I. Romantic Moderne

It’s a commonly held perception that modernity began about a hundred years ago, with the advent of early 20th century Modernism. So you see a lot of discussion of how modernity emerged with the growth of the modern metropolis (London, Paris, New York), and how it’s closely related to the urban scene and the developing urban consciousness. What I want to suggest, however, is that we need to see it very differently. Specifically, my claim is that it started over 200 years ago and that it didn’t arise from any modern metropolis or even the mid-19th century urban scene of a city like London, but rather from what was being thought by a few people in a small town in eastern Germany: Jena. What you’re looking at now is a photo of a house and garden of a former resident of this town: Friedrich Schiller.

In fact, Schiller only moved into this particular house (the so-called Schiller Gartenhaus) a few years after writing the piece I want to talk about first. But it’s a very pleasant house—as anyone who’s had a chance to visit it can attest—and we can stretch chronology a bit to incorporate it. I have a specific motive for doing that, which is to get us to feel the idyllic quality of this garden house and of the whole surrounding scene. So when we’re thinking about modernity as originating with Schiller in Jena, we’ll think of it as coming out of these particularly idyllic circumstances. The Schiller work I want to use for my starting point is his famous essay of 1795, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” [ Über Naïve und Sentimentalische Dichtung ]. In it, he makes a distinction between the naïve and sentimental outlook. The naïve poet is interested only in the imitation of reality, and as a result doesn’t have any choice about how to treat it. With the sentimental poet, however, it’s a different matter entirely:

This one reflects on the impression that objects make on him and solely on that reflection is the emotion based, into which he is transported, and transports us. The object is here related to an idea, and on this relation alone is his poetic power based. The sentimental poet has therefore always to do with two conflicting representations and feelings, with reality as limit and with his idea as to the infinite, and the mixed feeling he inspires is always produced from this double source. (Schillers Werke 20: 441)

Notice where all the emotion’s coming from here: not from the object, not even from any impression of that object, but from reflection on the impression that objects produce on a perceiving consciousness. In his essay, Schiller associated the naïve with ancient writers, the sentimental with the modern. Now to my way of thinking, this sort of association is significant. If you look at earlier 18th century comparisons of ancients v. moderns, they’re typically just about who’s better. What you’re not so likely to find is a sense of one group of writers differing fundamentally from the other in terms of the very kind of literature they produce. So the way Schiller distinguishes ancient from modern is important, because the obvious takeaway from all this is that you’re going to find writers reflecting on the impressions objects produce only after you’ve got writers trying to describe these objects realistically. In other words, it’s never going to be the other way around. And in that respect we can say the kind of movement or shift we’re seeing here is irreversible. After subjectivity, you don’t go back to objectivity—unless that objectivity is itself infused with self-consciousness.

Shortly after Schiller’s 1795 essay, Friedrich Schlegel (partly in response to Schiller) tried to frame the ancient v. modern comparison in a way that’s clearly based on what Schiller says but takes it one step further, by trying to get more into the mindset of these ancient and modern groups. About the modern, Friedrich Schlegel in “On the Study of Greek Poetry” [ Über das Studium der Griechischen Poesie ] observes

It’s immediately evident that modern poetry in terms of the goal it’s striving for either hasn’t yet reached it, or that its striving has in general no firm goal, its development no definite direction, the substance of its history no law-obeying connection, the whole no unity…

And subsequently:

The most prized modern poems appear to differ from this category [ portrayal of the ugly ] more by degree than by type, and indeed it’s a mild punishment of a more perfect beauty that it isn’t so much in peaceful enjoyment as in unsatisfied longing. Indeed not infrequently one distances oneself from beauty all the more, the more violently one strives for it. (KA I: 217-19)

At the time of his writing the “Studium” piece, interestingly, Friedrich Schlegel placed a much higher valuation on ancient than on modern writers. At this point, what he liked about Greek or classical art was its definiteness, its clear delineation of people and things, its clarity of consciousness (a phrase he used at that time), its objectivity. But it didn’t take long for this to change: fast forward a few years to his “Dialogue on Poetry” [ Gespräch über die Poesie ] and we can see pretty clearly how he’s gone over to the other side. Now everything he’d disliked before about the modern—its indefiniteness, its subjectivity, its endless striving for something it can hardly name or specify—gets a positive spin put on it. It’s as if (as René Wellek so aptly puts it in his History of Modern Criticism) all the + signs had gotten changed to — and vice versa. And, as far as I’m aware, this is probably the first time we see a positive valuation of the modern. Hence the title of my talk: “Romantic Moderne” to signify how we need to start thinking about modernity as a concept that emerged out of Jena Romanticism or—putting it more broadly—Germany rather then England or France.

Friedrich Schlegel wasn’t however the only one going through a sea change at this time. Even in Germany, people were very much aware of what had been happening in France. By the time Friedrich Schlegel was writing his “Studium” piece, Louis XVI had gone to the scaffold, the Terror had already come and gone, and France was embarked on a course from which it couldn’t turn back. As I said, Friedrich Schlegel named the French Revolution as one of the three dominant tendencies of the age (the others being exemplified by Fichte’s Wissenchaftslehre and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister). But he wasn’t the only one to notice. Unquestionably, the French Revolution had sent shock waves through all of Europe. Thirty years later, Carlyle would try retrospectively to register what the shock might’ve felt like. So in his French Revolution he talks about the breakup of the “World-Solecism” ( Centenary II: 96 ), the loss of belief in the French monarchy. Here we can think of solecism in a broader sense—not just a speech blunder but maybe something like a misnomer, because by 1795 “monarchy” had become something of a misnomer. Supposed to designate those who ruled from divine authority, it had been exposed as a sham, as a word that didn’t signify what it was supposed to signify because the referent or signified didn’t really exist. And this was something then being felt or registered all around the world. It isn’t accidental, I suppose, that the execution of Louis XVI or, later, of Marie Antoinette gets more attention in Carlyle than the policies of the Terror. For Carlyle, the French Revolution is all about shock, and how it gets registered. From that standpoint, certainly, the execution of the king (or queen) is far more important than any papers issued by ministers or by the National Assembly. In this respect Carlyle looks a lot like Clarendon, who in his History of the Rebellion had similarly given a huge amount of space to the execution of Charles I—as to that of the Earl of Strafford before him. The execution of a king is just what’s likely to produce the kind of shock Carlyle’s talking about: everything we might’ve believed about the king, about the divine right by which he supposedly ruled, comes to an abrupt end. When the king’s no more, hard to believe any longer in divine right or authority.

But the French Revolution wasn’t the biggest shock Europe suffered at that time. A much bigger shock was the one produced by the Napoleonic wars. Unlike the French Revolution, which for most people was something happening in far-away France, the Napoleonic wars brought the reality of that Revolution home to everybody all over Europe. At this point it’s a bit hard to imagine the impact Napoleonic warfare must’ve had—but we can try. For one thing, the scale of warfare changed completely. A typical 18th century battle in continental Europe involved relatively small numbers of professional troops. Knowing that 6,000 French regulars sent to help out at Yorktown tipped the balance in favor of the American colonies in 1781 tells you all you need to know about the scale of 18th century conflict. By contrast, Napoleonic conflict was massive—usually over 100,00 men involved on any given battlefield. The French Revolution made it possible to wage war on a different scale: the cry of “la patrie en danger” allowed the French government to draft its entire population of young men to meet that danger. And Napoleon was happy to continue the practice. In fact, he applied it ruthlessly, calling up “classes” of young men (the class of 1802, 1803, 1804. … ) long before their year had come. In this way a whole generation was tragically lost in the snows of Russia in 1812. But when you have the capacity to call on virtually any young man from Paris or the provinces to fill your ranks, a commander like Napoleon wasn’t about to hesitate.

It’s now time to return to Jena. When I mentioned it before, I spoke of it as a small town in eastern Germany. Clearly, anything happening intellectually in either the Schiller Gartenhaus or the nondescript pale green house occupied by many of the Frühromantiker  (Friedrich Schlegel, Caroline Schlegel/Schelling, others) wasn’t about to make big waves immediately. But something else that happened just outside the town of Jena around this time did have a huge impact. The battle of Jena, in which Napoleonic forces engaged those of Prussia, brought about the sudden, complete collapse of the Prussian monarchy.

Schiller Gartenhaus

To get an idea of how that happened, it’s useful to look at the Jena landscape. Here, then, is a shot of the plateau just above the town (Jena itself is in the valley below, not quite visible from where we are).

Some years ago I was in Jena myself and somewhat curious to check out the actual battlefield site. What I found on getting to it was somewhat surprising—that the scene of conflict literally stretched for miles, to towns I couldn’t even see from my vantage point at Cospeda (which gives, once again, an idea of scale). Anyway, looking at the PPT slide what you see is, obviously, a landscape of rolling hills and lots of forest blocking visibility—perfect, you might say, for screening rapid, undetected movement by an army corps. Which is exactly how Napoleon used it. The result was a classic example of Napoleonic battle tactics: the signature end-around move Napoleon used repeatedly to attack his enemies from the rear, causing a sudden stretching out of the enemy line to meet this attack and hence making the whole formation vulnerable to frontal assault by his reserve force, what he called his “masse de décision.” Once broken up by that frontal assault, the entire enemy formation could then be pursued relentlessly by cavalry aided by artillery, until the formation had completely disintegrated. Such, then, was the kind of Blitzkrieg campaign typical of Napoleon, long before World War II.

Jena Battlefield

This wasn’t however the only aspect of Napoleonic warfare that changed the face of Europe. For a look at some of the others, we now need to resort to Abel Gance and his epic film on the battle of Austerlitz:

Here several aspects of the new style of conflict seem especially worth pointing out. Note, first of all, the rapidly shifting scene or place of conflict. Unlike the 18th century style where armies typically advanced against each other at a measured pace and in tight formation, Napoleonic forces look much more mobile. And in fact they were expected to cover a lot of ground, because of all the maneuvering involved. Second, note the use of massed artillery: Napoleon would typically move his cannon all over the battlefield as the focal point of the conflict changed, in order to concentrate all his firepower on a given point. The effect (from up to 150 cannon) could be terrifying. Finally, the casualties. Because this new style of warfare was aimed not just at inflicting tactical defeat but at breaking down and destroying an enemy army entirely, casualties on both sides could be costly. In a way, the history of 19th century French medicine partly begins here, as a whole new cohort of surgical talent (Larrey, Percy, Coste) rose to prominence through their development of innovative surgical procedures on the battlefield. But the numbers of those killed and wounded could be appalling. And clearly, once conflict had escalated to this new level, there could be no going back. What Hegel saw from a distance at Jena on 14 October 1806 was—as he himself recognized—a new world beginning to take shape.

Abel Gance, Austerlitz: 8:00-9:58. Link will open youTube in a new tab.

Abel Gance, Austerlitz: 3:00-5:42. Link will open youTube in a new tab.

Abel Gance, Austerlitz: 0:45-1:50. Link will open youTube in a new tab.

Finally I want to shift the scene again, this time to rural England. Specifically we’re looking now at the Wye River meandering its way through a northern English landscape, the so-called Lake District.

Tintern Abbey and Wye River

In the second of these images, we’re seeing particularly the ruins of ancient Tintern Abbey, much as another observer would’ve seen them in July 1798. That observer, of course, was William Wordsworth. But while the idyllic landscape he found himself gazing at was one that probably hadn’t witnessed much change for several hundred years, he himself had changed.

¼ mile above Tintern Abbey and Wye River

Hence his desire to record the moment, in his famous poem.
(scroll in grey box at right)

What I want to focus on particularly here is a pattern or sequence that hasn’t, I think, been sufficiently noticed. We might call it the sequence by which Wordsworth comes to a recognition of the irrevocable. And what triggers it is something he can’t assimilate: rural poverty and, beyond that, the growing misery of a new urban scene. Years ago Marjorie Levinson pointed out, in her well-known reading of this poem, the haunting aspect of that rural poverty which we see in (2) with the mention of “vagrant dwellers,” occupying a kind of liminal space somewhere on the fringes of the poem’s consciousness. Wordsworth knew, of course, exactly how those “vagrant dwellers” had gotten to be there: by the enclosure of what had previously been common pasture land, which prevented these people from using it to scratch out a living by growing food for themselves and their livestock, thereby reducing them to poverty. It’s the story of big-city capitalism gradually transforming the rural scene irrevocably, a story brooded on even more fully in the poems of John Clare.

My argument is that Wordsworth struggled to assimilate this evidence of irrevocable change and, finding he can’t, comes to recognize its irrevocability in seeing how he himself had changed and, still unable to make sense of the larger change, tries to sublimate it in pantheism. We’ve already seen the unassimilable element in (2). Notice how Wordsworth tries to submerge it in (3), where he refers to it specifically as the “weary weight of all this unintelligible world”—a weight he hopes will be “lightened” by the memory of landscape. This leads to the introspective movement of (4), a moment in which he specifically turns inward. Nonetheless he doesn’t find rest there, partly because what he comes to realize is that he’s no longer the same unreflective, unselfconscious person he was in those earlier days—a person very close to Nature, as he now notices, in in his lack of self-consciousness. And this leads him on to (5), which is the moment of explicit recognition of how he’s changed: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no more.” As a result we get “For I have learned / To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity”—which is to say: the music of thought, reflection, self-consciousness. But because he can’t be satisfied with that, we then get (6), Wordsworth’s attempt to sublimate the trouble caused by this recognition of the irrevocable within himself into a larger pantheism. One way of seeing such a move might be that, unable to deal with his awareness of time (the irrevocable), Wordsworth then tries to trade it off for space, omnipresence. But unsuccessfully. In the final section, (7), we see him moving on: to his sister (consoling human presences), nature, the landscape, the world out there. What we register, however, is that all these moves don’t quite suffice to prevent recognition of the irrevocable, which is the beginning of modernity.

written a few miles above
On Revisiting the banks of the WYE during
a tour,
July 13, 1798

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. —Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

                                             Though absent long
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As may have had no trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d: —that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

                                                      If this
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft,
In darkness, and amid the many shapes
Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart,
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all. —I cannot paint
What I then was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompence. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
                                                 Nor, perchance,
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me, here, upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou, my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend, and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! And this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ‘tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our chearful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance,
If I should be, where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence, wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came,
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.