The world around us appears to be collapsing. The city centers lie empty; the suburbs languish tastelessly; the small towns are dying. Addiction numbers are high, obesity is rampant, and suicide is more common than ever. We can trace the decline economically, geopolitically, demographically, ecologically, and so on. In such a world, why should we concern ourselves with the status of art?

And yet, as Margarita Mooney Clayton’s recent essay, Graced Imagination: Recovering True Creativity in the Age of Authenticity, implies, now is paradoxically the right time to concern ourselves with the springs of art, imagination, and creativity. Consider the medieval monks who copied pagan literary texts with loving care while the cities that birthed those texts lay in ruins. Or the icon writer Andrei Rublev, as dramatized in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, offering up whatever beauty he was capable of in the face of a bleakly violent culture. These and others have understood what C. S. Lewis learned during the Second World War: that in times of civilizational crisis, the arts and humanities become more, not less, necessary. Clayton is right to turn our attention toward art as a participation in God’s creation: what better way to play a role in the healing and remaking of our age?

It is because she gets so much right that Clayton’s account must be challenged. In her narrative, Romanticism stands as the bête noire, corrupting “traditional conceptions of beauty” and licensing mere self-expression as the core of art. Such a view is partly accurate. However, ironically, it is precisely the Romantic tradition that best answers Clayton’s own call for artistic renewal. 

Here, I want briefly to explain how Clayton and other recent conservative commentators have come to see Romanticism as simply about self-expression. Second, I will lay out a more precise view of what Romanticism is about, in both its light and dark strains. And finally, I will show how the best aspects of Romanticism can, and already do, provide much-needed support to the classical and liberal education movements across our country today. Indeed, it is the Romantic tradition that has brought notions of participation and co-creation into our vision of the arts.

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The Vilification of Romanticism

For Clayton, a Romantic view of art “rejects metaphysics,” divorcing the artist’s expression from any “rules and animating principles” that could give it meaningful order, and indeed from objective reality itself: it’s just about subjective self-expression in the void, with no definite relation to anything outside itself. This is a version of Carl Trueman’s argument a few years ago, which made Romanticism responsible for “the psychological turn” in Western moral thinking: following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Trueman’s Romantics held “that culture and civilized society was the problem and that rightly-tuned emotions were the answer . . . . The accent lay on inner psychology as constitutive of the real person. True selfhood and true happiness were found within,” rather than without, where Trueman locates his more traditional moral world. Old-fashioned morality was externally defined, rule-governed, and relational, but the Romantics cut those ties, making morality merely subjective. 

Clayton follows Trueman’s anthropological critique and applies it to artistic making. It provides her—as it did him—with a villain to blame for our current problems. Much “modern art and architecture,” as she says, really is bland and light on meaning, with “no grand vision of a purpose or a direction” for life. This, along with our moral culture of self-fashioning, can be laid at Romanticism’s doorstep.

But here, Clayton and Trueman judge the Romantic movement in terms of only one of its descendant strains. The expressive individualism of our late modern world may, as they say, flow down from a certain Rousseauian version of Romanticism, and this inheritance must be named, comprehended, and critiqued. But to reduce the whole of Romanticism to this one part is to misunderstand it, as we do when we judge John Calvin by exclusive reference to contemporary Congregationalists, or Thomas Aquinas by reference to early-twentieth-century manualist Thomism. Romanticism has begotten some problematic issues, but it has also opened up the richest modern vein of participatory creativity. We desperately need to keep the Romantics with us if we are to keep the best of our aesthetic culture alive and flourishing.

Romanticizing the World

To appreciate the distinction between better and worse, or “light” and “dark,” Romanticism, it is important to start with the former. To the extent that light Romanticism (as I hold) is more adequate to reality, it is more definitive, while dark Romanticism represents a kind of privation of its goodness. 

The best and richest currents of Romanticism flowed from German and English sources. We can especially mark their characteristics in the writings of Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Friedrich Hölderlin on the German side; and William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the English. Common to all these and many other Romantics is the pursuit of the infinite in the finite, or what Louis Dupré recently called the quest of the absolute. This was especially clear in the early German Romanticism of the Jena School, where Schlegel wrote that the best kind of book—his kind—is characterized by “a constant striving toward the absolute.” We humans find ourselves in a world bounded by finite dimensions, and yet we cannot not long for a reality that transcends those dimensions. “We seek the absolute everywhere,” said Novalis, “and only ever find things,” suggesting that life is an endless pursuit of that reality that transcends all conditions, a reality we catch echoes of in the things of this world, but never fully find. He typically called this restless drive through the finite toward the infinite a sehnsucht, or “longing,” and considered it basic to human life. There is a strong, intentional echo here of Augustine’s restless heart.

A second characteristic of this version of Romanticism is what we might call the necessity of imaginative response. Living with infinite desire in a finite world, we are called to connect the two imaginatively, bringing out the eternal, the transcendent, the divine, as one glimpses it in the details of everyday life. The imaginative seer or poet, says Wordsworth, has “power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence.” Indeed, as Novalis said, “by endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious respect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic.” There is the vocation: to show imaginatively in poetry, art, and all creative endeavors how these commonplace “noisy years” fit into that transcendent, boundless whole we see in the mind’s eye. We are here, Novalis adds, to find “ the higher meaning of our planet”: we are “the nerve that connects this part of it with the upper world, the eye it raises to heaven.” This means, as Blake famously put it

To see a World in a Grain of Sand, 

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, 

And Eternity in an hour. 

We are not here, said the light Romantics, merely to pine away with impossible desire, but to catch those infinite echoes in our images of the world.

A third key characteristic of this version of Romanticism has to do with the power that makes our imaginings possible: participation in the divine. As Friedrich Schlegel put it, there is a living poetry at the heart of all creation, an

unformed and unconscious poetry which stirs in the plant and shines in the light, smiles in a child, gleams in the flower of youth, and glows in the loving bosom of women[.] 

This, however, is the primeval poetry without which there would be no poetry of words. Indeed, there is not, and has never been, any other object or source of activity and joy but that one poem of the godhead. We can perceive the music of the universe and understand the beauty of the poem because a part of the poet, a spark of his creative spirit, lives in us and never ceases to glow with secret force deep under the ashes of our self-induced unreason.

When we imaginatively romanticize the world, seeing the infinite in the finite, Schlegel thinks, we are participating in the “one poem of the godhead,” extending the truth and beauty of his creation. The poet Hölderlin imagines something similar, but figures it differently, with notes of the pagan epic muses: 

unforeseen the

Divine, creative Genius came over us, 

Dumbfounding mind and sense, unforgettably, 

And left us as though struck by lightning 

Down to our bones that were still a quiver, 

calling forth and enabling “restless deeds at large in a boundless world.” This inspiration, which Coleridge and other Romantics imagined as a divine breeze blowing through the Aeolian Harp of life, draws out and enables the creative human response, filling the finite with the infinite. Altogether, this is what it meant to romanticize the world.

Many other aspects of the light Romantic vision of human life deserve mention—the valorization of childhood, the centrality of conjugal eros, the natural inevitability of religion, the fascination with medieval religion and society—but the imaginative lifting of the finite into the infinite stands as the core insight of the movement. We should add that, whatever the truth of this vision—and I think it is very great—there are many ways in which it can and did go wrong historically. This better version of Romanticism was nothing if not metaphysical, and self-consciously so, as scholars such as Frederick Beiser and Alexander Hampton have shown. But their aesthetic philosophy, rooted as it was in the traditions of Christian Platonism and German idealism, nevertheless needed—and still needs—more than what those traditions provide. To keep living and be completely adequate to reality, it requires augmentation and correction by Christian teaching in a variety of different ways. Indeed, the fact that two-thirds of the Romantics listed above became more and more orthodox over the course of their lives attests to the truth of this claim.

Living with infinite desire in a finite world, we are called to connect the two imaginatively, bringing out the eternal, the transcendent, the divine.


An Unwanted Transcendence

This brings us to “dark” Romanticism. Grant for a moment the three Romantic premises I have just outlined—a finite world that is 1) charged with a mysterious, otherworldly infinite, 2) accessible imaginatively, and 3) breaking into our lives to call us toward it—but imagine then that this mysterious Other is not necessarily for us, or perhaps seems positively against us: here, two dark Romantic paths open up. 

The first is what we might call the more Nietzschean strain, and is strikingly reflected in the plays and stories of the German author Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist presents readers with an uncanny world, ruptured by powers from some kind of beyond, but in ways that are neither controllable nor comprehensible by us human beings: this is an anxious, fear-inducing world, with no divine beauty or clarity breaking in—only mysterious shiftings in an outer world where we are distinctly not at home. The best one can do here, as we see in Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas, is not to try to understand, but to be watchful for whatever supernatural breaks one might get and to impose one’s will wherever possible. Whatever happiness a person accomplishes will come from a combination of luck and forceful choice-making. Don’t think, Kleist seems to say; just act.

A second dark strain of Romanticism sees the transcendent as more inimical to human life and lies at the roots of some of our most pessimistic contemporary literature. Here, we might think of some stories of the German E. T. A. Hoffmann, or the English Lord Byron. For example, in Hoffmann’s famous story “The Sandman,” paranormal phenomena repeatedly break into the internal and external life of the protagonist, leaving him in fear, extreme befuddlement, and ultimately, madness. If the supernatural forces emerging into life are set against my flourishing, then my only options may be dumb suffering, on one hand, or bleak heroic resistance, on the other. Byron’s hero in his drama Manfred follows the latter route, courageously setting his face against a malevolent spiritual cosmos. If the former mode of dark Romanticism prepares the way for Nietzschean will to power, this one sets the stage for the nihilistic visions of H. P. Lovecraft and his descendants in the literature of uncanny horror.

With Carl Trueman and Margarita Mooney Clayton, we can affirm that various permutations of these darker Romantic visions are still with us. The zeitgeist so well described by Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, and in his many essays, is all around us: a moral “imaginary” in which the outside world has no clear meaning or nature in itself, but is culturally organized against us. There is no adequate response but oppositional assertion of one’s own will, and whatever sort of self-fashioning (aesthetic, political, biological) I happen to prefer today. It may all come to naught—and this is the nihilistic doubt that gives an edge to contemporary cultural politics—but self-assertion is our only way of pushing back against a senseless world that we know isn’t in our control.

The Higher Path

Still, this is only half the picture. The path of the better, life-affirming Romanticism still lies open to us, and indeed it has been followed by some of our best-loved authors and artists over the past 200 years. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many others followed the Wordsworthian path, elevating childhood, imagining a world suffused with transcendent wonder and creative possibility, in which divine encounter was possible in the midst of everyday life. But even more, we might name George MacDonald, and at the turn of the next century, G. K. Chesterton, as latter-day Romantics who not only accepted received Romantic insights but deepened and corrected them in specifically Christian ways. MacDonald mediated not only the English Romantics, but Novalis (whom he translated) and the distinctively German mode of supernatural, mythic imagination. His many fairy tales re-present the pursuit of the infinite within the finite in a distinctively Christian key, giving us not only an other-worldly, blissed-out aesthetic, but encounters with real holiness. As C. S. Lewis would later write, MacDonald gave us a “baptized” Romanticism. 

Chesterton did the same in his many books and essays. Like all the Romantics, he championed a world of infinite transcendence, encountered within the finite every day, and he himself embodied in his writing the imaginative ways one could respond to that world, elevating it and making it wonderful to his readers. “Romance,” in a sense strongly associated with Romanticism, was one of the commonest words in Chesterton’s vocabulary: he defined it as an illuminating “mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar,” using the word to characterize not only his literary and aesthetic tastes, but his philosophy and religion. His essays romanticize everything from cheese to gargoyles; from to walking in the rain to lying in bed. Every odd experience is an occasion for wonder, and indeed, for encounter with the Creator and Redeemer of the world.

From MacDonald and Chesterton, we may trace the development of Christian Romanticism on through its best-known adherents, the Inklings. While Lewis and Tolkien parted ways with their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forebears in various ways (as had MacDonald and Chesterton), they saw themselves as continuing the tradition, broadly understood. Indeed, in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis presents his own Novalis-like sehnsucht, or longing for the infinite, as a kind of preparation for the Gospel: it was God who made Lewis himself “incurably Romantic” as a non-Christian child, knowing it would lead the boy to himself. Arguably, Lewis had already hinted at this with his title and epigraph, which come from a poem by Wordsworth. In their creative works, both Lewis and Tolkien strove to follow MacDonald in weaving mythic tales that open out into transcendence. “It is the mark of a good fairy-story,” said Tolkien in a famous essay, that “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.” It is, he wrote, “a piercing glimpse of joy, a heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” This is the goal, not only of good fairy tales, but of every imaginative work of Lewis and Tolkien, and it is a Romantic one: they sought, as “sub-creators,” to draw the infinite into the finite, imaginatively participating in the work that is already going on in God’s creation itself. Margarita Mooney Clayton calls for a return to this kind of Romantic art, and she is right to do so.

To set these divergent Romanticisms up next to each other is to allow the truth to be as complex and fascinating as reality actually is. Whatever our centuries of godless materialism and scientism have alleged, the cosmos still is enchanted, inasmuch as it was and is being created, even now, by a loving and surpassingly mysterious God. To tell the truth is to admit that this cosmos bears his fingerprints, opening out into blinding wonder and moments of ineffable transcendence. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a question the answer to which says more about the questioner than about God himself. And we need to understand this if we are to “recover true creativity” in a world that has lost its bearings.

Public domain image.