[lit-ideas] Romanticism contrasted with Classicism

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 14 Oct 2006 08:59:19 -0700

This is a follow-up to my note of 10-13 at 2:51 pm in which I merely
sketched the subject: 


On page 4 of Axel's Castle, Edmund Wilson writes, "Romanticism, as everyone
has heard, was a revolt of the individual.  The 'Classicism' against which
it was a reaction meant, in the domain of politics and morals, a
preoccupation with society as a whole: and, in art, an ideal of objectivity.
In 'Le Misanthrope,' in 'Berenice,' in 'The Way of the World,' in
'Gulliver's Travels,' the artist is out of the picture: he would consider it
artistic bad taste to identify his hero with himself and to glorify himself
with his hero, or to intrude between the reader and the story and give vent
to his personal emotions.  But in 'Rene,' in 'Rolla,' in 'Childe Harold,' in
'The Prelude,' the writer is either his own hero, or unmistakably identified
with his hero, and the personality and emotions of the writer are presented
as the principal subject of interest.  Racine, Moliere, Congreve and Swift
ask us to be interested in what they have made; but Chateaubriand, Musset,
Byron and Wordsworth ask us to be interested in themselves.  And they ask us
to be interested in themselves by virtue of the intrinsic value of the
individual: they vindicate the rights of the individual against the claims
of society as a whole -- against government, morals, conventions, academy or
church.  The Romantic is nearly always a rebel.


"In this connection, it is illuminating to consider the explanation of the
Romantic Movement given by A. N. Whitehead in his 'Science and the Modern
World.'  The Romantic Movement, Whitehead says, was really a reaction
against scientific ideas, or rather against the mechanistic ideas to which
certain scientific discoveries gave rise.  The seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries were in Europe the great period of the development of mathematical
and physical theory; and in literature of the so-called Classical period,
Descartes and Newton were influences as important as those of the Classics
themselves.  The poets, like the astronomers and mathematicians, had come to
regard the universe as a machine, obeying logical laws and susceptible of
reasonable explanation . . . ."


"But this conception of a fixed mechanical order came eventually to be felt
as a constraint:  it excluded too much of life -- or rather, the description
it supplied did not correspond to actual experience.  The Romantics had
become acutely conscious of aspects of their experience which it was
impossible to analyze or explain on the theory of a world run by clockwork.
. . .  Blake had already contradicted contemptuously the physical theory of
the eighteenth century.  And to Wordsworth, the countryside of his boyhood
meant neither agriculture nor neo-classic idylls, but a light never seen on
land or sea.  When the poet looked into his own soul, he beheld something
which did not seem to him reducible to a set of principles of human nature .
. . And he either set himself, like Wordsworth and Blake, to affirm the
superior truth of this vision as compared to the mechanical universe of the
physicists; or, accepting this mechanical universe, like Byron or Alfred de
Vigny, as external to and indifferent to man, he pitted against it, in
defiance, his own turbulent insubordinate soul.


"In any case, it is always, as in Wordsworth, the individual sensibility,
or, as in Byron, the individual will, with which the Romantic poet is
preoccupied; and he has invented a new language for the expression of its
mystery, its conflict and confusion.  The arena of literature has been
transferred from the universe conceived as a machine, from society conceived
as an organization, to the individual soul."  




Other related posts:

  • » [lit-ideas] Romanticism contrasted with Classicism