Rudolf Steiner and English Poetry

Anthroposophical Movement 9.10 (12 May 1932): 77-79

Readers of the “Goetheanum Weekly” have recently had an interesting glimpse into some of Rudolf Steiner’s non-anthroposophical work. For the Editor has reprinted a chapter on the Literature of the nineteenth century which was contributed by Steiner to a compendious “History of Politics and Culture,” published by Hans Krämer. The chapter was (presumably) commissioned by the Editor of the series and written by Steiner in the early part of his life. It involved—as is so often the case with modern criticism—covering an enormous amount of ground and mentioning a very large number of writers in a very short space. Or perhaps a contribution to a species of encyclopedia ought not to be classified as criticism at all.

That part of the chapter which deals with the Romantic movement in Germany is a great pleasure for an Englishman to read, and its shapeliness and structure emphasise what those of us who have fed largely on translations may be inclined to overlook—the very high level of ordinary work-a-day ability, of unassuming craftsmanship, which Rudolf Steiner possessed.

The latter part of the chapter, which deals (very much more briefly) with Romanticism in England and France, makes a good approach to certain problems with which Anthroposophy in England will certainly have to deal as it spreads and deepens, and which it is proposed—not so much to discuss, as merely to raise, in this short contribution to the English News Sheet.

It is difficult for Anthroposophists to think of Rudolf Steiner, even in his youthful days and whether writing to order or not, as having been likely to utter words which he had not carefully weighted. Consequently, it is interesting to find, for instance, Wordsworth described by him as a “much less gifted” poet than Coleridge, and to note his judgment to the effect that the former ruined most (present writer’s italics) of his poetry by a “moralising cadence” (Ausklang). We have indeed long been accustomed to hearing continental estimates of our literature which do not quite accord with our own. Priding ourselves on such names as Milton, Samuel Johnson, Keats and Shelley, we find with mild surprise that, across the sea, the two most widely favoured writers since Shakespeare are Byron and Oscar Wilde. We have long been used to this sort of thing, but there is, for Anthroposophists, something a little electrifying in the thought that at one time in his life at any rate Rudolf Steiner thought more of Tom Moore than of Wordsworth,1 and that, while mentioning the “Naturtone” in Wordsworth only to record the fact that it was generally ruined, he could go out of his way to remark the “nature-freshness” (Naturfrische) that breathes through Walter Scott’s “Lay of the last Minstrel” and “Lady of the Lake.”

We should not of course lose sight of the fact that our own literary judgments and those of our contemporaries may be merely the fruit of our own shortcomings. To some extent, indeed, they must be so, and most of us have had experience in the course of our lives of some sharply revised valuations. Matthew Arnold found, as he grew older, that he came to value more and more of those poems by Wordsworth which he had formerly rejected as merely mawkish and trite. But the humility of aesthetic judgment which such reflections induce must itself be used with caution. The theory that, as one grows older, one may come to think more and more of what one now regards as indifferent poetry, and less and less of what one now regards as great poetry, hovers perilously near the ludicrous. Fantastic pictures begin to crowd into the brain of bearded clairvoyants conning their Ella Wheeler Wilcox and their Wilhelmina Stitch!

Now there is a passage in the book, “Speech Formation and Dramatic Art,” in which it is affirmed of art as a whole, including, of course, poetry, that its true function is to express everything, leaving nothing to be completed by the onlooker himself. And again, in “Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of the Aesthetic,” it is said, “The whole exterior must express the whole interior.” In reflecting on such rules as these, the question which naturally occurs to those who know and love the English language is the question whether the genius of that language does not constitute its productions an exception to them. It seems to be of the essence of poetic English to hint, to suggest, to just not say, leaving the meaning to reverberate on in the mind of the hearer. It seems to be impossible to say everything in English at any point without being prosaic (that is, materialistic) or at best heavy-handed and pompous. And of no English writers is this truer than the Romantics, with whom Steiner was specifically dealing in this chapter.

The question is not whether this is a defect of the language, but whether it is true. Steiner (who writes of Keats and Shelley with the utmost respect) refers characteristically to the former’s “Hyperion” with its philosophic and allegorical weight, but makes no mention of the “Odes,” in which this “evocative” (is there such a word in German?) use of the English language is carried so far. He also describes Keats as having had a peculiar love for the world of allegory—a truth on which English critics have been noticeably reluctant to dwell.

If what has been said here of the English language is true, two things seem to follow from it. In the first place, English poetry would be peculiarly difficult to appraise, except for those who have been long acquainted with the language. For the suggestive element in words, their overtones or harmonies, those elements in them which “pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone” are the last which a learner of the language can pick up. They depend so much on memory. It is probably literally impossible to convey to anyone not having such a memory of the language the wide gulf which yawns between the mechanically romantic tumty-tumty-tumming of Scott’s:

O Caledonia! stern and wild,

Meet nurse for a poetic child!

Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,

Land of the mountain and the flood,

Land of my sires! What mortal hand

Can e’er untie the filial band

That knits me to thy rugged strand!

and the sublime spirituality of Wordsworth’s:

Love had he found in huts where poor men lie.

His daily teachers had been woods and rills,

The silence that is in the starry sky,

The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

In the second place it may be suggested (without pressing the terms too closely) that the English language is essentially the language of imagination, that is, it is adapted to expressing the real only indirectly, by means of representing an unreal, which is accepted as such and which therefore suggests the real that overshadows it. It is concrete in the non-mystical sense, that is, it is most at home when avowedly representing things that may be touched and seen and, inasmuch as it is poetical, it contrives to represent such things while conveying at the same time the impression “these but vain shadows and reflections be.”

The German language, on the other hand, is the language of inspiration. Where it is poetic and true, it speaks out of its direct experience of the real, the spiritual. It is the Cosmic Intelligence itself, seeking to incarnate in the human word. Nothing is more significant than the fact that German has the same name for what we call “spirit” as for what we call “intellect,” and that this word in our own language has become the highly suggestive “ghost.” An English Hegel is unthinkable. He could not have expressed himself except in poetry or drama.

To Anthroposophists such considerations are of more than merely literary interest. They lead to a more intimate understanding of a language, and thus make more real to us the spirit of the nation which speaks through it. We use this word “intimate” to designate something which, while apparently trivial in itself, can yet only be understood out of a deep and loving acquaintance. English Anthroposophists, if they are really to fulfil their obligations, must become able to see and feel deep enough into Anthroposophy and into Germany to be able to distinguish the spirit of the one clearly from the spirit of the other—a task which is made all the more difficult by the close relation in which these two stand, and which is expressed both in the historical fact of Rudolf Steiner’s birthplace and in the achievement and destiny of Goethe. But here for the moment it will be best to pause.

Owen Barfield

1 His actual words are that Moore had more “genuine romanticism” (echte Romantik), but the whole way in which he deals with the two poets suggests that he attached more significance to the former. Return.