Romantic Literary Criticism Introduction

Start Your Free Trial


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Download Romantic Literary Criticism Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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...

(The entire section is 1,435 words.)