Gothicism crept into gardens, for example, in the shape of uncultivated patches of "natural" wildness, into picturesque views as mock ruins, and into aesthetics in Edmund Burke's 1757 An Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, published in the same year as Gray's "Bard."

Burke's definition of the sublime was deeply rooted in the Gothic as a suggestive form of spectacle. Sublimity was characterized by terror and power, especially when somehow obscured. Of Milton's description of Death in Paradise Lost, Burke declares, "In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree":

that shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, For each seemed either; black it stood as night.

The incomprehensibility of the passage works a strange alchemy, hinting at something vast, ineffable, and infinite. Hence obscurity in all things became the touchstone of the Gothic - in language, plot, psychology, clothing and materials, architecture, and even the weather: "An immense mountain covered with a shining green turf, is nothing in this respect, to one dark and gloomy; the cloudy sky is more grand than the blue; and night more solemn and sublime than the day."15 The sublime signaled the limit of reason, and beyond that there were monsters.16

Burke was quick to recognize that the British landscape was dotted with sublime monuments - whether ruined abbeys and monasteries (victims of the Reformation) or megaliths (often called ancient cathedrals). Eighteenth-century antiquarians such as William Stukeley had already noticed that the country seemed to be laced with the physical traces of these other, earlier, more mysterious, perhaps even more terrible Britains, and had mapped both Stonehenge (Stonehenge: A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids, 1740) and Avebury (Abury: A Temple of the British Druids, 1743). These remains were like distant communications from another world, barely legible letters raised against the incessant depredations of time. And according to Roman historians, including Caesar in his memoirs, they had been temples of human sacrifice, whether conducted in terrifying wicker men and reed baskets (the victims were incinerated inside "figures of immense size ... of twigs"), or on the rough altars at the centre of stone circles.17

The Gothic became intimately tied to British nationalism as a reminder of united Protestant resistance to Catholic Rome, or, it was believed, of the druidic resistance to imperial Rome. Pre-Roman monuments such as standing stones, rows, circles, and barrows were among the few things that gave

Great Britain and (after 1801) the United Kingdom a sense of shared history and common heritage, to the extent that they were consistently represented as part of a Gothic sense of identity. Thus in paintings and engravings, Stonehenge and other megaliths were, for example, usually shown against a dark sky obscured by clouds. In literature, this newly recognized commu-nality emerged in the antiquarian aesthetic of Ossian (James Macpherson's third-century Celtic fragments and epics, first published in 1760) and the ballad revival inspired by Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765, which contained much lowland Scottish material and inspired subsequent collections by John Pinkerton, Joseph Ritson, and most notably Walter Scott and James Hogg). The medievalist ballad and verse romance derived from the models revived by Percy and his followers, and these significantly influenced the emerging historical novel. The pure lineaments of ancient society were discernible in the originality of its expression. As William Duff commented in 1767: "Original poetic genius will in general be displayed in its ultimate vigour in the early periods of society . . . and it will seldom appear in a very great degree in cultivated life."18 Under the mantle of the Gothic, then, the ancient Britons provided the subject for hundreds of books, articles, letters, and papers written during the century, culminating in Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799); and, until the publication of Edward Davies's Celtic Researches in 1804, little distinction from the Celtic was made. The problem of course was that this original poetic genius was imagined to have been generated and cultivated by savage societies, and the present was formed on such savagery: civilization was raised on blood.

It is worth reiterating how many of the elements of this Gothic aesthetic are present in Gray's "Bard": the sublime, the melancholia, the fascination with the fading past, the savagery, and the political nation-building and "progress" through extermination. Gray's poetry here (and elsewhere) is a confrontation with the past in order to explore the social and cultural taboos of the present, and to answer the question: Where did Britain come from? Much of Gray's later poetry probes this ghastly problem further through the thrilling primitivism of Viking myth. "The Fatal Sisters" (published in 1768) tells of twelve weird sisters or Valkyrie weaving fate from human entrails weighted with decapitated human heads. This poetry is characterized by concrete nouns and active verbs, a collapse of the regular classical form into the irregular ode and freer forms of verse, the dissolution of time so that the past becomes literally omnipresent and haunts the present, and in mystical hints - the poet as a sorcerer, casting spells, as a bard weaving rhymes, as a druid. In this way, the poetry of Gray offers a compelling way of giving voice to an ancient landscape of Britain, whose only memorials were silent stones, once (it was believed - even hoped) stained with human blood. This is the poetry that makes those rugged monuments speak, that gives a voice to the dead, to ghosts, to nothingness, to what never was. In this, the poetry of antiquity goes far beyond the limits of elegy.

These mysterious ruins, then, like graveyards, served as the focus for meditations - the meditation being a form of restoration through hallucination. Warton's sonnet "Written at Stonehenge" (published in 1791), for instance, presents a series of meditative possibilities - or obscurities - for the "noblest monument of Albion's isle" (l. 1). Stonehenge is both an aid to pagan reflection and a tangle of riddles ("We muse on many an antient tale renown'd", l. 14).19 In the eyes and mind of an antiquarian poet, the triliths could be any manner of - or all - things: a crossroads in the mystical imagination of the nation, a meeting place for myth, legend, and history, resounding in Warton's lines with memories of Merlin and Arthur, Hengist and Horsa, the druids, the Vikings, and Brutus, and are even the site of strange prehistoric coronations.

"Written at Stonehenge" can be seen as the prototype for later poetic restorations. The stones were a monument to the antiquity of the nation, evidence of its history, but reduced to suggestive ruins. The potential of ruins lay in their obscurity - their sublimity. The ruins of Tintern Abbey, for example, haunt Wordsworth's poem of the same name like an uneasy murmur or a shadow on a cloudless day, a presence of "The still, sad music of humanity" (l. 92). The poem is written "a few miles above" Tintern Abbey, and the picturesque ruin is therefore out of sight - it is the memory of a ruin (a Protestant ruin of a Catholic building) that is evoked.

Wordsworth's lines on an earlier ruin - Stonehenge - were written about the same time. By the time Wordsworth had incorporated this grim episode in the desolate landscape of Salisbury Plain into the 1805 Prelude, it had become an uncanny encounter with a ruin that attempts to frame the past by rebuilding the monument. Wordsworth falls into a reverie and sees the past -sees ancient Britons "With shield and stone ax, stride across the Wold" (Book XII, l. 323) to the place of sacrifice:

It is the sacrificial Altar, fed

With living men - how deep the groans! the voice Of those in the gigantic wicker thrills Throughout the region far and near.

There is perhaps a hint of the horror of recent political events - of the Bastille - in this ghastly vision, but, as with the revolution in France, something is learnt too. Wordsworth's attention shifts to the patterns of stones and

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