Romanticism lives on in the modern era as an emotional, reflective, and reactive criticism of modernity. David Bowie’s collaborations with Brian Eno in late ’70s Berlin exemplify many aspects of Romanticism. If Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy are correct that this movement may be expressed through a multiplicity of artistic forms, then critics have the foundation required for a reading of the albums
Low and “Heroes” as Romantic endeavors in the vein of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s output at the turn of the 19th century. These albums rebel against and express the painful melancholy of a sense of alienation within modern civilization. They evoke tonalities in which critiques of the modern world may be conveyed and they express “the painful and melancholic conviction that in modern reality something precious has been lost… certain essential human values have been alienated.” Low and “Heroes” evoke the discontent felt by Wordsworth and Coleridge and the transcendent aspirations typified by Shelley while dredging up authentic emotion recollected in tranquility for the first time in Bowie’s career; indeed, Bowie is an indispensable figure in rock’s expansion of Romanticism. The intersections of Romanticism with Low and “Heroes” nuance and deepen our contemporary understanding of Romanticism.
Romantic elements are already present on
Station to Station (1976), the enigmatic precursor to the trilogy of albums Bowie called his “Berlin Triptych”. Opening with the discord of a train clamoring along the tracks, this decadent album recalls the omnipresence of industrial society and heralds what Hugo Wilcken, author of a marvelous book on Low, dubs “the theme of restless travel as a spiritual metaphor… present on… Low, ‘Heroes,‘ and Lodger.” This theme is undeniably Romantic. Travel continually inspired Romantics as evidenced by accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft’s expedition to Scandinavia, Wordsworth’s Continental walking tour of 1790, the roving of the Shelley circle in the Alps, John Keats’s pilgrimage to the Scotland of Burns, Gérard de Nerval’s travels to the Near East, and François-René de Chateaubriand’s voyage to America. Readers of the Romantic Age were fascinated by the revelations, and consequent emotions, of explorers, poets, emigrants, and tourists in their published journals and letters. Restless movement inspired by the possibility of the open road pervaded the spirit of those times as it did for 20th century Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, writers who extend the Romantic theme of spiritual exploration and the glorification of motion. Furthermore, the aural landscape of Station to Station, a combination of funk and rock, exhibits the tumultuous colors of Romanticism through its assimilation of diverse sonic material. This hybridization of genre agrees with the Romantic theory of Friedrich Schelling and Henrik Steffans, shared by Coleridge, that organicist conceptions of art provide the essential criteria for gauging aesthetic value. M.H. Abrams expounds this theory in The Mirror and the Lamp:
For a work of art, the gauge of greatness becomes, jointly, the richness—the quantity and diversity—of the component materials, and the degree of beauty varies directly with the multeity: a work of art, as Coleridge puts it, will be “rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.”
Multeity in unity provides the backbone of Station to Station. Bowie’s comprehensive standard of aesthetic value on the album “manifests itself as the Faustian ideal of insatiability, and the unceasing quest to include, and to assimilate to one’s own integrity, the fullest measure of the most diverse experience.” The Thin White Duke, Bowie’s self-invented persona on the album, embodies the Romantic desire to go beyond the limits of nature and custom associated with the Byronic hero figure exemplified by characters such as Byron’s Manfred and Childe Harold, Lermontov’s Pechorin, and Brontë‘s Heathcliff. The Thin White Duke emotes a discontented skepticism towards sexual relationships on “Stay” and an unhealthy fascination with Aleister Crowley’s occultism and the kabbalah of Jewish mysticism on the album’s jarring titular track: both indicating a voracious desire to reach beyond the limits of traditional value systems.
Yet despite the splendid appearance of Romantic myth making on
Station to Station, Bowie’s tone of cryptic detachment on the album is disagreeable with pivotal tenets at the heart of many Romantic typologies. This distant tone instead reflects the art-for-art’s sake aestheticism of the late 19th century “Decadent” movement championed by Oscar Wilde, “an anti-bourgeois Bohemianism or ‘decadence,’ and a pseudo-politics of extravagant gesture conscious of its ineffectualness.” Although anti-bourgeois Bohemianism does fall in line with a few of Sayre and Löwy’s typologies of Romanticism, I believe that the pursuit of ineffectualness is precisely what Romanticism tends to denounce; in my analysis of “Heroes” below I assert that Romanticism frequently answers a genuine call to effect change. The Thin White Duke, on the other hand, was merely masquerading emotion, ironically belting songs with feigned emotional intensity from a hollow emotional core. Although Bowie’s vague spiritual outline of the Duke may indicate that his own astronomical intake of cocaine has taken a heavy psychological toll, any penetrating glimpse of his inner life is blurred by drug-fueled obfuscation and arcane references to oracular mythic obsessions, creating the sense of estrangement we associate with Bertolt Brecht. Bowie was on the brink of psychological collapse during this period, and authentic, expressive Romantic yearnings became essential in order for his next album to fill the psychic gaps left by the Thin White Duke. The turn to curative and expressive Romantic yearning begins during the closing section of the album’s title track. The return to the theme of restless travel, the quest for psychic wholeness and spiritual meaning in a fragmented world, is indicated by the lyric, “got to keep searching and searching and what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?” The lyric “the European canon is here” signifies that Bowie’s return to Europe’s rich cultural heritage and his participation in the Romantic tradition far from the alienating glamour of Hollywood, will spark an artistic rebirth. “I realized that what I needed to do was experiment,” Bowie has said. “To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language. That’s what I set out to do. That’s why I returned to Europe.”
This statement recalls Wordsworth’s own self-proclaimed desire to adopt a new poetic language in his 1800 preface to
Lyrical Ballads, his poetry collection released with Coleridge in 1798, marking the arrival of Romanticism in Britain. Art’s expressive function proves as key for Low as it does for Lyrical Ballads. Low’s lyricism contains key concepts of Romanticism, and Bowie’s turn to minimalism echoes Wordsworth’s own turn to cultural primitivism. Bowie’s articulation of isolation through Low helps him express what Wordsworth calls “those thoughts and feelings which, by his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.” Low’s rejection of outward decadence in favor of self-expression in isolation exhibits how Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” dominates 20th century rock music. This expressive musical language helped Bowie conquer his addictions, delusions, and paranoia, and ushered in the post-punk and art rock of our present age.
Throughout much of the ’70s Bowie wore masks: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke, to name a few. Shelton Waldrep writes, “If the ultimate goal of German Romanticism… was to make objective forms expressive—the ultimate way to express self—then the use of the mask was an ideal way to do this.” Upon his arrival in Berlin after recording some of Low’s material at the Château d’Hérouville in France, Bowie began to speak from the most Romantic mask of all of his self-invented mythic characters: David Bowie. This new persona, David Bowie, was created through self-expression. Bowie refined his expressive abilities in Berlin, began to paint again, and took frequent bicycle trips to the Die Brücke museum where he rekindled his love affair with Expressionism. Bowie set up shop at Hansa Studios near the Berlin Wall surrounded by friends and collaborators Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti. Here, he began an expressive journey that would heal his mind and body from the scars of his well-documented cocaine addiction, manic episodes, and fearful delusions. As his music flourished his psyche healed, and with Low Bowie gave rock one of its most innovative albums to date. While Station to Station derived its raw material from Bowie’s warped perception of outer extravagence, Low derived its material from within his own damaged soul. For the Romantic artist, “more emphasis is placed on the work of art coming from within, on the internal being made external and upon the ‘wondrous exchange’—to use Wordsworth’s phrase—between poetic selfhood and the external world.” Low is best understood then as a “wondrous exchange” between Bowie’s artistic selfhood and Berlin. Bowie’s subject, like Wordsworth’s subject for The Prelude, is the growth of the artist’s own mind; on Low, particular melodies suit certain emotions and particular shifts in cadences map the pathway of Bowie’s ever-shifting emotional journey. The path to universal feeling becomes for Bowie, like Wordsworth before him, blazed through the expression of his personal feelings; much like Coleridge believed possible, each song “assimilates disparate elements” to the purpose of reconciling them into a higher third element with curative potential. Famously, Utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill acknowledged the healing power of Romantic poetry, claiming he found in Wordsworth’s poems the very culture of feelings. The discovery of Wordsworth’s self-expressive poetry helped Mill recover from his mental breakdown at the age of twenty much like Bowie’s own collaborative output with Eno in Berlin helped him overcome his own mental crisis and reconcile disparate elements of modern life through an expressive musical language.
“Speed of Life”, a virtuosic mixture of Eno’s synthetic electronic sounds with organic R&B beats, opens
Low in the spirit of nostalgic yearning. Although lyrics were originally planned for the song, Bowie abandoned them after several unsuccessful attempts, thus heralding the album’s trend of unfinished Romantic fragmentation in pursuit of art’s redemptive power. Much like the motorik of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974), an album that deeply captivated Bowie, the track “conjures up a largely pre-war world of futuristic optimism.” Listeners get the sense they are marching alongside Visconti’s heavily treated Dennis Davis drumbeat towards a brighter, stranger day. For listeners, this futuristic optimism blending the world-changing idealism of Shelley with retro-modernist aesthetics, seems to blur their perception of an acknowledged past with the yearning for a better future. Tellingly, Hugo Wilcken notes that
This nostalgia for a future that never happened was something that Bowie… picked up on; it’s a sadness that informs the second sides of
Low and… “Heroes.” At heart, it’s very much a form of Romanticism.
Next Page (Link below): The Looming Threat of Insanity and Despondency
The Looming Threat of Insanity and Despondency
“Speed of Life” kindles enthusiasm for the journey towards a future perpetually suspended in its own potential, a future that may not occur, but is called forth from the depths of the artist’s imagination. “Speed of Life” is Bowie’s love letter to Isherwood’s romanticized version of Berlin, to
Goodbye to Berlin, the novel adapted into the 1972 film Cabaret, which captured Bowie’s imagination and filled him with an intense yearning for the bohemian culture of Weimar-era Berlin. Sonically, the track reconciles disparate musical genres through its fusion of R&B and electronic music. This hybridization is a direct result of the creative tension between visionaries Bowie and Eno and their traditional rock outfit composed of neo-soul lead guitarist Carlos Alomar, session rock drummer Dennis Davis, bassist George Murrary, and rhythm guitarist Ricky Gardiner. “Speed of Life” is lyrical despite its lack of words. Wilcken aptly refers to the track as “a brief ode to movement.”
Indeed, according to Jonathan Culler, the ode of the Romantic lyric tradition transcends narrative in its attempt not to represent experience, but to become an event in itself: “narrated events [are] subsumed by, trumped by, the present of lyric enunciation.”
 Thus, rock’s abandonment of narrative doesn’t exclude the genre from membership in the Romantic tradition. Like many famous Romantic poems such as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, the track exists as a fragment in isolation. It is Eno, and not Bowie, who may be credited with encouraging these visionary fragments. “He arrived with all these strange pieces, long and short, which already had their own form and structure,” Eno has said. “The idea was to work together to give the songs a more normal structure. I told him not to change them, to leave them in their bizarre, abnormal state.” “Speed of Life” features a frenzy of crashing drums, harmonizing synths, soulful rock rhythms, and cascading synth effects competing for the attentions of listeners, but it isn’t until the second track, “Breaking Glass”, that Bowie starts signing.
“Baby, I’ve been / breaking glass / in your room again,” Bowie croons in a neurotic pitch. “You’re such a wonderful person / but you got problems, I’ll never touch you.”
 Bowie projects his own internal struggles onto someone else, blurring the sense of interiority with exteriority. Wilcken claims that Bowie’s lyrics are
like a conversational fragment in which a psychotic is telling [his girlfriend]
she’s the mad one. It’s a solipsistic world in which the psychosis is projected onto the other… Everything becomes a reflection of the self, until you lose sight of where the self stops and the world begins.
This blurring of the boundary between the self and the external world, this
collaboration between inner and outer landscape, is a Romantic notion reminiscent of Wordsworth’s intuition in his great quasi-ode “Tintern Abbey” that we “half create… what we perceive.” Bowie’s expression of madness also reflects a key leitmotif of Romanticism: the looming threat of insanity and despondency for artists caused by their state of alienation and the neglect of their work.
The fates of Cowper, Chatterton, and Smart combined with the legacy of Goethe’s eponymous protagonist in
The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to blend fiction with fact and create the self-fulfilling prophecy of madness and death for future Romantics. Moreover, Friedrich Nietzche went as far as to define Romanticism based on its connection to madness. “What is Romanticism? …Intoxication, paroxysm, numbness, madness,” he claimed. It became a staple for Romantic poets to suffer from madness brought on by states of extreme melancholy. Bowie’s expression of psychosis caused by alienation is a key feature of his Romanticism echoing themes of the British Romantic poets. Michael Ferber notes that Keats, in his “Ode to Melancholy”, urges readers to “drink in ‘the melancholy fit’ without trying to muffle or distract ourselves, for from it we gain, not philosophic serenity, but sheer intensity of life.” On Low, Bowie’s expressions of madness heighten otherwise mundane experiences, revealing the sheer intensity of his inner life. Like Bowie, Wordsworth explores fears of madness in his poem “Resolution and Independence” with lines such as, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.”
Yet after reflecting on insanity, Wordsworth embodies hope in the form of his leech-gatherer on the lonely moor who provides the poet with strength and “resolution”; similarly, in retrospect, despite Bowie’s own expression of his fear of madness, he has said that “Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair on
Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.” Through lyrics that express his fear of madness, Bowie achieves his own resolution and independence; this becomes evident on the album’s next track, “What in the World”, through Bowie’s tortured insistence that there is “something deep inside of me, yearning deep inside of me, talking through the gloom.” Bowie’s lyrics seek to transcend “the gloom” of modern alienation. Of “Sound and Vision”, the famous single Bowie has called his “ultimate retreat song”, Bowie claims as follows:
It was just the idea of getting out of America, that depressing era I was going through. I was going through dreadful times. It [expressed] wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.
Lyrically, this track expresses Bowie’s emotion recollected in tranquility. The line “drifting into my solitude”
 exemplifies the retreat of Romantic escapism. According to Wilcken, “Sound and Vision” calls to mind Dostoevsky’s Romantic dictum that “Life is in ourselves, and not in the external.” The track “Be My Wife”, a straightforward rocker featuring pub style piano and Alomar’s blazing lead guitar riffs, continues to develop the Romantic theme of restless travel as spiritual metaphor through the lyrics “I’ve lived all over the world / I’ve left every place” and “Please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife.” The need for love has crept back into the soul of the artist after a period of extended restlessness. Bowie himself has said of the track, “I was genuinely anguished,” indicating the heartfelt self-examination of his growth from the erratic adventurousness of youth to the romantic desire for meaningful companionship.
Side two of
Low manifests German Expressionist theories of art through Eno’s ambient soundscapes. Expressionism has deep roots in Romanticism: the intuition of the primordial world was an attractive theme prevalent in the work of both German and British Romantics. Discovering some intimation of this “primary vision” discussed by German poet-philosophers provided visionary artists with a glimpse of a pre-industrial past before the process of reification objectified both commodities and social relationships. The quest for intimations of primary vision thematically links side two of Low not only to the visual artwork of Dresden artists Bowie admired at Berlin’s Die Brücke museum, but also to the work of Wordsworth and Shelley. As Wordsworth elucidates in his great “Ode [Intimations of Immortality]”, the primacy of youth provides a “visionary gleam” which eventually fades away, leaving behind the sobering perceptions of the “philosophic mind.” Wordsworth indicates that primordial elements existing beyond the veil of the external world was a thing perceived at the dawn of life and eventually lost in adulthood:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind,
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be,
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering,
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Years later, Shelley would claim, “When we were children… we less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed… to constitute one mass.”
 Following in the footsteps of this Romantic fascination, Expressionist artists explored this connection between human perception and external nature. August Wiedmann notes that the abiding faith of Expressionists in primary vision “was expressed in ways reminiscent of the Romantics. Like [the Romantics] they… appealed to the ‘syncretic’ vision of the child which, impervious to component detail, perceived reality as a living whole.”
Next Page (Link below): Rekindling the Human Spirit
Rekindling the Human Spirit
Willi Baumeister, a colleague of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, described primary vision as a type of vision that transcends the rational intellect and allows the artist to perceive things in a “non-objective” way. Baumeister imagined that “the world seen thus assumes a strange depth and vastness, an awesome neutrality…which reveals… the oneness of all.”
 This primary vision, thought to reveal the sublime manifestation of Baruch Spinoza’s idea of God in Nature, explored by Shelley in his poem “Mont Blanc”, is exactly what Bowie seeks to glimpse through “the strange depth and vastness” of side two of Low. These ambient tracks explore Franz Marc’s claim that there were preexisting forms in all things and “they have their own speech—why must we interrupt them?” Like Marc, Bowie sought to express uncorrupted forms without pressing them into the mold of rational preconceptions. This inclination is epitomized through the minimalist soundscapes of Eno on Low: an ethereal sonic quest devoid of the interruption—and imposition—of human language.
Although “Subterraneans” originated from Bowie’s
The Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack, he has Eno to thank for inspiring this deeply affecting ambiance. “Brian really opened my eyes to the idea of processing, to the abstract of the journey of the artist,” he recalls. Of the album’s final track, “Subterraneans”, Wilcken notes “there’s an ache to it that is… an abstraction of that universal sense of the sorrow of vanished things.” While Wordsworth mourns the vanished intimations of youth, Bowie’s invented language of “Warszawa” and “Subterraneans” seeks communication with vanished forms that modern civilization has kept hidden from visual artists, poets, and musicians. These tracks have a redemptive force behind them; they offer much-needed hope following the bleakness of “Weeping Wall”, a song capturing the sorrow of the Berlin Wall, and the instrumental expression of a West Berlin cut off from its culture in “Art Decade”. The nonsense lyrics “share bride failing star, care-line, care-line, care-line, care-line, briding me shelley, shelley, shelley, umm” display the Romantic lyric’s attempt to be itself an event. The closing track of Low is the crowning achievement of Bowie finding “strength in what remains behind” in the aftermath of modernity’s blinding of artists from the primacy of their vision. Ultimately, Low expands Romanticism’s quest to intuit and express the true forms and figures of our world.
From his studio control room at Hansa Studios, Bowie could look out the window at the Berlin Wall, as pertinent a symbol for his album
“Heroes” as was the Bastille for the art of European Romantics. Bowie’s feelings at the time seemed to reflect, to “half-create” his Berlin surroundings; Berlin, like Bowie, was bound up in a rebuilding process, everything semi-restored, harkening back to glory days now faded. “Heroes” blends nostalgia with a yearning for a brighter future. Tobias Rüther rightly explores philosopher Ernst Bloch’s idea of non-contemporaneity when discussing “Heroes” in his book Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin. Bloch’s idea that “not all people exist in the same Now” pervades the album. According to Sayre and Löwy, fundamental to the Romantic worldview is a “hostility toward present reality”, a rejection of the alienating present that is “often quasi-total” and “heavily-charged with emotion.” Thus, Bowie attempts to transcend the present state of his own life and the ruinous condition of Berlin by projecting an alternate past and potential future capable of fulfilling an artistic rebirth on the track “Heroes”, which is Bowie’s anthem of ever-becoming. For Bowie, as for Byron, Keats, and Carlyle, on “Heroes” the chaos of the world seems fertile as opposed to destructive; thus the track becomes Bowie’s participation “ever more expansively in the abundance of creative becoming.” Thus, Bowie’s project on “Heroes” is one of Romantic irony. Of this concept Anne K. Mellor states
Romantic irony… is a mode of consciousness or a way of thinking about the world that finds a corresponding…mode. The artist who perceives the universe as an infinitely abundant chaos; who sees his own consciousness as simultaneously limited and involved in a process of growth or becoming; who… enthusiastically engages in the difficult but exhilarating balancing between self-creation and self-destruction; and who then articulates this experience…is producing the literary mode Schlegel called romantic irony. As a literary mode, romantic irony characteristically includes certain elements: a conception of the universe as becoming, as an infinitely abundant chaos; a structure that reflects both this chaos or process of becoming and the systems that men impose upon it; and a language that draws attention to its own limitations.
“Heroes” is Bowie’s never-ending movement towards self-fulfillment, a project that artistically connects his inner desire to the redemption of a city.
Everything about the title track feels hazy, ruinous, and just out of range, with Bowie’s powerfully emotive voice rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Even the recording equipment used for the song was taken from the decaying Hotel Esplanade on Potsdamer Platz, a place Bowie held nostalgia for, as evidenced by the track “Where Are We Now?” from
The Next Day (2013). In its ambitious quest for the renovation of the world in accordance with artistic ideals, “Heroes” draws thematic parallels to Shelley’s “Hellas” and Prometheus Unbound. Much as in “Heroes”, Shelley’s future is not simply “a recreation of a real past, but rather the coming to full flower of all its qualities, qualities that were in bud in the past era.” “Heroes” is an anthem of non-contemporaneity as relevant for future generations as it is for the lovers Bowie describes in his song: Bowie dedicated a live performance of the track to NYC firemen at the Concert for New York City and used the song in the appeal for Africa at London’s Live Aid concert. The call to rekindle the human spirit to the purpose of constructing a better world, no matter how vague in its methods (or in its lyrics), is inherently Romantic. Ferber claims, “in its first high and heroic days, Romanticism answered a call to change the world.” Thus, “Heroes” continues the legacy of the Romantic Weltanschauung.
Eno claims he had “that very word—heroes—in mind” before Bowie even wrote lyrics to the song, evidencing the sonic register of its heroic aspirations. A continuously surging wave reminiscent of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings, Bowie’s deliberate affectation of irony through slapping quotations marks around the album title and its title track doesn’t detract from the authenticity of Romantic yearning. The title track transcends instrumental boundaries through sonic synesthesia, inverting the rigid competition between instruments found on
Low into an intoxicating blend of piano, bass, rhythm guitar, drums, Eno’s portable EMS synthesizer, and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s undulating guitar sound. Just as Keats called for a drink tasting of sight, color, sound, motion, and heat in “Ode to a Nightingale”, the intermingling of instruments on “Heroes” calls for an astute listener to pick them apart; they effectively become as intertwined as the Gordian knot Keats explores in his poem, “Lamia”. Fripp’s lead riff achieves Eno’s dream “of a kind of music that merges in with the background.” A highly intuitive progressive rock guitarist, Fripp’s outfit King Crimson, and the progressive rock genre in general, have their roots in Romanticism. Author Peter Bebergal notes, “progressive rock sits… in the tradition of the Romantic composers [who sought to excavate] a past where they believed a more authentic human spirit dwelled with nature.” Fripp’s progressive drive adds the effect of bittersweet yearning, but also primitivism, as his lauded “Heroes” riff consists of merely three notes played through a guitar plugged into an effects processor linked up to Eno’s synthesizer. Eno lengthened Fripp’s already soaring notes, then played three versions of the track simultaneously to create unprecedented sonic depths. “Heroes” went on to shape the “Shoegaze” genre of the ’90s, an inherently Romantic, “highly sensitive, mournful, marvelous din, [with] no solo guitar… a finely interwoven collective noise to the sobbing of thin young boys” drawing parallels to the Werther cult that was all the rage during the late 18th century.
At the center of the boundless Romanticism of “Heroes” is Bowie’s voice, beginning as a whisper and growing until it is almost cracking from the sheer intensity of its delivery. “Though nothing, nothing will keep us together / We can beat them, forever and ever / Oh we can be heroes, just for one day”
 Bowie exclaims, describing doomed lovers shaming the violence around them in an act of pacifist love, much like Shelley’s imagined heroes in “The Mask of Anarchy”. The inspiration behind the track’s imagery may come from Otto Mueller’s Expressionist painting Lovers Between Garden Walls, an evocative piece Bowie was drawn to at the Brücke Museum. Bowie describes the couple taking refuge by the Wall, “to cause the affair to be an act of heroism.” According to Bowie, the song faces “that kind of reality and [stands] up to it…[to] get on with life from the very pleasure of remaining alive.” Bowie’s elevation of a private moment into the historic and political event of the Cold War helps him transcend the alienation of his present reality through Romantic lyricism.
Despite the lofty idealism of “Heroes”, there are tracks on side two of the record where Bowie seems to work his way through feelings of doubt, feelings shared by many Romantic poets; Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode”, Shelley’s
Alastor, and his “Lift Not the Painted Veil” all come to mind. On “Sense of Doubt” Thomas Jerome Seabrook claims Bowie and Eno
conjure up waves of synthesized sound and effects that evoke the trembling terror of ducking from searchlights on a dark, windy night… [there is] the sense of conflict, which Bowie and Eno struggle to resolve throughout, eventually allowing the song to drift, amid crashes of synthesized wind, into the more reassuring ‘Moss Garden.’
Bowie’s hopes seem to drift along with the wind much like the Aeolian harp revered by Romantic poets, once expressing doubt, then hope, for the human condition. Nevertheless, through Bowie’s expansion of Romanticism, he reminds listeners on his next album
Lodger, his project expanding the Romantic motif of restless travel as a spiritual metaphor, that no matter how dark our times may seem, “Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind, but / Somewhere there’s a morning sky”. This is not a naïve notion. Bowie’s brand of Romanticism affirms the transformative potential of art to transcend the alienation caused by modernity’s degradation of humanity. I like to think that Bowie suggests we can transform our world. After all, in its response to modernity, Romanticism’s grand enterprise inspires us to question the current state of things, to ponder how we might “be heroes / just for one day”.
Next Page (link below): Author Bio, Notes, Bibliography
Paul S. Rowe teaches English literature at Endicott College and Merrimack College. He received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of New Hampshire. He’s also co-editor of
The Charles River Journal, published by Pen & Anvil Press in Boston. His literary criticism, reviews, interviews, and poems appear in Literary Imagination, The New England Review of Books, The Eyewear Blog, and Hollow. A version of this article was expanded from a presentation he gave at the David Bowie Inter/Art Conference at the University of Lisboa.
* * *
 Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 21.
 Hugo Wilcken, Low, (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005), 5.
 Jarvis, Robin, “The Glory of Motion: De Quincy, Travel, and Romanticism,” The Yearbook of English Studies 34, Nineteenth Century Travel Writing, (Modern Humanities Research Association, 2014), 74-75.
 M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 221.
 Ibid., 221.
 Michael Ferber, The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 114.
 Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy, “Figures of Romantic Anticapitalism” in Spirits of Fire, G.A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, eds, (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1990), 61-62.
 Bowie, David, “Station to Station,” Station to Station, LP, RCA, 1976.
 William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition, (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 84-85.
 Shelton Waldrep, The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 17.
 Jane Moore and John Strachan, Key Concepts in Romantic Literature, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.
 Abrams, p.19.
 Ibid., p. 333.
 Wilcken, p. 34.
 Ibid., 35.
 Wilcken, p. 25.
 Ibid., 70.
 Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 36.
 Bowie, David, “Breaking Glass,” Low, LP, RCA, 1977.
 Wilcken, p. 77.
 Wordsworth, p. 68.
 Frederick Burwick, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 12.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, A Nietzsche Reader, (London: Penguin Books, 1978), 109.
 Michael Ferber, Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 21.
 Wordsworth, p. 398.
 Bowie, David, “What in the World,” Low, LP, RCA, 1977.
 Wilcken, p. 87.
 Bowie, David, “Sound and Vision,” Low, LP, RCA, 1977.
 Wilcken, p. 88.
 Bowie, David, “Be My Wife,” Low, LP, RCA, 1977.
 Wordsworth, p. 439.
 Ibid., 439.
 Percy Shelley, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition, (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), 507.
 August Wiedmann, Romantic Roots in Modern Art: Romanticism and Expressionism: A Study in Comparative Aesthetics, (Surrey: Gresham Books, 1979), 230.
 Ibid., 231.
 Ibid., 230.
 Wilcken, p. 132.
 Bowie, David, “Subterraneans,” Low, LP, RCA, 1977.
 Tobias Rüther, Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin, (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 80-82.
 Sayre and Löwy, p.32-33.
 Mellor, Anne K, English Romantic Irony, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 24.
 Ibid., p. 24-25.
 Sayre and Löwy, “”p. 54-55.
 Ferber, p. 114.
 Peter Bebergal, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, (New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2015), 198-199.
 Rüther, p. 136-137.
 Bowie, David, “Heroes,” “Heroes,” LP, RCA, 1977.
 Rüther, p. 137-138.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 Seabrook, Thomas Jerome, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town, (London: Jawbone Press, 2008), 183.
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.
Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2015.
Bowie, David. “Station to Station.”
Station to Station. LP. RCA, 1976.
Low. LP. RCA, 1977.
———”What in the World.”
Low. LP. RCA, 1977.
———”Sound and Vision.”
Low. LP. RCA, 1977.
———”Be My Wife.”
Low. LP. RCA, 1977.
Low. LP. RCA, 1977.
“Heroes.” LP. RCA, 1977.
Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
- Culler, Jonathan. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
The Cambridge Introduction to British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Jarvis, Robin. “The Glory of Motion: De Quincy, Travel, and Romanticism.”
The Yearbook of English Studies, 34. Modern Humanities Research Association, 2014. 74-87.
Mellor, Anne K.
English Romantic Irony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Moore, Jane and John Strachan.
Key Concepts in Romantic Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
A Nietzsche Reader. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
Sayre, Robert, and Michael Löwy. “Figures of Romantic Capitalism.”
Spirits of Fire. G.A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, eds. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1990. 23-68.
Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity. Translated by Catherine Porter. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.
Seabrook, Thomas Jerome.
Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town. London: Jawbone Press, 2008.
Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.
The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
August K. Wiedmann.
Romantic Roots in Modern Art: Romanticism and Expressionism: A Study in Comparative Aesthetics. Surrey: Gresham Books, 1979.
Low. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.
Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.