Tag Archives: Romanticism

Ode to Pushkin’s Tatyana, from ‘Eugene Onegin’

17 Apr

If you were given a chance to travel through time, and if you decided upon visiting the countryside Russia of the late 1820s, you might be lucky and, whilst walking through a peaceful forest enjoying the delight which a birdsong can bestow upon one’s ears, you might stumble upon a peculiar young lady who finds tranquillity in the woods and serenity by the lake; a solitary maiden whose friends are books, flowers and birds, and who feels more at home surrounded by tall soulful trees than in the candlelit salons full of people; a lady who is introverted and timid on the outside, but is full of warmth, passions and feelings on the inside; this creature delicate as a fawn is Tatyana Larina – Pushkin’s wonderful literary creation and the love interest of Eugene Onegin, the Byronic Hero of Russian literature.

Lidia Timoshenko (1903-1976), Tatyana and Onegin Years Later

“Eugene Onegin” is Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, first published in 1833, although the current version is that of 1837. It is representative of Russian literature of Romanticism and Pushkin spent ten years writing this lyrical masterpiece which has been called by V.G. Belinsky as ‘the encyclopedia of Russian life’, and indeed it covers a broad scale of topics; pointlessness of life, love and passion, death, provincial life, superficiality of the upper classes, rigidity of etiquette, conventions and ennui. The main character is the ‘mad and bad’ or rather cynical and bored Eugene Onegin, a cold and world-weary nobleman who had, at the beginning of the novel, inherited an estate after his uncle’s death and arrives at the countryside. He is bored with his social life in St Petersburg, filled with superficial chatter, games, flirtations, balls and dinner parties; he finds this cycle tedious and repetitive and therefore hopes to find something fresh and interesting in the countryside. Onegin is exactly the kind of person who will shit all over things you love just because he feels no passion for living at all, and mock things you adore because he finds value in nothing.

He is a ‘superfluous man’, which is Pushkin’s literary creation based on the demonic Byronic hero. A Superfluous man is full of contradictions, he feels superior to his surroundings and yet he does nothing to use his potentials and talents but chooses to walk aimlessly through life, prone to self-destruction, haunted by a strong sense of the boredom of life. Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is another example of a superflous man and was directly inspired by Pushkin’s Onegin. May I add that in the film Onegin (1999), Onegin is played by the wonderful Ralph Fiennes and I think he played him perfectly, you can feel the cynicism and ennui in his voice. So, if you’re not inclined on reading the novel, you can spare two hours of your life and watch the film which happens to be on Youtube. In the film, Tatyana is played by the gorgeous Liv Tyler.

Caspar David Friedrich, Elbschiff in Early Morning Fog, 1821

Second character to be introduced in the novel is Vladimir Lensky; a hopeless romantic and an idealist, a proud and polite young man, carried away by the romantic spirit of the times, but his character, I feel, is adorned with more sentimentality than deep feelings, his poetry and his love for Olga are as shallow as a puddle after rain which dries with the first rays of sun, and he is so naive, but forgive him, he is only 18 years old! This is how the narrator (or Pushkin) describes him:

Vladimir Lensky, is the man

Handsome, young, a Kantian.

Whose soul was formed in Gottingen,

A friend of truth: a poet then.

From misty Germany he brought

The fruits of learning’s golden tree

His fervant dreams of liberty

Ardent and eccentric thought,

Eloquence to inspire the bolder,

And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.

And here’s a description of his poetry, I can’t help but being amused by Lensky. You should see him in the film, singing Schubert in the forest, giving his heart and soul to it, although the effect is pathetic and Onegin mocks him later on, saying that ‘Poor Schubert, his body barely in the grave and and his work is being butchered by amateurs’ and stating that Lensky is ‘desecrating Schubert’:

He sang of love, to love subjected,

Clear and serene his tune…

He sang of parting and of sorrows,

Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,

Of roses in some high romance;

Sang of all the far-off lands

Where on quiet desert strands,

His living tears obscured his glance;

At eighteen years he had the power,

To sing of life’s dry withered flower.

Mikhail Nesterov, Girls on the Banks of the River

Lensky is madly in love with Olga Larina, a charming and pretty younger sister of Tatyana. She is frivolous and coquettish, blonde and fair, with an ability to charm with her looks and singing, but inside she is empty, her feelings are superficial and calculated; her mad love seems fleeting for after Lensky died in a duel, it did not take her long to forget him and marry another man. She is like a porcelain doll; if you break her, you’ll find nothing inside.

Always humble, always truthful,

Always smiling as the dawn,

Like the poet’s life as simple,

Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born

Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,

Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,

Voice, manner, slender waist,

Such was Olga…you can paste

Her description here from any

Novel that you choose to read,

A charming portrait, yes, indeed,

One I adored, but now it bores me.

Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,

Let me describe her elder sister.

Fired by longing, circumstance,

In solitude her heart was burning,

Crushed by adolescent gloom,

Her soul was waiting…but for whom?

And now let’s finally talk about the elder sister, my dearest and sweetest Tatyana Larina, a character for whom I felt affection immediately, and re-read parts about her many times, and found I can relate. Wistful, melancholic and dreamy, forever lost in her thoughts, you will find her wandering the forest, picking flowers, or sitting by the window daydreaming while others are chatting and laughing, and a book is always in her hands. This is how Pushkin describes his heroine:

So, she is called Tatyana.

Not a beauty like her sister,

Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,

To attract a passing lover.

Melancholy, wild, retiring,

Like a doe seen in a clearing,

Fleeing at the sign of danger,

To her family a stranger.

She never took to caressing

Her father, mother, not her way

To delight in childish play,

With the others, sweetly dancing.

But often to the window glued

She’d sit all day in solitude.

Alexander Brullov, Portrait of Pushkin’s wife Natalia, 1831

Tatyana was withdrawn and shy even as a child. When her sister Olga and other children played tag or sang, she would wander the meadows on her own, preferring the company of her thought to the loudness of the crowd. Unlike other girls, she had interest in dolls. Taking care of dolls was meant to prepare girls for their future roles of mothers, but Tatyana was a stranger to all childhood’s silliness and playfulness, and daydreams seem to fill her days from very early on:

Her dearest friend was reverie,

From the cradle, the slow stream

Of placid dull rusticity

Enriched by meditative dream.

Her tender fingers never held

A needle, never once excelled,

Her head above the silk inclined,

In working something she’d designed.

Now with greater concentration,

She reads the sweet romances,

Finds a deeper fascination,

In those soft seductive glances!…”

Instead, books and nature were her friends. I’ve known it from experience that a book can be a source of delight and inspiration more than a human being can, and a sight of flowers or a tree can fill one’s soul with more kindness than a common person can. And daydreams, I assure you, can fill you with as much feelings as real events can, but they never leave the bitter taste in your mind like cruel reality does. Tatyana knows that too! And literature, novels about romances in particular (just like those read by Emma Bovary) proved an amusement and a diversion for her already vivid imagination:

From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.

Naturally, soaked in those novels for days, Tatyana begins to see herself as a heroine and lives through the books for a person who reads lives not one but many lives. And when she closes the book, a reality check; a quiet birdsong, a soft breeze through the birch trees, smell of grass, distant murmur of a river, yes, she is still in the countryside, not in a Medieval castle in Switzerland or a beautiful mansion in England:

And sees herself the heroine

Of all the authors she admires,

Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine;

Wanders among forest choirs

With some dangerous volume roams,

Through its pages swiftly combs,

To find her passion, and her dream,

Her overflowing heart, love’s gleam.

She sighs and in herself possesses

Another’s joy, another’s sorrow…

Source: here. Could this be the way Onegin’s mansion looked from afar, in a frozen Russian fairytale landscape?

Pushkin even writes about the types of heroes Tatyana daydreams about. Never ever, underestimate the power a book can have a on a person who is lonely or has a wild imagination:

All the British Muse’s lumber

Now disturbs a young girl’s slumber,

Her idol, someone to admire,

Is the blood-sucking Vampire,

Melmoth, Maturin’s traveller,

The Corsair or the Wandering Jew,

Nodier’s Jean Sbogar too.

Lord Byron with a shrewd despair,

Displays a hopeless egotism

As saturnine romanticism.

Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape, 1880

Pushkin tells us that Tatyana finds refuge in long walks, seeking comfort in nature which soothes the torment of love:

Haunted by love’s pain, Tatyana,
Takes to the garden, walking
Eyes downcast, till her languor,
Prevents her from even moving.
Her breast heaves, her cheeks aflame,
Burning suddenly with shame,
The breath on her lips is glazed,
A roaring in her ears, eyes dazed…
Night falls, and the moon patrols
The vault of heaven. Near her room,
A nightingale, from woodland gloom
Its rich sonorous cadence rolls.
Tatyana, in the darkness lying,
To her nurse is softly sighing.

I am in love’ Tatyana sighs,
In a soft whisper, gives a moan.
‘Dear, you can’t be well,’ replies,
The nurse. ‘It’s love. Leave me alone.
Meanwhile, the sad moon dreams,
On the girl’s pale beauty gleams,
Shines above, its tranquil light….
And all the world lies still, below,
Bathed in the moon’s enchanted glow.

Speaking to no one, confiding in no one, only the moon and the nurse know her secrets. But Tatyana decides to act upon her dreams and confess her love in a letter. This is how it starts, the famous “Tatyana’s letter”:

I write to you – is more required?

How can I possibly explain?

It’s in your power, if desired,

To crush me with a cold disdain.

But if this longing you’ve inspired

Awakes the slightest sympathy,

I know you won’t abandon me…

Although she had barely talked to him, and he showed no particular interest or affection towards her, Tatyana found herself over night besotted by this strange, brooding aristocrat with a flair of St Petersburg around him. In his figure and the few words they’re exchanged, she saw all the heroes that she’d spent her short life fantasising about; “Werther – born to be a martyr”, Grandinson, Cottin’s Malek-Adhel, de Krudener’s de Linar, and the lover too of Rousseau’s Julie Womar:

“A single image as it were:

The foolish dreamer sees them whole

In Onegin’s form, and soul.

Gustave Leonarde de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

It’s easy to understand why she felt about Onegin the way she did, if you think of her lonely and boring existence in the countryside, with a mother and a sister who neither understand her nor try to do so because they are of entirely different natures. Vain, selfish and coquettish Olga can never dream of experiencing the depth of Tatyana’s feelings, and likewise Tatyana can never even dream of indulging in light amusements and flirtations which seem to fill Olga’s days. Pushkin warns us that, while Olga’s love is more a fleeting coquetry, Tatyana loves with all seriousness:

Tatyana is no cool coquette,
She loves in all seriousness,
Yields to it like a child, as yet
Full of innocence and sweetness.

Up to meeting Onegin, Tatyana has spent her life wandering around, reading about romances and exciting adventures, yet never experiencing anything of the sort, and now, all of a sudden, a stranger comes to their lonely countryside and stirs her soul. She thinks of him day and night, and finds no rest until, in the letter, she writes everything that lies on her soul. All that her shyness has prevented her mouth from saying, the hand dared to write, scrawling with black ink on paper, under moonlight, offering her life to a man she barely knows, and seals it with wax before sending it.

But her passionate outburst of feelings was welcomed with coldness from the other side. When they meet at the party, she anxiously awaits him in the garden, and he – oh, that dreadful Onegin! – he disdainfully returns the letter to her, advising her to restrain her feelings in the future, to shun her affections and act with reserve and coldness because another man, one not as ‘kind-hearted’ as he was, would surely take advantage of her naivety and innocence. Onegin mercilessly ‘with a cold disdain’ crushed the feelings of this delicate wild flower. When I was reading this, I thought: What a brave thing to do, what a straightforward gesture, especially for a woman of her time, and what a hard thing it must be to write someone a love letter, but after reading about Onegin’s cruel respond, I’ve learnt that it is unwise, and maybe reason should, in this case, prevail over sensibility. Jane Austen seemed to think that too because her heroine Marianne Dashwood was in a way punished for her sensibility.

Why Tatyana fell in love with Onegin is a mystery to me, I find him fascinating as a literary character but he is nowhere near the romantic heroes she’s read about. I suppose she must have felt that underneath that cold, cynical exterior there must lie a heart full of feelings and that she might awaken them, but she was wrong because Onegin is selfish to the core and is not even capable of love. Her daydreams and inexperience seem to have made her a poor judge of character. This is how Onegin felt upon receiving the letter:

Yet now, receiving Tanya’s note,
Onegin’s heart was deeply moved;
The tender style in which she wrote,
The simple girlish way she loved.
Her face possessed his memory,
Her pallor, and her melancholy,
He plunged, head first, into the stream,
A harmless, and delightful dream.
Perhaps the ancient flame of passion,
Thrilled him in its former way,
Though he’d no wish to betray
A soul so trusting, in that fashion...

Oton Iveković, Landscape, 1901

This is part of what Onegin tells Tatyana as reasons why they could never be happy together:

‘I was not born for happiness,
All such is alien to my mind;
Of your perfection too, no less
Am I unworthy, you would find.
Believe me (conscience is my guide)
Wed, the fire would soon have died;
However I wished to prove true,
Habit would cool my love for you.
Then you would weep, yet your tears,
Your grief, would never move my heart,
But madden me, spur me to depart.
What thorns, not roses, through the years
Would Hymen strew along our way,
Many a night, and many a day?

Onegin was actually very kind towards her, because I don’t think she could truly be happy with a man like that.

Pushkin takes a moment to ponder on who is to be blamed for this unfortunate misunderstanding:

Why then consider Tanya guilty?
Because her simplicity, it seems,
Is ignorant of deceit, and still she
Believes completely in her dreams?
Or because her love lacks art,
Follows the promptings of her heart?
Because she’s trusting, and honest
And by Heaven has been blessed,
With profound imagination,
A fiery will, a lively mind,
A soul for passion’s fires designed,
A spirit tuned to all creation?
Surely, then, you can forgive,
A fierce desire to love and live?

Clock is ticking; cold, bitter and lonely Russian winters are passing, and Tatyana is on her way to become an old maid. She still has feelings for Onegin, maybe secretly hopes that he might change his mind and come back to her, but Onegin isn’t coming back and the pressure of her mother is becoming too much:

Tatyana’s bloom is all but gone,
She, more pallid, and more silent!
Nothing can provide distraction,
Or stir her soul, no incitement.
Whispering solemnly together,
Neighbours shook their heads, forever
Sighing: ‘It’s high time she was wed!’…
Enough. It’s high time that instead,
I painted over this sad scene,
And portrayed love’s happiness,
Though, dear Reader, I confess
I’m overcome, by pity I mean;
Forgive me: I’ve loved from the start
My Tatyana, with all my heart.

And so Tatyana was married to another man, a general. She doesn’t love him but tolerates him. Years pass, Pushkin brings the reader on a journey from the countryside to the glamour of St Petersburg. We are at a ball; musicians are playing a charming tune, candles are flickering, couples are dancing… Onegin is there too; equally bored and cynical as he was years ago, but something or someone captures his attention; a beautiful woman, in the film shown wearing a gorgeous red gown. The woman carries an air of dignity and seriousness around her – it is Tatyana, now grown into a wise, mature, confident woman, who stands gracefully by her husband’s side. Onegin is mad with passion, he writes her letters full of declarations of his love and adorations, but she doesn’t respond: she is a married woman after all, and a faithful one too. He takes a certain perverse delight in reawakening the strong feelings that she had, not with ease, managed to tame and lull to sleep. When he happens to steal a moment of privacy with her, he proposes that they elope together and fulfil their love, but now she is the winner in this chess game of love, she tells him it is too late for their love, that he had his chance and now she will remain faithful to her husband. It is a poignant scene in the film, as she tells him through tears that she waited for him but he is too late. Onegin just doesn’t get it because nothing matters to him; he wants her because he can’t have her.

In the end, Tatyana is left as a lonely, unhappy woman in a sad, but tolerable marriage, and Onegin, having killed Lensky in a duel early on, and crushing Tatyana’s affections years ago, is left completely alone, and that is his ultimate punishment. The acts of killing Lensky, that innocent, dreamy idealist, and rejecting Tatyana’s love, Onegin symbolically ‘kills’ the innocence that crossed his life path. And Tatyana is suppose to represent the wideness of the Russian soul and was seen as a symbol of an ideal woman. She also embodies Gogol’s concept of a ‘Slavic soul’: a melancholic soul of a dreamer and thinker, a mysterious and sad soul. A sense of darkness, sadness and tragedy hovers over most of Slavic literature like a rainy cloud. It is immensely interesting to me that in both novels; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time a duel takes place and the superfluous man wins while the romantic idealist dies, but in reality both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels. Wicked destiny!

I first read Eugene Onegin exactly three Aprils ago, but I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday; those three or four magical nights when I flipped through the pages, relishing in the lyricism and musicality of the verses, loving the character of Tatyana and being highly amused by Onegin’s cynicism and his conduct with Lensky. In my little room, under the warm, yellow light of the lamp, in the flowery and exuberant nights of spring, a whole new world and sensibility came to life. Although I’ve enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, because the story gets really sad and full of hopelessness after Onegin rejects her, I must say that it still remains one of my favourite books.

Franjo Krežma – Romance in F Major for Violin and Piano

14 Apr

The 19th century audience was fascinated with a virtuoso: a performer who possessed both the meticulous technical skill and inspired interpretation. Around 1830, the biggest stars were the pianist Franz Liszt and the violinist Niccolo Paganini; they travelled Europe, held concerts, had many female admirers, the rich lavished them with jewels…

The biggest Croatian violinist of the 19th century was a very young man called Franjo Krežma (1862-1881), whose career was brilliant yet short. He was immensely popular and immensely talented; he entered the music Conservatory of Vienna at the age of nine – and he was the youngest student ever to enter, and finished his studies at the age of thirteen. He travelled Europe and held concerts along with his sister Ana, a great pianist, in many cities, from Rome, Genoa and Venice to Paris and Prague. In his short life he met Franz Liszt and Verdi, and some even saw him as Paganini’s successor. Still, after holding a concert in Germany, he suddenly experienced a sharp pain in his ear, and died following a surgery. He was only eighteen and a half years old.

Olof Johan Södermark, Maria Mathilda Moll, 1840-48

The more I listen to this, the more I like it, and the daydreams it evokes are of the sweetest nature: I picture myself standing on the balcony, in Livorno or Naples, leaned on the balustrade, dressed in a long white silk gown, cooling my self with a fan and admiring the beauty of the sunset. Sky shines in colours of amethyst and jade, and its warm rich colour could only be compared to the canvases of Venetian masters. My view stretches from tall cypress trees on the left, to a dreamy kaleidoscope of little houses, all the way to the sea which glistens in the distance; its surface is dark and alluring, and I can’t wait to see it bathed in moonlight. The whiteness of my gown takes on golden shades from the last rays of sunshine.

For a moment, just after the sun has set and before the music begins, everything is peaceful. I can almost hear the ruby red roses breathing in the evening air and exhaling the most luxurious fragrance. I can hear the whispers of the lonely cypress trees. I feel a soft, velvety breeze coming from the sea. If I turn around, I’ll see the saloon bathed in lightness and vivacity; candles are flickering, people are chatting and laughing, air is coloured with magical sounds of violin and piano, but to me the solitude of the balcony is sweeter than honey. A heavy scent of orange trees and lavender permeates the cool nocturnal air…

This is my daydream, what is yours? No need to tell me, but please, close your eyes, and I’m sure you’ll see something beautiful.

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!

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!

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.

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

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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’.

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

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, 1833

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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?

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Percy Shelley, Why Do I Love Thee?

18 May

Lord Byron is the epitome of Romanticism – he was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, a lonely and misunderstood individual who wrote poetry, led a life filled with love affairs and travels, he fought in Greece, he has a literary hero named after him. To dream of being his muse, well ‘the pleasure, the privilege is mine‘. Since I named my blog after him, these verses sound even sweeter on my lips:”Farewell, my young Muse! since we now can ne’er meet“. With all that said, I decree that my heart still goes to Shelley all the way. I’ve always preferred him more for I see him as a gentler one, both his poetry and lifestyle are more my cup of tea. Well, Percy Bysshe Shelley, why do I love thee, let me count the reasons.

a Percy Shelley 1

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1)Intellect

First of all, I’m astonished by his ferocious intellect and hunger for knowledge. As a student, he was said to have attended only one lecture at Oxford and often spent up to sixteen hours a day reading. In addition to being well read and having rich vocabulary, Shelley was also good at languages, being proficient in ancient Greek and Italian. (“Shelley was an excellent classicist, and sufficiently proficient in ancient Greek to make, as an adult, a fine translation of Plato’s Symposium.” (1) and “Among the major Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley spent the most time in Italy (…) and they became proficient in its language and well-read in its literature.” (2) Let’s just remember that he died a month before his 30th birthday, and in that short life he managed to acquire such vast amount of knowledge.

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2) Rebelliousness

Secondly, a typical romantic trait – rebelliousness. As I already mentioned, legend has it that he only attended one lecture while at Oxford from which he was expelled after less than a year for “writing and circulating a pamphlet promoting atheism.” (3) Whereas I am not promoting atheism for I am not an atheist, at the time when religion, Christianity in particular, was all too-dominant in everyday life, this was a necessary thing to be done. Therefore, I don’t see it as a promotion of atheism as much as a revolt against Christianity. What I admire the most about about this story is that, when asked by his father to renounce his atheist views and his pamphlet, Shelley refused, knowing that it meant the end of the financial support. After that, at the age of 19, he eloped to Scotland with the 16-year old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook. I mean, just look at his portrait; untamed hair, unbuttoned shirt, wild protruding stare of those blue eyes, a quill in his hand – if that’s not a portrait of a rebellious romantic hero, I haven’t got a clue what is.

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3) Free Love

As we can see from his elopement with Harriet, Shelley had quite modern views on love and marriage. He went on to live with Mary until he died, but he did have platonic and non-platonic relationships with other women, and, with each others permission, both Mary and Percy occasionally flirted with other people. I see both relationships and an institution of marriage as rather restricting affairs, and therefore I like Shelley’s view on it and his promotion of free love. In poem ‘Queen Mab’, Shelley celebrates all the things I’ve mentioned here: atheism, vegetarianism, republicanism and – free love.

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3) Social and political activism

Shelley admired William Godwin’s socialist philosophy that was always one step away from anarchism, and imbued such ideas in his own writing and activities. He was politically active and fought for social rights which speaks for itself how seriously he considered problems of social equality to be, this is the ‘Res, Non Verba’ approach which I quite like. I think the case of Byron going to Greece and fighting for independence was a pure debauchery or licentiousness, but with Shelley it was truly about fighting for what he believed to be right, in a civilised and polite manner, defending his arguments with intelligence and eloquence. An example of his active involvement with social problems: “Distracted by political events, he visited Ireland shortly afterward in order to engage in radical pamphleteering. Here he wrote his Addres to the Irish People and was seen at several nationalist rallies. His activities earned him the unfavourable attention of the British government.” (4)

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4) Poetry

Rather an obvious argument but I ardently love his poems, which is necessary when it comes to loving a poet. I think both Keats and Shelley cherished a cult of pure beauty in their poems. I know many of Shelley’s shorter poems by heart but these are some of my favourite:

A Lament

O world! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more — Oh, never more!….“(5)

and

Mutability

(…) We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
 
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.” (6)
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5) Richness of expression
Shelley somehow managed to combine the social role of art with pure aestheticism, which is a pursuit that often ends unsuccessfully. (Other good examples of combining these two polar opposites would be the songs by Manic Street Preachers and Kitchen sink realism in films) Shelley’s choice of words and stylistic devices is pure beauty. The book The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley states that Percy ‘preferred more learned, polysyllabic words’ and it gives the examples of his revision of Mary’s manuscript of Frankenstein. He changes Mary’s words ‘have’ to ‘possess’, ‘wish’ to ‘desire’ and my favourite – ‘we were all equal’ to ‘neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other’. (7) This may sound snobbish, and may cause his texts to be a bit harder to understand sometimes, but he was a well read and eloquent person and why should he refrain himself from using rich vocabulary?

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6) Vegetarianism

Being a vegetarian and promoting vegetarianism is, in my opinion, a sign of true humanity and one of Shelley’s greatest debts to society. I am a vegetarian, purely for ethical reasons, and I am immensely glad that both Mary and Percy Shelley were too. Shelley wrote several essays on the subject, most notable is ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, but he does make references on the subject in his other poems and dramas. For example, in Prometheus Unbound he writesI wish no living thing to suffer pain“(8), and in The Revolt of Islam “Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,/ To the pure skies in accusation steaming.” It’s easy to understand that in his time vegetarianism was radical, but one would think that in our day and age everyone would follow a ‘natural diet’, or perhaps it’s just my idealism. Shelley’s commitment didn’t stop at eating habits: “…Shelley went further, refusing to wear material made from animals, including wool and leather. Inveighing against  “the muffling of our bodies in superfluous apparel,” he preferred going hatless and eschewed a heavy overcoat for a long black coat made of cotton jean.” (9)

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