John Lennon, Neo-Romantic


It is a sort of accepted dogma within Beatleology that John was the best lyricist overall, the most verbal person and the most skilled craftsman of words. When one considers the lyrical fragments that have entered everyday speech, more often than not they tend to be John's turns of phrase.

The relationship between autobiographical events in John's life and the lyrical content of his songs has been analyzed, documented, chronicled, and otherwise nattered to death in far too many contexts to justify replication here. We should also note that all discussions of this topic are at best limited, and at worst considerably distorted, by the prejudices and commitments of the writers: a politically-oriented writer will tend to position all of John's writing in that context, a relationship-oriented person will concentrate on that aspect, and so on.

As an incurable (but don't worry, it isn't contagious) Romantic and writer, my prejudices fall into that realm. The point of the exercise at hand, then, will be to attempt an objective examination of John's lyrics in that context, and see what new conclusions or illuminations can be drawn from it.

Not romantic, Romantic!

1. The tendency to cultivate an inner gaze; subjectivity, egotism, withdrawal. This approach is characterized by introspection, a searching inwardness of thought and imagery, and a transference of authority from the external world of forms and legality to the inner world of self-consciousness, private will, and spiritual power. Romantics are intensely personal, drawing on the writer's private experience, with a profoundly biographical element. Knowledge of the poet's life and personality can thus be critically relevant to understanding the work, more true than for other writers.

2. The inward gaze is curiously qualified by being a revolutionary and reformer, at least during the term of greatest creativity. Along with their more subjective works, the Romantics tended to produce political tracts as part of a general commitment to the moral regeneration of mankind. Several of these poets eagerly ought the center of the public stage in an historical moment of great drama and great danger.

3. Whether political or not, the writers all manifested a faith in the ultimate regeneration of mankind. This regeneration was to be achieved through the Romantic imagination, a higher faculty than the rational, one that perceives unity in multiplicity, and creates new wholes from scattered experiential fragments. That form of imagination is viewed as vital, intuitive, organic, and plastic (in the pre-prefab and pre-Fab sense of being malleable as opposed to tacky), animizing the dead or inorganic. A major feature of this regeneration is the dissolution of the dualistic barrier between body and spirit.

Those familiar with John's lyrics and life story have probably deduced by now several instances, whether events, songs, or song-events, linking John's works with these three concepts. Clearly John's work is steeped in the viewpoint of his inner gaze, certainly in the Beatle and early solo years, from "There's A Place" through "Strawberry Fields" to "#9 Dream." Political activism and commentary on current events was part of his Beatle and solo careers, waxing and waning according to various circumstances but always present in some sense. Cultivation of the Romantic Imagination is a near-given, considering that one of his major singles and solo albums both bear the imperative title of "Imagine."

And even up to his death, John maintained some vision of transcendence, of the possibility of humanity to improve itself; the almost mystical notion that there is more to life than is dreamt of in "conventional" religion or philosophy and humanity's ability to experience that while still living in the material plane.

Who Was Who

Given the seemingly obvious connection between John's poetic, graphic, and political works and the central themes of Romanticism, I think it's useful to look more specifically at some of the major practitioners of Romantic poetry and look for overlapping idea, methodologies, and even biographical events. Of the six major Romantic poets, I believe three are of special relevance to Lennon's work: Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.

William Blake, nowadays best known for short lyric pieces such as Tyger, Tyger and The Little Black Boy, is characterized by Bewley as having "severely tested the imaginations of his readers." An unknown during his lifetime, he generally struggled in impoverished obscurity, despite (or due to?) having a very happy family life in childhood. While best known for his poetry, he is also a respected artist, having apprenticed as an engraver. His other talents included line drawing, singing, and guitar playing... although due to the lack of available recording media, none of his musical work has survived.

Blake's major philosophical influences included the tradition of religious Dissent within the Christian framework, and the writings of Emerson with the latter's concept of the over-soul: "thou art a man, God is no more; thine own humanity learn to adore." He combined all of his talents, along with these influences and his personal visions, to produce a full mythological system remarkably similar to Arabian mysticism. He believed the in primacy of impulse and the power of three forms of love: carnal, romantic-emotional, and transcendental. He was politically involved in the issues of poverty, colonialism, child labor.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best remembered as the author of Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was (besides a poet) an intellectual and critic also noted for his use of drugs (laudanum, an opiate, like the wife in the film Tombstone). As famous as Blake was obscure, he is viewed as a tragic figure, the damaged archangel... As a child, he is characterized as petulant, vain, and self-indulgent. His domineering father died when he was nine, and his personal letters especially in later life consist mostly of self-abasing paranoid ranting.

Coleridge also revolutionized literary criticism as part of the overall cultural explosion associated with Romanticism. "The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception." While he concentrated on poetry and criticism, he expected his peer and friend William Wordsworth to deliver the goods on a philosophical/mystical "system," which Wordsworth never did.

Wordsworth's most prominent poetic characteristic was merging his mind or inner landscape with nature and the world around him, the outer landscape, in such poems as The Prelude and Tintern Abbey. A product of a very conventional upbringing, he became quite conservative in later life. In contrast to Blake's visions and Coleridge's application of stimulants, Wordsworth derived most of his material from recalling past experiences vividly and using that perception to to create poetry in the present.

Here's Johnny

Again, readers familiar with Lennon's work will notice overlapping themes and events in Lennon's lyrics and biography that correspond strongly to each of these three poets.

Perhaps the strongest overlap between Lennon and Blake is their involvement in multiple art forms. John studied art in school, and doodled, etched and drew throughout his private and public lives. John also shared with Blake an involvement in the political issues of his time, whether the Vietnam War, the troubles in Ireland, feminism, or capitalist economics. Unlike Blake, he became rich and famous, and rather than producing a mystical or philosophical "system" of his own, tended to adopt, adapt, and finally reject pre-existing systems such as Learyesque Psychedelia, Transcendental Meditation, Primal Therapy, Radical Leftism, Mind Games, and the like. And of course, John constantly wrote about love in all its forms.

John shared with Coleridge the experience of fame and prestige in his lifetime, what certainly seems to be some form of manic-depression, and a marked tendency to seek altered states of perception by chemical means. While not active as critic or analyst of others' works, he did share with Coleridge a belief in the primacy of imagination, and some of his best-known works resemble Coleridge's in their drug-induced vividness.

The most striking correspondence with Wordsworth occurs in the notion of merging the inner and outer landscapes. That is, what is happening and described *externally* is viewed as an extension of, or continuum with, what is happening internally in the mind of the poet. The use of vivid memory as a source of inspiration is best exemplified, of course, in Strawberry Fields Forever.

Indeed, Lennon's merger of the inner and outer landscape is perhaps the most interesting thread to follow throughout his work, and clearly a manifestation of the Romantic tendency to merge dualities into unities. Arguably it begins, as does his vision of the imagination, with "There's A Place." The song, besides revealing an inner world of the imagination for the first time, is based on internally recalled experience of a love relationship ("things you do go round my head, the things you said"). In many ways, the same approach applies to Strawberry Fields as well, as the entire song revolves around a correspondence between John's mind at the moment and his recalled feelings of a childhood playland. The musical expressiveness achieved in the latter cut sets the stage for fruition of the inner-outer merger in several songs, notably "A Day In the Life" where the newspaper's view of life merges with the poet's, "I Am the Walrus" where the electronic media form the outer landscape to be merged with, and finally "Because" where the inner feelings of being blue, turned on, and high are causally united with the external sky, world, and wind.

Perhaps John's greatest achievement was in extending the basic Romantic principles and techniques into new artistic forms: recorded music, film, and "performance art" like the Montreal bed-in and attendant Give Peace A Chance politically-assertive hit single. Significantly, all were delivered to their audiences by means of new, technology-based worldwide communications media. While much of Lennon's work stands up quite nicely on the page, his most heralded and influential works demand access through an intermediating machine: record player, CD player, or VCR.

Fearful Symmetries

As is so often the case with complex socioartistic phenomena, cause and effect tend to occur in loops or spirals and exhibit fractal, nonlinear relationships. While John in many ways was a leader and innovator artistically, he cannot be separated from his times, and certainly there were many influences from that era that tended to push artists in a Romantic direction. I for one recall (yes, recall!) the late Sixties, the Pepper-psychedelic era, as in many ways a self-conscious Romantic revival.

For one thing, the psychological landscape, the mental climate, was chillingly similar. The Romantic period was characterized by revolution in America and France, very similar to Third World and racial upheavals of the Sixties. Institutions like church and state were exposed in both eras as corrupt, controlled by the rich and powerful and used to exploit the masses. Manic visions of personal and social liberation crashed on the rocks of human frailty and led to repression and depression in both cases.

Other artists in various media played a role. The Doors, for example, took their title from Blake via Aldous Huxley ("If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite"). Wannabe English majors, poets, rock stars, critics and teachers of the future enrolled in Romantic Poetry courses, and discussed Lennon and Morrison lyrics along with Blake and Coleridge in their Dead Poets societies.

At the end of the day, one is forced to conclude that John's work both reflected *and* influenced his times, not one or the other. Despite the involvement of modern technologies and forms, John's words and life stand clearly and proudly in the Romantic tradition. The inner truth of that vision of transcendance, love, and the Active Imagination endures to this day, despite all his and our human flaws, and will forever.