The classic essays on romanticism tend not to define the term but to survey the manifold and unsuccessful attempts to define it. In English poetry, however, we can give a more or less historical definition: Romanticism is a movement that can be dated as beginning with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads of 1798 and that is still continuing today, despite reactions and countermovements which begin almost immediately and which are highly relevant to any consideration of Victorian and modern literature. (Although romanticism includes all of William Blake’s major poetry, beginning more than a decade prior to Lyrical Ballads, Blake’s obscurity limited his influence on other major writers for a good half century.)
Paradoxically, though, these reactions can themselves be regarded as highly romantic in nature— partly, perhaps, because one very general but still useful early (1825) definition of romanticism is, in the words of the French dramatist and politician Ludovic Vitet (1802–73), “Protestantism in arts and letters” (quoted in Furst, European Romanticism). Protestantism was a protest against the fetters of the past (even romanticism itself)—against rule and convention, as Vitet realized—and therefore was also an analogue to the Protestant Reformation. In this sense, romanticism is the analogue in the literary sphere of the freedom brought by the Enlightenment in the political, moral, and philosophical world—according to Vitet, “the right to enjoy what gives pleasure, to be moved by what moves one, to admire what seems admirable, even when by virtue of well and duly consecrated principles it could be proved that one ought not to admire, nor be moved, nor enjoy.” Wordsworth, too, spoke of his object in Lyrical Ballads as giving pleasure to his readers, rather than conforming to rules: “There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction . . . because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.” That pleasure is Protestant in its deference to the judgment and poetic conscience of the individual soul: “[T]his necessity of producing immediate pleasure . . . is an acknowledgment of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgment the more sincere because it is not formal, but indirect; . . . it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves” (preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800).
Romanticism is therefore to be defined negatively, perhaps, as a principled protest against classicism. Since the French were the earliest to identify it as a movement, we can recur to the incisive definition one of the great French romantics, Victor Hugo, who (in the preface to his 1830 play Hernani) wrote, “Romanticism, so often badly defined, is . . . viewed wholly under its militant aspect, nothing but liberalism in literature . . . a literary liberty [which] is the daughter of political liberty.” The philosopher John Stuart Mill was one of the earliest purveyors of the term in English, but again he was describing French literature when he wrote in 1837:
The stateliness and conventional decorum of old French poetic and dramatic literature, gave place to a licence which made free scope for genius and also for absurdity, and let in new forms of the beautiful was well as many of the hideous. Literature shook off its chains, and used its liberty like a galley-slave broke loose; while painting and sculpture passed from one unnatural extreme to another, and the stiff school was succeeded by the spasmodic. This insurrection against the old traditions of classicism was called romanticism: and now, when the mass of rubbish to which it had given birth has produced another oscillation in opinion the reverse way, one inestimable result seems to have survived it—that life and human feeling may now, in France, be painted with as much liberty as they may be discussed, and, when painted truly, with approval.
Mill’s account shows the extent to which romanticism was central to Victorian literary attitudes, even as the heyday of what came to be called high romanticism came to an end in England with the beginning of the Victorian period. Indeed, the Victorian parody of the continued influence of romanticism identified what it called the “spasmodic school” of poetry.
These quotations show the extent to which romanticism is regarded as a revolutionary rejection of the past—of Mill’s classicism—which might be regarded as the literary equivalent of the French Revolution. Indeed, the first generation of English romantics were admirers of the French Revolution before its descent into destruction and terror. For this reason as well, the romantics saw Napoleon Bonaparte as a Promethean figure who promised liberty but ended up besotted with despotic power. Wordsworth, who celebrated the death of the French revolutionary Robespierre in The Prelude, nevertheless began that work with an ode to liberty. For the English romantics, that liberty was at once a break with Enlightenment rationalism and (as we have seen) a continuation of the Enlightenment’s intensely humanistic project of rejecting religious superstition and arbitrary law on behalf of the human soul’s freedom and primacy.
It is important not to make the mistake that some critics fall into of thinking of romanticism as essentially an irrational egotism. Romanticism is far more the inheritor of Enlightenment ideas than their displacer. It shares with the Enlightenment an intense focus on the powers of the human mind. For Enlightenment philosophers, that focus was often on its rational and analytic powers, whence the flowering of modern science. But such Enlightenment figures as the philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau paid equal or greater attention to the mind’s subjective experience. Rousseau’s Confessions (1769) as well as his novel Julie (1761) were forerunners of intense influences on (respectively) such works as Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Triumph of Life. In Immanuel Kant and the German idealists, and in Coleridge, much of whose work is uncomfortably close to plagiarism of the idealists, the relationship between its objective and subjective powers is central to a philosophical account of the mind. Kant saw that relationship forming in the faculty of judgment, of which aesthetic judgment was the most vivid example. The half-creation, half-perception of the world which takes place in judgment is the theme of romanticism, explicitly in such poems as Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” Sometimes the difference between subjective and objective attitudes manifested itself as a sense of self-division within the soul, a sense that could be traced back to the philosophy of John Locke (1632– 1704), which was repugnant but therefore powerfully influential, to such figures as Blake and Wordsworth.
Self-division, solitude, subjective longing—all of these are aspects of the subjectivity which romanticism took as its starting point and theme (in part inheriting it from the more sentimental mode of 18th-century sensibility, though sensibility was far more an overtly social phenomenon than romanticism). Because of its intense interest in subjectivity as well as its rejection of superstition, it is possible to see romanticism as a kind of religious sensibility without religious belief. The soul, or self, experiences itself as fallen in a fallen world (often represented as the world of childhood or the world most closely present in childhood). In Romanticism, by rejecting the doctrines of religion—that the biblical Fall is punishment for some derogation from a state of grace—the soul also rejects the consolations of religion; accordingly, it has no hope of salvation except within itself and its own experience. That salvation is therefore primarily aesthetic and philosophical (the distinction between the two is one of emphasis, which is why so many romantic poems are so intensely philosophical). The romantics took to heart Satan’s claim in John Milton’s great 17th-century work Paradise Lost (the poem most essential to the English romantics) that “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heaven of hell, a Hell of heaven (1, l. 254).” Our sense of ourselves as fallen, as having a destiny and home “with infinity,” as Wordsworth says, makes the finite world a negative measure of our own subjective intensity. When this intensity is represented as a claim to greatness of soul, it can look egotistical; but what counts is the intensity of experience measured by the failure as well as by the intermittent success of the outside world at matching it.
This intermittent success tends to come with a sense of the grandeur of nature, which is why so much great romantic poetry is about nature in its most intense aspects: those of beauty, solitude, and most of all, the sublime. Nature’s wildness, partly imaged in ruined castles and abbeys, which had been a staple of gothic fiction in the 18th century were particularly appropriate settings for romantic thought. But nature is itself a projection—it is the place the mind makes of it, as in the last two lines of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” where it is the human mind’s imaginings that transfigure vacancy into silence and solitude.
The general mode of a romantic poem is one of crisis—a crisis that leads to its own solution. The very fact of crisis is a sign that the intensity of feeling and thought at risk is still there. Romantic poets worry about the loss of intensity that seems the inevitable course of human experience, but they reimagine that loss of intensity as the intensity of loss. Loss becomes, as the 20th-century literary critic Paul de Man put it somewhat skeptically, “shadowed gain.” The gain for the soul is in its apprehension of its own capacity to measure its losses, and therefore to rise above them. Loss within the soul comes to be figured as the loss of poetic vocation. The poetry inspired by this loss is a sign that poetic vocation is intensified in its own undoing, rather than dissipated— for a while at least. Romanticism reimagined poetry as an intense analysis of human subjectivity, and in doing so it lent splendor to the universal human experience of loss and decline. What more can poetry do?
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