The Romantic Age (1798-1832)

It must be pointed out at the very outset that “romanticism” is a thoroughly controversial term, and to define it is as hopeless a task as ever. F. L. Lucas in The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1948) counted as many as 11,396 definitions of romanticism. And none of them is completely off the target A few of the most important definitions may be glanced at here.

According to Theodore Watts-Dunton, the’ Romantic Revival was equivalent to the “Renascence of Wonder.” According to Walter Pater, romanticism means the addition of strangeness to beauty (whereas classicism is order in beauty). Herford points out that the Romantic Movement was primarily “an extraordinary development of imaginative sensibility. Cazamian observes:” The Romantic spirit can be defined as an accentuated predominance of emotional life, provoked or directed by the exercise of imaginative vision, and in its turn stimulating or directing such exercise.” The bewildering mass of such definitions has led some critics to recommend the very abolition of terms like “romanticism” and “classicism” altogether. Let us quote one of such critics : “I ask you to distrust the familiar labels,-‘classical,’ ‘neo-classical,’ ‘pseudo classical’, ‘pre-romantic’ and all the others. I sometimes doubt if we shall ever understand the poetry of this century [the eighteenth] till we get rid of the terms ‘classical’ and ‘romantic’ in one and all of their forms. Johnson, Coleridge, and Hazlitt- perhaps our three greatest critics-did not find the need of them; nor should we.” Likewise, F. L. Lucas finds romanticism a wholly wooly term fit only for slaughter. Nevertheless, these terms have been retained in criticism because they are useful, even if not very accurately definable.

A Reaction:
The Romantic Movement was a European, not only an English, phenomenon. Its repercussions were felt towards the end of the eighteenth century, but its efflorescence came at different times in different countries and in different ways. Germany was perhaps the first country to manifest a marked change in its sensibility which affected its philosophical thought more than literature. England turned romantic about the beginning of the nineteenth century, and France, the witness to the famous French Revolution (1789), manifested the influence of romanticism around 1830, when the Romantic Movement was already starting to decline in England. Romanticism meant different things in different countries, and even in the same country it implied different things with different writers. Thus in England it is customary to herd Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron all as romantics. But how different, say, Byron and Wordsworth are! A critic recommends the use of the term “romanticisms. “rather than “romanticism” in consideration of the variety of its fundamental features. Whatever be the interpretation of the term “romanticism,” it is clear that it was essentially of the nature of a reaction. In England the Romantic Movement implies a reaction against the school of Dryden, Pope, and Dr. Johnson. However greatly may Wordsworth and Byron differ in their conception and practice of poetry, it is indisputable that both of them reacted against the set conventions and rules of poetry formulated and traditionalised over the decades by the poets of the neoclassic school. The Romantic Movement was thus a revolt against literary tradition. But it was more; it was also a revolt against social authority. It was perhaps Schlegel who first defined romanticism as “liberalism in literature.” Most of the romantic poets were for the liberation of the individual spirit from the shackles of social authority as well as literary tradition. This emphasis on individual predilection, which in philosophical terms approaches subjectivism, renders the romantic output somewhat chaotic. When there is no tradition or uniting authority, it is not surprising that the romantic poets take widely divergent paths. Thus, even if we may accept that there was a classical or neoclassical school of poetry, it is difficult to conceive of the existence of a romantic “school”.
The Nature of the Revolt:
“The romantic movement” says William J. Long, “was marked, and is always marked, by a strong reaction and protest against .the bondage of rule and custom which in science and theology as well as literature, generally tend to fetter the free human spirit.” It is of interest to note that just as the romantics revolted against the literary traditions of the eighteenth century, Dryden and Pope themselves had revolted in their turn against the tradition of the previous age. The romantics looked for inspiration and guidance to Spenser and Milton, whereas Dryden and Pope had looked to the roman poets of antiquity. Thus both the neoclassicists and romantics, while breaking away from the traditions existing immediately before them, respected a more ancient tradition. Let us consider in what respects the romantics parted with the neoclassic tradition.
Reaction against Reason:
Cazamian observes: “The literary transition from the Renascence to the Restoration is nothing more or less than the progress of a spirit of liberty, at once fanciful, brilliant, and adventurous, towards a rule and discipline both in inspiration and in form.”The transition from neo-classicism to romanticism is just the reverse of this. The neoclassicists were champions of common sense and reason, and were in favour of normal generalities against the whims and eccentricities of individual genius. “Nature” and reason were glorified. Much of the satire of the eighteenth century was directed against fancy and un-reason. Swift in the fourth book of Gulliver Travels, to consider an example, chastises Yahoos for being creatures of impulse and devoid of reason or common sense. On the other hand, Houyhnhnms are glorified for being endowed with “right reason.” The romantics starting with Blake rebelled against the curbing influence of reason which could variously manifest itself as good sense, intellect, or just dry logic-chopping. Most of the romantic poets believed in a kind of transcendentalism, intuition, or mysticism, and none believed in the dictum that poetry is an intellectual exercise whose worth is entirely dependent on effective expression. Pope said:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought but ne ‘er so well express ‘d.
The romantics discredited wit as against real poetic inspiration. Poetry to them did not mean just a set of smart gnomes but something inner and spiritually enlightening. “Poetry”, wrote Wordsworth in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, “is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge: it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.” He advised the student of Chemistry to lay aside his books and turn to poetry for true learning. The romantic conception of a poet and poetry was thus entirely different from the classical one. Dryden and Pope had believed that a poet was a “civilised” man of the world but much wittier and more talented than other civilised men. To the romantics a poet became a seer, a clairvoyant, a philosopher, and, in the words of Shelley, an unacknowledged legislator of mankind. Neoclassic poetry was mainly a product of intellect, and it was to intellect that it chiefly appealed. The attitude of most romantics was, however, keenly anti-intellectual. Thus, Wordsworth strongly denounced “that false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions”. Blake represented reason as clipping the wings of love, and Keats declared that “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.” Thus anti-intellectualism”, avers Samuel C. Chew, “was no sudden manifestation of a spirit of revolt; it had been swelling in volume for many years. In the thought of the predecessors of the great romantic poets there had been a tendency to view learning with suspicion as allied to vice and to commend ignorance as concomitant with virtue.”
Imagination, Feeling, and Emotion:
The romantics revolted against the neoclassical exaltation of wit. They gave the place of wit to imagination and that of intellect to feeling and emotion. Wordsworth emphasised the role of feeling and emotion in all poetry. These are his famous words: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species, ofreaction, 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.” Cazamian observes: “Intense emotion coupled with an intense display of imagery, such is the frame of mind which supports and feeds the new literature.” Feeling and imagination came to have a supreme importance with the romantics. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth wrote: “…each of these poems has a purpose: the feeling therein developed gives importance to action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” The neoclassicists had held imagination suspect. They had admitted fancy now and then but the true imagination of Coleridge’s conception was almost non-existing. They had neglected love as a theme of poetry; their poetry was mostly didactic, and this didacticism quite often took the shape of satire. Even when some romantics now and then become didactic, they are not just being intellectual or rhetorical; they rather appeal primarily to our emotions and take a generous help from imagination. Consider, in this context, Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias or Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty.
This special stress on imagination sometimes led the romantics away from the humdrum world of actuality and its pressing problems to make them citizens of their own respective worlds of imagination and to gloat in imaginary
Casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
The exaltation of imagination sometimes almost took the form of a revolt against realism, amounting to escapism. All neo-classical poets were hard-boiled realists, men of the world, and sometimes men of affairs. Blake is the most notorious example of a romantic moving in the world of visions. He went so far as to assert that the “vegetable world of phenomena” is only a shadow of “the real world which is the Imagination.” Swift, from what we gather from Section IX of The Tale of a Tub, would have certainly put such a man as Blake behind the bars of a bedlam! “The romanticist”, according to Samuel C. Chew, “is amorous of the far’. He seeks to escape from familiar experience and from the limitations of ‘that shadow-show called reality’ which is presented to him by his intelligence. He delights in the marvellous and abnormal”. This escape from actuality assumes many forms. In Coleridge it takes the form of love of the supernatural; in Shelley, of that of the dream of a golden age to come; in Keats, a striving after ideal beauty and the effort to recall the ancient Hellenic glory; in Scott it is manifested by his escape to the hoary Middle Ages; in Byron it takes the form of a haughty disdain of all humanity and absorption in his own self, amounting almost to a kind of egotheism, and, lastly, in Wordsworth it appears in his insistence on giving up the mechanical and spirit-throttling civilization and escaping into the untainted company of nature.
This condemnation of civilization is incidentally a basic tenet of European romanticism. Walter Jackson Bate observes: “It also encouraged the common romantic emphasis on the virtues of simple and rural life and in its extremer form…found outlet in continuing the cult of the ‘noble savage’ who is unspoiled by contact with civilization. It lent a kind of sanction to the vogue of the untutored and ‘original genius, and the frequent dilating on the natural innocence and goodness of childhood is an equally common expression of it.” The neoclassicists had expected a child to be a little gentleman, but most romantics, like Blake and Wordsworth, gave him a spiritual importance for being full of the “intimations of immortality.” Rousseau, the French thinker, was chiefly responsible for this vital change of conception.
Diction and Metre:
The Romantic Movement was a revolt not only against the concept of poetry held by the neoclassicists, it was also a revolt against traditional poetic measures and diction. About this part of the romantic revolt, Legouis observes: “To express their fervent passions they sought a more supple and more lyrical form than that of Pope, a language less dulled by convention, metres unlike the prevailing couplet. They renounced the poetical associations of words, and drew upon unusual images and varied verse forms for which they found models in the Renaissance and the old English poetry.” Some of these verse forms were personal inventions of the new poets. They sounded the death-knell of the heroic couplet which had reigned supreme upwards of a century.
Revolt against Social Authority:
The romantic revolt against social authority took as many shapes as the one against literary tradition. Most of the romantics were radical in their political views and crusaders for the emancipation of the individual. The French Revolution affected all the romantic poets, though in different ways. The young Wordsworth and Coleridge were thrilled with joy at the fall of the Bastille, which signified for them the cracking of the tyrannic chains which had kept in bondage the human spirit for so long. Later, however, with the Reign of Terror, the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey) turned conservative, and Wordsworth earned the censure of Browning as “the lost leader.” The later romantics-Shelley, Keats, and Byron-were stronger and more consistent radicals than the earlier ones. All of them devoted themselves to the cause of freedom in all lands. Byron upheld the cause of Greek freedom in his poetry and his person-not only financially and morally. But to conclude, the Romantic Movement was much less a political than a poetic movement.
The revolt against social authority did not only mean condemnation of political tyranny and support for democracy; it also meant, sometimes, an open rebellion against long-standing social taboos on free love and even incest. Shelley was an arch rebel against all such curbs. Incest provides the theme of his play The Cenci. The Revolt of Islam is, likewise, a call for rebellion against tyranny and social authority alike. Shelley revolted against even God and earned his dismissal from Oxford with his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. His too insistent and serious belief in free love compelled his first wife to take her own life. On account of their rebellious notions, most romantics proved misfits in society and some were dubbed insane by it. Samuel C. Chew observes: “Emphasising the abnormal element, some scholars have singled out the morbidly erotic and deranged as distinguishing marks of romanticism, interpreting this as evidence of the part played by the less conscious impulses of the mind and nothing that a large number of English whters of the period approached the borders of insanity or went beyond, than can be accounted for on the ground of mere coincidence.” This aspect of romanticism is what exactly prompted T. E. Hulme to observe that classicism is “healthy” and romanticism “sickly”.

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