Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Nostalgia in Byron and Burns

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Nostalgia in Byron and Burns

Article excerpt


Taking Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck's definitive characterisation of European Romantic Nostalgia in 'Der Wanderer' as its starting point, this essay discusses Burns's and Byron's poetic treatment of this particular state of mind. It argues that the poets share an understanding of the richness of nostalgia, even if both have flirtations with sentimentality. They also share certain devices when writing about nostalgia, sometimes used well and rarely but sometimes badly. And for neither is it enough to say, with Schmidt von Lübeck, that 'Happiness is where you are not'. Neither poet would say 'it is the hour', but Byron can pause to notice that it is the 'sweet hour of twilight [...] soft hour', while Burns can suggest we take a 'right gude willie-waught, for auld lang syne'.

Back in 1989 I published an essay on Scott, Byron and nostalgia - but really on Byron and nostalgia, more or less - so there is a certain nostalgia hovering around the present essay already,1 but now as then I am anxious to avoid seeing nostalgia as a marker of Scottishness, except perhaps in the loosest of senses that, mixed with many other things, it might suggest Scottishness without defining any individual Scot. The 'ubi sunt' motif and the expulsion from the Garden are as old as the hills, blue-remembered or otherwise, and as universal. Just possibly national trauma lingers in the linguistic and emotional system on which an individual draws, and through those individuals pre-disposes some cultures to nostalgia, but when one starts to list - Jewish, Russian, Polish, the Confederate States in the USA, Irish, Scottish - the particular sense begins to evaporate. And nostalgia can come sentimentally cheap, as we shall see. But although the theme is as old as any hill, the mental condition is identified only towards the end of the eighteenth century, and in Germany before England or Scotland. It is Heimweh in German before it is 'nostalgia' in English from latinised Greek. It is perhaps the fashionable condition of the Romantic period. The popular usage today is of course of something lost in the past, but more often than not that past is an invention of the present, and is an imaging forth of an amorphous sense of loss, of isolation, the background white-noise of the expulsion from the Garden. Wordsworth's nostalgia for the directness of the child, or Friedrich Schlegel's for a 'real language', are part surely of the same mental state. So let me offer the following, if not perhaps as a definition, at least as a definitive characterisation, of European Romantic Nostalgia, more or less contemporary with its arrival in culture as a 'medical' condition:

Die Sonne dünkt mich hier so kalt,

Die Blüte welk, das Leben alt,

Und was sie redden, leerer Schall,

Ich bin ein Fremdling uberall.

Wo bist du, mein geliebtes Land?

Gesucht, geahnt und nie gekannt!

Das Land, das Land, so hoffnungsgrün,

Das Land, wo meine Rosen blühn,

Wo meine Freunde wandeln gehn,

Wo meine Toten auferstehn,

Das Land, das meine Sprache spricht,

O Land, wo bist du?


Im Geisterhauch tönt's mir zurück:

'Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück!' (2-4, 5)2

The author is Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck, but you may more readily recognise it in a setting by Schubert, or even from a particularly moving and gruelling scene in Edgar Reisz's Heimat II. Burns and Byron are chronologically in at the beginning of a European-wide recognition of this particular state of mind, and both can slip into its sentimental twin with ease. Let us start with what I perhaps controversially will call bad Burns:

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here;

My heart's in the Highlands a chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go. -

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North;

The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth:

Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands for ever I love. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.