Westward the Course of Empire Makes its Way


The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,

“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
a voice fell, like a falling star,

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 I would like to have [first editions of] Mademoiselle Maupin and Lélia. To me these books are very strange; they are analyses of Insatiability, the intellectual malady of our times.

Edmond de Goncourt, Journal, April 24, 1871

 The time will come — I firmly believe this — when every young person will not resolve to stick a pistol in his mouth if he can’t become a leading light of the century.

George Sand, Horace.

      The romantics used Idealist and Platonist terminology to express their boundless desire and their endless striving for the impossible and elusive ideal (e.g. the Ideal Woman or die Blaue Blume, which once discovered would fade and die, because no longer virgin or no longer ideal). Of course, this Platonism was not much like the old Platonism — it was  the product of the liberation of desire which followed from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the dissolution of the estates. Anyone could now wish for anything, but few could get what they reached for. The magic of the market did its work,  and the object of desire kept moving just beyond your grasp and had usually been devalued by the time you got it anyway. Everything that is solid melts in air / with usura hath no man a house of good stone, etc., etc.

In the United States das Blaue Blume was located in the frontier West and romantic idealism expressed itself in geographical expansion, with similarly disillusioning outcomes.  In his autobiography the novelist Hamlin Garland shows how his own father had been all but destroyed (and his beloved uncle destroyed) by the failure of their mad idealistic pursuit of perfect homesteads, always further west (first in Wisconsin, and then in Minnesota, Iowa, and finally South Dakota, with the uncle finally losing hope in Washington) until with the son finally persuades the aged romantic not to move on to even worse land in Montana:

My heart filled with bitterness and rebellion, bitterness against the pioneering madness which had scattered our family…. Doesn’t this whole migration of the Garlands and the McClintocks seem like madness?….”Father”, I bluntly said “you’ve been chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. For fifty years you’ve always been moving westwards, and always you have gone from certainty to uncertainty, from a comfortable home to a shanty.”

 Hamlin Garland, Son of the Middle Border

 Garland especially notes the destructive impact of frontier life on women. With idealism it is always the actual non-ideal woman who represents the mundane, the actual, and the imperfect, and she is the one who bears the brunt:

 Ella to some degree doubted whether the life they were all living was worth while. “We make the best of it”, she said “but none of us are living up to our dreams.”

Garland. p. 291

And for the romantic love objects it was much the same:

 Sylvie heaved a sigh. “My friend,” she said “one has to accept things; life doesn’t always turn out the way you want”.

Nerval, “Sylvie”, p. 163

   Westward the course of Empire takes its way:

 The road smokes beneath you, the bridges rumble, everything falls back and is left behind. What is the meaning of this horrific movement? Where are you racing to? Answer! — There is no answer. Everything on earth flies by, and looking askance, other nations and states step aside to make way.

Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls