“—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”
Did Romantics go the way of the French Revolution? Did they spiral into a poetic fervor so deep and all-consuming that, finally, Britain would have no more of it? Or do they remain? Are they here still? Do Romantics walk among us?
It’s a silly question, but I’m not so sure I know its answer. I’m not sure that I’ve ever met a Romantic—a proper wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud Romantic. I’ve never met someone who could say, without irony, that his “heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the daffodils.” We’ve evolved, perhaps, as a species, past that sort of smooshy Romantic sentimentalism.
Case and point: Joyce Kilmer. A brief century after Wordsworth’s daffodils first tossed “their heads in sprightly dance,” Romantic sentimentalism—now rotten, and at its very smooshiest—seems to have breathed its last. “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree,” Kilmer wrote. “A tree that looks at God all day, / And lifts her leafy arms to pray.” Though not unpopular in its day—though not unpopular today—Kilmer’s “Trees” was panned by critics, and not without reason. It’s small. It’s trite. More than a century behind the avant-garde, it says nothing new, and saying nothing new—as nothing more than a rote recitation of the more emphatic bits of “Tinturn Abbey” and “Daffodils,” with spirit and nature traded out for God proper—Kilmer stands on shaky ground. He feels almost insincere—it seems that he must be insincere—but of course, he isn’t. Nothing suggests insincerity but the inane reading produced by an assumption of sincerity. And, as it turns out, it’s just inane. “Trees” falls victim to one of the classic blunders. It demonstrates one of the great Romantic pitfalls: exuberance without substance.
Sincere displays of exuberance are rare. We see them in the great Romantic poets. We see them in children. We see them in Joyce Kilmer. Passionate, thought-provoking displaces of Romantic exuberance are even rarer. We see them in the great Romantic poets. We see them in children. My point—before this begins to sound like a reproof of Romanticism itself—is that, ever since Wordsworth brought this brand exuberance to its logical end—ever since he perfected daffodil dancing—it’s become very difficult to say anything even remotely Wordsworthian—to make displays of Romantic exuberance—without appearing trite. Romanticism may have aged well in general, all things considered, but this one smooshy, exuberant facet did not.
And my review—before this begins to sound like a review of “Trees,” though I suppose it accidentally was—will be instead for a rare contemporary example of sincere Romantic exuberance, appearing neither hackneyed nor trite.
Imagine sitting down to dinner with an old colleague—an old friend—though one you’ve not seen in years—one you’ve “been avoiding literally for years.” He’d fallen out of your life some time ago. You’d not kept in touch. In fact, “for months at a time his family seemed only to know that he was traveling in some odd place, like Tibet.” So there you are, “trapped by an odd series of circumstances” into a meal you don’t want. You sit down—you know this dinner’s going to be awful, just awful—but the conversation takes a sudden, unexpected turn toward interesting—toward fascinating. You’re regaled with tales of a grand theater experiment in the forests of Poland, of traveling through the Sahara with a Buddhist monk, with the purpose of art, the meaning of art, and the meaning of life.
This is My Dinner with Andre. This is a dinner conversation directed, in 1981, by Louis Malle—the French documentarian—written by and starring actor/playwright Wallace Shawn—Vizzini from The Princess Bride—and theater director Andre Gregory. (It’s brilliant—absolutely brilliant—and if you haven’t seen it and aren’t sitting down to watch it right now, you’ve taken a wrong turn in life.)
The eponymous Andre—Andre Gregory, who, in the film, plays a sort of affectionate parody of himself—is the exemplary exuberant, wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud Romantic. He’s of a brand that I’d thought had departed of this earth. He possesses all the fire of “Tinturn Abbey” some one hundred and eighty years later. He exudes that same Romantic wonder—the same wonder that, only a hundred years after “Tinturn Abbey,” had grown fetid in treacle like “Trees”—but he doesn’t come off as silly or trite. He carries Wordsworth’s torch—and Wordsworth had quite a few torches, but Andre carries this particular torch, prone to particular corruption and a sort of Kilmerian smooshiness—with enviable grace.
Now, because you’re fixing to sit down and watch the film—or because you’ve seen My Dinner with Andre a million times, as all decent folk have—it does little dwell on Andre’s Wordsworthian tendencies. They’re obvious and too many to count. Instead, I’d like to point out—briefly, as I realize I’m beginning to fill quite a bit of space here—a few points of divergence with Wordsworth.
Take note, for example—when you watch the film, because you’re going to, right?—of Andre’s treatment of art. Whereas to Wordsworth—or at least to the young, enthusiastic Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads—“Books!” are “a dull and endless strife,” to Andre, theater is a sort of saving grace. Andre believes, as does Wordsworth, that modern city life has sapped the life from mankind. He believes that we’re living by rote—that we’re “operating by habit”—and that we need to be woken up, in a sense. While Wordsworth, however, believes that running laps about the moors is the best medicine—and that poetry should simply bring the reader back to that a natural state—Andre believes that art can “bring people in contact with reality” in a more human sense. Art shouldn’t help us to see nature so much as it should help us to “see ourselves”—to “see how our actions affect other people.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.
Take note also of Andre’s treatment of coincidence. Andre sees shades of meaning in everything. He finds chains of meaning in chains of seemingly random events, and though Wallace Shawn calls him out on it—“But to you it was significant,” he says, “as if it was planned for you, in a way!”—Andre won’t budge on the matter. In this way, Andre echoes Blake and Philip Dick more than Wordsworth, and perhaps occupies the middle ground—a narrow middle ground, I realize—between Wordsworth and Blake.
Anyway, My Dinner with Andre. I’ll leave you with this link and your mid-week movie:
or, if you don’t have Hulu Plus: