In a Mirror Dimly

by Chris Alderman


At Gutenberg we sometimes refer to Romanticism as the Enlightenment’s “evil twin”—somewhat facetiously, of course, but a certain amount of opprobrium does attach to the term in the annals of intellectual history. Romanticism has been characterized as the refuge of irrationalists, obscurantists, even solipsists who would downplay or even deny the reality of the phenomenal world. The English poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) epitomizes the Romantic temperament when he reacts to controversial scientific ideas like Robert Chambers’s “transmutation of the species” (a precursor to Darwinian evolution) and their tendency to view human beings as unexceptional: “Let Science prove we are, and then / What matters Science unto men, / At least to me?” (“In Memoriam,” Canto 120.) If science, history, and representational art are windows through which we see the world outside, then surely Romantic art and philosophy are mirrors in which, like Narcissus, the gazer is lost in an imaginary dream.

But what, after all, is the difference between a window and a mirror apart from the fact that the former shows what is behind it and the latter what is before? Indeed, one could argue that the window—corresponding here to scientific observation with its supposed objectivity—presents the greater obstacle to true knowledge because of its very transparency. Its presence, and thus its effects on the observer and the observed, is easily forgotten. The mirror, on the other hand, which obviously presents nothing more than an image of reality, never lets one lose sight of the fact that one’s perspective is limited. Even for the Apostle Paul, the mirror is a more appropriate metaphor for the medium of earthly knowledge: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Romanticism, then, might be understood as a reaction to the epistemological pretensions of Enlightenment thinking. But that is not all. By framing their artistic and philosophical productions as so many mirrors—most are loosely if not strictly autobiographical—the Romantics restored to our picture of reality what the Enlightenment and its heirs tended to erase: the human being, instinct with the breath divine.

This human being is not, in Tennyson’s words, “wholly brain”; not merely a pair of hands to pull a lever or crank a machine; not—notwithstanding the reductions of the Darwinist—nothing but that part of the body for which the modesty of a former age sewed an apron of fig leaves. In contrast with all such analyses, all such breakings-down of the human being, the Romantics saw the goal of philosophy to be a synthesis, a putting-back-together-again. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who of all the Romantics offers the fullest exposition of their thought, writes thus of the imagination, a faculty more important to them than any other:

It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. (Biographia Literaria)

The idealized, unified, synthesized image of the human being that we glimpse in the mirror of Romantic poetry and prose is beautiful and maybe even flattering, combining as it does many of the features that we would sooner associate with God: “For Mercy has a human heart, / Pity a human face, / And Love, the human form divine, / And Peace, the human dress.”1 The effect of the picture as a whole, however, is a melancholy one, for in a corner of the frame, small but conspicuous, crouches a hideous creature: Death. If the prey for whom it lies fiendishly in wait, the human being, were merely an animal or a machine—as some of the Romantics’ contemporaries averred—the picture would lose its sadness along with its beauty.

American Romantic Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49) makes the connection between sadness and beauty explicit in his comments on a kind of self-elegy written by another Romantic, William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878):

The intense melancholy which seems to well up, perforce, to the surface of all the poet’s cheerful sayings about his grave, we find thrilling us to the soul … Let me remind you that (how or why we know not) this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of beauty. (“The Poetic Principle”)

Here Poe professes not to know the reason why great beauty should grieve us, but I believe the foregoing discussion provides an answer. The more beautiful we find something—that is, the more we recognize in it the imprint of the divine—the sadder we are tempted to become, understanding or remembering or only vaguely sensing that it, too, must pass. Or perhaps, observing beauty that seems perpetually renewed, like winter blooming into spring, we are saddened at the thought of our own continuous decline. “Beauty,” as the English Romantic John Keats (1795-1821) famously wrote, “is truth” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”).

Poe puts his finger on this idea in a later essay when he writes: “[T]he death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (“The Philosophy of Composition”). Many of his poems and stories, and all of the more beautiful ones, have just this as their theme.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes
Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In her sepulcher there by the sea—
In her tomb by the side of the sea.

This is not the affectation of a poet who has simply realized that sorrow sells. Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” after the death of his consumptive wife at the age of twenty-three. We may also confidently trace the origins of “The Raven,” “Ligeia,” and “Berenice” to her long illness—and to Poe’s memory of his young mother’s death from the same disease when he was still a child.

Poe is not the only Romantic to sound this note of sadness. Just as some have detected in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) the first signs of the Romantic sensibility, the elegy may be the genre in which the Romantics did their more characteristic and beautiful work. In “Adonais,” the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) writes:

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!

Again, this is no lachrymose little number performed by a hired mourner at the head of a Roman funeral procession. Shelley wrote it less than six months after Keats’s death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five, seeing in his friend’s fate not only the tragedy of the beautiful Grecian youth beloved of Aphrodite but also a foreshadowing of his own demise. (Shelley was to die six years later, young himself and, like Keats, relatively obscure.) Shelley’s grief, like Poe’s for his wife Virginia, was real.

Real too is the grief in the sonnet beginning with the words “Surprised by joy” by the English Romantic William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the last of the sad, beautiful poems that I shall adduce for you here. Its first words, of course, were later used by C. S. Lewis as the title for his 1955 autobiography, testifying to the poem’s importance for him. In this sonnet, Wordsworth recounts the pain he felt when, turning unconsciously to share a moment of happiness with his three-year-old daughter Catherine, he remembers that she is dead.

     —That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

C. S. Lewis, remembering the time when he was still seeking a philosophy of life that would do justice to his experience of it, writes: “The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics” (Surprised by Joy). Like the Romantics, he rejected the latest instance of Enlightenment thinking, the psychological “realism” of the day according to which even our highest aspirations are sublimations of sexual desire—a simplistic and even sophomoric account of the human condition. For Lewis, such a theory failed to account for what he calls “Joy.” Joy is to be distinguished from pleasure and even happiness, he writes; in fact, one might almost call it a kind of grief. Most interesting for our purposes is the genre of the literary work to which Lewis traces his first encounter with Joy: the elegy. “I heard a voice that cried, / Balder the beautiful / Is dead, is dead…”2 The death of the beloved, the beloved’s beauty: this might be a poem by Poe, Shelley, or Wordsworth. Lewis found in Romanticism a view of the human being that better accounted for the reality of Joy, for that strange mixture of elation and dejection we feel when love reveals to us man’s beauty with the toll of a passing bell.

But this is not the end. Joy—grief—is not the end, as Lewis came to realize, but a signpost directing us thither. It may be an inseparable part of all the higher manifestations of beauty, as Poe observed, but it can have no share in the highest. As any Christian could have told them, and as Lewis discovered, the highest manifestation of beauty (and the end of sadness) is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Once a Romantic myself, I believed that our Lord had forever sanctified human sorrow with his tears. “Weep with those who weep,” Paul tells us in Romans 12:15, and this is just what we see Jesus do in John 11:35, where he weeps with those who mourn the death of his friend Lazarus. But whom, we may ask, is Jesus weeping for? Is he, as the Romantics would have done, weeping for Lazarus? Scholars disagree on the answer. The text, however, shows Jesus greeting the news of Lazarus’s sickness and death with equanimity because he knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead. It thus suggests that Jesus weeps not for the dead man, who has only “fallen asleep in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:18), but sympathetically for the living.

Today I search the New Testament in vain for the sadness I found so beautiful in the Romantics. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9:14). And he is with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). For a long time, our writing has either drily painted the world without us (like the Enlightenment writers) or run with the tears of self-reflection (like the Romantics). What would our writing look like if it were to crystallize into a vision of the world to come? What if we, beholding our visage in the center of the mirror, were to sit ourselves down and see above us the image of the one who stands at our back, the one true man and express image of the Father, rising victorious over the grave, and ourselves raised with him?

Perhaps such writing might look like the Hyperion of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) at the height of its passion:

Auch wir, auch wir sind nicht geschieden, Diotima, und die Tränen um dich verstehen es nicht!
[We too, we too are not parted, Diotima, and the tears for you understand it not!]

Perhaps it would resemble the “Dream-Fugue” of Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) in the splendor of its final throes:

A thousand times, amongst the phantoms of sleep, has God shown thee to me, standing before the golden dawn, and ready to enter its gates—with the dreadful Word going before thee—with the armies of the grave behind thee; shown thee to me, sinking, rising, fluttering, fainting, but then suddenly reconciled, adoring; a thousand times has he followed thee in the worlds of sleep—through storms; through desert seas; through the darkness of quicksands; through fugues and the persecution of fugues; through dreams, and the dreadful resurrections that are in dreams—only that at the last, with one motion of his victorious arm, he might record and emblazon the endless resurrections of his love!

Or perhaps we would see in it something of “Crossing the Bar,” that lofty valediction from the poet with whom this essay began, Alfred Tennyson:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our borne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Whatever the case may be, we may appreciate the work of the Romantics for what it is—a fairer, sadder, higher view of the human being than the Enlightenment thinkers gave us. But let us move beyond their view of “the higher manifestations of beauty,” entangled as it is in death and grief, and instead thank God for that highest beauty that holds no sting.

__________

Notes:

1“The Divine Image,” William Blake (1757-1827). Back to text

2 “Drapa” (Death Song or Dirge) by Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Back to text

Copyright March 2018 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Alderman