Romanticism emerged in response to two great revolutions – the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution – both of which dynamically uprooted the status quo of settled belief in authority (church, aristocracy, feudal law) and opened up a new and previously unseen scale of commerce and trade. These events also unleashed an inward turn, a direct questioning of ideas such as liberty, the meaning of life, the relationship to history, nature and time and above all, to the placement of feeling over thinking, felt experience over any abstract rationalising.
In Britain two generations of poets flowered, addressing their art explicitly to these momentous forces – Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge in the first wave, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Clare following on. In Germany and France too, artists and writers turned towards the new torrent of flux and began to remake the world in their own image.
At the dawn of the industrial age, the Romantics peered into the same challenges that we are so familiar with today – advancing alienation from Self, the intensity of yearning for a prior state, an acute sense of the loss of the natural world, a concern with the rhythms of eternity and a profound dissatisfaction with the emerging mechanistic world of urban/industrial living. Any of us who has ever turned within to contemplate their emotional experience, or pursued their creativity through an expressive art owe a moment’s reflection upon those who pioneered these ways of being. So thoroughgoing is the influence of the Romantic period on our modern sensibility that even the much-maligned contemporary obsession with celebrity has its original forms specifically within the Romantic era, condensed and forced into criticality in the thermonuclear personhood of the poet George Gordon. Better known as Lord Byron, his life outreached his art, and became the very archetype of a new kind of fame.
The passing of two centuries has deepened and confirmed the essential insights of Romanticism. Since the 1800s, Western culture has continued outwardly to pursue the technological and rational course. On a global scale, we have embraced a reality predicated upon the heroic controlling of our selves and nature. Yet, the pathology of our age reveals a tragic cost. In our mass anxieties and despair, our externalising of Terror, our alienation from each other and Self, not to mention the vast and shocking awareness that the Earth as we have known it sickens from our extractive excess, our commitment to profit over life, we have come to define ourselves through doing. But we are being forced to encounter an excluded, essential truth. The truth of our human being. Who am I? Who are you? What are we?
The Rainbow Re-made, borrowing an image from the poet John Keats, seeks to trace out an arc of influence from those who see rainbows as truth and beauty made light in the play of appearances; to consider the woundings of the human obsession with measurement, that cold impulse that would ‘unweave a rainbow’ and render its mystery, its beauty, as nothing but abstract numbering and contortions of measure. We’ll explore poetry against scientism, the potential of the human soul against the dead hand of unconstrained commerce, the measuring force of Newton’s sleep, blind even to rainbows freely given.
As examples we’ll contrast Keats and Coleridge with Dawkins and Darwin, Wordsworth and Shelley to Shell and Monsanto, William Blake, JMW Turner and Caspar David Friedrich against the dark Satanic mills of our own confused minds.
In addition, and for those with an eye on astrology, it is worth noting that in all of this, now as then, we are inevitably investigating the contact boundary between Saturn and Uranus – the old order, the ancien règime, and the radical challenge of that which emerges from beyond the known. Our dates, roughly focused between 1781 and 1846, also happen to mark the discoveries of Uranus and, intriguingly, Neptune.
As the pre-eminent, senior English Romantic, William Wordsworth, put it “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”
The Rainbow Re-made is a two-hour online class scheduled for 7-9 pm (British Summer Time) on Saturday 30th August 2014 via GoToMeeting. Tickets can be reserved through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-rainbow-re-made-how-the-romantics-made-the-new-age-tickets-12533691609
See you there.