Walking in high places

Michael Neve

  • The Ferment of Knowledge: Studies in the Historiography of 18th-Century Science edited by G.S. Rousseau and R.S. Porter
    Cambridge, 500 pp, £25.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 521 22599 X
  • Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin by Thomas McFarland
    Princeton, 432 pp, £24.60, February 1981, ISBN 0 691 06437 7
  • Poetry realised in Nature: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Early 19th-Century Science by Trevor Levere
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £22.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 521 23920 6
  • Coleridge by Richard Holmes
    Oxford, 102 pp, £1.25, March 1982, ISBN 0 19 287591 4
  • Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802 by Winifred Courtney
    Macmillan, 411 pp, £25.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 333 31534 0

It is time for a change, even in the small world of historical epithets. For ages, philosophers and historians have been haunted by intellectual tags, such as Was ist Aufklärung? There have been a number of distinguished replies to this question of what the Enlightenment consisted in, but its resilience has appeared to be connected to its unanswerability. Indeed, it seemed better practice not to answer it at all, but to leave it hanging, like some family motto for generations of baffled European intellectuals, an MCC tie for the wandering intelligentsia. Similar problems hold for Romanticism. It appears to be something to do with opposition to the Enlightenment, and to do with new emphases placed on individual experience and ‘the Self’. To do with walking in high places, with sudden, untranslatable visions, with the Infinite. The problems of the Enlightenment may be unanswerable, beyond certain remarks about secularism and the march of Reason, but the siting of Romanticism is no less difficult. It may be said that it’s to do with German idealist philosophy, with political art, with opposition to science: but the travelling, conference-attending party is suddenly lost in mist; the sun vanishes, the path is unclear. Perhaps Romanticism is to do with being lost?

Commitment to science was always assumed to be an Enlightenment hallmark, but the question was never extensively examined. And for a curious reason: the sciences, in the 18th century, were always said to be in a parlous state. Newton had laid down the laws: the Enlightenment was about playing his tunes. Apart from this prolonged act of deference, a deference then broken by the ‘Romantic’ reaction, nothing much was going on, in geology, or natural history, or medicine, or any-where else. All these, it was claimed, got started in the 19th century, and scientists of the 19th century made sure that they wrote up the history of the sciences in time to guarantee that this was the view of posterity. The most extraordinary of these acts of intellectual banditry remains Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, of 1830-1833, where Lyell argues that geology starts with himself. So, an Enlightenment which believed in materialism and progress, but which was a scientific non-event. Strange.

The great merit of The Ferment of Knowledge is that it takes the trouble to expose the impoverishment – and simple inaccuracy – of this view. The book is most unusual in that it merely wishes to serve: to serve interested readers by guiding them to the places where knowledge may be had. The Enlightenment is not seen as the clever conversation of a few household names, but a period of originality and even drudgery. Indeed, the sense of drudgery, the laying down of methods and practices that the 19th century could call its own; is the unifying theme which links a wide range of the essays in the collection. It is not often thought of as an academic’s defining characteristic, but (with one or two exceptions) the essays are self-effacing. The beginnings of geological science, of the modern hospital movement, of geographical thinking on a worldwide scale, of experimental methods in general and break-throughs in chemistry in particular – none of these are rendered as glamorous. And many of the authors help to place science itself as only one small part of 18th-century European culture – and as part of ‘high culture’, in ways outlined by Peter Burke and Robert Darnton.

Science and technology can then be distinguished, and theoretical advances, in, say, the earth sciences, are not assumed always to have produced great practical breakthroughs. As one of the contributors, Steven Shapin, neatly turns it, Was ist Aufklärung? is now also Wofur ist Aufklärung? – what is it for? And the information gathered here will assist anyone wanting to see the myth behind the view that the sciences were spontaneously generated after the Treaty of Vienna. The Ferment of Knowledge alters the received answer to the old question, and ends the established idea of the Enlightenment as an intellectual event for progressive people. It is, in a gentlemanly way, one more goodbye to (Isaiah) Berlin.

Can Romanticism be similarly‘discovered’? Certain inquiries – pursued in this journal, among other places – suggest affirmative answers. Two notable studies have appeared recently: Marilyn Butler’s Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries, reviewed in the LRB (Vol. 3, No 21) by Christopher Ricks; and Thomas McFarland’s marvellously over-the-top Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin, which also appeared in 1981. (One might commend, en passant, the Princeton University Press as a place where inventive, wordy studies in Romantic ideas receive elegant publication.) The suggestiveness of both these books – suggestiveness about politics and art, about Europe and England, and, more important, about failure and fragmentation – repays attention. And one of the first things to be attended to must be Romanticism’s burdensome relationship to the legacy of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

What, for example, about the ‘opposition to science’? In the old formula, Romantics are seen as enemies of science, and especially of scientific abstraction. In some cases, often cited, this may be true: Keats on the rainbow, Blake on the monomaniacal Newton. But one of the genuinely new things in Romantic studies is that this old abstraction – that science was too abstract – won’t do. Within German Romantic philosophy, science is the heart of the matter, but has to be properly accompanied by a visionary politics. The life sciences and the earth sciences conjoin, in Naturphilosophie, and the ‘drudgery’ of the Enlightenment becomes the ‘druggery’ of Total Philosophy. More modestly, it becomes the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.

For those wishing to see Romanticism get its comeuppance, for stealing the mature insights of 18th-century men and childishly converting them into a lot of adolescent males talking balls, the careers of Novalis, Oken and their English version, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, give reasons for contentment. For those interested in other things (of which failure and confusion may form part), one important focus is the scientific centre of much Romantic thought. For Romanticism may one day be seen, not as the refutation of science, but as a magnificent attempt to carry the sciences – particularly the life sciences – to their logical conclusion: to seek for origins, as with Oken’s biology; to attempt a philosophy of life, as with Schelling; and to cover everything, as with Coleridge. This new view of the place of science will be crucial: it has always been defended in Continental writings, and by historians of medicine, such as the great Owsei Temkin. In England, much of what was said and written at the time is construed as incomprehensible (which it no doubt was) and Romantics can be characterised as raving on about ‘polarity’ and ‘archetype’ before collapsing into early death, or over-prolonged life. The only other option was to play at revolution. Thus the Enlightenment appears as the European culture for grown-ups, before things fell (briefly) into the hands of a few, doomed ‘marvellous boys’. Things could then be pulled together by Prince Albert, and the nonsense stopped.

A great deal depends on Coleridge, as both the most ambitious and the most greedy of the English Romantics, as well as the most difficult to grasp. (Defenders of Romanticism have to concede to some charges of impenetrability, whatever else is to happen.) It is Coleridge who imports the German mist, specially bottled for him, and who tries to spread its contagion into the governing language of the day, particularly its theological vocabulary. The place of science in this project has never been properly studied, a situation now rectified by Trevor Levere and his Poetry realised in Nature. This is a work of great devotion, involving a hunt for scattered original materials, with extensive use of the products of the University of Toronto, where whole skyscrapers now seem packed with the notes and asides of the lonely schoolboy from Christ’s Hospital. Through his study of the scientific work, Levere joins William Empson among others in defending the coherence of Coleridge and his metaphysics. Coleridge’s vision of a ‘dynamic’ German philosophy, pitted against Anglo-Gallic reductionism; his flirtation with chemistry ‘to improve his stock of metaphors’; the jottings and marginalia that led up to the ‘comprehensive’ Theory of Life – are all elucidated in this fine study. The literary rows about plagiarism, and Norman Fruman’s detective work on these, need never have happened. And the various pieces that passed comment on Fruman (one of them, also written by Christopher Ricks, was given the heading ‘The Moral Imbecility of a Would-Be Wunderkind’) Levere disdains. Coleridge was bent on a great, Germanic task; its shape and ‘organic’ form are visible and coherent; the totality is not empty. Poetry realised in Nature is likely to be the last word on the place of science in Coleridge’s thought, and provides firm evidence of the connecting interests, on scientific matters, between Romanticism and the Enlightenment. That Coleridge wanted a different kind of science merely accentuates the continuity, albeit in a conservative culture which favoured the conjunction of the theological and the scientific.

So why is Poetry realised in Nature so un-Coleridgean, as if the ‘damaged archangel’ had suddenly turned into Herman Kahn? Is there some way of conceding the incoherence of at least some of Coleridge’s thought while continuing to insist on his greatness? Because Coleridge isn’t in this book, in the way that he isin Richard Holmes’s recent, sensitive profile in the Oxford ‘Past Masters’ series. Does a study like Levere’s miss some point, or is one merely making an obvious remark about the difference between ‘biography’ and ‘intellectual history’? Authors and critics with Romantic sympathies – or even hostilities – have a great opportunity here, because studies in Romanticism can take advantage of exactly the breakdown in traditional, Reynolds-like arrangements that ‘Romantic’ figures sought. Neutrality of tone, orthodox narrative, even biography, simply conceived – these will never find their object, when looking at, and estimating, Romantic questions. Take Keats. What would Keats have been, in his letters, without – dashes? The whole tenor of his modesty, penetration, the expression of his love, needs those dashes. They are the musical notation of those wonderful creations. Something similar holds for Coleridge. His letters, the greatest in English, also need dashes, and need to feel free to trail off. The real point is that Coleridge didn’t exist as a coherent intellectual figure, complete with PhD. He was a mess, but the mess is the message. His Notebooks especially carry this authenticity – the authenticity of the margin, the jotting. They are – and this is the point – the closest we will ever get to hearing him talk. A study such as Trevor Levere’s poses a genuine dilemma for students of Romanticism: the very devotion and care, the organisation, that has gone into the book is also its downfall.

Coleridge could be said to have been driven into an appalling verbosity: a verbosity that shielded terror, physical pain, self-loathing, a deep need to feel loved. A certain class of Coleridgean scholar could insist that these facts. are irrelevant in writing about Coleridge’s thought, and this thought is then described in certain ways, to do with organicism, with Schelling, with polarities. What seem like whole sections of university libraries are filled with works of this kind. But to write him up in this way, to commit what Hume called’the fallacy of composition’, is to avoid precisely the opportunity to break with orthodox form that Romanticism exists for.

Coleridge wrote, in 1818, to William Collins: ‘Poetry is out of the question. The attempt would only hurry me into that sphere of acute feelings, from which abstruse research, the mother of self-oblivion, presents an asylum.’ The research asylum. It is surely curious that a biographical method, uninformed by the desperate truths of one (at least) of Romanticism’s greatest figures, should seek the very reconciliations that Coleridge never knew. Studies of Coleridge too often perform this anxious ministry, even (how he would have dreaded this) bringing him back to the tidy death-in-life of biography as a form of social work. And how much closer to some capturing of the true idea are McFarland, with his recitals of romantic defeat and estimable breakdown, and indeed Marilyn Butler, here tartly discussing Coleridge’s play Osorio: ‘ It is as though this is a critique of intellectualism and abstraction so total that ideas themselves have had to be omitted.’ Coleridge did travel to the edge of thought and could take no more. The Ancient Mariner prophesies this. The greatest mind turned into the greatest bore: his Notebooks and Letters form two of a number of tombstones for purely theoretical intelligence. Not to admit this of him is to miss the point, as Charles Lamb (as so often) did not. Lamb adored Coleridge all his life, in spite of breaks and silences. Coleridge became equivalent to his past, and the forces which had shaped it. But this produced no sentimental desire for semi-resurrection: ‘ “On the Death of Coleridge”: When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief. It seemed to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world – that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve.’ Coleridge came to see abstract thought as an asylum, and was housed in Highgate in a version of private asylum circumstances.

Lamb did something more remarkable: he made himself into an asylum. The event that forced this on him was his sister Mary’s murder of their mother, in an insane frenzy, in September 1796. As Lamb put it in a letter to Coleridge soon after: ‘I date from the day of horrors.’ Lamb came to a decision that determined his life from then on: that he would devote himself, as the law still permitted, to looking after his sister, keeping her within the ‘private sector’ of licensed madhouses, and thereby save her from Bedlam. He would become his sister’s safe keeping, and only use the services of the medical profession and the other asylums of London (especially Hoxton) when necessary. Lamb’s brother John had urged him not to take on this task: it was typical of Lamb to say that he understood John’s reasons for saying this, and thought no less of him for it, while disregarding his advice. The history of the fate of insane men and women who were not incarcerated in public asylums is one of the lost stories of English life. There undoubtedly existed a whole world of first Mrs Rochesters: attics, boarding-houses, and often rather grand-looking institutions, set in parks, where the middle and upper-middle class mad could live in a world of mock-domesticity. Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White is only the tip of the iceberg. Part of Charles Lamb’s greatness must be that he never wanted to bury his own family disaster in this way, to earn respectability by shuffling off responsibility. One of the houses that Lamb made into a haven for his sister can still be seen – in Colebrooke Row, Islington: it is noticeably small, considerably smaller than the house in Covent Garden where De Quincey wrote his Confessions.

Winifred Courtney has not written a biography for the general reader, partly because of her devotion to Lamb, which produces a book that is extremely detailed, and not governed by a clear theme. She points out that the last biography of Lamb was that of E.V. Lucas, the fifth edition of which appeared in 1921, and that it is time for a new look. The novelty consists mainly in the use made of some political writings of the young Lamb, who is now more firmly placed than before in the culture of metropolitan radical journalism, with its dash of Godwinian ideas and mild Jacobin sympathies. And she gives very careful accounts of Lamb’s friendships; his various journalistic ventures, especially for the Albion newspaper in 1801; and his collaboration with William Godwin in the play Antonio. The end of her book finds Lamb as a young writer who had weathered early storms, with Mary experiencing her longest period of uninterrupted sanity – from 1800 to 1803.

The most striking thing about the young Charles Lamb is that he gives the lie to the view that Romanticism courted insanity, as a hallucinatory source for literary inspiration. This seems increasingly a piece of propaganda put out by various French decadents of the late 19th century. Everything Lamb manages with his writings – his wit, his archaisms, his ‘ordinariness’ – was managed in the face of madness. After all, we are speaking here of a man who carried a straitjacket with him when he went out walking with his sister, just in case the darkness took hold, and the journey to Hoxton had to be made. (Mary, tellingly, outlived Lamb, by 13 years.) Winifred Courtney contributes to the demystification of received opinion about Romanticism’s encouragement of the mad genius. Lamb’s life was sacrificed, voluntarily, to exactly the opposite view. It is in this context that we need to think of the devotion to the past, to the archaic: Lamb’s version, as the essayist ‘Elia’, of the private asylum of thought. He certainly cheered himself up in other ways: drinking (no drugs), and as much food as possible. But the heart of the essays and of the ephemeral pieces is their ‘vivid obscurity’, as Hazlitt put it: the creation of a city, London, that was entirely Lamb’s own. The lurking danger was whimsicality, and sometimes this charge sticks, when the archaisms fall flat and quaint. But Lamb both wrote himself into cheerfulness, and imagined a city composed of his own idea of the literary past. He disliked the absence of pavements and bustle; he loved the paintings of Hogarth. And he made literary production into a branch of therapy, for his sister.

The Tales from Shakespeare of 1807 are the most famous fruit of this relationship, of the ‘double singleness’, as it became known, of Charles and Mary. This perennial best-seller is a product of ‘lucid intervals’ between the bouts of insanity to which Mary was always prone and to which Lamb himself had succumbed. Mary condensed the comedies; Lamb the tragedies. The pathetic view of Lamb goes on at this point to say that Mary must have brought as much happiness to Charles as she had brought misery: this seems unlikely, but the Tales can certainly be seen as psychiatric rescue. The sentimentalisation of Lamb is unfortunate in other ways, unconnected with his courage in the face of Mary’s illness. His possible sexual deprivations remain a mystery, although Winifred Courtney suggests that many of his devotions to women were fierce, especially to the loved-but-lost Ann Simmons. But the more important loss, through sentimentalisation, is a sense of the written work and of the toughness that it displays. Lamb’s own attack of insanity may well have been due to failure in love, and when he describes his brief incarceration at the time, either poetically or in a letter, it is always mockingly, without self-glorification. His own experience of madness must have persuaded him to protect Mary when she fell foul of their shared inheritance later the same year.

The privations of his life should figure more than they customarily do in received views of him. He worked in an office, and, like all of us, loved it and loathed it. Long before Dickens, or Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener, or Kafka, all of whom dreamt away in offices, Lamb did so, for the East India Company. He appears here as a shrewd bachelor looking at other bachelors, appalled at the routine and yet knowing that it was a life-saver. He is not far from being a precursor of the office clerk anxious to get a drink under his belt before going home to the suburbs and a difficult domestic set-up. He is always talked of as ‘popular’ and ‘gentle’ (there is, even in this account, a great deal about hearths and jolly evenings): but when you read him, he seems pretty sharp, and hard to fool. Take this, on meeting newly attached couples: ‘But what I complain of is, that they carry this preference so undisguisedly, they perk it up in the faces of us single people so shamelessly, you cannot be in their company a moment without being made to feel, by some indirect hint or open avowal, that you are not the object of this preference ... these married monopolists thrust the most obnoxious part of their patent into our faces.’

Easily explained, of course, this bitterness, but it’s worthy of Hazlitt in its admission of honest jealousy and dislike of exclusion. Lamb, the nice guy, could always admit that when his friends called round, he didn’t necessarily feel uplifted, especially when he was eating. This sense of pride and fierceness is fortunately caught for ever in Hazlitt’s wonderful portrait of 1804, with Lamb dressed as a Venetian senator, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. A mocker of false gallantries to women, a champion of William Blake, a man able to argue convincingly that there were only ‘two races of men’, those who borrow and those who lend, and infinitely to prefer the borrowers, as being the more zestful – there are many instances of his prickliness and spunk. He admits to ‘feeling the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess’: Scotchmen, Jews, Negroes, are all too difficult. He admires the Negro countenance, with its ‘strong traits of benignity’, but‘should not like to associate with them’. Or again: ‘Some admire the Jewish female-physiognomy. I admire it – but with trembling. Jael had those full dark inscrutable eyes.’ Coleridge may indeed have been much loved, and much ruined. Lamb seems to have been equally loved, but also a difficult, tetchy man, very like Hazlitt in certain moods. His life contains some of the thematic essentials of Romanticism: lost early love, penury, madness, the orphan. He and Mary adopted a little girl, Emma Isola, whom they met in Cambridge while on holiday: she eventually married a publisher and lived until 1891. But the fact that Lamb’s life contains these motifs is one more reason for rescuing him from the dying idea that Romanticism is debility.

The discovery, or rediscovery, of Romanticism, its language, its politics, its literature, will have to take on the enthusiasms, failures, confusions and grandeur of its subject. A favourite scientific word of the age, ‘polarity’, meaning the quality of exhibiting opposite properties within one force field, coincides with other Romantic concerns: with doubles (the Lambs’ ‘double singleness’) and with the dialectical method in general. In contemporary fiction, there is an experimental work which could be said to form one pole – the negative – against which other, Romantic reactions might be generated: Martin Amis’s Other People. I found the detective work asked of readers of this novel taxing, but it does have a ‘Mary Lamb’ as its central character, and can be seen as expressing the dark side of the Romantic polarity, with its ornate revulsions from the world, its mangled homesickness, the utter absence in it of the solidarities and assistances that make up Romanticism’s (better) half. Other People’s refusal of ‘romance’, and the lost Mary Lamb that it creates, polarises the image of the Lambs: away from this alienation, to the real elements of mutual support, open admiration and collective table-talk (whatever happened to that?) which literary Romanticism also displays. Between seeming scarily and absurdly ‘other’ and being our friends, between these attractions and repulsions, the various Lambs make their difficult way.