25 September 2007

Romanticism: Pagan or Pre-Christian?

C. S. Lewis explicitly links Romanticism with a kind of pre-salvific prophecy, and I would like to explore that idea and its utility and truth. Here are some thoughts.

The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, & Romanticism, published on 25 May 1933, was the first book C. S. Lewis wrote after his conversion , and his first full-length prose work. It is a generalized spiritual autobiography, modeled on Bunyan’s, and recounts the hero’s evolutions of thought from an Anglican childhood through atheism, materialism-realism, a touch of occultism, philosophical idealism, pantheism, and theism to Christianity.

Ten years after the first publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis defined and categorized nine kinds of “romanticism” in the afterword. Seven of these—excluding movie star affairs and the religious mode—are to be found in literature. They include, but are not limited to, the historical period of literature which began in the late eighteenth century in Germany and reached a peak in the works of the British Romanic Poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, Letitia Elizabeth Landon et al). In addition to works of art associated with this cultural epoch, Lewis discusses other kinds of small-R romanticisms ranging from celebrity love-affairs through adventure novels, magic, heroism, abnormal or macabre tales, egoism and subjectivism, political revolutions, delight in nature, and his peculiar variety of religious experience.

The Pilgrim’s Regress-—in its subtitle An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, & Romanticism—explicitly connects John’s/Jack’s sensation of longing with Romantic literature. Book 8, chapters VIII and IX, “History’s Words” and “Matter of Fact,” propound the central symbols of the allegory: the “Rules” of John’s childhood are the Old Testament Law, given to the Jews. His Island was one of the many pictures given to Pagans; in theological terms, General Revelation allows elements of truth to infiltrate every system of mythology or literature, evoking longing for the Giver of Truth. Both the pictures and the Rules—Sweet Desire and rigid morality—come from and are designed to lead back to the Landlord, or God. The character named History explains to John that Romanticism (here the allegory breaks down entirely) gave the clearest pictures: “Romanticism is valuable precisely because it precludes idolatry: other intimations of immortality were pictures of something not of this world, so people worshipped the thing. But the Romantics made pictures of real things and infused them with the Something Other that invoked Joy."
After the first publication of The Pilgrim’s Regress in 1933, Lewis ran up against serious difficulties with this book. He realized that he had been, as he puts it in the afterword, needlessly obscure. He had expected that his readers would understand the association of Romanticism with his particular brand of spiritual longing. By 1943 he discarded the label “Romanticism,” but remained uncertain of what to call it. He tried the terms “intense longing,” “sweet desire,” “enchantment,” “the Blue Flower,” the “dialectic of Desire,” and “immortal longings”; all attempts to signify an “intense longing… yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… this hunger is better than any fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth." These terms are still closely related to the characteristic diction of Romanticism and “the Sublime.”

For approximately one hundred years, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, “the sublime” was a widely debated subject. Thinkers and writers sought to discover the source, significance, and nature of passions, especially those connected to aesthetic experiences. While they described different catalysts of the sublime, they agreed that its attendant emotions were the strongest that human beings were capable of feeling. Several Romantic poets chose joy as a definitive emotion in their writings on the sublime. Lewis’s diction of desire, due to its use of “joy” and its explorations of sublimity, is therefore inescapably linked to Romanticism.

While Lewis unambiguously stated that his longing was not itself a kind of nostalgia, the close identification of the Romantic Sublime with his “It” led him into a reactionary backward glance at the history of European literature. In Lewis’s opinion, writers like Morris, Coleridge, and Wordsworth gave the clearest pictures “of real things” infused “with the Something Other that invoked Joy." Therefore, Lewis worked hard in his creative and professional spheres to keep their kind of literature alive. He had a religious axe to grind, too: he thought that Romantic poetry offered something very much like heavenly heraldry, and consequently very much like Christianity. “The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity." He insisted that the poems and novels of the most spiritually interfused writers were nothing but signposts—stimulating the yearning while only hinting at its object. But he was not above following the bright drops of Romanticism’s “spilled religion” on the floor of the history of literature. Lewis believed that spiritual honesty would force seekers on and on until they found that-—not the longings themselves, but-—the object of their desire lay on the other side of the canyon, and had been sending messages across.


Steve Hayes said...

Now I must reread The pilgrim's regress!

Iambic Admonit said...

Yes, please do and then let me know what you think!