Romanticism, Past and Present

Some secessionists have often referred to themselves as romantics, a term which has sometimes raised some questions...

Romanticism - a force for harmony or chaos?

More than one of our correspondents has raised a question concerning our use of the word Romantic. Mr C.D. King of St.Andrews* writes in charming archaic style:-

" I think it was the originall Romantick movement that, with its love of sociall and spirituall upheavall for its own sake, paved the way for the modern acceptance of the Evils about which your magazines so rightly complain."

Mr.N.M.Gwynne of West London asks:

"the romantic movement, in every field of human activity which it touched, was a revolutionary movement and was considered unspeakably vulgar by those who watched the revolution, did their best to defend the old values and customs and remembered the old values and customs when they were all but gone. What did romanticism mean if it did not mean abandonment of form, lack of restraint and aggressive sentimentality: the appeal to the emotions rather than the reason?"

These are reasoned remarks and it behoves us to reply to them as such. In the first place, let us note that the historical movement known as romanticism comprised many different and conflicting strands from revolution to reaction, from democracy to hierarchy, from chaos and beastliness to chivalry and order. If Wordsworth's famous words on the French Revolution:-

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!

were romantic and in the abandoned and chaotic sense of that term, does not the very spirit of romance breathe in Burke's famous words on the same subject?

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, - glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy . . . . Little did I dream that I should live to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of honour and cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded.

The Revolution itself, far from being a romantic movement, was the apotheosis of neo-classical rationalism, with its revival (in perverted form) of classical republicanism, its ceremonial enthronement of the Goddess of Reason in Notre Dame cathedral and, beneath all the rhetoric, its ultimately Whiggish motive force - to replace the old hegemony of the nobility with the new hegemony of money. If certain romantics were taken in by the spurious claims of the Revolution, it is also worthy of note that the three English romantics most vocal in its support - Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey - all became staunch conservatives without ceasing to be romantics. Edmund Gosse summarised the position thus:

Early in the century, Wordsworth had become, what he remained, a Church and State Tory of the extreme type: Southey, who in 1794 had, "shocking to say, wavered between deism and atheism," promptly developed a horror for every species of liberal speculation and contributed with gusto to the [high Tory] Quarterly Review. Temperament and circumstance combined to make Scott a conservative in politics and manners . . .we look back from 1815 with a sense of the extraordinary modesty and wholesome law-abiding morality of the generation which introduced romanticism in this country.

. . . Both these great writers [Wordsworth and Coleridge] spoke much of passion, and insisted on its resumption by an art which had permitted it to escape too long. But by passion Wordsworth understood no unruly turbulence of the senses, no revolt against conventional manners, no disturbance of social custom. He conceived the term, and illustrated his conception in his poetry, as intense emotion concentrated upon some object of physical or pathetic beauty - such as a mountain, a child, a flower - and led directly by it into the channel of imaginative expression. He saw that there were aspects of beauty which might lead to danger, but from these he and Scott, and even Coleridge, resolutely turned away their eyes. (1)

Perhaps the most important point to grasp here - and the point most obfuscated by the whole tendency of modern literary interpretation (already adumbrated by Gosse) - is that these writers were not merely passively accepting social conventions or failing, through negligence, or preoccupation, or "social conditioning", to criticise the "prudish" conventions of their time. They were helping to establish those conventions. They were ahead of their time - the forerunners of Victorian sensibility. They were actively in revolt against the licentiousness of the 18th century, and were setting new standards of purity and refinement which were to help form the better aspects of the Victorian era.

It is one of the most deeply-entrenched commonplaces of the liberal interpretation of history and literature that decency, propriety and morality are blind products of an unintelligent or prejudiced social order, while the man of genius represents intelligent revolt against such restraints, sometimes quite overturning them and helping to bring about a "step forward" in the "liberation" of the individual from moral constraint. Yet again and again in the history of English letters the very reverse has been the case: - licentiousness has been the prevailing spirit of the age, while the literary genius has stood out against it, and sometimes effected a real change in public attitudes. Such a state of things is quite natural, for it is the man of high sensibility and refined perceptions who is most offended by what is ugly, obscene, gross or coarse.

Indeed, the liberal notion of a "continuous progress" away from decency, morality and restraint led by the artist and the intellectual might well be stood on its head to give a much truer picture of the 18th and 19th centuries. The progressive tendency of those centuries , following the unbridled licentiousness of the later 17th century, was toward higher standards of refinement and delicacy, and the prime movers, the makers of the "great strides" were figures of outstanding literary, intellectual and artistic genius. It was not, perhaps, a "continuous progress", but it was a constant tendency which only ended with the virulent anti-romantic movement of the 20th century.

Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that if there is to be - as there must be - a recovery from the unbridled licentiousness of the 20th century, it will be partly moved by the outstanding literary figures of the new century, and will - in some form or another - have something of the character of a new romanticism.

The importance of the first English romantics in the development of the new sensibility is testified to by Gosse, in a voice already curdled by the anti-Victorian sneer of the '90s:

To all the principal writers of this first generation, not merely vice, but coarseness and licence were abhorrent, as they had been to no earlier race of Englishmen. The rudeness of the 18th century gave way to a cold refinement, exquisitely crystal in its highest expressions, a little empty and inhuman in its lower ones. What the continental nations unite to call our "hypocrisy", our determination not to face the ugly side of nature at all, to deny the existence of the unseemly instincts, now came to the front.

It is, of course, but a short step from this attitude of Gosse's to the 20th century anti-romantic cultus of the unseemly instincts, of the ugly side of nature and of ugliness in general, which goes by the misleading but psychologically revealing name of "realism".

The literary and intellectual origins of "English hypocrisy" (or "Victorian hypocrisy" as the English prefer to call it - "hypocrisy" in both cases, being the insult that vice gives to virtue) may be traced back at least to Addison and Steele and the great journals of the early 18th century. As C.S.Lewis said:- "That sober code of manners under which we still live to-day, in so far as we have any code at all, and which foreigners call hypocrisy, is in some important degree a legacy from the Tatler and Spectator."

Of Addison's influence upon the development of the English moral climate, Lord Macaulay, in his Essay on Addison, wrote:

There still lingered in the public mind a pernicious notion that there was some connection between genius and profligacy, between the domestic virtues and the sullen formality of the Puritans. That error it is the glory of Addison to have dispelled . . . . So effectually, indeed, did he retort on vice the mockery that had recently been directed against virtue, that, since his time, the open violation of decency has always been considered among us as the mark of a fool.

One may, indeed, discern a progress in manners and morals from the licentiousness of the "age of reason" to the delicacy of the high Victorian age; a progress which was not wholly lost until the second half of the twentieth century. Richardson, the creator of the modern novel and the instigator of the cult of Sensibility which swept Britain and Europe and was the great precursor of the emotional side of Romanticism, led in his novels what was virtually a moral crusade against the licence of the age and in favour of purity, modesty and virtue. It is true that his arch-rival, Fielding, took quite the opposite side, but there is no doubt which of the two spoke with the voice of the future, both morally and artistically. Sensibility was to blossom into romantic passion, while Richardson's morality passed away only because it was superseded by the higher conceptions of the Victorian age. As Professor William Lyon Phelps of Yale University wrote in the early years of the 20th century:-

However salutary may have been the moral effect of Pamela on the age in which and for which it was written, we feel that in this particular respect it has now outlived its usefulness. In short, a keener moral sense and a juster appreciation of moral values make us repudiate it. (2)

The religious revival of the 19th century was closely bound up with romanticism: the 18th century dislike of "enthusiasm" was hostile to such revivals. Methodism was founded by John Wesley, a high Tory, high churchman and Jacobite sympathiser, a man outside the rationalist/Whig orthodoxy of his century and who was aware of the value of "passion". The Oxford Movement was deeply influenced by romanticism and mediaevalism.

It is perhaps a little one-sided to say that romanticism gave to the Victorian age everything that was bearable:- that industrialism, utilitarianism and bourgeois vulgarity were the natural and inevitable results of the political and intellectual movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, while all that was rich and beautiful and fine, splendid and chivalrous in Victorianism, as well as all that was homelike and decent and demure and noble and honourable, was the result of romanticism and the religious revival. A little one-sided, but not so very far from the truth. Certainly it may not be unreasonably conjectured that if there had been no romanticism and no religious revival, the tendencies of the 18th century might well have led on to an age of unrestrained cynicism, insane licentiousness, gross vulgarity and unrelieved utilitarian drabness - to an age, in short, very like the late 20th century - the best part of a century earlier than they did; and had this happened, the later 20th century itself may well have been even bleaker, more sterile and more barbarous than it actually was.

It may be objected that we have presented so far a rather one-sided view of romanticism - one which concentrates upon its virtues while ignoring its darker side. We admit this to be true; our intention has been to provide a corrective to the equally one-sided view of literary history which is more commonly presented. The romantic movement is by no means above criticism, but let us be aware that the liberal "reading" of romanticism is a part of the modernist/progressist interpretation of history, and that the more tenebrous aspects of the movement have consequently received a disproportionate amount of attention - not of course in an attempt to discredit it but, on the contrary, in an attempt to co-opt it into the fold of modernist degeneracy.

Let us recall that romanticism had its origins in the elevation of the mediaeval spirit above the drab rationalism of the 18th century. The very word has its origin in mediaeval romance, and Heine defined romanticism as the "reawakening of the life and thought of the Middle Ages". In architecture, romanticism meant, from the mid-18th century onwards, the neo-Gothic style as pioneered by Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. In short, romanticism was, at root, a return - or at least an attempted return - to tradition; a return to a world which was not restricted to the four walls of earthly reason, but which had heights above it, and depths below it. It was a revolt against the smug, shallow laicism of the "Enlightenment", and if it was, in many cases, a misconceived revolt, and, in some cases, one which led to evils and excesses worse than those against which it was directed, that was because it was a revolt which lacked intellectual foundation and which did not possess a traditional doctrine to underpin its traditional sentiment. As the contemporary Persian traditionalist philosopher, Professor Seyyed Hosein Nasr has put it:

Whatever service the romantic movement rendered in re-discovering mediaeval art or the beauty of virgin nature, it could not affect the current of science nor add a new dimension within science itself by which man would be able to understand those aspects of nature that 17th century science and its aftermath had failed to consider.(3)

Nonetheless, that sternest of traditionalists, Mr Frithjof Schuon, while fully cognisant of the weight of such criticisms, warns, even of the late and rather denatured fin de si├Ęcle romantics:-

One must not , however, too readily cast aspersions upon the romantic aesthetes, who had the merit of possessing a certain discernment, as well as a nostalgia that was very understandable in a world that was sinking into a cold, inhuman ugliness. (4)

More than this, many of the romantics "were keenly conscious of the chasm between the transient, common-sense world of appearances and the eternal, infinite realm of ideal goodness, truth and beauty which man can perceive by means of the imagination." (5) Whether the "imagination" is the correct faculty for perceiving such eternal realities depends rather upon what one means by the term (6), but Coleridge in his distinction between fancy and imagination certainly intended to distinguish a higher faculty from a lower; the higher, imagination, being one which could perceive the transcendent, eternal truth of things, the lower, fancy, being largely identical with what people today mean when they speak of "imagination".

However this may be, it is precisely the perception of, or belief in, eternal, transcendent verities which ultimately distinguishes tradition from modernism; for modernism is, by definition, the belief that nothing exists outside the flux of time and that, therefore, change and progress are all-in-all.

For us perhaps, the quintessential statement of what we mean by Romanticism is contained in those lines of Yeats's:-

We were the last romantics, took for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness.

Does this mean that a traditionalist must take the side of romanticism in the historical antithesis between romanticism and classicism? It does not. When it is protested that romanticism "allowed a self-indulgent laissez-faire to triumph over the discipline of genuine spiritual effort" (7) or when Sir Charles Petrie speaks of the "loose thinking and loose living" of many romantics and points out "how intimately the decay of the old classical spirit was connected with the spread of democratic doctrines", we are fully in sympathy; nor do we fail to respect the order, discipline and formality of the classical spirit. The fact is that the historical movements termed romanticism and classicism were two complementary half-truths, each containing much that was good and each containing deep-seated errors - errors rooted in the great intellectual narrowing and impoverishment of the "Enlightenment" which the classical spirit - by no means without exceptions - accepted and which the romantic spirit was unable fundamentally to reject. Within each could arise, on the one hand, traditionalist souls who largely set aside the errors, and, on the other hand, subversives who were primarily concerned with the errors and who pressed them to extremes: - yet very few, even of the latter group, were without considerably more of the traditional spirit than is possessed by most modern conservatives.

So why are we called romantics? Mr Gwynne says "presumably you chose the name 'romantic' advisedly," but I am not sure that we did. It is a name that "just growed"; nonetheless, we do not feel that it is by any means an inappropriate one - provided one does not associate it too directly with the historical movement of the same name. What, after all, does one mean if one calls some one a "romantic" in these days? Does one not imply an attachment to the past, a love of beauty and tradition, a hatred of the ugly, tawdry, utilitarian nastiness of the modern world? Perhaps, taking us as an intellectual current, "traditionalist" had been a better term: - but we are not merely an intellectual current. For some Romantics, the intellectual side of traditionalism is of little importance, yet they are still Romantics. If a certain lightness and whimsy is implied in the term, who can deny that such lightness and whimsy is part of our style?

Above all, the term "Romantic" implies one who does not accept the drab, pedestrian, materialistic squalor of the modern mentality. It implies one to whom such words as honour and chivalry still mean something - and something of the first importance. It implies one who wishes life to be grand and dramatic, beautiful and noble, charming and gay. It implies one who, whatever others may do, has determined to disdain the grovelling mire of modernism and to live - as far as is humanly possible - according to those ideals; or perish in the attempt.

Yes, we are Romantics.


*After this essay was written, Mr. King obtained his doctorate at St. Andrews and came to Oxford as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, where he laboured to restore some traditional soundness to that publication. Not long afterward he died while yet in his 30s, having been dogged all his life by ill health. Dr. King left little written material to posterity, but was a dauntingly erudite philologist and a fine traditionalist thinker with, as the above passage illustrates, an often eccentric sense of humour. His untimely death is a loss to us all.

1. Gosse, Modern English Literature, Heinemann 1897, pp303-304.

2. Phelps, Essays on Books, Macmillan, 1922 , p85.

3. Nasr, Man and Nature, Unwin, 1968, p73.

4. Schuon, "Foundations of an Integral Aesthetics", Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No 3, Summer 1976, p130.

5. L.R.Furst, Romanticism, Methuen, 1969, p37.

6. An interesting discussion of this question from a traditional standpoint is contained in Professor Elemire Zolla's monograph The Uses of Imagination and the Decline of the West, 1978. See also H.Corbin, Mundus Imaginalis, 1972. Both are obtainable from Golgonooza Press, 3, Cambridge Drive, Ipswich, Suffolk.

7. Furst. op.cit. p64.