Preromanticism Critical Essays

Introduction

Preromanticism

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.]