Romantic Literary Criticism

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1435

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.”

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