It is not just antiquarian to assert that any study of contemporary poetry must begin with romanticism. We are talking about English poetry; hence our points of reference will be English Romanticism. I am not concerned with direct historical antecedents. Rather with establishing an astonishing transformation of attitude towards the nature of poetry and of art in general. We are the heirs of this transformation: for this reason we find it difficult to grasp how far reaching it is. It is still working itself out in our own day. At this length treatment must be oblique and illustrative. I hope to show that the romantic conception of poetry is still, in essence, our own. That further, this is the only viable conception today. And beyond even this, that to miss the experience much modern poetry offers, is to risk impoverishing our experience in general. This is so ambitious a programme, that it has seemed worthwhile to group instances, actual contemporary poems, along side this piece. Against these my arguments can be checked. Further, if I fail to make my case, at least there will be poems to read, solidly assembled, as something more than typographical decoration.
Blake, the most urbane as well as the most radical of the Romantics, was indulging in something more than a private joke when he turned his familiar angel into a devil:
This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well.
I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.
One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.
With this one should couple Blake’s assertion that “All deities reside in the human breast.” For this explains why Blake was not insane to boast of angels and devils among his acquaintance. Nor was Blake the last poet to do so. Rimbaud spends his last season in Hell. Poe visits the ghoul-haunted weir. Rilke’s poems are swept through by angelic forms. James Thomson, the atheist poet-friend of Bradlaugh, dwells, like an English Baudelaire, in the City of Dreadful Night. Devils and Angels jostle each other in Goethe, Dostoievsky, Thomas Mann. Even in the early Dickens the demons are at the centre: Fagin,
The reasons are perhaps not far to seek. God and Devil, within religious systems, dramatise and hold in tension the extreme poles of experience. Here religion is imaginatively and psychologically satisfying. In comparison, the joys of Heaven seem tame. Angels and Devils over two thousand years, have assumed a concreteness and firmness of outline that readily fit them for sensuous embodiment. Behind them, remotely, press more primitive presences: local daemons and heroes; fallen and displaced Gods; moral qualities and sensible objects. The great religious systems crumbled; in the ruins the poets—and this is part of the case against them—are seen salvaging the less savoury icons to set up on their own account.