The Romantics

It takes one to know one—or so they used to say.  My current preoccupation has me learning about the Romantics.  This isn’t the same as “romance,” although both words derive from the Old French for “verse narrative.”  Novel, in German, is Roman.  In any case, Sir Walter Scott cordially embraced Washington Irving when the latter arrived unannounced at Abbotsford.  Reading the account in Irving’s own words, it sounds like a bromance, and some modern interpreters—inclined as they are to look for genital contact—have suggested Irving, a lifelong bachelor, might’ve been a homosexual.  Although there’s nothing wrong with that, I do wonder if it misunderstands the language of the Romantics.  To borrow a sentence from Andrew Burstein (more to come anon): “This had to do with intimacy, not sex as we understand it.”

I recently gave a talk about Herman Melville’s spiritual orientation.  I mentioned his close friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  During the discussion period the question of whether they might’ve been lovers was raised.  I’d read this before.  I don’t know what went on in Melville’s bedroom—it’s none of my business—but I think the Romantics were all about intimacy.  We’re now familiar with the genre of bromance.  Guys, usually two, pairing off for pursuits of significance to both of them.  Or two women. I think of all the great same-sex pairings throughout literary history and wonder where we’d be without them.  Since our culture has long demonized sex, our mind is constantly creeping between the sheets.  Who touched whom?  Where and when?  Isn’t intimacy enough any more?  Where’s the Romance?  I’m no prude, but I wonder if we misread sex and the Romantics.

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul – On the mountain, public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Romantic Movement produced the culture I taught myself living in a run-down house with no spending money.  I borrowed recordings—actual records—of Beethoven symphonies from the library that I had to listen to with headphones because nobody else wanted to hear that kind of thing.  I read Poe.  I read about Poe.  Gothic, a subset of Romanticism, became my muse.  I had no intimate friends with which to share this.  Not until seminary—that place where such unusual, unspoken things occur.  Of course I was in Boston, the most Romantic of American cities with New Bedford to the south and Salem to the north.  To the east the boundless ocean.  We still read the Romantics.  We still read about them.  I can’t help but think we might misunderstand them.  Yes, Irving and Scott were together “from morning to night,” but thinking back to my own Romantic ideals as a teenager, I suspect they just talked.  Intimately.


Gothic Dreams

There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre.  Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread.  The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood.  As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why.  Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer.  In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic.  But what is gothic?  Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it?  I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages.  It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.

Groom begins with the historical Goths.  Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over.  They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic.  Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction.  In that realm it is remarkably widespread.  Shakespeare participates in it.  It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today.  At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections.  Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.

The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England.  For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic.  While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through.  Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance.  By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror.  And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.


Shipmates

MaryCelesteGhosts have a way of persisting. I’ve had Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste on my reading list since I first saw it in hardcover on a bookstore shelf. The Mary Celeste was an actual ship, found with not a soul aboard, lifeboat intact, and no sign of violence, back in the 1870s. To this day no one knows what happened to the crew. Valerie Martin takes this frame and fills it in with a family drawn into Spiritualism, a religion that was just beginning at the time. Spiritualism, which developed in the aftermath of the Fox sisters and the eerie rapping at their upstate New York home, is one of the few religions to be completely at home with ghosts. The faith still exists today, and although Margaret Fox “confessed” to having hoaxed the effects she also retracted her confession, leaving ghost hunters perplexed to this day. These two mysteries, brought together in the moody month of November, make for a compelling novel that urges the reader forward.

Martin also adds the presence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the story. Doyle, an avowed believer in the spiritual realm, also created Sherlock Holmes. As the various characters try to piece together what happened to the Mary Celeste, the ghosts of those lost at sea ambiguously communicate with the living. The world between realms, in this story, is permeable but indistinct. Those lost at sea are, in the narrative, restless. The mood of the novel is unrelentingly moving and thoughtful. Ghosts haunt, but don’t appear. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

As today is the fortieth anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it seems appropriate to think about the Mary Celeste. Since Percy Shelley drowned in his own personal boating accident, loss at sea has become one of the hallmarks of Romanticism. Conceived as an answer to the cold, callus industrialism that trailed the scientific revolution, Romanticism suggested that there was an enchantment to nature and that things were not always as they seemed. Prosaically, there’s nothing poetic about dying in a violent shipwreck. That’s what makes the Mary Celeste so compelling. There is no violence here. The sea calls and claims captain and crew as her own. The lack of resolution has led to a very open-ended mystery—the perfect foil to a harsh materialism. Today the Mary Celeste and Edmund Fitzgerald will be sailing my internal seas as the season of spirits and shipwrecks come together in the lengthening nights of November.


Shelley, Byron, Trelawny, and Ahab

“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.

Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.

Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.