Critics of the Romantic Age

The romantic age in England was not only an age of glorious poetry but also of glorious literary criticism. In fact, most of the eminent men of letters of the age were critics as well as creative writers. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Hazlitt, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and De Quincey all contributed to critical literature. But the main critics who gave a direction to the current of literary criticism were Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt and De Quincey, and it will be with them that we will concern ourselves here.

All of them together have often been categorised as “Romantic critics”; but there are easily discernible in them some very important mutual differences of approach as well as opinion, though they share some important features, too. All of them reacted sharply against the neoclassic tradition of Dr. Johnson, the cham of the realm of letters. Further, unlike him, they do not indulge in what is called judicial or legislative criticism, the like of which is embodied in his rather pontificial pronouncements. Their criticism is, with some exceptions, interpretative or appreciative. They get into the mind of the writer whose work they are examining and thus grasp psychologically the nature of his creative activity which gets ultimately crystallised into his work. None of the romantic critics harp-upon the mechanical and time honoured rules and regulations which the neo-Aristotelian critics of yore from the reign of Elizabeth to the eighteenth century had exalted into a fetish. And lastly, most of the romantic critics pafticularly Hazlitt, give critical judgments which are eminently of, what may be called, the “impressionistic” kind: in other words, while dealing with works of literature, they depend on their personal impressions rather than a persistent reference to any well-evolved or well-set body of rules or criteria of judgment. It is these common features which justify their classification into a group, in spite of some important, and many peripheral, heterogenities.

Wordsworth and Coleridge:
Wordsworth and Coleridge pioneered the Romantic Movement in England with their joint work Lyrical Ballads (1798) which has justly been called the Magna Carta of Romanticism. Wordsworth thought it appropriate to append to the first edition of the work an “Advertisement” embodying his radical views regarding the nature and function of poetry. These views were elaborated and some observations added in the “Preface” to the 1800 edition of the work. Wordsworth said some nice things about poetry and poets, but his observations on “poetic diction” met with little approval and were contradicted by none other than his best friend Coleridge himself.
It was to a large extent, under the wave of democratic enthusiasm generated by the then recent French Revolution that Wordsworth recommended as subjects of poetry incidents and characters from humble and rustic life. He insisted that poetry was in the “countenance of all science.” He gave the poet a high and important office. And here is his well-known description of poetry: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
So much, so well. But when Wordsworth goes forward with his theory of poetic diction he is on a really treacherous ground. He writes in the “Preface”: “The principal object then proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men.” And further: “It may be safely affirmed that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.” There was a point in Wordsworth’s condemnation of the “gaudy and inane phraseology” of many of his predecessors and even contemporaries; but he broke too many windows in his desire for fresh air. That Wordsworth’s conception about the language of poetry was unsound is best exemplified by his own practice. Some of his best poetry uses a language far removed from the language of ordinary people.
Wordsworth’s status in the history of English criticism is, then, not exceedingly high. Coleridge as we have said, took upon himself to expose the hollowness of Wordsworth’s notions. In Chapters 17-20 of his Biographia Literaria he pursues to the end the critical hares started by Wordsworth’s “Preface.”
That Coleridge was a great critic has been acknowledged by almost everybody who has written about his criticism. In fact most critics give him the first Fank among the hierarchy of English critics. As Symons observes in The Romantic Movement in English Poetry, Coleridge had “imagination, insight, logic, learning, almost every critical quality united in one; and he was a poet who allowed himself to .be a critic.” As a critic, Coleridge was a pioneer in many respects. For instance, he gave a new conception of the very function of a critic which according to him should be to appreciate and interpret and not to judge. He condemned the contemporary “reviews” “because they teach people rather to judge than to consider, to decide than to reflect.” According to George Watson, “his own method presupposed a delicate and enquiring reverence for all of man’s creation, and a passionate curiosity to explore its depth.”
Coleridge’s conception of the poetic process needs some elucidation. He believes that for the existence of truth there must be a knower and a known, a subject and an object, or the Self and Nature. Out of the interaction and fusion of the two arises a creative work. This work is neither Self nor Nature but a different entity altogether-tertium quid- having laws of its own. Poetry, thus, is a “counter-action” offerees and has “a logic of its own as severe as that of science and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more and more fugitive causes.”
Coleridge’s Shakespearean criticism should be studied in the light of his conception of the creative process. The neoclassical critics like Dr. Johnson considered Shakespeare to be a great dramatist on the ground that “Shakespeare is, above all writers…the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.” To mirror nature is, according to Coleridge, none of the functions of a poet. Poetry is neither Nature nor Self but the outcome of the counteraction of the two, and, therefore, an independent entity with laws which it is the function of a true critic to explore and explain. A genius works organically, not mechanically. A poem is not just created by a poet; it grows within him like a plant from a seed. “Shakespeare”, observes Coleridge, “goes on creating and evolving B out of A and C out of B and so on, just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body and seems for ever twisting and untwisting its own strength.”
Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination may also be here referred to as an example of his critical profundity. Fancy, says he, “has no other counters to play with but fixities and defmites” and is only a “mode of memory.” But the true imagination is esemplastic and given to “re-create, idealize, unify.”
Coleridge’s literary criticism seems to be part of a comprehensive system of aesthetics which he might have contemplated to proffer at some later stage of his life. It is also near enough the metaphysics of the German Philosophers like Lessing, Schlegel and Kant who seem to have influenced Coleridge quite considerably. A point of interest to note is that though Coleridge was a really great critic-and was acknowledged as one by most of his contemporaries-he did not create a “school” of criticism. He was revered by a large number of poets and scholars. “The young men,” says George Watson “who crowded to his house in Highgate in the last years of his life, among whom (according to Carlyle) he enjoyed the reputation of a sage, sought wisdom of a kind too generalized and too occult to turn them into good critics-indeed, into any kind of critic.”
Charles Lamb:
Lamb had neither the profundity nor the philosophic training of Coleridge-his friend since their schooldays at Christ’s Hospital. His approach to criticism in particular and literature in general was amateurish, not professional like Hazlitt’s. The bulk of his total critical work is very slight-about fifty thousand words, but it includes some of the most perceptive criticisms ever made by an English writer. Lamb did not have any elaborate critical theories to guide him, nor did he ever turn to “authorities” whom he could have invoked to his aid. He depended on his own taste, which, for all that we know was quite selective and quite sound in its essentials. He did not, unlike Coleridge, bring to bear a system of aesthetics on the study of literature. Almost the whole of his critical work is descriptive and may be termed “applied criticism.” Tillyard observes in Introduction to Lamb’s Criticism: “Of English masters of theoretical criticism Coleridge is the greatest, of applied, in a sense, Lamb.”
Lamb was a great revivalist. His anthological work, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, with his critical comments, helped much to revive contemporary interest in the then forgotten dramatists of yore. His enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment of the works of the cluster of lesser dramatists contemporaneous with Shakespeare and Jacobean dramatists did not go ineffective. “The book,” say Moody and Lovett, “did much to revive the almost extinguished fame of the lesser dramatists grouped about Shakespeare. It is one of the earliest as well as the most significant products of the new romantic criticism.” Apart from these dramatists, Lamb was interested in such out-of-the-way writers as Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Fuller, and Walton. He read and reread their works, and while he did not read he brooded over what he had read. In his own words, he extremely enjoyed “hanging over (for the thousandth time) some passage in old Burton, or one of his strange contemporaries.” One of the.results of the persistent “hanging over” was, of course, the archaisation of his own prose style.
Lamb’s criticism of Shakespeare has the strength and weakness of his own taste. His remarks on Lear (as also on Webster’s Duchess of Malfi) have rightly become an indispensable part of the English critical heritage. To quote Tillyard, “he succeeded in penetrating so near the truth.” His contention about the lack of stage-worthiness of Lear and other Shakespeare tragedies is, of course, not to be accepted today. His defence of the comedy of manners is interesting even now. Like Dr. Johnson he is swayed by moral considerations (even of the Victorian type) though he can make bold to give them an occasional holiday. He admits that this kind of comedy is morally unsound. “The business of their dramatic characters will not stand the moral test.” Even then: “I am glad for a season to take an airing beyond the diocese of strict conscience-I come back to my cage and restraint, the fresher and more healthy for it. I wear my shackles more contentedly for having respired the breath of an imaginary freedom.”
William Hazlitt:
Right up to the modern times Hazlitt as a critic has been placed by most writers not only beside Lamb but also Coleridge. Witness, for instance, the words of Compton-Rickett: “With a large measure of Dryden’s freshness and acumen he combines the romantic fervour of Coleridge.” And: “As a critic of Elizabethan literature he is more reliable but less eclectic than Lamb.” And so forth. But George Watson in his recent book The Literary Critics has toppled his position— presumably for good. Hazlitt’s critical work was of the nature of a pot-boiler. In his own words his self-appointed task as a critic was “to feel what is good and give reasons for the faith that is in me.” On this George Watson comments : “To feel well, however, implies a wide and delicate sensitivity, and to give reasons that matter, calls for analytic gifts, Hazlitt’s criticism has enjoyed a sizeable reputation for more than a century but it is doubtful if it will bear examination on either count. For sensitivity, he possesses only a familiar clutch of a priori notions of a romantic radical born a little too late; and since he never pursues analysis beyond a few phrases, we are not entitled to suppose that he was capable of it.”
Watson points to Hazlitt’s deficiency of reading which he himself admitted and which earned him the rebuke of Leslie Stephen: “To claim to have learnt nothing from 1792 to 1830 is almost to write yourself down as hopelessly impenetrable.” Much is made of Hazlitt’s criticism of Shakespeare (particularly his characters); but, as Watson says, “he commits the elementary offence of detaching figures from their contexts, as Schlegel and Coleridge rarely do.” Much is also made of Hazlitt’s so-called “gusto” and his “nervous,” “vivid”, and “copious” style. But this is what Watson has to say : “And yet, when all is said, what are the merits of it all beyond a few telling phrases? Hazlitt’s language has at times a certain splendour, but a splendour flyblown and empty of significance, like a schoolboy in a hurry with his homework anxious to impress a master with a taste for rhetoric. His language abuses meaning…Hazlitt, as usual, is not saying anything, he is simply making a noise to suggest to us that he is, or has been, excited about something…He is the father of our Sunday journalism…His criticism is void of scholarship even in the most elementary sense…Unless one looks to criticism for a few portable phrases-such phrases as those concerning Dryden’s ‘magnanimity of abuse,’ or- Scott’s ‘pleasing superficiality’ as a poet-Hazlitt is not even of pass quality as a critic of English.”
De Quincey:
De Quincey’s criticism is more perceptive and much less “airy” than Hazlitt’s. In spite of its sporadic and fragmentary nature it is interesting as the embodiment of the reactions of a sensitive and responsive mind. He has his faults. Watson observes: “His faults are not the faults of the doctrinaire, but simply those of a good man in a hurry, anxious to be fair, remarkably judicious, but too eager for his monthly cheque to be careful of fact and detail.” De Quincey excels in the analysis of his own emotional reactions, but unlike Hazlitt’s his reactions grow out of a depth of reading. “On the knocking of the Gate in Macbeth” is the most penetrating attempt of its kind.
De Quincey’S’perverse criticism of Keats, however, is in rank bad taste. Let us conclude with Watson’s words : “There is an underlying austerity in De Quincey’s criticism (notwithstanding the gorgeous exuberance of his prose), a faculty for reasoning at length of which Wordsworth and Hazlitt were utterly innocent, and a conscientious determination to get the right answer which Hazlitt did not share at all.”

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