Saturday, September 24, 2011
Rome was famously not built in a day. In fact the journey of the word and its derivatives is beyond its second millennium and still going.
Keats, Shelley and Byron may have been great lovers but that is not why they are high on the list of Romantics. As romancers they came out of the Middle Age tradition of passionate love affairs. But their claim as literary figures of the Romantic Age has a different legacy.
Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century was a pendulum swing away from the previous Age of Reason and impact of the Industrial Revolution; the heart asserting itself alongside the head. The Enlightenment was, in turn, a needed response to the metaphysical period and the choke hold of the Church.
Dying young, was not a necessary part of the story but the three poets all did it dramatically and it wasn’t a bad career move either. The movement survived them quite well in terms of its celebration of individuality and a release of the power of intuitive sources within. Beethoven’s music was such a burst as never heard before as well as Pushkin’s voice which spoke in the vernacular Russian. The new movement was idealistic, emotional and visionary yet grounded… in the best Romantic artists.
When we say, romantic today we are usually describing someone in love, with his/her head in the clouds, not quite of this, the real world; a benign pejorative, a transient condition soon to pass with associations to chivalry and courtly unattainable love. This pretty much describes the way Peggy and I celebrate special occasions such as our 25th anniversary this past Tuesday; courtly though neither fleeting, unrequited or unconsummated.
Without the slightest impulse to swim the Bosporus with Byron or make a pilgrimage with Keats to the Spanish Steps (we did that already) we settled for dinner at La Boheme restaurant in West Hollywood. We may have been the only heterosexual couple within a half mile radius. The façade is a house; my kind of place. The inside is cavernous but cozy since we had a screen off booth. We always exchange poems, have the server take our picture, overindulge (remembering William Blake’s excess) and toast our bliss. It never hurts to stoke our affection and give ardent feelings their full expression.
The language of love reaches for sublimity but is rooted in the everyday. There is a twining of the two tongues. Anyone who speaks English is practically bi-lingual since our language combines the Anglo-Saxon with French/Latin. The royal language of England was French until the reign of Henry the 5th, while the peasantry spoke Middle English, a form of Germanic morphing into Anglo-Saxon. Modern English often has two words with very close meanings; one polysyllabic Latinate and the other generally a more clipped Northern European. Fabricate/lie, testify/swear, precipitation/rain, adoration/love, desire/want.
In its travels the word romance took on a popular meaning in the Middle Ages as tales written or told in the native words of the region; languages derived from Latin, like Italian or French, as opposed to Latin itself which belonged to the Church and legal announcements. Romances were stories of extravagant passion, wonder or violence and that seems to be how the Romance Novel got its name. A Roman a Clef (pronounced to rhyme with clay) is a novel in which real persons or actual events appear in disguise. This probably bumped it up a notch up from the extravagant romance stories.
Romantic is one of those well-traveled words heavy with baggage. Call me a romantic and I may blush but accept the compliment. Say that I’m not a romantic and I might suggest pistols at dawn…..better yet, water pistols.