Preromanticism refers to the period in European literature that occurred between the Augustan age and the era of Romanticism, covering the years from approximately the middle of the eighteenth century to the early 1790s. In this period rigid notions about style and the absolute authority of religion and science began to yield to an emphasis on personal thoughts and feelings, often triggered by observation of nature. The search for meaning led within, to the probing of the mind and a focus on the inner self, and to an individual, personal interpretation of the world.
While controversy has abounded in many aspects of discussion of Preromanticism, there are some areas of general agreement, including subject matter. The scholar Bertrand H. Bronson has offered a list of favorite topics of the Preromantics: "Country Pleasures, Times of the Day, Seasons of the Year; Abstractions—Fancy, Solitude, Sleep, Death—inviting description, evoking feeling, tempting the moral comment." Bronson also quotes Josephine Miles's example of an ideal poetic sentence for the time, a construction she based on statistical count and analysis of the works of the Preromantic poets: "Rise, fair day, before the eyes and soul of man." Bronson points out the use of the invocatory form of the verb and "the tendency to apostrophize and implore" as characteristic of the period.
The Preromantics also highly stressed the idea of originality in writing. Many poets of this period felt restricted by the precedents established by classic works of the past and the prevalent attitude that the greatest literature had already been written. Walter Jackson Bate has argued that it was because of having to face the question "What is there left to write?" that the Preromantics so emphasized the ideals of originality and sincerity. No one championed these ideals more than Edward Young, who extolled subjectivity in his Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), urging that poets look within for originality and not attempt to copy the ancients. Nature served an important role in realizing these goals; for example, in James Thomson's nature poetry, the poet experiences the world primarily through his senses and eventually comes to realize his part in it. According to Margaret Sherwood, Thomson's work represents "a new self-consciousness in regard to nature…. Here is beauty, no longer an abstract conception of fitness of organism to its use, but a joy, brought home through the senses, which stir feeling and mild reflection." Some scholars have gone so far as to state that the concept of the self was "invented" shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century, and that before that people thought of themselves mainly according to their set roles in society rather than as individuals. According to John O. Lyons, this self "first was treated as the whole organic complex of the perceiving being in sympathetic relation to the world around it. Such a concept of the self was expressed in the concern with the passions, the minute perception of human motive, and the reality of nature, for it assumed the efficacy of inductive science."
Yet the emphasis on self did not create self-centeredness to the detriment of others. To the contrary, the Preromantics believed that the person who sought self-knowledge would became more sympathetic to the suffering of others. Feelings were emphasized to such an extent that man began to relate to nature and animals on a different level than in previous times, to actually feel akin to them and sympathize with them. In the immensely popular "novels of sensibility" there was great emphasis on sentiment and sympathy, with plot being little more than a means of setting up a context for these feelings. Howard Mumford Jones has described the standard themes in novels of sensibility as "undeserved poverty, divine benevolence, or virtue in distress." He has enumerated some of the plot devices of this genre as "the orphan of mysterious but noble parentage, attempts at seduction or rape, imprisonment in jail or convent," forced exile, and many others, often shared with Gothic horror novels. Interest in the uniqueness of individuals also extended into respect for folk culture, and an area that gained great attention was the collection and preservation of folk songs. Robert Burns, for example, devoted much of his later life to transcribing and editing old Scottish airs. The Preromantic period also saw an unprecedented demand for histories and biographies; personal details that would previously have been thought outside the proper scope of literature were now deemed acceptable.
The use of the term Preromanticism has been adamantly debated by scholars. Some prefer to call the period the age of sensibility, others the post-Augustan era, while others deny that it should be considered a separate period at all, viewing it as simply occurring late in the Augustan era. Bronson and other critics have pointed out the problems in defining the terms Augustan and Romantic, and therefore the difficulties in attempting to define either "post-Augustan" or "Preromantic." Even though Augustan and Romantic are theoretically opposites, in practice, "post-Augustan" and "Preromantic" are often used interchangeably. In arguing against the term Preromantic, Northrop Frye has written: "Not only did the 'pre-romantics' not know that the Romantic movement was going to succeed them, but there has probably never been a case on record of a poet's having regarded a later poet's work as the fulfillment of his own." Many scholars have pointed out, however, that the terms Romantic and Romanticism were not used by the writers in question themselves, but are of later origin, and the same is true of the term Preromanticism. A lively debate continues regarding Preromanticism, as does critical interest in the writers and works associated with the period.]
Margaret Sherwood (essay date 1934)
SOURCE: "Some Phases of Development of Thought in the World of Letters in the Eighteenth Century," in Undercurrents of Influence in English Romantic Poetry, AMS Press, 1971, pp. 28-113.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1934, Sherwood describes how eighteenth-century authors reacted against prevailing religious and scientific notions through a new emphasis on subjectivism.]
The great flowering of poetry in the so-called romantic period of the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries in England was not a sudden portent; growth was swift, but not sudden. More and more the student turns back to the eighteenth century to study origins, trace influences, search out undercurrents of thought, that he may better understand that rich, complex, modern product. Throughout a great part of this century groping for fuller life is revealed in the form and in the content of the poetry that is written; wandering in that world of letters of the mid-eighteenth century is like wandering in the forest when spring draws near, when one hears a faint murmur and rustle of life, everywhere an air of expectancy, of awaiting. As the century goes on there is increasingly a reaching out for fuller existence, a release of human nature from the bonds of convention, a slow liberation of emotion, imagination, and the deeper powers of the...
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Defining The Period
Bertrand H. Bronson (essay date 1953)
SOURCE: "The Pre-Romantic or Post-Augustan Mode," in ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 20, No. 1, March, 1953, pp. 15-28.
[In the following excerpt Bronson details why no individual post-Augustan poet adequately exemplifies the Preromantic period.]
The topic that confronts us is one that carries doubt in its very face. "Pray," asks Christian, "who are your Kindred, if a man may be so bold?" "Almost the whole Town," answers By-ends; "and in particular, my Lord Turnabout, my Lord Time-server, my Lord Fair-spech…. Also Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-bothways, Mr. Any-thing; and the Parson of our Parish, Mr. Two-tongues, was my Mothers own Brother by my Father's side: And to tell you the truth, I am become a Gentleman of good Quality, yet my Great Grandfather was but a Waterman, looking one way, and rowing another: and I got most of my estate by the same occupation."
Our critical terminology is notoriously loose, and I am not too envy-ridden that it has fallen to my colleagues on either side—more timely-happy than myself—to clarify the meaning of the terms Augustan and Romantic. I, at least, can take their meanings for granted, in so far as they stand conventionally for opposite attitudes and aims.
But, if "Romantic" can and does bear as many meanings as Mr. Lovejoy has taught us...
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New Directions In Poetry And Prose
Walter Jackson Bate (essay date 1946)
SOURCE: "The Growth of Individualism: The Premise of the Association of Ideas," in From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946, pp. 129-59.
[In the following excerpt from his highly influential work From Classic to Romantic, Bate describes how a new emphasis on feelings led poets to experiment with sympathy, synaesthesia, suggestiveness, and sublimity.]
"Poetry," said Wordsworth, "is the history, or science, of the feelings"; for it is the "heart" which seeks "the light of truth." A rather general reliance on feeling as a valid means of insight and communication accompanied the earlier stages of the increased relativism which, in varying guises and degrees, has tended to dominate western art since the latter part of the eighteenth century. It is an ironic commonplace of intellectual history that one of the major sources of the romantic stress on feeling was ultimately the mechanistic psychology of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Empiricism, having disposed of the mind as a strictly rational instrument, was increasingly forced to fall back on the immediate feeling of the individual. "What is commonly, and in a popular sense, called reason," said Hume, "is nothing but a general and a calm passion which takes a comprehensive and distant view of its...
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The Focus On The Self
Christopher Fox (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Some Problems of Perspective," in Locke and the Scriblerians: Identity and Consciousness in Early-Eighteenth-Century Britain, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 7-26.
[In the following excerpt Fox examines changing views regarding personal identity and consciousness during the late eighteenth century.]
You deny that we have any Consciousness at all, that we continue the same individual Being at differ-ent times. If so; it can be to no great Purpose for us to dispute about any Thing; For, before you receive my Reply, you may happen possibly to be entirely changed into another Substance; and, the next time you write, may deny that you have any Conscious-ness at all, that you continue the same individual Being who wrote this remarkable Sentence.
—Samuel Clarke to Anthony Collins, November 1707
A good starting point would be to ask why the early eighteenth-century discussion of identity and consciousness has not been better known. That personal identity was a concern of eighteenth-century writers has not, of course, been denied by literary scholars. Ever since Ian Watt pointed some years ago to the age's difficulties in "defining the individual person," critical attention has increasingly focused on the issue and its impact on...
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Arthos, John. The Language of Natural Description in Eighteenth-Century Poetry. 1949. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1970, 463 p.
Discusses the influence of natural science on eighteenth-century descriptive poetry, tracing the ways various poets shaped and transcended the conventional terminology of scientific description.
Bogel, Fredric V. Literature and Insubstantiality in Later Eighteenth-Century England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984, 226 p.
Discusses many of the Preromantic writers in the context of the literature of sensibility.
Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and Its Background 1760-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 213 p.
Discusses Romantic and Preromantic writers and artists in historical context, focusing on their "rebellious" aspect.
——. "Romanticism in England." In Romanticism in National Context, edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, pp. 37-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Argues that the Preromantics and Romantics understood the interconnectedness of literary history and political history.
Butt, John. "Conclusion: The Quest for...
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