First came the writers and the poets, then the artists, and finally, the musicians. An elderly German stood beside me and told me of the Romantics who travelled along this river two hundred years ago, including several from Great Britain. We stood there admiring the view of the Rhine through a small opening in the trees high above Oberkassel, and in just a few short moments, this passing stranger had planted a seed that would become the inspiration for me to learn about Romanticism, the Middle Rhine and its historical connection with my home nation.
I went home, put on the kettle, selected some music, which naturally included Wagner’s Das Rheingold, downloaded several e-books, and began to immerse myself into a world of castles and revolutions, art and literature. The more I studied, the more I realised how much I didn’t know. The more I visited, the more enchanted I became. The more I read, the more humble I felt.
The Romantic Period lasted roughly from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. To put this into a European context, this period included The French Revolution, The Napoleonic Wars and The Industrial Revolution.
The early stages of the French Revolution were a source of inspiration for many Romantics. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a revolutionary document which stated that ‘Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights.‘ When you compare this with the autocratic style of rule that was common at the time, then it is easy to see why this was generating so much interest. William Wordsworth, who spent a lot of time in France, said in his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, ‘Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’ But Romantics’ support reduced over time and Wordsworth stated later in The Prelude that ‘Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence For one of conquest, Losing sight of all which they had struggled for.’ The Prelude was not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, and perhaps the quotes I have chosen give only a small glimpse into how one person viewed this, but I think it is fair to conclude that, in one way or another, the events in France had a big influence on Romanticism and, as you will read later in this post, the Rhineland too.
And it was not the only revolution of the time. The Industrial Revolution was also transforming the way people lived and worked. In Britain, the cities grew rapidly, the infrastructure and housing was unable to cope, and people lived in crowded and squalid conditions. The factories created jobs but the work was often monotonous, dangerous, physically demanding and privileges such as paid holidays were unheard of.
So life was tough for many people, and it seems the Romantics, and those who enjoyed their work, liked to escape to nature, history and legends – and the Rhine Valley had all of this in abundance!
As they travelled south past Bonn – the former home of Beethoven – the Castle Drachenfels would have given them a first taste of what was to come. I took and edited the photo below to help imagine how the Romantics might have felt as they travelled along this dramatic valley on their approach to the Upper Middle Rhine region, which I think is the most alluring stretch of water on this journey.
Lord Byron passed through here on his way from England to Switzerland, which he described in his autobiographical third canto, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published in 1816. Here is a short extract:
“Away with these! true Wisdom’s world will be
Within its own creation, or in thine,
Maternal Nature! for who teems like thee,
Thus on the banks of thy majestic Rhine?
There Harold gazes on a work divine,
A blending of all beauties; streams and dells,
Fruit, foliage, crag, wood, cornfield, mountain, vine,
And chiefless castles breathing stern farewells
From gray but leafy walls, where Ruin greenly dwells”
– Lord Byron
This was written at a time when the castles lay in ruin after being attacked by invading armies and these abandoned reminders of the past fuelled the imaginations of the Romantics. Most of these castles have long since been restored and are an important part of the region’s charm. When you travel along the river by boat, looking out from near the bow, you can often find yourself surrounded by steep hills to the front and sides, each turn of the river revealing a new vista and another castle – like a wonderful story that gradually unfolds along the route.
Lord Byron was extremely popular and his poem ‘The Corsair’ sold ten thousand copies on its first day of print. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that several British writers – inspired by the words of Lord Byron and maybe Mary Shelley too – wrote travel books about the Rhine in the 1820s which helped to promote the region to a growing middle class of British people who were making enough money from the Industrial Revolution to afford holidays abroad and who were now free to travel after the lifting of Napoleon’s continental blockade which had attempted to stop Britain from international trading.
Here is a short extract from Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, told through the fictional character Henry Clerval:
“The mountains of Switzerland are more majestic and strange, but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river that I never before saw equalled. Look at that castle which overhangs yon precipice; and that also on the island, almost concealed amongst the foliage of those lovely trees; and now that group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village half hid in the recess of the mountain. Oh, surely the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man than those who pile the glacier or retire to the inaccessible peaks of the mountains of our own country.”
– Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Do you notice any similarities between the above two extracts from Byron and Shelley? Thinking about this for a few moments helped to give me an appreciation of the Romantic style of writing. But back to the Rhine Valley. Henry Clerval could have been describing one of two castles that were positioned on an island in the middle of the river. The first is Pfalzgrafenstein, known as the Pfalz and shown in the photo below. This leads me to another British writer who travelled the Rhine, Ann Ratcliffe. She was not on my list of Romantic writers, but because she wrote in a Romantic style and provided such a fascinating description of the Rhine Valley in 1798, which included for example, observations of peasants walking with baskets on their heads, gloomy structures, wild mountains and dark forests, I couldn’t resist the temptation to include some information from her book in this post. So what I was originally going to write here about the Pfalz was that passing boats had to stop and pay taxes to the local landowner before being allowed to continue; a chain across the river ensured everyone paid. But Ann Ratcliffe gave a more interesting insight. In her relatively short journey from Mainz to St. Goar, a distance of perhaps sixty kilometres, she had to stop and pay a toll five times. The right side of the Rhine was what she called an ‘intermixture of German territories‘ ruled by bishops and Princes who no doubt all wanted an income from this major transport route. She told of how the toll-collectors would not board the boats, so the boatman or a member of his crew had to go ashore to make the payment. However, when Ratcliffe and her travel companions reached Kaub, the boatman had to walk around the streets of the town to look for the officer as he was nowhere to be seen. I can imagine that the long line of castles along this short stretch of the river, including the one overlooking the Pfalz, would have been intimidating to those who gently rowed their boats along this river; no one would surely have dared to go ahead without paying, even if the toll collector couldn’t be found!
The second island castle is the Mäuseturm (mouse tower) which holds one of the many local legends of this area; a greedy bishop filled the tower with food and when heavy floods caused a famine, he refused to share his food with the hungry villagers. He was eventually eaten alive in the tower by the mice!
I’m not sure of the accuracy of this story or my précis of it, especially as Ann Ratcliffe told a similar story but with rats instead of mice, but as it was partly imagination and subjectivity as opposed to rationale and reasoning that defined this era, I will continue to allow my words to flow! There were also many versions of the Lorelei myth, the first in 1801 by Clemens Brentano, which is the story of a beautiful women with blond hair who used to sing from the top of the Lorelei rock and cause passing ships to crash whilst navigating the narrow and dangerous stretch of river that runs below. Heinrich Heine wrote a famous poem about this, which Friedrich Silcher later made into a song.
During Napoleon’s reign, the left bank of the Rhine was annexed by France and the old feudal systems replaced with the French constitution. The opposite side of the river was also conquered by France, but left as a satellite state without reform. From what I can gather, most of the British Romantics I’ve mentioned – Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and Turner – travelled down here just after this period, although because they travelled extensively, it’s difficult for me to be sure. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that when they visited the region, it must have been a fascinating place and one that was edging slowly towards the formation of a single nation, and one with connections to German Romanticism. Evidence of this history is easy to find. The steam boat in the picture below is named after a famous German Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and on the outside wall of an Oberwesel tavern is a plaque which tells us that in August 1843, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, another Romantic, first sung Lied der Deutschen in front of friends and wine producers in Zum Goldenen Pfropfenzieher (the Golden Corkscrew). This song would later become the German National Anthem. A few miles away, high up on a hill above Rüdesheim, is the Niederweld monument, which was built in 1883 and inaugurated by Emperor Wilhelm I to commemorate the unification of the states which now make up Germany.
I think the natural beauty of the Rhine valley is all the more attractive for centuries of human activity; man has built, destroyed and restored castles and medieval walled towns; terraced steep hills to create space for the vineyards; made the mighty river navigable; laid railway lines, footpaths and cycle paths; filled the river with cruise ships, leisure boats, barges and ferries; catered for tourists with restaurants, wine taverns, youth hostels and guest houses. But there is one aspect of this section of the Rhine which is worthy of note; there are no bridges, that is apart from the ones near the big cities of Bonn, Koblenz and Mainz. This means that, despite all this development, the river valley is largely unspoiled. I particularly notice this when visiting the nearby Moselle valley, an area of comparable beauty and one of my favourite places to visit, but with its many modern bridges, it also makes me appreciate this unique feature of the Rhine.
And so I wonder what the Romantics would think of the Rhine today, a tourist destination that they helped to create. J. M. W. Turner’s paintings of the Rhine certainly give me the impression it was a lot quieter back then. But in contrast, Ann Ratcliffe gave a detailed description of timber being floated down the Rhine. I found this to be almost incomprehensible; the trees which had been felled were used to form what she said was like a floating island that was up to one thousand feet long, ninety feet wide and seven feet deep. That is about three hundred metres long, or the length of six olympic-sized swimming pools! On top of the trees, apartments, a kitchen and storehouses were loaded and five hundred labourers helped to row and steer the enormous raft on its extraordinary voyage from Andernach to Dort in Holland. Two thousand pounds of fresh meat and six tons of beer would have helped to keep the crew well nourished and refreshed, and fifteen smaller boats accompanied them on their amazing adventure. It must have been quite a spectacle and probably not very quiet!
One night whilst writing this, a storm began to liven up the evening; the summer weather in the Rhineland is often warm and humid – a climate the Riesling grape appreciates – and occasionally followed by quite spectacular storms. If a Romantic poet or artist had been alone at night, perched on a hillside near a castle, violent streaks of light illuminating the sky, vigorous bursts of fresh air shaking the trees, loud claps of thunder echoing down the valley, thrashing rain washing away the soil, then it would be easy to understand how awe-inspiring views of nature and powerful emotions might filter through into their work.
One thing is for sure; travel experiences were very different when the Romantics visited this area. Here are some more pictures of the Middle Rhine Valley today. I will let you decide what the Romantics would think of it…
Citations, Quotes & Annotations
- Wordsworth, William. The Complete Works of William Wordsworth: The Prelude, Lyrical Ballads, Poems Written In Youth, The Excursion and More. Kindle ed. n.d.
- Byron, Lord. The Works of Lord Byron. Vol. 2. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, M.A., Hon. F.R.S.L. Kindle ed. New York: John Murray, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Kindle ed. n.d.
- Radcliffe, Ann. Journey Made In The Summer Of 1794. Kindle ed. 1795.
© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.