Against the Same-Old Same-Old

Seamus Perry

Romanticism bequeathed a good many things to the beleaguered modern imagination, one of the most provoking of which was the thought that it should get out more. That bit of advice proved all the more challenging because it contradicted the other basic idea which the Romantics left behind – namely, that what mattered was staying inside, wrapped in the private world of subjectivity and ‘mental space’. To this view of things, the raw stuff of what’s out there was at best merely grist to the mill of consciousness: a true modern genius displayed itself, Coleridge said (he coined the phrase ‘mental space’), as ‘a fleeting away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object’. Coleridge was much preoccupied by such thoughts: Carlyle remembered him sitting in his Highgate den, snuffling interminably about ‘sum-m-mjects’ and ‘om-m-mjects’; and other writers chose a less philosophical idiom to pursue the same sort of notion. Coleridge’s collaborator Wordsworth, for instance, pauses at one point in his verse autobiography to sound the note in his own way: ‘Of genius, power,/Creation and divinity itself/I have been speaking, for my theme has been/What passed within me.’ Rarely can such weight have fallen on those formerly unostentatious words ‘within’ and ‘me’. It’s not so far from that to the stylishly belligerent thing that Picasso is said to have said: ‘I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.’

The thought that the world is how you think it is no doubt striking, but somehow deeply boring at the same time: the sovereign consciousness can quickly turn out to be a rather airless place. And so, as though by virtuous reaction against its own penchant for ideality, the Romantic mind manifests an equal but opposite fascination with the whole independent abundance of the world outside. Coleridge, otherwise so instinctive a philosophical idealist, spent much of his time meditating the mysterious (for an idealist) phenomenon of ‘outness’, a favourite word he had unearthed in Bishop Berkeley; and a large element of his huge and contradictory mind remained deeply attached to those ‘external things’ that were otherwise meant obligingly to fleet away before the enchantments of Mind. Wordsworth, likewise, began his autobiographical epic with the description of a breeze chancing to blow across his cheek: the gust of air soon gets incorporated within the poem’s peculiar metaphorical economy, but it’s important that the breeze arrived in the first place as an unbidden breath of fresh air from outside.

Articulating what’s at issue in this is difficult without sounding simple-minded, as though what were at stake is actually not a thought at all but the opposite of thought or its deliberate avoidance; and the appearance of simple-mindedness was a pitfall that Wordsworth himself did not always avoid, it’s true. But that there is something simple about it, in the sense of fundamental or intuitive, seems an important part of the quality of the experience, one that Wordsworth was surely right to try to work into his verses. Wittgenstein once spoke of a ‘wonder at the existence of the world’, a profound and salutary response to the commonplace which lies beneath phrases that risk being mere commonplaces, such as ‘How extraordinary that the world should exist’; and this is a rich and definitive Romantic feeling, quite as much as the counter-feeling that the mind altering alters all. Wordsworth himself captures it movingly and not at all simple-mindedly when he speaks of ‘the very world, which is the world/Of all of us, – the place where in the end/We find our happiness, or not at all.’ The persuasive emotional weight of those lines is partly to do with the marvellously handled line-break, so that we momentarily possess the audacious tautology ‘the very world, which is the world’; and partly to do with the grown-up reflection that, actually, we might not find happiness in the end; but it also lies, more positively, in the suggestion of communality or sharedness with which ‘we’ are acquainted with ‘our’ (plural pronouns) world. For it is our world as well as the poet’s; it pre-existed both the poet and his poem; and for that matter it pre-existed our acquaintance with it too. There are some buried but formative instincts at work here, that is to say, which you might think of as ‘political’ and even as ‘liberal’: Wordsworth grew into an embattled reactionary, but he continued to be drawn to defining a space for the imagination in which we all have a shared stake.

Like the other great Victorian poets, Robert Browning came of age as a writer vividly aware of the exciting powers of Romantic inwardness, which, like most of his contemporaries, he found a burden as much as a spur to new achievements. His early poems revolve about subjectivity in an appropriately self-absorbed way: ‘I am made up of an intensest life,/Of a most clear idea of consciousness/Of self,’ he thought out loud in his first published work, Pauline (1833), a visionary monologue notionally addressed to a love-object, though her reality is pretty foggy. John Stuart Mill read the poem attentively in preparation for a review which never appeared, although Browning did later get to see his notes and was understandably struck by one of Mill’s sharper comments: ‘The writer seems to me possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being.’ The poem is full of Shelley, a great hero from early youth, and the author to whom Browning would devote his only substantial piece of critical writing, nobly defending Shelley as the ideal type of subjective genius. ‘He does not paint pictures and hang them on the walls, but rather carries them on the retina of his own eyes,’ Browning says in his essay: ‘We must look deep into his human eyes to see those pictures on them.’ This is impressive if a bit weird; but nevertheless, as you read on through the windings of the essay it is not difficult to discern that Browning’s own heart really lies with the opposite camp. So it does not come as a surprise to hear him announce at the essay’s crescendo: ‘If the subjective might seem to be the ultimate requirement of every age, the objective, in the strictest state, must still retain its original value.’ This is Wittgensteinian awe: ‘For it is with this world, as starting point and basis alike, that we shall always have to concern ourselves: the world is not to be learned and thrown aside, but reverted to and relearned.’ A permanently admirable thing to have said, it seems to me: the aridity of Coleridge’s sum-m-jects and om-m-jects suddenly sings with moral purpose like a Wesley hymn. And Browning goes on, almost as splendidly: ‘There may be no end of the poets who communicate to us what they see in an object with reference to their own individuality; what it was before they saw it, in reference to the aggregate human mind, will be as desirable to know as ever.’

Browning’s prose expands there into a spacious world without, and the self-sustaining universe of Shelley’s retina suddenly feels like an onset of claustrophobia. ‘I know not what to wish for him but that he may meet with a real Pauline,’ wrote good wise Mill, but his level head surely missed the note of authorial bewilderment that already ran through Browning’s poem. The speaker’s mind turns and turns about the thought of its ‘self-supremacy,/Existing as a centre to all things,/Most potent’, but the total effect feels anything but potent, and the poem only really bursts into eccentric life when the poet figure gets momentarily taken up by something other than himself. Pauline doesn’t do it for him, but there is a striking picture of a pool in a secret wood: ‘The trees bend/O’er it as wild men watch a sleeping girl,/And thro’ their roots long creeping plants stretch out/Their twined hair, steeped and sparkling.’ That is creepily brilliant, anticipating many of Browning’s sudden shocks of the real in the much better poems that were to come: his great theme was always going to arise not from self-absorption but from imagining encounters with what he called in Sordello (1840), another early epic of the self-entangling mind, ‘the entire out-world’.

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