ROMANTICISM





ROMANTICISM A profound and irreversible transformation in artistic styles, in cultural attitudes, and in the relations between artist and society is evident in Western literature and other arts in the first half of the 19th cent. In Britain, a stark contrast appears between representative works of the preceding *Augustan age and those of leading figures in what became known as the Romantic movement or ‘Romantic Revival’ in the period from about 1780 to about 1848 (the ‘Romantic period’): *Blake, *Bums, * Wordsworth, *Coleridge, *Southey, *Scott, *Byron, *Shelley, *Keats, *Hazlitt, *De Quincey, *Carlyle, Emily *Brontë and Charlotte *Brontë. To define the general character or basic principle of this momentous shift, which later historians have called Romanticism, though, is notoriously difficult, partly because the Romantic temperament itself resisted the very impulse of definition, favouring the indefinite and the boundless. In the most abstract terms, Romanticism may be regarded as the triumph of the values of imaginative spontaneity, visionary originality, wonder, and emotional self-expression over the classical standards of balance, order, restraint, proportion, and objectivity. Its name derives from *romance, the literary form in which desires and dreams prevail over everyday realities. Romanticism arose from a period of wider turbulence, euphoria, and uncertainty. Political and intellectual movements of the late 18th cent, encouraged the assertion of individual and national rights, denying legitimacy (forcibly in the American and French revolutions) to kings and courtiers. In Britain, the expansions of commerce, journalism, and literacy had loosened the dependency of artists and writers upon noble patrons, releasing them to discover their own audiences in an open cultural market place—-as Scott and Byron did most successfully—or to toil in unrewarded obscurity, like Blake.



Nourished by Protestant conceptions of intellectual liberty, the Romantic writers tended to cast themselves as prophetic voices crying in the wilderness, dislocated from the social hierarchy. The Romantic author, unlike the more socially integrated Augustan writers, was a sort of modern hermit or exile, who usually granted a special moral value to similar outcast figures in his or her own writing: the pedlars and vagrants in Wordsworth’s poems, Coleridge’s *Ancient Mariner, Mary *Shelley’s man-made monster, and the many tormented pariahs in the works of Byron and P. B. Shelley— who were themselves wandering outcasts from respectable English society. From this marginal position, the Romantic author wrote no longer to or on behalf of a special caste but, in Wordsworth’s phrase, as ‘a man speaking to men’, his utterance grounded in the sincerity of his personal vision and experience. To most of the Romantics, the polished wit of the Augustans seemed shallow, heartless, and mechanically bound by artificial ‘rules’ of ^neo-classical taste. Although some (notably Keats and Shelley) continued to employ elements of Greek mythology and to adapt the classical form of the *ode, they scorned the imitation of classical models as an affront to the autonomy of the all-important creative imagination. Well above *Horace or *Juvenal they revered Shakespeare and *Milton as their principal models of the *sublime embodied in the poet’s boundless imaginative genius. In this, they took the partly nationalistic direction followed by Romantic poets and composers in other countries, who likewise rediscovered and revalued their local vernacular traditions. Although inheriting much of the humane and politically liberal spirit of the *Enlightenment, the Romantics largely rejected its analytic rationalism, associating it with the coldly calculating mentality of contemporary commerce, politics, and moral philosophy (as for example in the work of *Bentham). Wordsworth warned against the destructive tendency of the ‘meddling intellect’ to intrude upon the sanctities of the human heart, and he argued that the opposite of poetry was not prose but science. The Romantic revolt against scientific empiricism is compatible with the prevailing trend of German philosophy, notably *Kant’s ‘transcendental’ idealism, of which Coleridge and Carlyle were dedicated students. This new philosophical idealism endorsed the Romantics’ view of the human mind as organically creative, and encouraged most of them to regard the natural world as a living mirror v to the soul, not as dead matter for scientific dissection. In reaction against the spiritual emptiness of the modern calculating age, Romanticism cultivated various forms of nostalgia and of *primitivism, following *Rousseau in contrasting the ‘natural’ man (or child) with the hypocrisies and corruptions of modern society. The imaginative sovereignty of the child, in the works of Blake and Wordsworth, implicitly shames the inauthenticity of adulthood, while the dignified simplicity of rural life is more generally invoked in condemnation of urban civilization. The superior nobility of the past tends also to be, as we now say, ‘romanticized’, although less for its actual social forms than for its imaginative conceptions of the ideal and the heroic, as reflected in Shakespeare, in chivalric romance, and in balladry. Antiquaries of the 18th cent., notably *Percy in his *Reliques and *Macpherson in his Ossianic poems, had won a new respect for the older forms of popular or ‘folk’ poetry and legend, upon which Southey, Scott, and several other Romantic writers drew for materials and forms, notably in the *Lyrical Ballads (1798) of Wordsworth and Coleridge. These kinds of change manifest themselves in the literary productions of the Romantic writers in widely varied ways, as may be expected in a movement that unleashed individualism and that privileged the particular experience over the general rule. In general, though, Romantic writing exhibits a new emotional intensity taken to unprecedented extremes of joy or dejection, rapture or horror, and an extravagance of apparently egotistic self-projection. As a whole, it is usually taken to represent a second renaissance of literature in Britain, especially in lyric and narrative poetry, which displaced the Augustan cultivation of satiric and didactic modes. The prose styles of Hazlitt, De Quincey, Charles *Lamb, and Carlyle also show a marked renewal of vitality, flexibility, subjective tone, and what Hazlitt called ‘gusto’. The arts of prose fiction were extended by Scott’s historical novels, by the sensational effects of *Gothic fiction, and by the emergence of the short story form in the Edinburgh and London magazines. Although Byron, Shelley, and others wrote important dramatic poems, drama written for the theatres is generally agreed to be by far the weakest side of Romantic literature. On the other hand, despite the often vituperative and partisan conduct of reviewing in * Blackwood’s Magazine and other periodicals, this was a great age of literary criticism and theory, most notably in the writings of Coleridge and Hazlitt, and in major essays by Wordsworth and Shelley. Simplified accounts of Romanticism in Britain date its arrival from the appearance in 1798 of the Lyrical Ballads or in 1800 of Wordsworth’s preface (effectively a manifesto) to that collection. Several important tendencies in the latter part of the 18th cent., however, have been recognized as ‘pre-Romantic’ currents, suggesting a more gradual evolution. Among these should be mentioned *’graveyard poetry’, the novel of *sentiment, the cult of the sublime, and the * Sturm und Drang phase of German literature in the 1770s led by *Schiller and the young *Goethe; all of these influences encouraged a deeper emotional emphasis than Augustan or neo-classical convention allowed. Romanticism flourished in the United States in the somewhat later period, between 1820 and 1860, with J. F. *Cooper’s historical romances, *Emerson’s essays, *Melville’s novels, *Poe’s tales, the poetry of Poe, *Longfellow, and *Whitman, and the nature writings of *Thoreau. As for the point at which Romanticism ends, it would be safer to say, especially after the largely neoRomantic cultural ferment of the 1960s, that this end still shows little sign of arriving. The convenient and conventional divisions of literary history into distinct ‘periods’ are particularly misleading if they obscure the extent to which the Romantic tradition remains unbroken in the later 19th cent, and through the 20th. The associated work of *Ruskin, the *Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the Victorian advocates of the *Gothic Revival, indeed displays a hardening of Romantic attitudes in its nostalgia and its opposition to an unpoetical modern civilization; and the same might be said of W. B. *Yeats and D. H. *Lawrence in the early 20th cent. Late 20th-cent. culture displays a spectrum of latter-day Romantic features, ranging from the rebelliousness of rock lyrics and other forms of songwriting, to the anti-Enlightenment themes of post-*structuralist literary theory. Critical opposition to the Romantic inheritance, in the name of *’classical’ ideals, was advanced by Matthew * Arnold in the 1850s, and by some later critics under his influence, including the American scholar Irving *Babbitt, whose book Rousseau and Romanticism (1919} condemned the Romantic movement as an irresponsible ‘pilgrimage in the void’ that had licensed self-indulgent escapism and nationalist aggression. His student T. S. *Eliot continued the anti-Romantic campaign, although Eliot’s own poetry, like Arnold’s, was nonetheless inescapably ‘romantic’ in its nostalgia and sense of alienation. Some damage was done by Eliot’s disciples to the reputations of Shelley and other Romantic writers, from which they have since at least partially recovered. See: M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (1971); M. Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1981); J. McGann (ed.}, The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse (1993); A. Day, Romanticism (1996).



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