Thursday, 9 May 2013

Indolent thoughts

Under the “killing sun”1 of Romanticism, an individual is reborn through love and empathy, their creative imagination kindled, and art, poetry and music thrive for the benefit of us all: “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv'd in my heart, in my head, in every idea…”. And months, or minutes later, the same person feels they have been cheated into a fire: “I fly with HORROR from such a passion….”2
John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781) Image source: Wikipedia
In the spring of 1798, the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse was reconciled to the man she truly loved, an artist who was the slave of the feeling of the moment, who....

had betrayed her two years before by transferring his attentions to her younger sister. “But NOW.. mortification, grief, agony are all forgot”. Her exaltation in the feeling of the moment is in that capitalized “now”. The bliss of secret meetings during the heat of the summer was short-lived because the younger sister was ill; and slowly dying. The older girl caught between two loves, sisterly and erotic, had to decide who was owed the greatest love of all, and in the act she believed would define her, refused to marry the artist, who threatened to kill himself. So, in the autumn, shocked by his selfish histrionics that profaned a family’s grief, she renounced him for ever.

Thomas Lawrence’s vacillations over Sarah Siddons’ elder daughters, Sally and Maria, was more of a Romantic psychodrama about narcissism and repressed sexuality than true love story, that is like a rehearsal for Shelley and Byron’s experiments in free love eighteen years later, practising on two young women equally intent on self-discovery and testing the limits of self-determination.

The women were the casualties of male egotism and narcissism, but they started on the adventure voluntarily, all of them hoping for “an immortality of passion” and cheated “into a swamp, a fire”3. Then, hurt, tormented by divisive emotions of jealousy and guilt, they saw “what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge"5

The inspiring libertarian philosophy, shining imagery, the swooningly seductive verse and solitary heroic attitudes of Romanticism were pernicious when not accompanied by consideration for other people’s feelings. Too often, these were treated as jarring details that would spoil the aesthetic, like the stripes of Wellington’s military sash denoting his rank of Generallisimo during the Napoleonic Wars that Lawrence blithely disregarded.6

In the end, on the path to reconciling humanity with its existence, fact and reason would have to intervene in the life of sensations. Keats, the least selfish in personal character of all the Romantic poet-philosophers, tried to unravel this knot in Hyperion:
            Knowledge enormous makes a god of me,
            Names, deeds, grey legends, dire events, rebellions

The poet of instant feeling, of mystic union with external essences, the worshipper of Beauty and belief in salvation through imagination, is grappling with real political facts and events. Hyperion, abandoned by Keats partly because of its Miltonic artificiality compared to the new, purer poetry he wanted to write, the deceptively effortless music of To Autumn, was his only poem approved of unreservedly by both Byron and Shelley, the classically educated and far more politically engaged poets. “A fine monument”, Byron allowed, even “sublime”.7

The main problem for Keats had been reconciling an objective narration of the development of the intellect, with the personal and Romantic,8 the eternal dilemma of art to be detached and immediate at the same time, to be the ocean and the drop. His poetic vocation had been “to unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain”,9 the goal of every religion, and more than any of us can hope for.

1 Shelley, Adonais
2 Sally Siddons’ letters quoted by FMW Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons
3 Keats, Endymion
4 Ibid.
5 Claire Clairmont’s memoir discovered and quoted by Daisy Hay, Young Romantics, Bloomsbury, 2010
6 Jacob Simon, Thomas Lawrence NPG research programme,
7 Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats p 409
8 Ibid. p408
9 Keats, Lamia