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Ideal Shepherds and Abstract Sheep

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Okay,  I’ll admit it.

I didn’t make that one up.

I wish I had, but I didn’t.  It’s part of Allen Tate’s declaration that Keats provedthat Romantic poetry “could be more than ideal shepherds and abstract sheep.”

I’m gong to keep it because it fits in with what I was thinking about for today. 

Or sort of thinking abou.  The mood around here for the last couple of days has been decidedly grim.  My SIL has slipped mostly into unconsciousness and is not expected to last the week-end.  She’s an interesting person–I’m going to say is here, because I don’t have a call on my phone saying otherwise–and sort of the anti-example to the Romantic impulse. 

She is now, and has been, a very devout and traditional Catholic, and she seems to have turned her husband–atheist as the day is long when she maried him–into one too.  She’s got three children, all adopted well past the usual “adoptability” stage, one of them with severe development problems.  In the middle of all this, Child Services decided that she was too sick to properly care for the one with disabilities and removed the child from the home.  Cancer or no cancer, Joann hired a lawyer who made the case that getting sickshouldn’t mean you lose your children and Nicole was returned home.

Like I said, Joann is sort of the anti-Romantic.  Whether that’s because her Catholicism provided her with the framework of meaning so that she didn’t need Romanticism as an alternative, or because she’s Joann,  I’ll never know.

But the Romantic impulse is in fact an alternative to an overarching narrative of another kind.  When a religion begins to break down in the minds of its own believers, they take a lot of different avenues to make up for the framework that they’ve lost, and Romanticism is one of them.

Yvor Winters preferred to call this impulse “hedonism,” but for me, the word has connotations of reckless wallowing indulgence in pleasurable sensations, and that isn’t quite what the  Romantics thought they were doing.

The Romantics lived for deep experience–not just for the momentary spasms of the ordinary orgasm, but for that moment when the earth moved.

Except that, no matter how obsessed some of them were with sex–and some of them were very obsessed indeed, especially the men–the point was less the physical than the emotional.  “Feeling intensely” was the goal, giving oneself over entirely to a profound emotion.  That was why they were so dedicated not just to nature, but to the extremes of nature.  They liked their weather wild and their waterfalls magnificent.

Back a couple of months ago or so, I posted a link to an article about the humanities which some of you read and commented on, and especially on the comments left to it.   One of those comments demanded to know how many people had had had their lives ruined by the bad advice given by Byron and Keats, but II thought then, and I think now, that this is unfair to both of them.

In the case of Keats, you had a man who was dying young and knew it.  Most of his poetry–and it’s the best of the lot–is a struggle to come to terms with that fact from the perspective of a man who could not make sense of it with religion.  Like I said at the beginning of that last series of posts, some people don’t believe just because they don’t.   They don’t disbelieve on purpose.  They would often prefer to be able to believe.  They just can’t.

Keats just couldn’t, and in trying to find a substitute he gave us “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “La Belle Dame  Sans Merci” and “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  I don’t know if it helped him face the inevitbility of his impending death, but it’s made my life better than it would have been without it.

That said, it’s important to point out a couple of other things.

The first is that none of the rest of these people actually seems to have been able to do what they say they set out to do.  Emotion, deeply experienced, was never enough.   Wordwsworth’s last real eruption of deep emotion came in response to the French revolution.  After that, his poetry peters out into platitudes and bathos.  Coleridge took to drugs.  Byron and Shelley took to politics.

I hate to put the two of them together like that, because I think Byron took to politics sincerely, while Shelley took to politics thee way he took to everything else–as an opportunist whose real purpose was always to get as much as possible and give as little.

Still, the question remains–why wasn’t deeply felt emotion enough? 

It’s a commonplace that the quest for mere sensation never works as a life plan–that it fails as it succeeds.  The people who spend their lives boozing and screwin and dopin are not happy, and neither are the people who make it a goal to buy and own as much as possible.  We watch Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan for the same reason we slow down at car crashes–because it’s a question of when, not if, they’re going to crash and burn.

The “deeply felt emotion” of the Romantics was supposed to be something different, not mindless self-indulgence but the infinite expansion of our ability to feel, to respond to the world around us and to experience it fully.

I have absolutely no idea if any of these people actually managed it.  I can’t get into their heads, and couldn’t even if they were still alive.  What I do know is that if they ever managed it, it was not enough.

Byron could be accused of a lot of things, but insincerity is not one of them.  All the trouble he ever got into in his life was a result of his iron determination to be true to himself.   He even got himself killed for it.

But that’s the thing.  In the end, all that deeply felt emotion, all that fully realized experience came down to a conviction that he had to help the Greeks win their independence from the Ottoman Empire, a sentiment that seems to have resulted as much from a commitment to “poetry” in the abstract (the Greeks were so very good at art!) as from all those feelings he’d spent so much of his verse celebrating.

What’s more, most of us who do not have the Romantic impulse–as I don’t–tend to look on declarations of the primacy of deeply felt experience as…well, sort of fake.  Keats can wrap me up in the moment, and Coleridge can be fun, but I find Wordworth boring and Shelley downright irritating.  Shelley’s most widely read poem, these days, the ubiquitously anthologized “Ozymandias,” does little more than express a commonplace that can be found better expressed in the King James Bible.

Why is it that deeply felt emotion is not enough for virtually anybody?  Why doesn’t this work as a substitute for whatever it was religion gave us?  Why, when I read declarations in “The Humanist Manifesto II” about how Humanists are committed to leading a life of “joy” do I roll my eyes and throw up my hands and think:  oh, for God’s sake?

Maybe this is just me, and the rest of you have no problem understanding this sort of thing.  Certainly lots of people try it on, although not as many as try the “the one who dies with the most toys wins” strategy.

It always occurs to me that this approach would be a disaster to a marriage, and that it’s in marriage where it has had the most far-reaching influence in society today.   If marraige is about “love” and “love” is a strong emotionfelt intensely and unwaveringly for your partner, then it’s some kind of miracle that only half of all new marriages end in divorce.

We talk a lot about the dualities of human experience–mind and body, head and heart.

We just never seem to solve them.

Written by janeh

August 16th, 2009 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Ideal Shepherds and Abstract Sheep'

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  1. Doesn’t fill the same gap. Using Janespeak, Narrative–Christian, Marxist, Islamic, what have you–provides a code of conduct, it explains that code, and for some people provides purpose beyond.

    Just providing the code of conduct is enough for most people–a list of things to do and a list of things which are Not Done, which is why some of those imperatives and prohibitions carry over into people who have lost the narrative. The explanation provides a foundation for that conduct, and purpose–well, purpose makes saints and others: Wilberforce, St Francis and Booth, but also Trotsky and Osama bin Ladin. It moves people to a cause beyond themselves.

    But deeply felt emotion doesn’t do any of these things. The emotion or experience junkie has the same basic problem as the doper, the habitual risk-taker and the sex or money-obsessed: after a while he adapts to the dosage. There’s a serious difference between enjoying any of these things and making them the center of one’s life. I enjoy a good thunderstorm as much as any Romantic, but a thunderstorm is not the point.

    The Romantics were calling on their emotions to take the place of their reasoning facility, and it doesn’t work that way.

    robert_piepenbrink

    16 Aug 09 at 1:39 pm

  2. Emotion is too labile to form a strong foundation for anything. Emotion isn’t real in the same way that an action that affects the physical world is. I might well feel an overwhelming attraction to someone, but unless I act on it, that emotion has no effect on the world around me or anyone in it. Moreover, I can choose to act on an emotion in different ways – and therefore need something outside emotion itself to guide me. Does the other person reciprocate? Would other people be hurt if there is reciprocation and we engage in a sexual relationship – other partners, children perhaps who might see it as a betrayal?

    Moreover, emotion can have different roots – it’s all very well for the romantics to want to be swept away by emotions, but emotions come from somewhere, and they aren’t quite ‘just glands’ – although anyone whose brain chemistry is screwed up in particular ways may feel all kinds of emotions that appear real and have even less connection to reality than ordinary emotions of healthier people. Assuming I’m as normal as it gets, I can feel all kinds of negative emotions that are really the result of physical tiredness, or perhaps a chance reminder of someone else rather than a relationship in the here and now.

    Trying to build a life on emotions is like trying to build a house on shifting sand.

    Cheryl

    16 Aug 09 at 3:00 pm

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