The Aching Joys of the Romantic Genius: The Loss and Transcendence of Unmediated Experience in Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and Goethe’s "The Eagle and the Dove"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Eagle and the Dove - the Genius Between Infinite Desire and Finite Conditionality

3. Aching Joys and Dizzy Raptures - the Poet Figure in Tintern Abbey

Works Cited

1. Introduction

What do Goethe and Wordsworth have in common? Or more precisely, what does Tintern Abbey have to do with Goethe’s Sturm und Drang poem The Eagle and the Dove ? This paper will argue that while the poems may not share much at first glance, they voice similar feelings with respect to the experience of the Romantic Genius. The eagle’s loss of freedom and forced subjugation under a situation constrained by authorities echo Wordsworth’s description of the experience of his younger self. Similar to the eagle, the poet-figure in Tintern Abbey experiences a loss of that intensely emotional, unmediated engagement with the world. Wordsworth’s insight that he has received “abundant recompense” for this loss - howevermuch the validity of this conviction has been questioned by scholars (cf. vander Weele 6) - is foreshadowed in its incipience also in Goethe’s poem.

However, the differences between the poems as well as their authors do not make this an easy task. These differences are immediately obvious in the forms of the poems. While Tintern Abbey is a long lyrical poem with the poet figure as first person narrator, The Eagle and the Dove is, with 53 lines, comparatively much shorter. It is, moreover, an allegorical poem framed in strongly symbolic language. As for the poets themselves, there seems to have been little direct contact between them (cf. Schier 37). Wordsworth reportedly disliked Goethe (a feeling that seems to have been mutual), saying, “He does not seem to me to be a great poet […] He had not sufficiently clear moral perceptions to make him anything but an artificial writer” (Wordsworth, qtd. in Schier 37). Rudolf Dirk Schier remarks that in terms of traditional influence-studies the relationship between Goethe and Wordsworth is totally unpromising. Yet it is precisely the lack of any direct connections between the two poets that affords us the opportunity to analyze and compare aspects of their work on a much more profound level than that of borrowed themes, adopted images, or copied techniques. In the absence of direct influences, any similarities between the two authors that we are able to uncover must represent patterns of thought and vision which are of fundamental significance. (Schier 37) While Schier compares in his essay a monologue from Faust with a passage from Wordsworth’s prelude, this paper will focus on two other poems, but with a similar purpose of illuminating such “patterns of thought and vision” that appear to be common to both poets.

In order to establish this thesis, the first part of the paper will provide an in-depth analysis of The Eagle and the Dove , elaborating on the concept of the romantic genius advanced by Goethe in the figure of the eagle. This analysis will also take into account differences between the English translation by Edgar Alfred Bowring and the German original, as the translation is not always felicitous. Since it would be beyond the scope of this paper to do a close reading of both poems in their entirety, the following part will concentrate on a few central passages from Tintern Abbey , delineating the similarities between both poems with respect to the experience of the poet figure. Finally, it will be necessary to analyse how Wordsworth transcends the loss of his former experience in relation to a similar development implicit in Goethe’s poem.

2. The Eagle and the Dove - the Genius Between Infinite Desire and Finite Conditionality

The poem The Eagle and the Dove , which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 1774 during the Sturm und Drang epoch, is characterized by a strongly symbolic, allegorical language that is not always easy to interpret. A central theme of Sturm und Drang that pervades the poem is that of limitation and constraint through authorities. The poetic genius, the boundless individualism of the Kraftmensch1 , which “expresses an impulsive individuality that appears to need no authority beyond itself” (Leidner 178) has to discover that it is limited and restricted by the authorities from which it seeks to be liberated. A symbol of such authorities can be found in Goethe’s poem in the figure of the huntsman whose arrow “reft/ His [the eagle’s] right wing of all motive power” (l. 3-4). The verb used in the German original means “to cut off”, an expression that more exactly renders the violent nature of the eagle’s fate. Usually associated with characteristics such as strength, freedom, clearsightedness, justice, courage, and the capability of traversing realms inaccessible to humans, the eagle is a common symbol of the Sturm und Drang period (cf. Knaurs Lexikon der Symbole). Crashing to the ground, the eagle “fell into a myrtle grove” (l. 5). Again, the translation is not quite accurate, as the verb abst ü rzen suggests a swift downward movement with connotations of potential harm, and would be better rendered by the verb to crash . Thus, the eagle finds himself in a state of confinement, of restraint - the finite conditionality ( endliche Bedingtheit ) of being, as Goethe will call it in Faust .

However, the attributes describing this constraint do not seem very negative at all at first glance. On the contrary, the “myrtle grove”, the “gold sands beside the stream”, the “soft moss beside the brook” as well as “flowers’ fresh dew” and the “silver spring” all suggest a locus amoenus rather than an in any way unpleasant space; an idyllic place and quite agreeable living conditions. The eagle, however, only seems to see his restrictions and suffers from them:

And stretches his wings - alas! Lost is all power of flight - He scarce can lift himself From off the ground (l. 13-16).

Edgar Alfred Bowring translates further (l. 18-22):

And rests, deep-sorrowing,

On the low rock beside the stream. Up to the oak he looks,

looks up to heaven,

While in his noble eye there gleams a tear.

However, this translation, while it does not contain errors crucial to the understanding of the poem’s meaning, does not seem to be quite fitting. First, “deep-sorrowing” seems to be an awkward choice for the German tieftrauernd and could be better rendered as “deeply grieving”. In this case and the following where the word trauern appears, I chose the expression “to grieve”, which in my opinion is closest in meaning to the German and does not sound quite as artificial as “sorrowing”.

Additionally, l. 22 substitutes the conjunction “while” for the “and” in the original, which seems quite unnecessary. Remaining closer to the original, it would perhaps be better to translate “and his high eye is filled with tears”. Using the verb “gleam” appears to add a connotation to the line that is not existant in the German, and rendering sein hohes Aug ’ with “his noble eye” also presents a somewhat too tendentious interpretation. Goethe’s use of the adjective hoch to describe the eagle’s eye is an unusual attribute in the German. Translating it literally with “high” would retain the tension implied in the choice of words in the original. Although it may be difficult to see what exactly is meant by the phrase “his high eye”, the expression obviously contrasts with the “deeply grieving” resting of the eagle. Thus, it serves to emphasize the contrast of his high aspirations with his current situation, weighed down through physical handicap and mental dejection.

The passage reveals that the desire for freedom still persists in the eagle, the unendliches Wollen (infinite desire) of the Genius. The eagle does not seem ready to accept the limitations imposed on him through the loss of his wings, even though he realizes these limitations and grieves for his loss.


1 Leidner explains, “The word Kraftmensch has a number of synonyms and near-synonyms, most of them compounds with Kraft or Macht , such as Kraftgenie and Machtmensch . Grimm defines Kraftmensch as […] ‘natively powerful person, one of powerful nature’ and associates the term and its variations with […] ‘genius’ and […] ‘intensified genius […]” (Leidner 179).


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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Goethe Wordsworth Genius Sturm und Drang Tintern Abbey Romantic Literature poet figure Katharina Thomas English Literature



Title: The Aching Joys of the Romantic Genius: The Loss and Transcendence of Unmediated Experience in Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" and Goethe’s "The Eagle and the Dove"