Thorald Læssøe, “View of Rome, Seen From the Hills Outside Porta del Popolo,” 1874
If Rome is a mystery, so is Romanticism. If Rome, as the Eternal City, is so much more than the temporal city situated in the heart of Italy; Romanticism is so much more than romance, at least in the wine-and-roses sense in which it is celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. If Rome is more than mere superstition, Romance is more than mere schmaltz. There is, therefore, at the very outset of any discussion on the relationship between Rome and Romanticism a difficulty of definition. What is Rome; what is Romanticism?
The first thing to be understood is that Rome is more real than Romanticism. Rome is substantially real, Romanticism is a mere accident. Rome, as the Eternal City, is the Heavenly Jerusalem. If Rome, as Heaven, is the goal, She is also, as the Church, the means of achieving the goal. As the Mystical Body of Christ, She is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If this is true – and it is – it is true whether we believe it or not. God’s existence is not contingent upon our believing in Him. We do not live in a relativist universe, even if we insist on calling ourselves relativists. Reality is not dependent upon us, we are dependent on It. Rome is real, whether we like it or not, or whether we believe it or not.
So far, so good. But what of Romanticism? Why is it less real than Rome?
Romanticism is less real because it only exists as a response to, or a reaction against, something else. It does not have an existential autonomy that is independent of the things to which it is responding, or against which it is reacting. Romanticism is said to be a reaction against classicism, as exemplified in early mediaeval culture by those works of literature in the vernacular, i.e., the Romance language (from whence the word “romance” derives), as opposed to works in classical Latin. According to this primal understanding of the word, Dante can be seen as being a classicist and as being a romantic at one and the same time. In revering Virgil and selecting him as his guide and mentor he is clearly placing himself in the classical tradition, yet in choosing to write in the modern vernacular, as distinct from Latin, he is making himself a romantic.
Similarly, Romanticism is said to be rooted in feelings, making it subjective in its approach to reality, whereas classicism is governed by what might be termed an objective approach to reality. If this is so, the great Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila, can be said to be romantic in the intensity of their mystical experiences and yet practitioners of classicism in their continuing adherence to objectively verifiable doctrinal orthodoxy.
The apparent contradictions, or paradoxes, continue. If later manifestations of Romanticism can be said to be a reaction against the emergent scientism and skepticism of the Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, the philosophical father of the French Revolution, is both a Romantic in his reaction against scientism and a child of the Enlightenment to the degree that he accepted the Enlightenment’s rationalism and its religious skepticism. In this way, the French Revolution can be seen as being both a Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment and a product of it.
And so it goes on. Wordsworth and Coleridge reacted against the materialism of the Enlightenment by embracing, first, pantheism and then neo-mediaevalist Christianity, whereas Byron and Shelley reacted against Wordsworth and Coleridge by becoming anti-Romantic Romantics!
If this is all a little confusing, it is meant to be. Romanticism is as confusing as it is confused. It responds. It reacts. And it changes shape and color as it does so. One might almost call Romanticism a chameleon. Yet it is less real than a chameleon, which has substantial reality. It is less real than the metaphor of the chameleon, which, as a chimera of the imagination, also has a type of substantial reality derived from a substantially real archetype. Romanticism is in fact not so much the chameleon itself, as the mere color of the chameleon. It is not a thing but a color; it is a mere pigment of our imagination. It is not one color but a whole spectrum of colors. It is a rainbow created from the splitting of the white light of philosophical unity that preceded it. Its spectrum ranges from dark to light. At its darker extremities it is the color of Rousseau’s noble savage; it is the color of the French Revolution; it is the blood red hue of la Terreur that followed in the Revolution’s wake; it is the color of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; it is the color of Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago. It is also, toward the lighter end of its spectrum, the color of Coleridge and Wordsworth, of Scott and Stevenson, and of Ruskin and Rossetti; it is the color of the music of Berlioz, Bruckner and Liszt; and, in its brightest hue of all, it is the color of conversion, lighting the path of many toward the Church of Rome.
And this brings us back to Rome and Romanticism. To switch our metaphors, Romanticism can be likened to a river, or, more precisely, to two rivers. One is the river of no return, the river of dark romanticism that meanders into the meaningless swamps of deconstruction and beyond. The other is the eternal Tiber of the imagination, romanticism’s river of light that flows, if it is followed to its end, to the very heart of the Eternal City.