Friday, December 2, 2011

Some Thoughts on Romanticism. . . .

I am always on the lookout for early uses of the term Romanticism in English. The term Romantic as applied to literature was commonplace even in the 18th century but it usually referred things such as gothic novels or overtly pastoral material, and was often used in the pejorative sense.  Romanticism identified as a literary movement associated with the work of such poets as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and others did not come into general until later in the 19th century. This is not to say that it then had, or even has today, a clear and straightforward connotation. Today, Romanticism as a literary term has basically lost credibility from an academic point of view. There are far too many conflicting interests and ideas within the work of those authors normally deemed to be leading Romanticists for it to be a rigorously useful notion. But then most terms in Art and Literary history are really just terms of convenience which we should only use loosely for the sake of historical and biographical ease. Thus, if I were teaching a group of highschool or young university students I would use the term Romanticism for the sake of creating a useful picture of historical movement, all the while making sure to stress that such terms are historically convenient rather than philosophically rigorous. I think what is important for young students to understand is that there were major social and economic changes taking place toward the end of the 18th century and that these changes had a significant correlate in the arts.

Anyway, getting back to my point about the use of the word Romanticism, I found an early use of the term yesterday in a 1829 edition of the London Magazine. It is found in an article entitled "Modern French Poetry" which is particularly concerned with the work of Victor Hugo who was still a young man and had not produced his important work. The passage also contains an interesting use of the word "ultraism" now usually associated with a Spanish literary movement of the early 20th century. The sentence in which the word is used is as follows - "For, in France, romanticism and ultraism (strange as the supposed union may appear) are considered, in a writer, consequent on, and inseparable from, each other; - whilst an undeviating, scrupulous attachment to the authors of the age of Louis XIV, (for, after all, the French idea of classic is nearly confined to them,) - a supercilious contempt for literature of other countries - a dread of change or innovation, in language, rhythm, or general costume - classicism, in short, as it is understood, is considered as equivalent to liberalism, though it is, in fact ultrasim in literature."

Now, I have a fair degree of knowledge of this subject and over twenty years of experience and I cannot honestly say that this sentence makes complete sense to me. The author (who, by the way remains anonymous) seems to be contradicting himself, saying that both romanticism and classicism are forms of ultraism. It also seems to strangely suggest that classicism is associated with liberalism - an idea that seems in direct contradiction to the conventional wisdom. I welcome comments by any of my five or six readers on how they read this sentence.

Despite the turgid obscurity of this sentence, it is an early use of the term Romanticism, and is therefore interesting. However, what is arguably more interesting is the paragraph that follows this passage and, by certain interpretations, it could be seen as shedding light on the previous sentence.

"These unions between parties in politics, and parties in poetry, really exist in France, as we have described them. The fact presents an evident anomaly, and not one of the least curious of our days. For, according to our general notion of things, the parties certainly should be differently assorted. The romantic, or the bold, the innovating, the irregular, in poetry, would ally itself with the speculative, the reforming, the experimental, in politics. On the other side, a scrupulous observance of ancient ordonnances in belles lettres, an exclusive reverence for the works of the great monarchy, for set forms, for the unities, for the dictionary of the Academy, (who determined, in their wisdom, some century and a half ago, that they had fixed the language of their country, which was thenceforth to know neither change nor augmentation) - in short, a devotion to every thing settled, regular, and legitimate, and an abhorrence of novelties and exotics - classicism, in a word, would take refuge in the faubourg St. Germain, the head-quarters of ultraism."

(The Faubourg Saint-Germain, for those who don't know, was the richest, most aristocratic district in Paris)

This sentence does two things. First, it eliminates once an for all the notion that obfuscating prose is a product only of the "post-modern" philosophical mind. Second, it clears up somewhat the previous sentence. The writer is suggesting that while one would expect the Romantics to be associated with radical politics and Classicists to be associated with more conservative political efforts, this is not what in fact prevails in France in the early part of the 19th century. Now, 19th century French literature is certainly not my area of expertise and I am not sure that I am qualified to make a properly informed decision on this issue. (By the way, the editor of the magazine (which at this particular point may have been either John Taylor or Thomas Hood) puts a footnote at this point in the text to suggest that he, in fact, disagrees with the writer). I suspect that this may be a misinterpretation of the events by the writer, but I will leave it to my own readers to decide for themselves.

What I do know is that in England, the ideas of Romanticism are clearly more associated (at least in peoples' minds) with radical politics. The first generation of Romantic authors began as serious radicals and reformers. And as they grew more conservative in outlook, it is almost universally acknowledged that their work declined significantly in quality and interest. The younger generation of Romantics, such as Shelley and Byron, were outspoken political radicals. Other, lesser known writers who bridged the generations and some of whom lived well into the Victorian age such as Leigh Hunt, Thomas Hood, Charles Lamb, Mary Mitford, John Hamilton Reynolds, Allan Cunningham,  were all committed reformers.

Again, since Romanticism is not a very rigorous concept, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to make a consistent argument that the values of Romanticism are necessarily radical in any political sense. However, I do know one thing for certain. Almost all of the writers that I really love are political radicals, and that is how I think it should be. Art, by its nature, should look toward the ideal, toward utopia, and it should believe, at some basic level, that the ideal is worth striving for. If an artist cannot strive toward utopia in the 'real' world, then she will not know how to strive for it in the aesthetic one.

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