Romantic poetry is something of an enigma in modern Britain in some sense its impact has never left while the significance of its vision and philosophy of nature has long since been abandoned. Like much of our world of relativism it seems that the marketable image of freedom and simplicity of life remains while the ability to achieve this is as impossible as Sisyphus finishing his morning workout!
First it should be briefly mentioned what exactly romanticism is: it is a literary and artistic movement that span across western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century and is encapsulated by the poetry of William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats, and great painters like Turner and Caspar David Friedrich.
What is particularly interesting about this movement is how often it assumes the transcendent and the supernatural in an age when, during the industrial revolution and deep into the Enlightenment, such ideas could possibly gain traction but perhaps as Josh Cohen in his book ‘Not working’ put it ‘art cannot be measured by capital’ (paraphrase) and thus does not operate with the same assumptions nor intentions. As Leo Tolstoy expressed in his work on the meaning of art, he said that it ‘exists to reveal religious/spiritual meanings’ and romanticism whether or not the people themselves believed in a religion (for example Coleridge and Blake didn’t) the signs of God permeate its pages every bit the same.
Take for example the excellent poems from the Lyrical Ballads, We are Seven, where a young girl is adamant that her dead siblings souls are alive and in heaven despite the physical reality or even ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Marinere’ a story of a ship’s crew being cursed by death personified due to him killing an Albatross and learning the value of love and prayer as being partners to a fulfilled life.
Among the central themes of romanticism are the reverence of nature, individuality, and that nature itself reveals truths about our own nature and even God’s nature.
The Qur’an, in my opinion, in its plentiful references to both the natural world and human history (even those who were living at the time of its recitation were described as being a part of that same history even while yet living) seeks to demonstrate the fundamental relationship between God, the world, and the human being for this is how people relate to God and gain some understanding of him. The reason for this is stated in the Qur’an itself ‘we made this an Arabic Qur’an so that you may understand’.
There has been much said about the struggles of reverts/converts to Islam in Europe about how to navigate the ‘two worlds’ of culture and religion for example Charles Le Gai Eaton perceived this relationship to be historic and often filled with tension due to historical conflicts going back to the 9th Century with the Battle of Tours and, of course, the Crusades and the invasion by the Ottoman Empire into Eastern Europe during the latter part of the 15th century. Much like romanticism the feeling remains but the specifics have been largely absent from public consciousness only to reappear with new details that have little to do with that past (we all know what). There is a need to address this anxiety and provide a bridge between these fortresses so as to ensure that the future of this burgeoning community continues to flourish. I believe that this connection between Islam and romanticism is one that has yet to be explored and could provide some materials to build this bridge.
This anxiety is more more aptly felt than in our societal discourse in Britain. From TV shows such as Homeland to documentaries about ‘Extremely British Muslims’ and beyond shows something of an unease and general lack of understanding due in no small part to the assumption that is in some sense romantic and ignorant, that Islam and Muslim cultures are mysterious and (was) exotic but now deemed inhospitable, nevertheless whether it be good or bad the impression is one of separation and this naturally causes tensions. This since of separation is also represented by some Muslims who perceive western societies as degenerate, narcissistic, and ultimately dangerous to those who seek sincerely to love and worship God as he intended his Creation to do.
In conclusion, the need to understand the relationships, both past and present, are necessary to help us to move forward also to recognise where we can draw comparisons, harmonious comparisons, between Islam the religion and British culture. I believe that looking into romanticism and other literary movements that still influence us all can be an important step towards this goal of Unity.
In closing, here is a passage from the Qur’an in Surah 49 that helps to show us God’s opinion on this subject of cultures:
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
– Qur’an 49:13 Yusuf Ali translation