Romanticism Reconsidered: The Concept of Humanity in Romantic Literature

By Pokrivcák, Anton | British and American Studies, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Romanticism Reconsidered: The Concept of Humanity in Romantic Literature


Pokrivcák, Anton, British and American Studies


1. Introduction

Of the major literary movements affecting a large part of the world, Romanticism is one of the most frequent examples quoted by literary scholars. Although not a self-conscious movement with stated principles and aesthetic criteria, it had a significant impact on the development of modern sensibility as well as on the formation of modern national literatures in Europe and the USA. The transition from the eighteenth century's relatively stable neoclassical principles and class-based values towards the nineteenth century's culture drawing its values from the areas of more fundamental human interests helped to create a world which, in its basic outlines, still exists, a world in which we are still living - and which is thus still being, in a way, "romantic".

The fact that the distance between what was going on in the nineteenth century and the present is not great can be documented by an intensive critical dialogue as regards a relatively sufficient theoretical and historical coverage of Romanticism. One should not be surprised about this, since, even though the term romantic was used well before the nineteenth century signifying many different things (Wellek 1963), as the name of both a period and a movement, it came to be referred to only at the end of that century (Hogle 2010:3). This terminological canonisation, however, does not mean that an unequivocal agreement upon its philosophical principles and artistic procedures has been established as well. On the contrary, it has to be stressed that major critical approaches have handled Romanticism differently, stressing different features in its creative principles. As Hogle points out (2010:3), "nearly all informed critics, past and present, base their labels and judgements not simply on 'general principles' but on theories - their own or those of others", and, as he further claims, this was also the case with Romanticism, whose different views "come from these more fundamental theoretical differences" (2010:3).

In what follows, I shall try to discuss some of these approaches, concentrating on those which view the romantic in terms of the human, since a different, more basic view of humanity is what, in my opinion, makes this literary movement uniquely significant in the history of theoretical thinking about literature. I will start out from some of the critical approaches mentioned by Hogle (2010), who offers a relatively exhaustive, though often superficial, discussion of such theoretical (critical) approaches to Romanticism from the early twentieth century up to the present and, in the end, I will try to use some of their insights in discussing the work of William Wordsworth, especially one of his most famous poems - Tintern Abbey.

2. In search for the nature of humanity

The contradictory nature of Romanticism was first pointed out by Arthur O. Lovejoy (1960:9), who, in his essay On the Discriminations of Romanticisms, says that there are different movements labelled Romanticism in Germany, England, France; the fact that they were so called by different scholars "is no evidence, and scarcely even establishes a presumption, that they are identical in essentials". There is no unified movement called Romanticism, but rather individual "romanticisms" of different countries and artists.

A very different notion was emphasised by R. Wellek (1963:161) who, in his famous essay The Concept of Romanticism ' in Literary History distinguishes certain common features which united individual artists and their works - "imagination for the view of poetry, nature for the view of the world, and symbol and myth for poetic style". While Lovejoy's conception was part of his theory of the great chain of being, Wellek, also very well versed in the European literary history, added a comparative dimension to his approach, tracing common features in the literary development of individual European countries.

It is a well-known fact that critical approaches falling under the heading of formalism did not hold a favourable view of Romanticism, especially because, in their understanding, a literary work is not supposed to be interpreted through the outside framework of reference, leading to its creator, the author, but rather as a linguistic object producing its meaning only as a result of the interplay among its structural parts. …

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