MacDiarmid on Burns

A post for Burns night – well, why not? My students tell me I quote Hugh MacDiarmid too much; maybe, but he is unquestionably Scotland’s greatest modern poet, perhaps alongside Burns and Dunbar one of the three greatest this land has produced. I tend, I confess, to his more philosophical, later, and lesser poems written in standard English. His masterpiece, though, is the early (1926) Scots poem, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’: some stanzas from there on Burns: Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here – the world hath need, And Scotland mair sae, o’ the likes o’ thee! The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become A laxative for a’ loquacity O gin they’d stegh their guts and haud their wheesht I’d thole it, for ‘a man’s a man,’ I ken, But though the feck ha’e plenty o’ the ‘a’ that,’ They’re nocht but zoologically men. I’m haverin’, Rabbie, but ye understaun’ It gets my dander up to see your star A bauble in Babel, banged like a saxpence ‘Twixt Burbank’s Baedeker and Bleistein’s cigar. This, to my mind, is classic MacDiarmid, carelessly, almost aggressively elitist (the echo of (pastiche on?) Wordsworth is obvious enough, but the throwaway reference to T.S. Eliot, in a poem published in 1926, assumes and demands so much of the readers),but remarkably populist in tone, the whole lamenting what Scotland could and should be. And, it being Burns night, two more lines from the same poem, again on Burns: Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ. (Some vocab: ‘stegh’ = ‘stuff’; ‘haud their wheesht’ = ‘be quiet’; ‘thole’=’put up with’; ‘feck’=’majority’ (‘folk’); ‘haverin’ = ‘rambling’ or ‘burbling’; ‘dander’ =...

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Romanticism and Pantheism

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, The Emergence of Romanticism (Oxford: OUP, 1992) is a fascinating little book that I wish I tripped over before. Apart from anything else, any author with the guts to start a book ‘To quote Wordsworth:’ and to follow that line with seven pages of poetry excerpts deserves some respect! The book offers readings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Schlegel, together with some analysis. The readings of the English poets are convincing to me, but perhaps incomplete (see below); I don’t know enough about the Germans to judge. Riasanovsky suggests that Romanticism in its original form is a remarkably brief movement, arising roughly simultaneously in England and Germany in the mid-1790s and lasting less than a decade. This is just right – for me, one of those satisfying moments of scholarship where you find someone naming and nailing something you always sort-of knew, and had groped towards. Byron and Keats and Shelley (and the rest) are just different from Coleridge and Wordsworth – if they are still ‘Romantic’ (and of course they are, because self-denominated and generally recognised), then it is a fairly fundamentally different Romanticism to that of the Lyrical Ballads. The book also highlights something of the communal nature of these projects. The astonishing symbiosis of Wordsworth and Coleridge is known and endlessly analysed, of course (even if all the analysis gets us no nearer to understanding what went on in those few years); Riasanovsky also points towards gatherings at August Wilhelm Schlegel’s house in Jena, where the dinner guests would routinely include of his brother Friedrich, Novalis, Tieck (who published with Wackenroder), Schleiermacher, and, occasionally, Goethe. If you could be at one dinner party in history… (yeah, I know, it would be the one with Socrates at Agathon’s house – but this must be a close second!) What sets these early Romantics apart? Riasanovsky suggests it is basically something theological: the original Romantics were gripped with an overwhelming pantheist, or panentheist vision, which was the intellectual and spiritual engine that led them to overturn and transform received ideas about nature, language and art. But each, in his own way, was quickly overwhelmed by the vision – Wordsworth becoming a crusty reactionary, trying to edit out everything that was genuinely brilliant from his poetry; Coleridge descending into drug addiction; Novalis doing the proper Romantic thing and died at the height of his power from TB; Wackenroder dying even earlier; Schlegel becoming as reactionary, if in somewhat different ways, to Wordsworth. Schlegel never finished Lucinde, let alone the larger project it was to be a part of, and valued it so little later on that he left it out own his own 1823 edition of his collected works; The Prelude remained alone, and was successively mutilated; the work it was to be a, well, ‘prelude’ to, The Recluse, never appeared; Coleridge, famously, never finished anything (this is unfair!). For a few years, a fire burned with such heat and brilliance that it transformed European literature and culture; for decades afterwards Wordsworth and Schlegel, in particular, remained as only charred timbers. As T.S. Eliot had it of Coleridge, ‘[f]or a few years he had been visited by the Muse … and henceforth was a haunted man.’ Even the casual reader of the poets will know the sense of loss of vision that afflicts them all in different ways. Consider this, from Wordsworth’s Intimations: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it has been of yore;– Turn whereso’er I may, By night or day The things which I have seen I now can see no more. Or this, from Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn: A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song To such a deep delight ‘twould win me… What is lost? For Riasanovsky, it is the consuming pantheist experience described by Wordsworth in his note on Intimations: ‘I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature. Many times when going to school have I grasped at a wall or a tree to recall myself from the abyss of idealism to reality…’ (q. on p.75) This felt pantheism, or at least panentheism, is at the heart of the Lyrical Ballads, of the original...

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