Updated: Dec 8, 2020
"Her flexuous and stealthy figure became an integral part of the scene. At times her whimsical fancy would intensify natural process around her till they seemed a part of her own story. Rather they became a part of it; for the world is only a psychological phenomenon, and what they seemed they were. The midnight airs and gusts, moaning amongst the tightly-wrapped buds and bark of the winter twigs, were formulae of bitter reproach. A wet day was the expression of irremediable grief at her weakness in the mind of some vague ethical being whom she could not class definitely as the God of her childhood, and could not comprehend any other. But this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess' fancy - a cloud of moral hobgoblins by which she as terrified without reason. It was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she." - "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", Thomas Hardy
One of the things that Classicists & Neoclassicists always criticised the Romantics for, were their sentimentalism, their reverence of nature and their overreliance on the sensory as the source of revelation and even transcendence. Romanticists were the world of eros, of the theatrical, dramatic, sentimental, personal and intimate, and they stood in opposition to the Apollonian, balanced, harmonious, detached and objective world of the Neoclassicists. Yet, Romanticists gave the world some of its most beautiful art - for who does not enjoy Tchaikovsky's ballets, the melancholic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or the poems of the great Goethe or Schiller? The old Romanticists were often people of higher ideals themselves, but they refused to throw away the flowers and roses for the sake of lofty glances towards the Heaven. The rose itself could produce the same effect as the Heaven for a Romantic. Isn't it the rose a reflection of the same principle which runs through the stars and heavenly bodies?
Because of the Romantic reverence for nature, there was often a significant space for women in Romantic art. Long before ecofeminists, Nathaniel Hawthorne was drawing comparisons between the abuse of nature and the abuse of women. Thomas Hardy, who opens this essay, although a Victorian Realist in the tradition of George Eliot, was strongly influenced by the great Romantics, particularly those of Gothic tradition like Hawthorne. In the opening excerpt, and the whole book, Hardy does the similar comparison - his Tess is pure, intuitive, innocent, naïve, generous and open, the world around her abuses her and victimises her, only to condemn her for it. The scenes like the one above, in which he describes Tess in the natural surroundings, often pointing the bond or the lack of differentiation between a woman and nature, are very common in his novel: "The mixed, singular, luminous gloom in which they walked along together to the spot where the cows lay, often made him think of the Resurrection hour. He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side. Whilst all the landscape was in neural shade his companion's face, which was the focus of his eyes, rising above the mist stratum, seemed to have a sort of phosphorescence upon" it. She looked ghostly, as if she were merely a soul at large. In reality, her face, without appearing to do so, had caught the gold gleam of day from the north-east; his own face, though he did not think of it, wore the same aspect to her. It was then, as has been said, that she impressed him most deeply. She was no longer the milkmaid, but visionary essence of woman - whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them."
Eros & Intuition
" 'A very easy way to feel 'em go', continued Tess, 'is to lie on the grass at night and look straight up at some big bright star, and, by fixing your mind upon it, you will soon find that you are a hundreds and hundreds ' miles away from your body, which you don't seem to want at all.' " - "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", Thomas Hardy
In the novel, Tess is sheltered and naïve, kept away from the dangers of the world. The world still, gave her all the ugliness it had to offer. Her education is modest and she knows nothing about relationships. Yet, despite her lack of bookish intelligence and education, and despite her lack of experience, Hardy over and over again points at her brightness, intelligence, and actually, her significant difference from the others. While other farmers and milkmaids only think of their daily work, Tess seeks the moments of transcendence, asks timeless questions like: "Why does the sun shine on the just and unjust alike?" and questions morals and laws. Through her, Hardy draws almost a symbolic embodiment of the pure human intelligence and awareness, and its the receptiveness towards the transcendent. The intelligence he draws a picture of, has nothing to do with books, concepts, ideas, formal logic or formal philosophy, but rather it is an intelligence which is open for revelation. It is the intuitive, eros-based and connected to the world. It is an intelligence that dares to not know, and in its not knowing, is open towards receiving the knowledge.
Tess enjoys the moments in which she can transcend the limits of the mind and reach beyond it. Losing herself while looking at the star was a common habit of hers, yet, the same happens to her as she listens to the music: "Tess was conscious of neither time nor space. The exaltation which she had described as being producible at will by gazing at star, came without any determination of hers; she undulated upon the thin notes of the second-hand harp, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden's sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with the waves of sound."
Tess perceives the transcendent easily. The world around her often loses the reality of God and comes up with a concept of God as a replacement. Hardy points at the naturalness and ease by which the human mind perceives the Sacred when pure, and how the Sacred and even God is easily lost in the egoistic projections, fears and puritanism. In anyone of Romantic sentiment, and so is the Hardy's case, there is a bit of a Pagan. It is a sentiment in which the sacred, gods or God, are present in everything and at all times. The sentiment that tells that there is at least one face of God that shows itself in nature.
The Romantic's Quest for Meaning
"A romantic is basically a person who feels that the world is full of hidden meanings - that discovery of adventure lies around every corner. This seems to me a broader, and therefore, truer, attitude than that of the pessimist who feels that human life is short, brutal and pointless. The romantic recognizes that the problem lies in our own limitation, in the narrowness of our senses. So when a romantic also happens to be a realist, he is likely to devote a great deal of his life to a search of meaning - which is synonymous with self transformation." - Colin Wilson
When a Romantic seeks for God everywhere, what the Romantic actually seeks for is the meaning, and once the Romantic finds the God in everything, the Romantic also sees the meaning in everything. This is the very core of the Romantic's perspective and vision - the Romantic opens eyes and sees the world covered in meaning. A Romantic cannot be a nihilist or a pessimist because Romantic cannot see how one could be that because even tragedy is meaningful for a Romantic. A Romantic sees the transcendent and the sacred in the mundane.
The great allure of the Romantic's perception of meaning is that the Romantic, romanticises it. A Romantic does not just write poetry, a Romantic lives it. Poetry in life is made by inserting a tiny bit of subjectivity into the world. A Romantic, while making morning coffee, may suddenly tell a story of history of the coffee, or of the some little trivia about the famous opiate, and then, to make it close, intimate, personal, and not just a history lesson, add a subjective, personal perspective on it, an interpretation, a dash of fairy dust or glitter onto the cold word of facts. A Romantic may remind you to look at a bird, and then, while you are still looking, tell how in Slavic mythology, the birds are considered the ones who carry the souls to the other world.
We may then, from time to time, like Tess, allow ourselves to be lost in a star or in the harp's melody.