WILLIAM HAZLITT described the act of painting as the purest form of philosophy – learning to draw and paint, we shed our preconceptions and encounter the complexity of a world where no two trees, or two leaves are the same. In Hazlitt’s terms painting is a metaphor for true perception, the Muse of humility and an antidote to airy idealism. Coleridge in his more down-to-earth moments cursed his own inability to paint. ‘O Christ, it maddens me that I am not a painter or that painters are not I!’ he scribbles after studying the patterns in a tree’s bark; on another occasion he complains that ‘without Drawing I feel myself but half invested with language’. Painting fascinated the Romantics, partly because the frozen distillations of beauty gave lasting form to experiences that so easily became dissected, dissolving apparitions in poetry or prose. This was its attraction for Keats – his own life a constant tale of pleasure’s transience and the encroachment of pain and disease. He found paradise in the idea of painting, an instant of joy preserved forever.
Ever since M H Abrams published his pioneering study of Romantic critical theory, The Mirror and the Lamp, it has been assumed that painting occupied a lowly place in the Romantic hierarchy of arts. Abrams argued, persuasively but not quite correctly that the Romantics as a whole abandoned painting and embraced music as a creative model. Music as the lamp, symbol of the soaring spirit, replaced the mere mirror of painting, symbol of base matter and humble imitator of ‘things’. He was right in one sense – Romantic painters and poets alike rejected the old Augustan premise ut pictura poesis, the idea that painting and poetry were the same art employing different media. It is true also that painting was often treated by the Romantics (especially Shelley) as a mere art of appearances, beautiful, maybe, but inarticulate. But Abrams overstated his case. Romantic writers and painters remained fascinated by the methods and effects of their respective arts. One could almost define Romanticism as a movement in which all the arts are free to turn into their opposites – Turner the wild and ‘poetically’ sublime visionary, Keats the poet obsessed with picture-making, those Bacchanalian figures dancing eternally round his Grecian urn, ‘For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / For ever panting, and for ever young’.
James Heffernan’s new book is one of a series of works by a variety of writers published over the last fifteen years which attempts to correct the damaging oversimplifications of Abrams’ theory. Heffernan offers a synoptic, fluid version of Romanticism, but he admits that his aim has been to uncover the similarities rather than the differences between romantic poets and painters. Focussing on the art of ‘landscape’ he has chosen Wordsworth, Coleridge, Constable and Turner as the nails on which to hang his ideas. While this is chronologically convincing (they were all born between 1770 and 1776) it necessarily flaws his book. The Romantics were a ragged bunch at the best of times – witness Wordsworth and Coleridge’s bickering – but Heffernan’s approach censors such refractoriness. For the purpose of his study they become a single unit, a monolith; no longer Romantics, they become ‘Romanticism’ itself.
The most convincing area of the book is an extended discussion of the Romantics’ ‘displacement of history’. Wordsworth rewrites epic as autobiography in modelling The Prelude on Paradise Lost – Milton’s grand vision of cosmic history gives way to the truant wanderings of one individual; the winding tale of Wordsworth’s solitary growth. Constable’s ‘six-footers’, emotive recreations of the Eden-like landscapes of his youth in the Stour Valley, are painted on the scale usually reserved for Academic ‘history paintings’ – which traditionally meant paintings from the Bible or classical myth. Heffernan’s grasp of critical terminology is perhaps a little suspect here. Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic and Constable’s autobiographical landscapes painted on the scale of ‘history’ are not entirely analagous. Each is displacing a different and rather specialised kind of ‘history’, since the ‘history paintings’ of artistic tradition and the cosmic history of Milton involve different senses of the word: referred to a painting, history meant broadly a narrative, the word in its original and simple meaning of story, while the whole apparatus of history Wordsworth rejected derived from a very different, literary tradition. Still, the point is well made, so perhaps loose analogies may be forgiven – it is certainly true that both painter and poet radically adapt the forms of public art to the expression of private experiences.
The crux of Heffernan’s argument is that romantic art and literature aimed to subvert the simple representation of an external landscape – objects existed not just to be described but to react on the psyche, to reflect the internal world of thought and feeling. ‘Poetry is passion’, declares Wordsworth, while Constable insists that ‘Painting is but another word for feeling’. This is the context for Heffernan’s comparison between Wordsworth’s Prelude, with its spots of time and complex unravellings of self through contact with the landscape, and Constable’s retrospective exploration of his own rural environment. But it is well-trodden ground – Karl Kroeber published his own extended comparison in 1975, Romantic Landscape Vision: Constable and Wordsworth, while Ronald Paulson’s brilliant Literary Landscape (1982) is the acknowledged source for Heffernan’s analysis of displaced history in Constable’s paintings.
Some of Heffernan’s more original comparisons seem forced. He invokes the prospect/refuge theory of landscape – a psychological reading of painting which argues that the most pleasing compositions offer us an enclosed, safe foreground leading out to a wide view (this gives us the pleasurable illusion of seeing without being seen). Fair enough, a reading elaborated in Jay Appleton’s 1975 study The Experience of Landscape, but in Heffernan’s hands this turns into an unholy soldering iron as he uses it to weld together Constable’s Hay Wain and Coleridge’s meditative soliloquy ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Coleridge might imagine a beautiful landscape from the darkness of his refuge but this scarcely justifies the parallel with Constable’s painting, under the portentous label ‘internalisation of prospect’.
It is the differences between the Romantics that fascinate – unpleasantly apt that this book’s small monochrome illustrations reduce Constable and Turner alike to a grey uniformity. Hazlitt said that painters learn to differentiate between apparently similar objects of study; maybe Mr Heffernan should take up the brush.