• Michael Martin

The Mystical Body of Romanticism


'The Funeral of Shelley' by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889), detail.

Some people, it seems, have a tendency to over-idealize the life I live, as if on our biodynamic farm my family and I shimmer in some agrarian dreamworld in the manner of rather tall hobbits. Ours is certainly a world foreign to that of most of those in my social class (intellectuals, academics, and other learned professionals), but it’s far from idyllic. Farming is hard work, for one thing, and we often put in 12-14 hour days at the height of the growing season. For another, it’s unpredictable—and weather, insects, animals, and a host of other variables can often destroy that which we so earnestly and carefully seek to preserve. And I won’t even get into the human interactions that can often be, well, complicated. In short, farming in this way is not unlike living in a realm somewhat like that depicted in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. But it is a good life. It’s just not an easy one.

My wife and I undertook this life because we wanted something more tangible, more sacred, than that available to us in the wastelands of modernity, overshadowed by corporate superstructures and technocracy and characterized by endemic alienation from the Real. We turned to the land, not only to work it biodynamically as a way to heal the land itself, but also to heal ourselves. Nevertheless, some people think what we do is very quaint, charming even, but dismiss it as nothing but an iteration of Romanticism. I’m fine with that. If the alternative is postmodern alterity and distanciation from the Real, then I’m a card-carrying Romantic.


Paul Kingsnorth, whom I’ve written about recently, also gets smeared with the label of Romantic—and he doesn’t mind, either. And he pushes back. “It seems to me,” he writes, “that Romanticising the past, in our culture at this point in time, is less common than Romanticising the future. The only difference is that Romanticising the future is socially acceptable.” [1] Think about that next time the WEF peddles the chintzy wares of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they of the “You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” (which has mysteriously disappeared from the WEF website. HA!) future. Kingsnorth lives a life not unlike mine (from what I can tell) and even gives workshops on using a scythe. Which is so cool. And I’m sure he understands the challenges and hardships of such a life and doesn’t get lost in misty-eyed fantasies of an agrarian Elysium. We are not, as of the moment, exactly dead.


But Romanticism is not only about returning to the land, though Wordsworth and many of the great Romantics, not to mention Ivan Illich and E. F. Schumacher, have certainly endorsed such an idea. It’s also about fighting, and even dying, for an ideal. What is really worth fighting, let alone dying, for? Certainly not “strategic governmental objectives, though Truth, Beauty, and Goodness—however one interprets them—surely are. Lord Byron, profligate that he was, gave his life for an ideal (or tried to) when he left his scurrilous lifestyle to fight for Greek independence, a failed but noble cause. As I write this, citizens of Cuba and France show signs of a willingness to fight for an ideal—freedom. What would you fight for?


Romanticism, that is, is messy, hard to nail down, and, therefore, more human than the technocratic promises of Utopia that are the inheritors of the Enlightenment’s hollow project. H. G. Schenk in his The Mind of the European Romantics: An Essay in Cultural History, puts it as well as anyone. For him Romanticism is

a unity […] characterized as contrariness, dissonance and inner conflict of the Romantic mind. Utopian dreams for the future side by side with nostalgia for the past; a marked nihilistic mood accompanied by a fervent yearning for faith; serious attempts to bring about a Christian revival followed, in an admittedly marginal case, by the very abandonment of faith on the part of the former apologist; the long tug-of-war between the old religion and the new ideologies—these are some of the unresolved contradictions which lie at the core of the movement. No shorter formula can be devised to define the essence of Romanticism. All short-cut definitions that have been put forward—well over a hundred—are unsatisfactory.” [2]

Christianity, then, can be construed as a kind of Romanticism. This may be because the god of Christianity is a human god, thereby making Christianity the most human of religions.


Romanticism has, I have to confess, inhabited every phase of my life—from my youth as a musician, my work as a poet and teacher, in my scholarship and writing (Sophiology—hello?), as a husband and father, no less than my thirty years in biodynamics. For me, it’s all about hope: the belief that we can make the Kingdom present in our lives. I heard this in the music that inspired me as a young man—in Kate Bush and The Waterboys, for example—and I felt it in the poets, from the Romantic period and after, who continue to nourish me. They say, with Joyce’s Molly Bloom, “Yes” to this business of being human. The point is that to be human is to be a Romantic. It’s the default position.


One of the great moments of late-20th Century Romanticism.


The great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley met his end in Italy while sailing into a storm. Unfortunately, though a decent sailor, the poet could not swim. When the Tyrrhenian Sea’s waves brought Shelley’s sodden corpse back to land, a volume of Keats was found in one of his jacket pockets, a volume of Sophocles in the other. At Shelley’s funeral, while the poet’s body burned on the shore of Leghorn, his friend Edward Trelawney poured libations of incense, wine, and oil into the flames and consigned Shelley’s remains to the love of Nature. Then, just before the flames devoured it, Trelawney grabbed the poet’s heart.


The mystical body of Romanticism continues to burn, and we are in no danger of running out of fuel. No matter. What needs transfiguring in the fire of time will be transfigured. The treasures we find in its pockets we will cherish, despite fads and the affectations and disaffections of taste. What will remain is the heart, even if some need to risk burning in order to retrieve it. And how beautiful is fire.


A clip from the 2015 film version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Paul Kingsnorth, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (Graywold Press, 2017), 37.

2. H. G. Schenk, The Mind of the European Romantics: An Essay in Cultural History (Frederick Ungar, 1966), xxii.

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