You are on page 1of 8


Romanticism: Late 18th, early 19th century. But: Romantic writers in England did not call themselves Romantic Genesis of the term: romance (18th c England: negative connotation) Clara Reeves, The Progress of Romance (1785) The Romance is a heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. -- The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. -> the gothic: Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story (1764, 1765) desirous of leaving the powers of the fancy at liberty to expiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, I wished to conduct the mortal agents in the drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions (Horace Walpole, Preface to the 2d edition of The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story) Supposed to be more inventive and interesting than the dull adherence to common life, which is proper to 18th century novels. Characteristics of the gothic: exotic settings, fascination for the past, particularly the medieval era, fascination with the supernatural (supernatural agency often guides the plot), representations of fear and horror, liking for the eccentric, including sexual perversions (incest, rape, etc) emphasis on the emotional rather than the rational Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (1817): gothic + Romantic (in it emphasis on the possible consequences of human creativity and godlike creation) Romantic (beginning of19th c. Germany: positive connotation -> later 19th c. England) Germany: August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel (Athenum Fragments, 1798, Berlin Lectures, 1801-1804): Romantic (positive: Middle Ages, Renaissance, esp. Shakespeare) vs. Classic (negative: Latin, Greek, Neo-Classical, esp. Racine, Corneille), exaltation of Romantic poetry -> England: appropriation, from German, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge + Mme de Stal: De LAllemagne ([Of Germany], publ. in London ! in 1813) Important historical events between Age of Sensibility and Romanticism: American War of Independence (1775-76), French Revolution (1789-1799-1815). 1789: destruction of Bastille, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen <- liberty, equality, fraternity -> turns into Terror (1793: King Louis XIV beheaded, Robespierre in power, 1799: rise of Napoleon - expansive politics -> tensions between England and France increase -> 1815 Napoleon defeated at Waterloo) Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): abrupt changes and the attachment to abstract theoretical ideas lead to violence -> need for a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and

those who are to be born. -> conservativism: organic, hereditary version of history (-> see: later Wordsworth and later Coleridge) Thomas Paine: Rights of Man (1791): defends the principles of the French Rev, need for a representative, instead of a hereditary government. Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. Mary Wollstonecraft: Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) Precursor of the feminist suffragette movement. Vindicates the same human rights for women as the ones being vindicated by Paine for men France: liberty, equality, fraternity: rational principles to organise society England: sympathy: emphasis on feelings to organise society <- sympathetic imagination both: humanitarianism: regard for the socially oppressed. Yet, when the Revolution turns into Terror, the English blame the supremacy of abstract reason, and opt for a solution rooted in feelings and sympathy (see: Blake, Wordsworth) France: Rousseau man originally and naturally good, but corrupted by (aristocratic) society -> turn to nature England: literature of sensibility - solace in the fullness of uncorrupted nature, as opposed to the corruptive moral and social values associated with the effects of Industrial Revolution and the economic rise of the middle classes -> both Fr. And Engl.: nature First generation of English Romantics: start out as radical supporters of the French. Rev. but later turn into conservatives, supporters of Burke (Wordsworth 1770-1850 and Coleridge 1772-1834) Yet, keep their emphasis on feelings. Second generation: consistently liberal and supporters of the Rev. (Byron 1788-1824 Shelley 1792-1822 and Keats 1795-1821) ( + Blake, born in 1757, somehow anomalous) Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1800, 1802): William Wordsworth + Samuel Taylor Coleridge A revolution in poetry, but: continues and rewrites 18th century gothic + poetry of sensibility it was agreed, that my [i.e. Coleridges] endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of the imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the minds attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure (Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1816, Ch 14.) Supernatural (ex: The Rime of the Ancyent Mariner): despite its supernatural setting, Coleridges poem reveals something eternally and universally true about human nature itself -> sympathy, possible identification of the reader with characters. [Thus, it can achieve

the effect that Clara Reeve attributed not to romances but to novels: the novel makes the events appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own. (Reeve, I, 111)] Nature: setting (escape, solace, moral support) + human nature 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, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect (Wordsworth, Preface to 1802 ed. of Lyrical Ballads) common life uncorrupted, rustic life language really used by men: as against the elaborate rhetorical devices of neo-classical 18th century poetry <- natural, original language (like man) only corrupted with the development of civilisation. -> Thematics: poems of the supernatural (e.g. The Ancient Mariner), poems on human suffering (e.g. The Mad Mother), poems on children's psychology (e.g. We are Seven), poems that exalt nature (e.g. Tintern Abbey) -> beyond or on the margins of corruptive soc. imagination <- shift between 18th and 19th century epistemology: mind passively perceives -> actively perceives, that is, creates the world around. 18th c: Empiricism: John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Mind at birth: tabula rasa -> From Experience [] all our Knowledge is founded (II.i.2): perception -> ideas <- mind passive in perception 19th century: transcendental philosophy: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) the world as it is (thing-in-itself, noumenon) vs. the world as it appears to us (appearances, phenomena) -> no way to grasp the world as it is <- our perception is determined by the activity and the inborn categories of our own mind (such as time, space, causality) -> mind active in perception and organises experience -> the world is something that we half create, / And what perceive (Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, 106-107) Romantic critique of Kant: poetic imagination permits an insight into the life of things (Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, 49) into the greater, spiritual reality behind appearances. + the poet: has the ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events. (Ww. Preface) poet is able to evoke what is absent -> poetic imagination: a creative power, bringing before the readers eyes many things that are not, in fact, there. Poetry takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquillity (Ww. Preface)

origin: emotions (vs. reason) + means: recollection: memory (like imagination) organises the initial experience (triggered by nature) into a meaningful whole. Memory (like imagination) can function the best when the outside object (nature) is not, in fact, present. I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o'er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. [] For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, 20 They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils. (Wordsworth: I wandered lonely, not! in LB) Coleridge: persons and characters supernatural = these shadows of the imagination -they can reveal the most about some essential human nature. Romantic exaltation of poetic imagination that of genius: the poet has a greater sensibility and a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind. (Ww. Preface) elitist position (poet is better than ordinary men.) However: the poet is also a man speaking to men (Ww. Preface) he is a representative of mankind and speaks to a readership that is mankind (in fact: Wws readership was constituted by the members of middle classes) + represents ordinary (rural) people (that stand for mankind) -> moral aim: to generate sympathy for those living in the margins of society from The Mad Mother A fire was once within my brain, And in my head a dull, dull pain; And fiendish faces one, two, three, Hung at my breasts, and pulled at me. But then there came a sight of joy, It came at once to do me good; I waked and saw my little boy, My little boy of flesh and blood Oh joy for me that sight to see! For he was here, and only he. (21-30) Self-professed moral aim: to influence his readership by awakening their sympathetic imagination through poetry (that which necessarily involves aestheticisation) so that the world can become a better place to live. However: this is what criticism calls Romantic ideology: relying on poetic vision to transform the world runs the risk of transforming it in vision but leaving it intact in reality.

Sympathy + aestheticisation Blake, for instance, spoke of such a visionary faculty as something distinct from ordinary perception: Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (thoever so acute) can discover. [] He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is (There is No Natural Religion, 1788) Importantly, Blake devalues both reason and sense perception as something restrictive, Instead, he values what he elsewhere calls Visionary Fancy or Imagination whereby man can see the Infinite. When he speaks about the Poetic Genius, who is the

true Man (All Religions are One, 1788), he endows this genius with a visionary and creative faculty. Thus, Romanticism already endows the poet, who listens to his genius, or is endowed with a genial power that places him above ordinary people. This is, of course, an elitist position. Not only because this way the poet becomes a kind of superhuman being, elevated above the ordinary world of the shallow people. But also because we encounter a paradox here: romantic writers wanted to change the world so that it can become a better place to live. However, relying on poetic vision to transform the world runs the risk of transforming it in vision but leaving it intact in reality. This is, in fact, the crux of both such radical and revolutionary attempts as Shelleys who claims that these are Poets [and not politicians who] are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (Defence of Poetry) or Wordsworths and Blakes who offer plea for the socially oppressed - in their poetry. However, it has to be emphasised that for the Romantics, the ideals exist not in any fixed and abstract realm of transcendent being, but are immanent in the eternal becoming proper to nature, in the progress of the individual mind and in the unfolding of human history itself. In order to understand this emphasis on becoming as opposed to fixed being, what Coleridge called Dynamic Philosophy we have to turn to the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854). Schelling, just like the Romantics, could not accept Kants division between the world of appearances and the things-in-themselves. According to Schelling, nature, or the thing in itself can be best considered as an endless productivity, an eternal becoming, which becoming, however can only appear for the subject in the form of fixed, determined products, in the form of phenomena. Yet, these products are never complete in themselves, they are like eddies in a stream, which temporarily keep their shape, despite the changing material flowing through them. The world, including nature and the history of both the individual and humanity is something evermore about to be (Prelude, book VI. 541-2) Now the question rises what does all this have to do with art, or what we call Romanticism? Now I am turning back to the beginning of the lecture, where I said that the term Romantic as we understand it today comes from Germany. Romantic poetry is a progressive, universal poetry. [] The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected. It can be exhausted by no theory [] It alone is infinite, just it alone is free; and it recognises as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself. The romantic kind of poetry is the only one that is more than a kind, that is, as it were, poetry itself: for in a certain sense all poetry is or should be romantic. Friedrich Schlegel: Fragment 116. Athemum Fragments (1798)

This fragment suggests that Romantic poetry is exemplary in recreating this eternal process of becoming that is proper to nature, and, at the same time, it is also doomed to failure because of its own limits to express the inexpressible. Schlegels solution is the advocacy of the fragment form: a fragment always draws attention to its own incompleteness and points to all that it cannot express. In this sense, the fragment becomes a symbol, a synecdoche for the whole and the eternal it can never fully represent. Yet, the limits that all verbal art has to face is that of language. Romantics were deeply preoccupied with the problem of language and of poetic diction. Wordsworth, for instance, advocated natural diction (that was not, in fact, natural) and set as an example the language of the uncorrupted man living in nature. Shelley, on the other hand, kept struggling with the challenge posed by the necessity to express the eternal and the ineffable through and in the temporal medium of language. .Woe is me! The winged words on which my soul would pierce Into the height of Loves rare Universe, Are chains of lead around its flight of fire I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire! (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Epipsychidion, 587-591, italics added) However, what can undoubtedly be stated is that the language of poetry was thoroughly metaphorical. Poets did not use rhetorical devices as an artifice to decorate their statement, but as something that was already the statement itself, as something that was the only means to express and to create what they considered to be the truth about the world. The ideology behind it was that, according to some Adamic conceptions of language, including that of Leibnitz and Rousseau, language was also something that was corrupted with the development of civilisation. Originally, there was a natural, rather than artificial (cf: Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), relationship between signifiers and signifieds. In this sense, the way in which Adam named the animals was presented as some ideal as against the ordinary use of language in which custom determines the meaning of words. In the same trend can be inscribed the conception that the first language of man was music, in which there is no difference at all between signifier and signified, and its derivative, poetry. Up till now we spoke about the necessity, for the poet, to express something already there, but hidden, is nature or the universe, be it God, or the eternal process of becoming. But the question also rises, how far language, or the imagination has the task to create something entirely new, out of nothing, similarly to God? And what if it actually does happen? In 1817, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, the novel which can be considered as a significant commentary on the Romantic theme of the creative imagination. For the important

questions it asks: what happens if the creative imagination is really, actually boundless, what if man takes the place of God and the product of his creative imagination becomes alive, and does so in the form of a monster? At the same time, Frankenstein is a very late outcome of the tradition of what was initially alluded to, namely, the romance tradition, which literary history today calls gothic literature. So let us go back to the very beginnings: 18th century novel: (-> Coleridges supernatural poems, Keatss ballads) I say often denied, because Romantic writers tended to criticise the Gothic, like Johnson, on the basis of its being immoral and of having nothing to do with human nature we feel no great difficulty in yielding a temporary belief to any, the strangest, situation of *things*. But that situation once conceived, how beings like ourselves would feel and act in it, our own feelings sufficiently instruct us; and we instantly reject the clumsy fiction that does not harmonise with them (Coleridge. Review of Lewiss The Monk, 1797) However, Coleridges famous definition of the supernatural is but an importantly modified version of Walpoles preface: [M]y endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. (Biogrqphia Literaria, Chapter 14, vol. II. p. 6.) The great difference, according to Coleridge, between his own supernatural poems and the Gothic stories of the late 18th century is that his own poems, despite their supernatural setting, reveal something eternal and universally true about human nature itself, and this is precisely the reason why they can achieve the effect that Clara Reeves attributed not to romances but to novels: The novel makes the events appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were our own. (Reeve, I, 111)

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient [ie. the romance] and the modern [the novel]. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great recesses of fancy have been damned up, by strict adherence to common life