Romantic Literary Criticism

In 1832, at the end of what is now called the Romantic age, Samuel Taylor Coleridge described “three silent revolutions in England: 1. When the Professions fell off from the Church; 2. When Literature fell off from the Professions; 3. When the Press fell off from Literature” (Table Talk 1:285). These fallings were, so to speak, “revolutions” within the revolution—the larger revolution of capitalist modernity from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. To Coleridge and other Romantic theorists, the emergence of the “professions,” “literature,” and the “press” mirrored the political revolutions of England (1642), the North American colonies (1775), and France (1789). In his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” of 1800, William Wordsworth had similarly proposed a transformation of poetry that would correspond to the “revolutions not of literature alone, but likewise of society itself” (121). Such thinking presupposed an already formed separation between the categories of politics and literature by the end of the eighteenth century. The Romantics were not the first to separate literature from politics, but they were the first to confront self-consciously the modern separation between these realms and to attempt to mediate it.

Few assessments of European modernity were more critical or more sweeping than Friedrich Schiller‘s contrast between the “polypoid character of the Greek states, in which every individual enjoyed an independent existence but could, when need arose, grow into the whole organism” of social life, and the “mechanical kind of collective life,” composed of “innumerable but lifeless parts” characteristic of European modernity. Like Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley in England, Schiller pointed to the division of labor, institutions, and knowledges that was gradually shattering all forms of the universal, the capacity of man and woman to grasp the totality of their own purposes and acts. “State and church, laws and customs, were now torn asunder; enjoyment was divorced from labor, the means from the end, the effort from the reward.” The human being, who was now “everlastingly chained to a single little fragment of the whole,” had become himself a “fragment”: “nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his specialized knowledge” (35). This perspective became the paradoxical foundation of the Romantic theorist’s claim for “Culture,” an attempt to reinstitute the shattered universals by means of literature, symbol, the aesthetic, and reimaginations of mind and self (Abrams; Williams).

For Schiller, Wordsworth, and many other European liberals the year of the Terror (1793-94 in the French Revolution) came to signify a crisis in the relation between the political will and the social body, reason and nature, form and sensuousness (Eagleton 113-19). In this sense it also disclosed a crisis in criticism: if literature speaks to the audiences of civil society, to whom does criticism speak? By 1800 British literary and aesthetic theory would begin to talk about politics and social order indirectly by way of allegory instead of direct address. Coleridge wrote in a letter of 1800 that his planned “Essay on the Elements of Poetry … would in reality be a disguised System of Morals & Politics” (Collected Letters 632). Something of this political allegorizing informed a great many Romantic arguments, making literary criticism a discourse on politics by other means.

Literary history has commonly recognized Wordsworth’s preface of 1800 as the first text of English Romantic criticism, but Wordsworth was hardly alone, in the last years of the eighteenth century, in making the attempt to confront the political and cultural crisis of Europe in the 1790s with claims for new, transformative kinds of cultural production. Three years before the appearance of the preface, William Godwin (1757-1836) and Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) had each attempted to rethink the progressive political ideas and rhetorics of the radical Enlightenment within the complicating genres of narrative and dramatic representation. Baillie, a Scottish playwright and poet, appealed in her “Introductory Discourse” to Plays on the Passions (1798) to an analytic, revisionist mode of tragedy that would reconstruct the tragic, “tyrannical passions” from the little, unremembered gestures of everyday life. A rare example of female literary theory in this period, Baillie’s “Discourse” was an ideological critique of tragedy’s claim to represent a universal human nature, which she countered by tracing the human passions through their genealogy from domestic life to the torrential, officially “tragic” visitations in which (to put it more simply than Baillie does) angry educated men flog and humiliate women, children, and finally one another, as surrogates for themselves. By displacing tragedy from the realm of the state to the domestic spheres of civil society, Baillie also tried to make the latter, gender-defined arena a basis for criticizing the public world, where, in traditional tragedy, the “tragic passions” had been made to appear transhistorical rather than specifically masculine and contextually linked to the larger “tyranny” of England’s own ancien regime. In this way, Baillie’s theory of tragedy was less an attempt to privatize and domesticate formerly public and political controversy than an effort to rethink the mode of dramatic representation as a discourse capable of making explicit the political restaging of private life.

Meanwhile, Godwin’s essay “Of History and Romance” (1797) began to rethink the English novel as an inquiry into the private, secretive, and politically formative moments of individual lives. This unpublished essay belonged to Godwin’s larger campaign, conducted in The Enquirer (1797), to build a progressive British intelligentsia through literary, educational, and canon-organizing means, since it was becoming clear in the late 1790s that British radical discourse was now failing to be sustained by the community of radical discussion and dissent (Philp). In “Of History and Romance” Godwin took up old and unresolved problems of modern fictional narrative, the problems of truth, skepticism, fiction, and virtue that belong to the early history and institutionalizing of the English novel (McKeon). Here Godwin grasped earlier conservative arguments for the novel’s self-conscious removal from historical truth or progressive political aims as a new opportunity for progressive discourse. He proposed the novel as a mode of investigation into the secret folds and darkened closets of its characters’ otherwise public lives, aiming to uncover the hidden truth behind universal history’s ideological commitment to a law-governed history that will happen the same way in the future as it has happened in the past.

Seventeen years before Walter Scott’s Waverley, Godwin imagined a historical novel capable of rivaling Enlightenment historiography as a mode of truth-telling. Yet he also recognized, near the end of a sophisticated argument on narrative epistemologies, that his case for the progressive historical romancer threatened to reintroduce the figure of a divine artificer into what had been meant as a wholly secular and highly skeptical argument for narrative knowledge. In the only materialist conclusion drawn by a Romantic critical thinker, Godwin averted that quasi-theological outcome by referring both historiography and novel-writing to the unfinished narratives of natural history being told by modern English science.

The year 1797-98 was a crucial turning point for British criticism, however; Godwin’s brilliant meditation on the politics of historical romance never saw print in the projected second volume of The Enquirer. Instead, T. J. Mathias’s (1754-1835) Pursuits of Literature, published in parts from 1794 to 1798, became one of the most widely read books of literary reflection in the early 1800s. Mathias’s book was one-tenth “satirical poem,” nine-tenths literary and political criticism loaded into a byzantine system of footnotes. Published alongside Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population (1798) and the periodical essay The Anti-Jacobin (1797-98), Mathias’s Pursuits was read as a kind of Malthusian poetics, a manual of British literary population-politics for the nineteenth century. England’s literary intellectuals read and loathed Mathias, as they did Malthus, for saying too crudely and publicly what many now had come to suspect privately: “Literature, well or ill conducted, is the great engine by which all civilized States must ultimately be supported or overthrown” (244). “Our peasantry,” Mathias insisted, “now read the Rights of Man on mountains and moors. … Our unsexed female writers now instruct, or confuse, us and themselves in the labyrinth of politics, or turn us wild with Gallic frenzy.” The surge of political and sexual frenzy animating Mathias’s own critical prose spilled over in pages devoted to denouncing M. G. Lewis’s The Monk—”lewd and systematic seduction”—and Godwin’s Enquirer, which Mathias read as the cultural extension of Political Justice (244-53, 388-97). Much maligned by those young literary intellectuals who had said it was “Bliss to be alive” at the dawn of the French Revolution, Mathias’s book indeed helped furnish the social and political topoi of English Romantic criticism for the next generation. Often, what Mathias announced none too subtly in 1797 would henceforth travel within the political allegories of Romantic criticism, or as Coleridge put it, “a disguised system of Morals & Politics” (Collected Letters 632).

Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth

Wordsworth’s 1800 preface was written against some of Mathias’s own antagonists—Gothic fiction and its female readerships, the Enlightenment politics of Thomas Paine and Godwin. Yet from 1800 to 1815 the preface was often greeted as itself an “experiment” in Jacobin poetics, seeming to promote the “real language of men” as a demotic, quasi-political standard of public verse. Unlike Godwin, Baillie, or even Mathias before him, Wordsworth had in fact broken with political theory as a framework for literary theory, William Hazlitt, who seemed to admire Wordsworth’s demotic poetics in The Spirit of the Age (1825), also suspected the deep ambivalence of Wordsworth’s “levelling Muse.” “The secret of the Jacobin poetry and the anti-Jacobin politics of this writer are the same,” Hazlitt charged in 1816; “his lyrical poetry was a cant of humanity about the commonest people to level the great with the small; and his political poetry is a cant of loyalty to level Bonaparte with kings and hereditary imbecility” (7:144). In the contradiction between Wordsworth’s “lyrical poetry” and his “political poetry,” Hazlitt understood how Wordsworth had deepened rather than healed the separation between civil society and the state, how he had reproduced within his own texts the division between literature and politics Wordsworth’s preface had promised to overcome.

Literary Criticism of S.T. Coleridge

Coleridge also changed his mind about Wordsworth’s proposal to remodel the “real language” of civil society by means of poetry. By 1817 Coleridge was redefining the powers of poetry, “derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself” (Biographia 2:54), so that they would resonate with Schiller’s sense that the aesthetic “play drive” works reflexively on the conscious will embodied in the national state. This is why Coleridge, unlike Wordsworth, increasingly devoted his writing to institutional theory and historical accounts of the ways literature had “fallen” from the church, the professions, and the public discourse of the press. In The Statesman’s Manual (1816), the Friend (1818), and On the Constitution of Church and State (1830) Coleridge completed a long, complex meditation on the transmission of symbolic meanings from a special body of intellectuals (or “clerisy”) to the lay publics of civil society. Coleridge’s theory formed yet another allegorical account of how literature, by means of criticism or symbolic interpretation, might restabilize the fractural, highly unstable relation of the British state to the social groups and classes of the early nineteenth century. Hence, Coleridge’s works of political and institutional theory formed essential armatures to the more visibly “literary” theory of the Biographia Literaria (1817) and the literary lectures of 1808-19 (Klancher; Leask).

Coleridge therefore understood the emerging British culture industry—the realm of book publication, the periodical press, and the new scientific and literary lecturing institutions—as a crucial arena of political and social definition. These cultural institutions were demarcating the new reading audiences of the nineteenth century, and Coleridge’s acute sense of the commodification of British reading and writing often sharpened the difference between a commercially organized and an institutionally directed form of the national culture. In The Statesman’s Manual he complained: “I would that the greater part of our publications could be thus directed, each to its appropriate class of Readers” (Lay Sermons 36), a plea made to an audience of economically and culturally distinguished readers whom Coleridge believed should themselves begin assuming such directive institutional powers. Yet Hazlitt, writing in the Edinburgh Review, replied to the Statesman’s Manual with a question: “Do not publications generally find their way there, without a direction?” (16:105n). Hazlitt assumed a coherent, market-organized world of cultural communication that had no need of “direction” from above but instead was proving to be a substantial basis for criticizing the institutions of state and church. In this way, Hazlitt allied himself with the cultural marketplace in order to fend off the larger counterrevolution that had been launched in England since the coming of The Anti-Jacobin (1797-98) and Godwin’s abortive effort to remake a progressive British intelligentsia in those critical years.

Hazlitt’s own critical career was generally secured by the periodical industry, his essays appearing in the liberal Examiner, the Yellow Dwarf, the New Monthly Magazine, or the Edinburgh Review, and by the newly built world of the scientific and literary lecturing institutions, where Hazlitt delivered his series of talks later published as Lectures on the English Poets and other programs at the Surrey and Russell institutions for an audience of Quakers and Dissenters. This is one reason why we do not find bitter criticism of the commercialization of British culture in Hazlitt’s writing as we find it in Coleridge’s; the emerging culture industry seems rather to have been a foundation for Hazlitt’s liberal distinction between political matters for the public realm and aesthetic matters for the private realm. In his essays on art, for instance, Hazlitt discredited the public English art institutions (all state-sponsored in this period) while enlarging the pleasures of personal aesthetic contemplation (Barrell). Hazlitt’s unyielding reproaches to the British state, or to the Romantic conservative critics who would connive with it in their aesthetics, were matched in his critical practice by a defense of private aesthetic responses that distinguished “common” or “vulgar” from sensitive, discriminating tastes. The latter were not only separate from but a guarantee against the incursions of political and public institutional authority, but they fit wholly into what Hazlitt saw as the diverse mechanisms and protections of the cultural marketplace.

This is also why Hazlitt’s canonizing activity was inimical to Coleridge’s Romantic allegorizing of politics in poetics and his secularizing of sacred meanings in symbolic interpretation. Hazlitt’s collection Select British Poets (1824) belonged to the market-driven canonizing process that had stimulated British cultural selectivity since the landmark Becket v. Donaldson copyright decision of 1774; it joined such earlier anthologies as John Bell’s Poets of Great Britain (1776-82), Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts (1784), Robert Anderson’s Poets of Great Britain (1792-95), Alexander Chalmers’s Works of the English Poets (1810), and Anna Barbauld’s British Novelists (1810) (Bonnell; Patey). His Lectures on the English Poets as well as his lectures on the English comic writers or the characters of Shakespeare’s plays can be read as intricate commentaries on an emerging British literary canon selected and circulated by these economically rather than theologically inspired procedures.

Such canon-shaping, which today appears to us laden with claims to institutional authority, was important to Romantic liberals such as Hazlitt as a guarantee against the arbitrary authority of European monarchs and stateempowered institutions. Hence to the liberal imagination, England’s literary markets served as well as Napoleon’s public museums to secure poems, plays, or paintings from the aristocracy’s political will. As Hazlitt would write of his first astonishing visit to the Louvre in 1802: “Art, no longer a bondswoman [to European kings, was now herself] seated on a throne, and her sons were kings.. .. Those masterpieces were the true handwriting on the wall, which told the great and mighty of the earth that their empire was passed away” (13:212). The birth of a modern aesthetic canon in the extinction of Europe’s ancien régime implied that the older privileges of personal distinction were now being transferred, by means of the collection of masterpieces, to the spectators and readers who learned how best to read them. Thus, anyone excluded from the rights conferred by aristocratic birth and title could now point to the new collections of painting, poetry, or plays and retort, as Hazlitt imagined himself saying in the Louvre, “Look around! These are my inheritance; this is the class to which I belong!” (13:212). Hazlitt’s criticism often bore the mark of this personalized, sublimated aristocratism of “taste” exercised by the aesthetically educated self who was otherwise a democrat in matters of public life and political right.

In the early 1800s, then, there emerged not one but at least two very different Romantic aesthetics, both predicated on the common problem of the relation of civil society to the state, yet diverging in their critical methods and cultural visions. Coleridge’s philosophical and theologically inflected aesthetic, which established the protocols of a “symbolic” reading of canonically defined texts (from the Bible to Shakespeare and Milton), compelled Romantic criticism to supplement the function of state and church in an hour of the English rulers’ woeful incapacity to unify the social and intellectual whole. Hence his aesthetic competed against the market-organized canonizing process and the rise of new cultural institutions, such as the scientific and literary lecturing institutions where Coleridge began his own career as Romantic cultural critic and which he nonetheless renounced as “Theo-mammonist,” perversions of divine and poetic transmission into commercial and ideological reproduction (Klancher 179-83).

In response to Schiller’s hope that aesthetic theory would work toward restoration of the common, collective life against the fragmenting force of capitalist modernity, Romantic theory in the early nineteenth century could only develop rival aesthetic programs, canonizing protocols, or critical agendas. Modern-day Romantic criticism has been more generally influenced by the “culture-and-society” tradition of politically allegorical critical theory, descending from Schiller, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, than by the Romantic criticism that descends through the marketplace canonizing tradition represented by Hazlitt, Francis Jeffrey, or Leigh Hunt. For the latter, politics became one thing, and aesthetics another. Yet both critical practices have defined the meaning of “Romantic” in the history of criticism and literature, practices that entered into the day-to-day cultural divisions of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Romanticism in England

Joanna Baillie, “Introductory Discourse,” A Series of Plays. .. (1798); Anna Barbauld, “On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing,” British Novelists (ed. Barbauld, 1810); David Bromwich, ed., Romantic Critical Essays (1987); Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (Collected Works, vol. 7, pts. 1-2, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols., 1983), Collected Letters, vol. 1 (ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 1956), Lay Sermons (Collected Works, vol. 6, ed. R. J. White, 1972), Lectures, 1808-1819: On Literature (Collected Works, vol. 5, pts. 1-2, ed. Reginald Foakes, 2 vols., 1987), Table Talk (Collected Works, vol. 14, pts. 1-2, ed. Carl Woodring, 2 vols., 1990); William Godwin, The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797, reprint, 1965), “Of History and Romance,” appendix D in Caleb Williams, or Things as They Are (ed. Maurice Hindle, 1988); William Hazlitt, The Collected Works of William Hazlitt (ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols., 1930-34); Francis Jeffrey, Contributions to the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (4 vols., 1854); T. J. Mathias, The Pursuits of Literature: A Satirical Poem in Four Dialogues with Notes (1797-98, reprint, 1808); Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (ed. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, 1967); Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism (ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, 1977); William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, vol. 1 (ed. W. J. B. Owen and J. W. Smyser, 1974). M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953); John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: “The Body of the Public” (1986); Thomas Bonnell, “Bookselling and Canon-Making: The Trade Rivalry over the English Poets, 1776-1783,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 19 (1989); Marilyn Butler and Mark Philp, “Introduction,” Collected Writings of William Godwin (7 vols., 1991); Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990); Paul Hamilton, Coleridge’s Poetics (1983); John Kinnaird, William Hazlitt: Critic of Power (1978); Jon Klancher, “Transmission Failure,” Theoretical Issues in Literary History (ed. David Perkins, 1991); Nigel Leask, The Politics of Imagination in Coleridge’s Critical Thought (1988); Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology (1983); Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (1987); Douglas Lane Patey, “The Eighteenth Century Invents the Canon,” Modern Language Studies 18 (1988); Mark Philp, Godwin’s Political Justice (1986); Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry, Romanticism

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1 reply

  1. Isn’t Hamlet by Shakespeare an example of ‘ . . .the “real language of men” as a demotic, quasi-political standard of public verse.’?

    Afterall, the real protaganist of Hamlet is political fixedness. Should such fixedness be challenged by the demotic – which such demotic is represented by the metonymy of ‘Hamlet’ as both inspiring Prince as well as town or populace – death is the only assurance. (As well as usurper, all the rebels die at the end of Hamlet). Thus, Hamlet is a literary-political work of its era admonishing rebellion.

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