Saturday, 2 June 2012

The post-Romantics

Coleridge's writing showed a keen interest in psychology, which at the time was developing from a branch of philosophy to a more empirical science. The implications for poetry remain relevant today. In "Poetry Review" (Autumn 2011) Maitreyabandhu wrote that for Coleridge, Imagination "is a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational" and that it "unifies the contents of experience by discovering something within them, some underlying meaning or significance, inaccessible to ordinary consciousness". In such discussions non-rationality, unity, and deep/fundamental truths are commonly combined, and not just under the banner of Romanticism. For example, in "ARTEMISpoetry" (Nov 2011) M.R. Peacocke wrote "I believe that my rather formal upbringing and a rigid kind of academic education modified and manipulated me to a considerable extent; but that I am gradually finding the voice of the original creature. She preserved herself when young by spending a lot of time on her own, and in interacting without instruction with other creatures - animals and plants."

This terminology is tied up with self-discovery and the notion of the self as a unified whole (or at least a unified core surrounded by socially-conditioned contingencies). Transcendence is the means of escape, of growth, bypassing Reason and Language to reach the World or the Self. Maitreyabandhu continued "Modern western culture has mostly lost touch with the depth and importance of imagination; it's just another part of the entertainment industry". I don't think we've lost touch though. We still distrust mere novelty (Coleridge's "Fancy") in favour of the genuinely new. The problem is that the goal posts - the World and the Self - have moved. Romanticism never died out. Any poet who worries about the Self and its relation to the World and Words owes it a debt. Latterday post-Romantics come in as many styles as the originals did. Some look upon Romanticism as a golden age that can be revived by imitating the haircuts as well as the diction. Here I prefer to look at those who have adapted to changing circumstances. I won't discuss Byron's successors (celebrities whoever they are), or those who put their faith in transcendence (Kathleen Raine? Pauline Stainer?), focusing instead on Coleridge's psychological offspring.

Amongst our major poets, Don Paterson stands out as the one whose restless intellectual curiosity most encompasses modern psychology - see for example his essay on "The empty image: new models of the poetic trope". Helen Mort's site investigates similar issues. The concept of a "true self" has been weakened by the realisation that even faculties like vision require timely social stimulation during the developmental phase otherwise they're permanently impaired. No brain region has been found where the "true self" lives. Personality is fragmented, a toolbox of coping mechanisms that are combined to suit the situation. Peeling away "layers" merely impoverishes one's resources. If long-term-memory is damaged, you're "not yourself" any more, but many other types of brain damage can change a person too. A stroke might even remove an inhibition, thus enhancing a talent. All this has an impact on our attitude to mental (and hence aesthetic) unity. Coleridge was keen on organic unity, an idea going back to Aristotle, but I don't think it's necessarily considered psychologically realistic nowadays. Unity has become another socialisation convention that Romantics might rebel against.

There's also a feeling that the Self can't be purged of Language and Society. Aidan Day in his book on Romanticism suggests that "It is not that the self exists separate from language and simply uses it to express itself. The self, in the sense of the fully self-conscious human adult, does not exist outside of language and other sign-systems ... No self escapes the bounds of language and sign-systems". de Man saw in the ecstasy and agony of the Romantics' best poems signs that they came to realize this too. Transcendence isn't the answer. Since Coleridge's time we've moved from Eliot's fragments held together by a single spiritual vision to Auden's varieties of quotable wisdom and then to Larkin's transcendence which fell as rain, bringing the toads out. Even if one could transcend language, the world out there has changed. The reality of the quantum world described in mathematical equations "transcends" appearances, showing us a "deeper reality". It doesn't bypass rationalism, however strange, inhospitable and counter-intuitive the findings.

If one accepts that the Romantics addressed an important issue, but that their project was doomed, how should language and poetry progress? One reaction is nostalgia, not so much for unspoilt Nature but for such linguistic innocence – "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth", admitted Larkin. Donald Davie wrote that "Wordsworth was technically incompetent at least until 1801 ... The early poems, when they succeed, do so by virtue of invention; the language is as nearly irrelevant as it can be in poetry". For the Romantics, language (or at least neoclassic rhetoric) was an enemy, but making it simpler doesn't make it go away, doesn't bring the Self any closer to the World. Prynne (a Romanticism expert) offers one exit strategy, abandoning the pretence of transparent language along with "voice" and simplified Nature. He, Paterson (who in an interview didn't mind being described as "Coleridge on alcohol") and Stainer (who interviewing herself wrote "Coleridge must go scuba-diving more often") may not seem to have much in common but they all owe a debt to the Romantics, not least Coleridge. Their diversity is a direct result of his.

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