Sunday, June 19, 2011

Romanticism for the rational

Mary Wollstonecraft is a key, if somewhat under-recognised, character in the history of Romanticism. She is best remembered for her Vindications, but still read today are her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the last work published during her lifetime. In it, as in her life, reason and feeling seek some way of living harmoniously together. Today I am thinking of a traveller-pilgrim newly returned from those parts, baby under one arm, book proposal under the other. More on her another time....

So, what is it to be a Romantic, anyway, leaving love to the side? One aspect of it is sensitivity to nature and particularly the sublime: the Letters exemplify that, all those waterfalls triggering meditations on death, and all those mountains lifting the spirit. Part of it is also a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, and of course Mary was in the thick of that. 

Here's a quote, very slightly adapted. Its origins, tomorrow:
Often categorized as a rationalist philosopher, Wollstonecraft demonstrates her commitment to and appreciation of feeling in Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She argues that subjective experiences, such as the transcendent emotions prompted by the sublime and the beautiful, possess a value equal to the objective truths discovered through reason. In her earlier works, reason was paramount, because it allowed access to universal truths. In the Letters, however, reason serves as a tool for reflection, mediating between the sensual experiences of the world and an abstract notion of truth (not necessarily universal truth). Maturation is not only the acquisition of reason, but also an understanding of when and how to trust one's emotions.
Her future husband read the Letters when the compilation was first published, and later famously wrote: 
If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration. Affliction had tempered her heart to a softness almost more than human; and the gentleness of her spirit seems precisely to accord with all the romance of unbounded attachment.
(Thomas Holcroft, the stableboy turned dramatist, jailed for treason, also appreciated the two sides to Mary's nature: "In you I discover the being for whom my soul has for years been languishing, woman of reason, playful & passionate child of love". Cor, phwoar, etc. I've taken that quote to plug Mary: the Movie -- see the punchline of the elevator pitch.)

I will limit myself to one passage as an example of the Letters as a whole. The summer solstice approaches. This seems apt:
Nothing, in fact, can equal the beauty of the northern summer’s evening and night, if night it may be called that only wants the glare of day, the full light which frequently seems so impertinent, for I could write at midnight very well without a candle.  I contemplated all Nature at rest; the rocks, even grown darker in their appearance, looked as if they partook of the general repose, and reclined more heavily on their foundation.  “What,” I exclaimed, “is this active principle which keeps me still awake?  Why fly my thoughts abroad, when everything around me appears at home?”  My child was sleeping with equal calmness—innocent and sweet as the closing flowers.  Some recollections, attached to the idea of home, mingled with reflections respecting the state of society I had been contemplating that evening, made a tear drop on the rosy cheek I had just kissed, and emotions that trembled on the brink of ecstasy and agony gave a poignancy to my sensations which made me feel more alive than usual.
Barbara Taylor remarks, in footnote 208 to Mary Wollstonecraft and the feminist imagination, that
Not much is to be gained, in my view, from classifying Wollstonecraft as a romantic or pre-romantic writer. Her debt to earlier eighteenth-century sources for her "romantic" themes is readily traced (Edward Young and Hugh Blair are obvious sources), and treating her ideas as anticipations of later romantic motifs is less illuminating to my mind than understanding them in their own terms. 
I appreciate her point -- none of us can know what posterity will make of our work, and we can't be held responsible for repercussions we never anticipated. Nonetheless, it interests me to trace the threads, to track the breadcrumbs.

Painting by Caspar David Friedrich, "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog'' (1818), held in the Hamburg Art Gallery. 
Book by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) . 
Both public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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