Field Journal Entry, Planet Literature: Striking out to map the ragged contours of the land they call Romantic. One of the signs along the way has the demarcation “British, 1785 to 1830” (that one appears to be attributable to the local shamanic Historian they call “Green-blatt”). Others stand like crumbling stelae: Wordsworth (translation: one whose words have worth?) Byron, Keats, Shelley. These are obvious relics of the reign of King Richards, I.A. I am pursuing understanding of the one they call Coleridge, but on that straight path I am distracted by a sign: “Christ’s Hospital, Five-and-Thirty Years Ago (Thataway)” and, following this detour, carrying a mirror and a lamp, I find myself at the feet of the mild-mannered Italian clerk named Elia. He tells me a story about Bluecoats. I, a bluestocking, cannot help but attend. Afterwards, I ask him, “Little Lamb, who made thee?”
I did warn you about the funhouse mirrors. That was one of them. Translation follows.
“Romantic” is an English word with a perfectly acceptable everyday-life (hereafter EDL) meaning; especially in February, the romantic points to love relationships, candy, hearts and flowers.1 But this meaning gets in the way horribly when we’re trying to grasp the literary concept (era? Theme? Conceit? School? Movement? This is why I like my land-mass-on-Planet-Literature metaphor so much) that we call Romanticism.
On this Planet, Romantic is a hotly-debated designation. It’s one thing to read fifteen critics and get fifteen definitions for a literary term. I read fifteen critics, each of which gave me seven explanations for the fifteen definitions he was offering from other critics (punctuated by complaining about why they can’t make up their minds). Now I know math was never my long suit, but, even counting overlapping critics (and wouldn’t that make a good name for a doctoral dissertation?) I figure that makes 15,750 different definitions. Math professor acquaintances wishing to correct me: please take a number and queue up.
Anyway. I’m out looking for Coleridge. I feel woefully uninformed on the subtle distinctions between his poetry and Wordsworth’s. I’m not a huge Wordsworth cheerleader. The fact that they “co-wrote” Lyrical Ballads just makes me more determined to figure out which part of its definition of Romanticism is Coleridge’s. So I start reading a brief biographical sketch of Coleridge and find out that if I want to know the man, I should read Charles Lamb. It appears they went to school together, in Christ’s Hospital, London, where the pupils were called “Bluecoats.” Lamb was a privileged son and Coleridge a charity case. In his essayist’s persona as Elia, Lamb uses both writers’ memories to show the widely varied experiences of those who could expect gifts and considerations and those who were used as whipping boys. Is that a clue to the nature of the Romantic poet — the ability to recognize inconsistency and inequity in all its manifestations? Is that why Romantics seem to be against everything that all the other Romantics seem to be for?
Romantic critics to read: Rene Wellek; M.H. Abrams, I.A. Richards, A.O. Lovejoy, Henry Beers, Irving Babbitt, and Michael Lowy. My exploration into this terra incognita is only beginning; we’ll make more forays.