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A Defence of Wandering, A Defence of Poetry?

by Julian Scutts




Oh weep for Adonais!—The quick Dreams,

The passion-wingèd ministers of thought,

Who were his flocks, whom near the living streams


 Of his young spirit he fed, and whom he taught

 The love which was its music, wander not—

Wander no more from kindling brain to brain,

But droop there whence they sprung; and mourn their lot

Round the cold heart where, after their sweet pain,


They ne’er will gather strength or find a home again.

                                                                                          Adonais, IX



    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.