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The Romantic Period


THE ROMANTIC PERIOD The early part of the 19th century is generally known as the Romantic Period, a period which opened, actually, in the year 1798, when Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads, in which they made a conscious and successful attempt to break away, both in subject and style, from the tradition of the 18th century. The period ended in the early '3os, by which time nearly all its chief figures had quitted the stage. During these thirty-and-odd years, which saw the long Napoleonic wars, the subsequent restoration, then the stir of Liberal thought all over Europe, years of political and social ferment, some of the greatest literature in the language was produced. As usual, however, it was only in certain departments of literature that the age excelled. These were poetry, chiefly lyrical, and miscel laneous prose. It failed in the drama, although nearly all its major writers made at least one attempt to conquer the theatre. It produced no history that can be compared with Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and no biography as good as Boswell's Johnson. Its fiction, in spite of Scott and Jane Austen, both supreme mas ters in their own kind, is inferior to that of the succeeding age, the Victorian. But in poetry and miscellaneous prose, criticism and the essay, this Romantic Period is triumphant. Moreover, it is an age unusually rich in men of letters who are also fas cinating as personalities. Scott, Lamb, Byron, Keats, Shelley— to name no other—have each had scores of volumes written round them ; and no period in literature since that of Shakespeare has had more enthusiastic students.

The Era of Individualism.

These thirty years are some times called the "Romantic Revolt," a name that could be given with more justice to the Romantic movement in France that came later. It is rather misleading when applied to the English period because it suggests the existence of some definite literary authority and something like an organized rebellion against its canons. What actually happened was something vaguer and more complicated. We shall not attempt to define "Romantic," and there is not space in which even to indicate all the forces at work, the hundred and one factors, ranging from the re-discovery of mediaeval ballads to the influence of the French revolution. All that we can do is to find some common denominator of all the major writers of the age, something that not only links Words worth and Shelley, Lamb and Byron, but also points to the differ ence between them and the writers of the previous century. It is not easy. No political or religious belief, no common system of philosophy, no theory of literature, will help us. If, however, we remember that the 19th century itself was an era of indi vidualism, we stumble upon a common denominator. What dis tinguishes the literature of this Romantic Period is its intense individualism. In the 18th century, an author was essentially a member of a community, a good citizen writing for other good citizens ; his appeal was always to common sense, general knowl edge; if he described a landscape he took care to give it features that a hundred landscapes have in common; if he expressed feel ings, they were only the feelings that it is customary to express in society. The result was a literature that is sensible, social, generalized. When it was weak, it was dull, savourless. The Romantics broke with this tradition. Their first duty, they con sidered, was to express themselves. Their appeal was always to what transcended common sense. They would become universal in that appeal not by smoothing away all individual characteristics but by reaching the very heart of individuality. They held that to express one's own most intimate thoughts and feelings was really to express everybody. Thus it comes about that these Romantic poets, for all their wonders and crazy flights of fancy, are actually more realistic than the poets in the English classical tradition. It is they who give us "the streaks on the tulip," sim ply,because they are aiming at the individual thing. And when they are at their weakest, they arrive at sheer eccentricity. Their danger always is that they may become mawkishly egoistic or barbarically anti-social.

The Poetic Revolution and Wordsworth.—In poetry this individualism resulted at once in an enlargement of subject mat ter, a new variety in prosody, a substitution of the best ordinary speech for the conventional poetical language of the previous age, and a widening and deepening of emotion. In their Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge deliberately aimed at this poetic revolution. Wordsworth's poetical career, unlike that of most of his contempof aries, was a long one, but nearly all his best work was written between 1797 and 182o. He is undoubtedly the most massive poet of his time, though it is not in his two long poems, The Excursion and The Prelude, semi-narrative, semi philosophical poems in blank verse, that he is at his supreme height, but in his short reflective lyrics and sonnets and one or two rather longer poems, such as Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality. This last is perhaps his masterpiece, a blaze of poetic genius. Wordsworth can be duller than any other English poet of 'similar stature. He is essentially a poet of great moments. Probably he would not object to being so described, for it was his practice to lie in wait for such moments. In his own Lake country, solitary, he would brood over the face of nature, remote from the common bustle of life, until at last the wide sky and the mountains and the bare trees and the very grass were lit up from within, were the vesture of some radiant spirit. He was not a pantheist. He did not see nature as God but only as the sign and symbol of God. All his greatest poems are intimations of immortality. These ecstatic moments of mystical communion he could express in lines that seem extraordinarily simple in structure and language but have a haunting beauty quite unlike that of any other poet. He is especially fond of auditory images and is a master of cadence.

The Romantic Period

Coleridge.—Coleridge's reputation as a poet hangs chiefly upon three poems, The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Chris tabel, and two of these are unfinished. The imagination at work in these little masterpieces is unique. The Ancient Mariner is the most astonishing narrative poem in the language ; the exquisitely lovely verses unfold an unforgettable pageant of marvels and horrors. Kubla Khan is a fragment of pure romance ; it would be hard to find in the same number of lines elsewhere the same curious power of evocation ; it is at once as vague and mysteri ous and yet charged with meaning as a piece of music. Coleridge is the most magical of all our poets. What he has left us is merely the work of a few early years. He took to opium and was then incapable of sustained effort. But he became as great a critic as he was a poet. Indeed, he is perhaps our greatest critic, in spite of his turgid prose style, his second-hand metaphysics and the fragmentary nature of his work. He had enormous reading, a most subtle intellect, and an eye and an ear unusually sensi tive to style. In his Lectures on Shakespeare, the more critical chapters of his Biographia Literaria, and the odd notes and f rag ments of lectures on books and authors since collected into vari ous volumes, these gifts are fully displayed. It was he more than any other man who was responsible for the new interpre tative mode of criticism, which replaced the judicial method of the previous century. To that century, he was always somewhat unjust, and in reaction against its characteristic judgments, he was always in danger of running to uncritical extremes in his appreciation of the older Romantic writers, from Shakespeare downwards. His was easily the greatest influence of the time. Even Scott and Byron, to say nothing of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Lamb and Hazlitt, were influenced by him. Notwith standing his comparative failure to achieve sustained work, Coleridge must always be considered one of the greatest figures of his age.

This can no longer be said of the remaining member of this trio of "Lake Poets," Robert Southey, who in his own time was regarded as their equal. Even those fellow poets, such as Byron and Shelley, who most bitterly resented Southey's defection from the Liberal cause would be astonished if they could learn how his reputation as a poet has declined. Southey's epics, notably Thalaba and The Curse of Kehama, seem now so many monuments of wasted effort and futile ambition. He was, how ever, a most industrious man and learned prose man too, writing an excellent style, and at least one volume of his, the Life of Nelson, has kept its place. Time has dealt a little more tenderly with the picturesque narrative poems of Sir Walter Scott, whose Lady of the Lake and the rest are still enjoyed by young readers, but it is as the author of one or two magnificent lyrics, such as Proud Maisie, that Scott keeps his place as a poet. Beside him may be set his fellow-countryman, James Hogg (The Ettrick Shepherd), who has never quite had full justice done him. And there are three other poets who for years were regarded as the foremost men of their time but have since dwindled into the authors of a few acceptable lyrics. These are Samuel Rogers (the least important), Thomas Campbell and Tom Moore. Byron and Shelley.—Between these older men and the three younger poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats, who all died before they reached maturity, may be set the figure of a man who was greater as an influence than strictly as a writer. This was Leigh Hunt, who produced some pleasant verses, some good light essays and some really excellent criticism. His greatest work, however, was done as the inspiring friend of the younger poets, especially Shelley and Keats. Byron was not deeply influenced by any con temporary writer. Oddly enough, Byron, who became a European figure of Romance, was not at heart a Romantic poet at all, a fact that is now recognized. His most lasting work, apart from one or two poignant lyrics, has been in verse of a satirically descriptive order, found at its best in his Don Juan, in which his really strong masculine intellect, his witty impertinence and his rhetorical gusto have full scope. He was—and still remains- a symbolic figure of romantic rebellion, though he himself would have been the first to laugh at most of his fervent admirers.

Byron is steadily being overshadowed, however, by a more authentic figure of romantic rebellion. His friend and junior, Percy Bysshe Shelley, has long been recognized as the greater poet, and he is now taking the place that Byron once had, at home and abroad, as a symbolic figure. He was only thirty when he perished in the sea, and it is impossible to imagine what would have become of him had he lived to a ripe old age, for he is the poet of enthusiastic and revolutionary youth. Coming early under the influence of William Godwin (who wrote some novels of merit), Shelley became a philosophical anarchist of a type not uncommon in the later 18th century. He was the And of all such dry Prosperos as Godwin. He is pre-eminently the poet of some future Golden Age, unearthly in its loveliness and inno cence. His lyrics (and he is always lyrical, even in his longer poems) have a matchless swiftness and grace and opalescent colouring ; they are all vague music and perfume and shifting lights ; and neither their beautiful melancholy nor their ecstasies are quite of this world. Indeed, the chief fault of Shelley's poetry is its lack of all ordinary human feeling and its remoteness from common interests. A further weakness is a certain mushiness of phrase, and there are signs that his vocabulary never quite re covered from the influence of the absurd philosophical romances he read (and wrote) so eagerly in early youth. But he was a lyrical genius and a figure of poetry and eager revolt that, at certain ages and always for some readers, completely captures the imagination.

The Genius of Keats.

The last of these young poets died even before he reached his prime, at the age of twenty-six. This was John Keats, who is represented by an early narrative poem, full of faults, the fragment of an epic, Hyperion, and a small number of sonnets, odes and short narrative poems. But these are astonishing in their quality; they have a rich sensuousness, a carven beauty of phrase and the everpresent suggestion of a wide brooding imagination, that set their author among the mas ters of English poetry. When we consider these poems and put beside them their author's letters (full of good writing, high spirits, sense and flashes of unusual wisdom), and then remember not merely his early death but the whole evil circumstances of his life, we can only conclude that English literature lost in him a very great genius, the potential master of almost any form of the art. His actual performance was astonishing, but his promise was nothing less than a wonder.

This period brought about almost as great a change in prose as it did in poetry, a fact that is frequently overlooked. That in tense individualism, already mentioned, is as evident in the chief prose writers as it is in the poets. The essay was no longer some thing that might have been written by a committee of sensible men, it was as personal and intimate as talk. So, too, criticism became frankly personal, and the only standard was the critic's own likes and dislikes. These Romantic prose writers expressed themselves first of all, and even their criticism was a chapter of autobiography. One result of this was a change in prose style. The i8th century prose style had been antithetical, balanced, impersonal. This standard style was by no means abandoned altogether (it exists to this day) and most of the quarterly re viewers used it, but all the more important prose writers (with the exception of Walter Savage Landor, who in his massive prose Imaginary Conversations, as in his exquisite epigrammatic verses, aimed at a classical balance, dignity and brevity of phrase) turned away from it to styles more personal, more highly coloured and musical, nearer to poetry. The most ambitious of all these prose colourists and musicians was Thomas De Quincey, who produced one masterpiece of autobiography and day-dream and elaborately notated prose, in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and then gently subsided into being a writer of learned and in genious articles for the magazines.

The Great Essayists.

The two greatest essayists of the time are Lamb and Hazlitt. Charles Lamb was a considerable critic; he was an exquisite essayist and one of the best letter-writers in the language; but he was greatest of all simply as a personality. In him that intense individualism seems to run into eccentricity, almost into madness, yet there is in him everywhere, in the midst of his wild dark humour, a sweet sanity, a wisdom of the spirit. Above all the great, the picturesque, the fascinating personalities of his time, he is the best-loved. His friend, William Hazlitt, whose reputation is equally balanced between the personal essay and criticism, was a very different person, wanting in humour and tenderness, a difficult friend, a ferocious enemy. He had a good strong intellect and a fine taste, and no man did more in calling attention to what was true and beautiful and in communicating a zest for good writing.

The official criticism of the period, that which was associated with the quarterlies, falls a long way behind the scattered notes of Coleridge and Lamb and the headlong essays of Hazlitt. It suffered from two defects, first, that it was influenced by political and social considerations ; secondly, that it never quite escaped from the i8th century, was rooted in an outworn tradition, and did not understand what was going on in literature. The Whig Edinburgh Review was the first of the quarterlies, and its editor, Francis Jeffrey, with whom were associated Sydney Smith (a great wit) and Brougham, was a man of real ability, but neither he nor his colleagues ever understood what the major writers of their time were trying to do. The Tory rival of the Edinburgh, the Quarterly Review, was even more unsympathetic. Its first editor was William Gifford, a somewhat ferocious scholar; and later it was edited by John Gibson Lockhart, Scott's son-in-law, who suffered from a supercilious cleverness but set it aside to write a really masterly Life of Scott, the best biography the age produced. Lockhart had earlier been associated with Blackwood's Magazine, in which John Wilson (Christopher North) roared and cudgelled and rhapsodized, especially in the series of dia logues afterwards published as Noctes Ambrosianae, which con tain some entertaining criticism, some even more entertaining character sketches and some uproarious high spirits. For some time Blackwood's had a rival in the London Magazine, which did not live long but nevertheless succeeded perhaps in bringing out more masterpieces than any other magazine before or since. But the greatest journalist of his time and one of the best writers of plain solid prose was William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides still remains one of the best pictures of the English countryside we have.

In history and philosophy, especially when they are regarded as departments of literature, this period was decidedly inferior to the one that went before and the one that came after. It has no Hume, no Gibbon, no Carlyle, not even a Macaulay. Hallam, Mitford, Roscoe, Mackintosh, these are its figures, respectable enough but a long way from the front rank. And though Malthus, Bentham and James Mill may be sufficiently important thinkers, their respective works are far removed from literature.

Jane Austen and Scott.

In fiction, as we have already seen, the period would make a very poor show indeed if it were not for two outstanding figures. During the opening years of the century, there is a curious lull in fiction, perhaps due in part to the great popularity of the narrative poem. But two kinds were being essayed, and both of them found their masters. (We must not overlook, however, that satirist of the philosophers and the romantics, Thomas Love Peacock, whose chief contributions were to fiction and whose novels are unique in their blend of intel lectual high spirits and ironic comment.) The earlier to mature was the novel of ordinary domestic life and manners, depending for its appeal on the close observation of the writer and his (though it was nearly always her) power of making quite ordinary people entertaining as characters. Fanny Burney, Maria Edge worth, Susan Ferrier, all these ladies made some progress in this delicate art, but it was Jane Austen who brought it as near to perfection as it seems possible to bring it. Nothing could seem more unpromising than her material, the uneventful lives of dull, well-fed people in quiet corners of England, but by the enchant ment of her art, her sense of character, her bland irony, her ex quisite powers of organization and presentation, she has given us half-a-dozen novels that have aroused the enthusiasm of every succeeding generation of readers. She is our most finished artist in fiction.

The other kind was the historical novel. A delighted discovery of the past marks the whole age, but it was left to Sir Walter Scott, already practised in poetic narration, steeped in the lore of his own Border country, experienced in men and affairs, to make this discovery the servant of fiction. This he did in the great series of romances that began with Waverley in 1814 and captured not only the British Isles but all Europe. The weak nesses of Scott, who wrote too much and too quickly, are a marked carelessness not merely in style but in actual narration, and a certain limitation in his thought. But these are far out weighed by his massive virtues, the way in which he combines the personal and historical interests, the generous breadth and fine rush of his narrative and his solid sense of character. Other writers, working over similar ground, have improved upon his work in this particular or that, but as an all-round narrator of historical romance he has never been excelled. The age honoured him both as a writer and a man, and now he still honours the age, rich as it was in arresting figures and triumphant masterpieces.

(J. B. PR.)

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