On New Year's Eve we went to a party in Germany, invited by my brother who lives in the Westerwald. It's a three-hour drive each way, and we didn't intend to stay more than two or three hours at the party, so I cast about for something to break the journey, and increase the proportion of time spent in pleasurable activities rather than speeding along a motorway in winter. A short detour added twenty minutes to the drive, but provided us with two hours stretching our legs up and down the steep hill, overlooking the Rhine, at the top of which perches the ruin of Drachenfels castle.
I had heard of Drachenfels, and seen it in pictures, and had a vague notion it was connected to Romanticism in some way. Along the road up the hill we passed a booth selling trinkets and wind chimes, a mulled wine stall, a wine lounge, a beer garden, a fancy-looking restaurant, and a reptile house called Nibelungenhalle. There was even a little railway up the hill, but the trains were not running on New Year's Eve. I did not see any animatronic dragons, but have a sneaking suspicion that the sign to Fafnir's Lair might lead to one. We arrived relatively late in the day, and everything was closed or closing, so we could enjoy the quiet woods and the magnificent views without too many distractions – walking up in the sunset and back down again in the dark. There was an information panel which indicated, among other things, that the strongest connection to English Romanticism can be found in canto 3 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron had visited in 1816, on his way to Switzerland. I read the poem for the first time the next day.
The sensation behind the poem is familiar to me. In travelling to conferences I have often wished that my wife or children could be with me. This feeling was particularly strong in Venice. I enjoyed the quiet, damp, misty beauty of it during a February conference (in the tourist lull after carnival and before the coming of spring). It was quite literally an awesome experience, but at the same time it was tinged with regret, as I kept wishing that my loved ones were there to share it. And of course I bought them souvenirs – I don't remember what; something tacky but not too tacky, I imagine, since it had to be recognisably a souvenir and not obviously trash; something to show that while in that immensely moving city my mind had also been on them. Nothing quite as trashy, or Romantic, as wilted lilies, though.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks that bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossom’d trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scatter’d cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strew’d a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert thou with me.
And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o’er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of gray;
And many a rock which steeply lowers,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o’er the vale of vintage-bowers;
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,
– Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!
I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must wither’d be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherish’d them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine even here,
When thou behold’st them drooping nigh,
And know’st them gather’d by the Rhine,
And offer’d from my heart to thine!
The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round:
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.