A Defence of Wandering, A Defence of Poetry?
by Julian Scutts
The title A Defence of Wandering on the front cover of a book whereon a portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley is shown allows one to conclude that ‘wandering’ is another way of referring to ‘poetry’ for the title recalls Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poetry.” This conclusion conforms to the usage of the word “wanderer” in Romantic poetry that makes the word synonymous with ‘poet,’ according to a trend initiated by Goethe, the author of celebrated works in which the word “Wanderer” has a prominent place. His dramatic fragment “Der Wanderer” was translated into English under the title The Wanderer” by William Taylor of Norwich and exerted a demonstrable influence on William Wordsworth. If the word “Wanderer” can be taken as a code name for “poet,” wandering can be taken as a designation of the creative process that produces poetry, an assumption supported by occurrences of the word “wander” in the ninth strophe of “Adonais” cited above. In simple English the pertinent sentences here amount to a statement that with the death of Keats his “quick dreams ,” the stuff of poetry, died with him.
To my mind the association of wandering with poetry that permeates the poetry of Goethe and English as well as German Romantic poets warrants investigation. Why then, with a few notable exceptions, have scholars and literary critics ignored this recurrence of signal words featured in famous titles or placed significantly within the body of novels and dramas? Werther, the protagonist in Goethe’s celebrated novel , describes himself as a “wanderer” on the earth and it is as “der Wanderer,” so named in the margin of the final scene of Faust Part II,” that dying Faust enters the celestial realm.
Taking a broad holistically based view of the phenomenon I term “wandering” goes against grain of prevailing attitudes in scholarship and literary criticism when critics dogmatically assert that each poem is a unique artifact in which individual words serve only to underscore an internal aesthetic function. Others again argue that the word “Wanderer” is a blanket term, a tag or conceit, ignoring as they do the import of its sudden and unprecedented emergence in the writings of Goethe in the 1770s and the strife and contention that arose once the German Romantic poets adopted the word as a token of their identity. Why was the word so contentious?
The dichotomy that inheres in the word “Wanderer” emerges in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in the contrast between the purposeful socially engaged Wanderer represented by Wilhelm Meister and erratic and ill-fated wanderers like Mignon and the weird figure of “the harper.” The Romantic poets sided with the fugitive wanderers against the practically minded Wilhelm Meister, whom they identified as Goethe’s spokesman. The final line of Shelley’s Defence, declaring that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind,” could well indicate that Shelley agreed with Goethe as to the central role of poets as guardians of human rights and liberties. Did not the poet Cinna in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar “wander” out of doors only to be lynched by a mob that derided him for his “bad verses”? In dream, at least, Cinna supped with Caesar, a pointer perhaps to the Petrarchan ideal of the unity of the laurel crowns that adorned respectively the head of the supreme ruler or that of the supreme poet.