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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1862.—November 20, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Ordinary, the Strange, & Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel. This 1963 lecture is a cultural first, groundbreaking both as literary criticism and in the understanding of mind. Mr. Siegel shows that every new movement of art has arisen from artists’ welcoming of a deep guilt: the feeling, We have not seen the world, and things and people in it, fairly enough! We have shamefully summed up what beauty is! We must correct this terrible injustice!

Romanticism, which began around the start of the 19th century, was the movement that most richly and fundamentally honored, expressed, and acted on that guilt.

What’s Ordinary & What’s Strange

The two biggest aspects of romanticism have to do with opposites that trouble people very much: the ordinary and the strange. Romanticism said: Things and people you’ve taken for granted, seen as dull, seen as hardly magnificent—perhaps some scraggly vegetation, or a poor rural person with a rough cart—these have wonder, meaning! Romanticism said too: What you’ve seen as far away from you and ever so strange, like people of different lands, happenings of the distant past, and also what’s called the “supernatural”—all these have to do with you; they even stand for you.

Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that romanticism has never ended. Movements that have followed it, like realism, naturalism, surrealism, are actually forms of it, extensions of it.

He is also the philosopher who has explained the cause of guilt. That cause is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is what all injustice begins with and embodies—from everyday coldness and snobbishness to racism, economic exploitation, genocide. And our contempt, however murkily, always makes us ashamed. Contempt is the complete antithesis of art.

In this final section of Romanticism and Guilt, Mr. Siegel comments on a work that is very little considered or read today, Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, and he discusses some early sections of that long poem. Peter Bell was mocked a good deal when it appeared in 1819. John O. Hayden, in The Romantic Reviewers, writes that the poem’s “faults” “were generally ridiculed with great glee.” And in the Cambridge edition of Wordsworth’s Complete Poetical Works, editor A.J. George notes that Peter Bell has been “so often the subject of critical sarcasm.” The poem was seen as silly—which, Mr. Siegel agrees, it is. However, he says, it is great in all its silliness; it is a mighty work.

A Popular Holiday

To give an example of how much romanticism is alive today, and how much it stands for people’s hopes, I’ll comment on something that took place a few weeks ago: the holiday of Halloween.

The origins of Halloween are ancient. But it’s agreed that in America what we now associate with the holiday—the combination of costumes and reveling in things weird, supernatural, and scary—began around the end of the 19th century. In recent years Halloween has soared in popularity, and lavishness. Increasingly, people are decorating their homes (inside and out) for Halloween, as they do for Christmas. And it’s no longer just a children’s holiday: adults are participating in Halloween adventures with perhaps even more glee than the little ones. And why?

The reason is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Central to, and all through, Halloween are the very opposites that romanticism was passionate about, loving about, beautiful about.

Let’s take Halloween costumes. People want to wear those costumes because they want to be very other than themselves, while still being themselves. They want to feel—as romanticism showed: The strange, the not-me, is of me: it’s the same as who I myself am! If a young accountant can disguise himself as, say, Groucho Marx or a giant smartphone, he does feel that he is other—that he takes in more than he had seen himself as including; that he takes in the strange. In keeping with Eli Siegel’s great lecture, the putting on of a costume can be a symbolic assuagement of guilt: a person says, I’ve made myself too much apart from things, too unrelated; now I’ll show that what’s very different from me is me!

Then, there are the spookiness and fear so central to Halloween. People have a longing—how tremendous a longing!—to feel they can somehow be comfortable with what scares them, at ease with what they fear. The fearsome is an aspect of strangeness. The comfortable is an aspect of ordinariness. Halloween puts them together. You dress, perhaps, as a vampire or zombie—and, as you walk down the street, you chat with a friend or text someone: the terrifying and ease, the frightening and the comfortable, are, at least for a while, one.

And there are other opposites. People want to let go, be completely free, yet also have order, structure, form. Being in a wild costume that you have carefully planned can have you feel these opposites are closer.

Then, there are those huge opposites good and evil. Can they be one? Through a costume, the nice little boy next door is the Devil, with pitchfork and horns. A woman at your office with whom you enjoy having lunch is clad as a cackling witch. The situation won’t solve everything, but it gives hope that good and evil can make sense.

Halloween, like other things, can be misused. It can, for instance, be an excuse to be mean, and to present the world as repulsive. But its popularity chiefly shows that people are trying to, are longing to, put reality’s opposites together. How we can, is the magnificent study of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Rapturous Sense of Guilt
By Eli Siegel

With Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, in its strangeness, its ridiculous aspect, its funniness in a good sense, we have romanticism talking about guilt. The poem’s subject also has to do with guilt. Lines as famous as any in English literature are in it—lines saying that a person, Peter Bell, does not want to give things any meaning:

A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

This poem caused an uproar, though it’s little known now. It is, I’ll say very plainly, a great poem. It’s funny. I think it’s been underestimated. People keep it out of anthologies because it’s so ridiculous. In the meantime, it is a great poem. And I’m very proud to acknowledge that William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister of England, and Matthew Arnold saw quality in it.

Wordsworth was troubled by the poem. He wrote a sonnet in defense of it later: “On the Detraction Which Followed the Publication of a Certain Poem.” The sonnet is pretty good, and shows Wordsworth angry. These are the first eight lines:

A book came forth of late, called Peter Bell;

Not negligent the style;—the matter?—good

As aught that song records of Robin Hood;

Or Roy, renowned through many a Scottish dell;

But some (who brook those hackneyed themes full well,

Nor heat, at Tam o’ Shanter’s name, their blood)

Waxed wroth, and with foul claws, a harpy brood,

On Bard and Hero clamorously fell.

Wordsworth is saying: With all this making fun of Peter Bell, I still think it’s a good poem (you write about Robin Hood and Rob Roy, don’t you?)—and I’m for it! He should be. He’s right.

An Important Stanza

There is a stanza Wordsworth left out of later editions. It is about damnation, though it seems so frivolous. It’s an important stanza, and means that when people are at parties they’re in themselves and they’re damned—that is, they’re guilty. People made such fun of the stanza that Wordsworth got frightened and excluded it:

Is it a party in a parlour?

Crammed just as they on earth were crammed,—

Some sipping punch, some sipping tea,

But, as you by their faces see,

All silent and all damned.

In the literature of the time, this was often quoted. Shelley quotes it. So does Charles Lamb.

The stanza in which the poem is written is very swift and very tidy. The first line of each stanza does not rhyme. The effect is a little like that of the famous stanza of Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”: there, one line, because it doesn’t rhyme with the others, makes the stanza look ever so strange and ever so welcome, ever so lingering. In the Peter Bell stanza, the first line does not rhyme; then the second line rhymes with the fifth; and the third and fourth lines rhyme. The stanzas are ever so well made.

It Seemed Ridiculous

Wordsworth wrote Peter Bell in 1798, but he waited until 1819 to publish it. The year 1819, among other things, rang with the ridiculousness of Peter Bell.

In the poem’s Prologue, Wordsworth has himself going to other planets, and it’s funny to see him flying in a magic boat. The Prologue begins:

There’s something in a flying horse,

There’s something in a huge balloon;

But through the clouds I’ll never float

Until I have a little Boat,

Shaped like the crescent-moon.

This is the playful Wordsworth—no wonder he didn’t want to show himself in this way in public.

Getting Away from People

Wordsworth is about to sail through the sky in his magic boat. He says to people on earth, “Look up—and you shall see me soon! /.../And ye have all a thousand fears /Both for my little Boat and me!” Then:

Meanwhile untroubled I admire

The pointed horns of my canoe;

And, did not pity touch my breast,

To see how ye are all distrest,

Till my ribs ached, I’d laugh at you!

Wordsworth is saying: I can get away from all of you in my little boat. You have to worry about me—but I could laugh at all of you! About the boat and himself, he writes, “Each is contented with the other.” That is: I don’t like people, but I sure like my boat.

Away we go—and what care we

For treasons, tumults, and for wars?

We are as calm in our delight

As is the crescent-moon so bright

Among the scattered stars.

There are two ways of getting away from where you are: one is to go into yourself, and the other is to take a trip into space. Meanwhile, the critics of 1819 didn’t see how well made the stanzas are. I’m glad to correct them.

Earth Is Remembered

The motif I spoke about in Wordsworth’s “To a Skylark” is here too: as you’re up in space, you remember earth and you like it more:

See! there she is, the matchless Earth!

There spreads the famed Pacific Ocean!

Old Andes thrusts yon craggy spear

Through the grey clouds; the Alps are here,

Like waters in commotion!

The briskness of this is very fine.

He looks out, from above, over the town where he was born, and says it seems “so lovely” that “Thus could I hang for ever.” Then: “‘Shame on you!’ cried my little Boat, /‘Was ever such a homesick Loon!’” Having a little boat talk—I have a notion Wordsworth could not help writing these lines; and then he saw what he wrote, and thought, When I get famous I can publish this. And he waited.

The boat says Wordsworth should not be homesick for the earth, but should “come with me”: “I know the secrets of a land /Where human foot did never stray.” But the boat is not going to be listened to. The other aspect of the skylark Wordsworth wrote about is present: the poet tells the boat he does not want to “forget /What on the earth is doing.” That is the other Wordsworth, who wants to be fully with what’s here.

This conflict—between being far off from things and being here—dealt with unfortunately, puts people in institutions. People do get away from it all—but from themselves too.

Then Wordsworth writes in a way he often does: he wants to find grand meaning in the customary:

Long have I loved what I behold,

The night that calms, the day that cheers;

The common growth of mother-earth

Suffices me—her tears, her mirth,

Her humblest mirth and tears.

He says the boat can do what it wants to, but the poet, the person, is going to see earth. Wordsworth is both the boat and the poet. If I were talking to him I would say, People have found themselves in ever so many things, and there’s no reason, Mr. Wordsworth, why you shouldn’t find yourself in a little boat. You are that boat, too.

Animals Were Given More Justice

In Wordsworth’s preface to the poem there is this:

Founded upon an anecdote, which I read in a newspaper, of an ass being found hanging his head over a canal in a wretched posture. Upon examination a dead body was found in the water and proved to be the body of its master.

The romanticists, Coleridge included, saw animals differently. The seeing of animals differently was an assuagement of guilt. And Wordsworth did see a religious meaning in the ass, or donkey. Throughout Peter Bell, there is that sense of an animal’s having religious meaning; and it does come off.

Early in part one, Bell is striking his donkey:

All by the moonlight river side

Groaned the poor Beast—alas! in vain;

The staff was raised to loftier height,

And the blows fell with heavier weight

As Peter struck—and struck again.

The man is a “potter”; and Wordsworth has this note: “In the dialect of the North, a hawker of earthen ware is thus designated.” Peter Bell has travelled throughout England:

He, two-and-thirty years or more,

Had been a wild and woodland rover;

Had heard the Atlantic surges roar

On farthest Cornwall’s rocky shore,

And trod the cliffs of Dover.

The stanzas continue to be well managed. That thing which Wordsworth is after, the concentration of the lark in the nest and the expansion of the lark in the sky, is present in them.

There is description of a person in himself, very rigid and very cold. We can be pretty sure that this person is Wordsworth too: “He travelled here, he travelled there;—/ But not the value of a hair /Was heart or head the better.”

This is a man completely in himself, wanting to find no meaning anywhere and give no meaning to anything. It’s a horrible picture, but it is presented jauntily:

He roved among the vales and streams,

In the green wood and hollow dell;

They were his dwellings night and day,—

But nature ne’er could find the way

Into the heart of Peter Bell.


In vain, through every changeful year,

Did Nature lead him as before;

A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

When we don’t see the world as more, we feel guilty. And as we reach that most famous stanza of Peter Bell, this inability to see things as more is hinted at as being the beginning of guilt, the midst of guilt, and the culmination of guilt. It is.

It Is Good News

Romanticism asks that the world be seen as more—as having more meaning, more wonder, more things, more relations to selves. Romanticism has been successful. It is going on. And if it makes us feel guilty, that is what Coleridge, Wordsworth, and some others intended that it do.

To be aware that we haven’t seen the world as well as we might is good news—because otherwise, if we dislike the world it isn’t a matter of our seeing, it’s a matter of the world’s badness. The romanticists said: Make sure, before you condemn the world, that you shouldn’t condemn the insufficiency of your seeing. If your seeing is insufficient because of something in yourself, it is rapturously necessary for you to feel guilty. And we, as romanticists, will bring that about: a rapturous sense of guilt. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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Editor: Ellen Reiss
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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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