Lecture 1: Romanticism and Revolution

Lecture 1: Romanticism and Revolution
I. The concept of the “romantic” denotes a “revolutionary” impulse
1. the contrasting of the “classic” and the “romantic” as universal categories suggests that the
shift from the one to the other is a “revolutionary” change, with the “romantic” overthrowing all
that went before, and one set of values triumphing over another.
the age of reason --- the age of feeling
an age of social stability --- an age of revolutions
clarity, balance, symmetry --- irregularity, obscurity, wildness
art teaches moral lessons, it is didactic --- scorns art that wants to teach
art imitates the known world --- art creates new worlds and explores the unknown
generality --- particularity
rules derived from the past --- freedom from preconceived rules
finitude --- infinity
stasis --- dynamism
order --- irregularity
traditionalism --- progressivism
reactionary --- revolutionary
this is the result of an ahistorical approach which produces such claims as e.g.:
-- all great artists are the romantics of their age; they copy nature, their art concerned with the
present – classicists: do not look at the world around them but copy great artists instead,
concerned with the past – Sophocles, Euripides, Racine, Moliere all “romantic.” (Stendhal,
“Racine and Shakespeare,” 1823)
-- St Paul’s “irruption into Greek religious thought and Greek prose” was an essential example of
“a romantic movement” though “the first great romantic” was Plato. (Grierson: Classical and
Romantic, 1923)
-- the Odyssey is essentially romantic, but Romanticism was born not in Homer but in the Garden
of Eden and “the Serpent was the first romantic.” (Whibely in the editor’s introduction to
Wyndham: Essays in Romantic Literature, 1919)
2. Historical reason: Romanticism coincides with an age of Revolutions (French Revolution,
Napoleonic wars, July Revolution, 1830, February Revolution, 1848, Spring of Nations) –
Romanticism seen as the cultural equivalent of the political revolution against an old order.
BUT: the relation between history and literature is more complex than this; general, ahistorical
concepts (such as the “romantic” and “classic” as above) are misleading and hinder the
understanding of actual periods in the history of literature.
Romanticism took place at different times in different places, and in different historical contexts,
it has different senses and political connotations.
-- in Germany, the “romantic” denoted a tendency to turn to the past, to an imaginary Middle
Ages, to a mystic Catholicism, and marked a reactionary patriotism that did not at all support the
French Revolution (cf. Friedrich Schlegel turning from radical aesthetics to Catholic
-- in France, romanticism begins as a traditionalist movement, opposing the revolution; this then
changes (cf. Madame de Stael’s attacks on the art of the age of Napoleon in De L’Allmagne), but
French Romanticism flourishes only in the 1830s, well after the French Revolution
-- revolutionary romantics of the Spring of Nations (cf Petőfi) have virtually nothing in common
with early German or French romantics.
II. The “revolutionary” nature of English Romanticism in a historical context
1. Continuities between Romanticism and the later 18th century
a) a time of social expansion, of change and political openness (movements for reform, groups
excluded from power pressurizing the parlaiment [e.g. Dissenters])
b) innovation and social criticism in the arts; a turn to the past, a search for simplicity and
essential human qualities, passions (primitivism, the gothic, neoclassicism, senitmentalism)
 the later 18th century is not a time of the entrenchment of some static classicism or of some
stable conservative status quo that a romantic revolution had to explode
2. The impact of the French Revolution
a) the Revolution Controversy
-- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791. Natural rights, the state based on a contract of
sovereign individuals for the protection of their rights. “All hereditary government is in its nature
-- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790. Natural rights are irrelevant for
“civil social man,” how rights can be protected is based not on abstract theories but on social
experience; the constitution is a product of convention, which is binding; “Art is man’s nature.”
 radical and conservative political theory suggests differing attitudes to the past, to conventions,
to nature
 existing ideas and tendencies become ideologically, politically explosive, the French
Revolution and the British response to it provide a context in which the Romantic transformation
of existing tendencies comes to be seen as revolutionary.
b) features defining Romantic writing seen as revolutionary
-- experiments with simple diction and subjects seen as an attack of the elit’s control over
standards of taste, claims for natural expression seen as Rousseauism
Lake Poetry originated in “the agitations of the French Revolution and the discussion as
well as the hopes and terrors to which it gave occasion.” (Francis Jeffrey, 1816)
Wordsworth’s poetry “partakes of, and is carried along with, the revolutionary movement
of our age: the political changes of the day were the model on which he formed and conducted his
poetical experiments. His Muse … is a levelling one. It proceeds ona principle of equality (…)
His popular, inartifical style gets rid (of a blow) of all the trappings of verse, all the high places of
poetry … All the traditions of learning, all the superstitions of the age, are obliterated and
effaced. We begin de novo, on a tabula rasa of poetry.” (William Hazlitt, 1825)
-- self-centerdness (Wordsworth, Byron) and concern with consciousness are associated with the
idea of the sovereignity of the individual
-- the philosophic nature of Romantic writing associated with the delusional theorizing of the
French Revolutionaries.
Butler, Marilyn, Romantics, Rebels, Reactionaries (OUP, 1981)
Butler, Marilyn, ed., Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy (CUP, 1984)
Clemit, Pamela, ed., The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the French Revolution in the 1790s
(CUP, 2011)
Simpson, David: “The French Revolution” in: Brown, Marshall, ed., The Cambridge History of Literary
Criticism. Volume 5: Romanticism (CUP, 2000)
Canavan, Francis, “The Burke-Paine Controversy” in: The Political Science Reviewer, cf.
Darnton, Robert: “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?” in: New York Review of Books,
January 19, 1989.
Klancher, Jan, “Romantic Criticism and the Meanings of the French Revolution” in: Studies in
Romanticism, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Fall 1989)
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