In quest for the romantic imagination (I): Irving Babbitt's synthesis.
The term "nature," according to Babbitt (1919: 268), was vague from the very time of naturalism's rise in the Renaissance, having roots in Greco-Roman antiquity. Thus, in Babbitt's view, there is a "whole revolution" in Byron's following verse:
I love not man the less, but nature more.
The verse is from Childe Harold (IV, 178), the whole stanza proclaiming the romantic revolutionary doctrine of the unity of being (the man-cosmos union):
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not Man the less, but Nature more, From these our interviews, in which I steal From all I may be, or have been before, To mingle with the Universe, and feel What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal. (Byron 2000: 199)
The "pathetic fallacy" about which Ruskin speaks consists in the fact that man sees in nature emotions that do not actually exist there; they exist only inside himself--this concept, however, does not recognize the degree to which man fused with nature. The Greeks, for instance, also saw a fusion between man and nature, but this was totally different: the oak tree appeared to them invariably accompanied by a dryad. In other words, there was in the perception of the Greeks a kind of "overflow of the human realm upon the forms of outer nature." (Babbitt 1919: 269) On the contrary, the Rousseauist desired, if he could, to become the oak tree itself, so that he be able to enjoy "its unconscious and vegetative felicity." It would appear that the Greeks "humanized nature," while the Rousseauists "naturalize[d] man." In the terms of Keats's equation, man was initiated into the modes of natural deep empathy and unselfing, with a view to becoming full of the others, thus the individual being left selfless.
Rousseau's great discovery was therefore the process of reverie, i.e., in the acceptation Babbitt (1919: 269) proposes, the "imaginative melting of man into outer nature." This indeed corresponds to Keats's and Coleridge's kind of empathy. Furthermore, the Stoics and Epicureans (the two types of naturalists in classical antiquity) had the tendency to promote the idea that human and natural order are eventually identical--this represents a fundament of Amerindian thought. The Epicureans, in effect, do remind us in many of their intellectual activities of the modern scientist, even though they are not so much inclined to regard man as "the mere passive creature of environment." (Babbitt 1919: 270) According to the American critic, it is difficult for us to discover in the ancients anything that is similar to the Rouseauistic reverie, even if we take into consideration passages in which the pastoral is dominant: nature interests them less for its own sake than for its being the "background for human action"; and when nature is indeed the main interest, then we are dealing with a nature in which man is engaged in full action. In the ancients, there is a "positive shrinking" from wild and uncultivated nature, while the medieval man often saw in nature something alien, a "positive temptation," a danger for spirit (Babbitt 1919: 272).
Petrarch is considered by Babbitt as the first modern--more ascetic and more romantic by his attitude towards nature than the Greco-Romans: he had an inclination for solitary and savage nature. This attitude will be found throughout the Renaissance and during the 17th century. In this period, however, also a rejection of supernaturalism became dominant, which led to a rebirth of Greco-Roman humanism, in this context combined with more conventionality and artificiality, as well as with an emphatic preference for urban spaces as opposed to rural spaces. According to Babbitt (1919: 273), the neo-classicist considered "wild nature" as "repellent," and mountains as "earth's dishonor and encumbering load." The expressions belong to Richard Blackmore (Babbitt does not mention him at all), and they occur in the poem entitled Creation (1712). Here is the context in which they appear:
You [i.e. Lucretius] say the hills, which high in air arise, Harbour in clouds, and mingle with the skies, The earth's dishonour and encumbering load, Of many spacious regions man defraud, For beasts and birds of prey a desolate abode. But can th' objector no convenience find In mountains, hills, and rocks, which gird and bind The mighty frame, that else would be disjoin'd? Do not those heaps the raging tide restrain, And for the dome afford the marble vein? Does not the river from the mountain flow, And bring down riches to the vale below? See how the torrent rolls the golden sand From the high ridges to the [sic] flater land. The lofty lines abound with endless store Of mineral treasure, and metallic ore; With precious veins of silver, copper, tin, Without how barren, yet how rich within! They bear the pine, the oak and cedar yield, To form the palace, and the navy build. (Creation, III; Blackmore 1793: 614)
Therefore, Blackmore, whose poem was meant as a whole to prove God's existence, in the fragment quoted above tries to refute some of Lucretius's objections to the ways in which creation is articulated; Blackmore uses in this sense a method by which he strives to show, as it were, that the glass is half full, not half empty. Babbitt may have considered the words used by Blackmore against Lucretius as representative not only for the Roman classical thinker, but also for the neo-classicists, who revived in England the Greco-Roman/ classical viewpoint with all its good and bad aspects.
According to Babbitt, as comfort in travelling increased as a consequence of the rise of the utilitarian movement (with its emphasis on the need of improving technology for man's daily needs and comfort), man's inclination to like mountainous landscapes began to increase too. A landscape was "picturesque" when it looked like a painting, irregular and wild. The affiliation between art and wilderness became a symbol of 18th-century sentimentalism: a paradoxical combination between the mimetic Aristotelian principle (of imitating models) and the new principle of spontaneity. If one wished to show oneself "conventionally correct," one had to display a "taste for wildness" (Babbitt 1919: 275). The "fops"--according to Taine, who described Rousseau's influence on the "drawing rooms"--"dreamt between two madrigals of the happiness of sleeping naked in the virgin forest." Moreover, the prince in Goethe's Triumph of sensibility takes with him on his travels "canvas screens" painted in such a way as to give the illusion, when spread out, that he is in the midst of wilderness. Babbitt calls these tendencies a taste for "artificial wildness," associated with the increasingly more dominant taste during the 18th century for the "English garden" as opposed to the Italian or French garden. Indeed, in his series of essays entitled On the pleasures of the imagination (published as no. 411-421 of The Spectator in 1712), Joseph Addison had drawn attention to the fact that the English garden was too neat, too elegant, and so too artificial, lacking an "artificially rude" "mixture of garden and forest," such as seen in the French and Italian gardens:
[O]ur English gardens are not so entertaining to the fancy as those in France and Italy, where we see a large extent of ground covered over with an agreeable mixture of garden and forest, which represent every where an artificial rudeness, much more charming than that neatness and elegancy which we meet with in those of our own country. (Addison 1813iv: 348)
Now, in Goethe's age, the extremely rigid "neo-classic symmetry" became relaxed, nature being "broken up" in irregular and unexpected parts. Some of the English gardens from France and Germany were built precisely by drawing direct inspiration from Rousseau's works (Nouvelle Heloise, Pt. IV, Lettre XI: the method to approach the landscape). In the English gardens, for instance, sometimes "artificial ruins" were now introduced in order to enhance the efficiency of the exploratory approach of those who wished to "wander imaginatively" far away from the civilized world in order to discover the new, but also in order to generate the melancholy about which people already believed that it was something reflecting high distinction. Towards the end of the 18th century the "cult of ruins" became quite widespread (Babbitt 1919: 275, 276), being connected with the romantic movement also via the works of Piranesi (1720-1778).
Chateaubriand was in this sense obsessed with ruins, these being connected with the "sentimental fashion" of the times, but also with the French Revolution which produced them physically (Babbitt 1919: 276). P. B. Shelley was, like Byron, fascinated with ruins, too, and wrote one of the most memorable and haunting sonnets in world literature, Ozymandias (1818)--the name being the Hellenized version of the Egyptian throne name User-maat-re ("the power of the beautiful truth of Re") that Rameses the Great had, alongside another one, Setep-en-re ("chosen of Re"):
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said--"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away." (Shelley 2003: 198)
Rousseau, however, wanted more than just "artificial wildness": he did not impose "etiquette" (decorum) on nature, as the neo-classicists had done, but instead he demanded its elimination from the human condition. According to Rousseau, man had to run back to nature and avoid that "false taste for grandeur which is not made for him" and which "poisons his pleasures"; it was "only on the summits of mountains, in the depths of forests, on deserted islands that nature reveals her most potent charms" (Nouvelle Heloi'se, Pt. IV, Lettre XI; apud Babbitt 1919: 276). The tendency towards exploration and discovery, of course, had been much stimulated especially during the Renaissance, so that the interest of the romantics for the wildernesses and deserted places of the earth was not much greater than that of the people who lived in Elizabethan England. The Rousseauists Wordsworth and Chateaubriand were thus reading with great verve not only the travel books written long ago, during the Elizabethan age, but often the very same books, arousing in them most likely the same kind of emotions and expectations, that turned into the Rousseauistic pattern of life philosophy.
The "romanticism of action" consequently manifested itself also by the passion for real exploration, although in Chateaubriand this was subordinated to the "emotional romanticism" (Babbitt 1919: 277). In the 19th century, mankind embraced the most "ecstatic" attitude towards natural beauty, but with all that, paradoxically, this century was also the most destructive for nature, the city being more invaded by people than ever in the context in which, on the contrary, the village was the one extolled. In this sense, the romantics vehemently resisted the railway construction projects: Babbitt (1919: 301, 302) even speaks of a genuine "early romantic crusade against railways." Rousseau in this respect had stated that "nature is dead unless animated by the fires of love"--those fires were not, as is now apparent, channeled too much in the allocentric direction of nature, the result being the rise of an urban mainly egocentric culture that led humanity to often insoluble psychological troubles and arresting ecological deadlocks.
Chateaubriand went thus into the wilderness not in order to discover, but in order to express his freedom from convention, and in order to practice the "new art of revery." Chateaubriand's feelings when he visited an American virgin forest west of Albany were probably different from those of the pioneers of America:
When I found myself, after passing the Mohawk, in woods which had never been subject to the axe, I fell into a sort of intoxication, to which I have thus adverted in the History of Revolutions:--"I went from tree to tree, to the right and the left indiscriminately, saying to myself--Here are no more roads to follow, no more towns, no more close houses, no more presidents, republics, or kings.--And to try whether I was at length reinstated in my original rights, I indulged in a thousand whimsical acts, which enraged the tall Dutchman, who officiated as my guide, and who in his heart believed that I was mad." (Chateaubriand 1828: 111; cf. also Babbitt 1919: 277-278)
Babbitt concluded that in Chateaubriand, as in many other romantics, the elements of Rousseauism often appear separately, for then to associate with each other, but also with the cult of nature. These are the following: 1) the Arcadian longing; 2) the "pursuit of the dream woman"; and 3) the aspiration after infinity (which often is the same as God). Thus:
1) The Arcadian longing's associations with nature are an effect of the conflict between the real and the unreal. Rousseau states about the moment of reverie that he "would like it to last forever," as an "eternal present that leaves no sense of emptiness"--thereby anticipating Goethe's Faust and Bergson's idea about the summum bonum as a state in which time is no longer divided into "artificial segments," but is perceived as a continuous current, a "present that endures" (Laperception du changement; cf. Babbitt 1919: 281).
2) The associations of the "pursuit of the dream woman" with nature: Babbitt (1919: 282) identifies a passage in Prometheus unbound by P. B. Shelley in which the Arcadian nature and the dream female companion (Asia) unite in the rhythms of music in a "supremely romantic" manner--we are dealing with the boat reverie scene at the end of the second act, which begins with the verses: "My soul is an enchanted boat." In order for us to have some grasp of the sound reverie, sense reverie, and word magic that Shelley created in the scene in which Asia pours her love feelings toward Prometheus, here are in full the verses that Babbitt made reference to:
Asia My soul is an enchanted boat, Which, like a sleeping swan, doth float Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing; And thine doth like an angel sit Beside the helm conducting it, Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing. It seems to float ever, forever, Upon that many-winding river, Between mountains, woods, abysses, A paradise of wildernesses! Till, like one in slumber bound Borne to the ocean, I float down, around, Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound: Meanwhile thy spirit lifts its pinions In music's most serene dominions, Catching the winds that fan that happy heaven; And we sail on, away, afar, Without a course, without a star, But by the instinct of sweet music driven; Till through Elysian garden islets By thee, most beautiful of pilots, Where never mortal pinnace glided, The boat of my desire is guided: Realms where the air we breathe is love, Which in the winds and on the waves doth move, Harmonizing this earth with what we feel above. We have past Age's icy caves, And Manhood's dark and tossing waves, And Youth's smooth ocean, smiling to betray: Beyond the glassy gulfs we flee Of shadow-peopled Infancy, Through Death and Birth, to a diviner day; A paradise of vaulted bowers Lit by downward-gazing flowers, And watery paths that wind between Wildernesses calm and green, Peopled by shapes too bright to see, And rest, having beheld; somewhat like thee; Which walk upon the sea, and chant melodiously! (Prometheus unbound, II, 5, 72-110; Shelley 2003: 278-279)
3) The associations of the aspiration after infinity with nature: the effect of this association is the following: the cult of nature often takes the form of a religion. The pantheistic reverie came to have an immense success because it seems to offer a "painless substitute for genuine spiritual effort" (Babbitt 1919: 286).
The extreme representatives that Babbitt (1919: 286) identifies are Rousseau and Whitman: in the case of these two pantheism is reduced to an "ecstatic animality" which pretends to be "divine illumination." Babbitt (1919: 293), however, underlines the fact that the pantheistic reverie leads to a special symbolism: the Rousseauist reads in nature an "unutterable love," he sees "the light of the infinite" shining through the finite forms of nature. Especially the Germans symbolically expressed the relation between the love and the infinity they beheld in nature. Schelling's "Nature Philosophy" is most likely the most ambitious attempt of the Germans to symbolically fuse human spirit and phenomenal nature. Schelling stated that "[w]hat we call nature is a poem that lies hidden in a secret wondrous writing": if the enigma could be deciphered, then we would recognize in nature "the Odyssey of the Spirit"; "[t]here looks out through sensuous objects as through a half-transparent mist the world of phantasy for which we long"; "[a]ll things are only a garment of the world of spirit." (apud Babbitt 1919: 293)
We should notice in passing that Schelling's ideas mentioned above have great affinities with the system of symbolicity that was elaborated by Kenneth Burke (1966) in the 20th century.
Furthermore, Uhland stated, in the spirit of Schelling's ideas above, that "[t]o be romantic is to have an inkling of the infinite in appearances." Additionally, Schelling likewise affirmed that "[b]eauty is a finite rendering of the infinite." (apud Babbitt 1919: 293) In fact, Schelling had proposed a quite complex finite-infinite equation which Babbitt does not mention in detail. First of all, Schelling said the following about beauty:
Beauty, one can say, is established in all the places where light and matter, the ideal and the real touch each other. Beauty is neither only the general or the ideal (truth), nor only the real (in action), therefore it is only the consummate interpenetration or unification (Ineinsbildung) of both [the ideal and the real, the general and the particular, the infinite and the finite]. (Schelling 1907iii: 30)
All beauty is ever the indifference of being and of form--the representation of the absolute in a particular [a form]. (Schelling 1907iii: 223)
This definition of beauty does indeed have affinities with the definition proposed by Cramer (1993: 152). Also, Schelling nuanced his view of the equation mentioned above as follows:
1) "Lyric poetry = rendering/imagining/representing of the infinite in the finite = the particular" (Einbildung des Unendlichen ins Endliche = Besonderem).
2) "Epic poetry = representation of the finite in the infinite = the general" (Darstellung des Endlichen im Unendlichen = Allgemeinen).
3) "Drama = synthesis of the general and the particular," i.e. synthesis of the two forms of representation: of the infinite in the finite, and of the finite in the infinite (Synthese des Allgemeinen und Besonderen) (Schelling 1907: 19).
Although Babbitt does not notice it, the equation quoted above was resumed by Hermann Keyserling (cf. Ghyka 1981: 97), who saw in the golden section the most beautiful of all proportions that generate analogies: it thus is a manifestation of "the infinite in a limited form" (what we call "interfinitude"). As is now widely recognized, the golden section is the manifestation of a proportion that is invariably perceived by man as beautiful or pleasant (spirals are associated with it--see at least Theodore Cook's monumental volume documenting this concept: The curves of life, 1914; and Ghyka's very important contribution in this field of research: The geometry of art and life, 1978).
According to Babbitt (1919: 293), Wilhelm Schlegel's point of view (as expressed in his lectures on aesthetics) was that the finite and the infinite could be brought together only by agency of the symbol. Thus, according to Wilhelm Schlegel, beauty in general is a "symbolic representation of the infinite" (cf. also Adam 1907: 18; Haym 1914: 836), while poetry is "an everlasting symbolizing" (Babbitt 1919: 293). In this sense, Haym (1914: 836) had observed that A. W. Schlegel is "Schellingian" in his philosophy of the beautiful.
The idea that poetry is an eternal process of symbolization and beauty a symbol of infinity is indeed important in the context of romanticism: romantic symbolism--although it claims to be scientific (especially in Germany) and religious--is in essence the "symbolizing of mood" (Babbitt 1919: 296), mood being unlimited in terms of its possible forms of manifestation. Also, the romantic symbol has two components: imagination and emotion, both undisciplined, and also potentially unlimited in terms of their possible forms of manifestation. For these reasons, this type of symbol does not satisfy the following:
1) the authentic scientist's rigour concerning experimental evidence.
2) the test of universality firmly required by those who believe that man is above nature.
Schelling's Naturphilosophie thus leads, according to Babbitt (1919: 295), to a "sham science" and to a "sham philosophy and religion." The authentic scientists rejected all speculations advanced by Schelling and other romantic physicists as "fantastic," with one notable exception, namely the notion that man has access to infinity only by agency of nature. Babbitt (1919: 296) concludes that "[g]reat literature is an imaginative and symbolical interpretation of an infinite that is accessible only to those who possess in some degree the same type of imagination." Imagination is what Coleridge stated it is: "the great unifying [esemplastic] power." The romantic symbol and myth are often nothing else but a "developed metaphor." (Babbitt 1919: 296, 297, 184) Here, Babbitt seems to forget or neglect that Coleridge added something crucially more to his definition of the imagination, namely the "magic" dimension:
The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry. [...] Finally, good sense is the body of poetic genius, fancy its drapery, motion its life, and imagination the soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole. (Biographia literaria, XIV, 9-29, 912; Coleridge 1907ii: 12, 13; 2000: 319-320)
Coleridge's imagination is therefore a "synthetic and magical power," or a "magical synthesis," as Lowes (1978: 68ff, 154) rightly put it. Shawcross (1907i: lxiii) in this connection emphasized that for Coleridge, as for Schelling, the function of the imagination meant mainly "to unify and so to create," and these two co-present actions are a principle found in the self, i.e. man's entire essential nature, containing both thought and feeling. In Coleridge's Anima poetae we find a small crucial reference to what Coleridge understood by the imagination--Lowes (1978: 285-285) quotes this fragment--which leads us to the suggestion that it may indeed have been akin to Keats's notion of imagination as Adam's dream, as indicated by Barth & Mahoney (1990):
His [Jean Paul's] imagination, if it must be so called, is at all events of the pettiest kind--it is an imaginunculation. How excellently the German Einbildungskraft expresses this prime and loftiest faculty, the power of co-adunation, the faculty that forms the many into one--in-eins-bildung! Eisenoplasy, or esenoplastic power, is contradistinguished from fantasy, or the mirrorment, either catoptric or metoptric--repeating simply, or by transposition--and, again, involuntary [fantasy] as in dreams, or by an act of the will. (Coleridge 1895b: 199)
Be it noted that Jean Paul (in his Aesthetik) had distinguished between: 1) Einbildungskraft (imagination) as a "potentiated brightly-coloured memory"; and 2) Phantasie (fantasy) as the power of "making all parts into a whole" (cf. Shawcross; Coleridge 1907i: 226). Coleridge, besides affording it a magical-shamanistic-supernatural dimension, seems to have inverted this binary concept: it is the (magical) imagination (Einbildungskraft) which is unifying (and so creating), and it is fancy that is a "mode of memory," not the other way around:
The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It [the secondary imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead./FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association./Whatever more than this, I shall think it fit to declare concerning the powers and privileges of the imagination in the present work, will be found in the critical essay on the uses of the Supernatural in poetry, and the principles that regulate its introduction: which the reader will find pre-fixed to the poem of The Ancient Mariner. (Coleridge 1907i: 202)
Keats asserted even more clearly the shamanistic/ demiurgic dimension of the imagination (which is creative as if by magic), in a memorable letter in which he mentions his certainties in life, namely emotion, imagination, sensation, truth, beauty:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination--What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not--for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty--In a Word, you may know my favorite Speculation by my first Book [Endymion, I, 777ff] and the little song I sent in my last [O Sorrow]--which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these Matters--The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth. [...] O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! [...] [W]e shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated--And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth Adam's dream will do here and seems to be a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition. But as I was saying--the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repeti[ti]on of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness--to compare great things with small--have you never by being surprised with an old Melody--in a delicious place--by a delicious voice, fe[l]t over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul[?]--do you not remember forming to yourself the singer's face more beautiful tha[n] it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so[?]--even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high--that the Prototype must be hereafter--that delicious face you will see--What a time! [...]--[D]rink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things. (Letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 22 November 1817; Keats 1975: 36-37)
In Lowes's decryption (1978: 61), Coleridge's imagination implies three elements: the Deep Well (the deep unconscious mind), the Vision (the Imagination proper as the shaping spirit), and the Will (the controlling conscious mind):
"The imagination," said Coleridge once, recalling a noble phrase from Jeremy Taylor's Via Pacis, "... sees all things in one." It sees the Free Life--the endless flux of the unfathomed sea of facts and images--but it sees also the controlling Form. And when it acts on what it sees, through the long patience of the will the flux itself is transformed and fixed in the clarity of a realized design. For there enter into imaginative creation three factors which reciprocally interplay: the Well, and the Vision, and the Will. Without the Vision, the chaos of elements remains a chaos, and the Form sleeps forever in the vast chambers of unborn designs. Yet in that chaos only could creative Vision ever see this Form. Nor without the cooperant Will, obedient to the Vision, may the pattern perceived in the huddle attain objective reality. Yet manifold though the ways of the creative faculty may be, the upshot is one: from the empire of chaos a new tract of cosmos has been retrieved; a nebula has been compacted--it may be!--into a star. (Lowes 1978: 395)
Significantly, in Lowes's estimation, this state of the affairs of extraordinary creativity, as revealed in Coleridge's case, is universal, to be found in any human endeavour to attain some form of creativity, be it literary, poetic, musical, artistic in general, or scientific. Thus, creativity implies the passage from chaos to cosmos, from nebula to star: in this context, Lowes may have been aware that the romantic imagination was beheld alchemistically by romantics such as Blake also as being the "star inside man" [Blake's Los signifies the human imagination, and the name /Los/ is a reversed spelling of /soL/, the Sun, i.e. the star of our local cosmic system--this means that Blake saw the human imagination as man's inner star/sun; for more details on this topic, see next issue, In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu].
Mood disorders: dreaming of the far away, longing for home...
According to Babbitt (1919: 306), the Rousseauist looks for happiness simultaneously in the "free play of the emotions"/"free play of feeling" and--which is most important--in the "free play of the imagination." In this process of collaboration with the imagination, feeling acquires "a sort of infinitude," which is why the romantic is in search of "the thrill superlative"--as can well be observed from the romantic "nympholepsy": the quest for the "impossible" woman, the "pursuit of the impossible she."
The "law" that Babbitt (1919: 306) notices here is the following: the more imaginative this search of emotional happiness is, the more it tends to become "mere nostalgia"--happiness is attained only in "dreamland."
In this respect, Babbitt quotes Rousseau: "My most constant happiness was in dream." ("Mon plus constant bonheur fut en songe.") Any finite satisfaction, by its very nature which is finite, leaves him unsatisfied. Babbitt identifies (1919: 307, 313, 322) here the major contradiction of the whole of romanticism, its maximum irony: can man become happy being "nostalgic" and "hyperaesthetic," "by burning with infinite indeterminate desire"? According to Babbitt (1919: 307), the mode of this quest has as a result not happiness, but "wretchedness": it is therefore paradoxical that romanticism, which set off by affirming the "goodness of man" (in continuation of Pelagius's doctrine) and the "loveliness of nature," came to generate "the greatest literature of despair the world has ever seen." In Babbitt's view, no other movement created more abundently melancholy as did the emotional type of romanticism. When the romantic observes that his ideal of happiness in fact leads to unhappiness, he will not put the blame on his ideal: he instead will consider the world as unworthy of a being so "exquisitely organized" like himself, so that he withdraws from the world and "enfolds himself in his sorrow as he would in a mantle" (Babbitt 1919: 308).
Because "superlative bliss" escapes him, the romantic will at least become "superlative in woe," the latter being in no way a "mark of failure," but a standard that "measures his spiritual grandeur." Among the romantic poets, a real competition came into being: the winner was the one who experienced the most dreadful sufferings, and the laurels of victory meant not only the gift of poetry, but also that of wisdom. According to Babbitt (1919: 311), Rousseau is associated with the tradition of the "apostles of affliction." In its purely personal quality, "romantic melancholy" was inseparable from the notion of original genius, i.e. the man who desired to be unique in general and, in particular, to be unique in feelings. There was however a problem, because the "uniqueness in feeling" could easily turn into a "uniqueness in suffering." This transformation occurred by force of a principle that was expressed or discovered by Horace Walpole (cf. Babbitt 1919: 314), who spoke about it often during his lifetime and mentioned it in a few letters. Thus, the first letter in which Walpole declared it is that addressed to Horace Mann, dated 31 December 1769:
I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel--a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept. The only gainer is History, which has constant opportunities of showing the various ways in which men can contrive to be fools and knaves. The record pretends to be written for instruction, though to this hour no mortal has been the better or wiser for it. (Letter 1287; Walpole 1904vii: 346)
Walpole repeated this thought, with utmost emphasis, in a letter addressed again to Horace Mann, dated 5 March 1772:
Recollect what I have said to you, that this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel! This is the quintessence of all I have learnt in fifty years! (Letter 1397; Walpole 1904viii: 153)
A few years later, Walpole was no longer sure of this quintessential principle that he discovered in human life. He detailed his thoughts in a letter to the Countess of Upper Ossory, dated 16 August 1776:
I have often said, this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel; but when I thought so first, I was more disposed to smile than to feel; and besides, England was not arrived at its present pitch of frenzy. I begin to doubt whether I have not lived in a system of errors. All my ideas are turned topsy-turvy. One must go to some other country and ask whether one has a just notion of anything. To me, everybody round me seems lunatic; yet I think they were sober and wise folks from whom I received all my notions, on money, politics, and what not. Well! I will wait for the echo--I know no better oracle. [...] You excuse me in any mood, and therefore I will make no apology for this incoherent rhapsody. My thoughts, with those I love, always flow according to the cast of the hour. A good deal of sensibility and very shattered nerves expose one to strong impressions. Yet when the sages of this world affect a tenderness they do not know, may not a little real feeling be pardoned? (Letter 1717; Walpole 1904ix: 403-404)
In yet another letter to the Countess of Upper Ossory, dated 19 January 1777, Walpole explored more deeply the question of suffering --still preserving his uncertainty, as follows:
I have often said that this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel; and sensibility has not only occasion to suffer for others, but is sure of its own portion too. Had I children, and the option of bestowing dispositions on them, I should be strangely puzzled to decide. Could one refuse them feelings that make them amiable, or confer what ensures unhappiness? But indeed on what could one decide, were the fate of others or one's own left to our arbitrement?/I have no opinion of my own wisdom, and little of anybody's else; but I have an odd system, that what is called chance is the instrument of Providence and the secret agent that counteracts what men call wisdom, and preserves order and regularity, and continuation in the whole; for you must know, Madam, that I firmly believe, notwithstanding all our complaints, that almost every person upon earth tastes upon the totality more happiness than misery; and therefore, if we could correct the world to our fancies, and with the best intentions imaginable, probably we should only produce more misery and confusion. This totally contradicts what I said before, that sensibility or insensibility determines the complexion of our lives; and yet if the former casts a predominating shade of sadness over the general tenor of our feelings, still that gloom is illumined with delicious flashes. It enjoys the comforts of the compassion it bestows, and of the misfortune it relieves; and the largest dose of the apathy of insensibility can never give any notion of the transport that thrills through the nerves of benevolence when it consoles the anguish of another; but I am too much a sceptic to pretend to make or reconcile a system and its contradictions. No man was ever yet so great as to build that system in which other men could not discover flaws. All our reasoning, therefore, is very imperfect, and this is my reason for being so seldom serious, and for never disputing. I look upon human reason as I do on the parts of a promising child--it surprises, may improve or stop short, but is not come to maturity; and therefore, if you please, I will talk of the Birthday, and things more suited to my capacity. (Letter 1746; Walpole 1904x: 4-5)
Walpole mentioned the principle one last time in a letter to the same Countess of Upper Ossory, dated 26 August 1784:
The knowledge of woes that one can alleviate, ought never to be avoided--when they are too big for my weak grasp, I fly to the gayer side of the picture--and there one can always find food for smiles. I have often said that this world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel! (Letter 2496; Walpole 1904xiii: 186).
What transpires from Walpole's ideas in the letters quoted above is that the paradox of the complex human equation cannot be solved; we seem to exist in a world in which joy and suffering are both necessary, making up a kind of checks-and-balances system with fine tuning. There is thus a Leibnizian strain of thought in Walpole here, as there is in Babbitt: we live in the best of possible worlds, any attempt to change any of the parameters of human experience as they naturally (co-)exist and (co-)occur would only create unbalance, and instead of generating more happiness (which may be in the good intention of the one trying to change things in the world for the better), one would come only to produce the more unhappiness and the more disaster.
The road to Xanadu, then, i.e. to the city of "infinite abundance in infinite unity" that the romantics search as their ideal, unfolds on the perilous crest between joy and pain, chaos and order, life and death, beginning and ending, light and darkness, matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible, fact and fantasy, subject and object, sensibility and insensibility, emotion and no emotion, rationality and irrationality, imagination and no imagination, vision and no vision, kinesis and stasis, comedy and tragedy, thought and feeling, the conscious and the unconscious, music and discord, love and hate, harmony and disharmony, truth and error, reality and illusion, substance and no substance, fullness and voidness, depth and surface, north and south, east and west, center and circumference.
Considering this constellation of ideas further, it is significant for our later discussions to observe that this condition of the threshold in nature is best captured by crystals (Gr. krystallos = "ice"; krystainein = "to freeze"), be they ice crystals or other mineral crystals. Emerson, for example, in The snowstorm and in Nature, regarded ice crystals as "transparent revelations of the currents of universal being"; Swedenborg saw in the geometries of crystals "portals to the essential monads of the cosmos" and the ways in which they combine to form structures; Thoreau marveled as he contemplated their mysterious and numinous transparency as a site of "order and fantasy, invention and necessity, law and exception," which stimulated the practice of crystallomancy (in European magic, especially starting with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) as star divination (crystal gazing) by agency of terrestrial crystalline prisms; Roger Bacon is thus believed to have accessed--by peering into a magical glass--knowledge of all things past, present and future, thus attaining the mode of the "visionary" and "prophet," which later the romantics aspired to appropriate by agency of the creative imagination. Out of this tradition derives the idea that via crystal gazing not only revelation is mediated, but also the bringing into being of events willed into existence by the imagination of the crystal gazer. In this sense, we need to remember that the romantic Faust, in Goethe's version, featured, in the scene taking place in the Witches' Kitchen, the practice of looking into magic mirrors. (Wilson 2003: 5, 8, 9, 10, 11) In this regard, the romantic imagination in Coleridge's version (and not only) indeed contains a synthetic, but also a magic, dimension, as pointed out already [see also next issue, In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu].
On the other hand, Babbitt (1919: 314) explains that for Rousseau "the elect of nature" are the beautiful souls that succeed in keeping their "native goodness of feeling," although they live among people corrupted by society. Rousseau, however, showed that this quality of being among the elect proved rather to be a "fatal gift of heaven." Still, it was only the "disillusioned romanticist" who accepted this elegiac dimension, Rousseau in this respect asking himself: why should he have been endowed by nature with "such exquisite faculties," if nature had not intended that they generate a "satisfaction commensurate with them." In other words, if he was still "to die without having lived": "What was the point of letting me be born with consummate faculties only to let them in the end without use." ("A quoi bon m'avoir fait naitre avec des facultes exquises pour les laisser jusqu'a la fin sans emploi?") (Confessions, IX). Babbitt (1919: 314) identifies in this crucial idea the psychological origin of the "right to happiness" that the romantics were to proclaim. Furthermore, the American critic believes that "romantic happiness" did not imply any kind of "moral effort," in its extreme forms being defined as a "monstrous dream of passive enjoyment." The "germs of melancholy," according to Babbitt (1919: 315), are thus already hidden in the very quest for the "superlative moment," even if this quest was to have some success.
Babbitt (1919: 315) in this context proposes an inciting hypothesis: let us say that Saint-Preux would have managed to compress "the delights of a thousand centuries" in a single moment, without having to pay for any mistake that would have been made during this time; the closer he gets to "a superhuman intensity of feeling," the greater the probability that, after the super-intense moment is experienced, "langour" (longing, exhaustion, apathy, stagnation) will follow. By comparison, common life will seem "pale and insipid" in front of the "exquisite and fugitive moment."
Here are Saint-Preux's words about the days spent with Julie (in a modern translation):
At last the veil is rent; that long illusion has vanished away; that hope so sweet has gone out; all I have left to feed an everlasting flame is a bitter and delightful memory that sustains my life and prolongs my torments with the vain sentiment of a happiness that is no more. /Is it then true that I have tasted supreme felicity? Am I truly the same being who once was happy? [...] Can one who once enjoyed the things I have lost, lose them and yet live, and can sentiments so contrary take root in one and the same heart? Days of pleasure and glory, no, you were not for a mortal! you were too fair to have to be perishable. A sweet ecstasy absorbed your whole duration, and concentrated it into a point like the duration of eternity. There was for me neither past nor future, and I tasted all at one time the delights of a thousand centuries. Alas! You have disappeared like a flash! That eternity of happiness was but an instant in my life. Time has slowed down again in the moments of my despair, and tedium metes out in long years the unfortunate remainder of my days. (Julie, or The new Heloise, III, Letter 6, To Madame d'Orbe; Rousseau 1997: 260)
Of this crucial passage, Babbitt (1919: 216) retained the emphasis on the "sweet ecstacy" that absorbed "their whole duration and gathered it together in a point like that of eternity," causing Saint-Preux to exclaim (in Babbitt's translation): "There was for me neither past nor future, and I enjoyed at one and the same time the delights of a thousand centuries."
Babbitt (1919: 315) explains what happened to Saint-Preux: after such an intense experience, it seems to the romantic that he exhausted life, that he "drained the cup of life at a draught"--he has no other reasons to live any longer than maybe only to remember the "perfect moment." The heart of the romantic after such a super-intense experience, tending towards perfection, remains "empty and swollen like a ball filled with air" (Julie, or The new Heloise, II, Letter 17, to Julie, Rousseau 1997: 210), haunted by suicidal thoughts. The idea of suicide and defiance of death appears clearly in Julie, or The new Heloise, VI, Letter 8, from Madame de Wolmar (to Saint-Preux); she also recalls the empty-heart syndrome and how, through "langour," it becomes manifest also in herself:
[E]verything I see is an extension of my being, and nothing divides it; it resides in all that surrounds me, no portion of it remains far from me; there is nothing left for my imagination to do, there is nothing for me to desire; to feel and to enjoy are to me one and the same thing; I live at once in all those I love, I am sated with happiness and life: O death, come when thou wilt! I have no more fear of thee, I have lived, I have anticipated thee, there are no new sentiments for me to experience, there is nothing more of which thou canst cheat me. (Rousseau 1997: 566)
A secret languor worms its way into my heart; I can feel how empty and oppressed it is, as you used to say of yours; my attachment for all those I hold dear does not suffice to occupy it, it still has some useless strength with which it knows not what to do. This affliction is peculiar, I concede; but it is not less real. My friend, I am too happy; I am weary of happiness. (Rousseau 1997: 570)
According to Babbitt (1919: 315, 323, 333, 334), the sense of an exhausted life--which brings with it the temptations of suicide represents a crucial feature of the "malady of the [modern] age" (the literatures of despair, existentialism, expressionism, etc.). Paradoxically, the "devouring" of life can proceed also only in reverie, with no connection with any external joy: in this case, melancholy is generated by the "disproportion between the dream and the fact," between the ideal and the real. Babbitt (1919: 315, 316) insists that this reverie does not even need to be erotic in nature, as in Amiel and Senancour, for instance, we are dealing with a "cosmic revery"; the romantic melancholiac suffers from "atony" (exhaustion) and "aridity," the Rousseauist searching for happiness in an "emotional spontaneity" that is destroyed by the "head" which "stands aloof and dissects and analyzes." Regardless of whether he feels or he thinks (analyzes), the one who falls into this romantic melancholy will be equally incapable of action. What is more, pleasure in the extreme is "allied" with pain in the extreme, so that John Keats comes to famously exclaim in Ode on Melancholy:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight, Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine. (Keats 2001: 290) (cf. also Babbitt 1919: 315)
The "victim" of romantic melancholy is sometimes "tender and elegiac," but at other times he can be a "heaven-defying Titan" (Babbitt 1919: 318). Romantic melancholy thus understood manifests itself in two ways:
1) As powerless sadness: lack of energy, as in the case of Keats's Endymion, who in the end renounces his ideal--the love of the Moon goddess--after repeated failures to reach this remote ethereal love.
2) As defying, "gigantic" revolt: excess of energy, of the kind met in William Blake (e.g. his giant Albion), P. B. Shelley (his Prometheus), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein and his Creature), Lord Byron (Manfred, Cain, Lara, the Giaour, Sardanapalus, Prometheus, etc.), John Keats (his Titans).
Babbitt (1919: 318) shows that this second type became common in France around the year 1830, when Byron's influence was added to that exerted by Chateaubriand, both authors forming an entire generation of youth inclining towards "dark imaginings" (cf. Lara, I, 18), these being the marks of their predestination for "blight," for extreme suffering which at the same time is the sign of their superiority.
The following passage from Lara (I, 18-19) is indicated by Babbitt as rendering the most relevant image of the Byronic hero:
There was in him a vital scorn of all: As if the worst had fall'n which could befall, He stood a stranger in this breathing world, An erring spirit from another hurl'd; A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped By choice the perils he by chance escaped; But 'scaped in vain, for in their memory yet His mind would half exult and half regret: With more capacity for love than earth Bestows on most of mortal mould and birth, His early dreams of good outstripp'd the truth, And troubled manhood follow'd baffled youth; With thought of years in phantom chase misspent, And wasted powers for better purpose lent; And fiery passions that had pour'd their wrath In hurried desolation o'er his path, And left the better feelings all at strife In wild reflection o'er his stormy life; But haughty still, and loth himself to blame, He call'd on Nature's self to share the shame, And charged all faults upon the fleshly form She gave to clog the soul, and feast the worm; Till he at last confounded good and ill, And half mistook for fate the acts of will: Too high for common selfishness, he could At times resign his own for others' good, But not in pity, not because he ought, But in some strange perversity of thought, That sway'd him onward with a secret pride To do what few or none would do beside; And this same impulse would, in tempting time, Mislead his spirit equally to crime; So much he soar'd beyond, or sunk beneath, The men with whom he felt condemn'd to breathe, And long'd by good or ill to separate Himself from all who shared his mortal state; His mind abhorring this, had fix'd her throne Far from the world, in regions of her own: Thus coldly passing all that pass'd below, His blood in temperate seeming now would flow: Ah! happier if it ne'er with guilt had glow'd, But ever in that icy smoothness flow'd! 'Tis true, with other men their path he walk'd, And like the rest in seeming did and talk'd, Nor outraged Reason's rules by flaw nor start, His madness was not of the head, but heart; And rarely wander'd in his speech, or drew His thoughts so forth as to offend the view. With all that chilling mystery of mien, And seeming gladness to remain unseen, He had (if 'twere not nature's boon) an art Of fixing memory on another's heart: It was not love perchance, nor hate, nor aught That words can image to express the thought; But they who saw him did not see in vain, And once beheld, would ask of him again: And those to whom he spake remember'd well, And on the words, however light, would dwell: None knew nor how, nor why, but he entwined Himself perforce around the hearer's mind; There he was stamp'd, in liking, or in hate, If greeted once; however brief the date That friendship, pity, or aversion knew, Still there within the inmost thought he grew. You could not penetrate his soul, but found, Despite your wonder, to your own he wound; His presence haunted still; and from the breast He forced an all unwilling interest: Vain was the struggle in that mental net, His spirit seem'd to dare you to forget! (Lara, I; Byron 1994: 297)
Indeed the two parts of the first canto of Lara show crucial features of the romantic hero in his Byronic version:
1) Energetic disdain for the world: hence, willy-nilly, an affiliation with Ecclesiastes.
2) Feeling like a stranger on Earth: in this, Byron is close to Blake, who came to be called "a stranger from Paradise" (cf. Bentley 2003).
3) Addiction to danger: in this he anticipates Nietzsche, who saw highest danger associated with highest ecstasy.
4) Overly passionate and chaotic nature spreading around more destruction than creation: Novalis had favoured the chaotic over the disciplined because the first had a chance to discipline his energy, but the latter lacked spontaneous vitality.
5) Secret pride connected with intellectual perversity / tortuousness and a penchant ("impulse") for the "dark side" (crime, lawlessness, anarchy): in this he anticipates E. A. Poe's "imp of the perverse."
6) Lack of clear distinction betewen good and evil.
7) Creating a dreamland, causing autistic behaviour to unfold freely, reflected in the coldness/frozenness displayed in the relation with others which most highly contrasts his passionate nature--hence the character of a simultaneous manic behaviour and an apathetic-depressive behaviour: the most terrible manic-depressive type--which Byron calls madness of the heart.
8) Memorable appearance, associated with a charismatic/ graceful (Gr. charis = "grace") eccentricity and uniqueness/ outstandingness of character.
9) Impenetrable character, associated with a haunting "iron mask" appearance that claims it hides secret and mysterious powers which attract human beings through their mystery (this feature is an extension of the charisma of the hero).
Babbitt (1919: 320) gives as an example Chatterton, who became for the romantics the favourite type of the poete maudit, his (problable) suicide (or inadvertent death by poisoning himself in an attempt to cure an incurable disease) symbolizing the inevitable defeat that the "ideal" will suffer in front of the "real." Similarly, Poe (as interpreted by Baudelaire) came to signify for the French what Chatterton had meant for the romantics of the 1830s. This melancholy (the one to be met in Chateaubriand, Byron and their followers), however, is superficial and theatrical, often not going beyond the "Epicurean toying with sorrow," the "luxury of grief," which had been common also in classical antiquity: in Euripides, for instance, we already witness the idea of xapic yvwv [charis gyon], lat. dolendi voluptas (Germ. Wonne der Wehmut): the "voluptuousness of pain" (Gr. charis = grace, charm, beauty; pleasure) (Babbitt 1919: 322).
In order to discover what is authentic and distinctive in romantic melancholy we must reach a deeper understanding of the difference between the classicist and the Rousseauist. The latter, just like the modern, was preoccupied more with the "separate and private self" than was the classicist. Modern melancholy will always have the mark of isolation, owing to the tendency of genius to be interested in his own uniqueness, as well as to the fact that the critical analysis undermines the traditional communions. Thomas Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard (1751) belongs to the modern movement by its humanitarian dimension, by its sympathy for "the lowly" (Babbitt 1919: 323). Still, its melancholy does not surpass the milder forms of classical meditation on the "inevitable sadness of life," on the "pensiveness" which is directly linked with Milton's tradition (Il Penseroso). But Gray made a clear distinction between "white melancholy" or "leucocholy"--which was characteristic for himself and the black one, which he confesses he sometimes felt. Here is a fragment from the letter addressed to Richard West, dated 27 May 1742, in which he speaks of all this:
Mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy for the most part; which, though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state, and ca ne laisse que de s'amuser [and this only makes one amuse oneself]. The only fault of its insipidity; which is apt now and then to give a sort of Ennui [boredom, tedium], which makes one form certain little wishes that signify nothing. But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has somewhat in it like Tertullian's rule of faith, Credo quia impossibile est [I believe because it is impossible]; for it believes, nay, is sure of every thing that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and every thing that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it. (Letter 55; Gray 1900i: 102-103)
In this sense, Babbitt (1919: 323) notes that no suffering is greater than the man's who knew faith and then lost it. This letter (dated 27 May 1742) came as a reply to West's question /"Why are you thus melancholy?"/, which came as a consequence of Gray's confession that he "conversed with the dead, and almost longed to be with them" (cf. Tovey; Gray 1900i: 102-103, n. 4)--this side of Gray's personality reminds us of Poe's propensity to have a dialogue with the supernatural, the other side of reality, be it dark or luminous. According to Tovey, Gray's melancholy was linked with his "studious retirement" (again, see many feminine types in Poe that have this studious intellectual nature and thus suffer from the same kind of melancholy), its nature being well described in the following lines of the Elegy:
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth, And Melancholy marked him for her own.
That the melancholy was generated by study transpires quite clearly from the same letter that we just quoted (dated 27 May 1742)--and it seems to inform Fielding's view of literature (announced in Tom Jones, 1749) as a bill of fare:
My life is like Harry the Fourth's supper of Hens, "Poulets a la broche, Poulets en Ragout, Poulets en Hachis, Poulets en Fricasees." Reading here, Reading there; nothing but books with different sauces. Do not let me lose my desert then; for though that be Reading too, yet it has a very different flavour. (Gray 1900i: 103)
Interestingly, as demonstrated by Lowes (1978), Coleridge used his readings like just as many intellectual sparks and spiritual food sorts, his masterpieces (Kubla Khan and The rime of the Ancient Mariner) containing everywhere in their fabric words and expressions and ideas and images taken as such from the books (e.g. travel books) which he insatiably literally devoured. A similar intense hunger for reading can be surely traced also in the other romantics, as for instance in Keats (see his Letters, 2011)--who was in deep love with books--and in Mary Shelley (see her Journals, 1995). Gray seems to have felt "black melancholy"--as a more acute form of sadness--only on losing somewhat his "trembling hope," the eternal existence of this feeble hope being the mark of the end of the Elegy (Babbitt 1919: 323).
In many of the romantics, the suffering that appears on losing faith is "curiously combined" with the "mood of revolt." In this sense, powerless sadness--caused by the irreversible loss (see for instance Byron's Manfred, who no longer bows either to heaven or to hell) or by the reversible loss (see for instance Shelley's Prometheus, who retracts the curse uttered against Jupiter) of faith--is paradoxically allied with defying revolt (Babbitt 1919: 324).
This type of romanticist throws countless reproaches to God showing his fist to an empty sky or displaying a mien of profound scorn and pride against him--, although he ceased believing in Him. An example invoked by Babbitt (1919: 324) in this respect is Cain by Byron, as well as Quain by Leconte de Lisle. The romantic Prometheus, although "enormously centrifugal" against everything that is established (including the traditional classical or Christian forms of communion), still aspires to build on the ruins of the past "the new religion of human brotherhood," which is based on individual freedom. The American critic emphasizes that everything that occurs in the romanticism starting with Shaftesbury and after him is centered on the function attributed to this "sympathy," whereby humanity's "universal brotherhood" with the cosmos and even with the Universal Spirit or with God becomes possible. Babbitt (1919: 324, 325) concludes that, if this "sympathy" is capable to unite people that are simultaneously supremely interested in their own "genius," then there is no reason for us not to accept romanticism as a "philosophy of life."
Nevertheless, Babbitt (1919: 325) also notices the crucial fact that there is perhaps no other movement in the world in which one can find a more "violent clash" between theory and facts, between the proclamation of "universal brotherhood" and the existence of "the aching sense of solitude." Although Babbitt does not mention it, it is precisely this central paradox of romanticism that constitutes the fundament on which its meaning was built: the fusion of the universal with the unique, of the infinite with the finite, of the ideal with the real, of the feminine with the masculine, the result being the birth of the state of continual paradox of the kind brilliantly intuited by Emily Dickinson in her romantic poem 1695 (1914), in which she seems to point to an "inner Xanadu" of the soul, the city of inner "infinite abundance in infinite unity":
There is a solitude of space A solitude of sea A solitude of death, but these Society shall be Compared with that profounder site That polar privacy A soul admitted to itself-- Finite infinity. (Dickinson 1961: 691)
Rousseau started his last book, The reveries of the solitary walker (Les reveries du promeneur solitaire; posthumously published in 1782, with an anonymous translation into English following swiftly just one year later), with the words:
Here I am, then, alone on the earth, having neither brother, neighbour, friend, or society but myself. [...] Could I, in my right senses, suppose a time when I, the same man I was, the same I still am, should be called, should be held, without the least doubt, a monster, a corrupter of mankind, an assassin; that I should become the aversion of the human race, the sport of the rabble; that all the salutation I should receive from those who passed me would be spitting at me; that a whole generation would divert themselves, by common accord, in burying me alive? When this strange revolution took place, taken unprepared, I was at first lost as in a maze. My agitation, my indignation, plunged me into a delirium which ten years were not too much to calm; and in this interval, falling from error to error, from fault to fault, from folly to folly, my imprudence supplied the directors of my destiny with all the instruments they have ingeniously set to work to fix it without hope. [...] I am on the earth as in a foreign planet into which I fell from that I inhabited. (First walk; Rousseau 1783ii: 145, 146, 151)
What is remarkable in the fragment above are the following elements:
1) The description of the feeling of being "buried alive," which constitutes the main symptom in depressive mania (or manic depression): the feeling of being like a "caged tiger" (Jamison 1999: 104, 111, 112). According to Shneidman (1999: 90), in depressive mania the principal composite vector is represented by the "simultaneity-of-opposites"--"the simultaneous occurrence of both depressive and manic symptoms" (cf. Jamison 1999: 111): the extremes of mania and depression co-occur with equal strength energy and apathy mix together in dire discord, attempting a forced marriage of heaven and hell, as Blake would put it. Indeed, among psychic disorders, this may well be among the worst possible--hence the desire of many who suffer from it to end it as soon as possible. (In this sense, Melville's Ahab, for instance, chose to be buried alive on his ship, thus giving up any social life in order to engage on his pursuit of revenge at all cost.)
2) The image of man as a monster, a pariah, an absolutely solitary being, that reminds us of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The last man: Victor's creature is set in a strangely similar situation in the world: cast as if on a planet to which he does not belong, as a creature that is more unique than any onther in the universe--an absolute curiosity; Lionel Verney, similarly, is the last human being to survive a universal extinction of the human race as a consequence of natural calamities (like mountainous waves and the emergence of three suns in the sky) and a terrible plague.
Babbitt (1919: 326), however, is of the opinion that here Rousseau does not deal with the main issue, namely the fact that solitude is a psychic factor. A man can be among friends and still suffer from the same solitude equally intensely, a romantic example in this sense being Poe's The man of the crowd who suffers from a dreadful psychic isolation. Hawthorne explored, too, the theme of isolation, but as "effects of sin," the solution offered by him being a humanitarian one: "Quicken your sympathies." (cf. Babbitt 1919: 327)
Faust, on the other hand, is a "symbol of the solitude of knowledge"; he tries to escape this suffering by recuperating the "warm contact" with people. The desire and quest for power also leads to solitude. Babbitt (1919: 327) believes that the solution for a successful union must be searched in a humanistic or religious conversion: the temperaments must be "pulled back" "with reference to the model that we are imitating." (Babbitt 1919: 329) According to Aristotle, if man wants to attain happiness, "he must be a true lover of himself." (cf. Babbitt 1919: 330) Here Aristotle refers to the "ethical self," happiness for him being conceived of under the form of working.
The fundamental features of romantic melancholy were therefore the feeling of "isolation," "solitude," "emptiness," "unlimitedness," "unreality" (Babbitt 1919: 109, 281, 298, 324, 327, 329, 332). The nightmare of separation, the "sense of loneliness" which is the "main symptom" of romantic melancholy, can be overcome only by cultivating the "human self" by which man advances somewhat towards bliss (Babbitt 1919: 335, 332).
In The genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand spoke about the "guilty melancholy" generated by passions when they remain without a well-defined object, so that they devour themselves in the "solitary heart" (Babbitt 1919: 334). Furthermore, beyond its surface, the 19th century was an age of "violent disillusions," after which man feels himself alone and lost in sufferinng. The "new religions and unifications of life" that unfolded during the 19th century were attractive especially for the "half-educated," who came to believe that in this way they would benefit from the communion without having to accept a serious discipline--in other words, they would be redeemed without having to convert. The disillusions caused by the realization of the fact that salvation did not come about led to the emergence of feelings of solitude and suffering, the disappointed ones being ready to cast the blame on everyone, without however taking on themselves any part of the burden of guilt. (Babbitt 1919: 335)
Romantic solitude emerged in Babbitt's view as a direct consequence of the "weakening of the traditional communions" and the collapse of many "sham communions." In Alfred de Vigny (for instance in Chatterton) romantic melancholy and disillusion were born from the fact that original genius (i.e. the "unique and private self' Babbitt 1919: 245) was misunderstood by his fellow beings (cf. Babbitt 1919: 320, 335). The last solution was the withdrawal of genius into the "ivory tower" (an expression applied for the first time to Vigny, by Sainte-Beuve in the poetical epistle entitled A. M. Villemain, cf. Pensees d' Aout, 1837), from which he could find communion with nature and with the ideal woman. (cf. Babbitt 1919: 336)
Another case in point is that of George Sand, who substituted at one time the religion of love with the religion of human brotherhood: she set as her object of veneration "humanity in its future progress." Then, at the Revolution of 1848, she suffered a violent disillusion, but did not lose the principle of faith, not even after the "repeated shipwrecks," towards the end of her life she setting it on an even stronger foundation (cf. Babbitt 1919: 338, 339).
Like Goethe, George Sand managed to develop an ethical point of view which offered her one of the ways out from the "fatal circle of naturalism"; she thought in the terms of a "total truth" (le vrai total), i.e. that truth which is not merely in accordance with the truth of "natural law," but instead it comprises also the truth of "human law." The truth of "natural law" towards the end of the 19th century got so much exclusive attention that it led, according to Babbitt (1919: 340, 341, 342), to the emergence of a pseudo-religion: "the religion of science."
The evolution towards the "total truth" was possible by the convergence of the two, natural law and human law: we were dealing here not with tradition, but with immediate perception. George Sand managed to evolve from a "hereditary faith" to the "personal conviction," thus defeating romantic melancholy by the "contemplative sense wherein resides invincible faith" ("le sens contemplatif ou reside la foi invincible"). Babbitt (1919: 342, 343) concludes that by working in accordance with "human law" man ascends over the naturalistic level. The scientific rationalists of the 19th century, by making efforts to entirely subject man to natural law, left no space at all for the development of the "true human spontaneity."
The scientific determinism thus caused many a "spiritual depression"--the traces of romantic melancholy--, especially in the France of the second half of the 19th century (Babbitt 1919: 343). Moreover, although the main virtue of science is its unemotional and analytic character, the "protracted and unemotional analysis" eventually generates--as Renan observed--the "desire for the opposite pole": the "frank surrender to the emotions." The paradox Babbitt (1919: 345) noticed is essential: science in fact prepares the aspirants of emotions, the "clients for the Rousseauist."
The scientist inevitably comes to oscillate between the rational pole and the emotional pole, but not only in the field of science itself: this oscillatory phenomenon can occur also in his cult of humanity. Conscience and virtue are, according to Rousseau, only forms of emotion, that is why in a Rousseauistic sense the scientific discipline does not even need to be subordinated to a religious or a humanistic superior discipline. Here Babbitt identifies an imminent and terrible danger regarding science: exerted as a purpose in itself, science teaches man to have a discipline and to be efficient at a naturalistic level, but it leaves him devoid of an ethical discipline. The consequence derived from this state of affairs by Babbitt (1919: 346) is crucial: by lacking ethics, the "lust for knowledge" and the "lust for feeling" become less important, at least from a practical point of view, in comparison with a third great desire of man, the "lust for power": in these conditions, it is imminent for the birth of "that most sinister of all types, the efficient megalomaniac," to take place, and when that happens, humanity completely loses balance and starts to walk a path leading from one extreme to another.
Science as an instrument for attaining power has--in Burke's words--a single aim: to "improve the mystery of murder." The union beteween "material efficiency" and "ethical unrestraint" is, according to Babbitt (1919: 346), in a way a ramification of the whole romantic movement, especially in the German cultural space, where Rousseau is claimed as the main source for the notion of "culture" (Kultur), which, carefully analyzed, has two entirely different aspects: the scientific efficiency and the emotionalism, or what the Germans call "idealism."
We identify in the German concept of "culture" one of the main manifestations of the binary opposition between materialism and idealism, which forms the extreme poles of the pendulum of history. On the other hand, Babbitt (1919: 348) is of the opinion that man is never "happy" in the sense of being "completely satisfied with the passing moment," bliss being attained only in "moments of supernormal consciousness," of the kind mentioned in spiritual documents already from the period of early Buddhists and up to Tennyson, but different from the emotional bliss or other types of "intoxication." Rousseau dreamed about a bliss that meant not an "active and ethical happiness," but "the passive enjoyment of the beautiful moment" which he wanted to last forever. After he searched for "the beautiful moment" in "the intoxication of love," he turned back to the "pantheistic revery": about such a perfect "moment" Rousseau stated that "[a]s long as it lasts, one is self-sufficing like God." The problem was, however, precisely that it did not last.
Babbitt (1919: 351) concludes that the sense of "solitude," desolation, despair, abandonment, "forlornness," represents a fundamental feature of romantic melancholy which emerges both from the loss of control on the "traditional centres" and from the failure of the new attempts to establish a human communion that shoud keep its initial promise. Judging from the large number of such failures, Babbitt (1919: 352) shows that the period from the end of the 18th century and up to the beginning of the 20th century was one of "sophistry": no other epoch ever had as many dubious moralists and a more formidable series of false prophets as that which started with Rousseau and ended with Nietzsche and Tolstoy.
Neo-classicism versus romanticism: the status quo
Although both are highly imaginative, the classic and the romantic art are different by the quality of the imagination. The neo-classicist rejected the "intellectual romanticism" of the Renaissance and the mediaeval romanticism of real adventure, basing his literary view on "reason" (or judgment)--that is the common good sense or abstract reasoning, by whose agency they opposed the imagination. Still, both the romantics and the classicists failed in their attempt to adequately treat the imagination and its function in literature and life. Among the romantics, Keats seems to have been one of the most poetic and most imaginative poets: "it is not easy to be more poetical than Keats," says Babbitt (1919: 358), not even Dante or Sophocles were capable to surpass him in poeticalness. In this sense, Tennyson's son summed up his father's view on Keats's poetic powers, pointing out the keen imagination and the perfect magical lightness, sprightliness, naturalness of Keats's poetic pen which had the capacity to create masterpieces by a mere stroke--the equivalent in poetry of van Gogh's painting skill:
My father also read Keats and Milton: saying that "Lycidas" was "a test of any reader's poetic instinct," and that "Keats, with his high spiritual vision, would have been, if he had lived, the greatest of us all (tho' his blank verse was poor), and that there is something magic and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything which he wrote." [...] "Compare," he once said to me, "compare the heavy handling of my workmanship with the exquisite lightness of touch in Keats!" (Tennyson 1897i: 152, 210; cf. also Babbitt 1919: 358)
He said that Keats had "a keen physical imagination; if he had been here (at Murren) he would, in one line, have given us a picture of that mountain." [...] Among nineteenth century poets I think he placed Keats on the highest pinnacle. He maintained (like Landor) that he [Keats] had more of the real gift even than Shelley, and he thought it difficult to over-estimate the height to which he might have risen if he had lived. [...] Keats he placed on a lofty pinnacle. "He would have been among the very greatest of us if he had lived. There is something of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything he ever wrote." He gave the unfinished "Eve of St Mark," and the following lines from the "Ode to a Nightingale" in illustration: "Perhaps the self-same song that found a path/Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/She stood in tears amid the alien corn;/The same that oft-times hath/Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." (Tennyson 1897ii: 70, 202, 286)
On the other hand, Shelley excels in the confusion of values, his imagination being predominantly Arcadian or pastoral, and not ethical. In Prometheus bound by Aeschylus there is an ethical imagination which, according to Babbitt (1919: 359), we do not find also in Prometheus unbound by Shelley. Still, the passage quoted above from Shelley's masterpiece that begins with "My soul is an enchanted boat" (Prometheus unbound, Act II, 5) is, according to the American critic, perhaps the culmination of "nympholeptic longing" at least from English romanticism. On the other hand, Babbitt (1919: 360. 361) believes that Samuel Johnson was wise without being poetic, while Keats was poetic without being wise; Sophocles was both poetic and wise; and Shelley--poetic, but with a "taint of sophistry" or "sham wisdom." Goethe was sometimes both poetic and wise; he spoke about the "romantic disease" as "the imaginative and emotional straining towards the unlimited" ("Hang zum Unbegrenzten"). According to Babbitt (1919: 365), wonder is associated with the Many, and wisdom is associated with the One: wisdom and wonder thus go in opposite directions. The consequence derived by the American critic is that the 19th century was the most "wonderful" and the least "wise" in the entire history of mankind. Babbitt (1919: 379) considers, however, as a "bad sign" the fact that Rousseau--who more than anyone else is the parent of "radical democracy"--paradoxically is also "the first of the great anti-intellectualists."
Although religion can manage without humanism, humanism cannot survive without religion, because--as Burke showed when he pointed out the major flaw in Rousseau's system--"the whole ethical life of man has its root in humility." (cf. Babbitt 1919: 380) A romantic like Blake would surely have disagreed with this idea, since his universal Everlasting Gospel (which was a code name for the radical programme of the ranters or dissenters) preached human dignity, not human humility; continuous forgiving of sins, not just or unjust punishments; redemption as open to all, not only to the elect, by some intellectual labour through which the individual could co-build Jerusalem, the eternal spiritual Celestial City (for Blake's connection with the ranters, see at least Bronowski 2008b; and Morton 1970 and 1977).
But, indeed, if scientific discipline is not accompanied by a truly humanistic or religious discipline, the result may be "unethical science," which Babbitt (1919: 383) identifies as "the worst monster" ever unleashed on mankind. Science must for these reasons remain in its place, i.e. under humanism and religion. Likewise, Babbitt (1919: 387) points out a situation of "utmost gravity," namely the fact that Rousseau became by common agreement the father of modern education, even though he grounded his system of thought on the idea that "the only habit the child should be allowed to form is that of forming no habit." Babbitt (1919: 387) explains: we might endanger the very survival of civilization if we were to eliminate from education the idea of "progressive adjustment to a human law," because civilization consists more than anything else in an "orderly transmission of right habits," a "great civilization" being "in a sense only a great convention." (Against such conventions Mary Shelley fought openly through her art, as is clearly visible for instance in Lodore--see the quote above.)
That is why a healthy individualist does not seek to get rid of convention per se: he, however, knows that no convention is definitive, that all conventions in whose midst he lives can be improved and so they must be maintained in flexible condition. Babbitt (1919: 388) thus attacks John Dewey's school of thought, according to which education is still merely a question of exploration and experimentation, it not being clear which are the best habits that are supposed to lead to moderation and good sense. Babbitt (1919: 388) reproaches Dewey that he suffers of an "advanced stage of naturalistic intoxication." According to Babbitt, any child has the right to be naturally "born into a cosmos" and not "pitchforked into chaos." The new education, which claims its origins from Rousseau, embraces the idea of "self-expression" and of "vocational training," combined in various proportions, and "tempered" by the spirit of "service." Babbitt (1919: 389) underlines here that it is only from inside the system of education that any consistent opposition is more likely to succeed in decisively attacking and defeating "the naturalistic conspiracy against civilization." The purpose of higher education is--if it should deserve its name--to create leaders: on the quality of these will depend the survival of democracy; societies always decay from the top. Man must therefore fight for a life that should be increasingly fuller and more complete, because, as Joubert put it, only in this way it will be more pleasant, only in this way it will advance towards bliss (cf. Babbitt 1919: 393).
On the other hand, the civilizations of the past were no strangers to the Rousseauistic approach. The system which is closest to that of Rousseau's is the Chinese Taoism of the period between 550 and 200 B.C. Its general spirit is summed up by Wordsworth's idea of "wise passiveness" (cf. Babbitt 1919: 395). The unity after which this Taoism aspires is undoubtedly pantheistic--it is attained by the elimination of distinctions and the affirmation of the "identity of contradictories"; it favours the return to the origins, to the state of nature and of simple life. Chuang Tzu thus developed in the most pleasant manner the doctrine that advocates "the Bohemian attitude towards life." This ridicules Confucius's learning about humanistic imitation and proclaims spontaneity and the unconscious (even if these are attained by intoxication), as well as the morality of the beautiful soul. The artificial music of the Confucians is rejected by the Taoists, who advocate a natural music in which Babbitt (1919: 396) sees stunning anticipations of the contemporary Western music with its "programmatic and descriptive tendencies." Chuang Tzu had developed a programme for a cosmic symphony in three movements (The pipes of Pan)--very close to primitivistic music--, whereby he aspired to express the infinite creative processes of nature in all their mystery and magic. Babbitt in this context shows that the Taoists were right to attack the Confucian standards for being too "literal": in their wish to defend the principle of imitation, the Confucians did not allow enough of the element of flux, of relativity and of illusion that is naturally present in all things. In order to allow this element to fully unfold, the Taoists had eliminated even the difference between sleep and the waking state, life and death. According to Babbitt (1919: 397), if it desired to give an answer to the relativist Taoism which clearly walks romantic paths, Confucianism should have developed a more profound conception about the function of human imagination, for a simple reason: the imagination is "the universal key to human nature." Thus, unlocking human nature is equivalent to unbarring the doors leading to Xanadu, which we identified with a symbolical romantic ideal city of "infinite abundance in infinite unity," or what one could call Paradise City.
In the next issue [In quest for the romantic imagination (II): all roads lead to Xanadu] we will explore in more detail the question of romantic imagination as connected with: 1) Sinclair Lewis's story of Zenith and Irving Babbitt's image as reflected in Lewis's novel Babbitt; 2) the story of Symzonia; 3) Coleridge's story of Xanadu.
The present paper is an augmented version of our study entitled "Irving Babbitt," published as a chapter in Stroe MA (2011) Pendulul istoriei, vol 1: Ginditori nord-americani, pp 229-316. Iasi: Institutul European.
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Mihai A. Stroe, PhD, DrHabil; Professor of Literature, University of Bucharest; Bucurecti, Romania; email@example.com.
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|Title Annotation:||p. 106-143|
|Author:||Stroe, Mihai A.|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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