Romanticism and Anthroposophy

Anthroposophy: A Quarterly Review of Spiritual Science 1.1 (Easter 1926): 111-124.

‘Time and again in the world’s history,’ wrote the late Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘where East meets West, the spirit of romance has been born.’ What are the modern meanings of those two popular words romance and romantic? The longer we try, the more impossible we shall find it to compress them into any kind of formula. Definitions are wholly inadequate to such potent and evocative terms; if we wish to get at their fulness, we must approach them historically, examining what they have been made to signify at different times, and in different contexts, since they were first introduced into the language.

As the Roman Empire gradually declined, more and more of the provincials acquired the technical status of Roman citizens, and the blood of the original Latin race was thus mingled with that of the Celtic tribes who covered most of France, Spain, and Great Britain. At some point in this process the discrepancy between the correct ‘Latin’ spoken by professional Roman orators or written by learned historians and elegant poets, and the ‘low Latin’ spoken by the common people on the outskirts of the Empire, became sufficiently marked for people to become conscious of it. If you spoke the colloquial dialect, which had grown up spontaneously between Roman and barbarian lips, you were said to speak ‘romanice,’ and it is from this adverb that the English word romance is ultimately taken. As is well known, in course of time this popular dialect split into several, which diverged more and more widely, developing separate individualities according as the peoples who spoke them grow apart into separate nations, until they at least become recognizable as the modern languages of Italian, French, Spanish—languages which we still group together under the appellation of ‘Romance.’

The next important step in the meaning of our word was taken when men began to invent and to commit to memory or writing those old medieval tales—a curious blend of literal history, Celtic myth, esoteric Christianity, and other elements which the French called ‘romans’ and English critics of the Renaissance Romances. To such critics the chief feature which distinguished a Romance from other forms of literature was the interaction in its plot of wonder-working supernatural agencies—fairies, sorcerers, giants, and similar mythical relics, which, with the rise of literary criticism, came to be regarded as the poetic ‘fictions’ of the authors. More and more, as time went on, the remoteness of these tales from all that now appeared to be the reality of life impressed itself on men’s consciousness. At the close of the sixteenth century Cervantes had satirized romance in the immortal figure of Don Quixote; and during the next hundred-and-fifty years or so the general growth of rationalism and scepticism, and—in England—a violent reaction against the fanatical element in Puritanism, contributed to throw literature of this fantastic nature—whether it were the old tale themselves or modern imitations of them—into disrepute. Hobbes, for instance, protested in 1650 against the introduction of ‘impenetrable armour, Inchanted Castles, invulnerable bodies, Iron Men, Flying horses…’ and Shakespeare’s plays were looked upon as ‘barbarous’ or ‘Gothic’ in their extravagance.1

It was at about this time that the adjective romantic was born, and it was used, as might be expected, chiefly in a disparaging sense. Very soon, however, its meaning unfolded a little further. It was applied to human beings, to people whose light heads were supposed to be filled with these Romances, of which they had read too many. Finally, by a yet further development, it was employed to characterize aspects of Nature of a kind among which ‘Romances’ were usually set. The connection is clear. In the eyes of readers who had stocked their hearts with the sentiments and their minds with the scenes of romance, such scenes—uncouth mountains, or wild, waste landscapes—possessed a romantic glamour and fascination to which the normal eighteenth-century gentleman was quite opaque, and which he accordingly found ridiculous. The romantic impulse, however, was quite strong enough to survive ridicule. Isolated more and more completely from the outside world by the desiccating encroachments of ‘pure reason,’ it was to grow in strength and following, until it blossomed at last into that great outburst of fresh human thought and feeling which is known to us as the Romantic Revival.

Meanwhile, towards the end of the eighteenth century, we have seen how the adjective romantic had, as it were, two sides to its meaning. On the one hand it was applied to tales which were alive with medieval colour and witchery and to human imaginations which had fed on such tales; on the other, to Nature herself, as she could be perceived in the light of such an imagination. And now this word, and the ideas it contained—together with some other important æsthetic terms, such as creative, originality, genius, were borrowed or translated from the English language by Continental thinkers.2 In this country, where they had originated, they had already been the subject of some haphazard speculation; in Germany they were taken up with an enthusiasm amounting to fury. Out of the chaos of the Genieperiode or Sturm und Drang, as it is now commonly called, a vast metaphysical æsthetic was erected on these foundation by her poets and philosophers—a body of thought and impulse, of which what one may perhaps call the poetic essence trickled back to us across the North Sea through the enthusiasm and the imagination of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

From now on—fertilized by their contact with French and German genius — we can watch these two complementary meanings of romantic coming out into complementary expression in two significant English personalities—those of Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Discrimination between the two poets must not be taken in any rigid sense. Both aspects of Romanticism appealed strongly to both of them; but, taking their work as a whole, it is clear enough now how Coleridge found his inspiration more particularly in the inner workings of romance, in its direct effect on the human imagination; while Wordsworth spent his life rather in discovering and expressing those sublime feelings which hearts so attuned can draw from Nature. Thus, as the two meanings of the word romantic are complementary, so these two personalities seem also to have been complementary. They found each other out in the world; they formed, for some time, a close relationship; and out of that friendship the impulses for much of their best work sprang. In the volume called the Lyrical Ballads, which they published conjointly in 1798, ‘it was agreed,’ writes Coleridge afterwards:

that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. …

And it is recorded by both poets that the idea of producing such a volume at all grew naturally out of the fact that Coleridge was writing—discussing it with Wordsworth as he went along—that poem, of all poems in the English language, into which there is distilled the very essence of witchery and faery—The Ancient Mariner. They attempted to collaborate, but it was soon found that Wordsworth’s poetical bent led him along a different track. Accordingly the Lyrical Ballads were projected, in which, alongside of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, we find Wordsworth seeking rather to express the ‘sweet lore which Nature brings’; and describing in Tintern Abbey how

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. …

And so gradually, out of the Romantic impulse, Wordsworth came to build up that misty yet sublime conception of the human soul, which he afterwards embodied less lyrically but more philosophically in the Prelude.

We receive but what we give,
Coleridge had written,
And in our life alone does Nature live. …
And would we ought behold of higher worth. …
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth.

Wordsworth, though he would not have said that we receive from Nature ‘but what we give,’ was yet vividly aware of the extent to which susceptibility to her influence depends upon the history and training of the soul. It was this knowledge based firmly on his own experience, which made him feel, to a degree which has sometimes been censured, the importance of his own inner biography. Thus, the alternative title of the Prelude is the Growth of the Poet’s Mind, and in that long poem Wordsworth gives shape to all his most intimate and significant memories, seeking to lay his finger on the various early experiences which had contributed to fashion his imagination. This he did, not out of futile self-importance, but because his was an imagination which to the visible world of Nature could

add the gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land,

one which had power to generate that ‘auxiliar light,’ which, as he notes in the Second Book of the Prelude,

Came from my mind, which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendour; the new melodious birds,
The fluttering breezes, fountains that run on
Murmuring so sweetly in themselves, obeyed
A like dominion, and the midnight storm
Grew darker in the presence of my eye:

Such a light—and especially at the beginning of the nineteenth century—was not meant to be hid under a bushel.

Now while, as we saw, the growth of this impulse—the impulse to perceive with new and conscious delight a living spirit in Nature—is indeed connected historically with the imaginative life that burgeons in the old Romances, yet the impulse itself, once it had reached the outer air of self-consciousness, quickly overstepped such narrow limits. Thus the Romantic Revival is also intimately connected with the re-discovery by men like Goethe and Coleridge of the surpassing greatness of Shakespeare. And in the Prelude fairy-tales and Romances are only one of the many influences which Wordsworth records as having shaped his imagination. Here, as elsewhere, he describes how it fed also on the great mythologies of the past, on literature and art, and in particular on all tender human experiences and sympathies:

The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
And he tells us, again, how all these influences, and the moods which they have induced, accumulate and gather force, until the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire
With faculties still growing…

II.

I have tried in the foregoing to isolate two elements in the meaning of the words romance and romantic, and to show how they developed historically and how they finally found a peculiar expression in the personalities of Coleridge and Wordsworth. There are other elements, but for the moment these must suffice. What one cannot help noticing to-day about Romanticism is that it is all a little vague and vast and shadowy. Perhaps it is for that very reason that this word romantic has long been the nucleus, together with such counter-terms as classical or realism, of violent and heated discussions in æsthetic circles throughout Europe. And perhaps it is partly as a reaction against all this that there should be abroad at the moment a fairly pronounced feeling that Romanticism, at any rate as metaphysic, is a failure. Its potentialities seem to have been left hanging in the air, its numerous loose threads ungathered; and the would-be Romantic who, in his youth, may have come under the spell of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, is faced, as he grows up, with the alternative of attempting to write second-hand romantic verse, or losing himself in the obscure and self-contradictory mazes of German transcendental philosophy.3 So, at any rate, it seemed until recently.

Even to-day, few people are aware that, towards the close of the nineteenth century, Dr. Rudolf Steiner began to erect on the foundations laid by that prince of Romantics, Wilhelm Goethe, a new and solid edifice of metaphysic. With what unspeakable relief one discovered this new channel, into which deep creative impulses awakened from their ancient slumber by romance, only to be choked back into the unconscious by the ubiquitous determinism of twentieth century thought—into which these could pour themselves without fear of check, and without the risk of soaking away through banks too weak to hold them—leaving nothing behind but a few puddles of promiscuous sentimentality!

Let us look, for a moment, at the two first stages of the ‘supersensible cognition,’ to which Dr. Steiner pointed the way. He named them Imagination and Inspiration, and in his various writings he sought to give indications of their nature from a thousand different points of view. In Imaginative Cognition, he taught, one acquires, as it were, a picture-consciousness; it is analogous to the consciousness men have in dreams, and in it the great spiritual facts of life and creation come before the soul in the form of pictures. Formerly the human soul lived instinctively in this kind of consciousness, and the great myths of the past are but lovely crystallizations of its waking dreams. To-day, Imaginative Cognition can be recovered—with the added element of full self-consciousness—partly by definite exercises in concentration and partly by letting the imagination dwell on these myths and on the historical events of the spirit underlie them. And it is just these elucidations, from within, of the historical events and processes in the spiritual evolution of man and of the Earth which once found pictorial expression in the myths—it is just these which are scattered in such star-like profusion throughout Dr. Steiner’s writings.

We notice also that in Imaginative Cognition the memory plays an all-important part. It is strengthened and vitalized in such a way that the individual’s past life lives in his consciousness as an organic whole. He feels his biography as the time-body of his ego, just as his flesh and bones are its space-body. Steiner was always careful to insist that the experiences which come as the result of this kind of cognition are all experiences created by the individual himself. At this stage, we do indeed—as Coleridge wrote so sadly—‘receive but what we give’; and the knower is deluding himself if he takes such experiences as messages from a spiritual world outside himself, just as the author of The Ancient Mariner would have been deluding himself if he had seen that the greybeard loon actually walking into his drawing-room.

It is only at the next stage (though the two need not be reached in strict chronological sequence)—that of Inspiration, that he begins to experience the spiritual reality underlying the world of Nature, to perceive and feel the manner of its working in flower and animal, in earth and water and sky. It is not that nobody else receives intuitions of a lofty and spiritual nature from the living beauty of this Earth; but that in Inspiration as it is defined and inculcated by Rudolf Steiner, one lives with the Spirit of the Earth in a specially vivid and secure way—one has relations with Nature which differ from the ordinary ones as a great poet as Wordsworth differed from the ordinary man.

Now all genuine art is the result of some degree of supersensible cognition—though the artist may not be fully conscious of this—and it is natural that Romantic poetry, which is of such recent birth, should have shadowed forth in its development just the method of attaining to such cognition which is suited to our times . Accordingly we find it pointing quite clearly to a progress in the history of the meaning of the word Romantic; we find it in the development of a new and strong feeling for Nature in Coleridge and Wordsworth, not only in the separate life of each poet, but also in the relation between them. Coleridge brooded on the remains of Celtic and other myth contained by medieval faery romance, on esoteric doctrine, and on modern transcendental philosophy. His imagination, thus nourished, could produce such astonishing concatenations of pictures as Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, (it is also remarkable how the poetic level of Christabel immediately drops, when that poem seeks to pass from a chain of suggestive imagery into simple narrative). Moreover, his imagination could play with lambent flames around the genius of Wordsworth, offering him its native magic, as a kind of wand, with which to charm the spirit forth from Nature into the majestic harmonies which we all hear. One thinks at once of the tremendous simplicity of such lines as

The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.


where, as has been well said, Nature herself seems to take the pen from the poet’s hand and write with it.

This was indeed a significant friendship; one beneath whose mild exterior there is audible such a hum of mighty workings that none but the dead could think it accidental. For it had brought about one of those momentary impacts between an inner human world and an outer Nature world, of which the varied recurrence is the very rhythm of the history of the labouring Earth. East and West had kissed again, we feel, at Alfoxden, and once again Life was the fruit of their union.

Much of that Life we absorb into ourselves to-day, without knowing whence it comes. If we would help to make it more abundant for those who come after us, we must seek to understand the meaning of Imagination and Inspiration. And as a beginning towards this, it may be useful to English people to be able to trace their incipient workings in the English poets of the Romantic Revival. In particular, throughout the fourteen books of Wordsworth’s, are the subtly interwoven strands of these two modes of consciousness discernible. To begin with, the very subject of this poem makes us feel to what an extent memory, strengthened meditation, was, in Wordsworth’s case, the well-spring of imagination. One is reminded of the famous Ode on Intimations of Immortality from ‘Recollections’ of early Childhood, and again of Wordsworth’s remark in his essay on Poetic Diction that the memory, if left to itself, will do most of the necessary poet’s work of selecting and arranging experience. In the Prelude itself we find such passages as:

so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind,
That, musing on them, often do I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being.

and

The days gone by
Return upon me almost from the dawn
Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
Open; I would approach them, but they close.
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all; and I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
Substance and life to what I feel, enshrining,
Such is my hope, the spirit of the Past
For future restoration.

In Book 5 the poet describes at length a curious day-dream which came to him, as he was sitting by the sea reading Don Quixote, and musing

On poetry and geometric truth,
And in their high privilege of lasting life
From all internal injury exempt.

Obsessed with the mournful thought that the external creations of man must all perish, he dozes and fancies himself lost in a boundless, sandy plain, across which an Arab approaches him, mounted on a dromedary, and carrying a stone in one hand and a shell in the other. The stone, said the Arab, is Euclid’s Elements, ‘and this (the shell) is something of more worth.’ The poet holds it to his ear, and it gives forth

A loud prophetic blast of harmony;
An Ode, in passion uttered, which foretold
Destruction to the children of the earth
By deluge, now at hand.

Wordsworth walks on beside the Arab, thinking he has found a guide, but looking back he sees a great ocean of waters gathering to engulf them both. The Arab hurries on ahead to bury the books before the world is drowned, and the dreamer to engulf them both. The Arab hurries on ahead to bury the books before the world is disowned, and the dreamer awakes in terror. Here is a remarkable Imagination, whose symbolism—the Arab, with his stone and shell—is made a good deal clearer by the study of Anthroposophy. And leading on from such experiences as these, we find the poet seeking to give expression to others, not really expressible in words—to moments when the pictures, as it were, ‘go out,’ and the purely spiritual experience of inspiration is left in its nakedness. Thus, in the First Book, he describes the night on which, as a boy, he had rowed by moonlight on a lake; suddenly memory reveals to him how the shapes of the mountains had then entered into his heart:

my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy step till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge.
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. …
but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

It would be possible to quote any number of passages bearing on the same theme. But at present I am content if I have contrived to indicate one of the historical connecting links between Romanticism and Anthroposophy, and to hint intelligibly at the way in which Anthroposophical activity can take up the Romantic impulse into itself and endow it with fresh life and youth. In conclusion I shall quote one more passage from the Prelude. He is describing his walk across the Simplon pass and how, upon enquiring the way of a peasant, his suddenly realized that they had ‘crossed the Alps’ without knowing it:

Imagination—here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say—
‘I recognize thy glory’: in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.

Owen Barfield



1 Oxford English Dictionary. sb. Romantic. Return.

2 Four Romantic Words. L. P. Smith. Clarendon Press, 1924. (Society for Pure English. Tract. No. 17), from which much of the material in the preceding part of this essay is derived. Return.

3 A third possibility—fashionable at the moment, and carried to orchid-like perfection by the late M. Marcel Proust—is to indulge in minute and dilettante reminiscences of one’s earliest childhood. Return.

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.