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The romantic movement in England Essay

Since the flowers of English romanticism are thoroughly familiar, I shall pay what might otherwise be a disproportionate amount of attention to the roots.

The immediate sources of the English romantic movement are to be found in the sentimentalized puritanism of the eighteenth-century middle class.l Something like a philosophical formulation of the widely pervasive cult of feeling may be abstracted from such mideighteenthcentury poets as Henry Needler, James Thomson, David Mallett, Isaac Hawkins Browne, Henry Brooke, Henry Baker, Mark Akenside, John Gilbert Cooper, and James Harris. They sing of a more or less NeoPlatonic Divine Spirit of truth, beauty, and love who has thought the universe into being by an exercise of creative imagination. “Nature” is the universe as permeated by this benignly fecund spirit. The creation is full, complex, and richly variegated; but it is also a perfectly integrated and harmonious whole. Man is a part of the universal harmony. His bosom is full of expansive benevolent impulses akin to those possessed by his Creator. His conduct is regulated by an intuitive spiritual taste, a virtuoso’s ability to appreciate the cosmic masterpiece. In all this the influence of Shafteslmry may be seen, but such ideas were so widely diflused toward the close of the seventeenth century that he cannot be regarded as their only begetter.

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Eighteenth-century lay Christianity was so broad and hazy that writers who expressed these views sometimes called themselves Christians. We should call them sentimental deists with pantheistic hankerings. Their creed is not strictly pantheistic, for it dimly recognizes the transcendence as well as the immanence of the divine. But since God is revealed only in nature and in that most godlike part of nature, the  human breast, the summit of religious experience, for these writers, would be the pantheistic thrill.

Thus described, sentimentalism may seem diametrically opposed to puritanism. Must we invoke that last resort of literary historians, the swinging pendulum? I suggest, on the contrary, the metaphor of a road leading from Low-Church Anglicanism and Nonconformity, through
latitudinarianism, to sentimental deism and on to romantic pantheism.

The seventeenth-century Calvinistic puritan was an emotional and introspective person with a jealous regard for his own spiritual intuitions.
His creed was a grim one, but he was not so gloomy as the modern historian would be if he were a Calvinist. On the whole he dwelt less on the thought that anybody might be damned than on the thought that anybody—even he—might be saved. If he experienced conversion—~and he generally managed to do so—hc had practically conclusive proof that he was predestined to salvation. In that case he was whiter than snow, incapable of sin, a seventeenth-century ultime Scale. He knew the truth, and the truth had made him free. Hence he could enjoy both the tense dramatic atmosphere of predestination and “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

Under the rationalistic influences of the Enlightenment the Calvinist’s formal beliefs decay much more rapidly than his inward religious emotions. He loses his creed, but he retains, in a blurred and softened form, the feelings which his creed has given him. The God above him becomes more shadowy than the God within him, so that at last he is left with the basic attitude of sentimentalism—a sense of inward goodness and freedom which must somehow find corroboration in the nature of the universe. Enough brimstone remains in the air, however, to tinge his optimism with a strain of melancholy.‘

It is symbolically appropriate, then, that Rousseau should have been reared in the city of Calvin. But rather than be drawn back to the Reformation we had better turn in the opposite direction, pausing only to observe that Shaftcsbury owed much to the latitudinarian school of
Cambridge Platonists.‘ Between the productions of eighteenth—century sentimentalism and the work of the great romantics the relationship is continuous. Wordsworth and his contemporaries are supreme artists, inspired by a tradition which had become clear, free, and strong enough for  genuinely imaginative treatment; inspired by vital hope, anger, and despair arising from the political turmoil of their own day; inspired by congenial or stimulatingly antagonistic personal experiences; inspired by one another; inspired above all by the imponderables which make for genius. Nevertheless their belief in the holiness of the heart’s affections, their feeling for external nature, their medievalism, their humanitarianism, their melancholy, their critical ideas—all that they fundamentally have to say—are outgrowths of eighteenth-century tendencies.

Some students would insist that in using the transcendental doctrine of the “higher” reason as a means of authenticating their intuitions the
romantics added an element unknown to the eighteenth century. Sorely pressed for space, one can do little more than assert that there is evidence to the contrary. As early as 1706 Isaac Watts is writing pseudo-Pindaric odes which mingle an antinomian sense of spiritual freedom derived from his Calvinistic background with a conception of the creative powers of imagination derived from a familiar Renaissance critical tradition. Edward Young (1743) declares that “Man makes the matchless image man admires,”a and John Byrom (1751) that

Mind governs matter, and it must obey;
To all its opening forms desire is key.”

Transcendentalism is at work in eighteenth-century poetry. The roman tics develop it more richly than any other part of their inheritance, but they do not create it.

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Leaving the question of origins, let us ask whether any common denominator can be found beneath the extremely diverse qualities of English romantic literature. In Biographia Lileran’a, Coleridge asserts that his contributions to Lyrical Ballads were intended to naturalize the supernatural, while Wordsworth’s were intended to supernaturalize the natural. Both poets, in their difierent ways, seek to interfuse two realms of being. Keats dreams a union of truth and beauty; Shelley, a universe of love in which the phenomenal world and the Platonic paradise “meet and mingle.” Blake entitles one of his poems The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Beneath the entire movement one perceives the desire to bring God, man, and nature, finite and infinite, real and ideal, familiar and strange, into a thrilling unity of diverse elements through the “shaping spirit of imagination”; one perceives the joy experienced when this vision is briefly approximated; and one perceives the despairing realization that the dualisms of modern life are irreconcilable, and that

. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving ell’.

Hence romanticism as it appears in English literature might be described as the expression in art of what in theology would be called pantheistic enthusiasm. In the Middle Ages this variety of religious experience was curbed by the undivided Church, but was kept alive by popular mystics like Richard Rolle of Hampole.‘ After the Reformation, Prot. estantism imposes no lasting check upon it; indeed, the tendency of Protestantism to collapse into pantheism has often been observed. Pantheistic feeling is strong among the mystical antinomian sects of the seventeenth century. Its ardor is cooled for a time by the common-sense compromise of 1688, but it arises once more in the eighteenth century as that compromise breaks down. It is implicit and sometimes explicit in Shaftesburyian sentimentalism, and it becomes the driving force of the great romantics.

It is not for me to apply this interpretation to other countries. I shall, on the contrary, emphasize certain qualities of the English romantic
movement which seem distinctively English. The following generalizations are meant to apply only to the 1780—1830 period. The fortunes of
romanticism during the age of Victoria, when many complicating circumstances arise, must be ignored.”

England did not need to be instructed in romantic thought and feeling by other nations. In this respect she gives France and Germany far more than she receives. Her exports include Shakespeare, Milton, Thomson, Young, Goldsmith, Richardson, Sterne, Percy, Macpherson, Scott, and Byron—all of them potent influences in Continental romanticism.“ In return she imports comparatively little, and she reinterprets that little in agreement with her own outlook.“ For her, Rousseau is a striking example of that sentimental naturalism which she had long independently cultivated. The original elements in his thought go almost unheeded. From the Reign of Terror to about 1830, England is practically impervious to French literary influences. German gooseflcsh is briefly thrilling, but for the major English writers it is a disease of childhood.

Goethe and Schiller are read as romanticists pure and simple. For Crahb Robinson, Kant is the apostle of the feeling heart. Schelling helps Coleridge to systematize ideas which he had earlier drawn from non-German sources. There is almost no true appreciation of German romantic literature and philosophy before Carlyle, and even his understanding is very

The desire to break down the boundaries which separate the various arts is not strong in England. There is less interest in painting and music
than on the Continent. The real triumphs of English romanticism, furthermore, are won almost exclusively in poetry. The drama of the period is scanty and feeble. Scott alone forbids the same estimate of the prose fiction, but it grows increasingly clear that the most enduring elements in his novels are not essentially romantic.“

Although Wordsworth, Keats, and others sometimes make gestures of rebellion against the rationalistic and pseudo-classical side of the eighteenth century, English romanticism is far more evolutionary than revolutionary. There was no very definite enemy to attack, for the En-
lightenment had mingled rationalism, empiricism, and sentimentalism in a typically English compromise, and pseudo-classicism had never been tyrannous. Hence in European eyes the English movement must appear strangely loose and informal. It provides a large body of suggestive critical remarks, but no clearly formulated theory. These romantics do not talk about romanticism. Where are the definitions, the self-conscious school, the organized propaganda? Here as always, the English are a mad people. Without much apparent awareness of what they are doing, they produce a very great romantic literature.

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Attempts to represent the English romantics as more systematically philosophical than they really were are liable to falsify the warm intuitive
muddle of the movement. What these men possess is not a philosophy, but a religion as nebulous as it is ardent. Speculative thought for its own sake does not greatly appeal to them. They eagerly respond to large synthetic ideas which promise to validate their faith, and hotly reject the analytical reason which would destroy it. Here Coleridge may be regarded as an exception, although I do not think that he is.“

In his most truly romantic moments, the English romanticist is a deist with strong pantheistic leanings rather than a Christian. Dogmatic Protestantism has lost its grip upon him, and Catholicism of course is out of the question. English romantic medievalism, to be sure, indirectly and unconsciously paves the way for the Oxford Movement; but the writers of the 1780—1830 period, like good Englishmen, manage to like the Middle Ages and dislike Catholicism at the same time. The different situation on the Continent may seem to militate against the general applicability of the interpretation oflered in this paper. One might ask, however, whether French and German romantic Catholicism, as seen respectively in Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme and in Novalis’ Heinrich mm Ofterdingen, is the real thing, or whether it merely adds the beauty of mystery and tradition to an essentially non-Catholic type of religious experience.

In politics the English romantic is usually—one excepts Shelley—a liberal rather than a radical. Unless he dies young, he is likely to end his career as a conservative. In ceasing to be a liberal, however, he generally ceases to be a romanticist. In Burke, in Scott, and in Wordsworth and Coleridge in their later days one finds a Toryism of the Burkian type; but, on the whole, extreme nationalism and extreme conservatism are not prominent elements. The Junker and Bourbon types of romanticism are rare in England.“

If the English romantic has his head in the clouds, be nevertheless keeps his feet on the earth. His hunger for illusion is balanced by his respect for actuality and his love of the concrete. His imaginings are strange, but he is less prone to indulge in the wildest flights of fancy than his German cousins. He likes fairytales, but does not regard them with metaphysical solemnity. He seldom uses the finite merely as a springboard for diving into the infinite, and though very introspective he never quite loses himself in the fastnesses of his own spirit. Peter Bell’s primrose must be something more than what it appears to be, but it must not cease to be a real primrose and become the Blue Flower.”

Transcendentalism cannot lastingly satisfy the Englishman’s desire that the marriage of real and ideal shall take place, not in the subjective

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,

Or some secreted island, heaven knows where,

But in the very world.”

The doctrine of the moral irresponsibility of the artist does not invade England to any important extent before the Victorian era. If the English romanticist is a priest of art, he remains a parish priest with a cure of souls. His sense of having a helpful message for mankind is strong. Even Keats, who urged Shelley to curb his magnanimity and be more of an artist,” never quite gets rid of the feeling that he should be “doing some good to the world.”” In their studies of the morbidly erotic and perverse aspects of romanticism, scholars like Mario Praz“ find comparatively little material in the English writers. In this respect their lives agree with their works. Shelley’s unconventionality is a matter of sober principle.

In order to explain Wordsworth’s not very surprising affair with Annette Vallon, Professor Harper must remind his readers that at the time “France was in a state of unnatural excitement.”22 Here Byron, the least English of the English romantics, may safely be regarded as exceptional.

The same writer is the only important obstacle to the generalization that the English are sincere, serious, and indeed rather solemn in their romanticism. They seldom strike a pose or endeavor to astonish the bourgeois. They do not greatly esteem the grotesque and seldom attempt
to harmonize it, in Victor Hugo’s fashion, with the sublime The romantic irony of Ticck and Friedrich Schlcgcl is foreign to their natures. For
better or worse, they mean exactly what they say.

English romanticism, in short, is the romanticism of Englishmen: insular, bourgeois, puritanical, empirical, and philosophically rather innocent; but at the same time wonderfully strong, indigenous, sincere, and noble—a genuine part of the religion of the race, a thing of the deep heart’s core.

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