Monday, December 27, 2010

The Romantic Movement as the "Renascence of Wonder"

Introduction:
Various definitions of romanticism and various interpretations of the Romantic Movement in England and the Continent have been given. F. L. Lucas in The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal (1948) lists as many as 11,396 such definitions! Bewildered by the enormous number of such attempts to define romanticism, some critics have counselled that such terms as "romanticism"and "classicism" should be given up altogether F.L. Lucas calf "romanticism" a "wholly woolly term fit only for slaughter."
But we should not accept this counsel of despair as, in spite of their vagueness, most modem critics have accepted these terms on the strength of their utility to criticism.
The Romantic Movement in England was directed against the traditions of the neoclassical poetry of the school of Dryden, Pope, and Dr. Johnson. There was politics, too, which was involved, but essentially, this Movement was not political but poetic. Neoclassical poetry was intellectual, correct, reasonable, and traditional in its selection of themes and metre-which was invariably the heroic couplet. At the end of the eighteenth century (more specifically, with the rublication of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798) the coup de grace was given to the already decadent poetry which had followed from the footsteps of Pope. In the later part of the eighteenth century could already be felt a kind of reaction against the Popean school of poetry. Poets like Thomson, Gray, Cowper, Collins, Burns, and Blake had iready broken away at various points from the time-honoured traditions rf the Augustan or neoclassical school. But it was Wordsworth and Coleridge who in their joint work, the Lyrical Ballads, produced, as ~. were, the Magna Carta of English poetry. According to a critic, r-:atterton and Gray had been the early birds, Cowper was the dawn, and Wordsworth the broad day-light of Romanticism.
Wonder and Intellectual Curiosity:
All poetic works of all the romantic poets do not follow the s-e pattern. Romanticism emphasized the liberty of the individual genius from the deadening weight of tradition and rules, thereby encouraging a kind of chaotic tendency. The only bond of union among the romantic poets was their impatience of tradition and their craving for novelty. They looked at everything anew and were struck by the spirit of wonder while exploring the new Americas of feeling, emotion, and spirit, and many of them built their spiritual homes in the imaginary worlds of their own making. According to Pater, classicism signifies "order in beauty", whereas romanticism stands for the addition of "strangeness to beauty." Pater was the reluctant leader of the Aesthetic Movement. He stressed beauty as the end of all art. Classicism and romanticism, to him, differed in that whereas the former stood for tradition, sameness, and well-defined patterns, the latter put a special premium on intellectual curiosity and departure from the ordinary and the normal. Theodore Watts-Dunton, likewise, interpreted the Romantic Movement as the "Renascence of Wonder." He meant that in their perception of life and people the neoclassicists, being devotees of set patterns and traditions, had been covered by the dulling film of familiarity which they never tried to see through. The romantics scraped this film and draped the world in the light of their own imagination; and therefore, everything struck them with iridescent, prismatic effects. They were struck with the newness of things, which bred the sense of wonder. The neoclassicists projected only the cold light of reason on every object, but the romantics looked at everything with the eyes of the imagination. Consequently the classicists were more realistic than the romantics, in the ordinary sense. But the romantic poets lived in the world of
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.
The Role of Imagination:
According to Herford. romanticism was primarily "an extraordinary development of imaginative sensibility." This imaginative sensibility opened up new vistas which were to be the wonder of both the poet and the reader alike. Samuel C. Chew observes: "The romanticist is 'amorous of the far'. He seeks to escape from familiar experience and from the limitation of 'that shadow-show called reality' which is presented to him by his intelligence. He delights in the marvellous and abnormal. To be sure, loving realistic detail and associating the remote with the familiar, he is often 'true to the kindred points of heaven and home.' But he is urged on by an instinct to escape from actuality: and in this escape he may range from the most trivial literary fantasy to the most exalted mysticism. His effort is to live constantly in the world of the imagination above and beyond the sensuous, phenomenal world. For him the creations of the imaginations are 'forms more real than living man.' He practises willingly, that 'suspension of disbelief which 'constitutes poetic faith.' In its most uncompromising form this dominance of the intuitive and the irrational over sense experience becomes mysticism- 'the life which professes direct intuition of the pure truth of being, wholly independent of the faculties by which it takes hold of the illusory contaminations of this present world.' Wordsworth described this experience as, 'that serene and blessed mood in which the burden of the mystery' being lighted, he sees into 'the life of things'. Blake, who seems to have lived almost continuously in this visionary ecstasy, affirmed that the 'vegetable universe' of phenomena is but a shadow of that real world which is the Imagination."
This "escape from actuality" was attempted by different romantic poets in different ways. Each invented an interesting and wondrous world of his own. Coleridge escaped to the world of the supernatural which was to him curiously exciting as well as satisfying. Scott threw a romantic veil over the Middle Ages in which he found his spiritual home. Keats was lost in the world of ancient Hellenic beauty. Byron twitched his nose at the whole world and lived in the make-believe world of his own egocentric creation. Moore was interested in the world of Oriental splendour and gorgeousness. The contemplation of all these "worlds" was productive of the feelings of wonder as they were all imaginary worlds having little to do with the world of gnawing, humdrum reality. Of all the important romantic poets it was only Wordsworth who kept his feet firmly planted on the real world. But even he looked at this world through the spectacles of romance, with the result that it excited his wonder in the same measure as the various imaginary worlds did that of the other romantic poets.
Coleridge and the Supernatural:
Coleridge, perhaps the most romantic of all the romantic poets, always lived in the wonderful world of his dreams and imagination. Though Keats, Scott, and Coleridge were all fascinated by the world of the supernatural, yet for the last named it meant something like a natural habitat. Coleridge's most outstanding poems, namely, The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and Christabel have all a strong tincture of the supernatural. In dealing with the supernatural in his works Coleridge was by no means the pioneer. Not to speak of Shakespeare, even in the eighteenth century many writers had taken up the supernatural as almost their cult. The spate of "Gothic" novels was an outcome of this cult. To name only a few, Horace Walpole, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, "Monk" Lewis, and William Beckford had introduced a lot of supernatural characters and incidents in their novels. However, their work is singularly free from any artistic merit. They only catered for the ordinary people who had long been bored by the literature of reason and common sense and were then craving for cheap thrills. They candidly and crudely produced blood-curdling and spine-curling concoctions emanating from a ghoulish fancy. There is something morbid in their works which are so abundantly peopled with "death-pale spectres and clanking chains." To naive readers, they cause terror; to the knowing they cause disgust; but they cause wonder to none. The supernaturalism of the writers of the novel of terror is as counterfeit as their Gothicism.
Coleridge's supernaturalism, however, is neither shocking nor disgusting. It excited his wonder, and he conveyed this feeling of wonder to his readers. His treatment of supernaturalism is suggestive, delicate, refined, elegant, and eminently psychological. He altogether differed from the sensation-mongering of the exponents of Gothicism. As he himself pointed out in Biographia Liter aria, his subject and approach in the Lyrical Ballads were to be different from those of Wordsworth. His own endeavours were to be directed to persons and incidents supernatural, yet was he to make them look natural and credible by dint of his subtle, psychological approach. The supernatural is, generally, terrifying; but "naturalised supernatural" is not terrifying but conducive to the feeling of wonder. Even when Coleridge is describing something ordinary, he makes it suggestive of the supernatural. Lines like the following represent Coleridge at his best and are perhaps unrivalled for their suggestiveness in the whole range of English poetry:
A savage place; as holy and enchanted
As ever beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.
A critic asserts that this is magic pure and simple; the rest is poetry.
Scott's treatment of the supernatural is somewhat crude, but Keats gives a good account of himself in his ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci which is delicately tinctured with the supernatural.
Medievalism and Hellenism:
Many romantic poets, while they did not feed their curiosity on the world of the supernatural, yet transported themselves to the remote in time and space to create a similar effect of wonder. Almost all of them looked at the Middle Ages as the period of chivalry, adventure, action, and art. In doing so, however, they conveniently forgot the seamy facets ofthat period-squalor, pestilence, superstition, and fanaticism. Keats viewed ancient Greece as the abode of art and unexampled beauty, so much so that Shelley said that Keats was "a Greek." With the exception of Wordsworth and Shelley-who was always lost in the world of his own vision and dreams of the golden age to come-all the romantic poets.loved the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages, according to Walter Pater, "are unworked sources ofTomantic: efter, of a strange beauty to be won by strong imagination out of hings unlikely or remote." The enthusiasm for the Middle Ages satisfied the emotional sense of wonder as also the intellectual sense of curiosity.
Nature-Wordsworth and Others:
Wordsworth, who is generally recognised to be the greatest of all the romantic poets, has not much to do with supernaturalism, medievalism, or Hellenism. Nor is he ensconced in the world of his own imagination. Nevertheless, he shows a strong tendency towards wonder and curiosity even while keeping his gaze fixed on the ordinary world. He was the greatest poet of Nature, as also her greatest priest. He brings a fresh curiosity and wonder to bear upon his study of Nature. His creed is strongly pantheistic, as Nature for him becomes something like a ubiquitous goddess. In the writing of the Lyrical Ballads it was mutually agreed upon by Coleridge and him that the endeavours of the former would be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least "romantic," whereas he himself was to propose to himself as his subjects familiar, everyday things, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the mind's attention from the "lethargy" of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonder of the world before us-an inexhaustible treasure which because of its film of familiarity we have eyes but see not, ears but hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
So when Wordsworth is dealing with familiar objects his intention is not to present them photographically-as, for as instance, Crabbe does. Crabbe, an uncompromising realist and a kind of "Pope in worsted stockings", had nothing of the romantic in him. He looked at the miseries of rural life without batting his eyelids. His claim was:
I paint the Cot
As Truth would paint it, and as Bards will not.
We read his descriptions of people, natural phenomena, and the sights and sounds of Nature with the boredom of recognition rather than the wonder of strangeness. When we read about the grave of a child:
I have measured it from side to side;
It is three feet long and two feet wide
It does not excite wonder or curiosity. There is indeed no romance in giving the exact measurement of a meadow or the exact height of an oak. Wordsworth, it must be admitted, does also sometimes succumb to such prosaic realism; however, it is his definite aim to sketch objects not as they are, but after removing from their surfaces the dull Film of familiarity and then projecting over them a certain colouring of-the imagination. Coleridge, by virtue of his subtle imagination, gives realistic touches to things otherwise strange; Wordsworth, on the other hand, gives subtle, exalting touches to things otherwise real and common. Coleridge naturalises the supernatural and Wordsworth "supernaturalises" the natural. Thus both meet at the same via media of romance which is realistic as well as wonderful. Such common objects as a leech-gatherer, a solitary reaper, and a cuckoo become in Wordsworth poetry objects of wonder and curiosity. It is easy to excite wonder in strange or supernatural things, but to do so in ordinary objects requires the artistic imagination of a real poet. Wordsworth transforms plain reality into beautiful romance. Led by Wordsworth almost all the romantic poets took interest in Nature and loved to dwell on her multifarious moods and aspects. Shelley looked at the West Wind, the skylark, and the clouds not as dull and never-changing objects of never-changing Nature, but as objects of wonderful freshness and perennial interest. Keats, Coleridge, and Byron had each his own conception of Nature, but all of them evinced much interest in the world of Nature and studied and described her with infectious wonder and curiosity, as if she by herself were an unexplored world waiting to be discovered and studied with fresh attention and virgin wonder.

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