Towards the Re-enchantment of Western Civilization
Every healthy human child is naturally filled with wonder and awe. This wonder, associated with early childhood “enchantment,” is one filled with a mystery and universal love that seems to animate all things. So, William Wordsworth was famously known as the poet of childhood because he often referred to this early enchantment stage as he sought to reconnect with the innocence and wonder of earlier times. Nature was seen as one of the key inspirations and reminders of this wonder, which could be revisited in poetry as a means of regaining some of the earlier “magic.”
Unfortunately, the magic begins to fade in adolescence—as it necessarily must. The expectations and exigencies of impending adulthood become increasingly pronounced. We discover that not only is everything not enclosed by an eternal sense of awe and wonder, but that the opposite may often be true. These realizations include a sense of drab uniformity, conformity, utilitarian necessity, and even evil, in some cases. As a result, many find themselves virtually unprepared or equipped to face, let alone overcome, the reality of so many shattered illusions. We often feel robbed of the innocence, wonder, and curiosity that had animated so great a part of our earlier being.
Naturally, this enchantment, which may also be considered the Romantic stage of childhood and its later adolescent rebellion, must be superseded if we are to ever regain a sense of “wonder.” This necessary intermediate stage may be called “disenchantment.” The countless smiling faces and forgiving persons that seemed to greet us everywhere we went no longer appear so friendly or welcoming. The magic and wonder of nature, while beautiful, appears lonelier, even indifferent. Alas, everywhere we look, the magic seems to fade and our many attempts to regain the earlier wonder all seem in vain. Increasingly, we become drawn to looking for new distractions, new forms of pleasure, and alternative forms of “entertainment” to rekindle that initial spark—usually to no avail.
However, all is not lost. Indeed, this realization is where we discover the possibility of a more mature “re-enchantment” with the world, its mysteries, and the universal quality of love animating all things. Rather than a simple naïve desire to literally return to a world of medieval knights, spectacles, and romanticized fairy tales, this third stage entails a grownup enchantment, or “re-enchantment,” with the earlier mysteries and big questions rediscovered in a new light.
The third stage occurs in those souls who in their adulthood rediscover genuine wonder. In the words of C.S. Lewis, rather than an adolescent nostalgia, or rebellion, the attempts to regain or revisit some earlier time of purity and joy are treated as what they really are: intimations of something greater, for which even early childhood wonder offered only a faint glimmer.
So, Lewis in his “Weight of Glory” writes:
“Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Properly understood, great art and poetry have as one of their chief functions that of awakening in us a desire to regain this wonder and discover “the real thing.” When we do so, the earlier preoccupation with the senses and nature as such evolves into a recognition of the all-too-necessary middle period, “disenchantment.” It arises as a realization of the limitations of the senses and the romantic attempt, sometimes even mystical, to regain this wonder in adulthood within the purely sensual realm. The recognition of a new “limit” between our desires and the boundary conditions of our material selves becomes the path to a new kind of transcendence, one quite different from the earlier trance-like experience of childhood wonder. For, this time it is conscious, and we may choose to actively explore it.
Thus, as poet John H.B. Martin writes in one of New Lyre’s featured essays on John Keats’ poetic development, culminating with the “Ode to Autumn,” the great odes only became possible once Keats had given up on trying to write poetry. Having rid himself of vain desires and egotistical conceits, something qualitatively new appeared. In these mature odes, we find something characteristically un-Romantic, even anti-Romantic, and yet, more enchanting than the sensually beautiful, albeit limited ballads and songs of the earlier Romantic period. So, both Keats and Shelley, whose bicentenary New Lyre’s third issue has the honor of observing, emerged after Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron had already become well-known celebrities in their time.
In their attempts to achieve this “re-enchantment,” Keats and Shelley harkened back to the classical Greeks. In the mature works of both these poets, which may alternatively be considered an enlightened Romanticism, or better yet, a return to the genuinely classical, we find a distinctly more philosophical and Platonic approach—a Grecian enthusiasm.
We find both poets struggling with what Wordsworth in his own mature poetic development referred to as “intimations of immortality.” As seen in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” both Keats and Shelley increasingly took a classical Greek i.e., Platonic outlook as they attempted to distinguish between the shadows and the substance of the shadows. Thus, Keats famously writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” He speaks of “the shadow of a magnitude” as he recalls his experience of the Elgin Marbles in his earlier ekphrastic, “On First Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” Shelley in his famous “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” takes care to not simply compose a hymn to any kind of generic or sensual beauty, but to a distinctly intellectual beauty—one that cannot be directly experienced, but for which all our direct experiences must ultimately be referred to on a deeper level.
These poems of “re-enchantment,” some containing the entire tri-fold journey from the first to the third stage, as in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” always treat our immediate impressions of the world not as the primary reality, but as intimations of a one higher transcendent reality, which no individual who wishes to escape the limitations of adolescence, or vain hopes of retrieving early “enchantment,” can avoid.
This journey from early “enchantment” to the intermediary “disenchantment” and final “re-enchantment” is the theme of New Lyre’s latest issue, a journal created for the purposes of breathing new life into the timeless world of arts and letters championed by the likes of Schiller, Goethe, and Edgar Allan Poe, to name a few.
We therefore invite you all gently to read, and kindly to judge, our journal.
Readers can learn more and obtain issues here.
So well and eloquently said. The concept that was pushed as a mentor, Father, Grandfather, Manager, Trainer,....... was that you can expect to find yourself as "not so special" when we leave our safe spaces. You instantaneously become one of millions to strangers.
Make yourself special to them by a smile, a kind gesture, being polite..... that is how it starts and ripples from there. Perhaps in that moment of selflessness you make someone else's day better.
Repeat this every day and you can change the world. JMHO
This essay was beautiful. As you know, I’ve been struggling with the idea of myths, perhaps good ones are fables, and bad ones are fantasies, but your idea of enchantment, dis-enchantment and re-enchantment is so much better, in our attempts to rediscover our 'innocence of immortality'. Keep up the good work in your Herculean task – I say that because it was Hercules who freed Prometheus.