Like wood fire or the tide coming in, Hatnote’s Listen to Wikipedia website is a process you could watch forever. Using a musical scale that seems lifted from ancient China, it translates Wikipedia edits into sound. Whenever a user tweaks an article, the site plucks a twangy note, varying in pitch depending on the change’s size. Whenever a new user joins, a chord swells in the background. The effect is meditative and strangely stirring, accompanied by visuals like rippling water. Watching the articles and usernames pop up creates the sense of harmonious human activity surrounding you. Never mind that each edit is as likely to decrease the store of human knowledge as it is to increase it; the site’s design is to inspire. And it does. It is a contraption to marvel at.
Without any context, I showed Listen to Wikipedia to my high school students. Pleased by its sound, they listened and worked for several minutes before asking what it was. The explanation produced boggled faces without exception. It was the same thrill, I explained to them, that the British Romantics felt when they discovered the Eolian Harp.
Listen to Wikipedia is the perfect analogue to that piece of eighteenth-century kitsch that Shelley and Coleridge found so inspiring. When the wind hit it at the proper speed and angle, an Eolian Harp made music, just as this website made songs from Wikipedia revisions. The translation of natural force into harmonious art was a Romantic ideal. This made Listen to Wikipedia a handy object lesson. But I ran into trouble when I realized that for these tenth graders, there was no hesitation to label the Internet a natural force.
I had gained some ground with this analogy between the Harp and Listen to Wikipedia, but it was more or less impossible to communicate their differences. And these differences are fundamental. While Listen to Wikipedia elevates an internet archive into a piece of music, the Romantics looked beyond human ingenuity for their inspiration. While this difference may not seem troubling at first, what inspires our music should matter to us, and no artist makes that claim more convincingly than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge is often written off by readers as a pudgy let-down. Shoved next to Wordsworth in all the anthologies, he seems condemned to live in the older poet’s wiry shadow. His reputation as a scholar depends on his Biographia Literaria, a book both tedious and plagiarized. As a poet, his fame rests on a modest number of pieces which, despite their complexity and age, are still well known in the classroom. “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” has been confusing English-speaking schoolchildren for two centuries. Though it can be difficult to untangle its twisted syntax, the poem is always dazzling. The general consensus is that after his early effervescence, Coleridge fizzled. Eclipsed by his friend Wordsworth, he retired to a life of closeted scholarship and self-pitying odes.
It is true that Coleridge lacked Wordsworth’s knack for sustained eloquence. He also suffered from a debilitating addiction to laudanum–a dangerous but commonly prescribed concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. But he had an unequaled talent for finding concrete symbols for philosophical ideas. In “Kubla Kahn,” Xanadu represented the dizzying heights of luxury and power. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the waterfall, subtle as inspiration, stirred the leaves of trees. And most famous, “The Eolian Harp” gives us the preeminent Romantic symbol for the poetic process.
The poem is set in a garden around sunset, where Coleridge is cuddling his lover Sara, and listening to the sea. Mingled with that sound is the music of the Harp, to which Coleridge directs his poetic attention. At first, there is an associative blur between the feelings stirred in him by Sara, and those the Harp evokes. He tells her to note:
“How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong!
The metaphor is apt and sexy, evoking the pulses of the breeze as it makes music through the instrument. But Coleridge’s consideration of the Harp soon becomes more philosophical. “Where the breeze warbles,” he writes, “…the mute still air | Is Music slumbering on her instrument.” The air has shifted roles, from an insistent lover to Music itself. From this metaphor scholars extrapolate Coleridge’s whole conception of art.
If the air is Music, then Coleridge must see nature as the source and soul of art. The poet’s role, like the Harp’s, is to orient himself toward nature to best translate its power. If the poet is the Harp catching the wind, his poetry is the music the wind makes through the harp. It is a beautiful metaphor which allows Coleridge to envision poetry as a process fueled by nature.
Shelley picked up this metaphor in his later work, and his “Ode to the West Wind” hinges on similar images. These poems show that if British Romanticism is a cathedral, Nature is what was worshipped there. Nature was their model, fuel, and inspiration; the cornerstone of the whole movement.
The difference between “The Eolian Harp” and Listen to Wikipedia is their source of artistic inspiration and sustenance. The secret of the Harp’s thrill is that it translates a natural phenomenon, a movement we don’t control, into spontaneous art. This is precisely what the Romantics hoped to do in poetry. Yet Listen to Wikipedia translates the Internet into song. Both the inspiration and the song are man-made. This difference is profound. It indicates a transition from a culture inspired by otherness to a culture inspired by its own ingenuity.
There is a Pygmalion gravitas to watching students gape in awe of the Internet. Of course, the British Romantics were no strangers to the self-aggrandizing tendencies of art. Like us, they loved to elevate the makers of culture above culture itself, and our obsession with the artist-celebrity is arguably part of our inheritance from this era.
If Brad Pitt had a clubfoot, a pension for forbidden men as much as forbidden women, and had died in a Greek rebellion, he’d be Lord Byron. Byron pioneered our modern conception of the artistic celebrity: the turning of boldness, talent, and sexuality into mass-marketable products. Along with his incredible gift for intricate plots and the enjambed line, they made him famous. But he, too, was a student of Nature. “She Walks in Beauty” is one of the best love poems in English, and it praises its dark subject by calling her a cloudless night.
It is quite a different thing to praise the Internet by means of the Internet, to take our inspiration from a source of our own making. This is precisely what Listen to Wikipedia does, because it serves no purpose but to translate a digital archive into art. Both pieces of culture turn raw force into refined art, and while the Harp shares a sense of spontaneity with poems like Coleridge’s, Listen to Wikipedia does not carry the same sense of transcendence, because it translates a weaker force. The most enduring message of the Romantics is to look for inspiration outside of human industry. Though they were fascinated by culture and conscious of their contribution to it, they sought transcendence in nature because it is ultimately eludes human comprehension and control.
Public contributions to the Wikipedia, it’s true, are potentially endless. Furthermore, a large portion of the edits the website tracks are actually made by automated bots, which might inspire some to consider the archive a kind of self-governing natural force. But automation is not autonomy. Wikipedia’s growing complexity only means the jack-in-the-box we’re winding is getting larger and more complicated. Its power to surprise us is increasing. But it can never transcend us (in the philosophical sense) in the way the Romantics believed nature did.
To say the Romantics were smarter or more moral because they were inspired by nature would be both bad history and misguided chronological snobbery. But Listen to Wikipedia is a small sign that ours might be an age of dwindling aesthetics. There is elegance in Wikipedia’s construction, but to elevate that structure into music shows that we are satisfied with an intellectual culture that is increasingly about itself. Flawed as they were, it would be worthy of us to reclaim the best parts of our inheritance from the Romantics along with the worst. For their poems are reminders that without true otherness, there can be no transcendence.