On Romantic Literature

By the time Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818—it could be argued her Modern Prometheus was the quintessence of Romantic literature—it would seem the Romantic era was already approaching its zenith.

Just 20 years earlier Wordsworth and Coleridge had published their Lyrical Ballads, believed by most to be the “the premiere volume of English Romanticism,” which no doubt nurtured Shelley’s imagination.

Though some would argue the Romantic period never completely died, but simply swooned and emerged a century later from an Anglican baptismal font smoking a pipe, it is safe to argue a long dénouement followed its climax and closed out the era with Tennyson, the last of the Romantics and a transitional prototype, if you’ll allow it, of the soon-to-follow Victorians.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.

Romanticism was largely a reaction to the failed promises of the Age of Reason, itself being a response–the “reasonable” alternative they would argue–to the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-reformation.

Just a year before the Lyrical Ballads were published, the hope of man’s ability to save himself by the succor of his enlightened reason was dashed on the cobblestone when the French Revolution face-planted, and found a promising hand up from the all-too-willing, but ill-fated-tyrant, Napoleon.

Seventeenth-century Europe endured, among other things, the English Civil War and Restoration, the French Revolution, not to forget that really bloody stretch known as the Reign of Terror, and the frightening, but economically glorious, development of machinery and factories called the Industrial Revolution—which was quickly reshaping rural agrarian Europe into large urbanized and polluted cities.

All these, in various ways, contributed to the culture’s desire to push back against mankind’s exalted reason, yet it did not lead them to reason’s predecessor.

Not unlike the Enlightenment era, the Romantic poets were also highly critical of orthodoxy—as one can see in Pope, Blake, Burns, and Hogg—and they exalted human autonomy over dogma and what they considered conventional constraints (i.e., God is overtly absent from the Frankenstein narrative).

Just as Romanticism had rejected so many other conventions from the previous generations, it also rejected many of the literary conventions formerly perpetuated, such as formal language, the strict mechanical forms, and many of the topics of interest common to Classicism.

Romantics preferred “a plainer and more emphatic language” to the ornamental language of classical poetry.  

Additionally, the Romantic poets elevated the organic form over the mechanical form. Coleridge explains:

“The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising from the properties of the material…the organic form…is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.”

To illustrate, he points to nature for his example:

“Nature, the prime genial artist, inexhaustible in diverse powers, is equally inexhaustible in forms.”

Further, Romantic poetry elevated imagination and feelings over imitation and reason. Wordsworth notes,

“poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

Finally, Romantic interest focused on the sublime, the natural, and the “low and rustic life…[where] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity…”

While Christians will have varying opinions about the project of “literary creativity” among the Romantics, they will not be able to say of the Romantic epoch, as Jeffrey and Maillet say of the Enlightenment, “it was not so fruitful when it is compared to the previous era.”

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