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On Post-Romantic Poetics and Human Language

Inaugural Berggruen Prize Laureate Charles Taylor reflects on winning the award, his recent work in poetics and language.

News of the wonderful honour of the Berggruen Prize reached me while I was working on my new book on post-Romantic poetics. This is in a sense the second volume of The Language Animal. Both are part of a project that has been taking shape through my whole adult life and that connects to much of the rest of my work. This is to elaborate and explain a view of language as more than just an instrumental medium for conveying information. I see language – and the diversity of languages - as basic to being human. The great 19th century Romantics helped to elaborate such an understanding and they are my starting point in both volumes. I hope the discussion is valuable. It speaks to the Berggruen Institute’s concern for deeper understanding across civilisations and traditions of what it means to be human in the context of great transformations.
It speaks to the Berggruen Institute’s concern for deeper understanding across civilisations and traditions of what it means to be human in the context of great transformations

The starting point of both books is the new theory of language elaborated by the German Romantic generation of the 1790s call this the “HHH” theory in honour of its greatest expositors, Hamann, Herder and Humboldt. But for this generation retrieving language from the distorted notions of Hobbes and Locke was intimately bound up with a new poetics.
In its German version this new understanding was framed in terms of a new philosophical view, which drew on Kant, Fichte and Schelling. But a similar insight about the shift in poetics has been elaborated by some Anglophone writers. I am thinking in particular of Earl Wasserman, whose remarkable book, The Subtler Language, published more than a half century ago, first alerted me to the nature of the Romantic turn.

Wasserman argued[1] that the Romantic period brought about a profound shift away from a millennial outlook which saw the Chain of Being, and divine history, and ancient mythology, as treasuries of common reference points, on which poetry (and painting and the other arts) could draw. This corresponded to a view of this order as reflecting a unitary set of meanings which could be publically registered and recorded.[2]

The poet may find himself struggling to create his own field of references, even as he is invoking them

The dissolution of this publicly accessible field of references brought us to an age in which each poet may struggle to create his own language, virtually his own mythology, if we take Blake as an example, or we refer to the aspirations that Friedrich Schlegel defined for his age. The poet may find himself struggling to create his own field of references, even as he is invoking them. Hölderlin's Gods, Rilke's angels, Yeats' Byzantium belong to no publicly recognized story or doctrine, although they draw on certain of the resonances that formerly established stories and doctrines have left behind. These are the "subtler languages" of Wasserman's title.[3] 

What helped to make the earlier public languages unavailable was disenchantment, and the subtler languages are partly a response to this. The world is no longer seen as the site of spirit and magic forces, but the universe comes to be understood in terms of laws defined purely by efficient causation. At the same time, traditional views of the cosmos and history were overturned by new discoveries: for instance, of a new unsuspected hemisphere, as well as by familiarity with other peoples, with their own mythologies and understanding of their past. 

But this is just the negative side; there is also a positive facet: the developing anthropocentric understanding of freedom, and the scope of human action, both instrumental in the natural world, and creative in the structures of the social world, as political structures are progressively disembedded from the cosmos, and referred to human action in history.[4]  

Every harmonious thing is constituted by opposites coming together

Wasserman’s illuminating discussion shows the contrast between “classical” poetry and that of the Romantic epoch. He takes as his examples of the first, two poems of the 17th and 18th Century, Denham’s Cooper’s Hill, and Pope’s Windsor Forest. Both rely heavily on a long-standing metaphysical view, expressed in the term “Concordia discors”: Every harmonious thing is constituted by opposites coming together (53 and ff).[5] This is true of music, but also of the polity. Indeed, the unity and coherence of the universe, and of each of its parts, is grounded in the harmonious and reconciling combination or opposed forces or elements. 

In Denham’s poem, the doctrine of concordia discors not only gives the work it sense, but is also incorporated in the poem’s structure, logic, rhetoric, syntax and melody. Indeed, the concept helps shape the heroic couplet, and the division of each line into hemistichs; the harmoniously balanced couplet, using parallelism, antithesis, and inversion not only illustrates the doctrine, but constitutes the inherent condition of his “subtler language” (82). The linguistic organization embodies the structural pattern of balanced oppositions (84-5).

And this is as it should be; the poem makes order appear, makes it shine through, be apparent through what the poet describes, landscape or social world. And what we are dealing with is a feature of the order of things which we not only should know about, but which can move us to conform to it. This much continues through the epochal change which comes with the Romantic era. 

The poem makes order appear, makes it shine through

Similarly Pope makes this order of harmony through difference shine through his description of Windsor Forest. But this wood also stands as a synechdoche for England, and England in turn for the world as well. 

Neoclassical art is not creating, but finding the inherent order, through a system of similitudes (123). Poetry holds a mirror to Nature, but what it reflects is deep Nature, the underlying pattern, not the surface appearance. All this changes, however, with the fading of these millennial notions of order: “By the end of the 18th Century – and ever since – the poet has been required to conceive his own structure of order, his own more-than-linguistic syntax, and so to engage that structure that the poetic act is creative both of a cosmic system and of the poem made possible by that system” (172.) 

Ancient mythology sinks to the level of allegory. In itself, it carries no more felt depths. These stories were given depth formerly against the background of the standing notions of order, articulated for early modern Europe classical works, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When these latter lose their force, poets have to present a new background of order to give them sense, as Keats does in Endymion. “The nineteenth century mythological poem is internally constitutive of the myth that makes possible its own existence as a poem.” (175).

The descriptive-moral poem of Denham and Pope falls apart; it becomes the description of some landscape “with the addition of such embellishments as may be supplied by historical retrospection, or incidental meditation”, as Dr Johnson put it (183); merely “moralizing descriptions”, in Coleridge’s words (184).[6]

“No longer can a poem be conceived of as a reflection or imitation of an autonomous order outside itself.” - Wordsworth

Wasserman completes his account in this chapter (chapter 3) with a reference to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Talking of Wordsworth’s faith in “some spirit deeply interfused”, he says: “No longer can a poem be conceived of as a reflection or imitation of an autonomous order outside itself.” (186).

The poems of this new age convince us, not by invoking and making palpable some universally accepted truths, but by the inherent power of the experience they provoke. This also involves a sharp distinction between everyday uses of language and poetic creations. 

I want to follow the development and ramifications of this new poetics, and the consequent distinction between two languages, one ordinary and instrumental, and the other charged with power. I’ll trace this through selected poets writing in English, French and German. I will also try to show how this new poetics, opening new worlds, links up with the spiritual exploration which is a defining feature of the contemporary secular age. 

Charles Taylor is the inaugural Berggruen Prize Laureate and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University. 

[1] The Subtler Language, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1959.   
[2] “In varying degrees, ranging from conviction to faith, to passive submission, man accepted, to name but a few, the Christian interpretation of history, the sacramentalism of nature, the Great Chain of Being, the analogy of the various planes of creation, the conception of man as microcosm, and, in the literary area, the doctrine of the genres.” Ibid, page 11. There is a clear overlap between this list and that of the Renaissance theories the Romantics looked to; but what is crucial is the change in register which “subtler languages” introduced.    
[3] I have discussed this at greater length in Sources of the Self, Harvard U.P. 1989 and A Secular Age, Belknap Press 2007    
[4] I have discussed this more fully in A Secular Age, chapter 3.   
[5] Wasserman, op. cit. Page references in the text here refer to this work.   
[6] Wasserman Makes the point that Shaftesbury, with his notion of beauty as ineffable harmony, was already part way along the road to the new era, which explains the high regard Romantic had for him. Op. cit, page 180.