Monday, October 13, 2014

Isn't it Romantic?

By the time you'd reached the point in high school where teachers were tossing around the term "romanticism" in reference to poems, novels, music, and art, you were pretty sure you knew what it meant and that in fact, it was your own default position.

The university spelled it out for you; there was a bona fide Age of Romanticism, which came about as a consequence of an Age of Reason.  So there you were, a nineteen-year-old sophomore English major, presented with one of the more basic forks in the existential road, the road of the mind and the road of the heart.  Naive as you were at this point--and you may be simply an older naif right now--you found the world of reason having the tendency to run toward boring.

Arguments clothed in reason, even those that held your interest for a time, did not and do not hold you the same way actions and responses based on feelings hold your interest and set off within you the tingle of empathy and identification.

On too many occasions, as editor, teacher, and yes, in some cases even as a reader, you have come across enough situations where writers have tried to argue story.  These writers use intellectual and rhetorical reasons to argue story in place.  The awareness of it rankles.  

When you find such attempts in your own work, or when an editor points this tendency out to you, the first response is a flare of irritation, not only at your own folly but for the flaw in the human genome that insists on such argumentation.

You have nothing against the kinds of discussion that produce well-placed platforms of logic into play.  Arguments can and do drive some individuals to shouting matches and displays of erupting inner irritation. But shouting, turning over tables and chairs, and throwing things do not settle or resolve arguments.  Such behavior may put a temporary end to the conversation but not to the resident feelings.

Thus we come back on the inevitable circle, back to story and, thus, to Romanticism, which is in its most deconstructed form emotional information, data that influence the way individuals behave, react, and infer.

So much of story and other forms of art have co-dependency relations with inference. The worst thing you can think to say of Romanticism is that it can be pushed over the threshold of tolerance, into that excess some consider to be over-sentimentality.  

Like steaks, sentimentality is best served rare, perhaps with a bit of charring on the outside.  Over-sentimentality and well-done steaks have a good deal in common, each being tougher than the less cooked version, losing some of its juices, tending toward a leathery texture.

In this metric of tolerance, extreme sentimentality is Romanticism being set to the tune of parody.  By its own hand, parody means to ridicule, to bring down from a thing of esteem to an object of pity.  You could say parody intends to lower a thing instates, which is, of course, class.  Ha, ha, you are not the respected personage you thought you were.

Romanticism allows the introduction of elements that were formerly unable to get through the snobbish gatekeepers of convention.  It allows us to accept into our stories individuals who cling to ideals, idealism, and focus, and if we are wrong about such things, it allows us to go on looking.

There are many ways for you to write off some of your favorite poetry as excessive Romanticism, your two favorites taking you and their principal narrators some distance beyond the zone of comfort sometimes associated with romantic concepts.  These are poems you've spent time with before and shall undoubtedly find yet additional ways for revisiting here.  But this aspect of Romanticism is a strength of the medium,  A romance grows in stature as you do.

Your two favored poems are Yeats's "The Ballad of Wandering Aengus," and Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."  To that, you add Ernest Dowson, who barely made it into the twentieth century.  His most notable and memorable work is a poem with a longish Latin title, bewildering to anyone without traces of Latin,  "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae," which is a line from the odist, Horace,  "I am not as I was when the kind Cynara was queen."

Like the Keats and Yeats poems, Dowson's is an example of things going wrong, which is not only a theme of Romanticism, it is a precursor of noir literature.  By all accounts a shy, diffident man, Dowsen fell in love with Adele, the young daughter of a restaurateur, but was too shy and embarrassed to tell her.

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! Thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! The night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Now you know where Margaret Mitchel got the title for her novel.  More to the point, you think of the three main characters in these poems, each doomed with longing and unrest.  You'd not thought to carry them along with you from those days when you, scarcely twenty, were encountering them.

Thus the force of Romanticism.

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