Romanticism & Traditionalism


Introduction. The movement called Romanticism belongs chronologically to the last two decades of the Eighteenth and the first five decades of the Nineteenth Centuries although it has antecedents going back to the late-medieval period and sequels that bring it, or its influence, right down to the present day.  (I write late in 2016.)  Historically, and in simple, Romanticism is the view-of-things that succeeds and corrects its precursor among the serial views-of-things that have defined the eras of the Western European mentality by constituting a dominant worldview – and that precursor would be what historians of ideas call Classicism, which they identify as the worldview of the Enlightenment.  A good definition of Classicism is: The exclusive devotion to prescriptive orderliness for its own sake in all departments of life; the submission of all things to measure, decorum, and, using the word metaphorically, the geometric ideal; implying disdain for or suppression of anything deemed not in conformance with these criteria.  Classicism implies the conviction that reason, narrowly delimited, is the highest faculty, and indeed almost the sole faculty worth developing.  The Classicist believes that life can be perfected by rationalization.

Certainly this is how the Romantics saw Classicism, but it is also in broad terms how the Classicists saw themselves.  According to its own dichotomy, Romanticism would be a view of existence consisting of tenets diametrically opposed to those of Classicism.  And so largely it was or is, as Romanticism is by no means a dead issue.  As the Romantic sees it, imposed or conventional order tends to distort or obliterate the natural order; and by “natural order” the Romantics would have understood not only the order of nature, considered as Creation, although not necessarily in Christian terms, but the order present in social adaptation to nature, as when agriculturalists follow the cycle of the seasons and attune their lives with the life of the soil or when builders of monuments and temples go to great effort to align them astronomically.  In addition, the Romantic believes that a bit of disorder might stimulate and enliven life, preventing it from becoming stiff and ossified; that the quirky and unexpected, in other words, can exert a benevolent influence.  The Romantic also values emotion and intuition as much as he values reason, which he by no means disdains although he defines it more broadly than the Classicist.  The Romantics explicitly rejected the utilitarian arguments of the Classicists.  Romanticism prefigures and is the likely source of what in the second half of the Twentieth Century came to be known as Traditionalism.


I. Characteristics of Romanticism. Where the geometrically patterned gardens of the French kings, like those designed by Claude Millet in 1632 for Louis XIV at Versailles, might stand for the Classical Spirit, the “English Garden,” with its meandering paths, sprawling bushes, and indifference to the weeds might stand for the Romantic Spirit. Where Classicism took as its model Greece or Rome, Romanticism looked to the Middle-Ages. Where Classicism venerated the purest, most elevated Attic style of speech, Romanticism cultivated the Gothic, the Celtic, and the regional dialect; it was not averse to rude or rustic idiom.  Classical playwrights like Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684) and Jean Racine (1639 – 1699) imitated Euripides and Seneca; Romantic playwrights like Friedrich Schiller (1788 – 1805) and Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) imitated Shakespeare, whom Voltaire had dismissed as a barbarian and his work as a formless affront to the Classical unities.  Classicism concerns itself with form, which prescribes content, Romanticism with content, which then suggests the form.

What have the scholars written about Romanticism?  None exceeds the scholarly stature of Jacques Barzun (1907 – 2012), whose study From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000) devotes three chapters to Romanticism.  Remarking that Romanticism had, in the broadest sense, something of the quality of a religious or spiritual awakening, and that, unlike Classicism, it extended its horizon of curiosity very far indeed – as for example into myth and folklore considered as other than mere superstition – Barzun writes:

With their searching imagination in literature and art, it could be expected that the Romanticists’ intellectual tastes would be anything but exclusive.  They found the Middle-Ages a civilization worthy of respect; they relished folk art, music, and literature; they studied Oriental philosophy; they welcomed the diversity of national customs and character, even those outside the [Eighteenth Century] cosmopolitan circuit; they surveyed dialects and languages with enthusiasm.  This was a genuine multiculturalism, the wholehearted acceptance of the remote, the exotic, the folkish, [and] the forgotten.

Barzun adds that, “in Romanticism, thought and feeling are fused; [Romanticism’s] bent is toward exploration and discovery at whatever risk of error or failure; the religious emotion is innate and demands expression… the divine may be reached through nature or art.”  Under Barzun’s description, Romanticism would be humanly more whole than Classicism, with the latter excluding rather than incorporating the emotional impulse and denying that intuition has any role to play in the exploration of reality.


The Norwegian scholar, F. J. Billeskov Jansen (1907 – 2002), writing in the compendium Romantikken: 1800 – 1830 (Verdens Litteratur Historie, V. III, 1972), asserts that:

Opplysningstidens mennesker hade fryktet lidenskapene, som kunne true den sunne fornuft.  Alt hos Klopstock ble likevel den religiøse lidenskap frigjort, og hos Rousseau elskovspasjonen og natursvermeriet.  I romantikkens tidsalder blir diktere drømmere, Sjelen utvides I lengsel mot uendligheten, gjennom innføling forener poeten med nature, hans fantasi fører ham langt bort på eventyrets vinger eller langt tilbake i historien; hans håp får form av religiøse visjoner.

 [The men of the Enlightenment had feared the passions, which could threaten right reason.  Simultaneously in (the work of Friedrich Gottlieb) Klopstock religious enthusiasm gained liberation, [just] as in the work of (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau did amorous passion and ecstasy in nature.  In the age of romanticism, poets became dreamers.  The soul expands in longing for infinity, the poet attaining oneness with nature through his inward feeling, while his imagination leads him far afield on the wings of adventure or far back into history; his hope takes the form religious visions.]

Elsewhere in the same volume, another scholar characterizes Romanticism as a return of Platonic theology.  Certainly Plato’s myths of the “Ladder of Philosophy,” “The Winged Horses and their Charioteer,” and “The Cave” find their later reflection in the imagery of the Romantic poets.  For Plato, importantly, the phenomena of this world point to a purely spiritual world – the realm of God-and-the-Ideas.  We find a similar attitude in the poetry of William Blake (1757 – 1827) and in that of William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), however much they might otherwise differ.  The main point to be stressed, however, is Jansen’s description of Romanticism as the labor of the soul to break free from the trammels of degraded matter and to rejoin a vital spirit that suffuses the universe and renders it intelligible.  The Romantics concluded that the assumptions of rationalism were parochial and constricting; that they did not give a true account of humanity or the universe.

In his study of Poetic Diction (1928), philologist and literary critic Owen Barfield (1898 – 1997) attempts to identify and prescind the fundamental Romantic ideas, one of which has to do with the role of “the rational principle”:

Now although, without the rational principle, neither truth nor knowledge could have been, but only life itself, yet that principle cannot add one iota to knowledge.  It can clear up obscurities, it can measure and enumerate with greater and ever greater precision, [and] it can preserve us in the dignity and responsibility of our individual existences.  But in no sense can it be said… to expand consciousness.  Only the poetic can do this: only poesy, pouring into language its creative intuitions, can preserve its living meaning and prevent it from crystallizing into a kind of algebra.  “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character,” wrote William Blake, “the philosophic and experimental would soon be at the ratio of things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round.”

For Barfield, Romanticism qualifies not only as a revolt against the strictures of the Enlightenment (Classicism); it is, for him, not only the accession of a new type of taste or sensibility that supersedes an earlier one: It is a change – and, for Barfield, a positive development – in human consciousness.  Understood in the way that Barfield, Jansen, and Barzun see it, Romanticism resembles – or, rather it anticipates –Traditionalism.  In The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), for example, René Guénon (1886 – 1951) describes the modern person as averse to referring “beyond the terrestrial horizon” and as crediting “no knowledge beyond what proceeds from the sense.”  For Guénon, the modern world “is anti-Christian because it is essentially anti-religious; and it is anti-religious because, in a still wider sense, it is anti-traditional.”  Writing in Harry Oldmeadow’s anthology The Betrayal of Tradition (2005) and invoking the spirit of T. S. Eliot, Brian Keeble asserts that fullness of humanity requires contact with “the transcendent dimension”; and, calling on Blake, he invokes the “sacred reality of the spirit.”

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)Kindred Spirits 1849 Oil on canvas

II. The Romantic Subject. Romanticism saw a great flowering of lyric poetry, and this was no coincidence. Lyric poetry is personal, even egocentric, poetry; or it is poetry personal in character even in the case where the putative “I” who speaks in the poem is purely fictional and is not to be identified with the author. The name lyric suggests the solo singer accompanying himself on the lyre, bursting out in song, as the spirit takes him.  Lyric poetry is expressive: It represents in externalized imagery the internal state, intellectual or emotional, of the poet.  Of course, inner states usually correlate themselves with external circumstances and conditions.  Anyone who comments on the soul also necessarily comments on the world.  The Romantics seized on the lyric as their primary mode of poetizing because the conventions of lyric so perfectly suited that part of the Romantic program that concerned the exploration of the subject’s inner life.  The Romantic poet obviously interests himself in much more than the pouring out of the contents of his overflowing heart.  That would be a sophomoric misapprehension.  On the contrary, for the talented poet, well-schooled, mentally acute, moved by inveterate curiosity about the world, even a brief lyric poem can be the vehicle of a subtle critique or argument.  If the Romantic poet were a prophet then he would also be a philosopher.

What does it mean to be a subject, an ego, an “I”?  Subjectivity is self-consciousness, an abiding awareness that one is this person, with this biography (always thus far), and with these relations to and with and in the world – and not some other person with other relations.  But every subject, every self-conscious person, is aware that the world is full of other self-conscious persons whose subjectivity, as he infers, is generically like his own right down to the detail that each has (or ought to have) a similar sense of his own particularity and difference from the others.  Beyond persons, places, and things, the subject intuits – although he can never empirically grasp – a totality of things, a cosmos, and an authorial or organizing principle, for which the common name is God.  Wisdom for such a subject consists in knowing that there was a world indefinitely before his own subjectivity began and there will be a world indefinitely after his own subjectivity ceases; he is a part of something larger than himself, which lies beyond the limits of his will.


Mood conditions subjectivity.  The typical self-consciousness addressed in the previous paragraph should be qualified as the healthy self-consciousness.  Because, however, no one can keep the world absolutely at bay, he must suffer the impingements of the world, whether happily or sadly.  Forces beyond a subject’s control can alienate him from himself and through ignorance or perversity he can exacerbate his alienation.  The Romantics believed that the worldview of Classicism, or the Enlightenment, described life and the world falsely, and that those who embraced its falsehoods must in some way become alienated despite themselves.  The Romantics regarded with acute skepticism the modern claims concerning material progress.  “The world is too much with us, late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” wrote Wordsworth.  In the labyrinth of the new metropolis, the soul might once again lose its way and suffer, as men once did in the Cities of the Plain, or in the Neronian decadence of Rome, and experience pure indifference with respect to its own sickness.  What kind of civic environment would arise from the presence together in large urban agglomerations of millions of such afflicted people?  The psychic problem must inevitably become a social and a cultural problem.

Wordsworth’s sonnet merits quoting in full:


The Romantics understood that consciousness rises to acuity in events and crises, like that experienced by Wordsworth’s monologist in the pernicious abjection of his despair.  The growth of consciousness proceeds punctually rather than gradually, and it entails the tribulations of a solemn pilgrimage.  Lyric poetry, being the poetry of the subject’s self-consciousness, therefore also tends to be the poetry of sudden events – discrete moments in which the subject suddenly discovers something about himself, the world, or himself in relation to the world, that hitherto he did not know and knowledge of which alters him.  It might be, as in the case of “The world is too much with us,” the discovery of one’s own spiritual poverty; it might be an access of grace.  Such moments sometimes bear the name of epiphany; they are in any case always revelatory – and they cannot be solicited.  They impose themselves, as if by external guidance, as gifts, upon the percipient.

The epiphanic or revelatory quality of lyric poetry has to do with its effort to appear spontaneous.  Every work of art requires arduous labor, even a fourteen-line sonnet, but Wordsworth, for example, insisted that he drew inspiration from abrupt visionary experiences and that articulating the vision although onerous entailed giving textual form to a unitary idea.  Discussing the origin of his major poems – The Prelude, The Excursion, and the unfinished Recluse – in letters to his friends, Wordsworth situated himself as the channel for impulses that had befallen him, as revelation befalls the prophet, whether he seeks his election or not.  Of course, “The world is too much with us” counts as an example of negative revelation; the sight of the ancient gods in the two concluding lines of the poem is grammatically counterfactual and the monologist’s crisis consists in his complete alienation from the capitalized Nature and the transcendence that it implies.  How else to reveal the ontological sickness?


The Romantic subject resembles – or, rather, it anticipates – the Traditionalist subject, as Guénon, Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), and others have defined that subject.  Guénon himself in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945) characterizes modern man as having “lost the use of the faculties which in normal times allowed him to pass beyond the bounds of the sensible world.”  This loss leaves modern man alienated from “the cosmic manifestation of which he is a part”; in Guénon’s analysis modern man assumes “the passive role of a mere spectator” and consumer, which is exactly how Wordsworth saw it.  Of course, Guénon does not write of loss as an accident, but as the inevitable consequence of choices and schemes traceable to the Enlightenment.  As Wordsworth put it, “We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.”

According to Berdyaev, writing in The Destiny of Man (1931), “Man is not a fragmentary part of the world but contains the whole riddle of the universe and the solution of it.”  Berdyaev asserts that, contrary to modernity, “man is neither the epistemological subject [of Kant], nor the ‘soul’ of psychology, nor a spirit, nor an ideal value of ethics, logics, or aesthetics”; but, abolishing and overstepping all those reductions, “all spheres of being intersect in man.”  Berdyaev argues that, “Man is a being created by God, fallen away from God and receiving grace from God.”  The prevailing modern view, that of naturalism, “regards man as a product of evolution in the animal world,” but “man’s dynamism springs from freedom and not from necessity”; it follows therefore that “evolution” cannot explain the mystery and centrality of man’s freedom.  When Berdyaev brings “grace” into his discussion, he echoes the original Romantics, whose version of grace was the epiphanic vision, the event answering to a crisis that brings about the conversion of the fallen subject and sets him on the road to true personhood.


III. Romantic Nature. The Romantic redefinition of nature, which the advocates of the movement invariably capitalize as Nature, runs in parallel with the Romantic redefinition of selfhood.  Where the Enlightenment had reduced nature to material processes – geological, chemical, physiological, mechanical, and optical – with no reference to anything outside themselves, Romanticism in reaction posited Nature not only as vital throughout but also as meaningful, and natural phenomena as pointing beyond themselves to things supernatural.  This redefinition of nature was perhaps less a total innovation than it was the re-appropriation of an old idea going back to late-medieval thinkers like Jakob Boehme (1575 – 1624), Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), and even Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), who saw in nature a decipherable living message that implied a message-maker whose motivation must be that he wishes to establish contact with human beings.  Behind those figures lies Christian Platonism.  Under this late-medieval idea, the sensitive soul can not only come into communication through nature with what lies beyond nature; but he can also, through nature, come into communion with what is beyond nature.  In Christian, rather than Pagan, terms, the Romantic rediscovers Nature as “The Book of Nature,” a kind of supplement to the two Testaments, whose author is God, as normally or eccentrically conceived by the individual writer-thinker.


A longstanding and not altogether inaccurate thumbnail categorization of Romantic poetry is that it is nature poetry.  The Romantic penchant for verbal picturesque redoubles the plausibility of the claim.  Here, for example, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) conjuring forth the abyss that lies beneath “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan” in the fragmentary poem (1798) of that name:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
In Coleridge’s poem, which he subtitles “a vision in a dream,” Nature is all depth, but better to say that for Coleridge in “Kubla Khan” Nature is vital depth; Nature is a wellspring of robust and creative urgency that is almost everywhere and almost at every moment alive.  The exception would be the “lifeless ocean,” a symbol perhaps of what we now call entropy, but in a world of perpetual emergence even a “lifeless ocean” might be redeemed and revivified.  Indeed, Coleridge in the quoted verses seems to be rescuing the etymon of the word nature, which is the same etymon that gave rise to the French verb naître, “to be born” or “to give birth.”  The “chasm” gives birth to “a mighty fountain,” which in turn transforms itself into “a sacred river.”  Coleridge’s endowment on the scenario of the term “sacred” reminds us that his Nature is not only vital, but also hallowed or divine.  The creative processes in nature point to a divine creative power beyond nature that reveals itself in phenomena and solicits from the sensitive soul the idea of something that requires a formal acknowledgment of its generative awesomeness.
Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man” stand for the unplumbed depths not only of Nature but of the soul.  To explore the hidden depths of Nature means also to explore the soul and vice versa.  Coleridge draws on ancient conceptions that the Enlightenment claimed to have debunked, such as the conception of the psyche or soul, as articulated by the archaic philosopher-seer Heraclitus of Ephesus in one of his surviving aphorisms (No. 45): “You will not find out the limits of the soul when you go, travelling on every road, so deep a logos does it have.”  Where the Enlightenment assumed that everything might be measured – that is to say, brought within the horizon of finite knowledge – Coleridge insists that the world possesses a “measureless” dimension that resists either logical summary or reduction to purely quantitative or propositional terms. The only way to discuss such things is in symbol, image, and figure-of-speech.

A similar view of Nature as the source of vital energy necessary to the soul informs the final scene of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust Part II (1831), where the errant sinner, Doctor Johann Faust, at last finds redemption from his graceless hence degraded state.  Goethe (1749 – 1832) sets his scene in primeval nature:

Waldung, sie schwankt heran,
Felsen, sie lasten dran,
Wurzeln, sie klammern an,
Stamm dicht an Stamm hinan,
Woge nach Woge spritzt,
Höhle, die tiefste, schützt.
Löwen, sie schleichen stumm-–
freundlich/ um uns herum,
Ehren geweihten Ort,
Heiligen Liebeshort.

[Forests, they wave around

[Forests, they wave around,

Over them, cliffs bear down,

Roots cling to rocky ground,

Trunk upon trunk is bound,

Wave after wave sprays up,

Deep caves protecting us.

Lions prowl silently,

Round us, still friendly,

Honouring sacred space,

Love’s holy hiding place.]

A few verses later, the character called Pater Profundis, who will play a mediating role in Faust’s redemption, utters these lines:

Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen
Auf tiefem Abgrund lastend ruht,
Wie tausend Bäche strahlend fließen
Zum grausen Sturz des Schaums der Flut,
Wie strack mit eignem kräftigen Triebe
Der Stamm sich in die Lüfte trägt:
So ist es die allmächtige Liebe,
Die alles bildet, alles hegt.
Ist um mich her ein wildes Brausen,
Als wogte Wald und Felsengrund,
Und doch stürzt, liebevoll im Sausen,
Die Wasserfülle sich zum Schlund,
Berufen, gleich das Tal zu wässern;
Der Blitz, der flammend niederschlug,
Die Atmosphäre zu verbessern,
Die Gift und Dunst im Busen trug –
Sind Liebesboten, sie verkünden,
Was ewig schaffend uns umwallt.
Mein Innres mög‘ es auch entzünden,
Wo sich der Geist, verworren, kalt,
Verquält in stumpfer Sinne Schranken,
Scharfangeschloßnem Kettenschmerz.
O Gott! beschwichtige die Gedanken,
Erleuchte mein bedürftig Herz!

[As this rocky abyss at my feet,

Rests on a deeper abyss,

As a thousand glittering streams meet

In the foaming flood’s downward hiss,

As with its own strong impulse, above,

The tree lifts skywards in the air:

Even so all-powerful love,

Creates all things, in its care.

Around me there’s a savage roar,

As if the rocks and forests sway,

Yet full of love the waters pour,

Rushing bountifully away,

Sent to irrigate the valley here:

The lightning that flashed down,

Must purify the atmosphere,

With poisonous vapours bound –

They are love’s messengers, they tell

Of what creates eternally around us.

May it inflame me inwardly, as well,

Since my spirit, cold and confounded,

Torments itself, bound in the dull senses,

As sharp-toothed fetters’ agonising art.

Oh, God! Calm my thoughts, pacify us,

And bring light to my needy heart!]

For Goethe as for Coleridge, Nature is the bourn of life, or rather it is the sensible image of the bourn of life, to which the afflicted soul might return to nurse itself back to health.  We recall that in Wordsworth’s sonnet “The world is too much with us,” the lyric subject feels exiled from nature and, in his attempt to rejoin with nature, catastrophically rebuffed.  The world seems to him lifeless and pointless, and he also feels lifeless and pointless along with it; he wants revivification.  Faust seeks the same.  Goethe’s “forests” answer the petitioner not in stillness, but they make constantly a motion as they “wave around,” mimicking Faust’s agitation.  Just so, too, the “cliffs” actively “bear down” and “roots cling.”  The dimension of depth goes not missing, for in Goethe’s scene “deep caves protect us” in a landscape thickly tangled (“trunk upon trunk”) that is “sacred” and, like some lonely place where a ritual of purification might occur, hidden (“Love’s holy hiding place”) from profane eyes.  When Pater Profundis (“The Father of the Depth”) begins to speak, he credits the landscape with “its own strong impulse.”  The tree, straining its branches skyward, responds to the attractive principle of “Love” that serves Goethe for the equivalent of the non-anthropomorphic energy suffusing the caverns beneath Coleridge’s “stately pleasure dome” in “Kubla Khan.”


A poignant recurrence of this Coleridgean-Goethean constellation of ideas about Nature may be found in the work of the late John Michell (1933 – 2009), who referred to himself as a “Radical Traditionalist.”  It would be perfectly proper to refer to Michell as a thorough-going Romantic, born, like all Romantics, out of his time.  Readers know Michell best for his persistent work on the megalithic monuments of the European Neolithic Period, especially in Britain, which he demonstrated to have constituted a continental, and perhaps even a global, network whose builders intended them to help in keeping the dominion of man in contact with the dominions both of the stars and of the deities that the stars betokened.  Like Coleridge and Goethe, Michell posited a vital energy inherent in the earth, which the old stone circles and the long straight lines connecting them channeled and tapped.  Michell possessed that conviction of a deep past antecedent to himself that distinguishes both Romanticism and Traditionalism from the modern default-state of “historylessness” and dogmatic materialism.

In The View over Atlantis (1969; revised as The New View over Atlantis, 1985), Michell writes how “of the various human and superhuman races that have occupied the earth in the past we have only the dreamlike accounts of the earliest myths, which tell of the magical powers of the ancients.”  In his bold assertion, Michell echoes the prophecies of Blake, who revived Plato’s notion of “true myth,” a notion that appears in the Timaeus, in his epic poem America (1793).  As in the Genesis-story of the Deluge or in Plato’s “Atlantis” story, Michell pieces together a narrative about “an overwhelming disaster of human or natural origin which destroyed a system whose maintenance depended upon its control of natural forces across the entire earth.”  In one sense, Michell has simply reiterated that the Enlightenment happened, cutting across the lines of Tradition and depriving humanity of its proper heritage.  For Michell, as for Blake or Wordsworth or Goethe, history is not the “account… of a recent ascent from bestiality and barbarism to the triumphs of modern civilization, but of a gradual, barely interrupted decline from the universal high culture of [Neolithic] antiquity to the present state of fragmentation and impending dissolution.”


IV. Romantic Nature Continued. Often for the Romantic poet, nature gives cover to secret activities that betoken an older lifeworld that in modern civic domains has given way to the despiritualizing forces of measure and logic – in the sociological process that some historians refer to as de-mystification. The Romantic, however, invariably experiences de-mystification as alienation. Properly viewed, nature is mysterious; she is the “magic forest” of the fairy-tales and legends, to enter which is perforce to run the risk of impish enthrallment or initiatory imperilment.  In the pathways of the forest, man, in his ancient role as hunter, pursues wild game and, taking the prey, becomes one with it.  The opening stanzas of le Cor(1826) by the French poet Alfred de Vigny (1797 – 1863) instantiate this variant of the Romantic Nature:

 J’aime le son du Cor, le soir, au fond des bois,
Soit qu’il chante les pleurs de la biche aux abois,
Ou l’adieu du chasseur que l’écho faible accueille,
Et que le vent du nord porte de feuille en feuille.

Que de fois, seul, dans l’ombre à minuit demeuré,
J’ai souri de l’entendre, et plus souvent pleuré!
Car je croyais ouïr de ces bruits prophétiques
Qui précédaient la mort des Paladins antiques.

[I love the sounding horn, of an eve, deep within the woods,
Whether it sings the plaints of the threatened doe
Or the hunter’s retreat but faintly echoed
That the north wind carries from leaf to leaf.

 [How often alone, in midnight shadows concealed,
I have smiled to hear it, even shedding a tear!
I thought to hear sounding prophetic plaints,
Declaring the death-knell for knights of old.]

As in Coleridge and Goethe, so too in Vigny’s poetry Nature offers herself as depth; she furnishes the paradoxically unapprehended scene of a ritual performance, which, however, the lyric subject can reconstitute in his imagination, provoked to the activity by the very sound.  The horn-call reaches the lyric subject of Vigny’s poem from far away in the bosky concealment of the woods, a place of half-light and shadows.  The horn-call incites the lyric subject, as he says, to love: “I love the sounding of the horn, of an eve, deep within the woods.”  But what is this “love”?  It is precisely the awakened desire for the transcendent and unseen, for depth and distance; and it is a response to the sacred, mirrored in the desire of man for woman, and of the soul for beauty.

Note how in the first stanza of Vigny’s poem the sound of the horn mingles with the rustling of the north wind, as though the two timbres had become one and indistinguishable.  In the second stanza, the horn-call comes to resemble “prophetic plaints, / declaring the death-knell for knights of old.”  Not only the reunion of culture and nature, which have become alienated from one another, but also whole extinct worlds of medieval pageantry and hieratic drama, lie concealed in oaken and beechy precincts.  Let it be noted finally, in passing, how Vigny’s “Cor” with its “prophetic plaints” makes a parallelism with Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” where “ancestral voices” are “prophesying war.”


What do the scholars say about the Romantic view of landscape and nature?  François-René Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), a second-generation French Romantic who was also one of the early scholars of Romanticism, writes in his great study of The Genius of Christianity (1802) concerning the distinction between ancient and modern poetry that “mythology… circumscribed the limits of nature and banished truth from her domain.”  In modern poetry, by which Chateaubriand means Christian poetry: “The deserts have assumed a character more pensive, more vague, and more sublime; the forests have attained a loftier pitch; the rivers have broken their pretty urns, that in future they may only pour the waters of the abyss from the summit of the mountains; and the true God, in returning to his works, has imparted his immensity to nature.”  Chateaubriand associates paganism with naturalism – that is to say, with the taxonomic or classifying study of natural phenomena, as exemplified in the work of Pliny the Younger.  Chateaubriand thus opposes the Romantic or Christian view of Nature against the Classical or Pagan view of nature, which had been taken up again by the Enlightenment, favoring the former over the latter.

If, as Chateaubriand writes, “the prospect of the universe [excited not] in the bosoms of the Greeks and Romans those emotions which it produces in our souls,” then it follows that the Enlightenment mentality, surveying the same “prospect,” would come away from the encounter as affectively blank as did the Epicurean precursor whose view Eighteenth-Century Classicism has reinvented.  The modern poet in confronting the universe, according to Chateaubriand, enjoys the differentiating privilege to “taste the fullness of joy in the presence of its Author.”  It is true that there is no Pagan equivalent of the Fall-from-Grace.  Because consciousness is equivalent to recollection, and because paganism never experienced Nature as lost, the Christian sense of Nature must exceed the Pagan sense in both quality and intensity.  Christianity is a return to nature or a recovery of it, a homecoming, as it were, with all the poignancy thereof.

In Natural Supernaturalism (1973), one of the great studies of the Romantic Movement, and with specific reference to Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams (1912 – 2015) writes that for the Grasmere poet “Scriptural Apocalypse is assimilated to an apocalypse of nature [whose] written characters are natural objects, which [the poet reads] as types and symbols of permanence in change.”  Abrams shows in his study how Wordsworth in particular and the Romantics in general inherited from Edmund Burke and German idealism the aesthetic dichotomy of The Beautiful and the Sublime.  The Beautiful is whatever is picturesque, pleasing, and amiable in Nature.  The Sublime is whatever is awesome, threatening, and grandiose in Nature.  In communing with Nature, the sensitive soul finds in Beauty the stepping-stone to the Sublime, and it is in the Sublime that he reads – or has read to him – the real lesson of Nature.  Abrams writes that the “antithetic qualities of sublimity and beauty are seen [by the poet] as simultaneous expressions on the face of heaven and earth, declaring an unrealized truth which the chiaroscuro of the scene articulates for the [properly] prepared mind – a truth about the darkness and the light, the terror and the peace, the ineluctable contraries that make up our human existence.”


In American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820 – 1880 (2002), Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer comment on the centrality of the Sublime in the Romantic conception of landscape.  “The Sublime,” they write, “incorporated a further dimension [namely that] the imagination has an important part to play in our perception of what is immense, nebulous, beyond exact description.”  When the percipient discovers “spiritual significance in nature,” he is not making a passive observation; on the contrary, he is participating in the constitution of such significance.  Writing of Frederic Church’s panorama in oils of Niagara (1857), Wilton and Barringer remark that, “it is not a meditation on light, but on the power of nature manifested in the grandest geographical phenomena.”  They go on to remark that “Church conceived [Niagara] as a show-piece, a masterpiece in the original sense: a specimen of his own powers at their most impressive – a match, perhaps, in a consciously humble way, to God’s own.”  Church’s canvass also communicates with the “abyss” of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a metaphor of the soul and of the psychic component of the universe as “measureless to man.”

V. Traditionalism as the New Phase of Romanticism. Abrams’ attribution to Wordsworth of a sense of Nature as “apocalyptic” applies equally well to Church (1826 – 1900), for whom the great cataract, directly on the brink of which his painting positions the viewer, is also “apocalyptic” – God revealing His greatness through the sublimity of the falling waters, the magnificent roar, and the rearing luminous mists. Church painted a number of scenes that would have pleased Michell, such as his “Aegean Sea” (1877), with its ancient ruins, including the half-hidden entrance to a cave-shrine, against a brilliantly lighted island-harbor with mists and rainbows. Church’s “Cross in the Wilderness” (1857), with its rugged mountains and faraway, luminous horizon, implies a Chateaubriand-like grasp of the religious struggle, with its concluding vision, as the essentially human struggle.  It probably implies Michell’s ley-lines and megalithic power-foci.  The Hudson River School of painting, to which Church belonged, was a thoroughly Romantic phenomenon, motivated by an awareness of the disappearing wilderness, which it sought to record, and dedicated to the ideal that civilization must never violate the natural order; that humbleness before the sublimity of the natural world is the proper attitude for civilized people to assume – and that because Nature is the outward symbol of the invisible God.

The Lake Poets in England and the Hudson River painters in North America feared the tendencies of their era – the spread of callous industrialism, the aggrandizement of cities, the blighting of the countryside, and the coarsening of the soul.  They warned against these trends even as it became evident that the trends would overwhelm any critique.  The Lake Poets eventually came to grasp that their philosophical and aesthetic convictions implied a politics.  Wordsworth and Coleridge became Tories, or as Americans would say, conservatives.  Vigny and Chateaubriand were also on the right, the former describing himself as the sole male survivor of a parental generation that the Revolution had eaten alive.  These men would better be described, however, as reactionaries – against the encroachments of the Reign of Quantity and the pseudo-ethos of “getting and spending” – and as Traditionalists: Defenders and conservators of the local against the metropolitan, of dialect against rhetoric, and of the spirit against a prescriptively and intolerantly materialist view of life and the world.  Their opposite numbers were the propagandists for the insidious synergy of the laborites and socialists with the bankers and industrialists.


In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Frederick Engels (1820 – 1895) condemn the bourgeoisie, whom they propose to abolish, but they extol the “subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground” that “Capitalism,” the project of the bourgeoisie, had created.  Marx, as much as the industrialists, looked forward to the “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan”; and again to the “establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”  Scots poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) had already indicted the right riposte in his “Impromptu on the Carron iron Works” (1787):

We cam na here to view your warks,
In hopes to be mair wise,
But only, lest we gang to hell,
It may be nae surprise:
But when we tirl’d at your door
Your porter dought na hear us;
Sae may, shou’d we to Hell’s yetts come,
Your billy Satan sair us!

In the prevailing situation in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, the literature professors prefer denouncing the Romantic poets to understanding them and the art-history professors regard the Hudson River painters as “illustrators” who could not possibly have believed in the Transcendentalist or spiritualist doctrines that they expounded.  Prophets of modern thought like Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno (1903 – 1969) and Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) have, of course, conclusively demonstrated that all Lake Poets and all Hudson River painters, even the ones who were Unitarians hence half-way to being modern liberals, were and remain servitors of false consciousness and an oppressive “logocentrism,” from which everyone should be compulsorily liberated.  In the colleges and universities, the Cultural-Marxist hatred for anything not Cultural-Marxist grows red-hot, white-hot, and ultraviolet-hot by swift stages.  That is exactly what the Traditionalists of the early Twentieth-Century, and what the Romantics themselves, predicted.

In The End of Our Time (1933), Berdyaev argues that, “The Renaissance began with the affirmation of man’s creative individuality; it has ended with its denial.”  Creativity, which Michelangelo and J. S. Bach ascribed to God, produces unequal results that inspire “envy,” which in turn solicits a demand for “equality.”  For Berdyaev, the principle of modernity is “envy of the being of another and bitterness at the inability to affirm one’s own.”  Thus, according to Berdyaev’s analysis, “Our age is like to that which saw the passing of the ancient world” although “that was the passing of a culture incomparably finer than the culture of today.”  It is possible, writes Berdyaev, to “trace the ruin of the Renaissance in modernist art, in Futurism, in philosophy, in Critical Gnoseology… and finally in socialism and anarchism,” all of which begin with a rejection of Romantic, and therefore of religious, values.

In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), Berdyaev, contrasting “Canonic” or “Pagan” art with “Christian art, or, better, the art of the Christian epoch,” arrives at the dichotomy that “pagan art is classic and immanent” where “Christian art is romantic… and transcendent.”  The parallelism between Berdyaev and Chateaubriand will be abundantly self-evident.  As Berdyaev sees it, “In [the] classically beautiful perfection of form [in] the pagan world there is no upsurge towards another world… no abyss… above or below”; that is, no “caverns measureless to man.”  The Romantic, knowing that he can never achieve perfection in this world, shies from utopian projects that inevitably become coercive and globalizing.  Thus “a romantic incompleteness… characterizes Christian art,” which takes as a premise, among others, the conviction “that final, perfect, eternal beauty is possible only in another world.”  That the Romantic often succumbs to the frustration inherent in eternal longing, Berdyaev duly notes; but the Romantics themselves knew their vulnerability in this regard well and were wont candidly to diagnose it, as Wordsworth does in “The world is too much with us.”  Berdyaev saw in Nineteenth-Century Romanticism the last pause in the steady descent of the Western world into materialism, utilitarianism, and nihilism, the equivalent of Guénon’s Kali Yuga or Dark Age.

Contemporary Traditionalism picks up where Berdyaev, Guénon, and the mid-Twentieth Century anti-modernists, and again where the Romantics, in their century, left off.  Traditionalists recognize that the critical situation of their time is deeper, more degraded, more irremediably catastrophic than the one of one hundred or one-hundred-and-fifty or two hundred years ago, but they also see that it is the same crisis and that if the Endarkenment of their day were more acute by a magnitude at least than it was in 1820 or 1920 it would also be closer to its irrevocable finale.  The problem for Traditionalists is how severe that finale will be.  Will it conform itself to the Foundering of Atlantis or the Fall of Rome?  The former, in Plato’s story, constituted a choke-point after which civilized life had to begin again from the degree zero.  The latter sacrificed the Imperial infrastructure, both physical and bureaucratic, for the reorientation of Western European humanity from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and from Paganism to Christianity.  The Greeks and Romans had feared to sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules.  Significantly, the conquest of the Atlantic and the opening up of North America fell to those Northwestern Goths, the Vikings, at the very moment when Iceland was embracing Christianity.  Leif Erikson was an early convert, as was also Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Modernity is a Polyphemus, an angry unison-chorus, shouting like thunder that man is the measure and that there is nothing, nothing, not measurable by man.  Traditionalism, like its precursor Romanticism, is the quiet voice, seeking parlay with other hushed voices, so that together they might enter conversation with the Forest Murmurs and even the distant Music of the Spheres and come to know better what they already suspect, that man must begin by measuring himself against the measureless.

[This essay previously appeared at The People of Shambhala.]

14 thoughts on “Romanticism & Traditionalism

  1. Pingback: Romanticism & Traditionalism | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. “Most people are aware that the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus, but very few know he arrived as part of a Christian mission. Fewer still realize Leif Eriksson was an Orthodox Christian. Having become a hirdman (guard) of the royal army of King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway, Leif had himself accepted baptism into the Christian faith, and had received from the King orders to travel to Greenland with a priest in order to convert the Norse settlements there. … Although King Olaf Tryggvason had accepted baptism at Canterbury in England, the first Christian rulers in Scandinavia were kinsmen of the rulers of Gardarike, or Kiev (the Rus, of course, were not Slavs but Scandinavians, most hailing from Sweden).”

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    • Thank you for your kind words. The paragraph more or less wrote itself, so I’m not sure whether I should take credit for it. I recently asked a classroom-full of sophomores whether any among them found the idea of the Music of the Spheres sufficiently plausible to make it worth actually listening for that music – perhaps with the Ear of the Mind. None of them did. It was just words to them.

      • It might be interesting to note–and I hasten to add that I’m not seeking a controversy here, just sharing an alternative reading–that Hamann, an essential figure in German romanticism (and thus an essential figure in romanticism per se) identified modernity with Odysseus and himself (and those like him) with Polyphemus.

        It goes something like this. Hamann, who was a counter-enlightenment sage and ein wiedergeborener Christ, says to modernity: “I had one eye (the eye of Christianity) through which I could see and you poked it out. Then, using your ‘nobody’ ruse, you made it seem as though no one had done anything.”

        In other words, enlightenment thinkers like Bacon in the Advancement of Learning, and Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, consistently presented their ideas as if they neither would nor could pose any substantive threat to Christianity–in fact, devout Christians had much to gain (so claimed the Odyssean enlighteners who introduced themselves as Nobody) by standing with the modern philosophers over against the monarchs who constrained both the practice of religion and the practice of philosophy. Hamann recognized this as a deception that would harm Christians, just as Odysseus deceived Polyphemus to his harm–and got away with it.

      • I fear I didn’t make Hamann’s point as explicit as I might have. When Hamann/Polyphemus cries out to his compatriots, “Help! Kant poked my eye out!” or “Bacon poked my eye out! Help!”, his compatriots reply with puzzlement–“Well, we’ve read these books by Verulam and Kant, and while they’re certainly problematic, there’s nothing in them that would justify the charge that they blinded you–you’re exaggerating, my dear fellow!”

  5. Pingback: Daybook, 15 September 2016 | Ex Libris Humanitas

  6. Thank you, Wade. I get your – or rather Hamann’s – point. The name Polyphemus recommended itself to me because it means “Many Voiced.” The Cyclops struck me therefore as an excellent figure of modernity: He is the enraged crowd, the creature of total conformism. He is also a lawless cannibal who doesn’t understand how civilization functions. Odysseus, by contrast, is a human being whose overriding determination is to return to his home, his wife, and his family.

  7. I will henceforth consider this the Reactionary last word (as in authoritative) on Romanticism. What a great read! And so glad you mentioned Chateaubriand, he truly was a visionary. One other name I hear sometimes mentioned is Novalis. Is he worth looking into?

    • Thank you. And yes, Novalis is worth getting to know. Start with his Hymns to the Night. Novalis is fascinating because he had a background in natural science, particularly in mineralogy; he was fascinated by Jakob Boehme, whose works he studied closely.

      On Chateaubriand: I’d like to write a comparative study of De Maistre and Chateaubriand, founders of the Catholic Right but as different as night and day.

      • Thanks. In what ways were Maistre and Chateaubriand different? It seems both initially were supportive of reforms to French society, then quickly turned opposition when it became clear what the intent of Robespierre & co was. Do you mean in terms of approach and personality?

  8. De Maistre and Chateaubriand are night and day in terms first of style and then also in terms of mood. The Soirees of St. Petersburg are abyssal, sanguine, grim, whereas The Genius of Christianity is luminous and hopeful. The Soirees are relentlessly logical although the arguments often defy garden-variety logic, whereas The Genius is associative, leaping joyfully from intuition to intuition. In his way, De Maistre is almost Calvinist in his disposition, whereas Chateaubriand is a joyous spirit, a kind of Emerson of Catholicism.


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