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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Romanticism was something more


was something more, then, than a new literary mode; a taste cultivated by dilettante virtuosos, like Horace Walpole, college recluses like Gray, and antiquarian scholars like Joseph and Thomas Warton. It was the effort of the poetic imagination to create for itself a richer environment; but it was also, in its deeper significance, a reaching out of the human spirit after a more ideal type of religion and ethics than it could find in the official churchmanship and the formal morality of the time. Mr. Leslie Stephen[3] points out the connection between the three currents of tendency known as sentimentalism, romanticism, and naturalism. He explains, to be sure, that the first English sentimentalists, such as Richardson and Sterne, were anything but romantic. "A more modern sentimentalist would probably express his feelings[4] by describing some past state of society. He would paint some ideal society in mediaeval times and revive the holy monk and the humble nun for our edification." He attributes the subsequent interest in the Middle Ages to the progress made in historical inquiries during the last half of the eighteenth century, and to the consequent growth of antiquarianism. "Men like Malone and Stevens were beginning those painful researches which have accumulated a whole literature upon the scanty records of our early dramatists. Gray, the most learned of poets, had vaguely designed a history of English poetry, and the design was executed with great industry by Thomas
Warton. His brother Joseph ventured to uphold the then paradoxical thesis that Spenser was as great a man as Pope. Everywhere a new interest was awakening in the minuter details of the past." At first, Mr. Stephen says, the result of these inquiries was "an unreasonable contempt for the past. The modern philosopher, who could spin all knowledge out of his own brain; the skeptic, who had exploded the ancient dogma; or the free-thinker of any shade, who rejoiced in the destruction of ecclesiastical tyranny, gloried in his conscious superiority to his forefathers. Whatever was old was absurd; and Gothic--an epithet applied to all medieval art, philosophy, or social order--became a simple term of contempt." But an antiquarian is naturally a conservative, and men soon began to love the times whose peculiarities they were so diligently studying. Men of imaginative minds promptly made the discovery that a new source of pleasure might be derived from these dry records. . . The 'return to nature' expresses a sentiment which underlies . . . both the sentimental and romantic movements. . . To return to nature is, in one sense, to find a new expression for emotions which have been repressed by existing conventions; or, in another, to return to some simpler social order which had not yet suffered from those conventions. The artificiality attributed to the eighteenth century seems to mean that men were content to regulate their thoughts and lives by rules not traceable to first principles, but dependent upon a set of special and exceptional conditions. . . To get out of the ruts, or cast off the obsolete shackles, two methods might be adopted. The intellectual horizon might be widened by including a greater number of ages and countries; or men might try to fall back upon the thoughts and emotions common to all races, and so cast off the superficial incrustation. The first method, that of the romanticists, aims at increasing our knowledge: the second, that of the naturalistic school, at basing our philosophy on deeper principles.[5]

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