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Romanticism and Classicism
There are two distinctive tendencies in the history of literature-Classic and Romantic. At
some period in the history of Literature one tendency dominates, and then it is followed
by the predominance of the other tendency, and in this manner they appear alternately,
one following the other. In the history of English literature, the Elizabethan period may
be called the first Romantic period, dominated by Marlowe, Shakespeare, Spenser
and others. It was followed by the Classical period in the eighteenth century whose
important literary figures were Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift and Dr. Johnson. The later
part of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century,
whose prominent poets were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats, was
dominated by the romantic tendency, and hence it is called the Romantic period.
During the Victorian period in English the romantic tendency continued to dominate
literature, but the twentieth century literature shows signs of the Classical tendency.
The distinctive symptoms of Classicism are:
belief in reason:
emphasis on the civilized, modern and sophisticated modes of life;
interest in urban society;
preoccupation with human nature;
love for mundane actuality;
satirical tendency
; expression of accepted moral truth;
realistic recognition of things as they are;
belief in good and evil;
acceptance of established religious and philosophic creeds;
attachment to normal, generic abstraction;
impersonal, objectivity;
interest in public themes;
emphasis on formal correctness, and the ideal of order;
popularity of poetry of prose statement;
use of formal poetic diction;
self-conscious traditionalism;
and rational sobriety of Latin literature. On the other hand, the symptoms of
Romanticism are:
belief in feelings, imagination and intuition;
emphasis on the primitive, medieval and natural modes of life;
interest in rural solitude;
pre-occupation with the aesthetic and spiritual values of external nature;
love for visions of the mysterious, the ideal and the infinite;
tendency of myth-making;
discovery of the beauty that is truth;
faith in progress;
belief in man and goodness and individual speculation and - revelation;
attachment to concrete particulars;
interest in private themes;
emphasis on individual expressiveness, and the ideal of intensity, popularity of image and
use of common language;
self-conscious originality and romantic Hellenism.
But the terms Classical and Romantic are not so strictly opposed to each other as has
been pointed out; in fact, one grows out of the other and they overlap each other. In
reality both the tendencies are present in great works of literature, though in varying
proportions. In this connection Pater has observed in his book, Appreciations: ”The
words, classical and romantic, although like many other critical expressions, sometimes
abused by those who have understood them too vaguely or too absolutely, yet define two
real tendencies in the history of art and literature. Used in an exaggerated sense, to
express a greater opposition between these tendencies than really exists, they have at
times tended to divide people of taste into opposite camps. The term classical, fixed as it
is to a well-defined literature is clear indi ed; but then it has often been used in a hard,
and merely scholastic sense, by the praisers of what is old and accustomed, at the expense
of what is new, by critics who would never have discovered for themselves the charm of
any work, whether new or old, who value what is old, in art or literature, for its
accessories, and chiefly for the conventional authority that has gathered about it.
, ”And as the term classical has been used in a too absolute, and therefore, in a
misleading sense, so the term romantic has been used much too vaguely, in various
accidental senses. The sense in which Scott is called a romantic writer is chiefly this: that
in opposition to the ’terany tradition of the eighteenth century, he loved strange venture,
and sought it in the Middle Ages...But the Oniantic spirit, is, in reality, ever present, an
enduring principle, in the artistic temperament; and the qualities of thought and style
which, that and other similar uses of the word romantic really indicate, are indeed but
symptoms of a very continuous and widely working influence...
”The charm of what is classical, in art or literature, is that of a well-known tale, to which
we can, nevertheless listen over and over again, because it is told so well. To the absolute
beauty of its artistic form, is added the accidental, tranquil charm of familiarity...It is the
addition of strangeness ~ to beauty that constitute the romantic character in art; and the
desire of beauty being a fixed element in every artistic organization, it is the addition of
curiosity to the desire of beauty, that.constitutes the romantic temper..The essential
elements, then, of the romantic spirit are curiosity and the love of beauty; and it is only
as an illustration of these qualities that it seeks the Middle Ages; because, in the
overcharged atmosphere of Middle Ages, there are unworked ,„ sources of romantic
effect, to be won, by strong imagination, out of things unlikely and remote...
”But however false these two tendencies may be opposed by critics, or exaggerated by
artists themselves, they are tendencies really at work at all times in art, moulding it, with
the balance sometimes a little on one side, sometimes a little on the other, generating,
respectively as the balance inclines on this side or that, two principles, two traditions in
art and literature.”
Classical and Romantic tendencies, when carried to the extreme do much damage to
genuine literature. The former degenerates into rigid formalism and slavish obedience to
rules, which suppress and undermine all initiative and originality of the writer,
as was the case during the eighteenth century in England, The latter turns itself into
license, extravagance and lack of restraint, which lead to chaos, as it happened in the later
phases of Elizabethan romanticism. The best type of literature combines in equal
proportion both the Classical and Romantic elements. In it we find strength exercised
”with restraint, disciplined, imagination, perfect harmony, originality in conformity
with the highest standard of literary excellence and, above all/ ’nothing too much’.
Great writers like Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, exhibit in their work both the
tendencies harmoniously blended.