According to Aristotle, a word with infinite meanings renders reasoning impossible:
"...for not to have one meaning is to have no meaning, and if words have no meaning reasoning with other people, and indeed with oneself has been annihilated" (Aristotle, p.1589).
From this is derived the convention of defining one’s terms at the outset. A ‘common essence’, for instance, can be defined as the essential element common to a set of things that without which they could not be considered common. But the term ‘Romantic’ is not so easily construed and can be applied to a period, first known as the Sturm und Drang movement in late eighteenth-century Germany, to art which challenged eighteenth-century classicism, and to a set of shared values distinguishable from those of the Enlightenment. However, these definitions require further definitions and so on and so forth until the trapdoor of an infinite regress creaks ominously beneath our feet. To make sense of this dilemma the Romantic properties of Schubert’s Lied, Prometheus, will be compared with Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (Liberty) and Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III (Pilgrimage).
Delacroix’s Liberty celebrates revolt (figure 1). The tricolour flag with its revolutionary symbolism canopies the action. But Liberty does not depict the revolution of 1789, rather the Paris uprising of 1830, which Delacroix witnessed at first hand. This challenges the neo-classical bias for depicting classical events, and Delacroix was probably influenced by Theodore Gericault’s (1791-1824) The Raft of the Medusa (figure 2), in which a contemporary maritime disaster was composed classically but rendered with a desperate realism. In Liberty, Delacroix intensifies this dichotomy with a Greek goddess as his focal point and eponym. Liberty leads the charge clutching a contemporary rifle. Her breasts are bared and spattered with the grime of battle. She challenges the moral and political orders.
The ‘People’ charging with Liberty are conspicuously common: a street urchin brandishes pistols on the right, a studious young man and a sabre-wielding street-fighter charge on the left, another juvenile scrambles on the far left clutching a sabre and a rock. The mob tramples the corpses that are a macabre representation of the price of liberty. A man lies hacked and maimed, stripped below the waist; perhaps this symbolises the inevitable degradation that accompanies violent death. Delacroix merges realism with heroism, the grotesque with noble ambition – he challenges classical idealisation.
Delacroix asserted his allegiance to classicism (albeit it a Baroque, turbulent strain inspired by Rubens and others), but the brush strokes in Liberty seem rough when contrasted with the neoclassical perfectionism of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). In Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (figure 3), Napoleon’s dynamism is articulated in the wild attitude of his horse. Otherwise the scene is static, sanitised, idealised. Liberty, by contrast, seems unpolished and dynamic. The canon smoke is vibrant, textured and stimulating against a dark background. It gives a sense of the mob surging over the barricade, perhaps out of the painting itself. This is sublime nature, human nature at its darkest and most powerful. Delacroix communicates his awe and horror at the potential for aggregate violence boiling beneath the veneer of human society.
If revolt is essentially about change, then Delacroix communicates the gritty, unstoppable force of that change – a will, perhaps; though not an independent will represented by the Greek Liberty, rather a pantheism, a unity that encapsulates the violence of human upheaval and the abstract notion of liberty itself. ‘Painting Liberty,’ said Delacroix, ‘banished my spleen’. This world-weary melancholy finds acute articulation in Byron.
Perhaps the ultimate revolutionary is Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, who contemplates his ‘dismal situation’ (Book I, line 60), following his utter defeat by God, and finds that he is unrepentant:
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven (ibid, lines 253-6).
Byron’s Pilgrimage echoes this subversive theme:
For he through Sin’s long labyrinth had run.
Nor made atonement when he did amiss. (Canto I)
And in Canto III:
He would not yield dominion of his mind
To spirits against whom his own rebell’d;
Proud though in desolation; which could find
A life within itself, to breathe without mankind. (Stanza 12, lines 105-9)
Harold’s sins are undisclosed – perhaps to tantalise; maybe to invoke the reader’s imagination – but rumours of Byron’s incest with his half-sister were apparently well-founded, and despite his denial (see his preface to Cantos I and II) hints of Harold’s dark past are transparently a surrogate for Byron’s own. This alienated ‘wandering outlaw’ is doomed, in a Calvinistic sense, for crimes which can never be undone, and for which he feels remorse but not penitence. He is a breath-taking narcissist: he describes his transgressions as ‘wounds which kill not, but ne’er heal’ (stanza 8, line 68). Any lament for an offended deity is usurped by a delicious, tormented solipsism. Harold is the Byronic Hero.
Through Harold, Bryon contemplates Waterloo and Napoleon. He challenges the orthodoxy established by Walter Scott (1771-1832), which invariably included a celebration of Napoleon’s downfall. Consider, for instance, Scott’s scathing meditation on Napoleon’s plea for asylum to Britain, a nation against which he had waged uncompromising war:
Or shall we say thou stoop’st less low
In seeking refuge from the foe
Against whose heart, in prosperous life,
Thine hand hath ever held the knife! (The Field of Waterloo, Stanza XVII)
Contrast this with Byron, who laments Napoleon’s defeat and the reinstatement of pre-1789 monarchy and thus the failure of the French Revolution:
Battling with nations, flying from the field;
Now making monarchs’ necks thy footstool... (Stanza 38, lines 334-335)
Napoleon is invested with a satanic stoicism:
When the whole host of hatred stood hard by,
To watch and mock thee shrinking, thou hast smiled
With a sedate and all-enduring eye; -
When Fortune fled her spoil’d and favourite child,
He stood unbowed beneath the ills upon him piled. (Stanza 39, lines 347-351)
‘Fortune’, or Fortuna, is the personification of luck. Byron registers Machiavelli, for whom Fortuna is the arbiter of half our actions, while character counts for the rest (Machiavelli, p.94). Napoleon’s character, an ‘antithetically mixt' spirit (stanza 36, line 317), enabled his rise but ensured his fall, and he was often considered Machiavellian in the colloquially satanic sense of the term. But Byron seems to articulate a more nuanced element – virtu, or ‘pagan’ virtue, which is antithetical to ‘submissive’ Christian virtues and emphasises strength and cunning. Byron’s Napoleon, like Delacroix’s Liberty, challenges the moral as well as the political order.
Scott’s description of the battle is heroic and hyperbolic. He offers fame as consolation for the fallen:
Mark’d on thy roll of blood what names
To Briton’s memory, and to Fame’s. (op.cit, stanza XXI, p.331)
Byron’s account is melancholic. ‘Fame’ for him is ‘fleeting’ (stanza 18, line 158). The first two lines of stanza 17 invoke Edmund Burke’s qualities of the sublime: obscurity, power, emptiness, greatness of dimension and infinity (in Anthology II, p.9-13):
Stop! – for thy tread is on an Empire’s dust!
An earthquake’s spoil is sepulchred below!
This directly addresses the reader and creates disjuncture. The narrative illusion is shattered and the startled reader is suddenly aware of poetry’s limitations and the futility of employing it to articulate the seismic demise of a sublime power. Byron is attempting to communicate the incommunicable. This is the Romantic dilemma. This is Romantic irony.
Romantic art attempts to supplant reason and fire the imagination. This acquaints us with the reality of the infinite and circumvents the ‘shadowy’, finite external world (Novalis, op.cit, p.210). For the Romantics, poetry (indeed all art) is surpassed by music, ‘because it speaks a language ... which one would consider to be solely the language of angels’ (Wackenroder, op.cit, p.233). This language is abstract and ephemeral and yet universally potent. It can free the imagination and affect emotion. Wackenroder invokes the Romantic correlation of music with spirituality. Schubert’s Prometheus encapsulates these themes.
Prometheus defied Zeus and could be considered a proto-Satan. But the Titanic myth offers a more complex and subversive account of celestial rebellion and humanity’s relationship to it. It is not merely the moral, political or social orders that are undermined here. Prometheus challenges the Christian account of human creation and must surely send a shiver along the psyche of any thoughtful devout. But Goethe’s Prometheus is more than the expression of an anti-religious sentiment, although he is this too; he is more than a proto-Satan: Prometheus is the proto-human. His autonomy, defiance and torment recall Byron’s introverted posturing and are a metaphor for the ideal Romantic life.
Much of Schubert’s Prometheus is written in recitative. It resembles an extract from an opera and registers the poem as a spontaneous fragment of the larger Prometheus myth. However, unlike the array of musical instruments found in typical orchestral ensembles, Lieder are performed intimately, by a singer and pianist. The piano introduction of Prometheus is assertive and defiant. But it also descends and seems to foreshadow Prometheus’s doom – an event beyond the scope of Goethe’s text. This assertive/descending theme continues into the next section as Prometheus addresses Zeus scornfully. A second piano rhythm trills beneath the assertive first and gives a sense of the peril underlying Prometheus’s defiance – he is after all confronting the king of the Gods. Unlike other Lied, such as Erlkonig, Prometheus asserts no easily recognisable recurring motif, although the piano rhythm maintains a coherent sense of defiance. Abrupt transitions dramatically depict changes in Prometheus’s mood and argument: as he contemplates his childhood the piano adopts a lighter, less confrontational tread, for instance. The singer’s tone also becomes lighter. Then defiance resurges as Prometheus renews his fierce, rhetorical accusations:
Who helped me
Against the overweening pride of the Titans?
Not Zeus, apparently. Prometheus addresses himself – ‘Sacred, ardent heart?’ Like Byron, he exalts in autonomy. Schubert, like Delacroix and Byron, expresses his subject’s emotional state through the artistic manifestation of imaginative, spiritualised experience. A lurching piano rhythm communicates Prometheus’s exaltation. Zeus is not the highest power, it seems, ‘Time’ and ‘Fate’ outrank him. Prometheus claims equality under these powers – and so, of course, do we. An extended piano solo gives Prometheus, and us, time to assimilate this astonishing, revolutionary shift. Then Prometheus addresses Zeus again: ‘Here I sit, forming men’ – the piano hammers a motif, as the Titan forges mankind, perhaps? The final lines are repeated prophetically – humanity, Prometheus’s creation, will ignore the Gods – and the Lied ends triumphantly. But we are left with a bittersweet sense of incompleteness and perhaps dramatic irony; Prometheus’s failure, and our own, is inevitable....
Romantic works of art subvert and defy convention. At their best, they challenge political, religious and intellectual orthodoxies. Occasionally these works invoke a symbolic language, which triggers the imagination through emotion. More often, the attempt fails, just as Prometheus inevitably fails, and so be it; it’s the subversion that counts. Delacroix’s Liberty, Milton’s Satan, Byon’s Childe Harold, all are facets in the Promethean struggle of life. But would this satisfy Aristotle’s demand for a unified definition? Probably not – and by definition it must not! Romantic works must subvert even Aristotle’s orthodoxy, because the alternative is conformity, and that will not do.
Aristotle (1984), Metaphysics, Book IV, in Barnes, J. (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle, Princeton University Press.
Berlin, I. (1998), The Originality of Machiavelli, in Hardy, H. and Hausheer, R. (eds.), The Proper Study of Mankind, Pimlico.
Byron, (1986), The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics.
Lavin, C. and Donnachie, I., (eds.) (2004), From Enlightenment to Romanticism Anthology II, Manchester University Press.
Machiavelli, N. (2007), The Prince, in Constantine, P. (ed.), The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, Modern Library.