Romanticism in France

One of the founders of Romanticism, its so-called father, was the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who espoused a return to nature and equated the increasing growth and refinement of civilization with corruption, artificiality, and mechanization. Rousseau’s Social Contract espouses democratic principles and begins with the famous sentence “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” This statement was as important for Romanticism as it was for the French Revolution, and Rousseau’s influence on subsequent Romantic writers was profound. Post-revolutionary France witnessed an attempt on the part of one group of writers, led by Louis de Fontanes (1757–1821), to return to the classical values of the seventeenth century. This group saw the rules of art, founded on nature, as immutable. An opposing group, basing itself more on Enlightenment ideals, included Georges Cabanis (1757–1808) and Claude Fauriel (1772–1844): this faction located beauty and artistic values generally not in the observance of universal rules but rather in the reader’s response: the effect of literature on the impressions, emotions, and imagination. They also rejected strict neoclassical definitions of genres. The more modern and Romantic currents eventually triumphed, as in the work of Germaine de Staël and François de Chateaubriand (1768–1848). De Staël, influenced by Schlegel, essentially rejected classical ideals as outdated and identified Romantic notions as progressive, working toward cultural relativism and historical specificity in her literary criticism. Influenced by de Staël and an important critic in his own right, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869) developed biographical criticism which attempted “scientifically” to contextualize the creative work of given individuals. His criticism embodies an amalgam of Romantic notions such as a belief in genius with neoclassical principles of order and decorum. Chateaubriand, effectively opposed to Enlightenment principles, promoted a Catholic revival, but exalted the life of the lowly strata of society; George Sand (1804–1876) also made heroes and heroines of peasants and rustics in her novels; and Victor Hugo (1802–1885) demonstrated his relentless opposition to social injustice and oppression in his Les Misérables. Hugo insisted as against the conservatives such as Désiré Nisard (1806–1883) and Gustave Planche (1808–1857) that art and poetry must be autonomous and free, not restricted by classical constraints.

However, the ideals of classicism and Romanticism often coexisted uneasily in the work of many of these writers, where the form and content might collide. A case in point is Théophile Gautier’s carefully sculptured poems: though ostensibly returning to a hard-edged classicism, they effectively participate in and perpetuate a Romantic ethic, and also prefigure French symbolism. This “hard” stanzaic poetry recoiled just as much from contemporary experience as any of the forms which preceded or followed from it: its idealizations merely assumed a more formal expression. In Gautier’s work lay the founding rationale of the Parnassians, who continued fundamental Romantic aspirations while excluding personal feelings and freer verse forms. Their aesthetics were underlain by a Romantic insistence on artistic autonomy: in the preface to his Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier offered his theory of “art for art’s sake,” deriding any utilitarian conception of art.1 His attack on the bourgeois concept of utility is even more derisive than that in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821).2 George Plekhanov’s Art and Social Life (1912) argues that artists tend to proclaim artistic autonomy when they find themselves in hopeless disaccord with their social environment. He observes that the scorn which Gautier poured on bourgeois life was directed against its “boredom and vulgarity,” not its economic and social order.3 Once the bourgeoisie had gained hegemony, no longer fired by revolutionary struggle, the new Parnassian art, says Plekhanov, could merely indulge in “the idealization of the opposition to the bourgeois manner of life. Romanticism became such an idealization.”4 Equally, Gautier’s impersonality and formal stringency subserve – as with T. S. Eliot’s early so-called classical poetic endeavors – not a classical realism but an extreme subjectivism and insularity from the vulgar everyday manifestations of bourgeois reality, as recorded in Gautier’s own notorious preface

1. Théophile Gautier, “Preface,” in Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835; rpt. Paris: Garnier, 1955), pp. 2–3, 11, 22–24.
2. “A Defence of Poetry,” in The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Volume VII, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (London and New York: Ernest Benn/Gordian Press, 1965), pp. 132–133.
3. George V. Plekhanov, Art and Social Life (New York: Oriole Editions, 1974), p. 17.
4. Ibid., p. 18.


Categories: Literary Theory

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