The Correspondent Breeze
This collection of essays by M. H. Abrams makes available in one volume works that had previously appeared in a variety of publications. For many readers, The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism will provide a ready reference for essays that are already part of their understanding of English Romanticism and Romantic poetry; for others, it will provide a rich and eminently readable introduction to the poetry and the spirit of English Romanticism. Abrams’ approach is eclectic; he relies on biography and history, on the study of sources, and on formal explication of texts. The result is criticism that explains, connects, and defines. Long recognized as one of the preeminent critics of English Romanticism, Abrams writes both for scholars and general readers who believe that criticism’s primary goal is to make sense of literature and of the cultural and historical background that it reflects.
The essays included in The Correspondent Breeze were originally published in various scholarly books and journals over a period of more than thirty years. The first essay, “Wordsworth and Coleridge on Diction and Figures,” is reprinted from English Institute Essays, published in 1952; the book’s final chapter, “Apocalypse: Theme and Romantic Variations,” is from The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, published in 1984. Not surprisingly, The Correspondent Breeze lacks the cohesion and the larger vision of Abrams’ great works, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) and Natural Supernaturalism (1971), but the nine essays included here fall into two well-defined groups: general essays on the spirit of English Romanticism and essays on specific Romantic poets.
Four of the book’s nine chapters deal with the general subject of English Romanticism, treating such diverse topics as the central spirit of the age; style and structure in the Romantic lyric poem; the significance of a recurring image, the “correspondent breeze”; and the apocalyptic theme in Romantic poetry. In each chapter, Abrams puts into practice a principle expressed in chapter 3, “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age”: his conviction that the term Romanticism encompasses an exceedingly diverse literature, with a wide variety of themes but certain central preoccupations.
The two most important essays in this general category are the essay on English Romanticism and the essay on the Romantic image, the correspondent breeze. “English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age” offers an excellent introduction to a central characteristic of nineteenth century Romanticism, the age’s preoccupation with revolution. According to Abrams, nineteenth century English Romantic poets were not escapists as some critics claim; they were, instead, social poets dedicated, directly or indirectly, to the importance of change in political and social structures. While many readers have viewed the great Romantics as “landscape poets,” artists who retreated from the real world into reveries on nature and the natural landscape, Abrams cites their passion for progress and opportunity and for the possibilities of revolutionary social change that the French Revolution seemed to promise. Abrams believes that the student of Romanticism can never ignore the influence of the French Revolution on Romantic poets, both early and late. Their poetry may not always speak directly to political and social issues, but it does address the importance of change through an emphasis on vision and the panoramic view.
Abrams finds at least two stages in the revolutionary consciousness: The first is the highly optimistic stage of the closing years of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century; the second stage reflects the disappointment of the years following the French Revolution when hopes for immediate social and political change were dampened. The early fervor appears in William Blake, and in William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was the second stage, however, the era of dashed hopes, that yielded the greatest poetry. Responding to despair and disillusionment, the great Romantic poets attempted to reconcile the discrepancy between earlier hope and present reality. When societal and governmental reform seemed to fail or at least...
(The entire section is 1779 words.)