Archive | Romanticism RSS feed for this section

John Keats – Letter to Fanny Brawne – I wish we were butterflies…

14 Mar

I watched the film Bright Star (2009) again recently, and I read the letters Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne, and that’s the only thing that’s on my mind these days. These letters are pure beauty. And to think that just recently in my imagination, Shakespeare’s sonnet that starts with ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…’ was the most beautiful thing ever, well, I’ve transferred my affections to Keats, sorry Shakespeare!

Keats’ poems are beautiful without a doubt, but his letters just knock me off my feet. I spent hours reading them last weekend, again and again, until the words become etched in my mind, and maybe for a moment, I might daydream they were meant for me. After reading Keats’ letters to Fanny, everything else seems paler, duller, less beautiful in comparison… It’s possible that I’m exaggerating, but why would I deny myself this pleasure? And to think that these are just letters, private intimate letters meant only for Fanny, not for the whole world to read, and they were so beautiful. I can’t imagine anyone today writing letters so beautiful. I always thought that writing a letter, and receiving one, is one of the more pleasurable pursuits in life, I watch a lot of period dramas and I look at the heroines in their long rustling gowns gazing longingly through the window, waiting for their letter to arrive, hoping that it carries sweet words and even sweeter promises, and I know exactly how they feel: there’s a lovely, tingling sensation in expecting a letter, or an email these days, and the moment it arrives, oh what rapture! Fanny was one lucky girl.

Odilon Redon, Butterflies, 1910s

***

To Fanny Brawne, Newport, 3 July 1819

My dearest Lady

I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—‘twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.

I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours, and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it, make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me, write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely, indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.

But no, I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you, but what hatred shall I have for another!

Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:

To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!

Here you can read all of his letter to Fanny.

***

It’s very sad that Keats died and that his love with Fanny couldn’t be fulfilled. There’s a sad and poignant scene in the film which always makes me cry where Keats and Fanny are saying goodbye to each other before he travels to Italy, and they talk about the imagined beautiful life they’ll lead when he returns in Spring, how they’ll live in a cottage overlooking an apple orchard and a mountain in the mist, and Fanny doesn’t want him to go, and he says, calmly, “I doubt that we will see each other again on this earth”. I can’t think of a sadder sentence, not on this earth… It makes me think of all the people, dead and alive, that I will never meet; I’ll never meet Schiele, Modigliani, Syd Barrett, Lord Byron, Chopin, Rimbaud, Klimt, Richey Edwards, Morrissey, Shelley… never, at least not on this earth. I wish there was a indeed a sweeter, more beautiful existence after this life, in which all our deepest, dearest fantasies could be indulged, an existence in which time wouldn’t play such an important role, and artists and dreamers from different time periods could spend an eternity creating their masterpieces. Oh, how many idle tears I’ve shed over that scene!

Still, I think there’s an underlying romance about it all; the longing, the sadness and saying goodbye. Imagine if Keats had lived and went on to marry Fanny. They’d probably had ten children, half of which would die in childhood, he’d become bored with her and restless, she’d possibly die in childbirth. In that imagined domestic simplicity, where would there lie magic and beauty? If that was the way his life had evolved, he’d be a boring figure like Wordsworth, and I’d be the first one to think it’s pathetic. I always get angry and disappointed with my heroes when I find out that they were married, or even worse had children, I think it’s so pathetic and stupid, it’s a path to mediocrity! Can you imagine Kerouac changing someone’s diapers? No, thank god. There’s something so elevating in devoting one’s life only and solely to one self and one’s art. And fulfilled love itself is unromantic it seems.

I’m sorry, but happiness and family life is just not for artists, they thrive on strong emotions, they must suffer – for their art, which should hold the highest importance in their lives. Forget love, beauty is everything, and truth is beauty!

Lermontov: It’s Boring and Sad…

9 Nov

This poem arose from the same source that inspired Lermontov to write his novel ‘A Hero of Our Time’, a fabulous literary work, especially if you like Romanticism or Russian literature. The main character, Pechorin, is a superfluous man, just like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is a Russian version of the Byronic hero; he’s a pessimistic and cynic man prone to self-destruction who feels superior to his surroundings and yet does nothing to use his potentials, a strong sense of boredom and absurdity of life drives him to lonely wanderings, restlessly seeking oblivion. The lyrical subject of this poem shares his thoughts of sadness and boredom with life, following the path of the superfluous man, viewing life as a cruel joke. This poem is very dear to me because I have the same thoughts on life; I am a melancholic soul, and if it wasn’t for the beauty of art, poetry and rock music, I wouldn’t see any purpose of life at all. Life without art isn’t a life at all.

1830-35-sunset-brothers-or-evening-landscape-with-two-men-caspar-david-friedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Sunset (Brothers) or Evening Landscape With two Men, 1830-35

It’s boring and sad, and there’s no one around

In times of my spirit’s travail…

Desires!…What use is our vain and eternal desire?..

While years pass on by – all the best years!

 

To love…but love whom?.. a short love is vexing,

And permanent love’s just a myth.

Perhaps look within? – The past’s left no trace:

All trivial, joys and distress…

 

What good are the passions? For sooner or later

Their sweet sickness ends when reason speaks up;

And life, if surveyed with cold-blooded regard,-

Is stupid and empty – a joke…

Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions

29 Oct

In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794

Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.

These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794

Old ruins

As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.

1790-91-henry-fuseli-the-nightmareHenry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1790-91

Erotic Dreams

Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.

This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.

Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.

1790s ‘The Wandring Moon.’ Watercolour by William Blake (1757-1827).

William Blake (1757-1827), The Wandering Moon, Watercolour, 1816-20

Strange Visions

Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)

Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.

Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)

William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.

1824-27-william-blake-the-lovers-whirlwind-francesca-da-rimini-and-paolo-malatestaWilliam Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.

Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*

1835-stonehenge-john-constable-1John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!

Thomas Sully and E.A.Poe – The Oval Portrait

23 Oct

In this post I’ll explore Sully’s refined portraits, their connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s pale, ghostlike and mournful literary heroines, and also Poe’s story The Oval Portrait and the way it influenced Jean-Luc Godard in his film Vivre sa Vie (1962).

1844-the-coleman-sisters-by-thomas-sully-1783-1872Thomas Sully, The Coleman Sisters, 1844

When I first set eyes on Sully’s paintings, I couldn’t help noticing a slight Gothic, eerie element to them, especially in the painting The Coleman Sisters. Three pale, raven hair beauties with large, dark velvety eyes, dressed in lavender and buttercup yellow coloured dresses seem like they came from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. One of Coleman sisters could easily be mistaken for Poe’s Ligeia, Eleonora, Annabel Lee or Madeline Usher; pale, mournful brides, intensely beautiful and intelligent, transcending even death.

Poe actually mentions Sully in his short story ‘The Oval Portrait’, where the protagonist spends a night in a grand and gloomy castle and an old portrait on the wall captures his imagination. It is one of my favourite stories by Poe because, along with typical Poe qualities, it deals with subjects of art and life; a combination which Oscar Wilde later studied to the finest detail. And now a bit of the story which always reminds me of the painting by Sully:

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person.

1830s-sheet-of-figure-studies-by-thomas-sully

Thomas Sully, Sheet of Figure Studies, 1830-1839

Thomas Sully (1783-1872), just like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, is one of those painters that bring something fresh, original and lasting in the world of portrait painting. He was born in England, but at the age of nine moved to the New World with his parents who were actors, first to South Carolina before finally settling in Philadelphia. His style is often compared to that of Thomas Lawrence; it’s a style of refinement, elegance and flattery so you can only guess that he was popular with rich ladies. Sully also painted that famous portrait of young Queen Victoria in 1837.

And yet, in some portraits, like the one of the Coleman sisters, there’s a hint of something darker and dreamier than in Lawrence’s portraits which are pure refinement. Although in this post I decided to focus on the connection between his portraits and Poe’s heroines, I felt a need to add Sully’s Sheet of Figure Studies because it offers an intimate insight into his art. A finished portrait can appear cold and distant, but a piece of paper where you can actually see the artists sketches, feel his brush as it touched the paper, dipped in colour – that’s something truly special and heart-warming.

1823-thomas-sully-1783-1872-mary-and-emily-mceuen

Thomas Sully, Mary and Emily McEuen, 1823

Now we’ll go back to that portrait of the Coleman sisters and Poe’s story ‘The Oval Portrait’. If you haven’t already read the story, you should because it’s really short and thought-provoking. It deals with themes of art, life and sacrifice. The unnamed young maiden of ‘rarest beauty’ is wedded to a painter who is utterly absorbed in his work, and sees his young wistful bride only as a subject of his art, not as a human being with a desire for love and companionship.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), a young man reads the fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time, but their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. And, oh my, I’m so glad that I finally wrote it because I’ve been carrying the idea in my mind for the third autumn now.

Caspar David Friedrich – Greifswald Harbour: Set sail in those turquoise days…

2 Oct

It’s that time of the year again, when sweet Autumn rains and whimsical winds bring thoughts of Romanticism and Echo and the Bunnymen to my mind. Gloomy, post-punk and a bit psychedelic melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here (1981) resonate perfectly with moods of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings.

1818-20. Greifswald Harbour - Caspar David FriedrichCaspar David Friedrich, Greifswald Harbour, 1818-20

Dreamy and gloomy paintings of Caspar David Friedrich go hand in hand with brooding post-punk melodies of Echo and the Bunnymen’s album Heaven Up Here; this artistic match made in heaven delights me beyond belief, often to the point of tears – tears of beauty. Similar mood pervades Friedrich’s painting Greifswald Harbour and song Turquoise Days; moody melody coming from the distance, from a rocky beach somewhere in Wales, emerging from an ancient Albion mist, coming from the distant Celtic shore… Similar dreamy, yet sombre mood can be found in all of Friedrich’s artworks, specially those portraying a beach or a harbour, where ships appear from the blueish mist, like in a dream.

In ‘Greifswald Harbour’ Friedrich revisits the landscape of his childhood, portraying the harbour of Greifswald; a seaport on the Baltic coast and his birth town. Cold climate and death of close relatives intensified his tendency towards melancholy, his sensitivity and perhaps even a certain sense of isolation that dominates his paintings. Take a look at the painting. I’ll give you a moment to sober up from the beauty of those dusky colours and mystic shades of blue, green, grey and yellow.

Greifswald Harbour was painted between 1818 and 1820, in times when Romantic sensibilities were slowly becoming ‘passé‘, and Friedrich was perceived not as a symbol of a generation and a romantic hero, but as an overly melancholic recluse who spend most of his time alone, wandering woods and meadows, and enjoying the isolation. He said himself: “I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.” It goes without saying that the fruit of his life, his oeuvre, is indeed ‘a brilliant butterfly’.

Aesthetically, this is a typical painting of Romanticism. Symbolically, it deals with subjects of transience and painters own mortality. In the dusk, small and large ships appear through a misty veil of Autumn evening. Glimpses of cityscape appear through the grey blueish fog. Shy waning moon shines in the sky. Day is dying in rich warm yellow and orange shades, while fishermen in the foreground are nearing the end of the working day, probably in a hurry to visit an inn or a brothel. Ah, the mood of harbours, with sailors and hookers, goods from the far East, constant change and movement… Friedrich’s harbour is a somewhat desolate place. Those large ships are probably returning from a long trip, or just setting off to a new voyage, but what about the smaller ones? Some ships probably never left the harbour, nothing exciting comes on their path. They could spent a whole existence soaking in the cold sea water waiting for something which never really occurs. It’s like an unlived life. Once again, Friedrich stimulates the viewer to observe the deeper, psychological side of his art.

In Friedrich’s art, human figures are either missing or painted from the back. You may be wondering then, why he decided to include a bunch of fishermen in the foreground? Well, the figures of fishermen and the boat in the foreground weren’t painted by Friedrich himself, but were added later. Infrared photographs of the painting taken in 1974 revealed this two centuries old secret. Why did someone decide to do that, we’ll never know. Perhaps one considered the painting too dull with just ships and sky, and wanted to enliven it with human figures. Indeed, someone who doesn’t appreciate the soft transitional moods of Friedrich’s art would deem this painting non exciting because its beauty and charm are hidden behind layers of gauze veils, just like the face of a Victorian bride. As Ludwig Justi wrote: “We cannot appreciate the secret music of this picture without sensing the inner life of the ship. … The forms, appearing quite sober on first sight, are in fact alive with ardour and longing and dreaming.

I would like to finish this post with beautiful lyrics written by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen.

Just when the thought occurs
The panic will pass
And the smell of the fields
Never lasts
We’ll put your faith
In those crimson nights
Set sail
In those turquoise days…” (Echo and the Bunnymen, Turquoise Days)

Dear reader, set sail in the beautiful turquoise days and crimson nights of Autumn that are upon us.

Materialism vs Idealism in Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose

29 May

Oscar Wilde, author of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, was ‘a flamboyant and sparklingly witty Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and critic’ (1) whose ideas and behaviour were often in stark contrast with the stale and conventional society he lived in. A dandy and an aesthete, Wilde was naturally drawn towards noble themes of beauty, sincerity and love, and his stories can be viewed as reflections of the decadent and pessimistic social landscape of fin de siècle. In ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Wilde combined his typical eloquence with fairytale elements, interesting plot and lavishing symbolism.

One could argue that the fairytale, first published in May 1888 as a part of collection of children’s stories ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, is a true product of its time. In this fairytale, Wilde confronted two ideas or, rather, mindsets that sparked discussions amongst intellectuals in fashionable salons, and are present throughout entire art history – materialism and idealism; the Student represents the former, while the Nightingale represents the latter.

1879. A Girl and Roses by Auguste Toulmouche

Auguste Toulmouche, A Girl and Roses, 1879

*MATERIALISM

The Student, the main character of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, is a thinker who pursues knowledge and places logic and reason above all. In the very beginning he proclaims: ‘I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine…’ This excessively confident and rather naive remark indicates the Student’s true character, and instantly connects him to realist art movement whose key features are the emphasis on modern world and belief in the power of science. He is briefly distracted from his studies by a beautiful daughter of his Professor who promised to dance with him if he brought her red roses.

From the beginning he is presented as a materialist; fixated on the rose and not questioning the worthiness of his love pursuit. His thoughts upon listening to the Nightingale’s song reveal his incapability of experiencing true emotions: ‘…she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.’(2) In a true manner of literary realism, Wilde chose a student for his character, continuing the long line of student characters such as Balzac’s Rastignac or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.

1889. The Rose Of All Roses, Wilhelm Menzler

Wilhelm Menzler, The Rose Of All Roses, 1889

Professor’s Daughter, a haughty, vain, rude and ungrateful girl, is another character that represents materialism. Dr Jarlath Killeen claims: ‘As daughter of the Professor, the girl in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is a powerful representation of the desire for knowledge allied with a profound commitment to materialism.” (3) However, the Student kept courting her, without realising her shallowness and class snobbery. When he found the rose, coloured beautifully by the Nightingale’s crimson red blood, he noticed its beauty, but only as a means of dancing with his beloved. He is incapable of appreciating beauty without expecting something material in return. When the Professor’s daughter received the rose, she stated: ‘I am afraid it will not go with my dress, (…) and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.’ She makes it clear that she’s uninterested in love that doesn’t include wealth and social position, adding further ‘… who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has’.

Although she rejected him cruelly, he is not to be pitied because he got what he deserved. His preoccupation with reason, logic and knowledge, alongside his materialistic worldviews made him a bad judge of character. His feelings are artificial as is his character, and since his love wasn’t deep and sincere he quickly returned to his studies, proclaiming: ‘What a silly thing Love is, (…) It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not true. (…) In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.‘ (4) The Student is doomed never to be happy because he seeks refuge in reason and is incapable of experiencing true emotions. Blinded by his pursuit of knowledge, the Student fails to notice and admire beauties around him; sweet scent of the flowers, song of the birds, fresh air and sunlight.

1880s Jeune Femme, Adolphe Etienne Piot 1

Adolphe Etienne Piot, Jeune Femme, 1880s

* IDEALISM

The Nightingale stands as a contrast to the Student. She is a true idealist and a dreamer, who ‘night after night’ sung of a true lover and ‘told his story to the stars.’ The Nightingale is a gentle and kind creature, led by intuition and feelings. Consequently she decided to sacrifice her life for love because she places love above all; above material things and social conventions. Ideas of love and beauty typical for fin de siècle, have developed as a response to materialism, rationalism and positivism of the previous era which saw the height of the bourgeois class and realism being developed as a literary genre.

In her eyes, love is something that transcends even death. Wilde described her as singing of the ‘Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.’ (5) Although such sacrifice would seem pathetic in the age of realism, it struck a chord with decadent and disillusioned pessimists and aesthetes of fin de siècle. In this sense, Wilde spiritually takes us back to Romanticism – yet another age of idealism, when poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats and Shelley sang of love, beauty and death.

1878. Girl With a Rose by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

Wilde’s choice of the bird nightingale as his character emphasises this symbolism even further; in his sonnets, Shakespeare compared love to the nightingale’s song, Keats compared this bird to a poet itself in ‘Ode to the Nightingale’, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay that: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” (6)

Dr Jarlath Killeen argues that Wilde presented the Nightingale as a secular Christ-like figure: ‘This Christian transformation of the Philomena myth would explain the clear references to the crucifixion in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and Wilde’s association of the Nightingale with Christ who was willing to sacrifice himself for a beautiful idea the world was clearly not ready for.’ (7) Wilde presented the Nightingale as a doomed and sensitive creature rejected by the cruel world, someone who appears to be a loser, but is in truth a deeply noble individual whose sacrifice nobody understands.

In a sense, Wilde portrayed the Nightingale as an artist, and thus continued the long line of noble but lonely misunderstood individuals, ranging from Thomas Chatterton and John Keats all the way to Vincent van Gogh, and modern rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. Just like those artists, the Nightingale sacrificed her life for her ‘art’ – the creation of a red rose. She gave her life for the idea. Even the Student places the Nightingale in the circle of artists, praising her song but decreeing her selfish: ‘In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.’ (8)

Wilde continues with a distinctly artistic imagery in description of the Nightingale’s opinion of love, which is rather different from the Student’s: ‘Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold’. Judging by the way the story ends, Wilde is subtly implying that the gentle ones are always crucified for their sensibility.

1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire - Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour

Marie Spartali Stillman, The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, Watercolour, 1880s

* CONCLUSION AND MY VIEW

To summarise, Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ can be perceived not only as Wilde’s personal clash between “English materialism and Celtic idealism”, (9) but as a universal historical, artistic and social struggle between materialism and idealism, reason and intuition, classical and romantic, Logos and Eros, Apollonian and Dionysian etc. As every art movement is a reaction to the previous one, so these opposites took turns and shaped the world’s history from the age of Homer to now. Romanticism came as an answer to the overly rational Age of Enlightenment, then the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism had to be neutralised by realism which praised science and logic, and in fin de siècle people, already bored with it all, rebelled against materialism and rationalism, and embraced idealism and emotionalism. ‘Sad Prince’ of the aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, lived in these changing times and expressed these conflicts in his works.

In my opinion, the story perfectly captures the spirit of the times it was written, because its main themes are love, beauty and death – a trio that graced the artistic landscape at the turn of the century, and sparked conversations in opium and absinthe-laced clubs and salons of London, among intellectuals, artists and dandies. The Nightingale’s sacrifice appeals to me immensely because it’s something glamorous and rebellious. In the act of sacrifice I see a clear detachment of the artist from the ‘common people’. Thomas Chatterton committed suicide, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, Lord Byron fought in Greece, the Nightingale gave her life for love – everything is better than a life of blessed mediocrity. I think Oscar Wilde took the Nightingale’s side because Aestheticism and dandyism are a stark contrast to materialism and logic, and her sacrifice is very artistic. At the same time, Wilde questions the value of the artist’s life. His quote confirms this: ‘The artistic life is a long lovely suicide’.

_____________________________________________________________

(1) ”Oscar Wilde”, British Library

(2) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(3) Dr Jarlath Killeen, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(4) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(5) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(6) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Literature Network, n.d. Web

(7) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(8) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(9) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

Romantic Martyrs – Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey

26 May

Artists of Romanticism showed a particular interest in history; they idealised it and drew inspiration from it. Their escapism and rose-tinted visions of the Middle ages and Tudor era produced some of the finest portraits of historical events – executions to be precise.

1843. Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake - Hermann Anton StilkeHermann Anton Stilke, Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake, 1843

***

My interest in Joan of Arc sparked only after I heard Morrissey singing about her in the song Bigmouth Strikes Again from The Smiths’ album The Queen is Dead (1986). In the song, he identifies his own social faux pas with the fate of poor Joan of Arc who gave her life for the idea. Listening to Morrissey’s high-pitched voice in the background singing Now I know how Joan of Arc felt gives me goose bumps every single time.

And now I know how Joan of Arc felt
Now I know how Joan of Arc felt
As the flames rose to her Roman nose
And her Walkman started to melt

I was crazy about this song in last October and I thought these were the coolest lyrics ever, I still do. They stayed etched in my mind for days and weeks, and somehow, for the good or bad, drew my attention to Joan of Arc as a historical figure. Romanticists drew inspiration from history, particularly the Medieval times which they idealised because it was a radically different time than the one they lived in, and because it was a time period seen as ‘barbaric’ and highly disliked by the 18th century thinkers. Romanticists were rebels after all, and what appealed to them about the Medieval era were: “…stained glass in soaring cathedrals, tales of Robin Hood and his merry men, and–above all–the old tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table“(source).

Joan of Arc, merely nineteen years old when they burned her at the stake, possessed such courage and idealism that she seems to have been a figment of imagination of some romantic poet rather than a real human being. This painting is part of a triptych painted in 1843 by a German painter Hermann Anton Stilke, well known for painting religious and romantic themes. In typical romantic manner, Stilke diminished the brutal aspect of her death and emphasised her spirituality. Her gaze is directed to the sky as she waits for the agony to end. Ominous sky, painted in dark blue shades, is pervaded with threatening clouds – the ‘skies are in accusation steaming’ (Shelley) and lamenting the death of this poor ‘maid of Orleans’.

***

1833. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche a

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833

***

Unfortunate life and death of Lady Jane Grey, also known as the Nine-day Queen, was another subject that appealed to romantic sensibilities in the first half of the 19th century. I was charmed by Lady Jane; an intelligent, well-read, but somewhat timid and self-sacrificing sixteen year old girl, ever since I watched the film ‘Lady Jane’ (1986) starring Helena Bonham Carter. In the film, Jane proclaims that ‘learning is her only pleasure‘ and she also says: “I would die to free our people of chains of bigotry and superstition“. The latter is quite a confident remark for a sixteen year old girl, but she was a devout protestant and that proved to be her undoing. Much of the film is romanticised, but so is the painting ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche.

The painting shows the young Lady Jane just moments before her execution. She’s blindfolded, desperately stretching her hands to reach the block of wood – final resting for that pretty witty head. Delaroche painted her as a little romantic virginal maiden; in white bodice and satin petticoat, her hands porcelain white, her hair golden. In reality, the event must have been bleak and sad. Her last words were: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!” I wonder what thoughts crossed her mind as she place her head on the block, waiting for her death to come. Seems like her ‘sweet sixteen’ didn’t end so sweet after all. I suppose that’s her greatest legacy, her devotion to protestantism, her integrity and willingness to stick to her ideas, despite being punished for it. Just like Joan of Arc, she was an idealist who sacrificed her life for the greater good.

Death was particularly attractive a subject for painters and poets of Romanticism. Not that much is known about Lady Jane’s life, not even her exact date of birth, and since her reign was short, she’s not politically important. So, naturally, artists were drawn towards the subject of her execution. Still, how come nobody painted her sitting by the window and reading a book, or, on the day of her wedding?

***