Saturday 21 August 2021


Not dead. Not even Marvel dead. But blogging here may be a bit more sporadic in coming weeks...

Saturday 14 August 2021


Now, this playlist may take a somewhat catholic definition of Folk. To the degree that some will say there’s just two real folk songs in it, and others only one. Yet we’re not talking about a museum exhibit, but music which continues to live, breathe and evolve. You can't span the breadth of it in seventy minutes, but hopefully you can catch some of the variety. And remember - fate is only foolin' with us friend.

(The illo’s from the Tate’s British Folk Art show, which you could read me wittering about here, had you a mind to.)

Sandy Denny: The North Star Grassman & The Ravens
Pentangle: Sweet Child
Nick Drake: Hazey Jane I
Trees: Murdoch
Richard Thompson: Keep Your Distance
Current 93: Bind Your Tortoise Mouth
Tunng: Bricks
Jeffrey Lewis: The Story of The Fall
Blyth Power: Inside the Horse
The Imagined Village (feat. Paul Weller and Martin & Eliza Carthy): John Barleycorn
Gillian Welch: One Monkey
Richard Buckner: Poor Old Tom
Martin Green: Smallest Plant
Cinder Well: Brittle Bones
Mekons: Trimdon Grange Explosion

(More themed playlists coming, one day or another.....)

Saturday 7 August 2021


Millais’ ’John Ruskin’ (1854, above) fits neatly enough in its frame. Yet try to frame it’s genre, Romanticism, and you face two great obstacles. The first is that in two ways, it won. Much like the labour movement won us the weekend, it’s a victory which soon became normalised, woven into the fabric of life. It’s an effort to will to remember a time before it. (I’ll try to prove this partly by jumping between contemporary and current-day examples, defying you to spot the difference.)

And yet it couldn’t be taken on its own terms, even if you wanted to. It can only be understood as a reaction to the Enlightenment, its actions not arising out of any inner volition but coming as parries ands counter-punches thrown in an ongoing struggle. Or, perhaps more accurately, as a teenager wilfully choosing to do the opposite of whatever their parents tell them.

In a brief but relatively accurate summary, it came to be about prizing the heart above the head. Keats spoke warmly of Negative Capability, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, giving a negative thing a positive spin. This was often a simple mirror image. In ’The Romantic Revolution’, Tim Blanning locates the Romantic fixation with the night (such as the prevalence of musical nocturnes) with an equal but opposing Enlightenment emphasis on the illuminating light. He’s doubtless right.

But some of these counter-balances take on more weight than others. So as the Enlightenment lent itself to penetrative enquiry one of their chief (if unstated) conceptions became essences. Think how this applies so readily to three great Romantic obsessions; the artistic genius, the national spirit and the lovers. As visually represented, respectively, by Courbet’s self-portrait ’The Desperate Man’, (1845), John Gast’s ’American Progress’ (1872) and John Everett Millais’ ’The Huguenot’ (1852), all below. (Let’s not get into any debates about how much a Romantic Courbet was. This work perfectly illustrates the concept, whatever else could be said.)

The genius was in essence a genius, the American at heart an American, and the lovers truly and purely in love. None of these things had material causes or social context, they were simply irreducibly themselves. Scrutiny would be unrewarded, analysis repelled. To quote the Waterboys, in many ways latter-day Romantics, “there’s no why, there just is.”

Perhaps this is at its clearest in the figure of the genius, who supposedly owes nothing to the society around them, who has pulled something wholly new from out of his own furrowed brow. Virginia Wolf once said: “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” An obvious truth Romanticism simply shrugged off with more of that Negative Capability. But the three overlap in practice. Edward Butler Lytton spoke of “the national genius”, Goethe wrote of his lovers “the world was lost to them,” and so on.

One of these three may not seem like the others. We live in a time of the rising far right, where it seems counter-intuitive to think of nationalism as a radical idea. But, skipping over the rights and wrongs of it, in that dawn it was widely though to be so. Its notion of nations was less forelock-tuggingly deferential and more to do with a shared culture, “we the people” rather than “our benevolent rulers”. And across much of Europe nationalism was not defensive but disruptive, about creating countries by breaking up empires. (Famously, the Romantic poet Byron died fighting for Greek independence.) So it could have it both ways, seem a radical new notion and a trans-historic truth simultaneously.

Germany was then a great centre of Romanticism - and, significantly, before there actually was a Germany. This gave nationalism simultaneously a positive and a radical aspect, not about defending a status quo but creating something bold and new. Furthermore German nationalism, at least as conceived of by Romanticism, was not hindered but enabled by the seemingly inconvenient lack of a geographical Germany. 

Theirs was a rival nationalism to one composed of border posts, ambassadors and postage stamps, made up by language, folk culture and natural environment, which were held to epitomise a kind of shared spirit. All of which would have been distracted if not undermined by the tawdry business of running an actually existing country, with budgets to balance, roads to repair and all the rest. 

…which is typical of the way Romanticism plays it tricks, even upon itself. It may well be true of traditional societies, that for example tribes in Northern Canada will have developed a different culture to others in the Amazon. But the claim that modern Germany innately possesses a separate, identifiable ‘spirit’ to modern France or the Netherlands is a clear-cut absurdity. And yet that absurdity is potent. You can see the appeal in believing that the landscape around us still seeps through those four thick walls around us and imprints itself.

But Romanticism’s greatest and most long-lasting invention may seem quite the opposite, the creation of the individual. This must be the example par excellence of something we now imagine as inherent, if not fundamental. Of course I am me, of course you are you. We have different Facebook profiles, duh. But once there was a time where your social status determined you, what you did was what you were. Looking past that status, ranking and context, to see the self as something innate, was at the time a conceptual breakthrough.

And the way it conceived of individualism, the way it held people to work, was analogous to the way it held countries to work. Every man was like a bordered realm, neighboured but containing something inalienably unique within.

It may well have started with a few favoured examples, where the artistic genius (Wagner, say) had individualism bestowed upon him. But this slowly seeped down even to us regular folk.

So art shifted from fulfilling a social function to being concerned with individual self-expression. The great German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich insisted “the artist’s feeling is his law.” We now very much live through the downside of that, where egoism and self-obsession are confused with artistic genius, where something being from you is held to be inherently of value. This is precisely why so much contemporary art is tiresome. But, hard though it may be to see now, in their day this was again something of a breakthrough.

And nature pretty quickly becomes handy for this. Once the social order was seen as a microcosm of the natural order, ‘God’s plan’. To be part of it was to already be part of nature, lions ruled their world just as Kings had kingdoms. Now the conception of nature completely switches over.

Part of the rationale was isolation. Just by going out into the green we cast human society off, leave it behind us in the dirty city. Outside of the thing that labels and categorises you, you were freer to think of yourself as yourself. In the words of the Thomas Grey poem (later borrowed by Thomas Hardy) you were “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”

Yet it soon went beyond that. Nature wasn’t just the absence of society, a kind of quiet room for gathering your thoughts, it was explicitly seen as a thing in itself. It was no longer something decorative in art, a scenic backdrop, like marginalia for illustrated books. It became a subject for art in itself, a subject as important as the artist himself. (With this subject we’re going to have to get used to male pronouns.) Hence Ruskin’s doctrine of “truth to nature”:

“The love of natural objects for their own sake, and the effort to represent them frankly, unconstrained by artistical laws."

Nature ensures there are no more restrictive laws to bind us, “artistical” or otherwise. The wide open spaces allow for our inner space to open up. So these two things were spliced together in the great Romantic credo that we find ourselves in Nature. Friedrich also said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him”. The implication is that the two need to be done at the same time, that they’re interwoven.

Yet at the same time Romanticism is based on the notion of the Sublime, something is both opposite to and beyond beauty. Nature isn’t a pretty scene, like a tended garden which just happens to not have a wall around it. Diderot claimed that “all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.” As a presence, it was – in about every sense of the word - primal. (See Turner’s ’Valley Of Aosta’ 1846/7, above.)

Nor was this just a matter of extending scale or selecting extreme weather events. You could sum it up as ‘don’t describe, evoke’. Romantic art is nature-based yet non-topographical, it doesn’t map its subjects even as it frames them. Nature is shown as intrinsically possessing an elusive mystery. Chemically, ‘sublime’ means to change from a solid to a vaporous state. And Romantic artists were wont to take this quite literally, blowing beguiling mists across their compositions. But it meant more than that, the works are sometimes painted in a style that’s slightly indistinct, that suggests more than it shows.

It’s somewhere between two things which may not sound like they have much in common. It’s like those blurry photos of the Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster, barely grasping the mystery of their subject, suggesting that’s the best our human senses might be able to do. But it’s also the way an altarpiece is seen to represent but not sum up God. Nature is always beyond us. We attempt to capture that which ultimately can’t be framed by our terms, so all that’s left us to to log the attempt.

So at one extreme, Romanticism tips over into the pantheistic. Wordsworth spoke of “God in Nature”. Yet if nature challenges or even replaces the Christian God, there’s nothing of the protective shepherd. The wildness of nature, the savagery of beats, the terrible sea storm, the vertiginous drop, these things aren’t sidelined but positively venerated. Let’s go for another example from current-day music, Patti Smith’s ‘Pissing In a River’:

“Spoke of a wheel,
“Tip of a spoon,
“Mouth of a cave,
“I'm a slave, I'm free”

We are not things in ourselves but part of a greater whole, our existence is contingent on the greater thing for our very survival. Yet to it our survival is essentially arbitrary, a matter of no consequence. Nature means death just as surely as it means life.

And of course there’s a paradox inherent to this. If Nature was there to convey to you your insignificance, it was still there to convey things to you. And as it was there to reveal to you your individuality, it was implicitly there just for you. There’s a passage of Wordsworth that captures this, where a ‘nook’…

“That seemed for self-examination made
”Or, for confession, in the sinner’s need
”Hidden from all men’s view.”

In art, Romanticism was carelessly bigging up two rival ruling forces. The artist who no longer merely reflects but creates – effectively he creates himself. But doesn’t this mean that, at least in his work, he also creates nature? Nature is forever being anthropomorphised, in other words brought to our level. 

Isiah Berlin said: “(They) do not hold a mirror up to nature, however ideal, but invent; they do not imitate but create.” Marx put it more pithily, if not acidly: “the forest echoes back what you shout into it.” So we get the artist Adrian Ludwig Richter’s description of Romanticism, “where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other.” 

In the exact counter to Ruskin, the paradox that founds Romanticism constrains it, and probably defines it. We can illustrate this. In ‘Hamlet’ Ophelia’s madness has made her as innocent of danger as a child, leading to her drowning. In Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ (1852, above) the artist runs with this, setting her death amid abundant nature. (To the extent that any ‘artistic’ depiction of a woman drowning made since cannot not seem a riff on this.) In fact, she seems to be morphing back into the natural world, an incidental detail now being re-absorbed by the bigger picture. And, if any further example was needed for the influence of Romanticism, later productions of the play have often incorporated Millais’ imagery.

Contrast that to Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’, (1818, above). Friedrich’s upright human figure stands above that commanding view, the stick in his hand as if he’s a conductor about to raise his baton. Of course the female figure is prone while the male is (ain’t no other word) erect. All that’s obvious enough. But my point’s elsewhere.

Friedrich’s image is in clear opposition to the supine Ophelia, it’s impossible to bring them together in any coherent way. Romanticism cannot be both of these at once, it must choose. And yet that’s the very thing it is.

And there is even an upside to this. Pre-psychoanalysis, Romanticism could use nature as a means to convey the idea there is more going on inside us than we know of, simply by displacing that inside to the outside. It scarcely matters whether this was intentional or not. Romanticism seems more akin to Surrealism, which most fetishised the unconscious, than it does most Modernist movements.

Yet this perpetuates even today. You can read anywhere about how it arose as a reaction to both the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution. The two TV series on Romanticism, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘The Romantics’ and Simon Schama’s ‘The Romantics And Us’, both say this.

Yet both go further. If Schama’s is more telling titled, both make their central thesis that the Romantics made the world we live in. Yet how, if its origins were so contingent, can it still have such an influence today? Particularly when you think of its fixation not just with youth but with dying young.

Let’s start with subculture. Hippie subculture, it is no breakthrough to say, was Romanticism reprised. Just look at that picture of Gong above, frolicking so bucolically. All of which was challenged and usurped by punk, by band such as the Jam who used urban graffiti as their logo for their first album cover (also above).

Or was it? Punk may have decried the pastoral escapism of its older sibling, and made the city its habitat. But theirs was not the bold, dynamic city of Futurism or Constructivism. They took the Romantic view of the city, as alienating and oppressive, where to quote the Velvet Underground “a man cannot be free”, and set up shop there. The first punk record released in Britain, the Damned’s ‘New Rose’, opened with the line “I’ve got a feeling inside of me”. Which is as Romantic a mission statement if ever was. Romanticism was doing something more than continuing to make its arguments. It was effectively still setting the terms.

And even that, to confine things to subculture, seems too narrow. Romanticism is now everywhere. Take the two points raised earlier; its claims for the discrete individual and self-expression in art are now taken as read, not considered but assumed. Has it in fact triumphed?

It’s not so simple. Rather than their winning out over their old enemy the Enlightenment, the once-rebels are now the dominant force. We could bring up climate change here, but the clincher must be Brexit. It’s now our side who come armed with infostats, information and appeals to clear-headed thinking, which they sweep to victory with oratory, broad appeals to emotion and feelgood notions of petty nationalism.

Yet at the same time nothing has been resolved. The tussle continues perpetually, crystallised in our continuing conception of head and heart as opposed forces. Based on a paradox, how could it ever supplant it? Romanticism cannot win, even while it’s winning, for its heart still needs head to be held against. Both sides will be perpetuated as long as we continue to embrace this dichotomy. And the unsolvable paradox of Romanticism’s attitude towards the individual and nature is not an obstacle to but the very reason for its longevity, a quandary which gets parcelled up and passed down the generations