Romantic Literary Criticism Essay - Critical Essays

Romantic Literary Criticism


Romantic Literary Criticism

English literary criticism of the Romantic era is most closely associated with the writings of William Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817). Modern critics disagree on whether the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge constituted a major break with the criticism of their predecessors or if it should more properly be characterized as a continuation of the aesthetic theories of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German and English writers.

In 1800, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth issued his famous proclamation about the nature of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” With this statement, Wordsworth posited a very different view of poetry than was standard at the time, shifting the center of attention from the work as a reflection or imitation of reality to the artist, and the artist's relationship to the work. Poetry would henceforth be considered an expressive rather than a mimetic art. Although the analogy of art as a mirror was still used, M. H. Abrams reports that the early Romantics suggested that the mirror was turned inward to reflect the poet's state of mind, rather than outward to reflect external reality. William Hazlitt in his “On Poetry in General” (1818) addressed the changes in this analogy “by combining the mirror with a lamp, in order to demonstrate that a poet reflects a world already bathed in an emotional light he has himself projected,” according to Abrams. Additionally, music replaced painting as the art form considered most like poetry by the Romantics. Abrams explains that the German writers of the 1790s considered music “to be the art most immediately expressive of spirit and emotion,” and both Hazlitt and John Keble made similar connections between music and poetry in their critical writings.

Many of the principles associated with early nineteenth-century English criticism were first articulated by late eighteenth-century German Romantics. René Wellek has documented the contributions of Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, F. W. J. Schelling, Novalis, and other important figures of the period. Novalis, for example, shared the English Romantics' belief that the poet was a member of a special breed, “exalted beyond any other human being.” Similarly, Jochen Schulte-Sasse, in his comprehensive history of German literary criticism, traced the development of various elements of Romantic thought that appeared in Germany either prior to or concurrent with similar developments in England.

The literary reviews of the early nineteenth century, most notably the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, participated in the formulation of critical theory as well. Although earlier reviews were little more than advertisements for the books being considered, or “thinly concealed puff for booksellers' wares,” in the words of Terry Eagleton, the change in reviewing style in the Romantic period was not much of an improvement. According to Eagleton: “Criticism was now explicitly, unabashedly political: the journals tended to select for review only those works on which they could loosely peg lengthy ideological pieces, and their literary judgements, [sic] buttressed by the authority of anonymity, were rigorously subordinated to their politics.” John O. Hayden reports that reviews were tainted not only by politics, but by “malicious allusions to the private lives of the authors,” and concedes that “the critical values of the reviewers were neither uniform nor well established.” Coleridge's unhappiness with the vicious, opinionated reviews in the periodicals prompted his attempt to devise a critical method that would supplant mere opinions with reviews based on a set of sound literary principles. However, because such norms and conventions were associated with rationality—the very target of most Romantic poetry—criticism needed to head in a different direction. It had to “corner for itself some of the creative energy of poetry itself, or shift to a quasi-philosophical meditation on the nature and consequences of the creative act,” according to Eagleton. The Romantic poet/critic thus began to produce criticism that explained and justified not only creativity itself, but also his own creative practices, even his own poetry. T. S. Eliot reports, for example, that “Wordsworth wrote his Preface to defend his own manner of writing poetry, and Coleridge wrote the Biographia to defend Wordsworth's poetry, or in part he did.” Paul A. Cantor, in his study of twentieth-century attacks on Romantic criticism, acknowledges the self-serving quality of the image put forth by Romantic poets who saw themselves as isolated and inspired geniuses possessed of special gifts unavailable to the masses. According to this image, explains Cantor, “the artist stands above society as a prophetic visionary, leading it into the future, while free of its past and not engaged in its present activities (in the sense of being essentially unaffected and above all uncorrupted by them.)”

In addition to the primacy of the poet, the aesthetic theories associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular, were critical of earlier poets' “poetic diction,” which to the Romantics, was affected and artificial. They preferred, according to William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Cleanth Brooks “the primitive, the naïve, the directly passionate, the natural spoken word.” Wordsworth argued that there should be no difference between the language of prose and that of poetry, thus defending his use, within the Lyrical Ballads, of the everyday language of the middle and lower classes. Wimsatt and Brooks write that “Wordsworth's primitivism was part of a general reaction, setting in well before his own day, against the aristocratic side of neo-classicism.” But where Wordsworth associated poetic diction with artifice and aristocracy and his own poetic language with nature and democracy, Coleridge saw the issue differently. “To Coleridge it seemed more like an issue between propriety and impropriety, congruity and incongruity. In effect he applied the classic norm of decorum,” according to Wimsatt and Brooks.

Coleridge's critical theories also differ from Wordsworth's in that they are heavily grounded in theology. Sometimes, particularly in his later writings according to Timothy Corrigan, the theological overwhelms the literary. “What is most peculiar about his work during this period is the unusual extent to which he disregards the primary text and how completely his complex theological models and language usurp that text,” contends Corrigan.

Current scholarly work on Romantic literary theory often suggests that many of the Romantic critics were far ahead of their time, anticipating the work of various late twentieth-century thinkers. One example is provided by Kathleen M. Wheeler, who states that “Coleridge's concept of polarity, of opposition, is in many ways anticipatory of Derrida's concept of difference … for Coleridge, as for Derrida, relations and oppositions form the substances of experience.” Wheeler also suggests that the work of several German Romanticists, whose writings were well known to Coleridge, is also directly related to Derridean deconstruction. “These ironists [Ludwig Tieck, Karl Solger, Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, Jean Paul, and others] developed concepts of criticism as play, destructive creativity (= deconstruction), language as essentially about itself, an aesthetics of incomprehensibility, the reader as creative author, ideas about the unity of poetry and philosophy, literature and criticism, and criticism as art,” according to Wheeler. Along similar lines, Wellek asserts that the work of German Romanticist Tieck anticipates the theories of Sigmund Freud. “Freud could not have stated more clearly the association of art and lust than did Tieck,” claims Wellek. Abrams makes a similar claim for John Keble's Lectures on Poetry (1844), insisting that they “broach views of the source, the function, and the effect of literature, and of the methods by which literature is appropriately read and criticized, which, when they occur in the writings of critics schooled by Freud, are still reckoned to be the most subversive to the established values and principles of literary criticism.”

Despite efforts to position the English Romantics within a continuum of criticism extending from Plato and Aristotle to Jacques Derrida and the post-structuralists, several literary scholars still insist that the theories of Wordsworth and Coleridge were radically different from their predecessors. Patrick Parrinder claims that their poetry and criticism constituted nothing less than a cultural revolution. Parrinder validates “their claim to have overthrown the eighteenth-century canons of taste and to have reconstituted the genuine tradition of English poetry,” and believes that their efforts to establish a new literary paradigm was aided, in part, by their self-conscious awareness of the revolution they were creating. “They not only produced the new poetry but the essential commentaries upon it,” according to Parrinder. Eliot concurs, maintaining that “Wordsworth is really the first, in the unsettled state of affairs in his time, to annex new authority for the poet, to meddle with social affairs, and to offer a new kind of religious sentiment which it seemed the peculiar prerogative of the poet to interpret.”

Representative Works

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. 2 vols. (essay) 1817
On the Constitution of the Church and State, according to the Idea of Each: with Aids toward a Right Judgment on the late Catholic Bill (essay) 1830
Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (essays) 1840

William Hazlitt
“On Poetry in General” (essay) 1818
The Spirit of the Age (essay) 1825

Immanuel Kant
Kritik der Urteilskraft [The Critique of Judgment] (essay) 1790

John Keats
The Letters of John Keats [edited by Hyder Edward Rollins] 2 vols. (letters) 1958

John Keble
De Poeticae vi Medica; Praelectiones Academicae [Lectures on Poetry] (lectures) 1844

Monolog [Monologue] (essay) 1982

Jean Paul Richter
Vorschule der Aesthetik [Introduction to Aesthetics] (essay) 1804

F. W. J. Schelling
Philosophie der Kunst [Philosophy of Art] (essay) 1859

Friedrich Schiller
Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen [On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters] (letters) 1795

August Wilhelm Schlegel
Das Athenaeum [with Friedrich Schlegel] (review) 1798-1800
Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst [Lectures on Literature and Art] (lectures) 1884

Friedrich Schlegel
Das Athenaeum [with August Wilhelm Schlegel] (review) 1798-1800
Gespräch über die Poesie (essay) 1800

Percy Bysshe Shelley
“A Defence of Poetry” (essay) 1821

Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder
Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders (essays) 1797
Phantasien über die Kunst (essays) 1799

William Wordsworth
Preface to Lyrical Ballads (essay) 1800

Criticism: Background And Overviews

M. H. Abrams (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “Romantic Analogues of Art and Mind.” In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, pp. 47-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

[In the following excerpt, Abrams provides an overview of Romantic aesthetic theory, explaining how it differs from earlier criticism.]

‘Didn't I tell you so?’ said Flask; ‘yes, you'll soon see this right whale's head hoisted opposite that parmacetti's.’

In good time, Flask's saying proved true. As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both...

(The entire section is 11969 words.)

Terry Eagleton (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “II.” In The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Structuralism, pp. 29-43. London: Verso, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Eagleton describes the economic conditions of literary production in the late eighteenth century leading up to the emergence of the professional critic in England and the politically-based criticism of the nineteenth century.]

The bourgeois public sphere of early eighteenth-century England is perhaps best seen not as a single homogenous formation, but as an interlaced set of discursive centres. The collaborative literary relations established by the Tatler and Spectator find a resonance...

(The entire section is 4589 words.)

Paul A. Cantor (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Stoning the Romance: The Ideological Critique of Nineteenth-Century Literature.” South Atlantic Quarterly 88, no. 3 (summer 1989): 705-20.

[In the following essay, Cantor summarizes current critiques of Romanticism and the aesthetic theories associated with it, maintaining that such attacks are misguided and biased.]

And the poets lie too much.


I regret that limitations of space prevent me from discussing the essays on which I have been asked to comment in any detail, thus forcing me to deal with them at a level of generality which cannot do justice to the wealth of specific observations they...

(The entire section is 5970 words.)

Criticism: Literary Reviews

SOURCE: Hayden, John O. “Attitudes, Policies, and Practices.” In The Romantic Reviewers 1802-1824, pp. 243-60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Hayden discusses the common features, editorial policies, and critical assumptions shared by the various literary reviews of the Romantic period.]

Not even in the most expansive moments of generalizing would anyone familiar with the Romantic Reviews imagine that in attempting to ascertain and set forth common policies and practices of the reviewers he was speaking about all the Reviews, much less all the reviewers. The difficulties inherent in such a misconception are only too...

(The entire section is 6951 words.)

Criticism: The German Romantics

René Wellek (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Wellek, René. “The Early Romantics in Germany.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950: The Romantic Age, pp. 74-109. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.

[In the following excerpt, Wellek discusses the critical perspectives of Schelling, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Tieck.]


Kant is usually considered the fountainhead of German aesthetics, but one could argue that the German romanticists never adopted Kant's main position; certainly they do not share his cautious temper and his conservative taste. When in 1796 F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854) drew up his program of a new philosophy, he completely ignored Kant's...

(The entire section is 18565 words.)

Jochen Schulte-Sasse (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. “The Concept of Literary Criticism in German Romanticism.” In A History of German Literary Criticism, 1730-1980, edited by Peter Uwe Hohendahl, pp. 99-177. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Schulte-Sasse traces the development of German Romantic critical theory from its early stage, associated with the social critique of contemporary conditions, to its later stage when the movement's critical potential was diminishing.]


If we want to assess the Romantic concept of criticism in terms of social history, we...

(The entire section is 17955 words.)

Criticism: Wordsworth And Coleridge

William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Wimsatt, William K. Jr. and Cleanth Brooks. “Poetic Diction: Wordsworth and Coleridge.” In Literary Criticism: A Short History, pp. 339-62. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

[In the following excerpt, Wimsatt and Brooks provide an historical account of Wordsworth and Coleridge's critique of the poetic diction of earlier writers.]

At a later point in this narrative (chapter 29) we shall have occasion to consider the question how far a close verbal analysis of poetry may fall short of doing justice to the more massive structural features of such works as novels, epics, dramas. Literary criticism of the mid-20th century in America has been raising that question...

(The entire section is 8494 words.)

J. R. de J. Jackson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Jackson, J. R. de J. “Principles in Literary Criticism.” In Method and Imagination in Coleridge's Criticism, pp. 48-74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson discusses Coleridge's reaction to what he personally considered to be the poor quality of contemporary literary reviews, and his attempt to establish a set of standards by which literature could more properly be judged.]

Coleridge's efforts to reform literary criticism follow much the same patterns. The prevalence of biting, opinionated reviews seemed to him to be another instance of the intellectual weakness of his age. His opposition to reviewing is part...

(The entire section is 11112 words.)

Timothy Corrigan (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Corrigan, Timothy. “Accommodating Aeschylus: Coleridge, Theology, and Literary Criticism.” In Coleridge, Language, and Criticism, pp. 157-91. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Corrigan discusses Coleridge's use of theological discourse in the interpretation of literature.]

This I believe by my own dear experience,—that the more tranquilly an inquirer takes up the Bible as he would any other body of writings, the livelier and steadier will be his impressions of its superiority to all other books, till at length all other books and all other knowledge will be valuable in his eyes in proportion as...

(The entire section is 10571 words.)

Kathleen M. Wheeler (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Wheeler, Kathleen M. “Coleridge and Modern Critical Theory.” In Coleridge's Theory of Imagination Today, edited by Christine Gallant, pp. 83-102. New York: AMS Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wheeler examines Coleridge's narrative strategies, which undermine authority in his works and anticipate concerns associated with twentieth-century critical theories, such as those of Jacques Derrida.]


While Coleridge may not perhaps have offered as radical or as apocalyptic an account of perception, literature, and criticism as Shelley and Blake, his notable influence on Shelley should alert readers to the innovative elements of his...

(The entire section is 8896 words.)

Criticism: Variations On Romantic Critical Theory

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Shelley and Keats.” In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England, pp. 87-102. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933.

[In the following essay, Eliot discusses Shelley's views of poetry, which were expressed within the poetry itself, and Keats's critical views, which were expressed in his correspondence.]

It would appear that the revolution effected by Wordsworth was very far-reaching indeed. He was not the first poet to present himself as the inspired prophet, nor indeed is this quite Wordsworth's case. Blake may have pretended, and with some claim, to have penetrated mysteries of heaven...

(The entire section is 4632 words.)

M. H. Abrams (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Abrams, M. H. “Varieties of Romantic Theory: Shelley, Hazlitt, Keble, and Others.” In The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, pp. 125-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

[In the following excerpt, Abrams explains the various critical perspectives of a number of Romantic poets and essayists including Shelley, Keats, Hazlitt, and Keble.]

Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than the poets did themselves.

Plato, Apology


(The entire section is 15588 words.)

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “The Romantic Critics.” In Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990, pp. 64-116. London: Macmillan, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in a different form in 1977, Parrinder compares areas of agreement and points of contention between the writings of Shelley, Hazlitt, and Keats, and the critical doctrines of Wordsworth and Coleridge.]


In his famous dictum about ‘negative capability’, Keats chooses Coleridge as his example of the non-poet irritably reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge had managed to convince himself that the poetic...

(The entire section is 7596 words.)

Further Reading


Arac, Jonathan. “Repetition and Exclusion: Coleridge and New Criticism Reconsidered.” Boundary 2 8, no. 1 (fall 1979): 261-73.

A study of the relationship between New Criticism and Coleridge's theology-based theories. Post-New Critics, according to Arac, should abandon Coleridge's criticism in favor of the theories of Shelley, whose work was banished by the New Critics.

Christensen, Jerome. “‘Like a Guilty Thing Surprised’: Deconstruction, Coleridge, and the Apostasy of Criticism.” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 4 (summer 1986): 769-87.

Discusses the relationship between politics and criticism in the...

(The entire section is 450 words.)