Romantic Buddhism

Year after year of lessons on the Romantics, in particular those of the first generation, a question has gradually taken shape in my mind : “but were these Coleridge and Wordsworth a kind of Buddhists?” I know, it’s hazardous and I have to confess that my knowledge of Buddhism is actually basic: I’ve read Thomas Mann’s Siddhartha and the Autobiography of a Yogi about the Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, that is all. But I want to try to outline an analysis anyhow. Well, Buddhism is a religion /philosophy based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, who is commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened). For the Buddhists he is the enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help men end sufferings through the elimination of ignorance by way of understanding and the elimination of craving, thus attaining the highest happiness: Nirvana. Wow, but this the Indian version of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads!!!

Rewind: the Romantic poet as the Buddha is the enlightened man with that superior sensibility/imagination who teaches men how to feel and keep memory of their emotions,  in order to better bear the inevitable sufferings of life, thus reaching happiness. He is a poet and poetry is his weapon. Coleridge,in particular, had understood that the burden of our ” wants” can’t help us understand the true nature of happiness and confounds us. Siddhartha seemed to have whatever life had to offer: he was young, handsome, rich and, naturally, admired and envied at the same time. Hpwever, that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more. So, he got rid of that burden of things to be free to choose his way, exactly as St Francis of Assisi did.

The ticking that marks the rhythm of our actions, prevents us from fully enjoying that dreamed happiness too. We are so used to stuffing our days with as many actions as possible that we have no time to pause to think about what we are actually doing. “Stop the ticking!” said Captain Hook, but how? We are not characters of a fairy tale. How is it possible to reach our Nirvana, if this is the frantic pattern of our modern age?

In the eighteenth century Romantic artists had already understood  that man somehow would have undergone a great psychological change due to the impulse of the industrial revolution. Macaulay had said that the social-scientifical growth of England was equivalent to what men had done in three hundred or maybe three thousand years. Clock time had replaced seasonal time and from that moment on we have kept moving faster and faster.

That’s why one of the main characteristics of Romantic poetry is its meditative tone.Time had to slow down to understand the real nature of the self and life.  Remember, for example, the amazing “Elegy” of Thomas Gray where the knelling of the curfew toll which pervades the first stanzas gradually fades to give way to the poet’s deep reflection. In the poem “Daffodils” only in a moment of beautiful stillness Wordsworth can experience that pure happiness destined to be enjoyed forever and in Coleridge’s “Rime” the Ancient Mariner stops with a spell a reluctant young Wedding Guest in order to be able to communicate with him and then let him meditate on the meaning of his tale.

So the point is that these “Romantic Buddhists” had understood the importance of meditation to reach the necessary awareness that might lead to happiness. Meditation is, in fact, the primary means of cultivating  Buddhism. Your mind focuses on an object, this image expands to your mind, body and entire surroundings till your mind is able to gain insight into the ultimate nature of reality and reach a sense of beatitude. In that state, time does not exist and we are in harmony with ourselves and the world outside reaching our Nirvana. Yes, but  ……..excuse me, what time is it? I’ve got to go.

 

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The Aesthetic Retreat

Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common: the rejection of materialism in general, an emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to life and more. There are many similarities, for sure, but the Romantics had a distinctive optimistic feature: they were dreamers and revolutionaries at the same time.They believed in the power of poetry and in particular in the mission of the artist, a super sensitive genius, whose task was to defend man’s natural sensibility, which they felt was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial and capitalistic society.

Their ambition was to talk to the heart of men, any man, however, if they wanted to reach a wider public, the dominant taste of the time would not do for the purpose. That is why Romantic poetry became a “bourgeois” sort of poetry, as it was purged of all classic refinements, thus losing its aristocratic trait and with a selection of a new simple language which made accessible to anybody  the poet’s message. As their noble minds were fueled by the inspiring principles of the French Revolution, they aimed at fighting against conformism, indifference, ignorance but very soon, when that revolutionary wind weakened, the artists started to question: must art have a purpose of some kind? Must artists pursue goals different from giving life and form to their creative inspiration? A Romantic poet like Keats had developed pretty soon another opinion about it, in fact, in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he had clearly stated that art has only one goal : beauty. He even reinforced the concept adding : “That is all… Ye need to know“, thus anticipating the Aesthetic creed.

For the Aesthetes, in fact, those people, whose hearts the Romantics wanted to touch with their lines, resembled the crew of Baudelaire‘s poem: Albatros, that is, hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive. A poet, who, like the Albatross, happens to descend among them, cannot but become the martyr of common ignorance and blindness. In his flight the poet/Albatross is magnificent and elegant with his vast wings, he is “the prince of sky and clouds“, but when the men of the crew catch him and place him on the deck, well, everything changes. The bird has to walk now, seems to have lost all the confidence he had before, thus becoming pathetic,clumsy, ashamed and those beautiful wings which used to take him up to the sky, now seem like oars that drag him down. This fallen angel has become so gauche and weak that appears to be like a cripple.The men show no pity, but rather, they sneer at him.

The poet/Albatross belongs to the sky and he is used to facing the tempest. Only up there he is the king that laughs at the(bow)man, but when he is on the earth, when he is “exiled” among the jeering men, his wings become useless, as they “prevent him from walking“. Modern society, like the deck of that ship is no longer for poets, as it is peopled by men who do not wish to learn anything from them. Any attempt of communicative effort cannot but be destined to failure whatever the choice of language might be; they couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. Poetry, just like the wings of the Albatross, is of no use.That is why the aesthetes chose to keep on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty, thus avoiding the risk of being entrapped by men’s ignorance and violence. Art is for art’s sake and nothing more. On this point they were quite firm, as we understand reading Wilde‘s “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray“. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an art. Full stop. An artist should not pursue a didactic or moral aim. Full stop.  All art is quite useless. The end.