William Wordsworth, one of the leading poets of English Romanticism (1770-1850)
Compiled and Edited
by Dave Armstrong
[blue text throughout indicates emphasis added; italics indicate emphasis in the original, or titles]
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. G.K. Chesterton:
Fairy Tales and True Romanticism
II. Howard E. Hugo (The Portable Romantic Reader):
III. Five Romantics on Romanticism and Christianity
IV. Christopher Dawson:
Religion and the Romantic Movement
V. William H. Marshall (The Major English Romantic Poets):
The Religiosity of Coleridge and Wordsworth
VI. Augustus H. Strong:
A Baptist Theologian's Appraisal of Christian Themes in Wordsworth's Poetry
VII. Encyclopaedia Britannica:
German Christian Romanticism: Schlegel and Novalis
VIII. Colin Duriez:
C.S. Lewis on Myth, Imagination, and the Theology of Romance
IX. Sir Herbert Grierson:
Classical and Romantic: A Point of View
X. John Heath-Stubbs:
Catholicism, Medievalism, and Romanticism
XI. Arthur O. Lovejoy:
On the Discrimination of Romanticisms
XII. J.R.R. Tolkien:
XIII. C.S. Lewis:
George Macdonald and Romantic Christian Fantasy
XIV. Sir Kenneth Clark:
Romanticism and the English Gothic Revival
XV. John Henry Newman:
Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and the Oxford Movement
XVI. Gerhard Rempel:
Reform, Liberation and Romanticism in Prussia
XVII. H.G. Schenk (The Mind of the European Romantics):
The Romantic Return to Catholicism, and Nostalgia for the Past
XVIII. Malcolm Muggeridge:
"Fearful Symmetry": Nature is a Parable
XIX. C.S. Lewis:
Myth Became Fact
Fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change . . . its spirit is the spirit of folk-lore; and folk-lore is, in strict translation, the German for common-sense. Fiction and modern fantasy . . . can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary people. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things seen by ordinary people. The fairy-tale is full of mental health . . . Fairy-tales are the oldest and gravest and most universal kind of human literature . . . the fairy-tales are much more of a picture of the permanent life of the great mass of mankind than most realistic fiction.
(From "Education by Fairy Tales," The Illustrated London News, 2 December 1905)
All who are adherents of romanticism (as I am) have it for their first and fixed and central principle that romance is more serious than realism. We say that romance is the grave and authoritative and responsible thing; the permanent religion of mankind. We say that studies from life and human documents are more frivolous and fugitive than great and enduring decorative art. Realism, we say, is life seen as somebody sees it. Romance is life felt as somebody feels it.
(From "Romantic and Realistic Drama," The Illustrated London News, 17 March 1906)
I have always meant by Romantic something that may be stated thus. The belief that the simplified and symbolic version of life, which depicts it, under the image of love and war, as a quest with a prize (especially a princess), is nevertheless, a true version of life; that is an enlightening symbol and a legitimate simplification. St. George must kill the Dragon, or the Dragon will kill the princess; that seems to me a truer picture of the aim of life and the lot of man than any realistic novel. That may fairly be called Romanticism; but it is almost the exact opposite of what the Humanists and the New Classicists mean by Romanticism. They mean the notion, not that St. George must kill the dragon, but that St. George may get drunk and dream about dragons; or that, if he drinks enough, he may look forward to seeing even larger snakes. This sort of sodden subjective delusion is what they mean by Romanticism . . . And yet I think I could make a case for my own use of the word being the correct one.
(From "The Attack on Romanticism," The Illustrated London News, 18 April 1931)
Howard E. Hugo (The Portable Romantic Reader): "Christian Revival"
Philosophic and religious developments played important roles in what might otherwise seem an artistic, literary change of interest . . . one feels both deism and skepticism to be played out for many intellectuals by 1800 . . . A definite Christian revival took place in all quarters, spurred on when the excesses of the French Revolution and its aftermath were interpreted by many as the logical, horrifying outcome of secular and "enlightened" thought. Novalis, Burke, Chateaubriand, and Coleridge comprise a curious group. Whether they talk of cathedrals or conservatism in church and state, of tradition, loyalty, or duty, they pleaded for a return to Christian principles and thus represented a movement of which the Gothic revival was both a product and a contributing cause.
(Introduction to The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 16)
Five Romantics on Romanticism and Christianity
FRIEDRICH VON SCHLEGEL
I must place the real center, the essence of Romantic fantasy, in Shakespeare. From there I seek and find the Romantic in the older modern writers; in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Italian poetry, in every age of chivalry, in love, in fairy tales - in all those items from which both the thing itself and the word are derived.
(From The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 56)
(Concerning Germany, 1813)
The word romantic has been lately introduced in Germany, to designate that kind of poetry which is derived from the songs of the Troubadors; that which owes its birth to the union of chivalry and Christianity. If we do not admit that the empire of literature has been divided between paganism and Christianity, the north and the south, antiquity and the middle ages, chivalry and the institutions of Greece and Rome, we shall never succeed in forming a philosophical judgment of ancient and of modern taste . . . The new school . . . affirms that Christianity is the source of all modern genius; the writers of this school also characterize, in a new manner, all that in Gothic architecture agrees with the religious sentiments of Christians.
(From The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 64, 66)
(The Romantic School, 1833)
But what was the Romantic School in Germany? It was naught else than the reawakening of the poetry of the middle ages as it manifested itself in the poems, paintings, sculptures, in the art and life of those times. This poetry, however, had been developed out of Christianity; it was a passion-flower which had blossomed from the blood of Christ . . . Mankind now recognizes the nature of that religion, and will no longer allow itself to be put off with promises of a Heaven hereafter . . .
(From The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 67-68)
The Romantic school . . . was not based on the actual present, but rather generated out of a longing for something nonexistent . . . This "enlightened" century verbalized pure chivalry, Catholicism, the world of the fairy-tale, mysticism . . .
(From The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 56-57)
(My Experiences, 1844)
The Middle Ages was emphasized [by Romanticism] in all its strength . . . Especially was the Madonna honored . . . After Tieck, August Wilhelm Schlegel, and Novalis had made her the source of poetic consecration, we watched all the young poets kneel before the altar of the Madonna.
(From The Portable Romantic Reader, New York: Viking Press, 1957, 58)
. . . But in his own time de Maistre was an isolated figure standing between 'two worlds, one dead, the other power-less to be born'. He belongs neither to the eighteenth nor the nineteenth century, neither to the Enlightenment nor to the Romantic movement. But though this simple and austere gentleman of the old regime has little in common with the undisciplined, emotional, unstable spirit of Romanticism, there is a curious parallelism between his thought and that of the leaders of the Romantic movement.
This parallelism is seen most clearly in the essay on Europe or Christendom composed by the young Novalis in 1798, only two years after de Maistre's Considerations on France. In spite of his Protestant origins, Novalis exalts the religious ideal of the Middle Ages and condemns the Reformation for its sacrilegious attempt to divide the indivisible Church and to imprison religion within political frontiers. Like de Maistre, he regards the Reformation as the source of rationalism and free thought, which found its culmination in the work of the Revolution. But at the same time he sees in the Revolution the dawn of a new era and shares de Maistre's belief that the signs of the times pointed to a great spiritual renewal which would bring Europe back to religious unity.
All the early Romantics were inspired by the same consciousness of an imminent spiritual revolution, all of them were enemies of the Enlightenment and admirers of medieval Catholicism, and many of them, such as Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel, Adam Müller, Zacharias Werner, Franz von Baader, Görres and Clemens Brentano found their spiritual home in the Catholic Church.
It would of course be a mistake to ignore the existence of a Protestant element in the movement. Schleiermacher, perhaps the chief formative influence on Protestant religious thought in the nineteenth century, was a friend of the Schlegels and was closely associated with the origins of the movement, while at a later date the most original Protestant thinker of the nineteenth century, the Dane, Sfren Kierkegaard, was a true Romantic in spite of his isolation and his hostility to everything for which Schleiermacher stood.
Nevertheless contemporary opinion was not unjustified in regarding Romanticism as a Catholicizing movement. The tendency is to be seen most clearly, years before the conversion of the Schlegels, in the writings of early Romantics like Wackenroder and Novalis, who never themselves became Catholics and whose admiration was in no way inspired by propagandist motives.
I have already referred to Novalis' remarkable panegyric of medieval Catholicism and his criticism of the Reformation, and in the same way Wackenroder in 1797 initiated that return to the religion of the Middle Ages through the art of the Middle Ages which became so typical of the Catholic revival in the nineteenth century. This Catholicizing tendency, which was denounced by Heine and the young German school as mere reactionary sentimentalism, did much to render Romanticism unpopular in the later nineteenth century, as we see for example in the well-known volumes of George Brandes, The Romantic Movement in Germany (1873), which for all their ability are biased by an almost sectarian bitterness.
In reality, however, the religious element in Romanticism, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, goes much deeper than the superficial aesthetic appeal. It has its roots in the fundamental principles of the movement, which differed not merely aesthetically but also metaphysically and psychologically from those of both seventeenth-century Classicism and eighteenth-century Rationalism.
Behind the change in literary taste and aesthetic appreciation there lies a profound change of spiritual attitudes: an attempt to enlarge the kingdom of the human mind by transcending the limits of ordinary consciousness. Human consciousness is a little circle of light amidst the surrounding darkness. The classicist and the rationalist keep as close to the centre of the circle as possible and order their life and their art as though this little sphere of light was the universe. But the romantic was not content with this narrow sphere.
He sought to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness and preferred the twilight regions that fringe the verge of consciousness to the lighted house of reason. Thus the most profound expression of the romantic spirit is to be found, not in the Byronic cult of personality or the aesthetic gospel of Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn, but in Novalis' Hymns to the Night with their mystical exaltation of death. There is in fact a definite connection between romanticism and mysticism, for religious mysticism tends to express itself in the form of romantic poetry, as in the poems of St John of the Cross, while literary romanticism at its highest aspires to the ideal of religious mysticism, as in the case of Novalis and Blake.
In the same way the victory of classicism at the end of the seventeenth century was intimately connected with the defeat of mysticism and was followed by what Henri Brémond, in his great work on the history of religious sentiment in France, calls la retraite des mystiques. Throughout the eighteenth century mysticism was exiled from the world of higher culture, and the religion of society became more and more arid and rationalistic.
Mysticism took refuge among the sects - Quakers and Quietists, Moravians and Methodists, Swedenborgians and Illuminists - or in Catholic Europe among the common people where it produced saints like Benedict Joseph Labré, who seems as out of place in the age of Enlightenment as an Indian fakir in a London club. This artificial separation of the higher culture from the deeper forms of religious experience has been described by Coleridge in the remarkable passage of the Biographia Literaria in which he acknowledges his own debt to the mystics.
From an article in The Tablet (of London) in 1937.
This article was taken from The Dawson Newsletter, Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.
Coleridge . . . had grown steadily more conservative; rejecting his youthful Unitarianism for moderate Anglicanism . . . In the Biographia Literaria (1817), no doubt the most important single critical work of the English Romantic Movement, Samuel Taylor Coleridge made the proposition that was implicit in much of the major poetry of his own time: "We begin with the I KNOW MYSELF, in order to end with the absolute I AM. We proceed from the SELF, in order to lose and find all self in GOD." For Coleridge, the poet employing imagination, the highest human capacity, and, in fact, Coleridge's basis for his claim to be a poet, reflects divine creativity; from the reality of the former he derives the basis for belief in the latter. Always implied is the idea of the transcendental poet, the poet as prophet, which is variously expressed in Romantic writings, particularly in Wordsworth's and Shelley's rather precise statements . . .
By 1807, he [Wordsworth] was assuming a position of religious orthodoxy.
(The Major English Romantic Poets, New York: Washington Square Press, 1963, xxiii, xxviii, 102)
Augustus H. Strong: A Baptist Theologian's Appraisal of Christian Themes in Wordsworth's Poetry
He is the poet of nature, because he perceives the kinship between nature and man by reason of their common origin and life in God . . . Wordsworth regarded it as his sacred mission to show that the world is full of beauty and meaning because it is throbbing with the life of God . . . . .
Unless this love by a still higher love
Be hallowed, love that breathes not without awe,
Love that adores, but on the knees of prayer,
By heaven inspired; that frees from chains the soul,
Lifted, in union with the purest, best
Of earth-born passions, on the wings of praise,
Bearing a tribute to the Almighty's throne.
And now we have, directly following this passage of the Prelude, the most notable and valuable definition of imagination to be found in all poetical literature:
This spiritual love acts not nor can exist
Without imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power,
And clearer insight, amplitude of mind,
And reason in her most exalted mood.
The imagination of a pure and loving soul is therefore an organ for the recognition of truth. The creative faculty in the poet is like the microscope or the telescope - it does not invent but rather discovers; that others do not see is simply the fault of their defective vision. And imagination in man enables him to enter into the thought of God - the creative element in us is the medium through which we perceive the meaning of the Creator in his creation. The world without answers to the world within, because God is the soul of both . . .
I have said that Wordsworth is not a specifically Christian poet . . . Yet the spirit of his poetry is the spirit of Christianity.
(The Great Poets and Their Theology, Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1897, 336, 338, 361, 368)
Friedrich von Schlegel became the leader of German Romanticism in the last decades of the 18th century . . . In 1808, he and his wife became Roman Catholics, and he united his concept of Romanticism with ideas of medieval Christendom.
Novalis' essays, Die Christenheit oder Europa (1799), depicting the history of Christianity as a threefold process of unity, disintegration, and new unity, established the trend of the Romantic generation toward the Roman Catholic Church.
(1985 ed., volume 10, "Romanticism," 161, and "Schlegel, Friedrich von," 521 / volume 8, "Novalis," 809)
C.S. Lewis, like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, placed the highest value on the making of myth - or mythopoeia - in imaginative fiction and poetry . . . Both Lewis and Tolkien . . . had a theology of myth . . .
Lewis came to the conclusion that similarities between biblical teaching and ancient myths can argue for the truth of Christianity as well as against it. Describing his recent conversion to Christianity to Arthur Greeves in a letter of 18th October 1931, Lewis explains:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call 'real things'. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a 'description' of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The 'doctrines' we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection . . . .
. . . He argued that 'We must not be nervous about "parallels" and "pagan Christs": they ought to be there - it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. He explored such 'parallel' themes in his powerful 'myth retold', Till We Have Faces . . . Lewis praised John Milton for retaining the tangible quality of myth in most of Paradise Lost, his great epic which is one of the most powerful of creedal affirmations in Christian literature. Lewis strove to follow Milton's example in his own fiction . . .
Lewis objected to biblical critics who saw the Gospels as legend or romance rather than a factual, historical record. As a literary critic, and avid reader of myth, Lewis felt that they had little idea of what myth actually is . . .
. . . Lewis . . . saw reason as the organ of truth, and imagination as the organ of meaning . . . He particularly stressed the dependence of even the most abstract of thinking upon imagination . . . In writing fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit they [Lewis and Tolkien] felt that they were discovering inevitable realities that were not the products of theories of the conscious mind (even though rational control is not relinquished in the making of good fantasy). It was this attitude which prompted both men to create consistent secondary worlds, or sub-creations, like Middle Earth and Perelandra . . .
. . . It is on the relationship between concept and meaning, and thought and imagination, that C.S. Lewis makes his most distinctive contribution to our understanding . . . He argues that good imagining is as vital as good thinking, and either is impoverished without the other. C.S. Lewis set out some key ideas, which owed much to his friend Owen Barfield, in an essay in Rehabilitations:
. . . Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition . . . all our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor. And thence, I confess, it does follow that if our thinking is ever true, then the metaphors by which we think must have been good metaphors. It does follow that if those original equations, between good and light, or evil and dark, between breath and soul and all the others, were from the beginning arbitrary and fanciful - if there is not, in fact, a kind of psycho-physical parallelism (or more) in the universe - then all our thinking is nonsensical. But we cannot, without contradiction, believe it to be nonsensical. And so, admittedly, the view I have taken has metaphysical implications. But so has every view.
. . . In Miracles, he points out that to speak of anything beyond the perceptions of our five senses, metaphorical expression is required; this is as true in the fields of psychology, economics, philosophy, and politics as it is in the fields of religion and poetry . . .
C.S. Lewis wished for the word 'romantic' to be banned as it now had so many usages as to be virtually useless . . . He tells us in the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress that when he wrote that book in the early 1930s, he meant 'romanticism' to mean the special experience of inconsolable longing, or joy. He certainly was not in revolt against reason or classicism, which romanticism is sometimes taken to mean. He was not a subjectivist, seeing art as the expression of its maker's soul . . . The subjective link between different aspects of romanticism, as far as C.S. Lewis and The Inklings were concerned, is a preoccupation with the imagination and creative fantasy . . . Lewis believed that scattered among pagan myths there are certain 'good stories' which prefigure Christian truth. They anticipate and give form to adequate vehicles of truth . . .
Lewis worked in his fiction according to a theology of romanticism which owed much to the nineteenth-century writer who was Lewis' mentor, George Macdonald. The term 'romantic theologian', Lewis tells us, was invented by Charles Williams. What Lewis says about Williams in his introduction to Essays Presented to Charles Williams applies also to himself:
A romantic theologian does not mean one who is romantic about theology but one who is theological about romance, one who considers the theological implications of those experiences which are called romantic. The belief that the most serious and ecstatic experiences either of human love or of imaginative literature have such theological implications and that they can be healthy and fruitful only if the implications are diligently thought out and severely lived, is the root principle of all his [Williams'] work.
. . . In a doctoral thesis, Romantic Religion in the Works of Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien, R.J. Reilly saw C.S. Lewis as an advocate of 'romantic religion'. This was the 'attempt to reach religious truths by means and techniques traditionally called romantic, and . . . to defend and justify these techniques and attitudes of romanticism by holding that they have religious sanction'.
C.S. Lewis was not doing anything new in this. Rather, he was presenting in modern terms what seemed to be a normal attitude of mind a few centuries ago. It was perhaps beginning to be lost in the seventeenth century, when John Bunyan was forced to defend what now could be called 'romantic religion' in his author's apology at the beginning of The Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan's reasoning in that prologue follows lines similar to Lewis' defence of the imagination . . .
One of the essential features of the fairy tale or mythopoeic fantasy is the sense of 'recovery' - the regaining of health or a clear view of things . . . Part of this recovery is a sense of imaginative unity, a survey of the depths of space and time. The essential patterns of reality are seen in a fresh way . . .
In The Allegory of Love . . . Lewis points out that . . . when a person begins with immaterial fact - such as qualities like beauty or joy - and invents visibilia to express them, he is allegorising. It is possible, however, to reverse this process, and to view the material world as itself a copy of the invisible world. When a person attempts to read something else through the sensible - to discover the idea or meaning in the copy - he is engaged in symbolism or sacramentalism. 'The allegorist,' argues Lewis, 'leaves the given - his passions - to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real.' Later, Lewis was to write that allegory in its highest form approaches myth.
(From: The C.S. Lewis Handbook, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990, 124-128, 132-136, 176-177, 202-204)
. . . that Mediaevalism was a strand in the Romantic Revival, in the full sense of the term, in English as well as in French and German romanticism, no one will deny. Sir Walter Scott has been claimed as a source of the Oxford Movement and all that has followed from it. But it was certainly not the only strand, not the whole of that complex phenomenon . . .
. . . It was Plato who, despite his condemnation of the poets, effected that interrelation of philosophy and poetry which has characterised every great romantic movement . . . Plato was the first great romantic because his thought, his romantic conception of an ideal world behind the visible, his "city laid up in heaven", his daring deduction of all being and knowledge from the Idea of Good, was the ferment which disintegrated the ancient view of life, of man and his relation to the divine; and working through the Stoics and the Neo-Platonics, helped to beget the great romantic movement which we know as the Christian religion, for the next great Romantic after Plato is St. Paul . . .
. . . [Romanticism] had its spiritual, its religious aspect in the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth, perhaps of Shelley, in the philosophy of Schelling and Fichte and Schleiermacher, in the revival of the mediaeval Catholic feeling . . .
. . . Paul is a romantic Christian because he realises, as possibly few of his fellow-apostles did, the tremendous venture on which he has embarked . . .
(From The Background of English Literature: Classical and Romantic, London: Chatto and Windus, 1950, 258, 273, 276, 289)
To the Romantic poet in particular, seeking to reconcile the findings of his imagination with his general conception of Reality, Catholicism furnished a powerful attraction. This will be very clearly seen if we examine the history of the Romantic movement in poetry as it manifested itself on the Continent. Though Romanticism began as a child of eighteenth-century enlightenment, and of Rousseau's affirmation of the passions, a reaction in favour of the outward forms of Christianity and Catholicism soon began to play a part in it - the most explicit manifestation of which is, of course, the aesthetic Catholicism of Chateaubriand's Le Genie du Chretianisme . . . In Germany, Romanticism was, indeed, equated by many critics, not with the ideals of the French Revolution, but with Catholic reaction . . . In the history of English Romanticism we can detect parallel tendencies to these . . .
At the very beginning of the Romantic Movement we find the Gothic monuments of St. Mary Redcliffe exercising their spell on the youthful Chatterton, who shortly before his death is said to have declared his belief that the Church of Rome was the true Christian Church. The monuments of Westminster Abbey exercised a similar influence on Blake . . .
The Sacramental attitude to the natural universe is the prime intuition which informs and is implicit throughout the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge . . . Wordsworth's philosophy of Nature, though it received an impulse from the Idealism of Coleridge, was deeply rooted in the old-fashioned eighteenth-century High Anglicanism in which, in his youth, he had been trained. His later orthodoxy may be considered . . . as a return to these roots. He was conscious of, and in sympathy with, the aims of the Tractarians. Among his later work, The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, though on the whole feeble as poetry, are noteworthy as showing his attitude to the mediaeval Church . . . Wordsworth himself said that in The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, written in the twenties, he had anticipated the Oxford Movement by a decade . . .
The three men who most fully exemplify the withdrawal of nineteenth-century Romantic poetry into the region of religious mysticism were all Roman Catholics. For the first time since the seventeenth century, England produced, in Coventry Patmore, and later in Hopkins and Francis Thompson, three poets who were also Catholic mystics.
(From The Darkling Plain, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950, 124-128)
Between the 'Romanticism' which is but a special and belated manifestation of the naturalism that had flourished since the Renaissance (and before it) and the 'Romanticism' which began at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany (as well as that which appeared a little later in France) there is another difference not less significant. This is due to the identification of the meaning of 'Romantic' in the later movement with 'Christian' - and mainly with the medieval implications of that term . . . it early occurred to him [Schlegel] that the principle historic cause of the supposed radical differentiation of modern from classical art could lie only in the influence of Christianity . . . .
'Romanticism' art thus came to mean - for one thing - an art inspired by or expressive of some idea or some ethical temper supposed to be essential in Christianity . . . But the nature of the essentially Christian, and therefore essentially Romantic, spirit was variously conceived. Upon one characteristic of it there was, indeed, rather general agreement among the German Romanticists: the habit of mind introduced by Christianity was distinguished by a certain insatiability; it aimed at infinite objectives . . .
Another recognized characteristic . . . was ethical dualism, a conviction that there are in man's constitution two natures ceaselessly at war . . . the one 'Romanticism' which (as I have said) has an indisputable title to the name was conceived by those writers as a rediscovery and revival, for better or worse, of characteristically Christian modes of thought and feeling, of a mystical and otherworldly type of religion, and a sense of the inner moral struggle as the distinctive fact of human experience - such as had been for a century alien to the dominant tendencies in 'polite' literature. The new movement was, almost from the first, a revolt against what was conceived to be paganism in religion and ethics as definitely as against classicism in art.
(From M.H. Abrams, editor, English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1960, 16-19)
. . . The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. . . The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power - upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes . . . in such 'fantasy', as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
An essential power of Faerie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of 'fantasy'. Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man. And he has stained the elves who have this power (in verity or fable) with his own stain. This aspect of 'mythology' - sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world - is, I think, too little considered . . .
The 'consolation' of fairy-stories has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite - I will call it Eucatastrophe. The euctastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist', nor 'fugitive'. In its fairy-tale - or otherworld - setting, it is a sudden or miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality . . .
In such stories when the sudden 'turn' comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through . . . in the 'eucatastrophe' we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater - it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue . . .
It has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels - peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the euctastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be 'primarily' true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed . . . The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the 'turn' in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth . . . The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the 'happy ending'. The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.
(From C.S. Lewis, editor, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966 [orig. Oxford University Press, 1947], 50-51, 81-84)
What he does best is fantasy - fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man . . .
In poetry the words are the body and the 'theme' or 'content' is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes - they are not much more than a telephone. Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka's Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered.
Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius - a Kafka or a Novalis - who can make such a story. Macdonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can co-exist with great inferiority in the art of words - nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental. Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts.
It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored. It may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry - or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and 'possessed joys not promised to our birth'. It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are re-opened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. It was in this mythopoeic art that Macdonald excelled . . .
. . . in Macdonald it is always the voice of conscience that speaks . . . Yet in that very voice of conscience every other faculty somehow speaks as well - intellect and imagination and humour and fancy and all the affections . . . I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined . . .
In many respects Macdonald's thought has, in a high degree, just those excellences which his period and his personal history would lead us to expect least. A romantic, escaping from a drily intellectual theology, might easily be betrayed into valuing mere emotion and 'religious experience' too highly: but in fact few Nineteenth Century writers are more firmly catholic in relegating feeling to its proper place . . . All romantics are vividly aware of mutability, but most of them are content to bewail it: for Macdonald this nostalgia is merely the starting point - he goes on and discovers what it was made for . . .
. . . I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him . . .
It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought . . . the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity. Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete - by which, of course, I mean 'when it had really begun' - I found that I was still with Macdonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting. But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through.
The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my 'teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round - in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from 'the land of righteousness', never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire - the thing (in Sappho's phrase) 'more gold than gold'.
(From George Macdonald: An Anthology, edited by C.S. Lewis, New York: Macmillan, 1947, Preface, 14, 16-22)
. . . the Middle Ages took the place of classical times as an ideal in art and letters. The taste for Gothic is therefore an essential expression of Romanticism, so closely related . . . that it is difficult to write on the Gothic Revival without plunging into the history of the Romantic Movement . . .
The means which the Tractarians used to bring back colour and emotion into religion were similar to those by which the poets had brought back these same qualities into literature. To all who dreaded or despised the present, the past, and especially the medieval past, was wonderfully exciting . . . But whereas Luther, Wesley, and the rest sought in remote ages for the purest form of Christian worship, the Tractarians sought for those parts of Christian dogma which were richest and most satisfying to the imagination . . . I hope that no reader of these hasty paragraphs will imagine that the motives of the Oxford Movement were merely romantic . . . Yet it had its strong, if unconscious, romantic side, and it is this which links it with the Gothic Revival.
(From The Gothic Revival, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1962 [orig. 1928], 53, 135, 137)
During the first quarter of this century a great poet [Sir Walter Scott] was raised up in the North, who, whatever were his defects, has contributed by his works, in prose and verse, to prepare men for some closer and more practical approximation to Catholic truth . . .
stimulating their mental thirst, feeding their hopes, setting before them visions, which, when once seen, are not easily forgotten, and silently indoctrinating them with nobler ideas.
And while history in prose and verse was thus made the instrument of Church feelings and opinions, a philosophical basis for the same was under formation in England by a very original thinker, who, while he indulged a liberty of speculation which no Christian can tolerate, and advocated conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian, yet after all instilled a higher philosophy into inquiring minds . . . It has indeed been only since the death of Coleridge that these results of his writings have fully shown themselves . . . Two living poets [Southey and Wordsworth] may be added . . . [who] have addressed themselves to the same high principles and feelings, and carried forward their readers on the same direction.
("The State of Religious Parties," British Critic, April 1839, cited from Ian Ker: John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 173-174)
(* Professor, Western New England College)
. . . Accompanying the reforms, the war of liberation, and the growth of nationalism, was the emotional, literary and philosophical movement known as romanticism. Romanticism as an antidote to enlightened rationalism and revolution swept all of Europe after the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, but German Romanticism was different from most of the others. The leaders of German Romanticism were Fichte, Schleiermacher, Novalis, Gorres, Tieck, Wackenroder, Adam Mueller and the Schlegel brothers. With these men romanticism went far beyond aesthetic and literary concerns and became a comprehensive world view. The antecedents of German romanticism were pietism of the 17th and 18th century, the influence of England's Percy, Rousseau, and the Sturm und Drang period of German literature (1770's).
Since the French Revolution was considered to be a culmination of the Enlightenment, German Romanticism attained a counter-revolutionary flavor. It was used as a weapon against Napoleonic and French rationalism, as well as against the revolutionary spirit in general. German Romanticism therefore became more comprehensive and deeper, affecting science, scholarship, economics and especially politics. It became identified with political reaction and conservative nationalism. (Heinrich Heine was the only exception!). There was no German equivalent to the libertarian romantics like Lamartine, Hugo, Mazzini and Pushkin. In the German version of Romanticism there was always hostility to the democratic and republican ideology. Novalis was the youthful founder of German Romanticism and Friedrich Schlegel its most important developer.
The basic psychological feature was Sehnsucht - yearning for the lost, the unattainable, the irrevocable, for the disappearing, for fancy, for dreams-for the ''Blue flower'' of Novalis' romance. There was a definite reaction against the materialism and mechanization of the spirit engendered by the new industrial and democratic age. Romanticists sought to escape into fantasy, sentimentality and allegory. Spiritually they toyed with death, with brooding, with the somber, opaque recesses of the night. Novalis said: ''Life is a sickness of the spirit.'' What we have here is the beginning of aesthetic pessimism, which was later reenforced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the music of Richard Wagner, culminating eventually in the literature of Thomas Mann.
. . . The glorification of organicism and traditionalism led many romanticists to medievalism, to the Minnelieder and folk tales of the Middle Ages, to the Standestaat, to religion and finally back to Roman Catholicism. There were many conversions to Catholicism, among them were . . . Friedrich Schlegel, Adam Mueller and Count Stolberg. Romanticism deepened the historical sense and stimulated scientific history . . .
. . . Romantic nostalgia was in many . . . cases focused on the Middle Ages . . . During the Age of Enlightenment antagonism [towards the Middle Ages] turned into violent hostility, notably but by no means exclusively on the part of Voltaire. Kant regarded the Middle Ages as an incomprehensible aberration of the human mind. Now, during the Romantic Age, the pendulum decidedly swung in the opposite direction . . . The Romantic adoration of the Middle Ages was born of a variety of motives, among which the religious seems to have been paramount . . .
The profound impression made by medieval art, and architecture in particular, is a well-known feature or European Romanticism. In this context it should be noted that thanks to the initiative of the Romantics the building of Cologne Cathedral - the supreme example of Gothic architecture in Germany - was after an interval of four centuries resumed in the early 1840s and completed in 1880 . . .
There can be little doubt that at the root of the Romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages lay the feeling that modern man, gradually drifting away from Christianity, had suffered a severe and possibly irreparable loss . . . For Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis among German writers, as Frederic Ozanam among the French, appreciated the crucial fact that European culture during the Middle Ages owed almost everything to the Church . . .
The remarkable deepening of historical appreciation brought about by the Romantic Movement is also borne out by the fact that the Romantic philosophers of history, notably Friedrich Schlegel, fully reckoned with a human phenomenon so often ignored in the enlightened approach to history, namely the problem of evil. Among the other Romantics who were equally alive to that problem, Coleridge and Victor Hugo - especially the latter in his Preface to Cromwell - spring to mind . . .
There was also another, less radical, and therefore less despondent, group of Romantics . . . [who] sensed that the only salvation lay in a return to religion, but equally felt an inability or lack of determination to follow that road. Despite outward appearances, lord Byron should, I think, be included in this second category . . .
The Romantic attempt to revive Christianity assumed many different shapes. Often irreligion was attacked on the grounds that it must inevitably lead to the breakdown of civilized life on earth. Others again re-emphasized the other-worldly side of the Christian religion.
Outstanding among them was the German Friedrich von Hardenburg, better known under his nom de plumeNovalis. To a higher degree than any other Romantic this daring thinker and ethereal poet can be regarded as the re-awakener of a genuine Christian mysticism. At the outset it should be noted that his concern for the hereafter was anything but a form of 'escapism' as the glib modern formula has it. For even from the narrowly practical point of view Novalis was certainly not maladjusted, let alone a failure . . .
Of all the divine attributes, infinitude at this stage made by far the strongest appeal to Novalis, as to many other Romantics. Next came the awe-inspiring realization of the all-creating power of God. Closely linked with it was the well-known 'renaissance of wonder' which has sometimes been regarded as the very essence of the Romantic movement. No longer were the marvels of the universe taken for granted in a blase and matter-of-fact frame of mind . . . Novalis, in his diary, described this change of mentality in these words:
He to whom it has become evident that the world is God's realm, and whom the great conviction has penetrated in its immense fullness, will proceed undaunted on the sombre path of life looking into its tempests and perils with a deep and divine tranquility.
. . . Novalis as well as some of his fellow Romantics laid the deepest stress on the emotional side of religion . . . The great turning point in his life is recorded in one of his posthumously published Geistliche Lieder:
Among a thousand glad hours that I have found in my life, there is but one that has remained faithful to me; it is the one when in a thousand pains I discovered in my heart who has died for us. (IV)
. . . Ludwig Tieck, who knew him . . . well, reports: "It had become most natural to him to regard the nearest and most common thing as a miracle, and the strange and supernatural as something common; thus everyday life surrounded him like a wonderful fairy-tale, and in that region which most men would divine, or else cast in doubt, as something far away and incomprehensible, he was fully at home."
Heaven as man's fatherland which must for that reason also be his ultimate goal: this is the dominant theme of . . . Novalis's most celebrated creative achievement, his Hymnen an die Nacht. In that great cycle, composed of harmonious poetic prose and lofty religious poetry, the Romantic reaffirmation of the supernatural found sublime expression . . .
In contradistinction to men like Chateaubriand and Lamennais who wrote eloquently about mysticism, Novalis, we may conjecture, lived it. To what extent divine grace helped him to do so, is by the nature of things inscrutable. What can, however, be established is that he was utterly single-minded in his search for God.
Yet another unmistakable feature of the Romantic revival was the trend towards Catholicism . . . The roads converging on Rome were manifold. Some Romantics who were to become ardent Catholics had been Catholics in their youth, had then drifted away from religion, only to return to the Church, their faith invigorated. Chateaubriand and Lacordaire in France; Gorres, Clemens Brentano and Annette von Droste-Hulshoff in Germany, Manzoni in Italy, Garrett in Portugal, are illustrious examples.
Others, however, were converts from Protestantism or Anglicanism whose conversion might be regarded as a return to the religion of their forefathers. Here the outstanding names are Friedrich Schlegel and Cardinal Newman, but many others, as for example, Frederick William Faber, Adam Muller, or the German 'Nazarene' painters in Rome, with their leader Friedrich Overbeck, were hardly less noteworthy . . . The Silesian Catholic Joseph von Eichendorff went so far as to interpret the whole Romantic movement in Germany from the predominant motive of Protestant nostalgia for Catholicism. This was no doubt an exaggeration, yet reduced to its proper dimensions Eichendorff's diagnosis contains more than a grain of truth . . . .
Nothing is more misleading than the widespread notion according to which Romantics who became devout Catholics somehow ceased to be Romantics. Catholic devotion, it must be insisted, was one of the potentialities latent in Romanticism, just as was the other extreme, nihilism, or a variety of half-way houses . . . Manzoni's return to a strengthened Christian faith certainly did not mean that he was no longer one of the Romantics. Quite the reverse: he was the acknowledged leader of Romanticism in Italy; and as for the alleged incompatibility of Christianity and Romanticism, this can be refuted by invoking Manzoni's own testimony.
When Massimo d'Azeglio expressed his regret that such a great poet should adhere to the Romantic school, Manzoni retorted by pointing out that Romanticism appealed to him for the very reason that he considered it contained a Christian tendency. Romantic literature, he held, can and should be based on Christian inspiration, historical truth, and a simple form of presentation; it should be drawn from the bottom of the heart . . .
As a Romantic Manzoni took it for granted that it was the human heart that must be the central object of literature, while as a Christian he believed no less firmly that it was the Christian religion "which had revealed man to man", and which alone offered the key to the tangle of the human heart . . .
. . . Goethe, who declared that he could read Manzoni's soul in his Inni Sacri, thus recorded his impression: "He shows himself Christian without fanaticism, Roman Catholic without hypocrisy, devout without bigotry" . . . he was essentially one of the Romantics, and, moreover, one of the greatest of them all . . .
If the Abbe de Lamennais may be regarded as the epitome of religious Romanticism, his Breton compatriot, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, certainly deserves his reputation as the wizard of Romantic enchantment in the widest sense of the word . . .
. . . his impact on the literature of this country and beyond was indeed profound. The debt of the French Romantics to Chateaubriand was summarized by Theophile Gautier: "In the Genie du Christianisme he restored the Gothic cathedral; in Natchez he rediscovered the greatness of Nature . . . and in Rene he invented melancholy and modern passion." Lamartine, Vigny, George Sand, Musset, Thierry - all tried to emulate his example, and young Victor Hugo's highest ambition was in his own words "to be Chateaubriand or nothing" . . .
According to Lady Blessington he [Lord Byron] was skeptical but not an unbeliever: that is to say not an out-and-out atheist. Thomas Medwin arrived at the same conclusion and so did the Methodist James Kennedy who, in 1823, held long conversations with him in Greece on the very subject of religion. Kennedy concluded that Byron felt a final inability to believe without reservations and yet had deep-rooted religious instincts.
The accuracy of this conclusion was confirmed by Lady Byron herself: after exhausting his powers of reason, wit and ridicule in trying to refute the argument of religion, he would often say with violence: "The worst of it is, I do believe." Kennedy's further observation that Byron felt uneasy in his unsettled notions on religion is also borne out by independent testimonies, among them by that of Pietro Gamba . . . : "As for the incomprehensible mysteries of religion", says Gamba, "his mind floated in doubts which he wished most earnestly to dispel, as they oppressed him." Clearly, Byron shared the characteristic Romantic yearning for a faith, and seems to at times have felt strongly attracted to Catholicism.
(From: The Mind of the European Romantics: An Essay in Cultural History, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1969, 37, 39-41, 44, 52-53, 88, 90-94, 97-99, 101-103, 125, 135, 143-144, 260)
The phrase "fearful symmetry" has haunted me for a long time. It occurs, of course, in the well-known lines of the English poet William Blake:
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
I don't think any two words have impressed themselves upon me more powerfully. At the same time, it is going to be difficult to explain to you why this should be so. Before I get on to that, I will quote some words of John Henry Newman, one of those throwaway lines that he uses so easily. I found them enormously helpful in looking for the reality of faith in contradistinction to the fantasy of the past in terms of history, of the present in terms of news, and of the future in terms of progress . . . He passes on this conclusion: that the exterior world, physical and historical, is but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself . . . : "Nature is a parable."
Why this had such an enormous impact on me is that it expresses something that I have long been aware of: everything that happens to us or in connection with us, all the happenings in the world, great and small, the whole exterior phenomenon of nature and of life - all that amounts to God sppeaking to us, sending out messages in code, and faith is the key whereby we may decipher them. It sounds very simple, but it's somehow difficult to convey exactly.
We all know that wonderful passage in the Fourth Gospel about the Word which became flesh and came to dwell among us full of grace and truth. What I am talking about is an extension of that idea. The Word which became flesh goes on being written, not with pen and paper, but in each human heart. In other words, there is no definitive word, there is no final word, there is this endless communication to us, with us, through the notion of fearful symmetry, fearful symmetry being the reality that we find in these communications. It is, as it were, the book of life being written, a testament comprising every word spoken, deed entertained, suffering endured, a living volume in which is written a true revelation of God's Word, explaining it to every heart and folding it in every passing moment . . . Nature is not just something objective which exists outside us. Nature is speaking to us. It is a parable of life itself, a revelation of fearful symmetry . . .
We live encased in fantasy, perhaps more than any generation of human beings ever has. Think just of television, the screen into which Western people look for hours each day. If we view the world conveyed as fantasy, fearful symmetry lies behind it. We can dig into it and find this fearful symmetry and relate ourselves once again to the reality of life, its true meaning as distinct from outward seeming, the meaning which God through nature, through happenings, through affliction, through all that constitutes our life and being in time and mortality, is trying to tell us.
Irony and humor are very powerful instruments in this process. The mystic can look into life and see its fearful symmetry, but also, through humor, through comedy, we can make the same discoveries and reach the same deductions . . .
What I am trying to say is that built into life there is a strong vein of irony, for which we should be grateful to our Creator. For it is this very irony which helps us to find our way through the fantasy that encompasses us to the reality of our existence. God has mercifully made the diversions whereby we seek to evade reality (pursuit of power, of sensual satisfaction, of money, of learning, of celebrity, of happiness) so manifestly and preposterously unrewarding that we are forced to turn to Him for help and mercy. We seek wealth and we find we've accumulated worthless pieces of paper. We seek security and we find we've acquired the means to blow ourselves and our little world to smithereens. We seek calm indulgence only to find ourselves involved in erotomania. Looking for freedom, we fall individually into the servitude of self-gratification or, collectively, into a Gulag Archipelago . . .
Now, what we are asking in our consideration of fearful symmetry is: Can this really be, as the media assiduously insist, what life is really about? - this interminable soap opera going on from century to century, from era to era, whose old discarded sets and props litter the earth. Surely it was not to provide a location for so repetitive and ribald a performance that the universe was created or that man came into existence. I can't believe it. If this were all, then the cynics, the hedonists, and the suicides were right: the most we can hope for from life is some passing amusement, gratification of our senses, and death.
I say that that's not all there is. Thanks to the great mercy and marvel of the Incarnation, the cosmic scene is resolved into a human drama. A human drama in which God reached down to relate Himself to man and man reaches up to relate himself to God. Time looks into eternity and eternity into time, making now always and always now. Everything is transformed by this sublime drama of the Incarnation, God's special parable for man in a fallen world. The way opens before us that was charted in the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a way that successive generations of believers have striven to follow. They have derived from this the moral, spiritual, and intellectual creativity out of which has come everything truly great in our art, our literature, our music, the splendor of the great cathedrals and the illumination of the saints and mystics, as well as countless lives of dedication: men and women serving their God and loving their Savior in humility and faith . . .
The world's way of responding to intimations of decay is to engage equally in idiot hopes and idiot despair. On the one hand, some new policy or discovery is confidently expected to put everything to rights: a new fuhrer, a new drug, detente, world government. On the other hand, some disaster is confidently expected to prove our undoing: capitalism will break down, fuel will run out, plutonium will lay us low, atomic waste will kill us off, overpopulation will suffocate us, or, alternatively, a declining birthrate will put us at the mercy of our enemies.
That is another good example, incidentally, of fearful symmetry in terms of irony: the amazingly ludicrous spectacle of 23 million Canadians in an enormous country full of unexploited wealth boasting with great satisfaction that they've managed to achieve zero population growth. Even more hilariously funny, so funny that one wonders if it isn't God's special blackboard to hold up to us the infinite follies of mankind, are those nine million Australians who cling tenaciously to a tiny bit of the coastline of a huge continent and praise the Lord for having achieved zero population growth. These are scenes of comedy that only a deity can produce . . . [examples of the] splendid unused reservoir of comedy provided by the behavior of human beings, especially those in power . . . . .
The hope of man, that he can create through human agency either a happy life as an individual or a satisfactory life as a collectivity, is the ultimate fantasy . . . As an infinitesimal particle of God's creation, you are part of His purpose. It is that purpose which gives any significance or reality to a human life. That purpose is a loving and not a malign purpose, a creative and not a destructive purpose, an eternal and not a temporal purpose, a universal and not a particular purpose. And in that certainty are a very great comfort and a very great joy.
(From National Review, 24 December 1982, 1608, 1612-1615)
. . . Just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God's becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as History. This involves the belief that Myth in general is not merely misunderstood history (as Euhemerus thought) nor diabolical illusion (as some of the Fathers thought) nor priestly lying (as the philosophers of the Enlightenment thought) but, at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination. The Hebrews, like other people, had mythology: but as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology - the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical . . . Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and to the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.
* * *
. . . Even assuming (which I most constantly deny) that the doctrines of historic Christianity are merely mythical, it is the myth which is the vital and nourishing element in the whole concern . . . in religion we find something that does not move away. It is what Corineus calls the myth, that abides: it is what he calls the modern and living thought that moves away. Not only the thought of theologians, but the thought of anti-theologians . . . Where is the epicureanism of Lucretius, the pagan revival of Julian the Apostate? Where are the Gnostics, where is the monism of Averroes, the deism of Voltaire, the dogmatic materialism of the great Victorians? They have moved with the times. But the thing they were all attacking remains: Corineus finds it still there to attack. The myth (to speak his language) has outlived the thoughts of all its defenders and of all its adversaries. It is the myth that gives life. Those elements even in modernist Christianity which Corineus regards as vestigial, are the substance: what he takes for the 'real modern belief' is the shadow . . .
In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction . . . The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle correctly.
When we translate we get abstraction - or rather, dozens of abstractions. What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in hac valle abstractionis ['In this valley of separation']. Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.
Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it . . .
Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied . . . We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology . . . We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic - and is not the sky itself a myth - shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.
(From Miracles, New York: Macmillan, 1947, rep. 1978, 133-134 [chap. 15, footnote 1] / From World Dominion, vol. XXII, Sep-Oct 1944, 267-270; reprinted in Walter Hooper, editor, God in the Dock, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970, 63-67)
Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 13 December 2001. Added to blog on 20 November 2006.
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